Introduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’

In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir began to outline what she thought would be an autobiographical essay explaining why, when she had tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to mind was “I am a woman.” That October, my maiden aunt, Beauvoir’s contemporary, came to visit me in the hospital nursery. I was a day old, and she found a little tag on my bassinet that announced, “It’s a Girl!” In the next bassinet was another newborn (“a lot punier,” she recalled), whose little tag announced, “I’m a Boy!” There we lay, innocent of a distinction — between a female object and a male subject — that would shape our destinies. It would also shape Beauvoir’s great treatise on the subject.

Beauvoir was then a thirty-eight-year-old public intellectual who had been enfranchised for only a year. Legal birth control would be denied to French women until 1967, and legal abortion, until 1975. Not until the late 1960s was there an elected female head of state anywhere in the world. Girls of my generation searching for examples of exceptional women outside the ranks of queens and courtesans, and of a few artists and saints, found precious few. (The queens, as Beauvoir remarks, “were neither male nor female: they were sovereigns.”) Opportunities for women have proliferated so broadly in the past six decades, at least in the Western world, that the distance between 2010 and 1949, when The Second Sex was published in France, seems like an eternity (until, that is, one opens a newspaper — the victims of misogyny and sexual abuse are still with us, everywhere). While no one individual or her work is responsible for that seismic shift in laws and attitudes, the millions of young women who now confidently assume that their entitlement to work, pleasure, and autonomy is equal to that of their brothers owe a measure of their freedom to Beauvoir. The Second Sex was an act of Promethean audacity — a theft of Olympian fire — from which there was no turning back. It is not the last word on “the problem of woman,” which, Beauvoir wrote, “has always been a problem of men,” but it marks the place in history where an enlightenment begins.

Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in 1908 into a reactionary Catholic family with pretensions to nobility. She had a Proustian childhood on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in Paris. But after World War I, her father, Georges, lost most of his fortune, and without dowries Simone and her sister, Hélène, had dim prospects for a marriage within their class. Their mother, Françoise, a banker’s daughter who had never lived without servants, did all the housework and sewing for the family. Her pious martyrdom indelibly impressed Simone, who would improve upon Virginia Woolf ’s famous advice and move to a room of her own — in a hotel, with maid service. Like Woolf, and a striking number of other great women writers,1 Beauvoir was childless. And like Colette, who wasn’t (she relegated her late-born, only daughter to the care of surrogates), she regarded motherhood as a threat to her integrity. Colette is a ubiquitous presence in The Second Sex, which gives a new perspective to her boast, in a memoir of 1946, that “my strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author . . . Beneath the still young woman that I was, an old boy of forty saw to the well-being of a possibly precious part of myself.”

Mme de Beauvoir, intent on keeping up a facade of gentility, however shabby, sent her daughters to an elite convent school where Simone, for a while, ardently desired to become a nun, one of the few respectable vocations open to an ambitious girl. When she lost her faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union (dreams that proved remarkably tenacious) shifted from Christ to an enchanting classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew. (Not many bookish virgins with a particle in their surname got drunk with the hookers and drug addicts at Le Styx.) Her mother hoped vainly that the worthless Jacques would propose. Her father, a ladies’ man, knew better: he told his temperamental, ill-dressed, pimply genius of a daughter that she would never marry. But by then Simone de Beauvoir had seen what a woman of almost any quality — highborn or low, pure or impure, contented with her lot or alienated — could expect from a man’s world.

Beauvoir’s singular brilliance was apparent from a young age to her teachers, and to herself. An insatiable curiosity and a prodigious capacity for synthetic reading and analysis (a more inspired grind may never have existed) nourished her drive. One of her boyfriends dubbed her Castor (the Beaver), a nickname that stuck. She had a sense of inferiority, it would appear, only in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. They met in 1929, as university students (she a star at the Sorbonne, he at the Ecole Normale Supérieure), cramming, as a team, for France’s most brutal and competitive postgraduate examination, the agrégation in philosophy. (On their first study date, she explained Leibniz to him.) Success would qualify her for a lifetime sinecure teaching at a lycée, and liberate her from her family. When the results were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second (she was the ninth woman who had ever passed), and that, forever, was the order of precedence — Adam before Eve — in their creation myth as a couple.

