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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.

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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 well as to the specific myths of women in the works of D.H. Lawrence and four French authors—Henry de Montherlant, Paul Claudel, Andre Breton, and Stendhal.

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Book 2 (divided into four parts and comprising fifteen essays) is subtitled “Woman’s Life Today” and presents a study of the status of contemporary women and its basis in recent tradition. It is concerned with women known to a French, Catholic, upper-middle-class author of the late 1940’s, when French women had just received the right to vote and French morality was largely determined by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church.

De Beauvoir perceives the course of a woman’s life in essentially two stages: the formative years (childhood, adolescence, sexual initiation, with a separate chapter on lesbianism) and the years of confinement within the permanent situation or condition reserved by traditional society for the mature woman (marriage, motherhood, prostitution, life after menopause). The final section of the study deals with the question of justification for women’s acceptance of the tyranny of established traditions (narcissism, love, religious experience), and, in a brief essay, the relatively rare case of independent women who managed to defy tradition and establish themselves as writers or artists is considered.

Educated in the French classical tradition, de Beauvoir shows her erudition by providing her readers with a seemingly endless supply of examples from and references to many sources spanning more than two thousand years of Western civilization. Her friend and lifelong companion, the philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, is one of her favorite authors, along with the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, some psychoanalysts (such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler), and several French and Anglo-American writers of fiction.

The Second Sex

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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 Sex and other books as well as de Beauvoir’s ethics of the erotic.

Brosman, Catharine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Introduces readers to the vocabulary and existential concepts of de Beauvoir’s philosophy. Important, succinct explication of The Second Sex.

Brown, Catherine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s life, on her role as a woman writer, her early fiction and drama, later fiction, philosophical and political studies, and her memoirs. Brown aims at a focused study, criticizing the emphasis on anecdotal reports and biography.

Crosland, Margaret. Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and Her Work. London: Heinemann, 1992. A searching retrospective of Beauvoir’s life and career. Crosland shows how Beauvoir’s commitment to feminism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had developed in coincidence with feminism’s catching up to The Second Sex.

Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. New York: Tavistock, 1985. Places Beauvoir securely within the context of feminism and appraises The Second Sex as an exceptionally influential feminist text.

Fallage, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge, 1988. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s radicalism and on individual novels, including She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others, and on her short-story cycles. Biographical notes and bibliography are included.

Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life a Love Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A lively, well-documented biography for general readers, less comprehensive than Bair’s.

Fulbrook, Kate, and Edward Fulbrook. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. This work revises previous interpretations of the relationship, relying on new documents (letters and memoirs) that show how the two fashioned their legend.

Hatcher, Donald L. Understanding “The Second Sex.” New York: Peter Lang, 1984. Primarily a summary with comments on the essays. Excellent for those with no background in existential philosophy.

Heath, Jane. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. Focuses “not on ‘Simone de Beauvoir—Feminist’, but on the feminine in her texts.” Heath uses The Second Sex as a point of departure for studying Beauvoir’s fictional and autobiographical works.

Marks, Elaine, ed. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Twenty-seven essays by specialists, edited by a well-known feminist. Entertaining and balanced.

Moi, Toril. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A concise investigation into the critical reception and critical implications of Beauvoir’s work.

Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Two chapters in the study are particularly important. Chapter 3 recounts the hostile reception of de Beauvoir’s work by those in France and elsewhere who did not accord de Beauvoir, as a woman, the intellectual strength and integrity of male philosophers. Chapter 6 juxtaposes de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity and “alienation and the body”in The Second Sex.

Schwarzer, Alice. After “The Second Sex”: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Marianne Howarth. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Interviews with de Beauvoir and Sartre. Lively insights into The Second Sex and de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre.

Simon, Margaret A., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995. This work features several essays on The Second Sex, de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, The Mandarins, and her views on the Algerian war. Bibliography and index.

Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. A rather severe rightist assessment of Beauvoir as shrewish, domineering, naïve, and irrational in her personal and political positions. Toril Moi offers a fair corrective to Winegarten, whose anti-Marxist reading of the Marxist Beauvoir offers a challenging approach to an understanding of Beauvoir’s ideological arena.

Carl Rollyson Roy Arthur Swanson

The Second Sex

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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 that it was one of three outstanding books on women, along with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869). The impact of The Second Sex on the American feminist movement continues to be debated. Though sometimes called the bible of American feminism, The Second Sex has received less attention in the United States by American second-wave feminists than Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), even though the latter book is a much less radical, scholarly, and original work.

