A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Introduction: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

It is quite a prospect, isn’t it? This 770 page book (in the edition I use). I have to say I am very intimidated by it. But the prospect of reading and discussing it together is also very exciting to me. Because of the length and my late introduction post, the hosts have decided to leave the discussion open throughout August as well. I know I will be needing the time to get through this and give it the attention it deserves. I will try to post updates on the book and the posts discussing it a couple of times, to keep the discussion going.

I do apologize beforehand for the length of this post. Also, I am no expert on De Beauvoir, so this may be faulty. Either way, I hope it is of use to you.


Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, 9 January 1908. Her parents were devout Catholics with aspirations to nobility. Simone herself was catholic, and even considered to become a nun when she was in a convent school together with her sister. However, that changed when she lost her faith in 14. For the rest of her life she was an atheist.

Simone’s intellectual interests were present from an early age. She passed the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925 and afterwards went on to study mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature at the Institut Sainte-Marie. At the Sorbonne she studied philosophy and wrote a thesis on Leibniz. At university, she met several now-famous intellectuals, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, but her most famous relation is to Jean-Paul Sartre. She met him when preparing for the agrégation, the most competitive post-graduate examinations in France. Sartre came in first on this test, de Beauvoir second. Sartre and de Beauvoir had a polyamorous relationship, seeing other people with the consent of everyone involved. De Beauvoir felt attracted to both sexes and Sartre and her frequently ‘shared’ other girls. Both Sartre and De Beauvoir are considered to be great philosophers of existentialism and are iconic for French intellectual life during those decades.

De Beauvoir wrote several kinds of texts during her life, including metaphysical novels like She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954); a collection of short stories based on women important in the early years of her life called When Things of the Spirit Come First (published 1980, written much earlier); and her autobiography in four parts (the third part is often published in two separate volumes in English).

Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986, aged 78. She is buried next to Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

For more on De Beauvoir’s life, I would like to point you towards Emily’s posts on the first and second parts of Simone de Beavoir’s memoires: Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée and La force de l’âge.


De Beauvoir, like Sartre – or maybe even following Sartre? (people seem to disagree on that) – was an existentialist philosopher, and together with Sartre she makes one of the great French philosophers of her age. I cannot here provide a thorough summary of existentialist philosophy, especially since it took diverse forms ever since its rise during the nineteenth century. However, a few key characteristics are important to situating Simone de Beauvoir’s work.

  1. First, existentialist focus on question of concrete human existence instead of speculating about humanity’s essential characteristics. As such, you could say they focus on individual lives lived and the subjective like emotions and states of being than questions of objective knowledge, etcetera.
  2. Second, existence precedes essence. The actual life and circumstances decide the ‘essence’ of a person and the notion that there is a human essence present in everyone independent from lived experience is rejected. Sartre, for example, states: “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards”. Like all theories that emphasize experience over essence, this can also imply that people might (in a way) “choose” who they become: they are not something to begin with, and thus may choose to become a better person instead of a cruel one.
  3. This idea has to do with the third characteristic of existentialist thinking and that is the concept of freedom. People are not free to do anything they choose, per se, as they are situated in a certain space and thus in some ways constricted by that space. The existentialist notion of freedom thus does not imply that there are no values and everyone can think and act as they choose. However, they do accept that values are situated and can therefore be changed. While we are constricted by values present in the world, they are not absolute (since there is no essential nature) and people are thus responsible for their actions as well as the values they hold.
  4. This leads to a fourth characteristic which is existential angst: the negative feeling that arises from this human freedom and responsibility.
  5. The idea of situated freedom, so to say, is explained further in Sartre’s concept of facticity, tied to the word “in-itself” which de Beauvoir uses in The Second Sex as well. Facticity, and I quote from the wikipedia page on existentialism, is:”both a limitation and a condition of freedom. It is a limitation in that a large part of one’s facticity consists of things one couldn’t have chosen (birthplace, etc.), but a condition in the sense that one’s values most likely will depend on it. However, even though one’s facticity is “set in stone” (as being past, for instance), it cannot determine a person: The value ascribed to one’s facticity is still ascribed to it freely by that person. (..)
    However, to disregard one’s facticity when one, in the continual process of self-making, projects oneself into the future, would be to put oneself in denial of oneself, and would thus be inauthentic. In other words, the origin of one’s projection will still have to be one’s facticity, although in the mode of not being it (essentially).
  6. As such, existentialist often claim that one should lead an authentic life. Being authentic, as opposed to inauthentic, constitutes ‘finding oneself’, but not in the way of finding humanity’s essence. Finding oneself implies living in accordance with one freedom and that freedom in turn is related to your facticity, your situatedness.
  7. Especially relevant to De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is the concept of the Other, but I have to admit that this explanation on wikipedia did not make it easier to understand for me. And of course, all the books I own on philosophy somehow do not consider De Beauvoir a philosopher at all (really, they talk about French existentialism quite thoroughly, but she isn’t mentioned once – nor is the idea of ‘The Look’ or ‘the Gaze’). Maybe someone can help me out with this concept? What I can tell you is that De Beauvoir was inspired by Sartre’s idea of an opposition between a sovereign self as a subject, and an objectivied other inspired her. And in The Second Sex, she uses this to argue that women are made the Other by men, receiving an aura of mystery around them that caused men to be able to claim they did not completely understand women. The Other denotes the wholly other. And while ethnicity, religion and class were also often part of a distinction in which one group could constitute a hierarchy over other groups, De Beauvoir argues that women are the quintessential Other.

