Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)The Second Sex(1949)
“A person is not born a woman, but becomes one”
I. Biography and Contexts
II. Major Influences
A. Existentialism“Existentialism is a branch of philosophy best known from French writers during the 1940s and 1950s, especially Beauvoir, Sartre, and Albert Camus. Existentialism is mostly concerned with ideas of choice, meaning, and the limits of existence. In general, existentialists think human existence has no predetermined meaning. It is up to each of us to use our freedom to choose our actions and interactions in the world. Each individual carries the burden of finding, revealing, and making meaning in the world…. A hallmark of existentialism is the authors’ preoccupation with death, anxiety, and fear. In contrast to novelists who focus on escape from reality, existential literature tries to express the always tenuous and questioning aspect of human consciousness, the human tendency to ask: why? A second hallmark is the focus on freedom, especially the burden of responsibility that taking up one’s freedom entails. Thefocus onanxiety correlates with the focus on individual choice and freedom, because choosing freedom means constantly and repeatedly taking up the burden of one’s own responsibility, and this constant burden creates anxiety, fear, and dread” (Barbara S. Andrew 25-26).
II. Major Influences
B. Revaluation of values: Beauvoir’s philosophy echoes Nietzsche’s thought in its stress on the necessity to revaluate values by challenging inherited or socially established notions pertaining, among others, to gender and power.C. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: master-slave confrontation as a model for the encounter between self and other“.. . [F]ollowingHegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility toward every other consciousness; the subject can be posed only in being opposed ― he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, theobject”(Page 4).
III.The Second Sex
A. Sex and genderJudithButler, whose work onperformativityand gender has been deeply influenced by Beauvoir’s philosophical thought, explains the difference between sex and gender as follows:"‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Simone de Beauvoir's formulation distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired. The distinction between sex and gender has been crucial to the long-standing feminist effort to debunk the claim that anatomy is destiny;sexis understood to be the invariant, anatomically distinct, andfacticaspects of the female body, whereasgenderis the cultural meaning and form that that body acquires, the variable modes of that body's acculturation. With the distinction intact, it is no longer possible to attribute the values orsocial functionsof women to biological necessity, and neither can we refer meaningfully to natural or unnatural gendered behavior: all gender is, by definition, unnatural. Moreover, if the distinction is consistently applied, it becomes unclear whether being a given sex has any necessary consequence for becoming a givengender”(Butler 35).
III.The Second Sex
B. The problem: The inferior, dependent status of women“Thushumanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: "Woman, the relative being...." And Benda is most positive in hisRapportd'Uriel: 'The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself. ... Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man." And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called "the sex", by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex ― absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute ― she is theOther”(Page 3).
III.The Second Sex
C. The construction of womanhood (namely by men):ischaracterized by essentialismprojectswoman as other and dependent on manidentifiesinferiority and imperfection as characteristics ofwomanhood
“Butthe very fact thatwomanisthe Othertends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications thatmenhave ever been able to provide for it. These have all too evidently been dictated by men's interest. A little-known feminist of the seventeenth century,Poulainde laBarre, put it this way:‘Allthat has been written about women by men should be suspect, for the men are at once judge and party to the lawsuit.’Everywhere, at all times, the males have displayed their satisfaction in feeling that they are the lords of creation.‘Blessedbe God ... that He did not make me a woman,’say the Jews in their morning prayers, while their wives pray on a note of resignation:‘Blessedbe the Lord, who created me according to His will.’The first among the blessings for which Plato thanked the gods was that he had been created free, not enslaved; the second, a man, not a woman. But the males could not enjoy this privilege fully unless they believed it to be founded on the absolute and the eternal; they sought to make the fact of their supremacy into a right.‘Beingmen, those who have made and compiled the laws have favored their own sex, and jurists have elevated these laws into principles,’to quotePoulainde laBarreoncemore” (Page 6) .
“Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth. The religions invented by men reflect this wish for domination. In the legends of Eve and Pandora men have taken up arms against women. They have made use of philosophy and theology, as the quotations from Aristotle and St. Thomas have shown. Since ancient times satirists and moralists have delighted in showing up the weaknesses of women…. As Montaigne says,‘Itis easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other.’Sometimes what is going on is clear enough. For instance, the Roman law limiting the rights of woman cited‘theimbecility, the instability of thesex’just when the weakening of family ties seemed to threaten the interests of male heirs. And in the effort to keep the married woman under guardianship, appeal was made in the sixteenth century to the authority of St. Augustine, who declared that‘womanis a creature neither decisive norconstant’,at a time when the single woman was thought capable of managing her property. Montaigne understood clearly how arbitrary and unjust was woman's appointed lot:‘Womenare not in the wrong when they decline to accept the rules laid down for them, since the men make these rules without consulting them. No wonder intrigue and strifeabound’” (Pages 6-7)
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D. Consequences of this projection ofwomanhood“Thewoman who is shut up in immanence endeavors to hold man in that prison also; thus the prison will be confused with the world, and woman will no longer suffer from being confined there: mother, wife, sweetheart are the jailers. Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior: she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male's superiority. She sets about mutilating, dominating man, she contradicts him, she denies his truth and his values. But in doing this she is only defending herself; it was neither a changeless essence nor a mistaken choice that doomed her to immanence, to inferiority. They were imposed upon her. All oppression creates a state of war. And this is no exception. The existent who is regarded as inessential cannot fail to demand the re‑establishment of hersovereignty”(Page 11).“Todaythe combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put man in a prison, woman endeavors to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence. Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go. He is very well pleased to remain the sovereign subject, the absolute superior, the essential being; he refuses to accept his companion as an equal in any concrete way. She replies to his lack of confidence in her by assuming an aggressive attitude. It is no longer a question of a war between individuals each shut up in his or her sphere: a caste claiming its rights goes over the top and it is resisted by the privileged caste. Here two transcendences are face to face; instead of displaying mutual recognition, each free being, wishes to dominate theother” (Page11).
