‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, physical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilisation as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine’.
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes there is about feminism by Simone de Beauvoir, I knew this, and had seen it quoted many times, before I even owned a copy of The Second Sex. Simone de Beauvoir’s magnum opus effectively changed the way people thought about sex and gender in the second half of the twentieth century. Selling over 22,000 copies in its first week of publication, The Second Sex quickly became a crucial text in the second-wave feminist debates in the decades succeeding it. Largely influential in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the ever-controversial Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Beauvoir’s work of feminist theory had a huge impact on the way we see, think and talk about gender and sex relations.
Split into two volumes, the first – Facts and Myths – is a lot more abstract in its focus at times, whereas the second – Lived Experience – is more concrete, focussing on examples of everyday women’s lives (though mainly restricted to bourgeois French women) from childhood up to adulthood. In originally setting out to write about herself, Beauvoir began to realise how being a ‘woman’ had affected her life in ways that she hadn’t detected before. In order to make sense of this she had to grapple with and understand the many ways women have been subjugated throughout history and up to the present day. So, instead of writing exclusively about her own experiences, she opened her scope to the lot of women in general.
‘Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself’.
Without even reading or having any knowledge of The Second Sex, many of Beauvoir’s ideas have been internalised in the modern female psyche. That’s why so much of what I read felt familiar (though at times repetitive). From examining, in depth, the many ways women have been forced to assume positions second to that of men – from biological, psychological, philosophical and sociological viewpoints – Beauvoir comes to grips with how the Other is set up in opposition to the essential One. It’s similar to how other groups – people from different races, social classes, sexualities – are set up as deviations or Others to the white, middle class, heterosexual norm, except ‘woman’ has never organised itself into concrete opposition. Women live ‘dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic interests and social conditions to certain men – fathers or husbands – more closely than to other women’. It’s a fact – maybe not so much now as it was at the time of writing and publication – that women never saw themselves as united with other women. If they were bourgeois, they identified more with bourgeois men than proletarian women, etc. Even today there are fractures within the feminist movement and many difficult and much-needed conversations about how to bridge differences and create solidarity between different groups of women.
As much as I love Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas in The Second Sex and realise how crucial this text is in feminist theory I could have perhaps done with reading an abridged version instead (like this beautiful Vintage Feminism Short Edition). Perhaps reading it in short chunks over a longer period of time would have been more rewarding.
‘We will not let ourselves be intimidated by the number and violence of attacks against women; nor be fooled by the self-serving praise showered on the ‘real’ woman; nor be won over by men’s enthusiasm for her destiny, a destiny they would not for the world want to share’.