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The Second Sex: Existential Feminism
Simone De Beauvoir

In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published La Deuxime Sexe (The Second Sex), which was published in the United States in 1952. France had traditionally been the most male-dominated society in Western Europe; some would contend that it still is. French women did not get the vote until 1944, long after most other Western states; French law consistently favored men; and French culture and society underscored the political and legal weaknesses of women. This began to change in the post-war period, as French women, like those of other European states and the United States, were forced to move into the waged work force. Thus Beauvoir was writing within a milieu that was becoming slightly more open to women's equality. Most agree that this book launched modern feminism. Beauvoir grounded her arguments in science, history, sociology, and law, overlaid with her existentialist belief that women could define themselves and in so doing could free themselves from patriarchal domination. Beauvoir no doubt benefited from her long association with the French existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)--indeed they became something of a tourist attraction as people hung around the Montmartre cafŽs that the famous couple frequented. Beauvoir and Sartre were prominent as social critics in France and had a high visibility quotient. Despite the fact that Sartre was the most influential of the existentialists, many argue that Beauvoir's work has had a much greater impact.

Questions to Consider
  • What according to Beauvoir are the problems faced by women?

  • What is it that Beauvoir advocates to allow women to achieve fulfillment?

According to French law, obedience is no longer included among the duties of a wife, and each woman citizen has the right to vote; but these civil liberties remain theoretical as long as they are unaccompanied by economic freedom. A woman supported by a man--wife or courtesan--is not emancipated from the male because she has a ballot in her hand; if custom imposes less constraint upon her than formerly, the negative freedom implied has not profoundly modified her situation; she remains bound in her condition of vassalage. It is through gainful employment that woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice. Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is no longer any need for a masculine mediator.

The curse that is upon woman as vassal consists, as we have seen, in the fact that she is not permitted to do anything; so she persists in the vain pursuit of her true being through narcissism, love, or religion....

It is quite understandable, also, that the milliner's apprentice, the shopgirl, the secretary, will not care to renounce the advantages of masculine support. I have already pointed out that the existence of a privileged caste, which she can join by merely surrendering her body, is an almost irresistible temptation to the young woman; she is fated for gallantry by the fact that her wages are minimal while the standard of living expected of her by society is very high. If she is content to get along on her wages, she is only a pariah: ill lodged, ill dressed, she will be denied all amusement and even love. Virtuous people preach asceticism to her, and, indeed, her dietary regime is often as austere as that of a Carmelite [nun]. Unfortunately, not everyone can take God as a lover; she has to please men if she is to succeed in her life as a woman. She will therefore accept assistance, and this is what her employer cynically counts on in giving her starvation wages. This aid will sometimes allow her to improve her situation and achieve a real independence; in other cases, however, she will give up her work and become a kept woman. She often retains both sources of income and each serves more or less as an escape from the other; but she is really in double servitude: to job and to protector. For the married woman her wages represent only pin money as a rule; for the girl who "makes something on the side" it is the masculine contribution that seems extra; but neither of them gains complete independence through her own efforts.

There are, however, a fairly large number of privileged women who find in their professions a means of economic and social autonomy. These come to mind when one considers woman's possibilities and her future. This is the reason why it is especially interesting to make a close study of their situation, even though they constitute as yet only a minority; they continue to be a subject of debate between feminists and antifeminists. The latter assert that the emancipated women of today succeed in doing nothing of importance in the world and that furthermore they have difficulty in achieving their own inner equilibrium. The former exaggerate the results obtained by professional women and are blind to their inner confusion....

There is one feminine function that is actually almost impossible to perform in complete liberty. It is maternity. In England and America and some other countries a woman can at least decline maternity at will, thanks to contraceptive techniques. We have seen that in France she is often driven to painful and costly abortion or she frequently finds herself responsible for an unwanted child that can ruin her professional life. If this is a heavy charge, it is because inversely, custom does not allow a woman to procreate when she pleases. The unwed mother is a scandal to the community, and [an] illegitimate birth is a stain on the child; only rarely is it possible to become a mother without accepting the chains of marriage or losing caste. If the idea of artificial insemination interests many women, it is not because they wish to avoid intercourse with a male, it is because they hope that freedom of maternity is going to be accepted by society at last. It must be said in addition that in spite of convenient day nurseries and kindergartens, having a child is enough to paralyze a woman's activity entirely; she can go on working only if she abandons it to relatives, friends, or servants. She is forced to choose between sterility, which is often felt as a painful frustration, and burdens hardly compatible with a career.

Thus the independent woman of today is torn between her professional interests and the problems of her sexual life; it is difficult for her to strike a balance between the two; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices, acrobatics, which require her to be in a constant state of tension....

The free woman is just being born; when she has won possession of herself perhaps Rimbaud's prophecy will be fulfilled: "There shall be poets! When women's unmeasured bondage shall be broken, when she shall live for and through herself, man--hitherto detestable--having let her go, she, too, will be poet! Woman will find the unknown! Will her ideational worlds be different from ours? She will come upon strange, unfathomable, repellent, delightful things; we shall take them, we shall comprehend them." It is not sure that her "ideational worlds" will be different from those of men, since it will be through attaining the same situation as theirs that she will find emancipation; to say in what degree she will remain different, in what degree these differences will retain their importance--this would be to hazard bold predictions indeed. What is certain is that hitherto woman's possibilities have been suppressed and lost to humanity, and that it is high time she be permitted to take her chances in her own interest and in the interest of all.

Source: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, H. M. Parshley, ed. and trans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 679, 681, 696-697, 715.