Decades after the first English translation of The Second Sex, it remains a controversial text. Beauvoir is often called the mother of second-wave feminism, yet some feminists see her book as dated and some of her ideas as misogynistic and Sartrean. As psychological and philosophical approaches to gender and culture became more popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, Beauvoir’s ideas on gender, sex, and culture enjoyed a renaissance. Ever popular with Canadian and British socialist feminists, Beauvoir’s ideas in The Second Sex were also debated by such influential French thinkers as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Between 1981 and 1990, at least ten books on Beauvoir’s life and work appeared in North America, many by British authors, reaffirming Beauvoir’s cross-continental influence. The focus for essays and articles spanning the disciplines of politics, philosophy, and literature, The Second Sex is acknowledged for its framing of the field of feminist scholarly inquiry.

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 Sex and other books as well as de Beauvoir’s ethics of the erotic.

Brosman, Catharine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Introduces readers to the vocabulary and existential concepts of de Beauvoir’s philosophy. Important, succinct explication of The Second Sex.

Brown, Catherine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s life, on her role as a woman writer, her early fiction and drama, later fiction, philosophical and political studies, and her memoirs. Brown aims at a focused study, criticizing the emphasis on anecdotal reports and biography.

Crosland, Margaret. Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and Her Work. London: Heinemann, 1992. A searching retrospective of Beauvoir’s life and career. Crosland shows how Beauvoir’s commitment to feminism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had developed in coincidence with feminism’s catching up to The Second Sex.

Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. New York: Tavistock, 1985. Places Beauvoir securely within the context of feminism and appraises The Second Sex as an exceptionally influential feminist text.

Fallage, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge, 1988. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s radicalism and on individual novels, including She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others, and on her short-story cycles. Biographical notes and bibliography are included.

Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life a Love Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A lively, well-documented biography for general readers, less comprehensive than Bair’s.

Fulbrook, Kate, and Edward Fulbrook. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. This work revises previous interpretations of the relationship, relying on new documents (letters and memoirs) that show how the two fashioned their legend.

Hatcher, Donald L. Understanding “The Second Sex.” New York: Peter Lang, 1984. Primarily a summary with comments on the essays. Excellent for those with no background in existential philosophy.

Heath, Jane. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. Focuses “not on ‘Simone de Beauvoir—Feminist’, but on the feminine in her texts.” Heath uses The Second Sex as a point of departure for studying Beauvoir’s fictional and autobiographical works.

Marks, Elaine, ed. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Twenty-seven essays by specialists, edited by a well-known feminist. Entertaining and balanced.

Moi, Toril. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A concise investigation into the critical reception and critical implications of Beauvoir’s work.

Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Two chapters in the study are particularly important. Chapter 3 recounts the hostile reception of de Beauvoir’s work by those in France and elsewhere who did not accord de Beauvoir, as a woman, the intellectual strength and integrity of male philosophers. Chapter 6 juxtaposes de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity and “alienation and the body”in The Second Sex.

Schwarzer, Alice. After “The Second Sex”: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Marianne Howarth. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Interviews with de Beauvoir and Sartre. Lively insights into The Second Sex and de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre.

Simon, Margaret A., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995. This work features several essays on The Second Sex, de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, The Mandarins, and her views on the Algerian war. Bibliography and index.

Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. A rather severe rightist assessment of Beauvoir as shrewish, domineering, naïve, and irrational in her personal and political positions. Toril Moi offers a fair corrective to Winegarten, whose anti-Marxist reading of the Marxist Beauvoir offers a challenging approach to an understanding of Beauvoir’s ideological arena.

Carl Rollyson Roy Arthur Swanson

Context

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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

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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

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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 warrior Achilles, for example, was vulnerable only on that part of his body touched by his mother. Montherlant’s ideal woman, according to de Beauvoir, is benignly stupid and submissive, ever ready to yield to man without demanding anything from him.

The only non-French examplar in de Beauvoir’s gallery of authors is the British Lawrence, who, she says, sees man and woman as two antithetical streams, convergent but never confluent. This failure of unity is due to the impossibility of mutual renunciation. For Lawrence, man and woman must, but in fact cannot, lose their differential identities and obliterate any sense of give and take as they engage in the sexual act. However, even if the ideal were realizable in this, the male stream must surge in superiority as it enriches the vacuous and passive female flow. Lawrence, in de Beauvoir’s reading, vigorously applauds the superiority of man; and his “true” woman unreservedly accepts her status as the Other.

