Paris intellectual and novelist Simone De Beauvoir wrote a treatise on womanhood entitled The Second Sex that is now considered the twentieth century’s most influential work of feminist philosophy. Despite numerous inaccuracies and logical fallacies, Beauvoir’s assertions about the social construction of sex differences and woman’s Otherness have had a profoundly deforming impact on all subsequent feminist theorizing.
|Simone De Beauvoir
Simone De Beauvoir’s magnum opus The Second Sex, published in French in 1949 and clocking in at over 750 pages, has been cited as a major influence by key American feminist writers Betty Friedan and Kate Millett. First translated into English in 1953 (with a fuller, more accurate version in 2009), the work is credited with establishing the much-employed distinction—now causing grief to anti-trans feminists—between biological sex and what came to be called gender identity.
Beauvoir’s assertion at the beginning of the book’s second volume that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” is considered the most famous feminist sentence ever written, and has been applauded by queer theorist Judith Butler for establishing femininity as a process of becoming, a performance guided by a cultural script, rather than a biological given.
Beauvoir was the first major writer to situate feminism within the realm of leftist high theory, placing it amongst the existentialist and Marxist theories she studied and debated with her companion the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and other French intellectuals. Beauvoir’s existentialism is evident in her insistence on the importance of living authentically and freely rather than according to the cultural mores imposed by one’s society; the Marxist influence is evident in her insistence on power struggles between identity groups.
The Second Sex is intensely detailed, sophisticated in its terminology, and full of references to literary and psychoanalytic texts, relying heavily, for example, on the work of Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst critical of Freud. Beauvoir contrasted transcendence, by which she meant creative self-fulfillment, with immanence, which referred to the mundane maintenance of physical life in activities such as housekeeping. A massive section on History summarized the entirety of human development as the “triumph of patriarchy” whereby the male’s “biological privilege enabled men to affirm themselves alone as sovereign subjects” (86). The work’s sheer length, its air of caustic certainty, and its universalist sweep all gave its assertions about female psycho-sexual development a gloss of authority and intellectual seriousness.
Yet much, even most, of what is presented as evidence, despite the heavy citations, is merely anecdotal, subjective description claiming universal validity but based on little more than selective reading combined with Beauvoir’s personal convictions and jaundiced observations about civilizations’ alleged exaltation of men at women’s expense. The long History section is full of misrepresentations far too numerous to investigate here, including Beauvoir’s quoting of Virginia Woolf’s preposterous lie from A Room of One’s Own that “In England […] women writers always engender hostility” (121).
In the rest of this analysis, I will concentrate on the key concepts in Beauvoir’s text that had a major impact on feminism in the English-speaking world: the notion of the Other, the idea of the social construction of femininity, and the bitter claim that male domination is reinforced in sex and the family.
Perhaps Beauvoir’s most influential formulation—repeated ad nauseum in almost all subsequent feminist tracts—was that woman is the Other of man, the “object” in relation to his “subject,” always defined in relation (and in inferiority) to the male sex. “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (6). By this Beauvoir meant not only that woman was considered different from and less than man, but also that the male sex stood in for the human, while the female never did.
As Beauvoir explained in her Introduction, “The categories masculine and feminine appear as symmetrical in a formal way on town hall records or identification papers. The relation of the two sexes is not that of two electrical poles: the man represents both the positive and the neuter” with femaleness always defined by its difference from the male.
Self and other are common, even indispensable, categories of meaning, Beauvoir conceded, but the position of women as other was different from that of all other “others”—whether slaves, Jews, blacks, or oppressed workers. Women, unlike these others, had great difficulty establishing themselves as subjects because, as she explained “[Women] have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and unlike the proletariat, they have no solidarity of labor or interests […]. They 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” (8), and thus their path to free selfhood was beset with far greater psychological and practical difficulties than that for any other oppressed group.
Beauvoir was not content to say that such a state of affairs had developed naturally over time or without ill will on the part of men. Certainly she never admitted that social arrangements could have formed to protect women or ensure human flourishing in perilous times. On the contrary, she emphasized that men had oppressed women because they were stronger, because women were tied to their reproductive function, for which Beauvoir felt particular disgust, as we’ll see, and because men wanted to and needed to dominate: “One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior […] The most mediocre of males believes himself a demigod next to women” (13).