Even though their ideal was of a love without domination, it was part of the myth that Sartre was Beauvoir’s first man. After Georges de Beauvoir confronted them (they had been living together more or less openly), Sartre, the more bourgeois, proposed marriage, and Beauvoir told him “not to be silly.” She had emerged from her age of awkwardness as a severe beauty with high cheekbones and a regal forehead who wore her dark hair plaited and rolled — an old-fashioned duenna’s coif rather piquantly at odds with her appetites and behavior. Both sexes attracted her, and Sartre was never the most compelling of her lovers, but they recognized that each possessed something uniquely necessary to the other. As he put it one afternoon, walking in the Tuileries, “You and I together are as one” (on ne fait qu’un). He categorized their union as an “essential” love that only death could sunder, although in time, he said, they would naturally both have “contingent” loves — freely enjoyed and fraternally confessed in a spirit of “authenticity.” (She often recruited, and shared, his girls, some of whom were her students, and her first novel, She Came to Stay, in 1943, was based on one of their ménages à trois.) “At every level,” Beauvoir reflected, years later, of the pain she had suffered and inflicted, “we failed to face the weight of reality, priding ourselves on what we called our ‘radical freedom.’” But they also failed to fault themselves for the contingent casualties — the inessential others — who were sacrificed to their experiment. And the burden of free love, Beauvoir would discover, was grossly unequal for a woman and for a man.

If Beauvoir has proved to be an irresistible subject for biographers, it is, in part, because she and Sartre, as a pharaonic couple of incestuous deities, reigned over twentieth-century French intellectual life in the decades of its greatest ferment. But the most fascinating subjects tend to be those richest in contradictions, and The Second Sex, no less than Beauvoir’s prolific and important fiction, memoirs, and correspondence, seethes with them. Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir’s biographer, touches upon a fundamental paradox in the introduction to her admirable life. She and Sartre ’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal had been lecturing together at Harvard. At the conclusion of their talk, she writes, “I could not help but comment to my distinguished audience that every question asked about Sartre concerned his work, while all those asked about Beauvoir concerned her personal life.” Yet Sartre ’s work, and specifically the existentialist notion of an opposition between a sovereign self — a subject — and an objectified Other, gave Beauvoir the conceptual scaffold for The Second Sex, while her life as a woman (indeed, as Sartre ’s woman) impelled her to write it. He had once told her that she had “a man’s intelligence,” and there is no evidence that he changed his mind about a patronizing slight that she, too, accepted as a compliment until she began to consider what it implied. It implied, she would write, that “humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself,” and by all the qualities (Colette ’s strain of “virility”) she is presumed to lack. Her “twinship” with Sartre was an illusion.

The Second Sex has been called a “feminist bible,” an epithet bound to discourage impious readers wary of a sacred text and a personality cult. Beauvoir herself was as devout an atheist as she had once been a Catholic, and she dismisses religions — even when they worship a goddess — as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion. The analogy is fitting, though, and not only to the grandeur of a book that was the first of its kind but also to its structure. Beauvoir begins her narrative, like the author of

Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The two volumes that elaborate on the consequences of that fall are the Old and New Testaments of an unchosen people with a history of enslavement. (“Facts and Myths” is a chronicle of womankind from prehistory to the 1940s; “Lived Experience” is a minutely detailed case study of contemporary womanhood and its stations of the cross from girlhood through puberty and sexual initiation to maturity and old age, with detours from the well-trodden road to Calvary taken by mystics and lesbians.) The epic concludes, like Revelation, with an eloquent, if utopian, vision of redemption:

The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom; if they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.

The first English edition of The Second Sex was published in 1953. Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred Knopf, Beauvoir’s American publisher, had heard of the book on a scouting trip to Paris. Thinking that this sensational literary property was a highbrow sex manual, she had asked an academic who knew about the birds and the bees, H. M. Parshley, a retired professor of zoology at Smith College, for a reader’s report. His enthusiasm for the work (“intelligent, learned, and well-balanced . . . not feminist in any doctrinaire sense”) won him the commission to translate it. But Alfred Knopf asked Parshley to condense the text, noting, without undue masculine gallantry, that Beauvoir “certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea.” Parshley appealed to the author for advice on the “minor cuts and abridgments” that Knopf felt were essential for the American market. She was either too busy or unwilling to reply, because he heard nothing until he received an indignant letter protesting that “so much of what seems important to me will have been omitted.” But she signed off graciously on the edition.