III.The Second Sex
E. Women’s failure to rebel and its reasonsAbsenceof a sense of collectivity and solidarityThecontext of the couple“The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing, to certain men ― fathers or husbands ― more firmly than they are to other women …. The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history . . . . The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible. Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to oneanother”(Page 5).
III.The Second Sex
Power/Privilege“by association”Satisfactionwith thestatus quo“To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal ― this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste. Man-the-sovereign will provide woman-the-liege with material protection and will undertake the moral justification of her existence; thus she can evade at once both economic risk and the metaphysical risk of a liberty in which ends and aims must be contrived without assistance. Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become athing”(Page 6).Conclusion:“[W]omanmay fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as theOther” (Page 6).
III.The Second Sex
F. Change and transformation of the women’s situationEconomicsituation and its importance“We must not believe, certainly, that a change in woman's economic condition alone is enough to transform her, though this factor has been and remains the basic factor in her evolution; but until it has brought about the moral, social, cultural, and other consequences that it promises and requires, the new woman cannot appear” (Page 16).Equalopportunities and responsibilities for little girls“If the little girl were brought up from the first with the same demands and rewards, the same severity and the same freedom, as her brothers, taking part in the same studies, the same games, promised the same future, surrounded with women and men who seemed to her undoubted equals, the meanings of the castration complex and of the Oedipus complex would be profoundly modified.” (Page 16).Adifferent model of the couple“Assuming on the same basis as the father the material and moral responsibility of the couple, the mother would enjoy the same lasting prestige; the child would perceive around her an androgynous world and not a masculine world” (Page 16).
III.The Second Sex
Freedom and responsibility-- Existentialist Ethics and transcendence“In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are often pronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being at rest. This notion we reject, for our perspective is that of existentialist ethics. Every subject plays his part as such specifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence; he achieves liberty only through a continual reaching out toward other liberties…. Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence into the‘en‑soi’― thebrutish life of subjection to given conditions ― and of liberty into constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustrationand oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. Every individual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existence involves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freely chosenprojects”(Pages 9-10).Sexual education and coeducational schooling“I have already pointed out how much easier the transformation of puberty would be if she looked beyond it, like the boys, toward a free adult future: menstruation horrifies her only because it is an abrupt descent into femininity. She would also take her young eroticism in much more tranquil fashion if she did not feel a frightened disgust for her destiny as a whole; coherent sexual information would do much to help her over this crisis. And thanks to coeducational schooling, the august mystery of Man would have no occasion to enter her mind: it would be eliminated by everyday familiarity and open rivalry” (Page 16).
IV. Impact of Beauvoir’s Thought
A. Philosopher Nancy Bauer: “The power ofThe Second Sexas the founding document of the second wave of feminism, then, issues in substantial part from Beauvoir’s inaugurating call for a reordering of. . . priorities—asthough we cannot think coherently about what a ‘man’ is, cannot make out a coherent sex-neutral sense of the term, until we address the question of what it means to be, to be called, a woman” (50).B. Science historian DonnaHaraway: “despite important differences, all the modern feminist meanings of gender have roots in Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born a woman”’ (131).C. Psychoanalytic writer ElisabethRoudinescoemphasizes the importance of the link Beauvoir makes between sexuality and political emancipation for the development of feminist thought in France (511–512).D. Philosopher and historianGenevièveFraissecredits Beauvoir with introducing the question of sexual difference on the philosophical map by presenting the question of womanhood as related to an ultimate form of ‘Otherness’ (Rodgers 24).E. PhilosopherTorilMoirecognizesthe originality of Beauvoir’s understanding of the body as a situation, as a “fundamental part of lived experience” (67, 197). However, asMoistates, the importance of this contribution to feminist thought has been overlooked
V. In Beauvoir’s Words
Beauvoir onThe Second SexRacism and SexismDiscrimination in schoolsPredominance of the masculine perspective
A. First Wave Feminism (Late 19thand early 20thCentury):Equal access and equal opportunities for women-- “equity feminism”Lack of distinction between sex and genderNotion of “universal womanhood”B. Second Wave Feminism (1960s-1990s):Radical voices calling for women’s empowermentDuring the 1980s to 1990s, call for addressing omissions and erasures, namely initiated by women of color and “third-world” womenDistinction between sex and genderC. Third Wave Feminism (1990s-Present) :Calls for a transnational frameworkChallenges the notion of identity politicsCalls for embracing ambiguity, diversity, and multiplicity in theory and politics