Hello, Europeanists! Today we’re going we’re going to turn in a philosophical direction as we discuss Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic feminist treatise, The Second Sex. Our cat today is Dante. Beauvoir was a French philosopher and political activist who lived from 1908-1986. In the 1920s, she studied at the Sorbonne, which is France’s most prestigious university, as a member of the first group of women admitted to universities in France.
Beauvoir graduated second in her class, just behind Jean-Paul Sartre. The two would work together closely for many years. Sartre is most famous for founding a branch of philosophy called existentialism. This is a complex theory, and I’m just going to give you a basic sense of it. Basically, existentialism teaches that we are all entirely free beings. Whatever we do, whatever we become, is up to us. If you don’t achieve what you wanted, you can’t blame God, because he doesn’t exist. You also can’t blame your nature, or your subconscious, or your external circumstances, because these are all things we can overcome. Thinking optimistically,
existentialism teaches that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, no matter what. Thinking pessimistically, though, it also means that if you don’t achieve things, it’s entirely your fault. For existentialists, we are judged solely by our actions, and only those who make authentic choices are worthy of respect.
Sartre developed this philosophy while he and Beauvoir were working for the Résistance during WWII. I encourage you to think about how that experience shaped his philosophical vision, and also how existentialism influences Beauvoir’s work.
There are a couple of existentialist terms that may be helpful to know. For existentialists, existence (how you live) precedes essence (what kind of person you are). The existent is a person in the world (someone who exists). An existent who is in a state of immanence is someone who has not yet defined themself through action. Transcendence is the process of defining oneself through action. To be stuck in a state of immanence is to be completely disempowered. These ideas play a major role in Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy.
Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, which was a transitional time for women in France and in Europe. As we’ve learned, women had been gaining rights steadily over the course of the 20th century. In much of Europe, women gained the right to vote in the 1920s, though in France they got it only in 1944. European women also entered the workforce en masse during WWII and many fought in resistance movements. By the late 1940s, governments and societies in Western Europe were pressuring women to return to homemaking, just as they had after WWI. In keeping with the turn toward private life that Mazower described, many women did so. But a substantial number were not content to return to a subordinate status and began pushing for greater equality. It was in this context of the early postwar negotiation of women’s role in society that Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex.
This is a hard text to discuss not in real time. I’m going to give you some questions that I hope will help you work through it on your own and through discussion on the blog.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Beauvoir starts with the question, “What is woman?” In the first couple pages, she explores the idea that “female” and “woman” are not coterminous and ponderous the role of the ambiguous concept of “femininity” in separating them. Can you analyze how Beauvoir develops separate ideas of gender and sex here? What do those terms mean to her? How are they different? How does her understanding of sex and gender in 1949 compare to our understanding of these terms today?
2. For Beauvoir, it’s also significant that she asks the question “What is woman?” and not “What is man?” She says that in our society, because Man holds all the power, he has set himself up as the subject, the essential, the self (the Number One Person). Meanwhile, he has relegated Woman to the position of the object, the inessential, the other (the Number Two Person). Can you unpack her thinking in this passage? What does it mean for women to live in a world dominated by men, which forces them to think of themselves as an Inessential Other? How does this compare with your own experience, whether you identify as a woman, a man, or a non-binary person?
3. In their role as an Inessential Other, women share some similarities with other oppressed groups. On pp. 7-10, Beauvoir gives the examples of Jews, African-Americans, and the proletariat. Each of these groups has a way to assert a Subject position (to think of itself as a Self), except for women. Why don’t the strategies that work for these groups work for women? What economic, legal, and other factors keep women from asserting themselves as a group against men? Has she convinced you on this point? Why or why not?
4. The next section I asked you to read is the conclusion of Beauvoir’s account of the history of women’s oppression. This might remind you of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and I encourage you to think about that comparison. Like Woolf, Beauvoir points out that women have gained more rights lately. But, she says, they’re still hemmed in by a world created by men. Exceptional women are just that—exceptional. A woman has to be exceptional to have an impact, because ordinary women are too held back by societal norms to take action. Make a close reading of the second paragraph on p.151 and the one after it (in the middle of p.152). Can you restate Beauvoir’s explanation of this situation in your own words? What does she mean when she writes, “[Women] want transcendence to prevail over immanence in themselves as in all of humanity; they want abstract rights and concrete possibilities to be granted to them, without which freedom is merely mystification.” (Beauvoir 152) What would this look like in practice?
5. What Beauvoir is really talking about in this section is structural inequality, which is a term we’ve explored in other contexts this semester. Make a close reading of p.155. What structural inequalities does she highlight, which hold women back from genuine equality with men? Are these issues still with us today? What are some possible solutions?
6. In the section, on pages 266-274, Beauvoir explores what she calls the myth of the “Eternal Feminine.” What is this myth? What are the attributes of the Myth Woman? How does the myth work to keep women subjugated and keep men in a dominant position? How does the myth work to prevent the development of healthy relationships between men and women? Consider your own life experiences: If we accept Beauvoir’s reasoning about this myth, how does it affect the way you interact with your partner, friends, and family members?
7. Now we move on to women’s situation, which Beauvoir argues has a significant impact on the way they behave in their daily lives. She asserts that women tend to be passive rather than active—but this is because they are so disempowered that they don’t think in terms of action. She writes, “It is mainly because she has never experienced the power of liberty that she does not believe in liberation.” (Beauvoir, 643). Make a close reading of pages 643-645. How does Beauvoir build her argument that that women’s “foolish” behaviors are a result of their situation, not their nature? What would Virginia Woolf think of this argument? How does her belief in the supremacy of nurture (the environment) over nature (innate qualities) derive from her existentialist philosophy? Does she convince you of her claim? Or do you think that women themselves bear some responsibility for thinking their way out of subjugation?
8. On pp. 650-654, Beauvoir addresses the hypocrisy that men bring to the table. In public, a man is all about family values, but in private, he cheats on his wife, sleeps with prostitutes, and demands that his mistress have an abortion. She says women know this and basically play along, and she doesn’t blame them, because that’s their only way to survive. Has she convinced you that the game is rigged against women this way? Do we still see elements of this in our society today? If so, how can we change it? What are the implications for society if everyone’s relationships are built this way?
9. Beauvoir also brings economic class into the mix. She says that middle class women actually have at least some sphere of action, because they do real work in taking care of their homes, families, and shops. Upper class women, by contrast, sit around and do nothing. They are willing accomplices in the subjugation of women because they benefit from it. This gets back to her claim in the introduction that women do not feel solidarity with one another across boundaries. If upper class women really are “winners” in this rigged game, why should they fight against it? What reasons does Beauvoir give? What reasons can you think of? Or do you think they don’t need to fight it?
10. Beauvoir spells out her argument for why women must embrace solidarity on p.664. Can you unpack her argument here? Why must there be no compromise? Is such solidarity really possible? Why or why not?
Those are my questions for you. I know this is a heavy reading, and a hard one to do on your own. I hope you will be able to read and consider all of it. But if you’re not able to do that, then please choose at least two of the excerpts I’ve given you and respond to those.