Simone de Beauvoir and her legacy

Essay 2012 8 Pages

Romance Languages - French Literature


Emilia Wendykowska

ENG 2063 Theories and Literature: Gender and Power

The whole of feminine history has been man-made. Just as in America there is no Negro problem, but rather a white problem; just as anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it is our problem; so the woman problem has always been a man problem.

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir and her legacy.

Feminism appears to be highly complex, multidirectional and historically rich phenomenon that dates back to 18th c. Initially sociopolitical in its nature, it developed into an academic discipline in 20th c. as research and criticism in this area became more and more popular. From a philosophical point of view it is important to set the feminist consciousness in the appropriate cultural context and to show the evolution that took place in the modern perception: understanding notions like tolerance, freedom, variety, dialogue, individualism, etc. In the history of western culture there were three leading beliefs: men and women are different from the psychological and sexual point of view; men dominate naturally, thus they are better; differences between men and women are conditioned by the nature itself. Till the second half of the 19th c. the abovementioned was perceives in religious terms as an interpretable part of the act of creation initiated by god. From the second half of the 19th c. onwards, women started to be treated as objects of scientific investigation. Not only the first wave of feminism led to the establishment of basic civil rights for women, but also revealed the inconsistency of ideology and real treatment of women.

During the first wave of feminism, authors like Victoria Woolf or Mary Wollstonecraft were advocating the idea of equal rights for women and men in the sphere of politics and social life; they put emphasis on various forms of legal and social discrimination of women throughout centuries. In her book The Second Sex published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir described the processes of social forming of the notion of “femininity”. Forbidden by Vatican, the book aroused controversy, as de Beauvoir shown that male universalism and androcentrism is being strengthened and simultaneously women are being perceived as “other” to men. De Beauvoir advance a thesis that values created by men and their behavior constitute positive norms in patriarchal culture; women, on the other hand, are always condemned to bear the stigma of being “other” – her alienation is inherent in her position in the society.

This essay is to describe the issues that were dealt with in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as well as the importance of this work. Her book is acclaimed a pioneering piece of writing, since it describes a cultural repression of women and states questions about sexual politics; de Beauvoir does not refrain from constructing a new way of criticism in which she asks new questions about the cultural repression of women and provides the reader with new ways of answering as well as thinking about those questions.

To start with, in chapter named ‘The Myth of Woman in Five Authors’, which constitutes a literary criticism, de Beauvoir examines works of Montherlant, D. H. Lawrence, Claudel, Breton and Stendhal to illustrate that literature tend to politicize sex and male authors perpetuate various myths about women. Woman is either elevated to the range of mythical goddess or projects men’s fears; is a virgin, or embodies lust.

One of the mythical representation of women is that of “eternal feminine” that constitutes ‘vague and basic essence, femininity’.[1] Women are presented as a mythical creatures that take various forms: that of pure virgin, sacred mother, fertile earth, or womb; highlighting idealized view of women, all of those representations refuse to notice individuality that every human being should be able to maintain. De Beauvoir asserts that “eternal masculine” and “eternal feminine” alike are concepts that are merely abstract concepts that are not present in real life; rejecting the presence of the essence, she underscores that it is the experience that counts. She claims that the whole concept of “eternal femininity” was caused by male discomfort connected with his own birth. Woman is transformed into an embodiment of life, as it is her who brings it, and is gradually being deprived of her personality as well as individuality. The notion of “eternal feminine” is perpetuated by biology, history, and literature. Accepting her role as a mother and wife, woman finds it difficult to break from “femininity”.[2] De Beauvoir implies that all roles that women play exemplify diverse instances of women’s oppression and discrimination.

Above all, de Beauvoir wants to underscore her belief that the whole notion of “femininity” is nowhere near connected with biological, intellectual or psychological differences between women and men.

