The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir is best known for her feminism and the exposition of that feminism in her book The Second Sex. This, then, is the best place to begin an introduction to her work.
The basic argument of The Second Sex is that woman has historically been oppressed by man. More specifically, woman has been relegated to the status of object, or “Other,” and so lacks independence. Man, by contrast, is a “Self.” Beauvoir thought that the process of becoming a “Self” or “Subject” requires an element of “Other” as well as “Self,” and that, thus far, woman has been only “the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential.” “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.” Beauvoir sets out to explore the origins of this situation with a view to changing it.
The Second Sex is also a work of existential philosophy. This is seen most clearly in what is perhaps the most famous quotation from the book: “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” This notion is in line with Sartre’s view that “existence precedes essence”; according to this view, humans are radically free to define ourselves, and need not be bound by constraints such as nature. Woman, accordingly, is under no compulsion to accept the roles foisted on her by society.
De Beauvoir claims that woman has no specific essence. That is, woman is not bound by her sex to be the sort of object that man has made her. The view that woman has an essence, Beauvoir argues, has been called into question, and even refuted, by science: “conceptualism has lost ground: biological and social sciences no longer believe there are immutably determined entities that define given characteristics like those of the woman, the Jew, or the black.” “American women in particular,” she claims, “are inclined to think that woman as such no longer exists.” Instead, “science considers characteristics as secondary reactions to a situation.”
When Beauvoir speaks of this “situation,” she means that woman has traditionally found herself in a given set of circumstances that have told her that she must conform to the established norms. Those norms have historically dictated that she be the sort of object Beauvoir denies that she is. Whatever else a woman might be, according to tradition, she is first and foremost a woman: “If I want to define myself,” the tradition asserts, “I first have to say, ‘I am woman’; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth.” According to this view, the destiny of woman is fixed and immutable. Beauvoir wants to claim, in opposition, that the future of woman is open, and that there is no such fixed destiny.
As Beauvoir sees it, woman has been enslaved by her situation, or has been “immanent.” She cannot escape her circumstances. She remains a passive victim of what she has been told is her nature. Man, on the other hand, is able to break free from, or “transcend,” his situation. He does this through being a warrior who risks his life, by creating works of art, or by engaging in philosophy. Transcendence means acting for the sake of an idea, rather than acquiescing in the face of natural necessity. Man is more transcendent because he is not required to live with the consequences of reproduction, whereas woman is not so free.
The notion that man is freer than woman, and free specifically to create works that stand out in time, whereas woman is stuck with repetitive and necessary forms of work, is reminiscent of philosophical theories that had a great influence on Beauvoir (and Sartre) even if she criticizes them; in particular, we see here reflections of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger.
Beauvoir traces the myths and historical processes that have, over time, accumulated and contributed to the oppression of women. She acknowledges that women must undergo experiences related to pregnancy that men do not. But she also argues that these differences are not enough to account for the persistent and seemingly universal subordination of women to men. She also shows that many myths portray woman as a bringer of life but also as a bringer of death. She is therefore somehow responsible for both.
Beauvoir also traces the education of women from earliest childhood up through her first sexual experiences. It is through this process of education that woman loses her authenticity and the possibility of transcendence. Despite being as capable as man of living as an authentic subject, woman is socialized into accepting the monotonous and deadening role of mother, or housekeeper. She is simultaneously relegated to being the object of man’s libido.
There is, for Beauvoir, an important link between woman’s independence and sex. Contemporary Westerners tend to think of gender equality as a matter of equal opportunity in the job market. For Beauvoir, it was woman’s behavior in relation to sex that poses the real threat to her authenticity. Women, Beauvoir argues, are taught to be too passive in sexual matters, leaving the man to be the active subject. This is the primary cause of female oppression. Instead of passivity, Beauvoir urges what she calls “virile independence.” This vision of liberated sexual relations between free and equal participants, unbound by societal conventions, is at the heart of Beauvoir’s concept of female independence.
