Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) was a French philosopher, novelist and feminist. First published in French in 1949, The Second Sex (1952) was to become one of the iconic texts of modern feminism. In it, de Beauvoir argued that women were not fully human because femininity was defined by men, that they were the second sex or the ‘other’ in a world in which humanity was primarily defined in terms of the identity of man. Here, De Beauvoir theorises female gender roles:

[T]o go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals, [women and men], whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that right now they do most obviously exist …

[W]oman has always been man’s dependent, if not his slave; the two sexes have never shared the world in equality. And even today, the woman is heavily handicapped, though her situation is beginning to change. Almost nowhere is her legal status the same as man’s, and frequently it is much to her disadvantage. Even when her rights are legally recognized in the abstract, long-standing custom prevents their full expression in the mores. In the economic sphere, men and women can almost be said to make up two castes; other things being equal, the former hold better jobs, get higher wages, and have more opportunity for success than their new competitors. In industry and politics men have a great many more positions and the monopolize the most important posts. In addition to this, they enjoy a traditional prestige that the education of children seems in every way to support, for the present enshrines the past—and all in the past has been made by men …

Woman herself recognizes that the world is masculine on the whole; those who fashioned it, ruled it, and still dominate it today are men. As for her, [unlike men] she does not consider herself responsible for it; it is understood that she is inferior and dependent; she has not learned the lessons of violence, she has never stood forth as subject before the other members of the group. Shut up in her flesh, her home, she sees herself as passive before these gods with human faces who set goals and establish values. In this sense there is truth in the saying that makes her the ‘eternal child’. Workers, black slaves, colonial natives, have also been called grown-up children—as long as they were not feared; that meant that they were to accept without argument the verities and the laws laid down for them by other men. The lot of a woman is a respectful obedience …

[I]f woman is earthy, commonplace, basely utilitarian, it is because she is compelled to devote her existence to cooking and washing diapers—no way to acquire as sense of grandeur! It is her duty to assure the monotonous repetition of life in all its mindless factuality. It is natural for woman to repeat, to begin again without ever inventing, for time to seem to her to go round and round without every leading anywhere. She is occupied without ever doing anything, and thus she identifies with what she has. This dependence on things, a consequence of the dependence in which men keep her, explains her frugality, her avarice. Her life is not directed towards ends: she is absorbed in producing or caring for things that are never more than means, such as food, clothing, and shelter … This utility reigns in the housekeeper’s heaven, above truth, beauty, liberty; and it is in this perspective that she envisages the entire universe … How could one expect her to show ardor, disinterestedness, grandeur? These qualities appear only when a free being strikes forward through an open future, emerging far beyond all given actuality. Woman is shut up in a kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed that her horizon is limited. Her wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that she cannot fly …

When woman suffocates in a dull gynaecium—brothel or middle-class home—she is bound to take refuge in comfort and well-being; besides that, if she eagerly seeks sexual pleasure, it is very often because she is deprived of it. Sexually unsatisfied, doomed to male crudeness, ‘condemned to masculine ugliness,’ she finds consolation in creamy sauces, heady wines, velvets, the caress of water, of sunshine, of a woman friend, of a young lover.


de Beauvoir, Simone. 1952 (1993). The Second Sex. New York: Knopf. pp. xliii, xlix–l, 629, 636, 635. || Amazon || WorldCat


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