The Second Sex Summary
by Simone de Beauvoir

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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.

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...

(The entire section is 497 words.)