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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

The text is divided into two parts. In part 1, the more academic section, de Beauvoir discusses instances of women being oppressed throughout history, from early nomadic societies until the surprisingly late grant of suffrage in France in 1947. She draws impressively from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and, of course, history. She attempts to assess women’s biological and historical circumstances and the myths by which these have been explained, denied, or distorted. She recognizes that men have been able to maintain dominant roles in virtually all cultures because women have resigned themselves to, instead of rebelling against, their assigned subordinate status.

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The Second Sex has two major premises. First, that man, considering himself as the essential being, or subject, has treated woman as the unessential being, or object. The second, more controversial premise, is that much of woman’s psychological self is socially constructed, with very few physiologically rooted feminine qualities or values. De Beauvoir denies the existence of a feminine temperament or nature—to her, all notions of femininity are artificial concepts. In one of her most telling aphorisms she declares, “One is not born a woman; rather, one becomes one.”

De Beauvoir derives her chief postulates from Sartre’s philosophic work, L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1947). In existentialist fashion, she argues that women are the sum of their actions. To be sure, a woman’s situation is partly determined by menstruation and childbearing. She becomes human, rather than a “mere animal,” to the extent that she transcends her biological characteristics and assumes her liberty in a social context.

In part 2, de Beauvoir undertakes a sociological and psychological survey of women in the mid-twentieth century, concentrating on France and the United States. She analyzes the roles women widely adopt, seeing many of these roles (wife, mother, prostitute) as images that men have imposed on women. She deplores most marriages as demeaning to women, enslaving them in child-rearing and housekeeping tasks. Prostitution is a state of female enslavement. Only “kept” women—mistresses—have occasionally asserted free choices.

De Beauvoir describes her vision of a free woman who will find emancipation through meaningful work, thereby gaining equal standing with men. Economic freedom is, for de Beauvoir, the key to woman’s emancipation. Unless a woman can affirm her freedom by doing constructive work, she lives only marginally. The total liberation of women will come about, de Beauvoir insists, only with the establishment of an authentically socialist society as conceived by Karl Marx, since capitalism prevents proletarian women from finding satisfaction in their labor.

The Second Sex has received considerable negative criticism for its bias against marriage and motherhood, its Marxism, its rejection of psychoanalysis, and its oversimplifications based on careless use of data. The study has nevertheless proved to be an inspirational text for countless women throughout the world and may well be the most powerful argument for women’s rights to have appeared in the twentieth century.

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