The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Summary



Volume 1, Part 1

The Second Sex consists of two volumes. The first, "Facts and Myths," has an "Introduction" and three parts. The first word of the "Introduction" is "I." Thus, the reader is introduced to the unconventional nature of a seemingly academic work as the narrator announces herself informally in the first person. Moreover, she is identified by her sex. The second shocking element is the author's point of view: not only is the female subordinate to the male, but she is complicit in the plot of male dominance.

Chapter 1, "Biological Data," considers females in the animal world in order to consider the unique nature of human females. Chapter 2, "The Psychoanalytic Point of View" presents Beauvoir's criticism of the Freudian approach to sexuality in women, particularly the notion that girls are developmentally delayed and thus prone to remaining in an "infantile state" or "developing neuroses." Chapter 3, "The Point of View of Historical Materialism," refuses the definition of woman as a sexed organism and makes the argument that women's work and her society's economic structure determine identity.

Volume 1, Parts 2 and 3

Part 2, "History," consists of five chapters. The first begins in the pre-agricultural world, where, presumably, women worked as hard as men and assisted men in battle. The second explores women's roles in the agricultural world in which women have prestige because of their childbearing capacity and the need for large numbers of children to work the land. The third speculates on women's loss of prestige with the advent of private property. The fourth demonstrates some fluctuation in women's prestige and notes the role of Christianity in diminishing women's position. The fifth, recognizes that economic independence is a necessary condition for women's equality with men.

Part 3, "Myths," Beauvoir observes that "the representation of woman in myths is never a story about the individual woman but a projection of what men desire and fear." The six chapters in this section explore myths from various cultures as well as the mythologizing of woman—for better and worse— in the work of writers whom Beauvoir studied.

Volume 2, Part 1

The title of Volume 2 is "Lived Experience," which consists of an introduction and four parts: "Formative Years," "Situation," "Justifications," and "Toward Liberation." The introduction explores the "common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems." "Childhood" is the first chapter of "The Formative Years." Beginning with the oft-quoted sentence, "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman," this chapter emphasizes the distinction between the individual woman and the subordinated object, woman. The evolution of the stereotype begins somewhere in the second half of the first year of life when infant girls are treated differently from boy babies. The succeeding chapters continue this developmental study.

Volume 2, Parts 2, 3, and 4

Part 2, "Situation," consists of six chapters that focus on women's situation with respect to men as the foundational organizational premise.

Part 3, "Justifications," is made up of three chapters. In these three chapters, different feminine types or situations are explored for the possibilities of independent co-existence or successful matches with men.

Part 4 stresses economic independence for women. The Second Sex concludes with a hopeful prediction: That men and women recognize the Other as other and appreciate the differences while not doing away with the miracles that the divide human beings into two separate categories.

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