Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (trans. H.M. Parshley). New York: Penguin, 1972 (1949).


The framing paradigm of de Beauvoir's Second Sex, derived from existentialist philosophy, is the binary of Self/Subject and Other. The Self/Subject is the active, knowing subject of traditional epistemology, and is by default male. De Beauvoir argues that the Other, who exists for the Self/Subject in an asymmetrical relationship, is female and feminized, occupying a secondary place in both concrete activity and subjective consciousness. The Other is not an equal complement to the Self/Subject, but rather serves as a projection of everything the Self/Subject rejects: immanence, passivity, voicelessness.

This is not to say that the designation of the Other is a simple case of repression. De Beauvoir notes that there are a variety of reasons why women may not resist their designation of Other: lack of resources, close ties with men, and perceived advantages in being Other.

While de Beauvoir's comprehensive work raises many interesting issues, what concerns me in this context is her development of a theory of subjectivity and identity. Her famous statement, that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, can be read in this way as arguing that there is no ontological subjectivity which is the exclusive domain or men or women. Instead, subjectivity can be granted or withheld by the society in which potential knowing subjects come to existential consciousness. The result, according to de Beauvoir, of women's lack of existential subjectivity...

One of de Beauvoir's most important contributions to 20th century feminist thought is the separation of "woman" (as a biological entity) from "femininity" (as a social construction). In her attempt to frame the debate as such In this she is not entirely successful, since in her section on biology she paints a very discouraging picture of women's alienation from their bodies; though she views female biology as an obstacle to be surmounted instead of a fixed destiny, the fact remains that women's bodies are constituted as such. Still, this sense of possibilities and the body as a "situation" rather than a "thing" represents as positive a view as can be imagined within a paradigm that depends on transcendence of the physical self. De Beauvoir also argues that biology cannot be understood outside of its social, economic, and psychological context, and that biology alone is insufficient to explain why women are constituted as the Other. She concludes that: "Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself." (734)

De Beauvoir rejects psychoanalysis as an explanatory framework for a number of reasons. First, she refuses to accept the notion of sexuality as a given, and argues that the psychoanalytic paradigm gives short shrift to female sexual subjectivity, casting it only as a passive, pre-determined. More importantly, she proposes that the psychoanalytic model imposes a normative determinism on women's sexual development, removing all possibility of conscious action. In the traditional psychonanalytic model which de Beauvoir cites, women are consistently alienated objects buffeted by the winds of contradictory and male-centred sexual desires, who can achieve no more than an ersatz morality which is an adherence to externally determined standards, not a result of a conscious attempt at transcendence and moral action.

Though de Beauvoir attempts to build a historical model of women's subjugation, she rejects much of the historical materialism of theorists such as Engels. In her view, economic subjugation is insufficient to account for the existential Othering of women, and lacks theoretical complexity as an explanatory perspective. She states: "We must not believe, certainly, that a change in woman's economic condition alone is enough to transform her…" (734) Despite this rejection, she notes, in line with Marx, that it was "through labour that woman has conquered her dignity as a human being..."(144) and that "this [economic] factor has been and remains the basic factor in her evolution…" (734) Still, "until it has brought about the moral, social, cultural, and other consequences that it promises and requires, the new woman cannot appear."(734)

Having largely discarded the theoretical streams of biology, psychoanalysis, and historical materialism, de Beauvoir turns her attention to historical ethnography as seen through an existentialist lens. This is, in my opinion, the weakest part of her argument. In effect, she creates a tautology and falls into the same theoretical trap that she previously critiques. She argues that men's activities within the context of prehistory both repeat and transcend life through invention and creation. Though she ostensibly rejects biology as an explanation for women's Otherization, she nevertheless locates existential immanence in early women's biological capacity to reproduce, stating that women's creative activities would have merely been regarded as reproducing life, rather than creating something new. She neither explains why women's childbearing capacity would only be seen as functional reiteration, nor what evidence exists that women did not themselves create, invent, or shape their physical world in the same way that men did. De Beauvoir's existentialist cast raises significant problems if we are to consider what role self-consciousness would have played in premodern humans. Of what significance would transcendence have been to people who were not using a post-Enlightenment conception of the individual, for example? Though she uses history as a theoretical tool, she ahistoricizes human behavior and existential capacities.

De Beauvoir is theoretically indebted to the work of Levi-Strauss (of which Nancy Hartsock is critical), with its attendant problems, and situates women firmly in the familiar nature-culture binary. Women represent the chaotic ambivalence of nature, both idolized fertility and reviled uncontrolled sexuality, both life-bringer and destroyer. As de Beauvoir writes, "She is all that man desires and all that he does not attain." (229) Women represent the immanence of the flesh, both maternal and sexual. Women are symbolically All, which is to say nothing. Anticipating the work of the French feminists, de Beauvoir notes that women's mystery is derived in large part from the absence of language in which to understand them; metaphorically they exist in the realm of the pre-symbolic. As Other, women exist only in the way in which the One/Subject chooses to think of himself. In other words, women exist only as they are conceived of by men; they have no existence in their own right.

