In Book I of her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir investigates "Facts and Myths," concluding that history has definitely belonged to the male because man was able to dominate in pre-industrial civilizations in which more strength was required, and also because women were defined relative to men. "He is the Subject, he is the Absolute--She is the Other." A woman's role in propagation placed her in among the males as his dependent, never having shared the world equally since men were able to go out and hold down political and economic positions. "Man was the sovereign, woman the liege," and scripture is also used to support this idea. In the past all history was made by man, and women were tempted to forgo liberties for safety with a male. Additionally, even the lowest of males could feel superior when women remained subservient as "the Other."
Beauvoir acknowledges that psychoanalysis and historical materialism contribute tremendous insights into the sexual, familial and material life of woman, but fail to account for the whole picture. In the case of psychoanalysis, it denies the reality of choice and in the case of historical materialism, it neglects to take into account the existential importance of the phenomena it reduces to material conditions.
Women, Beauvoir contends, have not been socially liberated because of sexual desire and the desire for offspring, but with modern birth control women can liberate themselves as then they do not need to take on "the burden and blame for existence." And, with the advent of machinery, women can attain jobs and accomplish things they could not otherwise.
In Book II of The Second Sex, Beauvoir contends famously that "one is not born, but one becomes a woman." That is, women are not existentially feminine; instead, they are conditioned and are taught to be through social indoctrination. That is, women are directed to their "passive" and "alienated" role in contrast to man's "active" and "subjective" one. At times women relinquish their freedom when they agree to their subjugation because of the benefits of protection and less responsibility.
Above all, Beauvoir argues that women must be afforded opportunities for selfhood in the following ways:
- through her own "free projects" that include risk and danger that can generate pride in her own actions and choices
- through changes in the social structure with such things as universal healthcare, equal education, birth control, abortion, and economic freedom
- through the opportunity to choose marriage freely, not as a flight from freedom into a static condition.