The French Revolution’s ideal of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” is the standard against which Beauvoir measures the status, or situation, of woman both during and before the twentieth century. At almost every juncture, she finds that the revolutionary ideal refers to men, not to women. She concludes that the reference can best be extended to women in a world that adheres to the principles of Marxist socialism and to the tenets of existentialist freedom. It is in the context of existentialism that she analyzes the Otherness, the secondness, of woman. To her concept of woman as the Other she gives the name “alterity” (alterité), derived from the Latin word alter, which means both “other” and “second.”
In the existentialism propounded by Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the self is subject (I exist, I feel) and anyone or anything exterior to the self is object (someone or something that I may use or that I find to stand in my way). All objects constitute the Other. Beauvoir’s thesis is that man sees himself collectively as subject and that woman, historically seen by man as object, must first recognize that she has been conditioned to see herself as the Other and then strive, as a free individual, both to assert herself as subject and to win recognition as subject from man. Those subjects existing in freedom (liberté) who see each other as subjects (as equals) live in confraternity. The very last statement of The Second Sex is this: “. . . it is necessary . . . that, beyond their natural differentiations, men and women affirm their brotherhood (fraternité) unequivocally.”
The obstacle to fraternal affirmation is alterity, a persistent form of prejudicial objectification. The concept is explained in chapter 9, “Dreams, Fears, Idols,” which is the last chapter of part 3, “Myths.” Beauvoir claims that men see themselves as subject-heroes and define woman only in her relation to man. This renders the categories of male and female asymmetrical, as the unilateralism of sexual myths makes clear. Woman is elevated as a divine presence (Athena, the Virgin Mary, and so forth) and yet degraded as a power of evil (Eve, Pandora, Delilah). In neither case is she seen for what, in fact, she is—a free individual on an existential par with man. It is as though men justify their contempt for women by simultaneously idealizing them. Man thereby sustains his need of woman as servant and scapegoat by projecting his self-idealization onto woman as ideal being, the source of life, the healing presence, mother.
The applicability of this concept to other forms of prejudice can be readily inferred. Ethnic prejudice, for example, will justify scornful objectification of a race by conceding a very positive trait as characteristic of that race. Whites, for example, would insist that, while blacks were inferior in intelligence, they were superior in athletics; anti-Semites would, like Adolf Hitler, concede the superior intelligence of Jews as long as the Jews’ alleged pecuniary bent were acknowledged. Woman, accordingly, is alternately placed upon a pedestal and consigned to a pit, but is never accorded the same level of human activity as man.
Man is not painted in The Second Sex as a tyrannic villain, and woman is not depicted as an inherently helpless victim. The cogency of the essay comes from its fairness and its even-tempered observations. Woman is shown as being a participant in her own subordination by reason of her acquiescence and her inauthentic acceptance of secondary status. Authenticity, the quality that Beauvoir finds Stendhal to have admired in women and reflected in his...
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female characters, is responsible freedom. It is the awareness that, as an existent, one is free to choose and determine the course of one’s existence, and it entails one’s acceptance of full responsibility for one’s choice. Beauvoir says matter-of-factly that women have not been in the habit of cultivating existential awareness and are consequently frustrated by discontents that they cannot fathom but from which they seek indirect and inconclusive escape. In effect, Beauvoir discloses to women their situation as secondary human beings and urges upon them, as prerequisite to authentic choice, an honest awareness of their alterity. Even if a woman chooses to remain the passive Other in relation to men, her choice, made in awareness, is an authentic action for which she accepts active responsibility. A commitment to oppose alterity is not more authentic, since any choice made in awareness is authentic, but it is the better part of action and more in keeping with Beauvoir’s existentialist notions about the nature of human life.