Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 2 Chapter 6 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 6 : Lived Experience (Situation) | Summary

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Summary

In Chapter 6, "The Mother," Beauvoir claims that since a woman's body is dedicated to the propagation of the species, motherhood is the woman's "natural vocation." Human society, however, is never left to nature. This chapter explores the interactions between society and maternity that treats the notion of "natural" as a problem, with respect to the lives of women. First, the reproductive function, for a very long time, has not been a matter of biological chance. Birth control methods range from technique (coitus interruptus and post-coital douches) to technology (condoms, and birth control pills). In all cases, the control of reproduction creates tension between lovers. The legal, moral, and emotional conflicts generated by abortion represents the extreme example, including prospects for added danger, shame, and anguish over the illegal abortion.

Pregnancy is, according to Beauvoir, "a drama playing itself out in the woman between her and herself." It promises the woman a "new existence is going to manifest itself and justify her existence." Still she is the "plaything of obscure forces," assaulted by the discomforts of pregnancy and the distortions of her body as the pregnancy proceeds. Subject to her own fears of suffering or dying in childbirth, she finds her appearance is subject to the snickers of young men and the curiosity of small children.

"Like the woman in love," the new mother feels needed. According to Beauvoir, maternal love is perhaps more difficult and great in that there is no reciprocity. She cares for "a little stammering consciousness, lost in a fragile and contingent body." Her freedom consists in expecting no compensation for the gifts she bestows. There is no guarantee, however, that the natural state of becoming a mother insures for the infant a good mother. The mother is always subject to her past: her relationship to her family of origin, to her husband, and to her own sexual history.

Finally, there are women who, "out of custom ... are still refused education, culture, responsibilities ... that are the privileges of men." For Beauvoir, while there is no such person as the natural mother, but there is a woman for whom people have the greatest hope, who "can only consent to give life if life has meaning" and "cannot try to be a mother without playing a role in economic, political, or social life"—the necessary conditions for giving birth to "free men."

Analysis

Beauvoir notes that meaningful work for women is not incompatible with motherhood when the community shares responsibility in the raising of children. Until women's economic contributions are equal to men's, however, the subordination of women is inevitable.

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