Analyze the strengths and limitations of Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was considered a breakthrough work when it was published in 1949. Simone de Beauvoir was a French intellectual and writer who criticized the male-dominated society’s treatment of women as well as women’s view of their own role in society. She provides examples of...

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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was considered a breakthrough work when it was published in 1949. Simone de Beauvoir was a French intellectual and writer who criticized the male-dominated society’s treatment of women as well as women’s view of their own role in society. She provides examples of how society—and men—have oppressed women from time immemorial.

In the book, she advocates for women being able to take command of their futures and lives and not be dependent on men to fulfill their needs, including for their emotional well-being. This is one of the book’s strengths.

Simone de Beauvoir believes that women can be so much more than wives and mothers. She also notes that differences in sexuality do not completely account for the differences between men and women. Just as men do, women must try to find meaning outside of themselves. In many ways, her writing was extremely progressive when viewed in context with women’s limited role in public and political life at the time she wrote. This is another element of the book's strength.

However, The Second Sex has limitations as well. First, it is dense and lengthy, making it difficult to get through. Moreover, some of the thoughts can be read as somewhat misogynistic, as the author rails against a male-dominated world that women often capitulate to. In addition, some might also consider it somewhat condescending on a certain level. Specifically, Simone de Beauvoir traveled in rarified circles. Like her long-time lover, Paul Sartre, she was a writer in the existential mode. Her immediate group of friends and intimates included other writers, artists and philosophers.

As a member of France’s inner circle of artist and thinkers, de Beauvoir led a relatively unusual life. Many of the philosophies espoused in The Second Sex are likely out of reach of the average woman who is a wife and mother and possibly working, as well, with little time to contemplate their shifting role in society and take immediate action. Thus, many likely viewed the book as a de Beauvoir’s preaching at them when she writes that women should try to free themselves from the constraints that society imposes on them. Looking back with a modern lens, however, the book may have been ahead of its time. Current generations of young women who grew up in the post-suffrage period are more likely to embrace many of the thoughts than the average contemporary woman at the time of its publication.

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The answer depends on the contextual frame and measure for such analysis. That being said, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is generally acknowledged as a groundbreaking addition to the discourse of feminism. In addition, The Second Sex makes a significant contribution to the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialism was a heretofore male-dominated philosophical sect featuring prominently the work of de Beauvoir’s lover, Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet existentialism concerns human existence as a whole, and the gaps in the early literature concerning the female existent are only significantly taken up by de Beauvoir’s writings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her best-known work, The Second Sex, was published in France in 1949.

De Beauvoir’s was one of the first female voices to argue that the female concept of the self is circumscribed by a patriarchal society that insists on women taking their sense of self from others, viz. men like their husbands and fathers. She wrote of the existential danger posed to the woman who “resign[s] [herself] to [her] lot without attempting to take any action” (The Second Sex, H. M. Parsley ed. (1952), 119) and “by dint of doing nothing but contemplate herself...annihilates herself” (Id. at 666). In this sense, feminism is for de Beauvoir a fundamentally existential issue.

So, too, is love. A “woman in love” according to de Beauvoir “gives up her transcendence, subordinating it to the essential other” (Id. 611) and turning the object of her affection into a deity: “she will humble herself to nothingness before him. Love becomes for her a religion” (Id. at 604). Love in the shape of idolatry is a form of bad faith in Sartre’s sense, an opiate to soothe the pain of existence, one that assists in the forgetting of one’s self and the subordination of one will in the name of another. Love in this sense can be a veritable form of self-deception that inhibits the possibility of experiencing transcendent freedom. De Beauvoir argued instead for love rooted in free existence for both parties.

In contrast to the woman in love, an “emancipated woman,” is a woman who makes her own destiny, lives by her own rules, and is herself the subject of active transcendence and authenticity. De Beauvoir argued that women required concrete financial, health, and educational independence in addition to rights on paper (such as enfranchisement) if they were to be truly free. Artistic fulfillment for a woman is next to impossible without freedom, de Beauvoir argued, because of the ripple effects patriarchally bound notions of the self have on women’s artistic ability and authenticity.

The Second Sex received some pushback from second-wave feminists in the 1970s who were reclaiming the women’s role in the home and took offense to de Beauvoir’s labeling of activities considered quintessentially “feminine” as male-contrived tools of patriarchal oppression. More recently, de Beauvoir’s rooting of the self in existence as opposed to in identity has been revisited as a foundation for coalitional politics (see Elaine Stavro, Rethinking Identity and Coalitional Politics, Insights from Simone de Beauvoir, Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 40(2) June 2007).

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One strength of Beauvoir's work is how it is able to demonstrate existing social constructs of patriarchy. One of the most thought- provoking lines that she composes is "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." Such a notion was as valid then as it is now. Her idea of the social appropriation of women into roles and objects was groundbreaking. Beauvoir's notion that women are denied "transcendence" by being "bored to death" was extremely insightful, as it helped to better articulate women's experience. Modern construction of feminism owes a debt to Beauvoir's work because the language she uses became the basis for the discourse in gender studies.

In examining the limitations of the work, it should be noted that any criticisms offered of the work are only because she was right. We are able to criticize the work in that it did not "go far enough" because of the distance it went in proving the presence of patriarchy in women's lives. One of these realities is that Beauvoir did not fully articulate was the global condition of patriarchy that seeks to silence women's voices. Beauvoir's work speaks to a "Western" woman, when in reality the condition of patriarchy is worldwide. Beauvoir does not take into account the social construction of race and ethnicity that helps to conceal patriarchy, sometimes adding to it. In this, one sees how there is a particular limitation in her work, something reflective of the dialogue that her work started.

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