The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir confronts human history from a feminist perspective. It is a revolutionary and meticulously researched piece of literature that today stands as a pillar of feminist thought, as well as of 12st century philosophy in general. The Second Sex is considered to be one of the earliest attempts at looking at the world not through a male gaze but the objective view of feminism and gender equality. This incendiary piece caused much controversy when published, and although it won de Beauvoir many admirers, it won her many enemies just the same.
The book’s primary thesis states that men fundamentally oppress women by characterizing them as the “other” sex on every level. De Beauvoir expresses the idea that men occupy the role of the subject or self while women occupy the role of object, the “other”. A man is considered to be transcendent, absolute, and essential, while a woman is inessential and incomplete. Men are able to extend towards present between the “He” and “She” are the basis for all arguments discussed later in the text.
De Beauvoir allows the reader to see how men effectively deny women their humanity by defining a woman exclusively as the “other”. She states that although it is natural for humans as a species to understand themselves through comparisons and through the opposition of others, this process is flawed when related to gender. Therefore, The Second Sex chronicles the author’s investigation to try and locate the source of these incredibly unbalanced claims regarding gender roles.
In the first part of the book, titled “Facts and Myths,” de Beauvoir questions how women or “female humans” became considered less than men, and came to occupy a subordinate position in society’s eyes. She turns to biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism to try to answer this question, as well as to try to understand herself better as a woman. All these areas of investigation revealed that there were “essential” differences between men and women, but did not provide a justification to why women were considered inferior. Then, when looking at history, de Beauvoir seeks to trace the emergence of supposed male superiority in society. She looks at different times throughout history such as the period of nomadic hunter-gatherers, the French Revolution, and contemporary times. By travelling back in time she finds several examples of female subordination, but again, no real justification for them. This allows her to draw out the conclusion that history is not an immutable “fact”, but a reflection of certain attitudes, preconceptions, and injustices.
De Beauvoir also discusses how mythical representations of women have impacted human consciousness, and have played an important role in women being considered the inferior or “other” sex. She mentions the myth of the “eternal feminine”, a philosophical principle component of gender essentialism, the belief that men and women have a different core or “essence”. De Beauvoir discusses how this myth is not supported by any evidence, and mentions her theory that the myth of the “eternal feminine” originates from men being uncomfortable with the idea of birth, and life given by a woman. De Beauvoir also shows how maternity has been worshiped throughout history, representing a mother as the giver of life. This representation gets projected on women since they are girls, transforming them into a symbol of life yet robbing them of their individuality in the process. To illustrate the prevalence of these myths, she is able to study the portrayal of women by five different modern writers. She examines the impact of these myths and portrayals on individual experience, and in the end concludes that the “eternal feminine” fiction as well as many others is reinforced with biology, psycoalaysius, history, and literature.
Further along in the book, De Beauvoir demonstrates the impossibility of comparing male and female character without considering the significant differences in their situation. In this part of the book she studies female development through the formative stages of childhood, youth, and sexual initiation with the goal to prove how women are not born “feminine”, but are shaped by society and a “thousand external processes” as she puts it. She is able to demonstrate how at each different stage a girl is conditioned to accept passivity, dependance, repetition, and inwardness, as society tries to deprive her of her independent consciousness and flatten her into an object. Women are denied the positivity of creative fulfillment, and are forced to accept a dissatisfying life of housework revolving around their husbands and children. The author then analyses various situations showing the role that an adult woman plays. She is able to identify three major functions in this role consisting of wife, mother, and entertainer. No matter social class, reputation, or status, these roles inevitably lead to women feeling incopetent and having profound frustration over the lack of control they have over their lives. Even women who accept to be part of a less conventional place in society, such as that which belongs to prostitutes, must submit to the imperative defined by men. De Beauvoir also reflects on women’s trauma of old age, explaining how when a woman loses her reproductive ability she feels as though she loses her primary purpose and therefore her identity. Finally, she touches on the controversial claim that a woman’s situation and subordinate position in society is not a result of her character, rather that her character is a result of her limiting situation, showing how a woman’s defining qualities are the consequences of subordination and marginalisation, not the cause.
In the final part of the book, De Beavoir studies some of the ways in which women reinforce their own dependency instead of fighting for their independence. She mentions how narcissists, women in love, and mystics, all “embrace their immanence” by drowning their selfhood and identity in an external object, that object being a mirror, a lover, or a religion. She mentions instances where females are complicit in themselves being considered the “other”, particularly with regard to marriage, presenting how the difficulty of breaking free from this enforced and expected “femininity” induces many women in the acceptance of the usual unfilling roles of wife, mother, and entertainer. From the beginning of her discussion, De Beauvoir is able to identify not only the social aspect of female subordination, but also the economic underpinnings of it all and the economic roots or woman’s liberation. Only when being able to work can a woman truly achieve autonomy by obtaining financial independence. If “she” can support herself, she can also stop being dependent and achieve a form of liberation. In the finishing chapters of The Second Sex, De Beauvoir sums up the logistic hurdles women face in pursuing this goal of liberation, and concludes her theisis of stating why and how a woman is considered to be the “other”.