The Second Sex Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The text is divided into two parts. In part 1, the more academic section, de Beauvoir discusses instances of women being oppressed throughout history, from early nomadic societies until the surprisingly late grant of suffrage in France in 1947. She draws impressively from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and, of course, history. She attempts to assess women’s biological and historical circumstances and the myths by which these have been explained, denied, or distorted. She recognizes that men have been able to maintain dominant roles in virtually all cultures because women have resigned themselves to, instead of rebelling against, their assigned subordinate status.

The Second Sex has two major premises. First, that man, considering himself as the essential being, or subject, has treated woman as the unessential being, or object. The second, more controversial premise, is that much of woman’s psychological self is socially constructed, with very few physiologically rooted feminine qualities or values. De Beauvoir denies the existence of a feminine temperament or nature—to her, all notions of femininity are artificial concepts. In one of her most telling aphorisms she declares, “One is not born a woman; rather, one becomes one.”

De Beauvoir derives her chief postulates from Sartre’s philosophic work, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

The Second Sex Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Second Sex is considered a pioneering treatment on the subject of women’s personal and social freedom. Simone de Beauvoir, who was a prolific writer, was most famous for The Second Sex because of its profound impact upon the feminist movement. Though some feminists have concerns with the study, most continue to recognize it as a significant, perhaps even definitive, tract in the history of the modern women’s movement. The essays also have been criticized by nonfeminists, with some justification. At times the work suffers from imprecise data and oversimplified generalizations. Generally, though, the work is considered one of substance, and later editions include corrected statistics.

The text, drawing upon a voluminous number of studies to explain the past and present condition of women in society, is not merely a biological and historical treatment. It is also an argument against the received views on the nature of women and an appeal for change. The work has two main ideas: First, borrowed directly from Jean-Paul Sartre, is the famous notion of the other, a phenomenon acknowledging that woman sees herself only in relationship to man, while man does not recognize woman as an entity separate from himself. The second major idea is that woman is conditioned from birth to perform the role of a woman: thus, what is perceived as feminine nature is not innate but an artificial invention.

The book is divided into two parts: Book 1 treats “Facts and Myths,” and book 2 examines “Woman’s Life Today.” In the first book, physical and historical facts that have contributed to the domination of women are cited in an attempt to show how these facts are related to myths about the nature of woman. The myths are a product of male domination, although women traditionally have accepted and then internalized the myths. Beauvoir’s social, biological, and cultural survey begins by tracing the development of women throughout history. She argues that behaviors were inculcated into codes or mythologies as a result of woman’s physical disadvantage in the division of labor, superstitions surrounding woman’s bodily functions, and woman’s functions involving reproduction and child care. Beauvoir also draws examples from literature, archetypes, and conventions in art to identify the way man has sought to define the concept of femininity through the ages and to thus perpetuate false beliefs about woman.

Beauvoir also points out that an existential viewpoint allows an understanding of how biology, economics, and popular wisdom have enabled male domination to flourish. In existential philosophy, man discovers himself by identifying with something else, and thus he transcends alienation. Woman experiences alienation far less affirmatively because she is prevented from discovering her autonomous, creative self by man, who regards her as his property. Specifically, man’s role as warrior allows him to claim supremacy. Later cultural myths, especially the paradox of man’s declaring respect for woman while declaring her inferiority, enables patriarchy—the rule of the father—to continue. Judaism’s misogyny, firmly inculcated into Christian ideology, also contributes significantly to female oppression. This misogyny, reinforced by the Catholic Church fathers, lasted until the Renaissance, a time of slight advancement for woman with the advent of humanism.

In history, contradictions in woman’s image abound. For example, there exists the idea that woman can be both perfect and evil, an idol and a servant, the source of truth and the source of untruth. Examples of such contradictions are comprehensive. Specifically, Beauvoir thoroughly covers the phenomenon of woman as myth in the work of five authors: Henri de Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel, André Breton, and Stendhal. From her examples, the ideal woman as protagonist incorporates perfectly the myths of the other. In daily life, societies and individuals define myths according to their needs and, Beauvoir reiterates, myths, based upon the point of view of men, are reinforced with woman’s acquiescence.

The contradictions found in the image of woman are admirably exposed, and ample illustrations support the concept that woman is doomed by the culture’s embracing of the idea of the incarnation of man’s wishes and desires. This phenomenon keeps woman in a state of perpetual passivity. Usually, her situation disallows her the avenue of transcending her fate, but...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)