Sharing power and misquoting de Beauvoir

I’ve been misremembering that Simone de Beauvoir quote this whole time. Like, I’ve been using it in arguments, and it’s just straight up not something she said. I feel like an idiot.

In my head the quote went something like: “My idea is not to flip the power that men hold over women on its head; my idea is to destroy that notion of power altogether.” It’s a pretty good one, right? Like, ‘calm down, men, we’re not trying to create a universal femdom where all men are slaves or anything — we just want nobody to have power over anybody else.’ But I just went through my copy of The Second Sex — it’s the only book by her that I’ve read so it’s the only place I would have seen that quote — and it’s not there. I would have underlined it if it was, and maybe put some stars and exclamation points next to it. I love that fake quote.

The last time I used it in a conversation was when I was sitting on Indian Rock with L, reading from the anthology Queering Anarchism. Conversations with L are high on my list of things I miss about the Bay. We were reading “Policing the Borders,” an essay against policing trends and ‘rules’ in radical/queer circles (like the fringey injunction that to be truly radical, one must be polyamorous, into kink, etc.), which must be how we started talking about power and what having power meant. If the poor and the marginalized should focus on taking power, or on destroying it. It was one of the few times we disagreed about anything.

I spouted my fake de Beauvoir quote and followed it with something very Valerie Solanas like “power has been defined by masculinity for all of history; to destroy one, we must destroy them both.”

“And… how do you intend to go about destroying power?” asked L.

“Uh,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” they said, “I think it’s a better and more realistic goal to take power away from those who have it and learn to share it.”

It was at that point that I realized that we were arguing from two different worldviews. Sharing power is not really in my lexicon — I don’t trust humans to not hoard all the power to themselves whenever they get the chance. Like, I don’t think small government is really viable because it inevitably turns into big goverenment: no politician will remain content with limited power. In my mind, the very notion of power is defined by somebody having too much of it and exploiting others with it. I guess I’m a cynic.

“Think about a conversation. Take this conversation that we’re having, now,” said L. “You and I are passing power back and forth. When I’m speaking, I have the power, and then I pass the power over to you to hear what you have to say. We’re sharing.”

To me, some conversations feel like sharing power, some feel like a power struggle. Not everyone is as willing to give up their temporary soap box as L is. Nevertheless, the conversation example is a potent one; it brought to mind some of the delegate meetings at the Omni in Oakland, and some of the roundtable discussions that we conduct at Women Write About Comics, where we all take turns telling our stories or giving our opinions. Although my thoughts on power may differ from L’s, I have seen some amazing things happen when power is shared.

I wonder what de Beauvoir would have actually said. Maybe I ought to shut up about power and go re-read Second Sex. It’s probably my turn to listen for a while.

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3 thoughts on “Sharing power and misquoting de Beauvoir

  1. It’s OK. Voltaire never said “I do not agree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” Look at it this way: You may have actually originated a good quote. So while it may not have the gravitas that it would have if de Beauvoir had said it, it may have the power of being yours. Unless, of course, someone else said it, and you just ascribed it to de Beauvoir due to failing memory.

    • Yeah, I think it’s entirely possible that I’ve just incorrectly attributed the quote. I’m kind of hoping somebody better-read than I will read this and let me know who actually said it.

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