Also anticipating the work of postcolonial feminists, de Beauvoir draws parallels between women and colonized Others, noting that Others are situated within an unequal power dynamic: "[R]ich America, and the male, are on the master side and… Mystery belongs to the slave…The myth of woman is a luxury."(289) Again, the Other is held by the Subject to represent that which is chaotic and unknowable; to project undesirable qualities on to the Other is a luxury enjoyed by the epistemologically privileged. (Hill Collins, Hartsock, hooks, Harding)

De Beauvoir's model clearly privileges the epistemological position of the male. While it is perhaps unfair, given her historical context, to critique de Beauvoir for not thinking outside a Western binary model of male-female, particularly one which posits femaleness as a deficit and maleness as an epistemological standard, I feel this is a relevant point to be made from a theoretical standpoint. De Beauvoir's grounding in European existentialism, based in Cartesian dualism and in post-Enlightenment liberal notions of private property, does not account for other possible ways of seeing the world in terms of the relationship between self, other, and community. In assuming that all societies, for example, give primacy to private property in the same way, and moreover as the exclusive province of men, de Beauvoir creates an artificial social hierarchy that deems patrilineal, property-based societies to be the most existentially developed.

Another significant problem with de Beauvoir's theory is her use of evidence. For much of the book, she relies heavily on the literature and cultural products of the ancients to support her work. First, one can only imagine what conclusions could be drawn from examining the products of our cultural imagination out of their context. Second,

In the next section, de Beauvoir develops her famous truism about becoming a woman by tracing a general history of women's existential evolution from childhood to independent womanhood. Though she rejects psychoanalysis for the most part, apparently scorning the notion of penis envy, she still seems to be theoretically indebted to Freud for the basis of her speculations on childhood subjectivity. Of little boys, she writes: "Because he has an alter ego [a penis] in whom he sees himself, the little boy can boldly assume an attitude of subjectivity; the very object into which he projects himself becomes a symbol of autonomy, of transcendence, of power…" Of girls, de Beauvoir writes, "[She] cannot incarnate herself in any part of herself." (306) Thus, because of girls' physical "opaqueness" to themselves, they are unable to externalize their subjectivity sufficiently to develop existential autonomy. Here, it appears that de Beauvoir has either understood Freud too literally to realize that she has adopted much of his framework for childhood psychosexual development, or that she has anticipated the work of both the French feminists (particularly Luce Irigaray) and the neo-Freudians such as Nancy Chodorow. Subjectivity, for de Beauvoir, seems to begin located firmly in physical characteristics of boys and girls, even though she ostensibly rejects this notion outright. The boy, since he has a penis, projects his Self outward, in the idealized form of cognitive autonomy privileged by post-Enlightenment epistemologists, while the girl, since she has genitals that are "opaque", "hidden" and thus immanent. De Beauvoir argues that once children move beyond interest in excretory functions and their attendant meanings, it is social rewards attached to being male or female (physically and socially) that determine subjectivity.

According to de Beauvoir, girls learn that social rewards are not attached to their epistemological subjectivity. "Thus a vicious cycle is formed: less she exercises her freedom to understand, to grasp and discover the world around her, the less resources will she find within herself, the less will she dare to affirm herself as a subject." (308) Adolescence, states de Beauvoir, involves an existential crisis for women in which they realize they must renounce any claim to being a Subject in order to be desired as an Object/Other. (360) Anticipating feminist cultural theory (Walters) and Donna Haraway's "modest witness", de Beauvoir notes that it is partially through the act of looking that objectification occurs, pointing out that the male Subject's gaze "insensibly takes possession of the perceived image." (374) Same-sex female eroticism, for de Beauvoir, is reduced to a mutual narcissistic objectification, and/or as an "attempt among others to reconcile her autonomy with the passivity of her flesh." (427) Yet, states de Beauvoir, though they struggle with the conflict of self-erasure to become the desired Object, young women are never truly able to achieve transcendence: "It is remarkable that in all those forms of behaviour the young girl does not seek to transcend the natural and social order; she does not aim to extend the limits of the possible nor to work a transvaluation of values; she is content to display her revolt within the bounds of a world the frontiers and laws of which are preserved." (379)

De Beauvoir cites reproduction as one way in which women struggle with their role: in rejecting maternity through abortion, women reject a significant part of their role as Other, and when pregnant, a woman "feels the immanence of her body at just the time when it is in transcendence." (512) (Although de Beauvoir notes earlier that reproduction does not represent true transcendence, but rather biological recapitulation of an existing self) Reminiscent of Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir also notes of motherhood that women who most fully experience some form of subjectivity are the best mothers: "[The] woman who enjoys the richest individual life will have the most to give her children… she who acquires in effort and struggle a sense of true human values will be best able to bring them up properly." (540) Here again de Beauvoir also parts company with psychoanalysis, arguing that the notion of the child as phallic equivalent is existentially limited, stating: "[E]nviable as this manly attribute may be, no one pretends that its mere possession can justify or be the supreme end of existence." (540)

Epistemologically, de Beauvoir anticipates the paradigm of "women's ways of knowing" of which Code is so critical. Again, she works with the nature-culture, female-male binary to argue that women's epistemological grounding is fundamentally different from men's by virtue of their biology and experience. According to de Beauvoir, women are devoted to irrationality and chaotic superstition; their time is circular, not linear; they have "no sense of factual truth" (611); they are not familiar with logic and indeed, "[i]n masculine hands logic is often a form of violence, [and] a sly kind of tyranny." (482) Epistemologically, both men and women are powerless in one another's realm; women's lived experience is undefinable in male terms: "There is a whole region of human experience which the male deliberately chooses to ignore because he fails to think it; this experience woman lives." (622) Women are plural instead of linear reasoners, "[recognizing] that there is not any fixed truth." (624) (an interesting perspective given the many feminist critiques, such as those made by hooks and Hartsock, about poststructuralism and postmodernism). This division between thinking/abstracting and living/experiencing is responsible, states de Beauvoir, for differences in male and female epistemologies and cognitive processes.

De Beauvoir's work is useful to me, not because of its theoretical framework, but rather for its singular significance as the first major 20th century work of liberal feminist thought.