identify and assess the main strengths and weaknesses of simone de beauvoirs book the second sex

Christopher Jacobi

To some extent The Second Sex (1949) successfully conceptualises womanhood as a social structure and offers a „strikingly original theory of female subjectivity under patriarchy‟ (Okely, 1986: 20). Beauvoir‟s1 statement that „one is not born a woman, but becomes one‟ (1949: 295) draws attention at the difference between biological sex and gender; this distinction can be used to explore the ways in which women have historically been oppressed in a male world2. Beauvoir also develops the useful notion of women as Others and highlights the fact that women are not one uniform group, but have specific needs with regards to resistance. Beauvoir does not, however, develop a genuine non-discriminatory gender theory and incorporates some of the same patriarchal assumptions she tries to criticize. Beauvoir‟s argument can be criticised through attentiveness to historical and societal ambiguities. Ontologically, just being the Other does not necessitate that one cannot develop one‟s own identity. Beauvoir could either have celebrated women‟s positive and active roles in society or have offered a truly gender-free, transcendent vision of equality. Butler and Fanon are employed to enlarge the realm of this discussion in a structure-agency.approach.

A major achievement of The Second Sex is its conceptualisation of womanhood as a (repressive) social institution in which gender is not a biological fact, but socially constructed. Biological sex is not completely detached from gender, but it cannot be the only factor to explain womanhood and the societal expectations of what it is means be a woman. Gender as a structure is so powerful and prevalent that „whatever a woman says, or writes, or thinks, is less important and less interesting than what she is‟ (Moi, 1990: 27). Beauvoir also stresses that „it is natural for the female human being to make herself a feminine woman‟ (1949: 428). Since women become the gender they have been forced into, Beauvoir engages in a structuralist way of interpreting an individual not by his or her personality, but by the social condition her or she represents. In this way, gender is a „fixed and preordained essence‟ (op. cit.: 60) into which one is socialised. Nonetheless, Beauvoir also suggests that like all structures there is a certain Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), French, married to existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Beauvoir succeeds in theorizing the oppression of women. The question whether women have actually been oppressed in this way will be explored throughout the essay.

tension between a “woman” and “womanhood” and she acknowledges this interplay to be „sometimes in enmity, sometimes in amity, always in a state of tension‟ (op. cit.: 93). Even though the agentic dimension of gender would have deserved more detailed attention, Beauvoir‟s conceptualisation of gender as an institution represents a major achievement. Beauvoir‟s explores the historical3 origin and the concomitant reification of the subordination of women in a strategic way that supports her line of argument, but is not universally accurate. Beauvoir (1949) states that at the beginning of civilization men, being physically more powerful than women, were advantaged and that woman, in their reproductive function, were dependent on men. According to Beauvoir, this initial power inequality has been exploited by „the human [male] consciousness with an original aspiration to dominate the Other [women[„ (op. cit.: 52) so that „society has always been male and political power has always been in the hands of men‟ (op. cit.: 65). This, in turn, has led to various social developments which have disadvantaged women on an institutional level. It is argued that over time marriage, motherhood, and monogamy have been established as male shaped institutions4 that originated from the historical power imbalance to „preserve male power‟ (op. cit.: 67). A weakness of The Second Sex is its dismissal of „female glory in history‟ (Winegarten, 1988: 22) and Beauvoir‟s implicit acceptance of male values. Accordingly, Beauvoir‟s (1949: 383) claim that „women have never set up female values in opposition to male values‟ falsifies womanhood and female achievements, even though these achievements might be private or tacit.

Another problematic aspect of Beauvoir‟s historical account is the presupposition that physical strength was and continues to be a defining feature of civilization. Whereas it is apparent that a strong male soldier might be superior to a female one in a physical battle, Beauvoir underestimates the numerous ways in which women have influenced history, politics, the economy and culture. One could criticize Beauvoir for accepting physical strength as an important feature since this in itself is a patriarchal assumption and could be interpreted differently. Rather than restating reasons for female oppression, Beauvoir could have focused on the positive and influential roles women took in the course of civilization. Furthermore, monogamy and marriage haven‟t always been globally prevalent5 and The Second Sex makes general claims about these institutions even though they were culturally specific for a great part

History, of course, is his story and not her story.
From this perspective, sexuality itself could be seen as repressive. 5
Gilbert Herdt (1984), for example, has researched Sambian tribes in which our western understandings of sexuality and kinship are deeply challenged.

