Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Originally published in France in two successive volumes, The Second Sex was conceived as one comprehensive study but its two parts—book 1 and book 2— differ somewhat in format. The historical approach and presentation of established data in book 1 permit the author to conclude each essay with a brief summary and an evaluation of stated facts. The more subjective and speculative nature of book 2, which contains Simone de Beauvoir’s observations of women of her own generation, must remain without such summaries. Instead, book 2 offers a final chapter fully devoted to recapitulating salient points about the status of women at the time of its writing. Apart from this final chapter, simply titled “Conclusion,” de Beauvoir’s study consists of twenty-five essays, arranged to be read in sequence but, at the same time, independent of one another, with only occasional references to previously mentioned material. An index follows the actual text of this substantial collection.

Book 1 of the study is divided into three parts with eleven essays and bears the subtitle “Facts and Myths.” It examines women’s bodies, souls, and economic status in terms of biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism. It also presents the reader with an overview of women in history, from primitive societies through classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, and modern times. A final discussion is devoted to women and myths in general, as...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

The Second Sex

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

Beauvoir rejects the Aristotelian position that women, because of their biological characteristics, must play a limited role in society. She further rejects Freudian psychology’s position that woman’s natural state is passive while man’s is active because of the physical characteristics of the genitalia. She posits that women are limited primarily by the conditioning imposed on them by a male-dominated society, not by any biologic weakness or inferiority. Because the behavior of human beings is based in large part on rationality and choice, instead of on instinct, Beauvoir suggests that human behavior is not fixed and immutable but should be based on the individual’s rational decision to behave in a particular way in a given situation. Beauvoir then expands on that stance, using Sartre’s belief that to be fully human, each person must be free to choose what he or she will become and that the process of choosing never ends. She further asserts that the sexual identity assigned to girls by modern Western society, which prepares them primarily to become wives, mothers, and housewives, destroys women’s creative potential and leads to self-alienation and destruction of the psyche.

Additional Reading

Appignansei, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir. London: Penguin, 1988. This is a significant appraisal of Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the independent woman. Appignanesi aptly explicates de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics and her suppositions of woman’s subjectivity.

Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York, Summit Books, 1990. This very reliable biography covers the philosophical life of de Beauvoir as Beauvoir’s inquiry into the nature of woman. Chapter 28 is an entertaining and edifying précis of The Second Sex.

Bieber, Konrad. Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A comprehensive, factual, and general presentation of De Beauvoir’s life and works, including a lucid overview of The Second Sex. Has good general bibliography.

Berghoffen, Debra B. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Gendered Phenomenologies, Erotic Generosities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Berghoffen takes note of de Beauvoir’s differences from Jean-Paul Sartre and details the philosophical eroticism in The Second...

(The entire section is 976 words.)

The Second Sex

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

French author Simone de Beauvoir completed the research and writing for The Second Sex over two years. The book was begun in October, 1946, while Beauvoir toured colleges and universities in the United States and interviewed American women about their lives; it was finished in June, 1949. Beauvoir credits the idea for The Second Sex to writer and friend Colette Audry, who always wanted to write a book about women’s inequality. Beauvoir admits that as an unmarried writer, teacher, and intellectual with no children, she enjoyed an egalitarian relationship with men. Yet, while wanting to write an autobiographical book about herself as a French existentialist—Beauvoir was the lifelong friend of Jean- Paul Sartre, the founder of French existentialism—Beauvoir first began to think seriously about the “lot of women” and about herself as a woman. Though much of her other writings contain strong feminist underpinnings, Beauvoir became well known as a feminist because of The Second Sex, especially toward the end of her life: From 1970 until her death in 1986, she actively and publicly committed herself to women’s issues.

The Second Sex, which contains more than eight hundred pages, is an examination of the condition of women in Western culture. The work looks at the plight of women from biological, psychological, sociological, and historical perspectives, analyzing the condition of women through the philosophical context of existentialism, a philosophy concerned with freedom, responsibility, conscious choice, and active engagement in living. It is essentially a series of analytical essays divided into two volumes: Les Faits et Les Mythes (Facts and Myths) and L’Expérience Vécue (Woman’s Life Today). The Second Sex analyzes the ways in which women’s freedom has been curtailed or annihilated. Beauvoir explains how, in a patriarchy, women—as the “second sex,” as “the other,” as “objects”—are negatively defined through men and how women then in turn define themselves. Whether daughter, wife, mother, or lover, a woman’s life, according to Beauvoir, is prescribed and confined; she dwells in what Beauvoir calls immanence, a vicious cycle of uncreative and repetitious duties and ways of being in the world that creates unhappiness and despair. Roads to what she calls transcendence—actively creating, confronting, and engaging oneself in the world (the opposite of immanence)—are closed to her, and so she waits passively and is literally, Beauvoir says, “bored to death.”

