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Beauvoir explained that the construction of woman as an object of sexual desire epitomised the power imbalance in society between men and women. This power differential is still at work in our psychological processes tyranny of these debasing myths.’ These words come close to suggesting The Second Sex had the potential to shatter woman’s previously misguided self-perception – to cause a revolution in female consciousness.

The Second Sex wasn’t as divisive in Britain, but had a significant and lasting impact on the way concepts like ‘equality’ and ‘feminism’ in general were understood. By 1961 Dennis Brogan, in his review of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd in the Observer noted that Goodman was complacent about female problems when discussing equality in society. He suggested the book would have benefited from a ‘debate between Mr Goodman and Madame Simone de Beauvoir’. Earlier in the decade A J P Taylor had exclusively discussed class in debates about democracy in the New Statesman. Post-Second Sex, gender divisions were included in a transformed UK discourse about inequality.

In England and the US in the 1950s, conceptions of womanhood and of what was generally taken to constitute social inequality altered. The reception of The Second Sex fed into this process. These changes set a context for the significant force and reach of feminist political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. But after the 1970s, The Second Sex fell out of public discussion while Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique remained.

The second wave has now given way to a new wave of feminist activity in Britain and America. This is a movement for which Beauvoir’s writing is deeply relevant.

New wavers argue against the continued sexualisation and objectification of women in the media and call for a shift in ideology to fracture the value system that precipitates this. The porn, advertising and beauty industries (PABs) are particularly criticised. Legislative changes efected by the activism of the 1960s and 1970s have not been enough to free women and men from patriarchal ideology. The success of the PABs relies on their ability to identify with deep human desires. They expose a lag between legal changes that attempt to put into practice the theory that women are equal to men and values embedded in female and male psyches that continue to fuel the objectification of women.

Beauvoir wrote directly and clearly of the complex network of assumptions about woman that had led to her oppression for centuries. Her philosophy of woman as the ‘other’ is particularly resonant today. Beauvoir explained that the construction of woman as an object of sexual desire epitomised the power imbalance in society between men and women. This power diferential is still at work in our psychological processes. It is an inequality that is exploited and perpetuated by the media. As Catherine Redfern, co-author of Reclaiming the F-Word, has argued, the cultural representation of women is one of the new battlegrounds for feminist activists and this fight will only be over when social attitudes, and their internalisation by men and women, have been changed.

The afinity between Beauvoir’s philosophy and the objectives of the new wave suggests that in order to reclaim feminism today, we should reclaim The Second Sex. n red pepper aug | sep 2010 65

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