Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”


Existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in a little over a year. It forms the foundation of the literature of second-wave feminism. In the introduction, de Beauvoir points out that men occupy both the positive and neutral gender valences in society, while women are the negative, the limitation, and the lack 5. The tie that binds women to her oppressors is unique because she cannot leave him, because it is a relation that has always been – it is ahistorical 9. Like Woolf, she observes that men always find even the smartest women to be reflections of their most average ranks 13. “How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself?” 17.

The book’s first section, “Destiny,” examines biology, psychoanalysis, and socialism all as modes that have insufficiently constituted women and sexual difference. Her biological approach acknowledges that women are weaker, but fails to grasp how that still matters in contemporary society, for “her body is not enough to define her” 48 and “a society is not a species: the species realizes itself in society; it transcends itself toward the world and the future; its customs cannot be deduced from biology… it is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes himself” 47. Her review of psychoanalysis contends that Freud takes drives as givens and does not account for their origins. He even admits that he accepts the father’s sovereignty of male supremacy as a given without seeking its origin. Psychoanalysis’ ‘scientific’ divide of clitoral (male) and vaginal (female) aspects of women attempts to make psychic life a mosaic, but like Woolf, de Beauvoir contends that “it is altogether complete in every one of its moments” 54. In this system, woman struggles to “accomplish herself as transcendence” rather than immanence 60. (In Husserl’s terms, the transcendent object is real, complex, and whole, while the immanent object is aesthetic, conceptual, finite, and metonymous). Finally, her section on Marxism claims that reducing women to a “class” like the proletariat is unsuitable. Historical materialism has its limits, and gender busts them 64. Man apprehended woman as property, but we cannot “deduce woman’s oppression from private property” 65. The USSR has struggled to treat female workers equally and to allow for gestation and recovery: “it has asked woman to become an erotic object again” 67. All these theories have value, but are insufficient.

In “History,” de Beauvoir explores how men came to oppress women. She concludes, like Woolf and Freidan, that it is not female inferiority that has made them insignificant, but insignificance which has rendered them inferior. The “dependent consciousness” of Hegel’s master-slave dynamic would be better suited to man-woman, since the rule of life that defines her as immanence and man as transcendence “rivets her to her body” (an existentialist approach) 75. In history, when men are still subject to the earth, woman is vital; the struggle to be free from mother earth is imagined as a great struggle in men’s writing 88. Though she is indispensable, “by total annexation, woman will be lowered to the rank of a thing” 89. She is dethroned by private property and then becomes it. Christianity intensifies this: “in a religion where the flesh is cursed, the woman becomes the devil’s most fearsome temptation” 104. Like Foucault’s power structures, de Beauvoir contends that “so many factors converge to thwart woman’s independence that they are never all abolished simultaneously” 109. Much of this is also tied to the mythos of female evil. Though there is room in Christianity to see woman as “better,” these examples are twisted to mean the opposite. The French Revolution was bourgeois in nature and did not alter things 126. Balzac says, “The married woman is a slave who must be seated on a throne” 129. Bourgeois woman “clings to her chains because she clings to her class privileges” 130 [Friedan]. Socialism favors her liberation, but it is tied up in reproduction, which must be reconciled with production 136. Abortion is still illegal but birth control is widespread. de Beauvoir also points to the benefits of capitalism: capital flows and the individual rules, making divorce and independence more possible 140. On the flip side, pressures of appearance and elegance constrain American women 154. (Female sovereigns escape these issues by androgyny.) Like Woolf: “a great man springs from the mass and is carried by circumstances: the mass of women is at the fringes of history, and for each of them circumstances are an obstacle and not a springboard” 151. Stendahl: “all the geniuses who are born women are lost for the public good” 152.

In “Myths,” de Beauvoir considers that women must be viewed how men view her. Central to the myths of women and their fertility are horror and disgust. Women are said to spoil things, to be spoiled, to be on the edge of foul and mysterious cycles that lead men to prioritize their mystical, symbolic, and immanent value. It is almost impossible for them to “assume both their status of autonomous individual and their feminine destiny… ‘a lost sex’… it is more comfortable to endure blind bondage than to work for one’s liberation; the dead, too, are better suited to the earth than the living” 274 [Friedan]. Women can only be freed by men who assume new positions appropriate to a changing situation 274 [feminism is bisexual].

In “Childhood” and “The Girl,” de Beauvoir rejects Freud’s theory of penis envy. This is the chapter that begins, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” 283. The girl does not experience herself as lack, but plenitude 287. She is aware of her differences from boys in social treatment, and may envy the boy for standing urination. The penis is metonymous and animated; the doll with which the girl is compensated is whole and passive 293. Even if the girl does not envy the penis, she sees that it gains something for the boy. The girl begins to learn that the father’s authority is large and is not wasted on trivial matters 299. She understands her body as lack, wound, shame, illness, and crime 340. Older girls cope with the shock of menstruation and the disgust of understanding sex in a variety of ways. These experiences remain with her throughout life. In “The Girl,” the girl learns to model herself on the dreams of others – to negate the self for man, leading to dissatisfaction and narcissism [she cites Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”] 352. Woman desires male attention and fears it, is disgusted by it 364. She also addresses the “curse” of lesbian desire, which she argues is neither deliberate nor perversion.

