The Second Sex Study Guide

The Second Sex

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex is a feminist work by the French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. The work is considered the beginning of second-wave feminism, studying the historical and cultural causes of sexism against women. Famously claiming "one is not born, but rather becomes a woman," de Beauvoir describes the ways in which girls and women are conditioned to accept a subservient position in patriarchal society. While men are allowed a sort of philosophical transcendence, women have been forced to be identified as bodies.

Volume One, Facts and Myths


Part One "Destiny" has three chapters. The first, "Biological Data", describes the relationship of ovum to sperm in various creatures (fish, insects, mammals), leading up to the human being. She describes women's subordination to the species in terms of reproduction, compares the physiology of men and women, and ultimately declares that values cannot be based on physiology and that the facts of biology must be viewed in light of the ontological, economic, social, and physiological context. In chapter 2 "The Psychoanalytical Point of View", Beauvoir first expounds the theories of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. She then rejects them both, for example, finding that a study of eroticism in the context of perception goes beyond the capabilities of the psychoanalytic framework. In chapter 3 "The Point of View of Historical Materialism", Beauvoir relates The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels but ultimately finds it lacking any basis or reasons for its claims to assign "the great historical defeat of the female sex" to the invention of bronze and the emergence of private property. She quotes Engels, "for now we know nothing about it" and rejects him because he "dodges" the answers.


Part Two "History" has five chapters which are unnamed in the unabridged, second translation. According to Beauvoir, two factors explain the evolution of women's condition: participation in production and freedom from reproductive slavery. In chapter 1, Beauvoir states the problem that motherhood left woman "riveted to her body" like an animal and made it possible for men to dominate her and Nature. In chapter 2, she describes man's gradual domination of women, starting with the statue of a female Great Goddess found in Susa, and eventually the opinion of ancient Greeks like Pythagoras who wrote, "There is a good principle that created order, light and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness and woman." Men succeed in the world by transcendence, but immanence is the lot of women. In chapter 3, explaining inheritance historically, Beauvoir says men oppress women when they seek to perpetuate the family and keep patrimony intact. A comparison follows of women's situation in ancient Greece with Rome. In Greece, with exceptions like Sparta where there were no restraints on women's freedom, women are treated almost like slaves. Menander writes, "Woman is a pain that never goes away." In Rome because men were still the masters, women enjoyed more rights but, still discriminated against on the basis of their gender, had only empty freedom.

In chapter 4, Beauvoir says that with the exception of German tradition, Christianity and its clergy served to subordinate women, quoting Paul the Apostle, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom (who wrote, "Of all the wild animals, none can be found as harmful as women.") She also describes prostitution and the changes in dynamics brought about by courtly love that occurred about the twelfth century. Beauvoir then describes from the early fifteenth century "great Italian ladies and courtesans" and singles out the Spaniard Teresa ofÁvila as successfully raising "herself as high as a man." Through the nineteenth century women's legal status remained unchanged but individuals (like Marguerite de Navarre) excelled by writing and acting. Some men like Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Molière, the Marquis de Condorcet, and FrançoisPoullain de la Barre helped women's status through their works. In chapter 5, Beauvoir finds fault with the Napoleonic Code and criticizes Auguste Comte and Honoré de Balzac.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is described as an antifeminist who valued a woman at 8/27th the value of a man. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century gave women an escape from their homes but they were paid little for their work. Beauvoir then traces the growth of trade unions and participation by women. She then examines the spread of birth control methods from ancient Egypt to the twentieth century, and then touches on the history of abortion. She then relates the history of women's suffrage in France, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany and the U.S.S.R. Beauvoir writes that women who have finally begun to feel at home on the earth like Rosa Luxemburg and Marie Curie "brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women's inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority".


Part Three "Myths" has three chapters. Chapter 1 is a long, wide-ranging presentation about the "everlasting disappointment" of women for the most part from a male heterosexual's point of view. It covers female menstruation, virginity, and female sexuality including copulation, marriage, motherhood, and prostitution. To illustrate man's experience of the "horror of feminine fertility", Beauvoir quotes the British Medical Journal of 1878 in which a member of the British Medical Association writes, "It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women." She quotes poetry by André Breton, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Michel Leiris, Paul Verlaine, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Valéry, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and William Shakespeare ( Hamlet ) along with other novels, philosophers, and films ( Citizen Kane ). Beauvoir writes on the last page of the chapter that sexual division is maintained in homosexuality, presumably to indicate that she thinks her work applies to all humans.

