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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

July 25, 2010
6 min read

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, 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 offended. 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 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 effected 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 differential 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 affinity 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.

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