Critical Context

If feminist theory has evolved through several stages, then de Beauvoir’s essays belong to the first stage: the refutation of existing male-dominated ideas. Since the middle of the twentieth century, several other stages have evolved and, in some cases, superseded de Beauvoir’s theories. Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, a major influence on de Beauvoir, has given way to poststructuralism. The rejection of Freud’s and Adler’s placement of women in a position of inferiority to men has been reversed; Jacques Lacan’s theories of physiologically determined psychological immanence have been accepted by a new generation of French and American feminists. De Beauvoir’s own expectation that the problems of women would resolve themselves automatically in a context of Socialist development has not been fulfilled, because, as the author stated in an interview thirty years after writing The Second Sex, Socialist countries are not really socialist. De Beauvoir was appalled by the re-mystification of motherhood and the reintroduction of the idea of the “Eternal Feminine” in the early 1980’s.

Perhaps the most controversial of the many issues touched upon in de Beauvoir’s study is that of women’s responsibility for and involvement in shaping centuries of an oppressive existence. Consistent with her existentialist worldview, de Beauvoir never wavers in her contention that one is not born but rather becomes a woman and that women are exploited but have also permitted themselves to be exploited in the name of love. Many feminists are not willing to accept this premise and hold that women’s destiny was shaped entirely by forces outside their realm.