of history. In sub-Saharan tribes until around 8000 B.C, for instance, women were more active and possibly more powerful than men since they „travelled from one tribal village to the other, choosing their mates and trading goods and knowledge‟ (Finkel, 2009: 1). Similarly, Beauvoir‟s claim that women have been trapped in their reproductive functions is also not entirely helpful in promoting women‟s equality. If all women were completely determined by their reproductive function, Beauvoir would contradict her main paradigm that „one is not born, but becomes a woman‟ (1949: 295). Since we learn that womanhood is a social construction and not biologically determined, the reproductive role of women must partly emerge from women themselves6: Many women actively embrace their reproductive biological function and happily choose to become mothers and wives7. Arguing that every mother and marriage is oppressed through male patriarchy strongly undermines the happiness and fulfilment many women find in exactly these roles. When Beauvoir describes male pressures on women as „an absolute evil‟ (op. cit.: 274) she correctly notices that some women might experience reproduction as subordination, but this might be a result of the general fact that all structures always exert some pressures, Even men, who are arguably so required to act masculine and strong, have to adapt to external pressures. This implies that the historical and societal premises on which The Second Sex is built is not without ambiguities. Beauvoir‟s analysis of reproduction as socialised subordination neglects the power women can still acquire voluntarily in institutions like marriage and motherhood.

Judith Butler‟s exploration of the agentic aspects of gender demonstrates that true equality would transcend gender dichotomies. Butler has argued that gender is choice and that „being a woman is an active process of negotiation between the individual and the cultural norms with which one has to deal‟ (1986: 29). Butler accepts Beauvoir‟s interpretation that biological sex does not determine gender, but arrives at the wider realization that gender is never fixed per se, but continuously renegotiated (Butler, 1986). Examples of this can readily be found in popular culture8. In fact, male-female dualisms like female good-heartedness and female emotional maturity are just as socially constructed as gender (op. cit.). Butler‟s (op. cit.: 29) positive vision, therefore, is that „gender choice is empowering‟ and that we can resist the If there was absolutely no agency in becoming a woman, one would in fact be born as a woman. The issue of „false consciousness‟ and a potential inability to recognize subordination will be addresses later

8 E.g. the effeminate metro-man, men staying at home taking care of the children and the household, the „tough business women‟, Madonna kissing Britney Spears at MTV Music Awards, the recent debate about homosexual rights, transgender people claiming public space, butch lesbians.

norms that are forced upon us. Butler (op. cit.: 30) also defines „gender as performance‟ and shows how our social roles can often be acted out rather than innate. In this way, „all gender is unnatural‟ (Fallaize, 1986: 9) and a critique of the subordination of one gender through the other is less promising than a search for gender-freedom and openness. Beauvoir‟s notion of „Women as Others‟ (1949: 296) offers a rich attempt to understand women‟s experience of subordination, but still operates in a narrow ontological understanding of the female-male gender dichotomy. According to The Second Sex, a woman is the Other since „she is determined and differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her; she is unessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the absolute: she is the Other‟ (op. cit.: 16). The notion of Otherness thus builds on the reified subordination of women and highlights that men have historically positioned themselves as the active and dominant group9. Beauvoir (1949) claims that men possess the full truth and reality of existence in this world and as such define humanity. If this was accurate, it would be interesting to note that even seemingly empowering developments like Enlightenment values and rationality are less universal than sometimes believed to be. One might also wonder if Beauvoir‟s understanding of equality is shaped through male values and whether women might achieve truer equality by celebrating positive difference.

The analytical tool of „Women as Others‟ (Beauvoir, 1949: 296) also illustrates the extent to which gender inequalities might have been internalised in society. Beauvoir develops the original idea that women face both „the conflict between species and individual‟ (op. cit.: 646). Whereas Beauvoir‟s dismantling of tacit and powerful social structures proves genuine insight and should thus be regarded as strength of The Second Sex, Beauvoir could have noted that men might also have to adapt to their gender expectations. Most importantly, just being „The Other‟ does not mean that one does not exist: Ontologically, The Second Sex underestimates that women, or minority groups in general, can still develop their own identity, culture and spirit. If women were to gain the very same characteristics that are associated with men, women would to some extent cease to be women, but become copies of men.10 Truer equality might be found in transcending gender dichotomies and strengthening positive difference between men and

This presupposition is in itself dubious.
This is a philosophical argument and does certainly not mean that real-life economic equality between women and men undermines women.


