Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 2 Chapter 10 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 10 : Lived Experience (Situation) | Summary



According to the opening paragraph, the announced goal of this chapter, titled "Woman's Situation and Character," is to grasp the "Eternal Feminine in her economic, social, and historical conditioning as a whole." For centuries women in the Western world have had to endure many indictments, including being considered argumentative, petty, and selfish, while lacking a sense of truth, accuracy, and morality.

This chapter consists of an indictment list, in which "a synthetic point of view" attempts to take the measure of "behaviors ... in negative form," suggested by the woman's situation. There has been a shift to abstract and judgmental statements drawn from psychoanalytic, scientific, and historical research as well as from literary texts. Something is indeed amiss in the stereotypes of the "Eternal Female" echoed in this chaotic chapter. As the "indictments" accumulate, some traits discussed seem not at all negative, while others do not seem to be specific to women. Many, at least in a 21st-century reading, are unbelievable or quaint.

The argument asks the reader to believe these are universal judgments produced by the woman's situation and reproduced over time. This argument may not fly for the literate, contemporary reader, however. While many of these statements tend to logically follow from the earlier scientific and historical accounts, they seem strained as conclusions. They also seem hard to fathom as aspects of the stereotypical Eternal Female.

For example, Beauvoir claims that "woman's mentality perpetuates that of ... civilizations that worship ... earth's magical qualities: she believes in magic." While this statement echoes the earlier historical account, it does not seem familiar in thinking stereotypically, or logically, about women. In the agricultural time of men and machines, certainly there is—or have been—male farmers who find the seasons magical. Moreover, believing in magic is not as unfashionable as it once may have been.

This is possibly Beauvoir's point: that stereotypical thinking destroys individuation, and thus makes objects out of individuals. Still, the examples need to be convincing.

Here is another example, especially odd in an existentialist text: "Not only is she unaware of what real action is, ... but she is lost." This sentence, the topic sentence of a new paragraph, is followed by, "she does not know how to use masculine logic well." And the supporting evidence (at least this sentence offers some) states: "A syllogism is not useful in making mayonnaise." Likely, the example is cancelled out by the philosopher's wit—but to what end?

The chapter closes with a surprising and nonetheless rewarding shift in focus. The "transcendence ... prohibits her from having access to ... human attitudes ... not so common even in men." Readers may find themselves, quite appropriately, at the cusp of disappointment in the failure of existential morality as a human goal.

A final call for liberation, acknowledging that it "can only be collective"—a project for men and women together—demands above all "that the economic evolution of the feminine condition be accomplished." This is a far cry from where the book started. Still, readers may find themselves disturbed by the negative nature of women's situation that produces such rhetoric as common discourse. In this very sense, the synthesis promised at the opening has found its fulfillment in the end.


This chapter loses focus in its overstated examples, as Beauvoir explores the age-old indictments against women. She fails to distinguish among those that are blatantly stereotypical and designed to perpetuate the subordination of women (Eternal Femininity), and those that seem to have some basis in the real conditions of the lives of men and women.

The failure of existential morality would seem to be the underside of this angry and chaotic chapter.

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