The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir (1)

Hello, everyone. I am Polina Kim from We Read to Share - We Learn to Share's new department. I brought a book review about Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. My article would be consisting of a brief summary, my thoughts, and takeways/future reading recommendations similar to this book. As the

Please leave comments to share your thoughts about the book with me. Hope you enjoy!

Brief Summary

Published in 1949, The Second Sex, is considered a hugely important work that revived feminism, which had faded a little, and radically changed notions of women, as well as laying the foundation and inspiration for Second wave feminism. French women voted for the first time in 1945. Birth control was not yet legalized (the law authorizing the sale and use was passed in 1967.) This is the kind of time when Beauvoir published her hugely important novel. The Vatican placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books for its explicit passages on the female body. And probably for its critical view on the church’s beliefs.

In the introduction to the text, Beauvoir brings up three key ideas that are brought up and addressed again later. First she points out that it is unclear exactly what is a woman, what is femininity, we describe it in terms that are “vague and shimmering borrowed from a clairvoyant’s vocabulary.” She makes clear that biological and social sciences no longer believe that there are any identity characteristics that define your reactions. Just because you’re Black you’re not biologically determined to act a certain way. So then if this is the case, does the word “woman” have no meaning? In particular Beauvoir is critical of the American idea at the time (and arguably now) that femininity doesn’t exist and has no content, that women should be treated as simply human beings. Beauvoir supports that, but her main point is that the nominalism makes it very easy for anti feminists to say that women are not men and go from there, comparing all the differences. She says that “to reject the notions of the eternal feminine is not to deny that there are women: this denial is not a liberation but an inauthentic fact.” So then what is a woman?

That’s the second point, the difference in definining the sex. That a man would never write a book on men’s position in society in a generalizing pointing out the problem type way. Let’s remember that the reactionary MRA was not a thing back then. Simone says that a man never identifies himself of his sex, that he’s a man is obvious. The relation of the two sexes is like that of unequal magnets as Simone explains it, the man takes both the positive and the neutral leaving the woman to take the negative. What does it mean to take the positive and the neutral? Positive here is that we associate positive qualities with men, we don’t associate this gender struggle with men because they’re not the ones struggling (I don’t mean men don’t have problems but in Beauvoir’s age, men wouldn’t write such a book, hence this idea) so men’s position is seen as a strong force, as a positive one because it’s at the forefront of action. While the neutral one is just that we associate it being a he so much that it has assimilated into the terms, hommes shows human beings. Man shows human beings but it is a man, a general meaning of term from one sex.

That brings us into our third key idea. Following from what I said about Man being the general term from one sex, we have probably the most famous Beauvoir idea, the woman is the other. Her point is that man has meaning without woman, a woman does not without man. “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.” The category of the Other is not based on any empirical given. It’s not a fact that Black people are the Other from white, to Black people it is the white person that is the other. Village people view anyone not belonging to a village as others. For anti-Semites Jewish people are the other. It’s a subjective category, and so people eventually realize how relative it is through travel for example. But then if it’s determined as relative then why is that men dominate the planet? Women are not a minority unlike Black people in some countries that leads to discrimination? Women are actually the majority.

And here we get to another point that Beauvoir makes which is kind of saying that it’s women’s fault. “If woman discovers herself as the inessential and never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about this transformation herself.” The problem according to Beauvoir is that women do not have a collective sense, they cannot make men as the other. Proletariats refer to themselves as ‘we’ and position the Bourgeoisie as ‘they’, again this mentality of us and them, of those who belong and those who don’t, but women do not posit themselves as subjects. Beauvoir believes that women’s victories are only that which men have been willing to concede to them, there is solidarity in class, in nationality, but not in sex. I would argue that nowadays there is that solidarity actually, it’s quite interesting to see the historical differences, I recommend this book not only for the theory but for the historical value.

A woman has ties to husbands, to her children, and it’s biological, so while the woman is the Other these components are necessary to her. Beauvoir says even a crazy woman would not think of wiping out all men and turning all of humanity female (as a fanatic person of one race might) but now we have that movement- kill all men. I’m wondering what bred these beliefs, probably the same thing that leads men to be incels and take the black pill, a general increase in violence and opportunity as well as communication with others like them, or is it just that we still see much of the same problems we had then.

But I’m off topic. An argument that Beauvoir makes is that it’s hard to refuse to be the Other, because it’s just easier, and men encourage women to be the other hence bestowing certain benefits (ie the guarantee of protection) but the path although hard gives a liberation and a sense of authenticity. So then the question that Simone speculated on is how it is that men established them and continued to continue that idea of the Absolute. She references Poulain de la Barre who said that “everything that men have written about women should be viewed with suspicion, because they are both judge and party”

However saying they can not understand fully is not the same as saying men should not be included in the conversation. Yet another message that I feel gets twisted over time, this is why it’s so important to come back to the source.

