I’m currently in working my way through Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as part of the Year of Feminist Classics project. It’s a book I’ve always wanted to read but never have, largely because the previous English edition was abridged and had numerous translation issues. I snapped up the 2010 edition soon after it was released last year. It’s not perfect, but I’m content.
I’ve finished “Volume I” and am now almost 300 pages in–only about 1/3 of the way done. Gulp. It’s been…interesting. One of my majors in undergrad was philosophy, so her analytic style and mentions of epistemology and the Other and existentialism aren’t completely foreign to me. In fact, it’s kind of nice to immerse myself in that type of writing again after all these years. Call me masochistic, but sometimes it’s kind of fun staring at a sentence trying to decipher it, then having everything click into place. Philosophical works can be like big, nerdy puzzles. And de Beauvoir’s big, nerdy puzzle? Is fabulous.
That said, slowly–emphasis on slowly–trudging my way through this 800-page book is at times a frustrating process that highlights the issues a lot of people have with academic feminism: important things are being said, and the majority of people cannot access what’s inside; it’s too long and full of academic jargon, and most of the first sex–much less the second one–lacks the education required to interpret this book. Why must intellectualism always equal inaccessibility for the the masses? It’s a travesty, really, because so many important ideas are presented.
Following a short introduction, Volume I is split up into three parts: Destiny, History, and Myths. In the introduction, de Beauvoir presents the idea of women being “the Other;” the three parts comprising Volume I establish the biological, psychoanalytical, and historical data that have cemented women as the second sex:
She adds a few pages later (in more philosophical terms):
Jumping off that last question, de Beauvoir begins developing her argument scientifically. The first chapter, on biology, was interesting if not a little redundant (admittedly, this was one of the more difficult chapters for me to get through). The females attributes of various species are examined closely, leading up to an in-depth discussion of human biology and how it plays into the concept of women being considered the Other.
Naturally, menstruation and childbirth figure prominently into her arguments. Still, de Beauvoir stresses that mere biology cannot entirely account for women’s role as the Other (I’d like to think that de Beauvoir would be a feminist ally to trans women if she were still alive today):
Another quote I loved that advocated looking past pure biology:
My favorite part of the book so far has been the section on myths. My MA thesis was on images of motherhood, so I really devoured a lot of this section; de Beauvoir critically examines the various cultural expectations of motherhood as well as many of the negative archetypes embedded in many cultures (the mother-in-law, the wicked stepmother). She also ties in psychoanalytical analysis examining society’s responses to youth, beauty, and old age. I loved this section about virginity:
In contemporary feminism, one buzzword that pops up a lot is “intersectionality,” which stresses that different forms of oppression overlap with one another. The call for intersectionality cropped up in response to early feminists’ focus on the issues of white middle class women at the expense of pretty much everyone else. Historically, the issues affecting women of color, lesbians, trans women, and poor women have been (and still are) ignored or played down by mainstream feminists. If de Beauvoir were still alive today, I’d like to think that she’d be a major advocate for intersectionality within the feminist movement, as was already laying the groundwork for it in The Second Sex:
These issues affecting women’s ability to unite and fight their status as the second sex are brought up again later in the book:
All of this is not to say that the book is perfect. De Beauvoir was certainly a privileged product of her time, and it shows. She uses terms like “the primitives” and “Orientals,” and there were a few places where she uses sweeping generalizations about certain cultures (example: “The Muslim woman, veiled and shut in, is still today a kind of slave in most levels of society”). While I do think she’d be an advocate of intersectionality today, I cringed when I came across these passages.
Then there were times when she was just flat out wrong. When I came across this passage, I wrote “NO.” in the margin:
While there may have existed some working-class couples whose relationships resembled actual partnerships, the assertion that working-class women were less oppressed than upper-class women because they owned nothing is laughable. It kind of reminded me of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication on the Rights of Woman. This, along with few other references in other sections of the book, make it seem dated at times. These problems aside, I’m still loving this book so far (even when I’m agonizing over how slowly certain sections flow).
Before I close, I just wanted to note one of the themes that has kept popping up in several of the books for this project is the importance of women’s history. Of all the writers I’ve read for the Year of Feminist Classics project, Virginia Woolf seemed to especially crave a widespread acknowledgement of women’s history. In The Second Sex, De Beauvoir also emphasizes this sentiment:
She continues on the next page even more forcefully:
It’s sobering to realize that a mere sixty years ago–hell, a mere thirty years ago–the concept of women’s history and women’s studies was still foreign to the mainstream. Granted, there are still countless stories to be told to rectify all the holes in the historical record, but the urgency and desperation for women’s history that these women write with is incredibly depressing.