De Beauvoir then denounces Claudel’s Catholicism and its consignment of the origin of sin to woman. Claude’s divine ordination is that woman ensures her salvation only by serving as auxiliary to man’s salvation. Woman is the perennial servant, whose grandest virtues are loyalty and fidelity. She is made for renunciation. De Beauvoir allows that Claudel’s sublimest characters are women, but she complains that, in his work, existence is transcended for men and is merely continued for women. In this context, Claudel’s woman fulfills herself by choosing to accomplish her God-given duty as the Other.

Breton is shown by de Beauvoir to resemble Claudel in positing woman’s existence as an instrument of man’s salvation, but as a celestially inspirited guide more than as a handmaid of the Lord. She is Beauty and Poetry and, through her vocation of love, leads man to his perfection. De Beauvoir credits Breton with saying that all existence derives its meaning from woman. She also quotes his conclusion that the fusion of existence and essence is realized in the highest degree precisely and exclusively through love; it is, however, a love by which woman gives and man receives.

Alterity’s nonvalid exaltation of woman and its propagation of her romantic mystery are disdained by de Beauvoir’s relatively good example of myth in an author, Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle). A sensual love of women dating from his childhood predisposed Stendhal to see women as they really are, human beings of flesh and blood without any spiritually ingrained mystery. He believed that women, freed from the seriousness of romantic aspiration, could equal men in all areas of achievement. For all his admiration of woman on her own terms, however, Stendhal, according to de Beauvoir, nonetheless limits the terrestrial destiny of woman to her relation to man.

Love and a Woman’s Life

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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

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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 Elaine Marks and Renée Weingarten, in the late 1980’s, berated de Beauvoir for her naïveté and general compliance with the world of men. In the same decade and in the next, however, a new estimate of de Beauvoir’s influence and importance appeared in the writings of Lisa Appignanesi, Mary Evans, Margaret Crosland, Deirdre Bair, and many others. A new attention to de Beauvoir’s lucidity and common sense checked the hostility of militant feminists.

Form and Content

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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 instead of her physiological situation but does not provide the existentialist infrastructure that discloses the unity of human life (une vie, a life, male or female). Part 2 traces woman’s situation in “History” from primitive to modern society, from nomadic existence to the women’s suffrage movement. Part 3, “Myths,” establishes the unilaterally male primacy of sexual myths and the manifestation of myths that develop male fears and ideals relative to woman, as exemplified in the writings of Henri de Montherlant, for whom woman is “the bread of disgust”; D. H. Lawrence, who asserts “phallic pride”; Paul Claudel, whose Catholicism views woman as fulfilling herself through subservience, ultimately as the “servant of the Lord”; and André Breton, who idealizes woman, as Dante idealized Beatrice and as Petrarch idealized Laura, and identifies woman abstractly as “Poetry.” Stendhal is appended as an exemplar of one for whom woman is human; he is a “Romanticist of reality” whose sensual love of women is always informed by his experience of women as subjects, not objects, and who berated those women who looked upon themselves as objects.

The second volume, Woman’s Life Today, consists of four parts dealing, respectively, with “The Formative Years,” “Situation,” “Justifications,” and, under the heading “Toward Liberation,” the independent woman.

“The Formative Years” traces the restraints and demands that are imposed upon woman in childhood and girlhood, the “anatomic destiny” of woman after sexual initiation, and, along with the misunderstanding that lesbianism is an inauthentic attitude, the traditional misinformation that sets it apart as unnatural.

“Situation” investigates the placement of woman as wife, as mother, in family and social life, as prostitute and hetaira, and in maturity and old age. At every turn woman, according to Beauvoir, is enlaced in repetition that results in her clinging to routine and is disempowered by male authority to the end that she herself participates in her alienation from lucidity and develops her unfamiliarity with plausibility.

“Justifications” recounts the ways in which woman compensates for her Otherness, for her being relegated to inferiority in a world of male primacy or male orientation. The categories of compensation are narcissism; self-surrender in love, which amounts to accepting her enslavement to a man as an expression of freedom to do so and to attempting transcendence of her situation as “inessential object” by total acceptance of it; and mysticism, a turning toward God.

“Toward Liberation” summarizes in graphic detail the modes of independence open to woman—abjuration of femininity through chastity, homosexuality, or viragoism, in opposition to the emphasis of femininity in coquetry, flirtation, and masochistic or aggressive love. Beauvoir insists that man is a sexual human being and that woman, as a total individual, can be equal to the male only if she too is a sexual human being, retaining her femaleness and having the same access as the male to personal satisfaction. If woman is to know the same freedom as man, her economic independence must be achieved through Marxist socialism and her sexual independence must be provided by man’s willingness to yield his traditional primacy and its concomitant control of the situation of woman.

