Not Lost in Translation by Christina Hoff Sommers

Hoff Sommers, Christina. “Not Lost in Translation.” Claremont Review of Books. December 8, 2010.


In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, then 41 years old, created a sensation in Paris with her book The Second Sex. Women, she argued, are half the human race but in all places and times have been accorded second-class status. The culture of femininity, including the role of wife and mother, was invented by men for the purpose of oppressing women. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she declared. To the amazement of its publisher, this nearly thousand-page, densely written, idiosyncratic tome sold 20,000 copies its first week. Thinking it was a “modern day sex manual, something between Kinsey and Havelock Ellis,” the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house quickly commissioned a translation. The English edition, translated by the retired Smith College professor H.M. Parshley, appeared in 1953 and flew onto bestseller lists.

Critics were not sure what to make of it. “An encyclopedic work on ‘the situation of women’ dedicated to the proposition ‘…and he done her wrong,’” said the Atlantic Monthly. Partisan Review’s William Phillips quipped that it was “[a] compendious highbrow lowdown on women.” Karl Menninger pronounced the tome “tiresome” and “pretentious.” Though she agreed with its central thesis, “that society has wasted women’s individual gifts,” the sociologist Margaret Mead thought the book violated “every canon of science and disinterested scholarship in its partisan selectivity.” Brendan Gill at the New Yorker was one of the few early reviewers who saw magic: “What we are faced with is more than a work of scholarship; it is a work of art, with the salt of recklessness that makes art sting…[for] this is her poem–her sometimes blundering ‘Leaves of Grass.’” After a brief celebrity, the book all but vanished.