Simone de Beauvoir speaks frankly in The Second Sex of women as the victims of patriarchal society. She describes how girls from earliest youth are taught to worship males and to see themselves as the "other," defined by their relationship to men. A woman, Beauvoir said, is almost never herself, but sees herself and is seen by society as an extension of a man, be it her husband, lover, or father. Mothers, she asserted, often took out their anger and repressed aggressions over their oppression on their daughters by being overly controlling or demanding of them, setting them up to expect similar behavior from their husbands and lovers as normal.
This social conditioning leaves women vulnerable, Beauvoir argued, and makes marriage a toxic institution for them. A married woman is trapped by being taught to cater to and wrap her own needs and desires around a man, becoming reduced to a childlike state in the process, and unable, in a time when divorce was difficult, to free herself.
Women's bodies, according to Beauvoir, make them vulnerable. Because men are unduly repelled by natural female bodily functions, such as menstruation, women internalize this by hating their bodies. Worse, pregnancy makes women extremely vulnerable: childbirth both accentuates women's dependence on men and renders them unable to develop their own skills, especially if they are tied down by the burdens of large families. In a Catholic country like France, where birth control was illegal and marital rape unrecognized, a woman had almost no control over her reproductive capacity. Beauvoir argued very forcefully for legal abortion as a first step in liberating women from male bondage.
Beauvoir's ideas that women should reject patriarchal marriage, serial pregnancy, and being defined by male norms were very controversial when her book appeared, as was her strong advocacy for legal birth control and abortion. Today, women have come far in gaining rights and becoming less vulnerable, though there is still a ways to go.