Rereading de Beauvoir 1: Introduction

In honour of the new translation (by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier) of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, 3WW will be running a regular series of posts loosely and admittedly rather pompously titled “Rereading de Beauvoir for the 21st Century.” Or maybe, “Rereading de Beauvoir for 21st Century Middle Class Aotearoa/New Zealand*” where *= whatever other caveats you might like to add. You can find all the posts in the series so far here.

Speaking for myself, not my fellow bloggers here on 3WW, I am a feminist Of a Certain Age, if you know what I mean. One who read The Second Sex (which was first published in France in 1949!) several decades ago. I thought a re-read would be useful for me, and perhaps for some of our younger readers – if we have any – who haven’t had the chance to get to it yet, or our older readers – if we have any – who never got to it or who have forgotten it or who miss it or who hated it or….

These pieces will follow the chapters of the book, beginning of course with the Introduction. (Page numbers listed will refer to the hardback version of the new translation, Jonathan Cape, 2009). It is the introduction – a mere 15 pages in the new translation – in which SdB (for de Beauvoir, henceforth) sets up her 800-plus page work, asking the questions that seemed to force her, against her will, to embark on this overwhelming task. After all, as she points out, the subject of woman is “irritating, especially for women; and it is not new.” SdB has her critics, particularly among feminist scholars, and I’ll be including some posts on the major criticisms as part of this series (and welcome debate in the comments section, of course). I’m no expert, but in general, I think feminists have too quickly taken these criticisms as a reason to close their copies of this book and move on. (Not to mention those, usually non-feminists to be fair, who only seem able to discuss SdB in relation to Sartre.) Male philosophers don’t tend to suffer from this problem. The ‘great (male) thinkers’ from the ancients through to 20th century made some pretty serious screw-ups, but seem none the worse for popular wear as a result. Anyway, I digress.

The Second Sex is introduced by a series of questions. What strikes the 21st century reader is the fact that most of them still apply and none of them have yet been answered (which is perhaps a good thing): “Is there a [woman] problem?” “What is it?” “Are there even women?” “What is a woman?” We are told, SdB points out, that femininity is in jeopardy, that we must try harder to save it, to be women. (Yes, we’re still being told that.) But if we must save femininity in order to save woman, does that mean a non-feminine woman is actually not a woman, or, as SdB puts it:

So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it enshrined in Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down to earth?

(I don’t think SdB’s sense of humour has been fully appreciated! What feminist’s ever has?)

But since science (etc.) has shown the bankruptcy of ‘essences’ (‘characteristics’) like femininity (and its racist, anti-semitic etc. counterparts), “Does the word ‘woman’ have no content?” We might reject ideas like “the eternal feminine”, “the black soul” or the “Jewish character”, SdB says, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t black people, Jews and women. So if being ‘the female of the species’ isn’t enough to define woman, the question remains: “what is a woman?”

The Other

This question itself reveals something to SdB that will end up underlying her whole analysis: A man, she realises, would not be driven to write a book around the parallel question ‘what is a man?’ (Hmm, maybe he would? But one has the sense that the question would be of a different nature, meaning, context.) “If I want to define myself,” SdB writes, “I first have to say, ‘I am a woman’.” The parallel need does not apply to a man, who is simply a person. (5) This shows that the terms/categories “man” and “woman” are not symmetrical. To quote some of those greats, after SdB: “Aristotle said: ‘We should regard women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas in his turn decreed that woman was an ‘incomplete man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is what the Genesis story symbolizes.” (5) It’s not hard to see how SdB is quickly led to this key concept: that of woman as ‘Other’. Man is the subject; Woman is the Other to that subject. (6)

This ‘Other’ is a fascinating category. It isn’t, as SdB argues, simply confined to man v woman, but is “as original as consciousness itself”. (6) No group, she writes, ever defines itself without immediately setting up the ‘Other’ as opposite to itself. OK. But usually that group of ‘Others’ has reciprocity with the ‘original’ group. That’s because, when a member of the first group travels to the next valley and finds herself a minority among those Others, she becomes Other to them. What’s different about the ‘sexes’ is the absence of this reciprocity. Woman is always Other. Man is always Subject.

We have many contemporary paralles. Māori, for example, are Other in their own land. One – just one – illustration: When Pakeha are reported in the mainstream media about Pretty Much Anything, it’s the Pretty Much Anything that dominates the story. When Māori are reported about Pretty Much Anything, it must be noted somewhere, if not immediately, that the Pretty Much Anything is being done by Māori. I wonder, then, if there’s going to be something in SdB’s answer to the question “what is a woman” that might apply to other ‘Othered’ groups?

Still, SdB argues that even our contemporary, local Othered groups could find reciprocity (that is, could become the Subject to some other Other) where woman cannot. Otherness, in woman’s case, is absolute – not something that has varied across time, place, culture; it is not an accident of history that could have gone the other way.


Here, SdB also briefly raises an issue she’ll come back to, and one that I’ve always found fascinating and perhaps a bit threatening: the role women play in their own oppression. She writes:

Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them. Lord-man will materially protect liege-woman and will be in charges of justifying her existence: along with the economic risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its goals without help.

Woman, in other words, takes the easy path and flees her own freedom. She gets something from her role as Other, something she may even desire. The safety and security of not being free. But don’t get angry with SdB yet and stalk off in indignation. She promises, after all, to get to the bottom of why this is so, and to find out whether it must continue.


At the end of the introduction, SdB makes clear that she is adopting an existentialist perspective. Thus, the goal she sees for woman is not to achieve, say, happiness (whatever that is), but freedom. Here SdB introduces some of the existentialist terminology she’ll come back to, like “transcendence” and “immanence”. (It is her linking of “woman” and “immanence” that provokes some of her fiercest feminist critics.) This terminology she expands on later, but meanwhile here’s a quick-n-nasty effort at explanation: The “immanent” (“immanence”) is the “in-itself” is the “Other” (“Facticity” also lines up on this un-free side of the ledger.) “Immanence” in the case of woman would mean there really is some eternal, inescapable, feminine essence that she cannot transcend, just as there is a dog nature that the dog cannot escape, or rock-ness that the rock will never transcend. The “transcendent”, on the other hand, is the “for-itself”, it is the “subject”. It can transcend itself, toward freely chosen goals or projects – it has no fixed essence or nature that thwarts its freedom. (For some more reading on some of this terminology, visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  and search “existentialism” or “de Beauvoir” or “Sartre”.)

I’ll close with a quote from the end of the Introduction, in which SdB uses some of this terminology:

Being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, [woman] discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness.

Clear, right?

Coming up: Part One (“Destiny”), Chapter I (“Biological Data”)

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