Review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Furthermore, I shall pose the problem of feminine destiny quite otherwise: I shall place woman in a world of values and give her behavior a dimension of liberty. I believe that she has the power to choose between the assertion of her transcendence and her alienation as object (...).

History gives to some works a value they probably wouldn't have in an atemporal lineup. I honestly can't say how much I would have appreciated this book without knowing that it was published in 1949 and believing that it was the first to draw a bunch of distinctions that needed to be drawn. Perhaps that belief is wrong, my knowledge of feminist history is not all that it should be, but it is what accounted for my enthusiasm every time I thought "Simone de Beauvoir gets it!" and, conversely, what tempered my annoyance whenever I felt that she was misguided. That is perhaps not giving The Second Sex the respect it deserves. But, you see, there was something tricky about this book, something that made it very hard to assess it as a whole.

The question at the back of my mind while reading it has constantly been "Is this still relevant?". It's hard to answer that, for two reasons. First, because de Beauvoir's argument flows so directly from an existentialist philosophy that I'm not sure to what extent they can be separated. Second, because a lot of her claims about how women are and how women act are framed in such a way that I don't have the tools to evaluate them, not without doing some historical research. You'll see what I mean below, if you can suffer through me discussing existentialism as practiced by Sartre and de Beauvoir first. (I can't blame anyone who is seriously bored/annoyed by existentialism, but there is a picture of a cat below the fold, if that makes it any better.)

The Existentialist Twist

For an existentialist, there is no human nature. There is no fixed, immutable core of traits that everyone automatically shares. You are what you do. Your existence precedes your essence. That is to say, it's not what you are that determines how you act, but the other way around: your actions and choices define you. They are basically who you are. And you are responsible for them, which means you are also ultimately responsible for who you are. You might object to this by saying that exterior circumstances outside your control (your culture, biology) shape who you are to a large extent. The existentialist would reply that it is your reaction to these circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves, that defines you. Human beings, unlike any other entities, are not entirely described by their circumstances (historical, biological etc.). That is because all other entities are only en-soi (in-itself, as it is), but human beings are pour-soi (for-itself) - they have the ability to reflect on their situation. At any given moment, I'm not just the sum of my properties, but also the stance I take towards these properties. Like de Beauvoir says at some point: "Woman is a female to the extent she sees herself as such."

To exemplify this, think of the difference between me and my cat. As far as I know (but let's pretend it's true), my cat is not aware of the fact that he is a cat. He doesn't have a self-image, so he doesn't act according to a self-image. He doesn't go around thinking, "I'm doing this and this because I'm a cat." or "I can't do that because that's not who I am." He just acts in virtue of what he is, without having to make a choice, and is much less neurotic for it. I, on the other hand, am aware of who I am and of my general position in the world. I can decide how to react to my circumstances. (Theoretically at least, I can always defy these circumstances by killing myself. That means I have a choice, even if it's a very unappealing one.) I am a free and conscious agent. I choose what I become. That is my project in life: to build myself.

That is Sartre and that is a cat. One of them is awesome, the other is not.

So, you see, when Simone de Beauvoir says, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." (arguably the most famous sentence in The Second Sex), this is something that applies to men as well. One is not born a man either. The difference between men and women is that men are raised to embrace their status as human beings. Men are told that they are free agents, that they can and should have self-defining projects. Men are raised to be pour-soi. Since being pour-soi is the defining feature of human beings, to become a man is the same with becoming a human being. Being a woman is denying the fact that one is a human being, because women are taught to think of themselves as objects. To be a woman is to be en-soi. Now, this situation - Man as Subject, Woman as Other or Object - is imposed on women by society. Women are not reneging on this deal for a number of reasons, but in not doing so they are acting in bad faith (Sartre's term for when someone who is pour-soi chooses to function just as en-soi).

Being a free agent is hard work. Doing so when you can expect little reward or encouragement and a great deal of censure, exponentially more so. However, women must do it. Liberation must be their project. In its absence, any great achievements are practically impossible for them. There is a tension here, though, in that this individual choice is not possible in the absence of societal change:
She must shed her old skin and cut her own new clothes. This she could only through a social evolution. No single educator could fashion a female human being who would be the exact homologue of the male human being (...). Stendhal understood this when he said: 'The forest must be planted all at once.' But if we imagine, on the contrary, a society in which the equality of the sexes would be concretely realized, this equality would find new expression in each individual.