Chapter 2 examines the bodies of work of five example writers, in six sections, Montherlant or the Bread of Disgust , D. H. Lawrence or Phallic Pride , Claudel or the Handmaiden of the Lord , Breton or Poetry , Stendhal or Romancing the Real , and an unnamed summary. Beauvoir writes that these "examples show that the great collective myths are reflected in each singular writer". "Feminine devotion is demanded as a duty by Montherlant and Lawrence; less arrogant, Claudel, Breton, and Stendhal admire it as a generous choice...." She finds that woman is "the privileged Other ", that Other is defined in the "way the One chooses to posit himself", and:

"But the only earthly destiny reserved to the woman equal, child-woman, soul sister, woman-sex, and female animal is always man."

The chapter closes with the thought, "The absence or insignificance of the female element in a body of work is symptomatic... it loses importance in a period like ours in which each individual's particular problems are of secondary import."

In Chapter 3, Beauvoir says that "mystery" is prominent among men's myths about women. She also says mystery is not confined by sex to women but instead by situation, and that it pertains to any slave. She thinks it disappeared, for example, during the eighteenth century when men however briefly considered women to be peers. To close Part One, she quotes Arthur Rimbaud who writes that hopefully one day, women can become fully human beings when man gives her her freedom.

Volume Two, Lived Experience

Formative Years

Part One has four chapters. In chapter 1 "Childhood", sometimes quoting Colette Audry, Helene Deutsch, Thyde Monnier, and Dr. W. Liepmann, Beauvoir presents a child's life beginning with birth and attachment to maternal flesh. She contrasts a girl's upbringing with a boy's, who at age 3 or 4 is told he is a "little man". She describes and rejects Freud's "female castration complex" and says that girls do learn to envy aspects of boys' urination. Girls are given a doll as an alter ego and in compensation. A girl is taught to be a woman and her "feminine" destiny is imposed on her by her teachers and society. She has, for example, no innate "maternal instinct". Because housework can be done by a young child, sometimes her mother asks her to do it. A girl comes to believe in and to worship a male god and to create imaginary adult lovers. The discovery of sex is a "phenomenon as painful as weaning" and she views it with disgust. When she discovers that men, not women, are the masters of the world the revelation "imperiously modifies her consciousness of herself". Beauvoir concludes this chapter with a description of puberty and starting menstruation as well as the way girls imagine sex with a man.

In chapter 2 "The Girl", Beauvoir describes ways that girls in their late teens accept their "femininity". Girls might do this by running away from home, through fascination with the disgusting, by following nature, or by stealing. Chapter 3 "Sexual Initiation" is a description of sexual relations with men. Along with numbers of psychiatrists, Beauvoir believed that the repercussions of the first of these experiences informs a woman's whole life. Chapter 4 "The Lesbian" is a description of sexual relations with women, which Beauvoir believed that society thought was a "forbidden path". She wrote that "homosexuality is no more a deliberate perversion than a fatal curse".


Part Two "Situation" has six chapters. In chapter 5 "The Married Woman" Beauvoir demonstrates her negative thoughts about marriage saying that "to ask two spouses bound by practical, social and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity". She then describes the work of married women, beginning with several pages about housecleaning which she says is "holding away death but also refusing life". She thinks, "what makes the lot of the wife-servant ungratifying is the division of labor that dooms her wholly to the general and inessential". Beauvoir says a woman finds her dignity only in accepting her vassalage which is bed "service" and housework "service". A woman is weaned away from her family and finds only "disappointment" on the day after her wedding. Beauvoir points out various inequalities between a wife and husband (in, for example, age) and finds they pass the time not in love but in "conjugal love". She thinks that marriage "almost always destroys woman". She quotes Sophia Tolstoy who wrote in her diary: "you are stuck there forever and there you must sit". Beauvoir thinks marriage is a perverted institution oppressing both men and women.

Chapter 6 "The Mother" is two-thirds not about children. The first nine pages or so are an exposition on abortion arguing that abortions performed legally by doctors would have little risk to the mother and highlighting the plight of families and children born to unsuitable homes. She argues that the Catholic Church cannot make the claim that the souls of the unborn would not end up in heaven because of their lack of baptism because that would be contradictory to other Church teachings. For example, the Church taught that the souls of men who were fatally injured without baptism would still be with God. She states that the issue of abortion is not an issue of morality but of "masculine sadism" toward woman. The following fourteen pages describe pregnancy. Pregnancy is viewed as both a gift and a curse to woman. In this new creation of a new life the woman loses her self, seeing herself as "no longer anything...[but] a passive instrument". When she arrives at children, Beauvoir continues in negative mode with, "maternal sadomasochism creates guilt feelings for the daughter that will express themselves in sadomasochistic behavior toward her own children, without end". She finishes with an appeal for socialist child rearing practices, "in a properly organized society where the child would in great part be taken charge of by the group".

