Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 1 Chapter 3 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 3 : Facts and Myths (Destiny) | Summary



In this chapter, "The Point of View of Historical Materialism," historical materialism refuses the definition of woman as a sexed organism. As Beauvoir points out, humanity in historical materialist theory is a "historical reality. ... Only those with concrete value in action have any importance." Woman's work and her society's economic structure determine her identity. Engels's The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) chronicles the importance of women in the Stone Age. A primitive division of labor meant equality between the sexes, the men hunting and fishing and the women gardening and making pottery and cloth. Equal participation in the economy and equal status led to discoveries of tin, copper, iron, and bronze; the advent of the plow; the acquisition of private property, including land and slaves; and what Engels called "the world historical defeat of the female sex." Changes included women's restriction to housework, domination by man, the replacement of maternal right with paternal right, and the transmission of property from father to son rather than woman to her clan.

In this history, Beauvoir surveys the nature of man who seeks possession, thinking of the chief as a model for autonomy and accomplishment, as well as the acquisition of goods. Still, she questions this individual whose interest in his property is an "intelligible relationship."

Similarly, she says, "It is impossible to deduce woman's oppression from private property." She sees a chain reaction, citing the "imperialism of human consciousness."

But woman is not simply a worker, and there are times during which her ability to reproduce is as important as her ability to produce. Engels wanted to eliminate the family in a socialist state, enabling women to work. In a collective society in which everything is shared, including child-rearing, the woman thus becomes an erotic object, while finding her subjectivity in her public life. One might say she manifests the "doubleness" extolled by Lacan extolls, something Freud saw as incomplete development.


Nothing goes to waste in this text. Even as Beauvoir rejects a point of view or a discipline that does not satisfy her original questions, she gathers information that she puts to good use in following chapters. In this section, the reader begins to receive notice for what they likely have always already known but need to hear again—that no matter how satisfying and/or oppressive domestic life can be for women, equality between the sexes necessarily begins in the shared enterprise of meaningful work. The lesson of historical materialism is the one that places women in a position of equality with men: for Engels in the economic structure, but for Beauvoir in the recognition of the encounter with the imperative of existentialist morality. The imperative is to live a life of freedom accomplished in the challenge of sustaining a life of process, of progress—always moving beyond to succeeding freedoms. To be human is to break through the world of givens with an individually chosen transcendence. To be passive is also a choice. In Sartre's existentialism, passivity is a sign of "bad faith."

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