Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Second Sex (1949) can be said to have inaugurated the second wave of feminism, with its central argument that throughout history, across cultures, woman has always occupied a secondary position in relation to man, being relegated to the position of the “other”, that which is adjectival to the substantial subjectivity and the existential activity of man. Whereas man has been enabled to transcend and control his environment, always furthering the domain of his physical and intellectual conquests, woman has remained imprisoned within ” immanence” remaining a slave within the circle of duties imposed by her maternal and reproductive functions. In highlighting this subordination, the book explains ,1 in characteristic existentialist fashion how the “essence” of woman was in fact created — at economic, social, political, religious levels by historical developments representing the interests of men. This idea resounds in de Beauvoir’s famous statement: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Influenced by Sartrean existentialism, Marxism, Psychoanaysis and Hegel, she argued that the objectification of woman permeates human history and informs the whole of Western philosophical thought.
In her renowned introduction to The Second Sex, de Beauvoir points out the fundamental asymmetry of the terms “masculine” and “feminine.” Masculinity is considered to be the “absolute human type,” the norm or standard of humanity. A man does not typically preface his opinions with the statement “I am a man,” whereas a woman’s views are often held to be grounded in her femininity rather than in any objective perception of things. A man “thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison . . . Woman has ovaries, a uterus; these peculiarities imprison her in her subjectivity, circumscribe her within the limits of her own nature” (SS, xv). De Beauvoir quotes Aristotle as saying that the “female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,” and St. Thomas as stating that the female nature is “afflicted with a natural defectiveness” (SS, xvi). Summarizing these long traditions of thought, de Beauvoir states: “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being . . . she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other” (SS, xvi). De Beauvoir’s Hegelian terminology highlights the fact that man’s relegation of woman to the status of “other” violates the principle of mutual recognition, thereby threatening the very status that man has for so long jealously accorded to himself, to his own subjectivity. And yet, as de Beauvoir points out (drawing on both Hegel and Lévi-Strauss), “otherness” is a “fundamental category of human thought,” as primordial as consciousness itself. Consciousness always entails positing a duality of Self and Other: indeed, no group “ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself ” (SS, xvi–xvii). Our very part viii: the twentieth century conception of our identity entails consciousness of what we are not, of what stands beyond us and perhaps opposed to us.
The problem with demoting another consciousness or group to the status of “other” is that this other consciousness or ego “sets up a reciprocal claim”: from its perspective, we are the stranger, the other. Interaction with other individuals, peoples, nations, and classes forces us to acknowledge the relativity of the notion of otherness. But this relativity and reciprocity, in the case of women, has not been recognized (SS, xvii). Woman’s otherness seems to be absolute because, unlike the subordination of other oppressed groups such as Jews and black Americans, her subordination was not the result of a historical event or social change but is partly rooted in her anatomy and physiology. Also in contrast with these other groups, women have never formed a minority and they have never achieved cohesion as a group, since they have always lived dispersed among males: if they belong to the middle class, they identify with the males of that class rather than with working-class women; white women feel allegiance to white men rather than to black women (SS, xviii–xix). The “division of the sexes,” de Beauvoir points out, “is a biological fact, not an event in human history . . . she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another.” Indeed, woman has no autonomous history (SS, xix).
Another contributing factor to women’s subordination is her own reluctance to forego the traditional advantages conferred on them by their protective male superiors: if man supports woman financially and assumes responsibility for defining her existence and purpose, then she can evade both economic risk and the metaphysical “risk” of a freedom in which she must work out her own purposes (SS, xxi).
Men, of course, have had their own reasons for perpetuating such a duality of Self and Other: “Legislators, priests, philosophers, writers, and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth” (SS, xxii). A long line of thinkers, stretching from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas into modern bourgeois philosophers, has insisted on stabilizing woman as an object, on dooming her to immanence, to a life of subjection to given conditions, on barring her from property rights, education, and the professions (SS, xviii). As well as procuring the obvious economic and political benefits of such subordination, men have reaped enormous psychological reassurance: their hostility toward women conceals a fundamental desire for self-justification, as well as a fundamental insecurity (SS, xxii). While de Beauvoir acknowledges that by the eighteenth century certain male thinkers such as Diderot and John Stuart Mill began to champion the cause of women, she also notes that, in contradiction of its ostensible disposition toward democracy, the bourgeois class “clung to the old morality that found the guarantee of private property in the solidity of the family.” Woman’s liberation was thwarted all the more harshly as her entry into the industrial workforce furnished an economic basis for her claims to equality (SS, xxii–xxiii).
From her own perspective of “existentialist ethics,” as informed by Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir rejects all attempts to stabilize the condition of women under the pretext that happiness consists in stagnation and stasis. Every human subject, she insists, must engage in exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence, as a means of rising above and controlling the conditions into which one is born (SS, xxvii). In the first part of her book, de Beauvoir examines the feminist criticism views of women advanced by biology, psychology, and historical materialism, in an endeavor to show how the concept of the feminine has been fashioned and to consider why woman has been defined as the other. Regarding the data afforded by biology, she acknowledges that a physiological burden is imposed on woman by her reproductive function. She points out, however – anticipating the manifold importance subsequently placed on the concept of the “body” by feminists – that the body is not a thing but a situation (SS, 30–31). Human beings achieve self-definition only as part of a larger, social framework, and the so-called facts of biology must be viewed in the light of economic, social, and moral circumstances: the benefits or disadvantages attaching to these facts are dependent upon the arbitration of social norms. For example, if violence is morally or legally forbidden, man’s superior physical strength is not an intrinsic asset (SS, 32–33).
In the conclusion to her book, de Beauvoir argues that the age-old conflict between the sexes no longer takes the form of woman attempting to hold back man in her own prison of immanence, but rather in her own effort to emerge into the light of transcendence. Woman’s situation will be transformed primarily by a change in her economic condition; but this change must also generate moral, social, cultural, and psychological transformations. If girls were brought up to expect the same free and assured future as boys, even the meanings of the Oedipus and castration complexes would be modified, and the “child would perceive around her an androgynous world and not a masculine world” (SS, 683). Moreover, if she were brought up to understand, rather than inhibit, her own sexuality, eroticism and love would take on the nature of free transcendence rather than resignation: the notions of dominance and submission, victory and defeat, in sexual relations might give way before the idea of exchange (SS, 685). De Beauvoir is confident that women will arrive at “complete economic and social equality, which will bring about an inner metamorphosis” (SS, 686). And both man and woman will exist both for self and for the other: “mutually recognizing each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other.” In this recognition, in this reciprocity, will “the slavery of half of humanity” be abolished (SS, 688).