Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Knopf, 1953) is an extensive and impressive examination of the lot of women everywhere, and today, this book is central to most introductory courses in Women’s Studies. One cannot take on the history of women and their subjugation without first learning a term such as “Other,” which Beauvoir penned in this unique framework of women’s role in society as the second sex—the one that depends on the first, men—for survival and fulfillment.
When Beauvoir decided to endeavor researching and writing about femininity and women’s limited roles, she believed that the limitations of women only existed in the rigid and patriarchal confines of the United States. It was only after she interviewed women in Paris that she learned the limitations of women in the home and outside of it was expansive, global, and existed in her own country.
Simone de Beauvoir, having grown up with an atheist and progressive father who frequently told her she should have been born a man because she thought like a man, and having had a satisfying and open love affair with existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, had never felt the inferiority that most women experienced as a result of the way they were treated by their fathers, lovers, husbands, and other male figures in their life. After conducting research and interviews to write this manifesto on women’s inferior roles, she felt lucky to have navigated through life without ever feeling held-back or restricted from her desires and ambitions because she was a woman. And it is perhaps because of this detached experience and this existential and scientifically keen perspective that allows Beauvoir to capture the life of women in such a unique and critical eye, especially as a woman circa the 1950s.
Her thesis in The Second Sex is the following:
Women in general have been forced to occupy a secondary place in the world in relation to men, a position comparable…with that of racial minorities in spite of the fact that women constitute numerically at least half of the human race, and…this secondary standing is not imposed of necessity by natural ‘feminine’ characteristics but rather by strong environmental forces of educational and social tradition under the purposeful control of men. (vii)
Women, according to Beauvoir, have “been taught to accept masculine authority. So she gives up criticizing, investigating, judging for herself, and leaves all this to the superior caste” (600). Whether she is a wife, a prostitute, a courtesan, or a Hollywood star, a woman who lives for the favor of men is still a prisoner, for her sex imprisons her. As long as women function in a state of otherness, existing to satiate the needs—sexual or emotional—of men, they continues to live as the “Other.” A woman is the object that belongs to the subject, and this makes her “the second sex.”
Beauvoir uses strong and derogatory language with which to define women who financially depend on men. They are “pariahs” and “parasites,” because they do not take advantage of their intellect, their freedom, and because they willingly, resignedly rely on men to support and protect them when they can do so on their own. The married woman, the courtesan, the Hollywood star, the low-paid shop girl are all in the same lot: “she has to please men if she is to succeed in her life as a woman…but neither of them gains complete independence” (681).
In order for women to gain subjectivity, they need to live independent and self-reliant lives. They can love men, and join them as lovers or as wives, as she maintained a long relationship with Sartre without marrying or living with him, but they need to be economically and socially autonomous to truly be free. It is only through employment that women can be free—financially and emotionally. Once women begin to work, demanding wages that are equal to men, women can be independent of men and act of their own accord. The system as it exists—the patriarchal laws as they exist in diminishing women’s value—will be destroyed, no longer able to function. According to Beauvoir’s existential point of view, “When she is productive, active, she regains transcendence; in her projects she concretely affirms her status as subject” (680).
Sixty years after the publication of this book, this financial and emotional independence is one that women should continue to strive for, refusing to settle for the secondary and objectified role of men’s “Other.”