The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | 10 Things You Didn't Know


When the wife of the publisher at Knopf first heard about Simone de Beauvoir's book The Second Sex, she thought it was a high-class sex manual and encouraged her husband to publish it. This was not the case, but the publication of Beauvoir's book was revolutionary. It sold thousands of copies in the first weeks after it came out in 1949 and sparked the rise of second-wave feminism, inspiring later feminist works such as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Beauvoir was a well-educated Parisienne, a teacher, a writer, and a colleague of intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss, among others. In the 1940s she began writing what would become her magnum opus, The Second Sex, a two-volume analysis of the question, "What is woman?" The Second Sex looks at the female gender through the lenses of biology, history, economics, literature, and philosophy. It compares male and female experiences and attempts to explain how biology, particularly reproduction, has functioned to enslave women.

1. Beauvoir had a 51-year-long open relationship with writer Jean-Paul Sartre during which they often shared lovers.

Beauvoir and Sartre met in 1929 when both were in school in Paris. Though they were attending different universities, they both planned to take the extremely difficult postgraduate exam in philosophy, so they ended up studying together. Sartre placed first, Beauvoir second. Quickly the two discovered they were soul mates. They lived together, but under pressure from Beauvoir's father Sartre proposed to her. She told him "not to be silly."

Though they loved each other, Sartre explained to Beauvoir that "what we have is an essential love; but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs." Beauvoir was bisexual; Sartre was not. They both had affairs; Beauvoir found some of Sartre's lovers for him, and she shared some of them. The open relationship, which endured until Sartre's death in 1980, was far more difficult and painful for Beauvoir than it was for Sartre. She noted, "We failed to face the weight of reality, priding ourselves on what we called our 'radical freedom.'"

2. Beauvoir received sexually explicit hate mail after The Second Sex was published.

The Second Sex was considered shocking, even pornographic, and it appalled many of its readers. Beauvoir received hate mail after its publication in 1949. Writers called her frigid, a child-hater, and a lesbian. Some offered to "cure her" and to have sex with her to satisfy her desires. One writer, François Mauriac, was so disgusted by her ideas that he wrote a letter to the staff of the journal she cofounded, saying, "Now I know everything about your boss's vagina."

3. Beauvoir had an affair with her 17-year-old female student.

When Beauvoir was teaching in Rouen in 1933, she had a student named Olga Kosakiewicz. Kosakiewicz, age 17, moved into Beauvoir's hotel and began an affair with her. Sartre, Beauvoir's long-time lover, tried to seduce Kosakiewicz but failed and instead slept with her sister. Beauvoir and Sartre shared two other students during this time. Beauvoir was dismissed from a later teaching position in 1943 when a parent complained that she was corrupting one of the female students.

4. Beauvoir wanted to be a nun before she became an atheist.

Beauvoir's mother was a deeply religious Catholic, and Beauvoir was raised in the church, though her father was an atheist. She went to a convent school and was devout enough that she considered becoming a nun. At age 14, however, she had a crisis of faith, deciding that she wanted to live in the present and appreciate what life and nature offered. She decided that there was no God and remained an atheist for the rest of her life.

5. The Second Sex is often called a "feminist bible."

Many readers and reviewers consider The Second Sex a "feminist bible," though Beauvoir herself was an atheist. She believed all religions were invented by men to aid in and justify their domination of women. Her book, however, delved deeply into what made women women and into the ways in which they were subjugated and controlled by male-dominated society. It was the first in-depth examination of the condition of women, and it ushered in the era of second-wave feminism, as women struggled against the societal chains that bound them in an attempt to achieve equality.

6. Beauvoir saw women's ability to give birth as a "curse."

Beauvoir saw women's reproductive capabilities as interfering with their "productive" capabilities, their ability to be part of the workforce. Beauvoir believed that women had, throughout history, been cursed by their ability to give birth and enslaved by their roles as mothers. She noted that "gestation is a fatiguing task of no individual benefit to the woman." For Beauvoir, a woman's access to contraception and abortion and her ability to leave her children to go to work were necessary to ensure her ability to become independent and autonomous.

7. The publisher of The Second Sex said Beauvoir suffered from "verbal diarrhea."

When American publisher Alfred A. Knopf hired H.M. Parshley, a zoologist, to translate The Second Sex into English, he asked the man to cut and abridge the text, stating that the author "certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea." Parshley was uncertain about making the cuts and wrote to Beauvoir about it, and she wrote back protesting the changes, saying, "So much of what seems important to me will have been omitted." However, she eventually approved the translation.

8. Writer Albert Camus accused Beauvoir of making French men look "ridiculous."

Beauvoir and her lover Sartre had a circle of philosopher friends that included the writer Albert Camus. Camus and the couple were all proponents of existentialism, the theory that emphasizes the existence of the individual person who uses free will and personal responsibility to investigate the nature of the self and the meaning of life. However, the three often disagreed. Camus wrote in a letter to Beauvoir that her book had made "the French male look ridiculous."

9. A spectacular footbridge in Paris was named after Beauvoir.

Although The Second Sex was met by some readers and reviewers with ridicule and horror, the French were proud enough of Beauvoir and her accomplishments to name a footbridge across the Seine River in Paris after her. The bridge is known as "la lentille," or "the lentil," because of its undulating shape. The footbridge opened in 2006.

10. Though many critics believe The Second Sex launched second-wave feminism, Beauvoir denied it.

When an interviewer noted that the publication of The Second Sex ushered in the modern feminist movement, Beauvoir responded, "Most of the women who became very active in the movement were much too young in 1949–50, when the book came out, to be influenced by it." She believed that most women came to feminism through their own experiences, though she was pleased that many of them later discovered her book. Many feminists disagree, however. When Beauvoir died in 1986, newspaper headlines read, "Women, you owe her everything."

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