Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 3 Chapter 3 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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



This final section on myth deals with the relation of the myth of woman to contemporary reality.

The distinction between alterity and reciprocity, a struggle of consciousness, marks a place to begin. "It is thus true," Beauvoir begins, "that woman is other than man, and this alterity is ... felt in desire, embrace, ... love." Felt, one might say, in a primordial sense, while the "real relation is one of reciprocity." Real relation is not what is felt but what occurs in the context of action and experience. Beauvoir names the dramas, "eroticism, love, friendship, and their alternatives of disappointment, hatred, and rivalry." The passage from alterity to reciprocity is from "enmity to complicity." The relation of alterity posits woman as object, and the point of view is that of the masculine subject. This reeks of enmity. Throughout the text, alterity has been conceived as the male definition of difference, the source of the subject/object conflict, while reciprocity is the feminine response to difference, the recognition of woman as individual subject in relation to the masculine subject. Here the reader finds complicity between the sexes. Hence, one could view the title, The Second Sex, not as a matter of a secondary sex, but a matter—or dream, or wish—of two equal sexes.

Women manifest themselves in numerous ways, but myth interferes, summarizing them as a whole. Men, however, are perplexed by the many ways women participate in the archetypes of femininity. Beauvoir claims that men are condemned to ignorance about the women's body, her "sexual pleasure, the discomforts of menstruation, and the pains of childbirth." The same is true for women with respect to men: "As she is mystery for man, woman is regarded as mystery in herself."

Here it must be acknowledged that the complex physiology of the woman, as noted earlier, means her body is not a clear expression of herself. Does this mean woman is a sphinx, indefinable to herself?

Beauvoir presents an existential analysis. This is the very center of her argument. It is not a matter of women's ambivalent relation to their bodies, or men's oppositional habits of mind. It is not a matter of hidden truth, too fluctuating to be described. People have been looking in the wrong places. Beauvoir states, "An existent is nothing other than what he does ... the human being is nothing." It is action that defines a person.

Still, in the male/female conundrum, there is the economic distinction. Men own the means of production, the power of the purse. And from this dominant position, a man observes the moment when the oppressed person hides beneath a false appearance.

Thus people come to see the Eternal Feminine, or feminine mystery, as a "more profound reality." According to Beauvoir, the oppressed—women—learn to hide their real feelings, and are "taught from adolescence to lie to men." Thus, women live between their subjectivity and their otherness. Essentially, facing oneself as Other, and accepting the bargain with experience is the beginning of relief. Beauvoir concludes, quoting Laforgue, that woman will become fully human only "when woman's infinite servitude is broken, when she lives for herself and by herself." There is no blameworthy individual, weak woman, or dominating man. Equality is a two-way street.


Psychoanalysis has created the topic of the sexual distinction. However, it is Beauvoir's movement of these ideas into a philosophical framework that opens the reader to the recognition that the feminine is defined by the Freudian distinction, an unresolved identification with either the mother or the father, and a woman's acceptance of her otherness and her subjectivity. To factor in Beauvoir's Marxism is to find this ambivalence in the woman's relation to production.

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