20th century / Humanities

The Second Sex

By EJ Tritton

Simone de Beauvoir has often been described as the ‘mother’ of modern feminism, and her most famous work, Le Deuxieme Sexe (published in 1949) as its ‘Bible’. Yet ‘Feminism’ is a remarkably ambiguous concept. Wikipedia defines it as “a number of movements, theories and philosophies that are concerned with issues of gender difference, that advocate equality for women, and that campaign for women’s rights and interests”. Likewise Beauvoir has also elicited some scathing criticism from feminist commentators. Her relationship with the women’s movement and attitudes towards the role of women in society varied a lot over the course of her life as she grew further from her strict bourgeois background which expected her to get married and be a submissive housewife like a ‘dutiful daughter of France’. In fact Beauvoir grew far from this. She is equally famous for her unconventional, open relationship with another great French philosopher of the time, Jean-Paul Sartre. They never married, never lived together, had ‘contingent’ relationships and even occasionally shared lovers. Beauvoir was therefore strongly independent in a way that shocked the France of her time.

When Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, she did not see it as a feminist treatise; in her memoirs she writes that it originated ‘almost by chance. Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware to do so I should first have to describe the condition of women in general’. She first conceived it as a philosophical essay for Les Temps Modernes, the political, literary and philosophical magazine which she founded with Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However she soon found she had enough material for the great two-volume study that was finally published. The book has been many things to many readers since then, but it is notable that Beauvoir herself said in 1963: ‘I avoided confining myself in what they call feminism’. By 1972, however, her attitude had changed insofar as she was calling herself ‘a militant feminist’.

Perhaps her naivety at the time, particularly with regard to politics, can go some way to explaining her change of heart. When writing The Second Sex, she believed that the overthrow of capitalism would bring about the liberation of women and make them the equals of men. She states in La Force des choses that her aim was to set out and analyse the position of women so they could understand it themselves. Later in an interview of 1979, Beauvoir said she had come to realise that socialism would not lead to the emancipation of women and that ‘the emancipation of women must be the work of women themselves’. With this change of heart she became an active feminist, taking part in collective action alongside younger women and saying ‘I am at the service of the Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes‘.

But despite her own intentions at the time of writing, The Second Sex had a profound influence on later women writers who clearly and proudly called themselves feminists. Roxanne Dunbar wrote in 1969 that ‘[The Second Sex] is even now still the most intelligent, complete and human document that has ever been written on the oppression of women and male supremacy’. Its influence spread to the UK and USA after its translation, as Elaine Marks comments: ‘[The Second Sex] is a text that occupies a central position in the history of discourse on women and feminism’. Whatever Beauvoir’s own position, there is little doubt that she has been of supreme importance for later feminists.

But if we take a closer look at The Second Sex, we can perhaps understand some of the criticism that has been directed at her over the years from various feminist writers. Beauvoir’s underlying philosophy was, of course, the same existentialism that Sartre was famous for, and we can see many parallels between her work and his Being and Nothingness. In 1986, Toril Moi wrote that ‘for a feminist today, The Second Sex is in many ways a deeply embarrassing document’ and explained how many feminist critics have seen existentialism as positively anti-feminist. Moi and other critics point out the misogyny and sexism of Beauvoir’s images (which also appear in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). There are several shocking passages in which Beauvoir describes female sexual initiation; women are compared to inert, empty receptacles and their sexual arousal is reminiscent of the oozing of a decomposing corpse. There are also clear overtones of disgust in her description of female sexual desire. Critics have also pointed out Beauvoir’s desire to model women on men, her ‘glamorization’ of maleness, her masculine values and her undervaluing of women in previous generations from their readings of The Second Sex. Whichever way you take it, the work is clearly a controversial one for women in general, not just feminists.

Yet feminism in France is a little more complicated than this. The strand of feminism in France that Anglo-American writings refer to as ‘French feminism’ is actually very explicitly anti-egalitarian, even ‘anti-feminist’. This strand rejects Beauvoir and her work, accusing her of reformism and even of misogyny because they see her as not attaching enough importance to feminine difference. For them, it is this feminine difference that has been repressed under patriarchy which then becomes the driving force behind women’s liberation. For them, seeking social equality of the sexes (as Beauvoir did) is an attempt to eradicate the very sexual difference that should be celebrated. This psychoanalytically inspired French feminism is incompatible with Beauvoir’s materialist and anti-essentialist approach to gendered identity in The Second Sex.

So was Simone de Beauvoir a feminist? Her case is clearly much more complicated than most people nowadays think. Her attitude changed as she grew away from her bourgeois background and learnt more about the outside world, and as her relationship with Sartre developed and endured. There is perhaps no definite answer, but she clearly exerted a crucial influence on the women’s movement during her lifetime.

De Beauvoire. S, The Second Sex (1949)
Sartre. J, Being and Nothingness (1943)