In her analysis, Beauvoir examines broad issues such as women’s exploitation in work and in love and shows how a capitalistic economy as well as the patriarchy benefit from women’s subservient role. She talks specifically about such issues as reproductive rights, religion, motherhood, and marriage. She disputes the idea of an Eternal Feminine, the idea that all members of womankind are biologically predetermined to act out their lives in a peculiarly passive and stereotypically feminine mode. Her thesis throughout the book is the emphatic statement that she makes at the beginning of part II of The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Her book examines in detail how the various forces of culture and civilization work to create this figure of the human female, a “creature intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” Beauvoir sees meaningful work and economic independence as the keys to women’s liberation.

The Second Sex, first published in France in 1949, was immediately translated into many languages. Considered controversial and even scandalous by some when it was first published, The Second Sex was widely debated in France. It received more superficial attention in the United States, although it was admired by intellectuals such as anthropologist and writer Ashley Montagu, who said...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)

Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Although The Second Sex is similar to the tradition of profeminism manifest in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Florence Nightingale’s Cassandra (1860), and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), it is unlike these works in subjectively describing rather than objectively deploring the inferior status of women. Simone de Beauvoir’s lyricism never congeals into a manifesto. The Second Sex is less a dissertation than a huge collection of philosophical essays variously oriented from biology, mythology, history, and literary criticism in book 1 (“Facts and Myths”) and sociology and psychology in book 2 (“The Life Experience”). Her lifelong erotic and collegial companionship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, along with her brief love affair with American writer Nelson Algren, were evidence of the integrity of her views on the veritable equality of the sexes: In both relationships, her choices were on her own terms.

Her commitment to existentialism informs much of her analytical writing and scholarly observation in The Second Sex. According to de Beauvoir, existentialism—inherent in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and Martin Heidegger’s ontologicalism (as distinct from ontology) and broadcast in Sartre’s theory of man as freedom—is, as Beauvoir explains in “Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations” (1963, existentialism and conventional wisdom), an optimistic, not a pessimistic, philosophy. De Beauvoir writes as a free woman who is convinced that transcendent freedom, although traditionally skewed to men, is biologically and psychologically also a property of women. The other major mode of thought in The Second Sex is Marxist socialism, which, in its ostensible egalitarianism, is accepted by de Beauvoir as more conducive to women’s freedom than Western capitalism.

Woman as the Other

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

De Beauvoir’s biological data disclose a characteristic but not an inevitable or necessary dependence of procreation upon sexual differentiation; the human female is seen sexually to renounce her individuality and therewith her potential for transcendence, while the male human’s sexuality, benefiting from this renunciation, remains consistent with his individuality. De Beauvoir denies not the physiological but the psychological necessity of sexual differentiation at the human level: In renouncing her capacity for transcendence, woman brings her sexuality into a state of incompatibility with her individuality. Moving from biology to Freudian psychiatry, de Beauvoir notes psychoanalysis’s inability, in its assumption of the male libido as axiomatically primary, to explain why women constitute the Other.

The second part of book 1 is a historical survey of the hierarchy of the sexes from the earliest nomads and workers of the soil through classical antiquity, the European middle ages, and the French Revolution to modern times. The summary begins with the observation that the world has always been man’s and concludes with the assertion that while the modern woman is in a position to free herself from domestication, her choices continue to be made, not naturally, but on the basis of man’s definition of her and his dreams about her.

The third part is subtitled “Dreams, Fears, Idols” and elaborates upon the alterity of woman through myths. Alterity is a justification, by means of nonvalid exaltation of the Other, of demeaning the Other. One can positively affirm woman’s subordinate status in human society and compensate for doing so by attributing ideal qualities to her. Placing woman on an imaginary pedestal thereby entitles man to keep her in a veritable pit. De Beauvoir illustrates alterity by proceeding from “every creation myth” through the mythic presentations of woman as both idol and slave and as the source of life and the agent of death to the Oedipus myth, reflecting man’s denial of a mother’s carnality while sublimating his erotic desire for her.

