At the age of forty, the intellectual figure of Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) had nothing to envy to his male contemporaries.
University degree at the Sorbonne University, teaching career, movement in Parisian intellectual circles and author of several well-received novels and essays: L’Invitée (1943), Le Sang des Autres (1946), Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1947)…
Jean-Paul Sartre’s long-time companion, from him also embraced existentialist philosophy and contributed to its development. Nevertheless, the uniqueness and relevance of her thought reside in her contribution to the feminist movement, of which she is considered the mother.
Le deuxième sexe
The Second Sex (1949) was born as a De Beauvoir’s will of “explaining herself”.
In an interview she was asked to illustrate the genesis of her work and she answered that the idea came to her very late. Men or women, she thought everybody’s got a chance; she did not realize that femininity was a situation. One day she had the wish to give an explanation about herself. She started pondering, then she realized with a kind of surprise that the first thing she should have said was: “I am a woman”. Her entire affective, intellectual formation was different from that of a man. She thought about this and she told herself she should have been looking – in general and in detail – for what it meant to be a woman.
And she truly scanned both the general and particular. The essay consists of two volumes and a total of 700 pages, in which the female condition is examined in all its aspects: the female figure in history, in myth, being a woman from a biological point of view and the stages of her growth, and finally from an existentialist perspective – woman as mother, wife, prostitute, narcissist…
Unsurprisingly, the work was later considered a “sacred text” for feminism in the 1970s.
On The Second Sex it will be written that this masterpiece was in preparation since the dawn of time; it laid under the ashes of the hearths: it sizzled in pots; it burst in bedrooms; it was rumoured and muted.
It was indexed in 1956 with a Vatican edict.
Woman as Other
The focal point of De Beauvoir’s thought is the placement of woman as “Other”. That is because her work revolves around a single, fundamental question: “What is Woman?” – meant as an archetype or category as opposed to women as individuals.
First of all, De Beauvoir notes that being a woman is primarily a condition, not an already provided fact.
«One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. »
Moreover, the philosopher points out that, throughout history, man has always defined and distinguished women in reference to himself. There were certainly formal rights, as the right to vote, but in practice women were seen as “mother of” or “bride of”, for example.
A person is a man, and no more explanation is necessary, while a woman must be described as a person of the female sex.
The result, de Beauvoir says, is that woman is the “incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential”.
“He is the subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”
More generally, “Other” is any group in society that is not considered the “main” group. De Beauvoir expresses her amazement that although women make up half of the human race, they are still put in the Other basket.
There would be so much more to add. Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex rightly ranks among the key works of contemporary feminism. Her all-encompassing inquiry on the female condition and the rigour through which she managed to set a discussion on her own sex are among the reasons for its great success.
Book Two ends on a more upbeat note with a chapter on women’s independence.
It is true that being a woman is above all a condition, the product of history and civilization, but for De Beauvoir, it’s also a choice. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” she effectively summarizes in Book Two. Being a Woman is a condition, but not an already given one.
In line with existentialist philosophy, according to which existence precedes essence, first I choose to be Woman and then I become it. First I choose what I want to be, then I become it. Nothing is already set.
Woman’s duty is to redefine herself, her values, her characteristics no longer in reference to men’s ones. No longer being the “Other” compared to the Absolute, no longer being a “second sex” compared to a first one.
In a similar vein:
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
By Noemi Manghi