The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
At 40, Simone de Beauvoir was the author of several well-received novels, but was better known as Jean Paul-Sartre’s long-time companion. This all changed with the release of Le Deuxième sex, which was quickly a bestseller and brought de Beauvoir herself great notoriety.
Given her relatively privileged position - teaching career, university degree, movement in Parisian intellectual circles - de Beauvoir had never felt much of a sense of injustice or inequality. But she began to realise that people saw her as Sartre’s inferior just because she was female, and when she sat down to write The Second Sex, de Beauvoir found herself writing what seemed the most essential fact about her personhood: ‘I am a woman’.
The Second Sex is not simply about the role of women in history or society, but ‘Woman’ as an archetype and philosophical category that is interchangeable with the idea of ‘Other’. This philosophical base raises it above other feminist writing, and makes it fascinating reading.
The work spans 700 pages and is not easy to summarise. Book One traces the history of women’s place in society from the bronze age to medieval times to modernity, including an analysis of the ‘myth of woman’ through five authors: Montherlant, DH Lawrence, Claudel, Breton and Stendhal. Book Two traces the situation of woman today, from childhood to sexual awakening, marriage to menopause, including portraits of woman as lover, narcissist and mystic, before ending on a more upbeat note with a chapter on women’s independence.
Woman as Other
The Second Sex is an attempt to answer the basic question ‘What is Woman’? - that is, as an archetype or category as opposed to women as individuals. Throughout history, men have differentiated and defined women in reference to themselves, rather than as beings in their own right. A person is a man, and no more explanation is necessary...while a woman must be described as a person of the female sex. The result, de Beauvoir says, is that woman is “the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is Absolute - she is the Other.”
What is ‘Other’, she notes, can be applied to any group in society that is not considered the ‘main’ group. In Western civilisation, for instance, white men are the ‘essential’, the ‘Absolute’, while any other kind of person, including women, Blacks, Jews have been – whether consciously or unconsciously – put in the Other basket. And when a group in society is made inferior in this way, they become inferior through lost opportunities and debasement.
Men do not feel they have to justify themselves on any objective basis, but get their feeling of superiority from not being women. Thus the cliché, although true, that a women has to do twice as much to be seen to be the equal of a man. Discrimination against women, de Beauvoir writes, is “a miraculous balm for those afflicted with an inferiority complex, and indeed not one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility”. Today we are familiar with such a truth, but imagine the affront it caused in bourgeois France sixty years ago.
De Beauvoir expresses her amazement that although women make up half the human race, they can still be discriminated against. She observes that in democracies men like to say that they see women as equal (or democracy would be a lie), but their attitudes on many levels tell a different story.
Is biology destiny?
De Beauvoir goes back to our earliest conceptions of biology to show how science itself served to reduce the power and potency of the female in favour of the male. In conception, for instance, the passivity of the female was contrasted with the ‘active principle’ of male sperm, which was thought to determine all the characteristics of the newborn. Yet in conception, de Beauvoir notes, neither male or female gamete is superior to the other; rather, they both lose their total individuality when the egg is fertilised.
The burden of the continuity of life is still a female one, and in the energy and time required for this the female’s possibilities are severely restricted, because “the woman is adapted to the needs of the egg rather than to her own requirements”. From puberty to menopause she is at the mercy of a body changing itself according to reproductive needs, and must put up with a monthly reminder of this. In pregnancy in the early stages, vomiting and loss of appetite “signalize the revolt of the organism against the invading species”. Many a woman’s maladies are not from external threats, but dealing with her own, often problematic reproductive system. Moreover, the more intense emotionality of women is related to irregularities in secretions in the endocrine system, which have an effect on the nervous system. A lot of these traits, de Beauvoir points out, “originate in woman’s subordination to the species”. In contrast, “the male seems infinitely favoured: his sexual life is not in opposition to his existence as a person, and biologically it runs an even course, without crises and generally without mishap.” Though women tend to live longer than men, they are ill more often, and overall are less in control of their bodies - their bodies control them. However, menopause can bring liberation, as a woman is no longer determined or judged according to the childbearing function.
A woman’s biological features are therefore the key to understanding her situation in life, but, de Beauvoir optimistically says, “I deny that they establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny”. Biology is not reason enough for male/female inequality, or grounds for woman being cast as ‘Other’, and her physicality does not condemn her to remain subordinate. Moreover, while animals can be studied as static organisms, it is much harder to make assessments of people as male or female human beings, since our sex does not define us in the way that it does other animals. In many physical respects a woman is less rugged than a man, and so ostensibly her projects and prospects are more limited, but drawing on Heidegger, Sartre and Merlau-Ponty, de Beauvoir notes, “the body is not a thing, it is a situation”. Seeing it this way, women’s prospects may be different to men’s, but no more limited. What’s more, many of women’s ‘weaknesses’ are so only in the context of male ends. Physical inferiority, for instance, becomes meaningless if there is an absence of violence and wars. If society is different, so the evaluation of physical attributes changes.
