“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the female figure plays in society; it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”
So begins Book 2 of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous treatise on women, The Second Sex. The book was to cause a storm of indignation, and controversy. It was denounced as obscene and pornographic by Catholics and right wingers.
Yet women read it, and some claimed it saved their lives. It was an important book for the emerging women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. It is still widely read today, and regarded as a “classic”.
Simone de Beauvoir, who born one hundred years ago this year, was born into a respectable Parisian middle class family. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, where she was placed second to Jean Paul Sartre in their final exam.
Her lifelong friendship with the philosopher, described by de Beauvoir as the “one undoubted success in my life” began then; so did her revolt against her confining middle class origins. She was not to live the conventional life. She did not marry or have children, she worked as a teacher in Rouen, and later Paris. She wrote philosophy, novels, autobiography, and a play.
As an established writer, de Beauvoir was largely treated as an equal by the men of her circle, Sartre, Giaconietti, and others. However, she scorned any idea of having “honorary male” status. She saw such a thing as a betrayal of women.
De Beauvoir did not intend The Second Sex to be a demand for rights, but rather an attempt to examine, clarify and understand women’s condition. She had no illusions that the book would fundamentally alter this condition: “…it depends on the future of labour in the world; it will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production.”
De Beauvoir began the book to express certain of her own feelings about being a woman. To do so, she realised she would have to write of women in general to understand the myths concerning women existing in society, in religions, literature, superstitions and ideologies, to understand what lay behind those myths, and what realities they served to mask.
Her concept of the book began to widen to take in physiology, history, sociology, psychology and psychoanalysis.
The book does not claim that there are no differences between men and women, but rather that the differences that exist are of a cultural order rather than a natural one. The book tried to show how these differences are constructed by society, by studying women’s development from babyhood to old age.
The Second Sex was the book that brought de Beauvoir the greatest satisfaction. She thought it possible it could be improved, cut down, refined. “But at the time I was discovering my ideas as I was explaining them, and that was the best I could do. As for the content, I should take a more materialist [i.e. Marxist] position in the first volume.”
Published in 1949, The Second Sex has been translated into many languages, and has become essential reading for men and women in the socialist and women’s liberation movements. It was originally published in two volumes.
Part 1, “Facts and Myths”, was very favourably received, selling 22,000 copies in the first week. The second part, “Women’s life today” caused a public outcry.
The writer Albert Camus accused de Beauvoir of making the French male look ridiculous, while other critics, rather than debate the issues raised by the book, preferred to slander de Beauvoir.
Men were angry, men felt sorry for her “humiliation” (of being female). She herself believed that they were appalled at her objectivity as much as her social and moral beliefs. They would have preferred a cry of rage, rather than a reasoned analysis.
To put her in her “place”, the whole range of sexual vocabulary was used to reduce her to her “true” function, that of a sexual object. Men said she was a frigid woman who had never been made love to properly.
De Beauvoir also explored the possibilities life offers or denies to women in her fictional works. The Woman Destroyed and the character of Paule in The Mandarins are acute, if painful, insights into the lives of women whose identity is defined solely by their relationship to the men in their lives. These fragile identities crack under the breakup of these relationships. In losing their men, they lose themselves. Her writing is sensitive without pulling any punches.
Her best known fictional work is undoubtedly The Mandarins. As an examination of post World War Two intellectuals, it created a stir as readers identified the characters in the novel with real life figures like Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir herself. But the attempts by an educated intellectual elite to abandon their aloofness and to try to engage seriously in political activism are the core of the novel and form its chief interest.
De Beauvoir herself was ambivalent about activism. While she took strong public stands at times on particular issues, she was wary of parties, and believed that being an intellectual was enough.
The Second Sex did have an influence on the women’s movement of the sixties. Other writers used her work as the basis to develop ideas further.
The book established the historical peculiarity of women’s oppression compared to other types of oppression. Unlike the proletariat, women are not concentrated in groups. They do not experience the solidarity born of shared work and interests that workers can develop.
Since women are everywhere, they do not develop the community feeling which can develop in groups forced into ghettos, such as Jews or black people.
Women are also of different classes and races. Bourgeois women tend to identify with bourgeois men, rather than with working class women. Most white women would identify first with white men, rather than black women.
Women’s oppression has always (or almost always) existed. The oppression of the working class has not always existed, since the proletariat has only come into being since the Industrial Revolution and the establishment of bourgeois capitalist property relations. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, based on historical events.
Oppressed nations can remember the epoch before their subjugation; the working class has a powerful collective identity, organisations, traditions of struggle. “The oppressed retained at least a memory of former days; they possessed in common a past, a tradition, sometimes a religion and a culture.” Not so for women.
Since de Beauvoir wrote, women have begun to unearth something of a feminist tradition and generate some feminist culture. Yet women’s oppression still remains deeper, more obscure, more like an eternal fact of nature confronting individual women.
Can it be overthrown? “A world where men and women would be equal is easy to visualise, for that precisely is what the Soviet Revolution promised.” De Beauvoir rejected both the idea of passively waiting for the revolution, and the illusion of liberation without revolution. Her book aimed to help women in the psychological self-redefinition and self-liberation which would be necessary to give substance to the revolution.
De Beauvoir has been a controversial figure. The Second Sex made her famous, notorious even. Her friendship with Sartre and their involvement in left wing causes earned the hatred of the French bourgeoisie. Both were banned from state radio and television in 1960 for supporting soldiers who wanted to refuse to serve in Algeria, which was fighting for independence from France at the time.
De Beauvoir formed part of an international “tribunal” in the 60s condemning US involvement in Vietnam. With 340 other women, she signed a declaration attacking France’s draconian anti-abortion laws. She was a leading figure in the French League of Women’s Rights.
She visited China and wrote The Long March about her experiences; she criticised America in America Day by Day.
Her autobiographical works, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, Force of Circumstance and All Said And Done describe her life, her friendships, her politics.
Inevitably, de Beauvoir’s memory will be inextricably linked with that of Sartre because of their long companionship, their shared philosophy of existentialism, and the novels which illuminate aspects of their relationship. Virtually all de Beauvoir’s obituaries and tributes mention Sartre.
Yet writers on Sartre do not accord de Beauvoir equal prominence. She did have an identity separate to Sartre, she was a novelist, philosopher, writer of autobiography, feminist, and The Second Sex is a more important work than any of Sartre’s.
Yet like the women in her books she too is defined by her relation to a man. Perhaps this is an attempt by society to “feminise” de Beauvoir, to say that underneath all the opinions, the feminism, the intellectual effort, she was just like other women after all.
De Beauvoir’s philosophy was that man and woman make what they can out of their existences. Her aim in writing The Second Sex was partly to free women from the images and myths which oppressed and crushed them, to help make women aware that their difficulties were part of women’s general condition, not a personal disgrace. She was gratified that psychoanalysts gave the book to women patients to read not just to middle class women, but to working class women as well.
While self-knowledge and understanding are not the key to finding happiness or fulfillment, they do free people to make choices, rather than have choices made for them by society’s pressures.