Part 1

Chapter 1 of Part 1 is an examination of biology. That very same biology that people often cite when referring to women as passive, when people claim that even during reproduction the male cells appropriate and possess the female ones. Beauvoir brings up a critical point, that developing an embryo is an active process and both male and female cells contribute to it. The ovum anticipates future needs and is made to nourish the life that awakens it, however it is incapable of triggering the change that the male gamete brings about. The two depend on each other.

She further points out that division into two sexes is not universal in nature, for example there’s asexual reproduction, Beauvoir disputes the ideas put forward by Plato and Hegel of these sex divisions being a naturall state of beings. She points out that these theories and speculations on why women are inferior cannot be proven by simply comparing gametes. There is more to humanity than the cells that make us up. She cautions us against viewing everything as a battle of the sexes, and this example about not appropriating rather working together is a key one.

In a very novel example of writing about the changes the female body experiences, she writes that women feel especially the other during puberty when they are weakened, and that reproductive capacity is seen as so central that often older women are not seen as women at all, and while she believes that these factors are important, she once again makes it clear that they are not the defining factors of womanhood.

A quote:

“But her body is not enough to define her; it has a lived reality only as taken on by consciousness through actions and within a society; biology alone cannot provide an answer to the question that concerns us: why is woman the Other? The question is how, in her, nature has been taken on in the course of history; the question is what humanity has made of the human female.”

In Chapter 2 we explore the psychoanalytic point of view. According to Beauvoir’s summary of the key ideas, here is what Adler and Freud (key theorists) believe. Freud that all behaviour is driven by desire and seeking pleasure, while Adler believes that we aim to achieve certain goals, and he replaces sexual drive with motives, to him sexuality is secondary to intelligence. Freud argues that a woman is a sort of damaged man, who is forever doomed to be sad over the absence of the same reproductive organs that a man possesses. Yes, Freud, that’s definitely the cause of all my problems;) Beauvoir criticises psychoanalysts for ignoring the choice and individual value, and believing that human desires are biologically given. She references Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to explain that sexuality is only one part of the quest for figuring out your purpose. Beauvoir uses an allegory of colours to explain why the idea of the female desire being passive is weird. You can’t think of both yellow and blue, you need green. She suggests that instead of vague terms like “energy” when talking about lust and desire, we need to see it paired with other behaviours. Key ideas from here:

  1. Beauvoir doesn’t assume sexuality is given, it’s rather shaped by societal values enforced on both women and men

  2. She liberates women from their “biological desires” here. She gives them greater freedom by pointing out that they have a choice, and she rejects the psychoanalytic view that girls are torn between their father’s “viriloid” mannerisms and their mother’s “femininity.’ She sees women as being in a struggle in choosing to be the Other or to be truly liberated.

She ends with:

“For us woman is defined as a human being in search of values within a world of values, a world where it is indispensable to understand the economic and social structure; we will study her from an existential point of view, taking into account her total situation.”

Onto chapter 3, the view of historical materialism. The key idea here is that “woman was not created by the bronze tool alone, the machine is not sufficient to abolish her.” This is the conclusion that Beauvoir comes to after examining the role of history in shaping the difference between men and women. She considers Engel’s idea of progress being shaped by technology, that men went out and hunted and so they brought about change, wielded machinery, and developed property and ownership, and that was why women lost their value and became inferior in the eyes of society. But she says this is very surface level, since it isn’t explained how these values of ‘change is incredible and therefore man is great’ came about. She comes to the conclusion that when a man has an advantage he will use it. Just like how in evolution, you become weaker if you don’t have the stronger trait. She doesn’t say women will die out of course, it’s just that kind of logic.

She points out things like childbirth and sexuality, and these things are not accounted for in historic materialism. Basically historic materialists base everything in possession and she says it goes beyond that. She also argues here that for women’s equality a truly socialist ethic is great, because it will grow uncomfortable that women are discriminated against. She views a truly socialist ethic as “one that seeks justice without restraining liberty, one that imposes responsibilities on individuals but without abolishing individual freedom.”

There is also a criticism of the USSR’s “gender equality” Beauvoir believes that old patriarchal constraints are being brought back, and references a recent speech that asks Soviet women to pay attention to their appearance and become flirtatious since there was a problem with falling birth rates. I’m not exactly sure what speech this is, I could not find a record of it.

So as a summary, we reject Freud’s sexual ideas and Engel’s economic ones, because her sexuality and her economic situation are “inadequate to encompass a concrete woman.”