Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 1 Chapter 1 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 1 : Lived Experience (Formative Years) | Summary




Although women are overthrowing the myth of femininity, Beauvoir claims that "their normal destiny is marriage." Thus male prestige remains on a solid social and economic base. This section explores the "common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems."

Volume 2, Part 1, Chapter 1|Lived Experience|Formative Years

This chapter, titled "Childhood," opens with, "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman." Thus, the reader begins again with the distinction between the individual figure of the human female, and the subordinated, summarized object—woman. The diction is disruptive, and it works. Beauvoir creates the emerging consciousness of the sexually undifferentiated body, and fixes it in a phrase: for children, the body "is the first radiation of a subjectivity ... they apprehend the universe through their eyes and hands." And boys and girls are alike, deriving satisfactions from sucking, from excretory functions, from exploring their bodies with their hands, and from penis and clitoris. The soft skin and supple flesh of the mother supplies the erotic and emotional stimulus, and boys and girls respond in the same way.

At around six months, the newborn lives the primal drama of one's relation to the Other. Recognizing the body's boundaries, humans experience the anguish of separation, and find the origins of desire for oblivion, for sleep, ecstasy, and death. When the child grows up, he fights his abandonment, defensively seducing and aggressively pursuing maternal warmth and approval. Beauvoir says it is, moreover, "more satisfying to deny brutal separation than to overcome it."

This scene is set for sexual differentiation: the girl continues to be doted upon, even if she whines or bemoans the loss of the mother's undivided attentions, while the boy is admonished not to cry, to be a little man. The girl is a doll dandled on her father's knee. The boy finds more is demanded of him because of his superiority. It is not long before this difference is embodied in his penis, his difference. Girl's genitalia are ignored. The boy is celebrated for his penis; in many cultures, songs are sung to it, it is named, and the boy has the pleasure of localized sensation. The girl comes to ignore her own body, perhaps worrying about what might be inside, and even assuming she has a similar organ on the inside. The boy experiences erections, and plays with his penis. Often, the girl gets a doll.

The doll is a passive thing, and not a source of pleasure and convenience. The girl, however, learns to dress the doll and pamper her the way she herself has been fussed over. The predominant first word for girls is "pretty." The boy, as he grows, uses his body to dominate nature, and as a fighting tool. He likes his muscles, climbs trees, fights with other boys, learns to take blows, and suppresses tears. For the girl, she is taught she must make herself other in order to please, and is "is treated like a living doll." It is noted that some girls, raised by fathers or on their own, persist in acting autonomously. Often such girls are socially castigated or harshly reprimanded. They are a cause for suspicion, and are themselves uncertain, even rebellious, and often angry.

As the mother backs off from her son, respecting his maleness, she often aggressively attempts to regulate her daughters, inflicting judgments that conflict with a girl's growing attempts at autonomy. The more the child matures, the more the family hierarchy asserts itself: the father's power, the mother's subordination. At school, the girl discovers the stories of masculine adventure and invention, where "male superiority is overwhelming." If the family is religious, she likely discovers another set of harsh rules and values in which she learns lessons about her place in the world.

Up to around age 12, girls are as sturdy and self-sufficient as boys. A survey of preteen boys and girls establishes that most boys are glad they are not girls, while girls in the study are sorry not to be boys. Beauvoir describes this finding by saying, "Boys are better ... a boy has more aptitude for school ... a boy does more interesting work."

It is at this point that the girl begins to accept things as they are. Beauvoir argues that a girl's passivity is condoned by family; compensating temptations are dangled before her eyes; and she yields as the "thrust of her transcendence comes up against harsher and harsher resistance." The boy's future is open, while the girl will become a wife, a mother, a grandmother. This is why she becomes preoccupied with sex. It is her future and her destiny. The secrets of sexuality and of pregnancy frighten her. She does not trust the adults who reassure her. Likely, she has had some experience with pain: a toothache, an appendectomy. In her anxiety, she links sex with something dirty, and childbirth with blood and suffering. Disgust with her developing body, with menses, with unwanted attention by strangers on the street, and shame at the change in her appearance are all part of her daily experience.

With puberty, the insults of a girl's body are compounded. Moreover, "puberty has a ... different meaning for the two sexes because it does not announce the same future." While boys may find their bodies an embarrassing presence, there is a good deal of pride in their virility. The pain of menses, the threat of inappropriate and intentional touch, and unwanted attention, are all worrisome. A girl's dreams and fantasies consist of sensual love and warm caresses, as well as rape and fear of penetration.


The chapter echoes and confirms the book's key point—that the developmental experience of boys and girls is significantly different. Moreover, the book's opening conundrum—the question of why and how women are complicit in their subordination—is so clearly demonstrated that the issue of blame becomes irrelevant. Patriarchy is a male development, but not a conspiracy against women. It is this very observation that perhaps presents a tipping point for the status quo.

Although the experiential and theoretical models are drawn from the late 1940s, when The Second Sex was written, these ideas hold up even as times change. Also, as the reader comes to recognize the plight of women in societies more repressive or conservative than Beauvoir's, this chapter brilliantly chronicles the development of the small girl.

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