Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 2 Chapter 4 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 4 : Facts and Myths (History) | Summary



As economic, social, and political life change, women continue to suffer. Christian ideology regulates women's lives, specifically their positions in the Church and in marriage. Saint Paul writes: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." Woman become the most dangerous temptation. The story of the Virgin birth acknowledges that the woman's body is dirty and a place of sin. The only marriage recognized by canon law is one by dowry. Thus women are rendered helpless. If a woman with children is widowed, she becomes their tutor, and her dowry, their patrimony.

Through the Middle Ages (c. 6th–16th centuries), women's privileges and rights fluctuate across cultures. German families are strong, and the organization is somewhere between matrilineal and patrilineal. Women are powerless and sold into marriage; however, they inherit their dowries and are equal partners in marriage. Some women are priestesses and prophets—thus, presumably, beneficiaries of educations superior to those of men. Things are worse among the Carolingians and Merovingians of modern-day France: polygamy is tolerated, and women can be forced to marry without consent. They can also be repudiated by husbands who hold the right of life or death over them. Women who bear many children are celebrated, but they lose all worth when their childbearing years end.

Around the 11th century the feudal system accepts women's succession as head of her household. Military service, however, was required of vassals, so a woman still needs a male guardian to hold her fiefdom—a plot of land granted to vassals in return for labor. Her domain is not her property, but instead belongs to the local lord, as does she and her children, who are to be turned over to him as vassals. In a warlike culture in which women are scorned—and horses preferred—women share the activities of men. Women ride horses and participate in hunts. Such ladies of the manor, called "viragoes," are admired, Beauvoir says, because "they behave exactly like men ... greedy, treacherous, and cruel."

Equality between men and women happens, however, when "service of the fief" is "converted to a monetary fee." Since men and women could be taxed identically, both sexes are considered equal. In the countries of Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, women remain subject to wardship. French and German women, unmarried or widowed, have the same rights as men. Still, a married woman remains subject to her husband's guardianship.

The chapter ends with observations by writers from the 16th-18th centuries, both men and women, who attempt to come to grips with the unequal and unbalanced circumstances of the lives of men and women. Awareness and the will to change surface in the writing of a growing number of emancipated men and women.


Beauvoir states, "the woman most fully integrated into society is the one with the fewest privileges." And in common law as well as feudal law, the only true emancipation for women is outside of marriage. What was true for the privileged class was not necessarily the case for the class of released serfs. With the abolishment of serfdom, rural communities developed in which spouses lived on equal footing, each doing work to sustain the family. In environments of this nature—across time and cultures—women won autonomy because they had viable economic and social roles.

In this observation, the reader finds the repetition of the key theme: the idea that women's emancipation comes not with idleness and luxury—so-called material blessings—but from the work of her hands, her willing partnership that depends upon work equal to that of men in order to sustain life. At the same time, it is the wealthy woman who pays for her idleness with submission. And, if the reader is to draw conclusions from the historical narrative, one would be that not only does the women pay with her life, but with her divorce from life itself. The uncomfortable corollary is the male resentment of women, their fear of women, the belief that women fake submission in order to trap men into taking care of them and that women are manipulative and scheming.

Even if people believe in historical notions of progress, and see some elements of women's lives improving in the historical narrative, the 16th century is marked by a turn against women. Beauvoir states, "European codes ... were unfavorable to ... woman, and all ... countries recognized private property and the family." Prostitution remained an important part of society. Wives remained in servitude to the family, and public women kept the male population honest. "Getting rid of prostitutes," according to Saint Augustine, would "trouble society by dissoluteness."

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