The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
H.M. Parshley, trans.
Vintage Books, 1974
814 pp., pb.
The American publisher of The Second Sex calls it “the classic manifesto of the liberated woman,” and so it is. Simone de Beauvoir was a longtime close associate of Jean-Paul Sartre, and as such was close to the center of the French Existentialist movement. And yet in some ways she came to have an influence far greater and more lasting than of Sartre or Camus. It is because her book really was destined to be “the classic manifesto” of the Feminist Movement, and as such it has had a profound effect on Western culture and society.
The book is quite lengthy (814 pages) and devotes a great deal of space to describing in detail the condition of womanhood from birth through childhood, marriage and motherhood. It is a dreary picture of subservience and drudgery, of women not being able to reach their full potential as human beings due to the male domination of society. Throughout it all she insists that there are no purely natural differences between the genders. The apparent differences in behavior that we see in day to day life are the result of social pressure and conditioning. It is human society, civilization, that has put women in this position, and if we could change society to permit the full development of women’s potential, women could compete with men on an equal basis.
De Beauvoir sees the problem, naturally, through the lens of Existentialist philosophy. Throughout her discussion she sees herself as an autonomous being who seeks to be an active “subject” who “transcends” her natural circumstances to shape her own destiny, rather than a passive “object” who is trapped in the “immanence” of her environment. The goal of life, then, is not “happiness,” which can be achieved by being a loyal and devoted family member, but liberty, in which you are free to pursue you own dreams and ambitions.
Throughout her book de Beauvoir emphasizes the role of environment as opposed to heredity in shaping the human personality; but she is opposed to any form of naturalistic determinism. She scarcely mentions the role of hormones in influencing the way a woman thinks and acts. “. . .it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural, and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilization . . . Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relations to the world are modified through the actions of others than herself” (p. 806). She concludes, then, that “woman is the victim of no mysterious fatality; the peculiarities that identify her as specifically a woman get their importance from the significance placed upon them. They can be surmounted, in the future, when they are regarded in new perspectives” (p. 809). Hence the impulse to write her book.
So according to de Beauvoir, what would an ideal society look like? She points to what the Soviet Revolution originally promised: women would be trained and educated exactly the same as men, and would work for the same wages. “Erotic liberty was to be recognized by custom.” A woman would be obligated to support herself financially, and “marriage was to be based on a free agreement that the spouses could break at will; maternity was to be voluntary, which meant that contraception and abortion would be authorized . . .,” and the state “assume charge of the children” (pp. 805-806). In her discussion about abortion she goes into great detail about problem pregnancies, but scarcely mentions the moral problem involved in taking a human life.
De Beauvoir in particular paints a dreary picture of traditional marriage. “Marriage is obscene in principle in so far as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge . . .” (p. 496).
The underlying worldview in all of this, of course, is an Existentialist one. There is no God. There are no divine, eternal essences that define reality. We exist as autonomous beings and are free to choose our own individual destinies.
But what if God actually does exist? What if we really are created beings designed to fulfill a divinely ordained purpose? That would mean that the only way society as a whole can function properly, and the only way that we can find individual fulfillment and happiness, is by conforming to the will of the Creator. In that case neither man nor woman is free just to “be himself,” to pursue his own selfish desires and pleasures. Rather we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37, quoting Dt. 6:5; NKJV), and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39, quoting Lev. 19:18. And love, in turn, requires that “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Love, the genuine kind of love that God requires, does not act in a selfish or lustful manner, but looks out for the wellbeing of others. It honors commitments. It is a self-sacrificing love, a love that imitates Christ. It is not just that wives are to be subservient to their husbands; both husbands and wives are to be subservient to God.
In a sense, what de Beauvoir is advocating is the very essence of mankind’s rebellion against God. She could not have stated it in starker terms. But in the end we must all face divine judgment.