Beauvoir’s Anticipates the Women’s Movement

The Second Sex became a foundational work for feminists and astonished readers with its historical, comprehensive, and frank portrayal of women as unequal, second-class citizens of the world.

Summary of Event

Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is a carefully researched and highly intellectual work. Book 1 was published in Paris, France, in June of 1949, with book 2 following in November. The English translation appeared in 1952. The book became extraordinarily influential, shaping the second wave of the women’s movement as it began to gain power in the 1960’s. It is considered to be a classic in women’s literature. Using all the resources available to her both in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and in the United States, Simone de Beauvoir delves into anthropology, biology, philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis, politics, sociology, and literature. Book 1 includes topics ranging from the destiny of women to their history and myths. Book 2 covers the formative years of women through their old age as well as the justifications for women’s attitudes, concluding with an array of ideas that she insists will lead to the liberation of women. Second Sex, The (Beauvoir)
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[kw]Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement (1949)[Beauvoirs The Second Sex Anticipates the Womens Movement]
[kw]Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement, Beauvoir’s The (1949)
[kw]Women’s Movement, Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the (1949)[Womens Movement, Beauvoirs The Second Sex Anticipates the]
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[g]Europe;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
[g]France;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
[c]Women’s issues;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
[c]Literature;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
[c]Philosophy;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
[c]Social issues and reform;1949: Beauvoir’s The Second Sex Anticipates the Women’s Movement[02740]
Beauvoir, Simone de
Sartre, Jean-Paul
Algren, Nelson
Audry, Colette

Essentially, the seven hundred pages of analysis of women as the “second sex” rely heavily on a framework of philosophy, particularly that of existentialism as exemplified by Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s lifelong companion, in his L’Être et le néant
Being and Nothingness (Sartre) (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). The idea for Beauvoir’s book originated with Colette Audry, a fellow philosophy teacher and colleague of Beauvoir at the Rouen Lycée. Audry’s influence on Beauvoir is apparent, as Beauvoir eventually recognized the inequalities in the status of men and women. Beauvoir never married and received a first-rate education at the Sorbonne, so she never felt the full brunt of male power. Marriage, however, would become a critical subject in The Second Sex.

Audry, who had chafed because French women were not given suffrage until 1947, eventually succeeded in convincing Beauvoir of the limitations women faced as a powerless gender. Beauvoir’s book was titled The Second Sex to reflect men’s status as the “first sex”; women are distinctly second in importance. Gays and lesbians had been dubbed the “third sex” by early sexologists.

The Second Sex, using the idea of women as “the Other,” is grounded in Marxist Marxism socialism and in Sartrean existentialism Existentialism
Philosophy;existentialism , which recognizes existence before essence and stresses the concept of the responsibility of choice and freedom. This set of beliefs often elicits fear and anxiety in the individual. In the book, Beauvoir discusses an individual’s ontology, or what it is to be a human being at a fundamental level. One of the earliest voices for feminism she cites is that of the seventeenth century Frenchman François Poulain de la Barre, whose De L’Égalité des deux sexes
Woman as Good as the Man (Poulain de la Barre) (The Woman as Good as the Man: Or, The Equality of Both Sexes, 1677) was published in France in 1673. He wrote, “All that has been written about women by men should be suspect, for the men are at once judge and party to the lawsuit.” Deirdre Bair, in Simone de Beauvoir (1990), wrote that this statement sets the parameters for Beauvoir’s research and methodology.

The Second Sex examines the sexuality and socialization of women, arguing that they are “programmed” to be unequal and inferior from birth. Therefore, they are subjected to inordinate pressures to prepare for marriage, which is a woman’s best hope of survival, economically and socially. This emphasis on marriage limits women to the roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper, essentially powerless roles that reflect a subordination to men. Unless she is independently wealthy, a woman is at the mercy of men for economic and social survival because of her role as reproducer. This double standard of the sexes imprisons women in a monotonous repetition of unpaid labor. Beauvoir uses the term “transcendent” to indicate the role of men as they aspire to higher realms in occupations utilizing their imagination, resourcefulness, and risk-taking skills. Women, on the other hand, work in the home, which limits them to a treadmill existence, an existence Beauvoir calls “immanence.” Even love is not possible, claimed Beauvoir, unless men and women experience equality.

Beauvoir’s main thesis urges women to work outside the household for personal and economic betterment. She was unalterably opposed to housewifery as the sole option for women. Men and women must share the responsibilities of housework and child rearing. Ultimately, Beauvoir was opposed to marriage, arguing that it often forces women into unpaid sex with their husbands and that is creates a climate that impairs, if not destroys, romance. She warned that children’s development and outlook will be limited severely if they are reared by women who remain at home. A main and recurring thread in The Second Sex is the hope that women become conscious of their inferior status and subsequently take steps to change this.

By the time Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, she had already published (in French) several novels, as well as Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (1947; The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948) and L’Amérique au jour le jour (1948; America Day by Day, 1953), a travel book. Her fifteen-year intermittent love affair with the American writer Nelson Algren became doubly significant, since Algren introduced her to an array of American novels and writers, including Richard Wright. This liaison contributed an American tone to The Second Sex, which when published created a sensation throughout France as well. The book was particularly excoriated by the Roman Catholic Church, which Beauvoir indicted as a bastion of tradition and archconservatism, and by an angry French bourgeoisie. Despite this initial outpouring of determined opposition, which could be expected given her aversion to marriage and tradition, Beauvoir would gain a considerable reputation of her own, never again to experience recognition only through her relationship with Sartre as his friend, companion, critic, and editor.