women rather than making women become men11. Beauvoir‟s achievement, however, lies in her original attempt of conceptualising gender dichotomies and subordination. The weakness of The Second Sex is that Beauvoir‟s vision of equality does not exceed male values. Furthermore, Beauvoir‟s ontological premise is not universally accurate. The realization that women are not one universal group is a major achievement of The Second Sex with internal validity and the potential to contribute to women‟s campaigns.12 According to Beauvoir, „the very isolation to which women are condemned to precludes them from seeing the generality of their situation‟ (1949: 64): Beauvoir highlights that women find themselves in various different social settings and that they are, among other factors, dispersed by race, class, education, nationality and location. This means that „a woman from the middle class often shares more experiences and empathy to a man from her class than a working class woman‟ (op. cit.: 300) and explains „women‟s inability to demand recognition as subject, their refusal to rebel‟ (op. cit.: 255). An equal- or civil right movement that neglects internal differences will be less successful than it could be if it had incorporated Beauvoir‟s insights. Beauvoir‟s understanding of the dispersion of women can be applied to other marginalised groups: The movements emerging out of the Stonewall13 Riots, for instance, have heavily discriminated against black homosexuals within their group and thereby undermined stronger political reach.

The politically strategic celebration of difference that The Second Sex partly lacks can be found in Frantz Fanon‟s Black Skin, White Mask (1952) in which he explores black alienation and the oppressor-oppressed identification. Fanon, like Beauvoir, is influenced by Sartre‟s „existentialism‟14 (Lundgrin-Gothlin, 1996: 204), but differs in the way that he demands a celebration of blackness as a crucial tool for change. For Fanon, racial equality is not homogeneity, but an acceptance of diversity. This „negritude‟ (cited in Moi, 1990: 73) is the „political and emotional foundation‟ for a future world in which race can become insignificant (op. cit.: 73). Beauvoir, in contrast, undermines political change in „denying a specific feminitude‟ (op. cit.: 75). Whereas Fanon promotes the individual development and consciousness of the minority group, Beauvoir can sometimes appear to be overly critical of womanhood. Nonetheless, Beauvoir‟s does sometimes address this issue and states that „males find in woman It should in Beauvoir‟s defence be noted that she partly discusses female values towards the end of the two volume book.

12 2nd wave feminism has greatly drawn on Beauvoir‟s work. 13 U.S. Gay rights movement in 1960s.
14 „Existentialism is a loose philosophical label … that refers to the systematic investigation of the nature of human existence, giving priority to immediate experiences of aloneness, death, and moral responsibility‟ (Scott & Marshall, 2005:205)


more complicity than the oppressor usually find in the oppressed‟ (1949: 721). This, however, does not actively help to promote equality and leaves a pessimistic undertone. Even though one can understand Beauvoir‟s view that „the bond that unites her [woman] to her oppressor is not comparable to any other‟ (op. cit.: 721), racial movements, which might have been slightly more unified, but even more segregated, have achieved real success. Beauvoir is thus correct to see patriarchy as an extremely embedded institution of social life, but should not underestimate the agentic and collective potential for change.

Beauvoir‟s existentialist understanding of womanhood as „a process of becoming‟ proved to be „novel at her time of writing‟ (Lundgrin-Gothlin, 1996: 31), but is not necessarily sustainable as a vision for true gender-equality. Beauvoir‟s work represents a useful conceptualisation of female subjectivity and can be used to uncover the false consciousness or rather seeming naturalness of gender as well as the reification of gender roles in society. Beauvoir has enlarged on economic determinism and added the new layer of gender inequality: Female Otherness is a deeply embedded social force and women have not been able to transcend their reproductive role in the same way as men. On one level, The Second Sex addresses „Mitsein‟15 (cited in LundgrinGothlin, 1996: 157) of female and male gender as a temporary step to equality, but universal gender equality can only be found in „transcendence‟ (Felstiner, 1980: 252). This transcendence, however, is currently ascribed to men and if women are not to recreate male achievements then they should probably develop their own identity. Nonetheless, one must pay attention not to „insidiously blame the victims of oppression for choosing their situation‟ (Le Doeuff, 2004: 34). One could argue that true success of The Second Sex would mean that it becomes obsolete, i.e. that gender ceases to be a problematic aspect of society. An overall weakness of The Second Sex is its tendency to overgeneralise.