All Women Are/Were...

If I had to summarize this book in two main ideas, they would be these:
  1. Women as they are now are not overall very awesome. Quite the contrary. However, this is the result of their particular situation as Other, and not of their nature. 
  2. That situation is largely the fault of society, but women, very excusably, also participate in this by not claiming their freedom.
1 can be hard to swallow. You can see how it flows from existentialism. If you are what you freely do, and women aren't free, then they are not much at all. The potential they are not allowed to exploit is lost. But it is harder to take de Beauvoir seriously when she dismisses all women artists with "There are women who are mad and there are women of sound method: none has that madness in her method that we call genius." or when she says that Woolf, Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, all "have had to expend so much energy negatively in order to free themselves from outward restraints that they arrive somewhat out of breath at the stage from which masculine writers of great scope take their departure." In her view, none of these women writers can measure up to Tolstoy or Stendhal.

And this is the second problem I have with this book. I don't know whether its conclusion stands without existentialism, but, more importantly, I don't know if its generalizations stand at all, with or without the underlying philosophy. At the same time, these generalizations are hard to contradict directly, because everything she discusses, especially in the second book, is about women who have not assumed their status as agents. They might have the right to vote, but they are far from having economic or reproductive liberty. When she makes very broad claims about women (Woman thinks like this, Woman is more narcissistic, Woman is in various ways inferior, but it's okay, because that's not innate), it is hard to challenge them, because the terms of the discussion have changed. A simple "The women I know are not like that." won't cut it. If I say "Dear Simone, not all women fit in your silly categories. I, for one, don't," dear Simone can answer "Yes, but that's because in your time women have more opportunities. They are free agents now."

That still rubs me the wrong way. I find it hard to believe that this ever applied to all women, that she described all the relevant varieties of feminine experience in 300 pages. For this reason, I think large part of the second book is superfluous and manages to take away from the argument's force with its generalizations. There are glimpses of insight in it, like everywhere else in this book, but overall The Second Sex would have been better if the history of a woman's life, from childhood to old age, would have been skipped over or condensed.

The Bottom Line

I would recommend this book if you are interested in the history of feminism. If you are looking for an introduction to feminism or to what feminism has to offer today, not so much.


  1. Love your review! I read this book a while ago and remember being torn between fascination and wanting to outright yell at Madame de Beauvoir. But the cat is awesome.

    By the way, I found your blog through a link over at Délaissé and like it very much...not to speak of the tumblr, especially since I AM afraid of Virginia Woolf :)

    1. Hi, Cassandra, so glad you like the post and the blog :)

  2. This is such a great, awesome post! I love philosophy and femisnim and literature and love it even more when bloggers talk about it!

    To tell you the truth, I've never read anything by Simone de Beauvoir, but this one sounds like the perfect place to start. I somehow agree with existentialists, but I feel it deserves more attention and research before I call myself an existentialist.

    1. This is the first piece by de Beauvoir I read (I think I did read some fiction by her but do not remember a word of it), so I can't really say if it's the place to start or not. But you know, if you like existentialists and feminism, I think you'd enjoy it.

  3. I really enjoyed this post - I think you wrote it very well :)
    Thanks for sharing your impressions; I've never read anything by Simone de Beauvoir and I think this little "summary" helped me getting to know the bases of her philosophical thoughts.

  4. I'm catching up on my feed reader but wanted to cheer for an excellent, well-constructed post on an interesting subject. I find de Beauvoir frustrating because I read her as suggesting that equality will only work for the top achievers, never for the masses, but I confess it's a while since I read or thought about her ideas and arguments.

    1. Hmm. I suppose you could argue that her system would lead to only a select few attaining equality, if one has to work for that equality. But I think she'd say that it doesn't have to be like that, that society should push (all) women to become human the same way it does men, instead of holding them back. If that happens, there would be still the matter of social/economic class (b/c capitalism doesn't care for your humanity etc. etc), but that would affect men and women of lower classes equally. So men and women would have equal chances at realizing their potential as human beings, but not all of them will, because other matters (class, race) will hold them back.

      And thanks for your comment :)