The Myth of Woman

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The examination of the myth of woman in the works of five male authors—Henri de Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel, André Breton, and Stendhal—is perhaps the real heart of the text. De Beauvoir’s passage from mythology to literary criticism establishes the mythic, or contrived, conviction of man that woman is by nature a creature of immanence. The attitudes of the writers chosen by de Beauvoir move from the lowest to the highest regard for woman; however, even the highest is a manifestation of alterity.

Montherlant is uncompromisingly negative: Woman is an incomplete being (the female athlete being his only, and grudging, exception); her influence upon man is always perverse and destructive. The Greek...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

Love and a Woman’s Life

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Book 2 is one and a half times as long as book 1 but noticeably less trenchant. It ruminately investigates woman’s passage in life from the experiences of childhood through those of maturity and old age. The book’s thesis is that a person is not born a woman but becomes one. Woman is shown by de Beauvoir to adapt herself, at every stage of her life, to the place in a male world that man has laid out for her. She shows the young girl to be conditioned to femininity and to feel shame in the alterity and inferiority incumbent upon it. In sexual initiation, the woman serves as object while the man retains his subjective independence. As she ages, woman loses her servitude in proportion to her loss of effectiveness. Taught only to devote herself to someone, she finds in old age that her devotion is no longer wanted by anyone.

Recourse to lesbianism, love, marriage, narcissism, or religion can be integral with independence, but all of these options lack the transcendence that freedom must engender in an individual. To love authentically, according to de Beauvoir, a woman must assume the contingence of her mate—his failings and limitations—and she should never idolize him; love in this sense is not a type of salvation but a human relationship. To be free authentically, a woman must project her freedom through practical action within human society. De Beauvoir claims that the free woman is just being born. Once woman abandons a quest for transcendence within her immanence and pursues transcendence in authentic action, and once man learns to react to woman as a human equal, there can arise a true human confraternity (fraternité), one that is not confounded by female otherness.

Feminism and Existentialism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The Second Sex was received initially more as a suffragist tract than as an existentialist approach to woman’s situation. In the 1980’s and after de Beauvoir’s death, the reverse came to be true. De Beauvoir came to be read as one dispassionately celebrating existentalist authenticity and focusing on woman, who as an individual, has the human capacity for economic and erotic independence in the context of transcendence.

The waves and currents in the women’s liberation movement after the 1960’s and 1970’s tended to wash away the importance of The Second Sex to the movement; people started to take issue with de Beauvoir’s favor of personal commitment over collective revolt. Writers such as...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The “serious, all-inclusive, and uninhibited work on woman,” as its translator, Howard M. Parshley, calls The Second Sex, consists of 1,071 pages in the Gallimard/Folio edition of the original and comprises two separate volumes.

The first volume, Facts and Myths, comprises three parts. The first part, “Destiny,” is given over to biological data, psychoanalytic perspective, and the perspective of historical materialism (Marxist socialism): Biology does not answer the question “Why is woman the Other, the second?”; psychoanalytic research also does not, but defines woman in the context of sexuality instead of that of existential consciousness; Marxism properly stresses woman’s economic...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Second Sex was received with shock in Catholic France but had no lack of buyers. Margaret Crosland notes in her biography of Simone de Beauvoir that twenty thousand copies of the first volume were sold within a week of its publication. She adds that the Catholic church banned the book and that writers such as Albert Camus and François Mauriac belittled it. The English-speaking world received it more approvingly in the Parshley translation. Beauvoir was likened in England to Mary Wollstonecraft; still, she received harsh criticism from women who were unwilling to participate in the feminist movement. Beauvoir was surprised at the shock her book had generated and bemused at being identified as a feminist. Her aim in...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Additional Reading

Appignansei, Lisa. Simone de Beauvoir. London: Penguin, 1988. This is a significant appraisal of Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the independent woman. Appignanesi aptly explicates de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics and her suppositions of woman’s subjectivity.

Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York, Summit Books, 1990. This very reliable biography covers the philosophical life of de Beauvoir as Beauvoir’s inquiry into the nature of woman. Chapter 28 is an entertaining and edifying précis of The Second Sex.

Bieber, Konrad....

(The entire section is 776 words.)