Skip to main content
Read page text

Second coming

Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work The Second Sex laid the foundations for the second wave of feminism and is essential reading for the feminist resurgence today, writes Rosie GeRmain

The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir New translation by Constance Borde and Sheila MalovanyChevallier Jonathan Cape 2009 (60th anniversary edition) When first published in France in 1949, The Second Sex took French society by storm. ‘Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything,’ Simone de Beauvoir reflected later on ‘the fuss it provoked’ for its frank discussion of notions of feminity, sex and gender.

The book was translated by the biologist H M Parshley in America in 1953 and released in England and America in that year. It contained probably the most famous of Beauvoir’s statements: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.’ As a consequence of its challenges to biological determinism, the treatise ushered in unprecedented levels of open debate about ‘fixed’ feminine characteristics, preparing the way for ‘second wave’ feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Parshley’s version has been criticised for over half a century – he cut about 100 pages and lost much of the existential philosophical implications of her analysis. It was only at the end of 2009 that The Second Sex received a new translation. This edition has come at a time of a new wave of feminism in Britain and America. So it’s an opportune moment to re-evaluate the importance of the 1950s and Beauvoir in the development of modern feminism, bringing into relief the relevance of The Second Sex in women’s liberation up to the present day.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir harnessed existential,

64 red pepper aug | sep 2010

phenomenological and Marxist ideas to develop her theory on woman. She argued ‘woman’ had been socially constructed as the ‘absolute other’ to man’s role as transcendent being. Woman had been the object in history, where man had been subject. She encouraged women to become conscious that their roles in society had been constructed by patriarchy. She laid blame for female subjugation with women and men who, by not challenging the patriarchal ideology of oppression, had inauthentically collaborated with it. In Sartrean terms, Beauvoir depicted female beliefs of their subjection to men as ‘natural’ as bad faith – ultimately, a denial of their power to transcend it and exert their freedom.

Beauvoir underlined the tragic ambiguity of women’s position in modern society – they were increasingly working part-time and attending university, thereby beginning to see themselves as deserving of equal professional opportunities as men and as being mentally as capable. These ambitions clashed with society’s demands on women to nurture and care for their children and husbands. Beauvoir wrote at a time when uncertainty about gender roles had been rising to the surface in Anglo-American society. These anxieties were detectable in the shifts in tone of women’s magazines.

Throughout the 1950s, dissatisfaction among housewives became a recurring theme in the women’s press. They often described their housework as mundane, their husbands ungrateful, and the agony aunt columns were saturated with discussion of what by 1954 was being labelled ‘suburban neurosis’ – the depression of the penned-in housewife. Women had therefore started to question the value of their existence as child bearers and carers. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex clearly and philosophically articulated some answers to these questions.

However, many critics reacted with horror to Beauvoir’s challenge to the sanctity of maternity and marriage. In her June 1953 Partisan Review article, the New York intellectual Elizabeth Hardwick slated the book, encouraging, un-ironically, woman to come to terms with the fact she is, ‘like a stray dog, also weaker than men’. Psychiatrists believed Beauvoir had caricatured Freud when she challenged what she took to be his gender stereotyping. Despite these criticisms, The Second Sex had aggressively engaged with prestigious frameworks of contemporary thought: biological determinism and psychoanalysis. This raised the profile of debates about women.

Other US reviewers were less ofended. In the Saturday Review of 21 February 1953, Ashley Montagu, chairman of Rutgers’ anthropology department, spoke of how Beauvoir had innovatively cut to the heart of the problem of women’s place in society: ‘Simone de Beauvoir will help woman to resolve her doubts most authentically. The doubts that women have about themselves are manmade, and most women are so enslaved to the myths of their own inferiority they are unable to see the truth for the myths. In Simone de Beauvoir’s distinguished book, women now have, for the first time, the facts set before them which can free them from the

My Bookmarks


    Skip to main content