Within ten years after its publication, The Second Sex, with its compendious analysis of literature and documentation of histories, autobiographies, essays, and psychoanalysis, no longer created a furor. When the vitriol subsided, the respect for the book and for Beauvoir began, as women and many men around the world cited their debt to her as spokeswoman and supporter of women’s rights and equality. Although the book continued to be attacked by conservatives, including antifeminists such as Phyllis Schlafly, other commentators and critics found The Second Sex engagingly informative, unique, reasonable, and witty.

The Second Sex created a permanent impact on culture and society. The book attacked Freudian psychoanalysis as a deterministic theory that denies choice. Woman, Beauvoir insisted, is not constrained by sexual determinism. She vehemently disagreed with Freud that biology is destiny. She believed that women should assume their condition, not accept it. Transcendence occurs when women assert themselves, rather than locking themselves into immanence.

Beauvoir attacked figures such as Saint Paul, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, D. H. Lawrence, and Henri Rousseau, who consigned women to immanence. She reiterated belief in options, as did Virginia Woolf, and condemned “bad faith,” the term Sartre used to mean abdication of the human self.

Because of Beauvoir’s intimate association with Sartre (after an initial sexual liaison they became a platonic “professional couple”) and her fiercely independent spirit, she was mocked by those who called her “La Grande Sartreuse” and “Notre Dame de Sartre.” By the 1960’s, when the women’s movement in the United States crested, these remarks had become passé as The Second Sex assumed a reinvigorated life. The work became required reading in women’s studies programs and was discussed in seminars and at conferences. The Modern Language Association, a society of academics and scholars, offered panels on the book in the areas of literature, psychology, history, anthropology, and feminism.

Scholar Carolyn Heilbrun noted that the book had an extraordinary and profound, although delayed, influence on not only women’s studies but also the raising of women’s consciousness. Betty Friedan Friedan, Betty , author of The Feminine Mystique (1963) and often dubbed the grandmother of feminism in the United States, also credits The Second Sex for her own political awareness. Although Friedan did not accept the “either/or” assertions of Beauvoir’s polemic, she, like other well-known feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, and Marilyn French, paid homage to the work. The book encouraged women to rethink their social position and to explore other options. Feminist writer Elisabeth Badinter has said, “Women, you owe everything to her!”

Whenever and wherever women’s rights is discussed, The Second Sex commands attention and respect. Some scholars have referred to it as the most significant and forceful vindication of the rights of women published in the twentieth century. Many women in the United States took Beauvoir as their guide and guru. Radical feminists in the 1960’s and the 1970’s argued that The Second Sex was not radical enough, yet the work was considered by most to be radical for its day. Despite disparate views, most women familiar with Beauvoir’s work assert that she is a heroine who lit the torch of the women’s movement in the twentieth century.

The Second Sex inspired the formation of an international Simone de Beauvoir Society. Television stations vied for interviews, and magazines hounded her for contributions. French television filmed four fifty-two-minute segments about Beauvoir, her life, her books, and her ideas about feminism. American television initially banned the series because of explicit references to clitoridectomy of Arab girls, but, eventually, some public television channels offered the film in censored form.

The resulting fame from the publication of The Second Sex placed Beauvoir squarely in the limelight. Invitations to speak poured in from around the world. Beauvoir encouraged and financially supported centers for aid to battered women, encouraged the dissemination of information on birth control, and called for free contraception and abortion on demand. Beauvoir’s fame lent weight to all these causes. The Second Sex already had become a powerful lever.

Four years after Beauvoir’s death in 1986, Bair published Simone de Beauvoir, Simone de Beauvoir (Bair)[Simone Debeauvoir (Bair)] which scrutinizes all phases of Beauvoir’s life. Bair shows that although The Second Sex explored the environment of the bourgeoisie during Beauvoir’s lifetime and carefully annotated the stages leading to the research and writing of The Second Sex, the work offers no specific plan for militancy and radicalism and little theory from which to construct alternatives to women’s status as the second sex, an omission some feminists deplore. The Second Sex came to be considered a temperate exposition of women’s rights.

Given the progression of women’s struggles and notable changes in morality, many are unaware of just how influential this work has been. One can argue that Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex helped lead the way to the acceptance of women into, for example, medical and law schools and into the armed services. The work has also led to the improved climate for women in business, the media, and other professions. Second Sex, The (Beauvoir)
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Further Reading

  • Bair, Deirdre. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Summit Books, 1990. This exhaustive, well-annotated biography is largely the result of five years of interviews with Beauvoir. It is well written and complete. Endnotes are thorough.
  • Bauer, Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. This work focuses especially on Beauvoir’s philosophy and asks whether feminism and existentialism can be reconciled.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Beauvoir’s classic, philosophical work on the position of women in society.
  • Keefe, Terry. Simone de Beauvoir: A Study of Her Writings. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Keefe focuses on Beauvoir’s entire set of works, not centering on feminism or Sartre. Particularly absorbing are chapters on The Second Sex and Beauvoir’s most successful novel, The Mandarins (1956).
  • Marso, Lori Jo, and Patricia Moynagh, eds. Simone de Beauvoir’s Political Thinking. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. An examination of Beauvoir’s political thought, with chapters on her “unsettling of the universal,” her ethics, her work set against and also in comparison to that of philosopher Michel Foucault, and more. Bibliography and index.
  • Tidd, Ursula. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 2004. Part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series, this brief but important work discusses Beauvoir’s existentialism, ethics, her ideas on “becoming woman,” feminism, literature, and aging. Includes an extensive bibliography and an index.
  • Winegarten, Renee. Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical View. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Deals with Beauvoir’s association with Sartre, her rebellious spirit, politics, feminism, and the metaphysical novel. Includes a chronology and a bibliography.

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