De Beauvoir draws crucial distinction between men and women; whereas men are characterized as “the subject”, “the self”, women remain “the object”, “the other”. Whereas man is the one who imposes his will, woman is destined to be a submissive to him. She dares to ask important question concerned with sexual politics: why women are presented as ‘the Other’ in texts produced by men? She asserts that:

In woman is incarnated in positive form the lack that the existent [male] caries in his heart, and it is in seeking to be made whole trough her that man hopes to attain self-realization … Treasure, prey, sport and danger, nurse, guide, judge, mediatrix, mirror,, woman is the Other in whom the subject transcends himself without being hunted, who opposes him without ceasing to be the other, and therein she is so necessary to man’s happiness and to his triumph that it can be said that if she did not exist, men would have invented her. Woman is either elevated to the range of mythical goddess or projects men’s fears; is a virgin, or embodies lust.[3]

What will be proved later on, The Second Sex abounds in dichotomies. One of those is the idea of immanence and transcendence. Whereas transcendence is ascribed to men, and it denotes active, creative, productive, immanence appears as to be ascribed to women. As Moi explains: ‘In The Second Sex the idea of immanence appears as an irresistible magnet for an astonishing range of obsessional images of darkness, night, passivity, stasis, abandonment, slavery, confinement, imprisonment, decomposition, degradation, and destruction’.[4]

Moreover, de Beauvoir is famous for the exploration of the notions of “self” and “other”. Whereas men are constitute the center of universe, women are found “other”. Additionally, de Beauvoir indicates that ‘at the moment when man asserts himself as subject and free being, the idea of the Other arises’.[5] Taking up Hegelian philosophy, de Beauvoir states that the reality human being are living in is a constant interplay of two opposing forces – in this case “the self” and “the other” – that define each other. In her Hegelian analysis, one of two human categories if more privileged and prevail over the other. Women are disadvantaged, since ‘pregnancy, childbirth and menstruation reduced her capacity for work and made them at times wholly dependent upon the men for protection and food’.[6] She asserts that:

Humanity is male and men defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being … For him she is sex, absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.[7]

De Beauvoir points that women are oppresses members of the society, as Afro-Americans or Jews are; unlike them, women do not constitute minority, however they do belong to the “lower caste”, since they are economically dependent on their masters - men. She notices that women for many years have passively accepted the meaning that men have imposed on them in result remained submissive; surely she highlights economic as well as psychological reasons of their oppression. She focuses on how women have been deprived of their own identity and ability to express themselves.

No subject will readily volunteer to become the Object, the inessential; it is not the Other who, in defining himself as the Other, establishes the One. The Other is posed as such by the One in defining himself as the One. But if the Other is not to regain the status of being the One, he must be submissive enough to accept this alien point of view.[8]

Next, there are many reasons for women’s not resisting their being labeled: they lack financial stability and resources, they are in close relationship with men, and discern certain of being “the other”; however, she points that ‘We must not believe, certainly, that a change in woman's economic condition alone is enough to transform her’.[9]

De Beauvoir encourages women to become independent and achieve the status that men are enjoying: the status of being the subject; but is not a simple task that may be completed at once, since men are empowered on a daily basis. For woman to enjoy her femininity and sexuality, she must act as a pray and the object. De Beauvoir writes that:

She refuses to confine herself to her role as female, because she will not accept mutilation; but it would also be a mutilation to repudiate her sex. Man is a human being with sexuality: woman is a complete individual, equal to male, only if she too is a human being with sexuality. To renounce her femininity is to renounce a part of her humanity.[10]


[1] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1953), p. 188

[2] ibid., p. 717

[3] ibid., p. 150

[4] Troil Moi, ‘Ambigious Woman: Alienation and the Body in The Second Sex’, in Simone de Beauvoir: The making of an Intellectual Woman, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 174

[5] De Beauvoir, p. 131

[6] De Beauvoir ., p. 94

[7] ibid., p. 16

[8] ibid., p. 17

[9] De Beavuoir ., p. 734

[10] Ibid, p. 69


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Title: Simone de Beauvoir and her legacy