The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Introduction | Summary

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The Second Sex is divided into two volumes—Facts and Myth and Lived Experience. Each volume is then broken up into parts. Volume 1 has three parts, while Volume 2 has four. Finally, each part is further divided into chapters, only some of which have titles. The book begins with an introduction and ends with a conclusion.

Summary

The Second Sex opens with the question, "What is a woman?" and defines a problem especially "irritating" to its female author. It is not simply a matter that man has always been the One, but that woman, as the Other, has always been complicit in this hierarchical ranking. The Second Sex examines how women's reality has been constituted and what the consequences of women as Other are from the man's point of view and from the woman's.

First and foremost, the reader is reminded that the binarism—man/woman—is oppositional as a linguistic convenience only. Alterity, the relation of male to female, provides for difference in specifically individual terms, and yet it is this very individuality that is denied to the woman. Man, as subject, is an individual, but for women, difference from men is biological fact—only beginning with anatomy, the bedrock of a collective identity. Woman is a sexual object, a reproductive body, while man, as subject, is anything he declares himself to be, everything within the range of his ambition and imagination.

In search of answers—or at the very least the right questions—the balance of the introduction explores questions of alterity with respect to historical situations of dominance and subordination. Whether it is the situation of "American blacks" (her term in 1949) or Jews, Beauvoir observes that alterity gives way to relativity. That is, the oppressed group finds its particular identity in its recognition of radical difference rather than in the binarism implied by anti-Semitic or anti-Black prejudice. Moreover, Jews and blacks—or for that matter, minority groups—each in their own communities, come to say we, thus assuming subjectivity. Those who refuse to be objectified value community identity as the one thing that sets them apart. The shift from oppressed Other—or object—to individualized self and subject, is constituted by assuming specific aspects of difference (belief, habits, skin color, and other physical differences, food preferences, goals, sympathies, etc.).

Beauvoir argues that for women, unlike minorities, alterity is a given, an absolute "because it falls outside ... of historical fact." Rather than a specific moment in the history of humanity, the division of the sexes is a biological given. Furthermore, women live dispersed among men, not in isolated communities. Biological need, sexual desire, and the wish for posterity have not liberated women socially. Like master and slave, man and woman are linked by an economic need in which the slave is not freed. For women, the link insures no disruption of protection and economic freedom. Woman is sometimes complicit in her Otherness because her dependence is comfortable, and she can derive satisfaction in that role. There would be little need for this book if this were the definitive answer.

Finally, the book attempts to answer these questions: how did it get this way? Why has the world always belonged to men? Only today this is beginning to change. Is it a good thing? Will it give rise to greater equality?

Analysis

Beauvoir defines alterity as "the fundamental category of human thought." She cites German philosopher Hegel, who said, "a fundamental hostility to any other consciousness is found in consciousness itself." Hegel goes on to claim that the subject positions itself in opposition, and asserts itself as essential, while the object (the Other) is non-essential. What he can know is essential; what he cannot fathom is inessential.

For the Other, the woman, in contrast to the man's oppositional hostility, the matter of alterity is one of relativity and reciprocity in relation. That is, the woman has configured her world differently from the man. The moment people think socially, an opposition in cognitive processes between men and women begins to take shape. This opens the key question: Why do women submit to male sovereignty, to themselves as Other, defined in alterity—when, in fact, they know better?

Beauvoir argues that historically, men sought to make "the fact of their supremacy a right," creating laws they turned into principles. Simone de Beauvoir's short list of history's sympathizers includes Christian theologian Saint Augustine, who concedes that the unmarried woman is perfectly adept at managing her personal affairs; French philosopher Denis Diderot, who sees man and woman as human beings; and English philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose ardent defense of women is a matter of record. Beauvoir also observes that for men, fear of competition, threats to morality, economic competition, and concerns over their own virility perpetuate the oppositions.

In sum, change can only occur when vague notions of inferiority, superiority, and equality are abandoned. "There is no public good other than one that assures the citizens' private good," she concludes. Women's struggle is between the fundamental claim of every subject to posit herself as essential, while the demands of her culture deem her inessential. Individual possibility—different from individual happiness—is the measure of freedom.

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