The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
1949 (2010 translation)
I finally finished reading The Second Sex. It’s a big book that took me about a month to read and there are so many different ideas in here that it’s a little difficult to know where to start.
The Second Sex is broken up into two sections, the first describing cultural and historical narratives about womanhood and the second providing a narrative of its own that describes all the pressures and restrictions that influence how women live, and, consequently, what they are like. This second section includes both a summary of a woman’s life from childhood to old age and some chapters devoted to “justifications,” that is, roles that women can take on to justify an existence in which they actually accomplish nothing (“The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” “The Mystic”).
Let me begin by saying that I’m skeptical of this approach on its face. De Beauvoir criticizes Freud’s explanation of female development because of his failure to take into account social forces and because he lays too much emphasis on sexuality. She remarks that the Freudian perspective is self-fulfilling: “if one is determined to describe a particular case from a Freudian perspective, one will find the Freudian schema as the background behind it” (54). But the critique she doesn’t make is that Freud assumes a single trajectory of emotional maturity for all “normal” human beings, which has the effect of marginalizing those who don’t fit (for an obvious example: Freud used monogamous heterosexuality as the ideal model and thus pathologized every other form of human sexuality that exists).
That’s a roundabout way of saying so, but I have a reflexive problem with generalizations about What People Are Like, and generalizations about What Members of Particular Groups Are Like. Much of the time they are prescriptive, like my example above—this is what one must do, because that is what humans do. When this isn’t the case, they tend to center a particular type of experience. These arguments have been used against me often enough that I am suspicious of them even when I identify with them. So when de Beauvoir writes:
What I will try to describe is how woman is taught to assume her condition, how she experiences this, what universe she finds herself enclosed in, and what escape mechanisms are permitted her. Only then can we understand what problems women—heirs to a weighty past, striving to forge a new future—are faced with. When I use the word “woman” or “feminine,” I obviously refer to no archetype, to no immutable essence; “in the present state of education and customs” must be understood to follow most of my affirmations. There is no question of expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems. (279)
…I can’t help raising an eyebrow, despite the disclaimer. Is there really a “common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems”? A common ground that cuts across experiences and economic and cultural and psychological factors? Of course, de Beauvoir understands that women are different people and does at times make these distinctions, but she is at the same time putting together a narrative that is intended to explain the effects of her culture on women.
There’s something to be said for this approach. It’s difficult if not impossible to build resistance if the oppressive circumstances under which a group labors cannot be identified and described. To establish sexism and lack of opportunity as problems for women , de Beauvoir needs to show that the circumstances under which women live have detrimental effects on them. She does not gloss over the fact this is a difficult task and acknowledges several times that women do not have a class consciousness precisely because their lives are often very different from each other and the groups with which they associate themselves are determined far more by their class than their gender. Still, when she writes about women feeling humiliated by sex (while using several examples, many of which are actually rapes), or mothers’ resentment or appropriation of their daughters, I find myself wincing. I simply can’t believe that a generalization so broad is accurate, valuable as it may be rhetorically. As a result, I feel very strange when I come across the swaths of the book with which I identify; the chapter on “The Girl” feels astonishingly familiar to me, and explains so well what adolescence was like when I went through it. Is this really the experience that everyone* has? Or, just this time, do I happen to fall into the category that is considered to be standard, of interest, worth describing?
Tangent time: how depressing it is that any description of female experience written in 1949 should so well describe my experience in the 1990s. There is a lot that has definitely improved, of course. For instance, while sex ed in the United States has all sorts of problems, the total lack of it that de Beauvoir describes is both hair raising and difficult to imagine. Did young women really not know that menstruation existed before it happened to them? Really?
Back to the post: I have some reservations about the way the book is laid out and some distrust of de Beauvoir because of it. But there are also so many moments when she makes these arguments that I’ve always wanted to make but couldn’t properly articulate, or when she brilliantly demolishes male-establishment authors or commonplace beliefs. I’ll get to these in my next post.