Even though Beauvoir herself points out that women are not one single group, her „method of speaking universally for all women has proved to be unsustainable‟ (Okely, 1986:19). Furthermore, Beauvoir could have created multiple accounts of the experiences of womanhood and stressed positive and agentic negotiations of the female gender. It has additionally been noted that Beauvoir has written from a privileged16 perspective and that her capacity to speak for the individual needs of working class women „remains doubtful‟ (op. cit.: 20). In fact, Beauvoir has been accused of elitism and one could wonder whether The Second Sex has provided significant real-life support for economically disadvantaged women in after-war France. Okely (op. cit.: 19) claims that Beauvoir 15


Translation of „Mitsein‟ (German): Peaceful living together Privileged since highly educated, being an established intellectual, comparably wealthy, living in Paris. 6

has engaged in „an anthropological village study of elite Paris of her [Beauvoir‟s] time‟. This criticism might be overly strong, but the impossibility of writing with definite authority about all cross-cultural and historical differences in a detailed manner is generally accurate and also applies to Beauvoir. One should, however, appreciate that at the time of publication „global inequalities between women‟ (op. cit.: 25) might not have been a major concern yet. Gender inequality continues to be an important issue in our time and The Second Sex has offered inspiring insights and foundational work for many feminist thinkers. During our recent economic downturn (2008-10) the government has cut public sector jobs through their austerity measures and women have been affected more severely than men17 (German, 2010). This illustrates that even though more and more women are joining the workforce, they still suffer from particular challenges and have not gained the same status as men. In conclusion, the conceptualisation of gender as a social institution and the exploration of the concomitant subordination women might face as Others is a major theoretical strength of The Second Sex with significant political applicability.

Beauvoir‟s emphasis that women are not one unified group is evidence of genuine insight into the situation of women and can still provide direction for equality movements today. The most apparent weakness of The Second Sex is its overgeneralization of history and global diversity as well as an underlying incorporation of the patriarchal rationality. If one appreciates the individual acting out of gender as seen in Butler‟s work, one realizes that true gender equality or even freedom is not to be found in women‟s assimilation of male strengths, but in a celebration of female difference or even gender insignificance. Nonetheless, The Second Sex has impressively shown that to some extent „men have always held the lot of women in their hands‟ (cited in Felstiner, 1980: 265) and thus laid foundational work for political change and more egalitarian philosophical approaches.

According to German (2010), many women work in low-to mid-level public sector jobs like administration or social work and whereas private sector jobs have also been destroyed, they are more likely to return. As argued by Elshtain (1981), this can be traced back to the private/public distinction which means that high status jobs are still defined as male [public]. Furthermore, in total more women than men have lost their jobs. (Larry Elliott, 2011: 1)


Andrew, B. S. (2003) „Beauvoir‟s Place in Philosophical Thought‟, in Card, C. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Butler, J. (1986) „Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir‟s Second Sex‟, in Fallazie, E. (ed.) Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Readers. London: Routledge.

Card, C. (2003) „Introduction‟, in Card, C. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. trans. by Parshley, H.M. London: Pan Books. Elliott, L. (2011) „Austerity Measures Risk Irreversible Impact on Children and Mothers‟. The Guardian. 25th September., p.1. Available at (Last accessed at 14.04.2012).
Elshtain, J. B. (1981) Public Man, Private Woman. Oxford: Princeton University Press. Fallaize, E. (1986) „Introduction‟, in Fallaize, E. (ed.) Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader. London: Routledge.

Felstiner, M. L. (1980) „Seeing “The Second Sex” through the Second Wave‟. Feminist Studies 6(2), pp. 247-276.
Finkel, M. (2009) „Nomaden in Afrika: Mit den Hadza zurück in die Steinzeit‟. Der Spiegel. 29th November, p. 1. Available at,1518,66171,00.html (Last accessed at 14.04.2012).

German, L. (2010) „Feminism – A 21st century manifesto‟ Counterfire. 7th March, p.1. Available at (Last accessed at 14.04.2012). Herdt, G. (1984) „Sambian Sexual Culture‟, in Herdt, G. (1999) Sambian Sexual Culture: Essays
from the Field. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Le Doeuff, M. (2004) „Towards a Friendly, Transatlantic Critique of “The Second Sex”‟, in Grosholz, E. R. (ed.) The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Lundgren-Gothlin, E. (1996) Sex and Existence. London: The Athlone Press. Moi, T. (1990) Feminist Theory & Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers. Okely, J. (1986) „Simone de Beauvoir: a re-reading‟, in Fallazie, E. (ed.) Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Readers. London: Routledge.

Scott, J. & Marhsall, G. (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Winegarten, R. (1988) Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. Oxford: Berg Publishers. 8

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