Context

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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 using the abstraction “woman” was not universal feminist protest or demand but each woman’s relation of “her self” to the abstraction as a point of departure toward individual self-determination.

Julia Kristeva, in “Le Temps des femmes” (1979; “Women’s Time,” 1981), identifies the first phase of the twentieth century women’s movement as “the struggle of suffragists and of existential feminists.” Beauvoir would belong to this phase, not as a suffragist but as an existentialist. According to Kristeva, two post-1968 phases reject and supersede the directions of the early movement. Jane Heath, in her essay on Beauvoir, suggests that “Simone de Beauvoir spoke predominantly the discourse of repression” and “allowed the man in her to speak.” Toril Moi takes the measure of later twentieth century rejections and disfavorings of Beauvoir’s writings by the feminist whose essays appear in Elaine Marks’s collection Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir (1987); Moi believes that the hostility toward Beauvoir is the outgrowth of a sense of critical superiority to a predecessor whose sense of equality with the male should have developed into militant opposition to the male and whose writing is insufficiently complex.

In the history of the twentieth century feminist movement, Beauvoir’s place in the vanguard is assured, even by hostile latter-day critics: The sheer quantity of books and articles about her since the 1970’s ensures that attention will be paid to this important pioneer, whose conclusions relative to the “second sex” are given substance in her fiction, definition in other of her existentialist essays, and self-examination in her volumes of autobiography.

Bibliography

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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 Sex and other books as well as de Beauvoir’s ethics of the erotic.

Brosman, Catharine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Introduces readers to the vocabulary and existential concepts of de Beauvoir’s philosophy. Important, succinct explication of The Second Sex.

Brown, Catherine Savage. Simone de Beauvoir Revisited. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s life, on her role as a woman writer, her early fiction and drama, later fiction, philosophical and political studies, and her memoirs. Brown aims at a focused study, criticizing the emphasis on anecdotal reports and biography.

Crosland, Margaret. Simone de Beauvoir: The Woman and Her Work. London: Heinemann, 1992. A searching retrospective of Beauvoir’s life and career. Crosland shows how Beauvoir’s commitment to feminism in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s had developed in coincidence with feminism’s catching up to The Second Sex.

Evans, Mary. Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Mandarin. New York: Tavistock, 1985. Places Beauvoir securely within the context of feminism and appraises The Second Sex as an exceptionally influential feminist text.

Fallage, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge, 1988. Contains chapters on de Beauvoir’s radicalism and on individual novels, including She Came to Stay and The Blood of Others, and on her short-story cycles. Biographical notes and bibliography are included.

Francis, Claude, and Fernande Gontier. Simone de Beauvoir: A Life a Love Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A lively, well-documented biography for general readers, less comprehensive than Bair’s.

Fulbrook, Kate, and Edward Fulbrook. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre: The Remaking of a Twentieth-Century Legend. New York: Basic Books, 1994. This work revises previous interpretations of the relationship, relying on new documents (letters and memoirs) that show how the two fashioned their legend.

Hatcher, Donald L. Understanding “The Second Sex.” New York: Peter Lang, 1984. Primarily a summary with comments on the essays. Excellent for those with no background in existential philosophy.

Heath, Jane. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989. Focuses “not on ‘Simone de Beauvoir—Feminist’, but on the feminine in her texts.” Heath uses The Second Sex as a point of departure for studying Beauvoir’s fictional and autobiographical works.

Marks, Elaine, ed. Critical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Twenty-seven essays by specialists, edited by a well-known feminist. Entertaining and balanced.

Moi, Toril. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A concise investigation into the critical reception and critical implications of Beauvoir’s work.

Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Two chapters in the study are particularly important. Chapter 3 recounts the hostile reception of de Beauvoir’s work by those in France and elsewhere who did not accord de Beauvoir, as a woman, the intellectual strength and integrity of male philosophers. Chapter 6 juxtaposes de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity and “alienation and the body”in The Second Sex.

Schwarzer, Alice. After “The Second Sex”: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Marianne Howarth. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Interviews with de Beauvoir and Sartre. Lively insights into The Second Sex and de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre.

Simon, Margaret A., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995. This work features several essays on The Second Sex, de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre, The Mandarins, and her views on the Algerian war. Bibliography and index.

Winegarten, Renée. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. A rather severe rightist assessment of Beauvoir as shrewish, domineering, naïve, and irrational in her personal and political positions. Toril Moi offers a fair corrective to Winegarten, whose anti-Marxist reading of the Marxist Beauvoir offers a challenging approach to an understanding of Beauvoir’s ideological arena.

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