The Second Sex: Volume I

Knopf, 2010

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:

Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being…she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called “the sex,” meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute. She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.

She adds a few pages later (in more philosophical terms):

Why do women not contest male sovereignty? No subject postits itself spontaneously and at once as the inessential from the outset; it is not the Other who, defining itself as Other, defines the One; the Other is posited as Other by the One positing itself as One. But in order for the Other not to turn into the One, the Other has to submit to this foreign point of view. Where does this submission in woman come from?

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):

These biological data are of extreme importance: they play an all-important role and are an essential element of woman’s situation…Because the body is the instrument of our hold on the world, the world appears different to us depending on how it is grasped, which explains why we have studied these data so deeply; they are one of the keys that enable us to understand woman. But we refuse the idea that they form a fixed destiny for her. They do not suffice to constitute the basis for a sexual hierarchy; they do not explain why woman is the Other; they do not condemn her forever to this subjugated role.

Another quote I loved that advocated looking past pure biology:

The body is not a thing—it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and the outline for our projects.

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:

By breaking the hymen, man possesses the feminine body more intimately than by a penetration that leaves it intact; in this irreversible operation, he unequivocally makes it a passive object, asserting his hold on it…But virginity only has this sexual attraction when allied with youth; otherwise, its mystery reverts to disquiet. Many men today are sexually repulsed by older virgins; psychological reasons alone do not explain why “old maids” are regarded as bitter and mean matrons. The curse is in their very flesh, this flesh that is object for no subject, that no desire has made desirable, that has bloomed and wilted without finding a place in the world of men.

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:

[T]here is no good reason to believe men when they try to defend privileges whose scope they cannot even fathom…We must not, however, be any less mistrustful of feminists’ arguments: very often their attempt to polemicize robs them of all value…To see clearly, one needs to get out of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, inferiority, and equality that have distorted all discussion must be discarded in order to start anew.

These issues affecting women’s ability to unite and fight their status as the second sex are brought up again later in the book:

This weakness of feminism stemmed from its internal division; as already pointed out, women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect…Feminism itself has never been an autonomous movement: it was partially an instrument in the hands of politicians and partially an epiphenomenon reflecting a deeper social drama.

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:

It is important to see that the greater the property owned by the husband, the greater this servitude: the propertied classes are those in which woman’s dependence has always been the most concrete; even today, the patriarchal family survives among rich landowners; the more socially and economically powerful man feels, the more he plays the paterfamilias with authority…The serf and his wife owned nothing; they simply had the common use of their house, furniture, and utensils: man had no reason to want to become master of woman who owned nothing; but the bonds of work and interest that joined them raised the spouse to rank of companion.

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:

Only since women have begun to feel at home on this earth has a Rose Luxemburg or a Mme Curie emerged. They brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority.

She continues on the next page even more forcefully:

Antifeminists draw two contradictory arguments from examining history: (1) women have never created anything grand; (2) woman’s situation has never prevented great women personalities from blossoming. There is bad faith in both of these assertions; the successes of some few privileged women neither compensate for nor excuse the systematic degrading of the collective level; and the very fact that these successes are so rare and limited is proof of their unfavorable circumstances.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Second Sex: Volume I

  1. I read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, and while that made me want to pick this up, I know I would never make it through. I think after thirty pages I’d be done for!

  2. Great review. I don’t think I could read philosophy (sadly I don’t think I’m a very critical reader!) but you’ve got me very curious about picking up this edition of TSS. I’ve read excerpts before — it might do me good to work through something that requires a little mental effort. I want to read more of the feminist classics anyway…

  3. Congratulations on making it through the first section. I worry I will never make it through!! Fantastic review, definitely pulled a lot of interesting pieces from the book. I’m really looking forward to getting through it myself. Hopefully soon 🙂

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