In chapter 7 "Social Life", Beauvoir describes a woman's clothes, her girlfriends and her relationships with priests, doctors, famous performers, and lovers, concluding that "adultery, friendships, and social life are but diversions within married life". She also thinks, "marriage, by frustrating women's erotic satisfaction, denies them the freedom and individuality of their feelings, drives them to adultery". In chapter 8 "Prostitutes and Hetaeras", Beauvoir describes prostitutes and their relationships with pimps and with other women, as well as hetaeras. In contrast to prostitutes, hetaeras can gain recognition as an individual and if successful can aim higher and be publicly distinguished. This can be observed in movie stars like Rita Hayworth.

Chapter 9 "From Maturity to Old Age" is women's path to menopause which might arouse woman's homosexual feelings (which Beauvoir thinks are latent in most women). When she agrees to grow old she becomes elderly with half of her adult life left to live. Woman might choose to live through her children (often her son) or her grandchildren but she faces "solitude, regret, and ennui". To pass her time she might engage in useless "women's handiwork" (which can't be a diversion because the "mind is vacant"), watercolors, music or reading, or she might join charitable organizations. While a few rare women are committed to a cause and have an end in mind, Beauvoir concludes that "the highest form of freedom a woman-parasite can have is stoic defiance or skeptical irony".

In chapter 10 "Woman's Situation and Character", Beauvoir says a woman knows how to be as active, effective and silent as a man. She says Stendhal said that woman handles masculine logic "as skillfully as man if she has to". But her situation keeps her being useful , preparing food, clothes, and lodging. She worries because she does not do anything, she complains, she cries, and she may threaten suicide. She protests but doesn't escape her lot. She may achieve happiness in "Harmony" and the "Good" as illustrated by Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. She is the target of religion. Beauvoir thinks it is pointless to try to decide whether woman is superior or inferior, and that it is obvious that the man's situation is "infinitely preferable". She writes, "for woman there is no other way out than to work for her liberation".


Part Three "Justifications" is brief and has three chapters. Chapter 11 "The Narcissist" describes narcissistic women who might find themselves in a mirror and in the theater. Chapter 12 "The Woman in Love" describes women in and outside marriage: "The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape from herself but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger." Chapter 13 "The Mystic" talks about the lives of among others, Mme. Guyon, Mme. Krüdener, Saint Catherine of Siena, Angela of Foligno, Marie Alacoque, Catherine Emmerich, and Therese Neumann, some of whom developed stigmata. Beauvoir says these women may develop a relation "with an unreal"— with their double or a god, or they create an "unreal relation with a real being".

Toward Liberation

Part Four "Toward Liberation" has one chapter and a conclusion. In chapter 14 "The Independent Woman", de Beauvoir describes the difference for a male, who might, for example, move to a hotel in a new city, and a female who would feel the need to set up a household. She also mentions women with careers who are able to escape sadism and masochism. A few women have successfully reached a state of equality, and Beauvoir, in a footnote, singles out the example of Clara and Robert Schumann. Beauvoir says that the goals of wives can be overwhelming: as a wife tries to be elegant, a good housekeeper and a good mother. Singled out are "actresses, dancers and singers" who may achieve independence. Among writers, Beauvoir chooses only Emily Brontë, Woolf and ("sometimes") Mary Webb (and she mentions Colette and Mansfield) as among those who have tried to approach nature "in its inhuman freedom". Beauvoir then says that women don't "challenge the human condition" and that in comparison to the few "greats", woman comes out as "mediocre" andwill continue at that level for quite some time. A woman could not have been Vincent van Gogh or Franz Kafka. Beauvoir thinks that perhaps, of all women, only Saint Teresa lived her life for herself. She says it is "high time" woman "be left to take her own chances".

In her conclusion, Beauvoir traces a future when women and men are equals, something the "Soviet revolution promised " but did not ever deliver:

women raised and educated exactly like men would work under the same conditions and for the same salaries; erotic freedom would be accepted by custom, but the sexual act would no longer be considered a remunerable "service"; women would be obliged to provide another livelihood for themselves; marriage would be based on a free engagement that the spouses could break when they wanted to; motherhood would be freely chosen—that is, birth control and abortion would be allowed—and in return all mothers and their children would be given the same rights; maternity leave would be paid for by the society that would have responsibility for the children, which does not mean that they would be taken from their parents but that they would not be abandoned to them.

Beauvoir explains "a basic law of political economy" to stop "endless debate" about "the ambiguity of the words 'give' and 'take'". She says that a woman needs to understand that "an negotiated according to the value the proposed merchandise has for the buyer and not for the seller: she was duped by being persuaded she was priceless...." Beauvoir takes time to answer skeptics and her critics but quickly reaches the end:

to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.

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