French author Simone de Beauvoir completed the research and writing for The Second Sex over two years. The book was begun in October, 1946, while Beauvoir toured colleges and universities in the United States and interviewed American women about their lives; it was finished in June, 1949. Beauvoir credits the idea for The Second Sex to writer and friend Colette Audry, who always wanted to write a book about women’s inequality. Beauvoir admits that as an unmarried writer, teacher, and intellectual with no children, she enjoyed an egalitarian relationship with men. Yet, while wanting to write an autobiographical book about herself as a French existentialist—Beauvoir was the lifelong friend of Jean- Paul Sartre, the founder of French existentialism—Beauvoir first began to think seriously about the “lot of women” and about herself as a woman. Though much of her other writings contain strong feminist underpinnings, Beauvoir became well known as a feminist because of The Second Sex, especially toward the end of her life: From 1970 until her death in 1986, she actively and publicly committed herself to women’s issues.
The Second Sex, which contains more than eight hundred pages, is an examination of the condition of women in Western culture. The work looks at the plight of women from biological, psychological, sociological, and historical perspectives, analyzing the condition of women through the philosophical context of existentialism, a philosophy concerned with freedom, responsibility, conscious choice, and active engagement in living. It is essentially a series of analytical essays divided into two volumes: Les Faits et Les Mythes (Facts and Myths) and L’Expérience Vécue (Woman’s Life Today). The Second Sex analyzes the ways in which women’s freedom has been curtailed or annihilated. Beauvoir explains how, in a patriarchy, women—as the “second sex,” as “the other,” as “objects”—are negatively defined through men and how women then in turn define themselves. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or lover, a woman’s life, according to Beauvoir, is prescribed and confined; she dwells in what Beauvoir calls immanence, a vicious cycle of uncreative and repetitious duties and ways of being in the world that creates unhappiness and despair. Roads to what she calls transcendence—actively creating, confronting, and engaging oneself in the world (the opposite of immanence)—are closed to her, and so she waits passively and is literally, Beauvoir says, “bored to death.”
In her analysis, Beauvoir examines broad issues such as women’s exploitation in work and in love and shows how a capitalistic economy as well as the patriarchy benefit from women’s subservient role. She talks specifically about such issues as reproductive rights, religion, motherhood, and marriage. She disputes the idea of an Eternal Feminine, the idea that all members of womankind are biologically predetermined to act out their lives in a peculiarly passive and stereotypically feminine mode. Her thesis throughout the book is the emphatic statement that she makes at the beginning of part II of The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Her book examines in detail how the various forces of culture and civilization work to create this figure of the human female, a “creature intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” Beauvoir sees meaningful work and economic independence as the keys to women’s liberation.
The Second Sex, first published in France in 1949, was immediately translated into many languages. Considered controversial and even scandalous by some when it was first published, The Second Sex was widely debated in France. It received more superficial attention in the United States, although it was admired by intellectuals such as anthropologist and writer Ashley Montagu, who said...