The Second Sex has been published in 1949 by a french existentialist philosopher, Simone De Beauvoir. Some critics consider this Essay as the greatest manifesto of the feminist philosophy.
De Beauvoir and Biological Differences
Simone de Beauvoir based its philosophy on a simple observation:
“Humanity is divided into two categories of individuals whose clothes, face, body, smile, gait, interests, occupations are manifestly different: perhaps these differences are superficial”
and a question:
“What is a woman?”
Be Beauvoir gives a first obvious and naive answer:
“Woman appears essentially to the male as a sexual being“. Specifically, the woman has never been defined by comparison to humans. Woman is the Other : “Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. No community is defined as one without ever once asking the Other in front of you.”
Following Hegel’s dialectic, De Beauvoir explains thaht “The human subject arises only by opposition” which induces a reciprocal relationship. However, Simone de Beauvoir notes after the Second World War, there are no gender, report of reciprocity. “In almost any country, the legal status is identical tfor every humans. But even when rights abstractly recognized this equality, manners and habits still discriminate women” .In general, she observes, “it is often the numerical inequality that gives this privilege” but this principle does not work as there are many women (if not more) than men on Earth !
Woman are not a social class like slavers or the proletariat. “They have no history, religion of their own, and they are not like the proletarian solidarity work and interests (…) They live dispersed among men, attached by housing, labor, economic, social condition in some men – fathers or husbands – more closely than other women”
In conclusion : “The division of the sexes is in fact a biological given, not an even in human history”
Adopting the principle of moral existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir asked about the possibility for a woman to be fulfilled as a human being, what circumstances limit their freedom and if one can overcome them.
It is therefore proposed in this first volume to review the views of the woman taken by biology, psychoanalysis, historical materialism, which were the “real women” and the figure of the Other, and what were the consequences in terms of men.
In the first chapter, Simone de Beauvoir begins by describing the physiological and sexual difference of women compared to men, the only to be natural. In fact, it’s not skin color, religion, the country which separate man from woman, it’s sex, one had to start there. In general, the purely sexual differentiation is in addition to other features: for example, a less robust shape, muscle strength and lower respiratory capacity, and its susceptibility to anemia, his pulse beating faster, its vascular system is more unstable, …. These features explain the sexual differenciation, but the gender hierarchy.
In the second chapter, Simone de Beauvoir observed that for psychoanalysts, Freud for example, “man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female: whenever she tries to behave as a humans, she is accused to emulate the male”
In the next chapter, Simone de Beauvoir critics basic deductions of Engels : he assumed that access to private property led to the submission of women, because of her lack of work force. Nevertheless, no biological reason, or psychoanalytic technique does not explain any hierarchy between the sexes.
De Beauvoir and History
Simone de Beauvoir will therefore turn to history in its second part: “the world has always belonged to males“. “Thus the triumph of patriarchy was neither a coincidence nor the result of a violent revolution. From the beginning of humanity, their biological privilege allowed only males to assert themselves as sovereign subjects“. They are the ones who later will make up the codes.
Simone de Beauvoir draws some conclusions from this historical part:
“The whole history of women was made by men.”
De Beauvoir and Myths
In a third part, De Beauvoir analyses the reasons for the inequality of man and woman in the study of myths. These include “The eternal feminine”,the counterpart of the “black soul” and the “Jewish character”. The man posed as subject and woman as object: so he is active, she is passive, he is the foundation, she is the field for sowing. Similarly, she can become a trophy for the man who loves prowess, wins the game (Rastignac by Balzac, Sentimental Education by Flaubert…).
Legible and accessible, the Second Sex seems to remain a must read for any young woman who reflects on his condition, his destiny, its future choices. Simone de Beauvoir examines an exhaustive, erudite, logical and rational study of woman condition. The second volumereviews women in their situation.
List of characters mentioned in the trial for uttering statements more or less sexist: the monotheistic religions, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, St. Augustine, Pythagoras, Rousseau, Proudhon, Bonald, Auguste Comte, Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Montherlant, Napoleon, Hitler (Küche, Kirche, Kinder), Faulkner, Montaigne, Diderot, Voltaire, Helvetius, d’Alembert, Mercier, Stuart Mill, Erasmus, Fontenelle, Condorcet, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Carnot, Marx, Engels, Blanqui, Hemingway…
“There is a good principle which created order, light, and man and an evil principle which created chaos, darkness and woman” (Pythagoras).
Related articles on The Second Sex by De Beauvoir
- Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed my Life (thefword.org.uk)
- “The Other” (thedivineshe.wordpress.com)
- A Feminist Interviews A Pick-Up Artist (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)