And because they were also afraid of women, “legislators organize[d] her oppression” (88) and women were denied even the benevolence allegedly shown to animals. The rest of The Second Sex constituted the oft-angry explanation of how this state of affairs came to be.
Beauvoir was nearly forty when she began writing The Second Sex and had lived with deliberate unconventionality to that point, refusing offers of marriage in order to guard her freedom. She maintained various sexual relationships simultaneously, including with many significantly younger female students at the schools where she taught, whom she introduced to one of her primary companions, Sartre.
Just a few years before she began work on The Second Sex, in 1943, Beauvoir had been suspended from teaching for a time after the parents of a 17-year-old pupil had charges laid against her for seducing their daughter; and a number of her teenaged student lovers later alleged that the affairs initiated by the older Beauvoir had been sexually and psychologically abusive.
Like many intellectuals, Beauvoir and Sartre were impressed by the ideas of Communist revolutionaries about remaking society and human nature, and paid respectful visits to the Soviet Union and Mao’s China in the 1950s. Later in her life, Beauvoir became dependent upon alcohol and drugs, eventually dying of alcohol-related disease at age 78. I finished my reading of The Second Sex grateful that Beauvoir never had children on whom she might have practiced her monstrous ideas.
As we have seen, feminists had long posited, without using the exact phrase, the social construction of womanhood, explaining that women might do and be much more than at present once it was fully possible for them to believe that they could do and be. Such an explanation for women’s arrested development, frivolity, and lack of ability was offered as far back as Mary Wollstonecraft in her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and was asserted with vigor by John Stuart Mill in his pro-feminist 1869 tract The Subjection of Women. Beauvoir articulated the theory in far more detail, and with more intellectual scaffolding, than had ever been attempted before. She spent hundreds of pages not outright denying the facts of biology but instead—and this was a key rhetorical move much favored by later feminists—alleging that biology had no meaning in itself outside of the human perspective that imposed meaning on it. For example, discussing the facts of women’s weaker musculature, she qualified rather disingenuously that “When the physiological given (muscular inferiority) takes on meaning, this meaning immediately becomes dependent on a whole context; ‘weakness’ is weakness only in light of the aims man sets for himself, the instruments at his disposal, and the laws he imposes” (46).
This was a fancy way of saying not much at all—of course weakness had meaning in a context—and meant in practice the radical downplaying of the immense significance of biology. She repeated that, “Biology alone cannot provide an answer to the question that concerns us: why is woman the Other.”
Beauvoir didn’t much care how nature had influenced culture: the question for her was what culture had made of nature, and she declared that preeminent (48). This perspective led to her now-famous formulation, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”
Notice the English translation: woman, not a woman. Every female child who grows into an adult becomes a woman by definition; or did before trans ideology. But “woman” as concept is the effect of a cultural process.
The long second volume of Beauvoir’s book, called “Lived Experience,” influentially narrated the female child’s Othering. Beauvoir contended that “If well before puberty and sometimes even starting from early childhood she already appears sexually specified, it is not because mysterious instincts immediately destine her to passivity, coquetry, or motherhood but because […] her vocation is imperiously breathed into her from the first years of her life” (283). Through her exaggerated language (“immediately destine”), she essentially denied instinct and the whole biological basis for sexed behavior. (For a complete debunking of De Beauvoir’s thesis, by the way, see Steven Rhoads’ Taking Sex Differences Seriously (2004), which assembles a mountain of scientific evidence proving the biological basis of sex differences from babyhood on.)
From this point, Beauvoir indulged in her most sweeping, and often forced, claims. For example, she conceded that young boys are almost always treated more harshly than girls in the family, punished more severely and confined to a far more limited range of acceptable emotions and expression. But for Beauvoir, this was merely a clear sign of the boy’s coming privilege: “If the boy seems less favored than his sisters, it is because there are greater designs for him. The requirements he is subjected to immediately imply a higher estimation” (286).
If she had found that girls were more harshly treated, that would have been evidence that girls were valued less highly; but boys’ harsh treatment becomes evidence of their higher valuing. Such is the consistent illogic dictated by Beauvoir’s predetermined conclusion.
