Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex,” 1949

SIMONE-ERNESTINE-LUCIE-MARIE BERTRAND de BEAUVOIR (1908 – 1986)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Longtime companion to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was the other half of France’s glamour couple of the Left Bank. Both philosophers were arguably brilliant and both took up pre-exiting ideas and brought them into the late Twentieth Century. The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir brings up the age-old “woman question” yet again. Asserting that a woman is not born but made, de Beauvoir turned the assumption that women were determined by their “natures” on its head. Writing in the face of a near universal acceptance of the dictum of Sigmund Freud that the anatomy of women was their destiny, de Beauvoir countered his “nature” with her “culture.”

In order to replace The Second Sex as an essential expression of existentialism is not to take the book out of women’s studies but to reassert its role in philosophy. The pieces of her life informed her writing, which took place in the immediate post-war period, a time still heavy with the realization of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” or the problem of the Other. In addition, Beauvoir attended lectures by Lacan and by Claude Lévi-Strauss and, on a visit to America in 1947, she was exposed to racism. In contrast to Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre who took a universalist taken on the “subject,” Beauvoir’s very comprehensive volume demonstrated the very real effects of what it means to establish a philosophical and theoretical and sociological order in which the One opposes itself to the Other.

Simone de Beauvoir undertook the unprecedented task of writing a book about women, something a man would never do—there was no need to write a book about men because all books were about men.Opposed to “essentialism”, the writer asked, “Are there women, really”? She asserted that the social and functional answer was that a woman is a womb, meaning that all cultures since the dawn of time had defined women in terms of procreation. Given that this is the case, then women are “less than human” and thus have no lives, much less identity or history. And yet women have lived and their lives have been determined by their biology and by what society decided to make of this biology.

According to Beauvoir, the male is “human,” positive and neutral, and the common use of the term “man” is used to designate humanity. Women represent only the negative and are defined by limiting criteria or the particular. She is defined “relative to” a man. She is not autonomous. The woman is always wrong, not just different but negative in the sense that she is not “right” because she is not male. She is imprisoned in her own (inadequate and defective) body and is understood only in terms of her uterus and ovaries. She is defined simply as “Sex” in that she appears to the male only as a sexual being and once her sexual duty, that is, her reproductive duty, is done, she is incidental and inessential.

Thus he is the Subject, he is the Absolute; she is the Object, the Other. To be the Other is not simply being “othered”. To be the Other is to be so excluded, so outside the realm of discourse, that the other is inexpressible, falling beyond the scope of discourse into formlessness. The only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity. As a result, practically, the only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. As Beauvoir wrote,

..to reject the notions of the eternal feminine, the black soul, or the Jewish character is not to deny that there are today jews, blacks, or women; the denial is not a liberation for those concerned but an inauthentic flight…The category of the Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category of the division of the sexes, it was not based on ay empirical given..”

Beauvoir traced the concept of the Other back to primordial consciousness. The Self and the Other is an ancient expression of duality. Groups create themselves as the One by setting up another tribe as the Other. But in the limited paleolithic world of tribes, it seems that the primal groups were male and female and that sexism is the first act of discrimination. As Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out in Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté,

Passage from the state of nature to the state of culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contests, duality, alteration, opposition, and symmetry, whether under definite or vague forms, constitutive not so much phenomena to be explained as fundamental and immediately given data of serial reality.

For the male, there is no one else to have “biological relations” with other than the female. Lévi-Strauss implicitly understood “man” to be male, not female. It is the male who “viewed” these relations and therefore it must the the male who set the terms of “duality, alteration, opposition,” etc. In perceiving women to be opposed or the Other to the man, men put themselves in charge. De Beauvoir asked why was it that women did not dispute male sovereignty?

She stated that women have always been subordinated to men because they did not bring about a change in status or position. The oppression of women is so absolute it seems a historical fact because it is without historical fact. Even if women wanted to assert themselves, they lack the means for organization. Isolated, women cannot communicate with one another. Put together, they are thrown into a condition of competition and begin to identify with male goals. Thanks to the social practice of “exchanging women” among men, women are dispersed from father to husband and are attached to male residences and their social standing is aligned with men. Consumed by the male world, women have no past, no history, no religion and no solidarity and thus no group identity.