While the translation was a labor of love from which Parshley nearly expired, he lacked a background in philosophy, or in French literature. He also lacked a credential more pertinent, perhaps, to the audience for a foundational work of modern feminism, a second X chromosome. This eagerly awaited new translation, by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier — the first since Parshley’s — is a magisterial exercise in fidelity. The cuts have been restored, and the English is as lucid and elegant as Beauvoir’s ambition to be exhaustive permits it to be. She is a bold, sagacious, often dazzling writer and a master aphorist, but no one would accuse her of being a lapidary stylist. It is hard to find a description for the prose that does justice both to its incisive power and to its manic garrulity. Elizabeth Hardwick came closest, perhaps, when she called The Second Sex “madly sensible and brilliantly confused.”

The stamina that it takes to read The Second Sex in its entirety pales before the feat of writing it. (Sartre was happy when his beaver was busy, Beauvoir told Bair, because “I was no bother to him.”) One is humbled to learn that this eight-hundred-page encyclopedia of the folklore, customs, laws, history, religion, philosophy, anthropology, literature, economic systems, and received ideas that have, since time began, objectified women was researched and composed in about fourteen months, between 1946 and 1949, while Beauvoir was also engaged with other literary projects, traveling widely, editing and contributing to Les Temps Modernes, Sartre ’s leftist political review, and juggling her commitments to him and “the Family” (their entourage of friends, groupies, disciples, and lovers) with a wild, transatlantic love affair. On a trip to America in 1947, she had met the novelist Nelson Algren, the most significant of her male others, and it was he who advised her to expand the essay on women into a book. He had shown her the “underside” of his native Chicago, and that year and the next they explored the United States and Mexico together. Her encounter with a racism that she had never witnessed firsthand, and her friendship with Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, helped to clarify her understanding of sexism, and its relation to the anti-Semitism that she certainly had witnessed firsthand before and during the war, but, with Sartre, had never openly challenged. The black, the Jew, and the woman, she concluded, were objectified as the Other in ways that were both overtly despotic and insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliché (“the eternal feminine”; “the black soul”; “the Jewish character”) that served as a rationale for their subjugation.

Not all of Beauvoir’s staggering erudition and mandarin authority in The Second Sex is reliable (she would repudiate a number of her more contentious or blinkered generalities, though not all of them). Her single most famous assertion — “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” — has been disputed by more recent feminist scholars, and a substantial body of research in biology and the social sciences supports their argument that some sexual differences (besides the obvious ones) are innate rather than “situational.” Instead of rejecting “otherness” as an imposed cultural construct, women, in their opinion, should cultivate it as a source of selfknowledge and expression, and use it as the basis to critique patriarchal institutions. Many readers have also been alienated by Beauvoir’s visceral horror of fertility — the “curse” of reproduction — and her desire, as they see it, to homogenize the human race.

Yet a revolution cannot begin until the diffuse, private indignation of individuals coalesces into a common cause. Beauvoir not only marshaled a vast arsenal of fact and theory; she galvanized a critical mass of consciousness — a collective identity — that was indispensable to the women’s movement. Her insights have breached the solitude of countless readers around the world who thought that the fears, transgressions, fantasies, and desires that fed their ambivalence about being female were aberrant or unique. No woman before her had written publicly, with greater candor and less euphemism, about the most intimate secrets of her sex.

One of those secrets — the hardest, perhaps, for Beauvoir to avow — is that a free woman may refuse to be owned without wanting to renounce, or being able to transcend, her yearning to be possessed.5 “As long as the temptations of facility remain,” she wrote, by which she meant the temptations of romantic love, financial security, and a sense of purpose or status derived from a man, all of which Sartre had, at one time or another, provided for her, a woman “needs to expend a greater moral effort than the male to choose the path of independence.” Colette, who would have smiled, and not kindly, at the phrase, “moral effort,” states the problem less cerebrally: “How to liberate my true hope? Everything is against me. The first obstacle to my escape is this woman’s body barring my way, a voluptuous body with closed eyes, voluntarily blind, stretched out full, ready to perish.”

To a reader of this new translation — a young feminist perhaps, for whom the very title may seem as quaint as a pair of bloomers — I would suggest that the best way to appreciate The Second Sex is to read it in the spirit it was written: as a deep and urgent personal meditation on a true hope that, as she will probably discover, is still elusive for many of us: to become, in every sense, one ’s own woman.

(Excerpted from The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.Copied from The New York Times)

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