An analysis of Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental The Second Sex.
Illustration by Rachel Mathew
Few writers have had as deep an impact on the feminist movement as Simone de Beauvoir. The French philosopher and political activist is lauded for her analysis of women’s struggle in her book, The Second Sex, with some even calling it the Feminist Bible. This article will highlight some key ideas discussed in this remarkable text.
Firstly, since Simone de Beauvoir’s influences were Marxist and existentialist philosophy, an important tool used in The Second Sex was the perspective of historical materialism. Volume 1 Part 2 traces a connection between private property and the oppression of women, through a thorough historical analysis.
This analysis shows that women were freer in times before the advent of private property. They were more respected, more revered, and had more rights when private property as a concept did not exist. Women were scholars, priestesses, tantrics, shamans, wise, and held positions of power (although they did not enjoy complete equality even here).
When private property was established, the ideology of society changed to an ideology of consolidation: the more property one had, the more successful they were considered. Women were banned from owning property, and instead, marriage became more than a social contract, but a legally binding one. Binding, that is, for the wife.
This was the first time in history that one reads of the concept of “belonging”. In books of law and scriptures, for the first time, women were said to “belong” primarily to men: a daughter legally belonged to her father, and marriage was the legal exchange of this possession from the father of the woman to her husband. She then became the private property of her husband, and the modern system of the ‘family’ was established, with the woman becoming nothing more than a child-rearing machine. This was a far cry from the position they held earlier in history.
In fact, we see remnants of this ideology even today, when women are described as ‘maal’, and the act of coitus is referred to as ‘a man possessing a woman’.
In de Beauvoir’s analysis, the fate of women’s oppression is tied closely to private property.
One of the most important concepts of existentialist philosophy is that “existence precedes essence”, in other words, that one is not born a certain way, but rather becomes so if they choose. Simone de Beauvoir links this existentialist rule with the struggle of women geniuses. She quotes Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own as a reference to build her case on, saying, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius; and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.”
While she maintained that the oppression of the proletarians were similar to the oppression of women, she was clear on the differences: for almost every other oppressed group, there was a ‘before the oppression’, except women. Before their oppression, even slaves had once been free people. Women, however, had never been free in the history of humanity.
Her analysis points out the strange historical dichotomy of the married versus the unmarried woman: the unmarried woman is often a lot freer than her married counterpart. Often in history, she has almost all the freedoms as of the man, but is not respected because she is not married. The married woman on the other hand has respect (as she is married), but not freedoms, as she “belongs” to her husband, quite like property.
So the choice presented before women throughout history is this: either you can have respect, or freedom. Never both.
One of de Beauvoir’s iconic ideas is that society is male: “A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man.”
She builds a strong case for her belief that society was created with the default in mind, i.e., the Male, as it is a society created by men, and for men. Even academics, scientists, and writers are not free of their biases. In her commentary on Freud in Volume 1 of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir very plainly criticises what she sees as a very important aspect of all male writers: that they see the world (including women) as if it has been ‘created’ for the Male.
Her take on Freud’s idea of ‘penis envy’ puts it bluntly and clearly: Freud believed when a girl child looked at a man’s penis, she felt envy as she lacked the penis and therefore, the ‘pride’ one gets from having a penis. However, as she puts it, “this pride has no immediate correlation with the humiliation of his sisters, since they only know the masculine organ in its exteriority.” In other words, they do not have any experience of having a penis, and therefore attach no importance to it. But Freud, being a man, did not even take into account that a girl could look at a man and not wish to be one.
She furthers her case of the deep chasm of privilege that divides man and woman through the concept of “Transcendence”. According to Beauvoir’s brand of existential philosophy, the meaning and purpose of life comes from the Work a person does. If the person does not do any Work, they cannot “transcend” themselves and become truly fulfilled.
Women should not fall prey to bourgeoisie notions like ‘childbearing is a responsibility’ or ‘a woman is not really a woman if she isn’t a mother’.
By Work, she means not only productive work, but the “purpose” of one’s existence. For example, the purpose of a writer’s life is writing, that is to say, the writer’s Work is writing, through which they transcend their life and find true purpose.
However, throughout history, women have not been allowed to do such Work. They have been told that their ‘purpose’ in life is childbearing and household chores. Simone de Beauvoir argues that childbearing is not an activity, but a biological phenomenon, and therefore is not Work. She therefore argues that women cannot ‘transcend’ their life, and find purpose, as they are not allowed to do any Work.
Therefore, she says, only Man can transcend, but Woman cannot do the same. Her single solution for the emancipation of women is for them to find this Work. By this she doesn’t just mean financial independence, although she stresses that is of utmost importance, but also that women should not fall prey to bourgeoisie notions like ‘childbearing is a responsibility’ or ‘a woman is not really a woman if she isn’t a mother’.
Simone de Beauvoir lived as she wrote, unquestioningly free of bourgeois notions and ideas, and ardently independent. She campaigned and wrote for the emancipation of women, and pioneered in analysing terms like micro-aggression and male privilege. Her work in The Second Sex is par-excellence, and has been quoted as ‘eye-opening’ and the ‘turning point’ in the lives of many feminists succeeding her.