The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was first published in French as Le Deuxième Sex in 1949, and it stands, over seven decades after its first publication, a landmark in the history of modern feminism.
“Of all the writing that emerged from the existentialist movement, Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking study of women will probably have the most extensive and enduring impact. It is at once a work of anthropology and sociology, of biology and psychoanalysis, from the pen of a writer and novelist of penetrating imaginative power.”
This is the blurb by Vintage Classics on the publishing of the first English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953) translated by Howard M. Parshley, a zoologist, ungrounded in philosophy who muffled philosophical existentialist terms and also cut out historical stories of strong women present in the original.
In a 1985 interview, Beauvoir declared: “I would like very much for an unabridged translation to be done today, an honest translation, with the philosophical dimension and all the parts that Mr. Parshley judged pointless and which I consider to have a point, very much so…” Finally in 2010 a second translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier was published. The translators themselves stated: “Le Deuxième Sex was translated as it was written, unabridged, and unsimplified, maintaining Beauvoir’s philosophical language”.
It took me about nine months to read through this seminal book. At times, it felt so challenging as if I was in labour and was going to give birth again. I also felt compelled to read both translations, 741 pages of Pashley’s translation, and 848 pages of Borde’s and Malovany-Chevallier’s version. It’s on my list to read the original in French in due course.
Simone de Beauvoir was a novelist, essayist, and playwright, and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th-century. She’s also been acknowledged as a philosopher in Existentialism- a philosophy about the freedom of human being- despite her reluctance to see herself as such alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifetime companion, and the most famous existentialist philosopher.
She discusses in The Second Sex how the natural and social sciences in tandem with European literary, social, political, and religious traditions have created and justified women’s submission to patriarchal rule.
In general terms, the body is how we as individuals become aware of, gain access to, and engage with the world. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir explores how patriarchal structures reflect cultural expectations and not only frame but also alienate women’s experience of their bodies. Beauvoir’s assertion ” On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (1949) “One is not born but becomes a woman” translated by Pashley in 1953 and more simply in 2010 by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier “One is not born but becomes woman” is considered by many as alerting us to the sex-gender difference that deprives women of their “can do” bodies.
Beauvoir argues for equality but differs from Plato’s view that to be equal to men, women must train and live like men. According to Beauvoir, for men and women to treat each other as equals, their sexual differences must be validated. Sameness is not a synonym for equality.
The concept of woman as ‘Other’ and inessential and man as ‘Subject’ and absolute, underlies Beauvoir’s entire analysis. The relationship between the Subject and its Other is ambiguous and unique, men and women exist in a “primordial Mitsein” in other words a ‘being-with’ in human terms. However, women comply as the ‘Other’ because of the social, economic, and cultural structures that frame women’s lives and deprive them of their freedom. Beauvoir argues that women’s submission is historical and as such feasible to change. As long as women discover their solidarity in gender, reject feminine myths of the goddess, saint, femme fatale, .etc. and become economically independent, their existential situation changes from the ‘Other’ to free ‘Subject’ and is eventually recognised by men and society.
The last chapters of The Second Sex, “The Independent Woman” and the “Conclusion”, state that the liberated woman must free herself firstly from the idea that to be independent she must be like men, which alienates her from her sexuality, and secondly from socialisation in which she is feminised and framed in the feminine myth of a saint, sinner, goddess, femme fatale, etc.
According to Beauvoir, the myth of woman must be dismantled so sexual differences can no longer justify the oppression of patriarchy. The goal of the liberated woman is the mutual recognition between men and women as Subject and Other in their ambiguity.
Such ambiguity and mutual recognition are illustrated in the erotic encounter where intimate lovers are both subjects and objects of desire rather than constrained by institutionalised patriarchal values. In Beauvoir’s words, “the dimension of the other remains, but the fact is that alterity no longer has a hostile character. The erotic experience is one that most poignantly reveals to human beings their ambiguous condition; they experience it as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as the subject”
The second sex contextualises women’s experiences within a patriarchal history that alienates women from their embodied intelligent capacities and makes them the Other and unequal to men.
From my female perspective, The Second Sex is a liberatory tool, an appeal that calls women and men to embrace their ambiguity in ways that we can see each other first, foremost, and simply as living capable human beings. The Second Sex helped me to write the screenplay for my short film ‘Sabbatical’ (watch the trailer on this site). I shall write my thoughts about it in my next article. To be continued…
Beauvoir, Simone de (2010) . The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Vintage
Beauvoir, Simone de (1953) . The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Pashley. Vintage
Simons, Margaret A, “Beauvoir Interview (1985)”, in Beauvoir and The Second Sex (1999). Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. pp. 93–94.