Book Two contains de Beauvoir’s famous comment that “...one is not born but rather becomes a woman”. In childhood there is no difference between the sexes in terms of what they are capable. Differentiation begins when boys are told of their superiority and how they need to prepare for the difficult, heroic path ahead. While pride in his sex is pointed out to him by adults, the girl’s sexual anatomy does not receive the same reverence. Urinating also produces a sexual difference: for the boy it is a game, but for the girl a shameful and inconvenient procedure. Even if a girl has no ‘penis envy’ the presence of an organ that can be seen and grasped helps him to identify himself and it becomes a kind of alter ego. For the girl it is the doll which becomes the alter ego. There is really no “maternal instinct”, de Beauvoir argues, but through play with the doll she ascertains that the care of the children falls on the mother, and “thus her vocation is powerfully impressed upon her.”
Yet when she becomes mature a girl realises that it is no privilege to be the mother, as men control the world. This revelation helps her to understand that a father’s life has a “mysterious prestige.” When sexual awakenings occur boys are aggressive and grasping whereas for the girl it is often a case of fraught ‘waiting’ (“She is waiting Man.”) Since time immemorial, Woman has looked to the male for fulfillment and escape. So girls learn that to please they must abdicate their power and independence.
Woman’s character, de Beauvoir concludes, is moulded by her situation. Women are not socially independent but form a part of the groups governed and defined by men. Any club or social service they set up are all within the framework of the masculine universe. “Many of the faults for which women are reproached – mediocrity, laziness, frivolity, servility” she points out, “simply express the fact that their horizon is closed.”
Woman and myth
Since women have rarely seen themselves as protagonists, there are not many female myths like those of Hercules or Prometheus. Their mythical roles are always secondary; they dream the dreams of Man. Man has created myths around woman and all myths have helped to reiterate that woman is the inessential; he has revolted against the fact that he is born from a woman’s womb and will also die. Since birth is tied to death, Woman condemns man to finitude.
Women have also been seen as sorceresses and enchantresses who cast a spell on man. Man both fears and desires woman. He loves her as she is his, but he fears her as she remains the ‘other’; it is this other that he wishes to make his. Like man, woman is endowed with spirit and mind but “she belongs to nature and so appears as a mediatrix between the individual and the cosmos”, de Beauvoir writes. Christianity spiritualised woman, assigning to her beauty, warmth, intimacy, and the role of pity and tenderness. She was no longer tangible and her mystery deepened. Woman is man’s muse, and also a judge who pronounces on the value of his enterprises. She is a prize to be won, the dream within which all other dreams are enfolded. On the positive side, Woman has always inspired Man to exceed his own limits.
What would de Beauvoir make of today’s gender landscape? Particularly in richer and freer countries, many women would feel that the book is outdated, that equality is real, or at least the gaps in equality are bridgeable, and that girls have futures every bit as bright as boys. But in countries where misogyny rules, and sexual inequality is written into laws and expressed in custom, de Beauvoir’s book is still a potential bombshell, revealing much about the real motives of men.
The Second Sex has been criticised for being too anecdotal and circular, for not being a ‘proper’ work of philosophy, but this in itself can be seen as a subtle attack on the author’s gender by right-brained, system-building male philosophers. Indeed, that de Beauvoir is often overlooked as a philosopher only proves her point that it is mostly men who end up writing the history of disciplines - and it is not surprising that they first focus on the contributions of others of their sex.
Many of her de Beauvoir’s assertions have been overtaken by science. The fact is that we are not blank slates in terms of gender, but are born with certain behavioural tendencies if we are male or female. Conditioning is definitely real, as she pointed out, yet it is not the whole story, and we will only be able to counter the limitations put on women by also understanding the biological differences. The more we know about our bodies and brains, the less biology will be destiny.
If you are female, reading The Second Sex will remind you of the progress made for women in the last 60 years. If you are male, it will help you understand the slightly different universe that woman inhabit, even today.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
Simone de Beauvoir
Born 1908 in Paris, de Beauvoir’s father was a legal secretary. Her mother was a devout Catholic and she was sent to a prestigious convent school. Through her childhood she was very religious and considered becoming a nun, but at 14 became an atheist.
Studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, she wrote a thesis on Leibniz. In a national exam that ranked students, she came second only to Sartre (whom she had already met) and was also the youngest person ever to pass. Her relationship with Sartre influenced her first novel, She Came to Stay, published in 1943.
De Beauvoir taught philosophy at the Lycée Pierre-Corneille in Rouen where her friend the feminist Collette Audry also taught. In 1947 she was sent by the French government to the United States to give university lectures on contemporary French literature. In the same year she wrote her popular essay on French existentialism, ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’. She travelled widely, and wrote several travel diaries about her journeys through China, Italy and America, which she visited several times.
De Beauvoir lived not far from Sartre, and penned A Farewell to Sartre, a moving account of his last years. She continued her literary and activist work until her death in 1986.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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