Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’

When first published, The Second Sex evoked a wide variety of responses – ranging from personal attacks on Simone de Beauvoir for her unwomanliness to praise for women from different sections of the society. By and large, The Second Sex was regarded more as an affront to sexual decency than a political indictment of patriarchy or a phenomenological account of the meaning of “woman”. With the rise of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, The Second Sex became a foundational text for activist writers such as Betty Freidan and Kate millet. In the 1980s and 90s, authors such as Judith butler further built on her work. However, it has also come under criticism by a new wave of feminists for reasons such as her reliance on Sartrean existentialist idea, lack of celebration of the female body and a universalism unacceptable to postmodern theorists, to name a few.

The Second Sex grounds its analysis in de Beauvoir’s experiences as a woman and in the situations of other real women while locking these into ideas regarding the position of women in general and the impact of history on women’s possibilities. It is rooted in the concrete and blurs the distinction between the personal, political and philosophical. Her statement in the book, “one is not born but becomes a woman”, introduced the sex-gender distinction for the first time, rejecting both functionalist biological arguments and any mysterious notions of ‘the eternal feminine’. The concept of the other is crucial to the argument of the second sex and drives her analysis. One is struck, as the author herself was, by the comprehensiveness and sheer vastness of the text. Beauvoir uses examples from different countries and cultures to illustrate her arguments effectively. However, some critics believe her views to be Eurocentric and insensitive to class and cultural diversity.