‘Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.’
Simone De Beauvoir, despite being one of the most controversial (and even scandalous) figures within feminist theory, never failed in dropping truth bombs like the one above. In fact, her seminal text, “The Second Sex”, revolves around this very idea—confronting human history and the oppression of women within it, from a feminist perspective. In this nearly 800-page text, she rips patriarchy to shreds—covering a vast variety issues from gender roles to societal expectations of the ‘feminine’, to questioning the conventional representations of women in history, myth and contemporary culture.
But why is de Beauvoir, and this text, such a big deal? Let’s find out.
Born in Paris in 1908, de Beauvoir dabbled in multiple pursuits—political activism, existential philosophy, fiction writing, and ultimately, and most importantly, feminist theory. As a child, she was intellectually precocious and wise beyond her years. In the post-First World War period, where women from middle class families like hers faced continuous suppression in many walks of life, she led a life defying every patriarchal hurdle faced in her path. At 21, she was the youngest to ace the agrerion—a highly competitive postgraduate exam (in a society where women were continually ostracized from higher academics), and later became a high school teacher, prolifically wrote political pamphlets and essays, and hobnobbed with some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the time (including Sartre, Hegel, and Jean Hippolyte). Instead of being overshadowed by the bevy of influential male intellectuals and philosophers who were part of her close social circle, she carved a niche of her own—and her writings became as academically celebrated as that of Jean Paul Sartre, who was both her intellectual and romantic partner. Her relationship with Sartre was something wildly revolutionary for the times she lived in—they had an open polyamorous relationship, each choosing to have multiple affairs on the side while simultaneously being very devoted to each other. She refused to get married, yet again, making an unconventional decision for the time.
Her no-fucks-given attitude to patriarchal conventions translates into The Second Sex as well, where she lays down, in great detail the history of women’s oppression and silencing at the hands of men. It is divided into two volumes—Facts and Myths, and Lived Experience—which are further divided into tellingly titled subdivisions such as ‘Destiny’, ‘History’, ‘Myths’, ‘Formative Years’, ‘Situation’ and finally, ‘Towards Liberation’. Let’s look at some of her basic arguments in detail:
“One isn’t born, but becomes a woman”
De Beauvoir devotes her first few chapters in exploring this very phenomenon—how ‘womanhood’ is far from a biological fact, and is ultimately what society imposes. She analyzes the biological processes behind reproduction, and the relationship between the ovum and sperm, to draw logical conclusions that these facts ultimately have no bearing on one’s gender expression—basically, laying down one of the biggest truisms of Gender and Sexuality studies, which stipulates that one’s biological sex ultimately may not coincide with one’s gender expression, and that gender itself is a social construct. This is a concept that people still find difficulty wrapping their heads around, especially when it comes to trans and gender nonconforming people, and though she doesn’t explicitly bring trans people into the equation here (instead focusing on the social impositions of ‘femininity’ on women), her saying this way back in 1949 was a huge and important revelation, and a landmark in how gender is understood today.
De Beauvoir talks about how the myth of ‘feminity’ leads to a near-fetishization of the processes of fertility and reproduction. This, she says, is because men are actually uncomfortable with the fact of their birth and the inevitability of their death—basically talking about how fragile ‘masculinity’ is. Further, she lays down another truism—that a “woman is not born fully formed”; and in fact is conditioned by her patriarchal upbringing to adhere to what society believes to be a woman. It is ultimately these very forces of society which tells women that they are passive, secondary, unimportant and not the equals of men.
“The whole of feminine history has been man-made”
Long before ‘herstory’ was even a thing, de Beauvoir was contesting the male-domination of traditional historiography and the exclusion of women from within it. She talks about how most histories and mythologies have been constructed by the male gaze, in which women have been either reduced to their bodies (ie, their function of motherhood, or their virginity, or even their sexuality being highlighted instead of anything else), or have been unnecessarily elevated as untouchable goddesses, devoid of humanity. She uses the term “immanence” to describe the historic domain assigned to women; which is a closed-off realm where they are slated to be interior, passive, subordinate, or immersed in themselves. “Transcendence” is the word she designates to the opposing male lot: who have occupied active, creative, productive, powerful roles in history and have participated in activities which affect the external world. She breaks down the process of traditional myth-making and history-writing stage by stage, and shows how women have been always forced to relinquish their existential right to ‘transcendence’ and accept their circumscribed, inferior lot. It is a harsh exposition, and really makes one think about the extent to which women’s achievements have been erased in history, and how problematic their position within it is.
“What would Prince Charming have for occupation if he had not to awaken the Sleeping beauty?”
De Beauvoir exposes how, at a very fundamental level, the woman’s role in society has been biological reproduction, while the man’s role has been economic and social production. She explains that one of the central problems of the female condition is the ultimate difficulty of reconciling a woman’s reproductive capacity with her productive capacity (ability to participate in economic production). She hits the nail right on the head here, because this is a dilemma that we still face—with every professionally successful woman still getting asked how they balance their careers with raising kids.
On closer inspection, de Beauvoir finds that reproduction and production are not mutually exclusive. A woman’s reproductive capacity should not stop her from fulfilling a position in society beyond the home—woman is neither exclusively a worker nor exclusively a womb, and her contribution to society shouldn’t be limited by either.
The solution she offers to balance these two functions is a restructuring of the traditional nuclear family so the woman can enter the workplace as a man’s equal. To achieve this, various social stigmas—surrounding abortion (Beauvoir was strongly pro-choice), single mothers, and in general, working women—should be challenged, and ultimately, dismantled.
“At the moment when man asserts himself as subject and free being, the idea of the Other arises”
Beauvoir uses the term ‘Other’ throughout The Second Sex to talk about the woman’s secondary position in society as well as within her own patterns of thought. One of her chief goals in writing this book, is to answer the question of why and how women have been othered. Beauvoir explains that according to the philosopher Hegel, reality is made up of the interplay of opposing forces, and hence, for a being to define itself, it must also define something in opposition to itself. Hence, throughout human history, men have occupied the role of the self and in making himself the subject, has made women the opposing force, the ‘other’. Because it is fundamentally unnatural to live in the role of ‘the other’ women constantly struggle between this role that has always been ascribed to them and to try to break away from it.
As mentioned earlier, with this text, de Beavouir apprehended aeons of feminist thought which didn’t surface until late twentieth century, making this a true landmark. She talked about subaltern history, abortion rights, how gender is a construct, gender roles and sexuality in ways that had rarely been talked about before, and spawned ideas which would influence generations to come. Apart from all that, she constantly spat on patriarchal norms and threw societal expectations out the window in her personal life—basically proving how she was feminist theory’s own reservoir of swag and badassery.
Read More from the ‘Decoding A Feminist Text’ series, where we show you that feminist theory is actually pretty rad, here.