Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 2 Part 4 Chapter 14 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 2, Part 4, Chapter 14 : Lived Experience (Toward Liberation) | Summary

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Summary

According to Beauvoir in Chapter 14, "The Independent Woman," no matter the changes in women's rights, the woman remains a vassal so long as she has no economic autonomy. The system supporting her dependence collapses once she ceases to be a parasite. Work alone can guarantee women's independence. Yet even the emancipated working woman is only halfway there.

Beauvoir claims man's advantage is that, from childhood, "his vocation as a human being in no way contradicts his destiny as a male." For a woman "to accomplish her femininity, she is required to be object and prey." The emancipated woman is in conflict. To confine herself to her femininity would be a mutilation, but so would rejecting, or refusing to acknowledge her sex. Woman is only equal to man if she is a "sexed" human being. Yet for her, the terms are incompatible.

The woman who has made herself a financial success is held to a high standard in her feminine habits: elegant dress and a fashionable home. A successful businessman needn't be bothered with such things in order to sustain his reputation. Thus, the emancipated woman must adhere to the femininity of her mother and grandmother, and, at the same time, live like a man.

The independent woman—and especially the intellectual woman—will suffer from an inferiority complex. She cannot compete for men with her beautiful, feminine sisters. And she must be a "spontaneously offered prey." Yet, she knows she remains a subject. To fake it makes her awkward, self-conscious, and would mean she is not authentic, not herself.

As men come to terms with women's new condition, women feel more at ease. A woman who works hard and has many responsibilities feels entitled to the same sexual diversions as a man. This recourse is not so easily available, either in practical terms—going out on her own at night—or in terms of negative judgments, especially in the provinces. Beauvoir mentions a short-lived bordello for women in San Francisco, and a fictional film based on the same premises.

The basic terms for women remain different from those for men. Men pursue sexual partners aggressively. Beauvoir argues that "a woman who is not afraid of men frightens them," and ceases to be attractive unless she is taken by the male. If, afterwards, he finds she has "taken" him, he feels as though she has been dishonest and he has been trapped. Similarly, in bed, "he wants to take and not receive, not exchange but ravish."

Motherhood is the one female function the woman cannot undertake in complete freedom. Beauvoir notes that British and American women have access to birth control, while French women do not. Still, women are not free to procreate—or not—as they please. There is the matter of painful and dangerous abortions, a lack of respect for single motherhood and their illegitimate offspring, and a lack of children's services and daycare for working mothers.

Thus, the independent woman is caught between her sexual and professional desires. Women's health issues are not considered in the marketplace. There is neither sympathy nor allowances for a menstruating worker. Women often have defeatist attitudes, the result of inferior educations and late arrivals in the marketplace. A woman often "lacks confidence, inspiration, and daring."

Women who try their hands at creative work have many obstacles to overcome. Accustomed to idleness, they "play" at working. Unaccustomed to self-discipline, they often do not know how to work hard, acquire solid technique, or persevere to solve a problem. Women are often discouraged by criticism, and usually called upon to change a lifetime of coddling in order to learn how to succeed.

Most of all, culture must be apprehended "through the free movement of a transcendence"—a mode women must learn to master. Beauvoir argues that "misfortune and distress are often learning experiences" that women need to be prepared to encounter.

Analysis

The deeply personal observations here—convincing to most in their bare familiarity—represent a daring and stimulating mode for a polemic. The intimate details reflect the intellectual's self-consciousness as an innovative approach to argument. From the earliest sections, where the reader encounters the inner life of the girl, to these disclosures of the independent woman's shame and enthusiasm for a sexual life as free as a man's, Beauvoir gives of herself as a means of improving humanity at large. All of this operates in a uniquely personalized and authentic synthesis of Marxist/existential thought.

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