Beauvoir does not believe that women are completely blameless in their plight. Beauvoir illustrates various “inauthentic” roles that women fall into unthinkingly, thus shirking their responsibility to be authentic existents. These roles are “the woman in love,” “the narcissist,” and “the mystic.” All of these roles occlude her own freedom and submerge it in another—the beloved, herself, and God respectively.
In the conclusion of her work, Beauvoir discusses several concrete proposals for the emancipation of women. In addition to women’s being allowed to pursue the same creative projects as men, Beauvoir also advocates access to legal abortion and contraception, equal education, and the possibility of women’s being economically independent, and thus having access to work previously reserved for men.
It is important to realize that Beauvoir’s feminism is not grounded in liberal notions of rights and official freedoms. Rather, it is based on her understanding of existentialism. The crucial point is that woman must be free to define her Self against a background of chaos. This openness to self-definition is an implicit denial that nature (or even history) can provide guidelines about the nature of that definition. Women, and men, in this context, are radically free. Because of this radical openness, at least one scholar has called Beauvoir’s feminism, and that which stems from it, nihilistic because for all its talk of freedom and independence, very little is said about the goal of that freedom, or its content. There is a will to transcend the boundaries of nature and societal convention, but no clear notion of what the transcendent is. Throughout Beauvoir’s works, almost every role a human being can have is criticized as a form of oppression. But, the non-oppressed life is never defined.
To make this point more clear, we can contrast Beauvoir’s thought with that of Aristotle, for whom the goal of human life was not open-ended and undefined freedom, but happiness and flourishing while living in accord with one’s nature. Nature is not an obstacle to overcome, but a potential to be reached. Men and women have somewhat different natures. But men and women both achieve happiness by perfecting the virtues associated with their natures such as courage, prudence, and moderation. Beauvoir (like Sartre) might invoke courage and “commitment” in the face of the openness of the world, but this leaves the content of even the virtue of courage abstract and undefined. Beauvoir counsels the overthrow of oppression, but in favor of what, she does not substantively say.
In her earlier works, Beauvoir tries to articulate a kind of “existentialist ethics,” very close to the one advocated by Sartre. These works preview several themes of The Second Sex. For Beauvoir, existentialism is not necessarily radically isolating. One need not be crushed by the absence of God or any external standards by which to guide our lives. One can, through ethical action, form a bond with others. In this way, we assert our freedom, and encourage the freedom of others.
What is distinctive about Beauvoir is her emphasis on the need for others in defining selfhood. Hell is not other people, as it is for Sartre. The other is necessary for freedom, not necessarily a threat to it. Because of this bent to her thought, seen particularly in Pyrrhus and Cinéas, she is critical of philosophers whom she believes are indifferent to morality, and of Heidegger for what she sees as his overstatement of the importance of death as a focal point of human life.
In the Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir delves into what she calls the attitude of “seriousness.” Serious individuals, for Beauvoir, shirk their responsibility to freedom by adhering to some external idol. The general cleaves to the military, the politician worships power, and the actor is obsessed with fame. Each of these attitudes is a way to flee spontaneous freedom, but it is freedom that should be the goal of one’s willing. This adherence to freedom as a goal is somehow different from the other goals she disparages, seemingly because of freedom’s apparent lack of specific content.
Read More: Ethics
Beauvoir wrote much fiction throughout her life. Her first novel, L’Invitée (She Came to Stay), published in 1943, is a “philosophic” account of a relationship between a man and two women. The main character, Françoise, comes to realize that her relationship with Pierre cannot be taken for granted, but must constantly be chosen and won. We see here the themes of freedom and choice that would mark her more overtly theoretical writings. These themes are again taken up in her 1945 work, Le sang des autres (The Blood of Others). In this novel, the protagonist agonizes over his decision to send his lover to her death. The work is a study of the responsibilities we have to ourselves, others, our country, and humanity as a whole, and the often contradictory claims these place on us.
Beauvoir’s best-known novel is The Mandarins, from 1954. This work is set in the aftermath of the Second World War. It takes up the theme of responsibility to one’s society and is based on Beauvoir’s experiences with Sartre and the philosophic circle within which they moved.
Read More: Fiction