“The Married Woman” focuses on the “absurdity” of asking two people to satisfy one another sexually forever. Marriage almost always “destroys a woman” with dullness and labor. In “The Mother,” she advocates for abortions as safe and offers socialist childrearing communities as an alternative to the nuclear family.  In “Social Life” and “Woman’s Situation and Character,” de Beauvoir claims the distractions of amusement and labor that keep women from fulfilling intellectual life. She also considers their transition into menopause, which may cause homosexual desire and depression.

“Justifications,” consisting of “The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” and “The Mystic,” are musings on women outside these norms. Towards the end of the 750-page book are “The Independent Woman” and a “Conclusion.” The first suggests artists, dancers, and Bronte and Woolf as women able to escape the sadism and masochism of culture, approaching the “inhuman freedom” of nature. In the conclusion, de Beauvoir imagines a utopia the USSR promised but did not deliver:

“Women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable “service”; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would betaken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them” 759.

This failure, in the USSR as much as in France or the US, is why “woman is torn between the past and the present; most often, she appears as a ‘real woman’ disguised as a man, and she feels as awkward in her woman’s body as in her masculine garb” 761. To reconcile this, both men and women must sacrifice. In economic terms, woman must sacrifice her sense of self as “priceless” [Friedan’s ‘feminine mystique’], while man must share experience, power, and domestic work. “Men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” 766. [not in love with this as the last word, haha!]




Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading”


“Books are objects. On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility… Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? They appear to be lit up with that hope. Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others” 1320.

“It would never occur to me to walk around a sewing machine or to look at the under side of a plate [feminized objects!]. I am quite satisfied with the face they present to me. But statues make me want to circle around them… Isn’t it because they give me the illusion that there is something in them which, from a different angle, I might be able to see? Neither vase nor statue seems fully revealed by the unbroken perimeter of its surfaces. In addition to its surfaces it must have an interior… the entrance to a secret chamber. But there is no such entrance” 1320. [think Heidegger and Husserl – the atomization of the object is infinite – also, the illusion of depth – the interface of surface and “depth.”]

“It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled-up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it… You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” 1321.

“I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case, the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself… to think what it thinks and feel what it feels” 1321.

“It is as if [the object] no longer existed, as long as I read the book… no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist… not in the paper object. Nor, surely, in external space… my innermost self… [the objects in it, like fish in an aquarium] need the shelter I provide: they are dependent on my consciousness… in order to exist as mental objects, they must relinquish their existence as real objects” 1321.

“On the one hand, this is cause for regret… I deliver myself… to the omnipotence of fiction… I become the prey of language… [which] surrounds me with its unreality. On the other hand, the transmutation through language of reality into a fictional equivalent has undeniable advantages. The universe of fiction is infinitely more elastic than the world of objective reality… They are objects, but subjectified objects. In short, since everything has become part of my mind, thanks to the intervention of language, the opposition between the subject and its objects has been considerably attenuated… I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects… They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject… I am thinking the thoughts of another… as my very own… I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him” 1322.

“Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them and shelters them… the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but feel what I read… Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another… within me” 1323 [facile, also absorption, feminizing]

“The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author, either in the disordered totality of his outer experiences, or in the aggregate, better organized and concentrated totality, which is the one of his writings… what matters to me is to live, from the inside, in a certain identity with the work and the work alone… Nothing external to the work could possibly share the extraordinary claim which the work now exerts on me” 1324.

“Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal… a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects” 1325.

“This astonished consciousness is in fact the consciousness of the critic… an uncertain movement of the mind toward an object which remains hidden. Whereas in the perfect identification of two consciousnesses, each sees itself reflected in the other, in this instance the critical consciousness can, at best, attempt but to draw closer to a reality which must remain forever veiled… since sight, the most intellectual of the five senses… against a basic opacity, the critical mind must approach its goal blindly, through the tactile exploration of surfaces… the material world which separates the critical mind from its object” 1326.

“The critics linguistic apparatus can… bring him closer to the work under consideration, or can remove him from it indefinitely… he can approximate very closely the work in question, thanks to a verbal mimesis which transposes into the critic’s language the sensuous themes of the work. Or else he can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power ont he part of the subject… [the object’s] infinite distance from the subject” 1328.

The first is complicity (union without comprehension), the second is disinterestedness (comprehension without union). He proposes the idea “not of practicing them simultaneously, which would be impossible, but at least of combining them through a kind of reciprocation and alternation” 1329. (A dialectic?) This is “a critical method having as guiding principle the relation between subject and object” 1332.