Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 1 Chapter 1 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 1 : Facts and Myths (Destiny) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1, titled "Biological Data," opens with a simple definition: Woman is "a womb, an ovary." Insult or exaltation, the male version "roots woman in nature," and "confines her in her sex" where, taking value from the animal world, she castrates and cannibalizes, like the praying mantis or the spider, or flirts and succumbs, like the monkey and the wildcat. To stop thinking in commonplaces, Beauvoir advises the reader to ask what the female represents in the animal kingdom and what "unique kind of female is realized in woman?"

Studying reproduction in the lower animals, Beauvoir concludes that (1) sexual differentiation cannot be deduced at the cellular level, and (2) with respect to reproduction, differentiation occurs "as an irreducible and contingent fact." An early history of theories of reproduction favors male "energy" and the feminine body as nurture without actual participation in the formation of the individual. In 1887 the sperm was identified penetrating the starfish egg, and not until 1883 was their fusion analyzed. The notion of the male as active, and the female passive with respect to reproduction proceeds from Aristotle through Hegel. Across time allegories of sperm and egg, and dubious narratives about sexual differentiation, sustain the myth of feminine passivity and masculine energy. Science, meanwhile, increasingly pursues notions of symmetry and equality between the sexual organs and the processes of spermatogenesis and oogenesis—respectively, the formation of sperm cells and egg cells.

Similarly, reproductive behaviors assume narratives of violence between the sexes: the giant female spider, bigger and stronger than the male, eats the male after coupling and carries off the eggs; under stress conditions, the praying mantis cannibalizes her partner. Yet the battle of the sexes goes on, the male of the species often more beautifully and colorfully marked, and fully indolent after coitus occurs, while many females are enslaved for a lifetime, laying, incubating, and caring for larvae. Beauvoir—in heightened sexual language—describes the individualism and aggression of the male fish and birds, while arguing that the "suppressed" female is inhabited and much of her life "absorbed." In species more given to the "flourishing of individual life," the male is at an advantage. He is usually larger than the female, often lacks paternal instinct, and is stronger and more adventurous.

In the animal kingdom the male and the female perform two diverse aspects of the life of the species. Here the male can "affirm himself in his autonomy," in Beauvoir's words. The female is the continuity of life, which "explains why sexual opposition increases ... when the individuality of organisms asserts itself." The process of giving birth is more painful for cows and mares than for mice or rabbits. Furthermore, "woman ... is also the most fragile ... and ... distinguishes herself most significantly from her male."

Because a woman's body is her sole possession in the world, the world appears different to her depending on how it is understood. These ideas are among the keys that help women understand what is woman, but they are not the basis of the sexual hierarchy. Furthermore, these ideas do not offer an explanation as to why woman is Other, nor do they place her in a subjugated role.

Analysis

In describing the relation between growth and development in the human male and female, Beauvoir charts a simple linear trajectory for the maturation of boys, while women's bodies register discomfort and conflict in each hormonal stage from the onset of puberty through the menstrual cycle. Also emphasized is the influence of hormones on mood, health, and bodily comfort throughout the life cycle. Describing physiological changes with each menstrual period, she states, "this is when [the woman] feels most acutely that her body is an alienated opaque thing."

Evaluating the woman's alienation from her body through pregnancies and menopause, Beauvoir concludes, "in no other [female mammal] is the subordination ... to the reproductive function more imperious."

This narrative epitomizes alterity, and changes—for all time—the conversation about woman, and the nature of her subordination.

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