Every detail in this section, which draws heavily on post-Freudian theory, is similarly manipulated to confirm her a priori deduction. In compensation for their loss of the mother’s body, boys are allegedly taught to be proud of having a penis, which they can manipulate as an instrument of their will, sending golden arcs through the air.
The girl, in contrast, is humiliated by having to squat to pee, and comes to be ashamed of her body, anxiously preoccupied by her hidden sex organs, and horrified, allegedly, by the onset of her menstrual periods.
Whereas a boy learns the lessons of violence, competition, daring, challenge; the girl, in contrast, is “taught that to please, she must try to please” (295). The meaning of the girl’s selfhood, more and more, is focused on being for others; the boy, in contrast, learns how to be for himself. While the boy looks to a future of alleged self-realization through work, the girl looks forward only to the uncreative drudgery of housework and child-rearing (men’s work is apparently never drudgery).
By sixteen, the girl knows that she can never be great or even good because her experiences deform her. “The mere fact of having to hide her sanitary napkins and of concealing her periods inclines her to lies” (369), Beauvoir stated.
The problem with this last and many similar representative details is twofold: the detail is presented in a manner that excludes from consideration the proportionate or greater disabilities experienced by boys, such as the knowledge that at time of war, their lives are worth less than female lives. Perhaps even more damningly, the meaning of the detail, presented as conclusive, is not universal. In many cultures ancient and modern, the advent of menstruation is received with celebration or at least satisfaction, not horror.
Personally, there is almost nothing in Beauvoir’s description of growing up female that coincides with my own experience.
The particular disgust Beauvoir expressed for childbearing and childrearing, which she said “doomed” women to “repetition and routine” (519), and her unqualified affirmation of abortion are perhaps the most glaring examples of Beauvoir’s dishonesty in a treatise that never acknowledged most women’s desire for and joy in motherhood. In her chapter on “The Mother,” she instead focused almost exclusively on motherhood as a burden, even detailing with seeming pleasure the hatred some women felt for their children.
About heterosexuality, Beauvoir was equally damning and unfair, arguing that the sexual act embodied male dominance. She noted, for example, that “It is the man […] who chooses the amorous positions, who decides the length and frequency of intercourse. She feels herself to be an instrument: all the freedom is in the other.” Even the language allegedly refused reciprocity: “He takes his pleasure with her; he gives her pleasure” (397. The most telling moment in Beauvoir’s anti-sex screed came when she castigated the man who asked after sex if his partner had experienced orgasm. Here is her analysis of the alleged meaning of the question:
“‘Is it enough? Do you want more? Was it good?’ The very fact of asking the question points out the separation and changes the love act into a mechanical operation assumed and controlled by the male. And this is precisely the reason he asks it. Much more than fusion and reciprocity, he seeks domination; when the unity of the couple is undone, he becomes the sole subject [….] he likes the woman to feel humiliated, possessed in spite of herself; he always wants to take her a little more than she gives herself” (411).
At this point in the book, one can only conclude that Beauvoir was either being deliberately dishonest or was delusional in assuring readers that the man’s questions were an insidious move to humiliate and disempower the woman whose feelings he only appeared to care about. Nothing could be more grotesquely cynical.
The fact that Beauvoir’s book has been heralded as definitive, its rancorous assertions celebrated as wise insights testifies to the alarming seductiveness of her bitter worldview. Beauvoir is sometimes considered a master of the aphoristic utterance, but her famous “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” is on reflection quite banal, as there is no necessary contradiction, or even tension, between being born with a certain biological makeup and developing into the mature form of one’s being. Though she did little more than elaborate easily rebutted claims about Otherness, Beauvoir’s conceptions have too often been received as infallible.
The most important idea that Beauvoir brought to feminism was the false assertion that women’s exclusion from self-creation was ultimately rooted in misogynistic myths and ideas about womanhood, and that even with full political and legal equality, such ideas would continue to assert their invisible but malignant power. This was a gift to feminist activists that has never ceased giving, guaranteeing that it would always be possible to claim that more needed to be done to aid women in overcoming the unmeasurable hostility of a man-made world. In this sense, almost all feminists are the heirs to the monstrous lies of Simone De Beauvoir.