The invisible oppression of women as Other cannot be compared to other oppressions. The bonds that unite her to her oppressor is not comparable to any other situation. Men and women must come together to continue the human race. Driven together by instinct, they must mate and in order to organize a society men and women must come together to raise the offspring. However, once society formed, a social hierarchy formed and women were designated as the Other, although means of the primal subordination women remains unclear. Beauvoir asserts that the division or the segregation of human sexes is a biological fact not an event in human history.

Nevertheless the results of this division are real: nowhere is woman equal to man and everywhere the economic sector is divided into two castes and the entire political and economic world belongs to men. Therefore for a woman to renounce a man or men, she would renounce all the advantages conferred upon her—indirectly—as an associate of the ruling caste. Although women have the possibility of renouncing these privileges, there are similarities between their lot and that of African-Americans. Women are kept separate and not equal, and their lives are governed by Jim Crow type laws. The Master wants to keep both in their “place” and to keep them in a situation of inferiority. Beauvoir stated (predicted) that men regarded the equality of women to be a threat and their emancipation would menace the dominance of men who dread female competition.

The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? According to Robin Lackoff’s critique in Language and a Woman’s Place, Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity.Although men feel that women have no place in “their” world, men never doubt their rights to this world in its entirety. The subordination of women serves the needs of both sexes. Women are “protected” by men and are kept out of the game. Their exclusion allows any man to feel superior to any woman. The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” De Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their life time situation in relation to the dominance by men. Men can be written about as autonomous human begins; women can be written about only as appendages to the male.

In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked. Just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her more famous companion, the lives of women were always incidental and contingent to their roles designated by society. As the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation,” times began to change. Simone de Beauvoir’s book on The Second Sex would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work. Her insightful book laid the ground for theories post-War feminism and anticipated the Postmodern assertion that humans are socially constructed and that all gender roles are artificial constructs.

The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their situation in relation to the dominance by men. In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked, just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her companion. But times would change, as the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation.” Beauvoir book would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work would prove to be. Her book would lay the ground for post-War feminism.

Despite the slow gains in women’s “liberation”, the writing of Simone de Beauvoir proved its accuracy. Not all women welcomed knowledge about themselves or their oppression or wanted liberation. The Woman’s Movement encountered a great deal of on-going opposition from women as well as men. The Equal Rights Amendment would be defeated. Abortion clinics would become sites of murder, harassment, and terrorism. Women would encounter the notorious “glass ceiling” which allowed them to teach in a classroom but not to preside in a board room. Cultural conservatism and male control was reasserted when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Affirmative action was stalled; and the white male backlash against women began. For women and people of color, it was one step forward and two steps back. Indeed, in her own lifetime, Beauvoir would be challenged on all fronts–most surprisingly from an inpatient younger generation of women. Although she lived long enough to be part of the French feminism of the seventies and the eighties, she did not live long enough to see the struggle continue and start to show real results.

Today, sixty years after the publication of The Second Sex and thirty years after the resurgence of a conservative agenda in America and Europe, the struggle to free the Second Sex from its Otherness continues. Post 2010 in the United States ushered in an unprecedented number of political efforts, mostly successful, to pass laws that take constitutional rights away from women, who are still regarded mainly as a womb. Equally unprecedented have been uncounted and unreported sexual assaults and rapes of women in the armed forces and those crimes that have been reported have rarely been prosecuted must less have the predators been brought to justice. There are days when one wonders if we have not reverted to those dark days when Beauvoir was trying to write women back into Existentialism and back into meaningful existence. And then there are other days when it is possible to see powerful women standing up for the rights of women, women with political power and social prominence, women who have made the propositions of Simone de Beauvoir come true: women are made, yes, and today they make themselves.

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