The Second Sex

The Second Sex (published in French in 1949) is arguably the best known work by De Beauvoir. It is also a classic of gender studies, or may even be considered the starting point of the distinction between gender and sex: while sex constitutes a biological difference, gender is a ‘socialized’ difference, springing from ‘nurture’ instead of ‘nature’. De Beauvoir, following the existentialist notion that experience precedes essence, argues that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”. Furthermore, she argues that throughout history, woman have been defined as ‘the Other’, an aberration of the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ male. Because women were always considered to deviate from the normal, and furthermore busy to try to emulate normality (i.e. males), they were constantly subjected. Only by letting go of this assumption, De Beauvoir believed, feminism could move forward.

Famously, De Beauvoir started writing The Second Sex after trying to write about herself and found the only way to start was to write that “I am a woman”. She then started to question this, since she felt men would never start a text like the one she was writing with “I am a man/male”, since this was a given to them. Trying to understand what the idea of being a woman was, she started writing an essay on women. On a trip to America, she was encouraged by Nelson Algren (one of the men she had an affair with) to turn the essay into a book. According to Judith Thurman, in the introduction to the new English translation of Le Deuxième Sexe, the confrontation with racism towards blacks in the United States, combined with her experience at home with anti-Semitism (do not forget, the Second World War was of great influence on existentialist thinking), let her to conclude that “The black, the Jew, and the woman, 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.” (Judith Thurman, Introduction: xiv)

The Second Sex is divided into two volumes. In the first, “Facts and Myths”, de Beauvoir chronicles the history of womankind, looking at biological, psychoanalytical and historical perspectives and zooming in on the latter when describing the history of ‘the role of woman’. The second volume, “Lived Experience”, is a case study of contemporary womanhood (in the 1940’s, the research for The Second Sex was done by De Beauvoir between 1946 and 1949) and the various stages in life.

A Note on the Translation

There are two English translations available of Le Deuxième Sexe. The first was published relatively quickly after its publication in France. Translated by Howard Parshly, and published by publisher Alfred A Knopf in 1953, it is often said to be a faulty translation, especially since it lost much of the original existential overtones and was abridged, cutting substantial parts of the original texts where De Beauvoir was considered to be overtly long in her descriptions. However, it should be noted that some scholars have argued that there was a form of female oppression at play in these cuts as well. Margaret Simons, for example, argued that examples of women’s anger were cut, while parts referring to men’s feelings were kept.

In 2010, a new translation was published, again by Alfred A. Knopf, this time translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. While the cover will tell you that it is “a new translation of the landmark classic” “complete and unabridged for the first time”, the new translation has been criticized too. Toril Moi, who has thoroughly criticized the first translation, now stated that the first was “lively and readable”, while the new translation does not convey Beauvoir’s “voice and style”. Furthermore, she argues that some words are definitely translated wrong, often substituting “man and woman” for “a man and a woman”

More on the issues with both translations can be found in review articles such as this one in the Chronicle. (Thanks to Ingrid from the Blue Book Case for pointing this article out to me – I think it was you?)

Just out of curiosity, which translation are you using? I am using the new one. Hopefully I will not find it to be “awkward reading” as Toril Moi says it is.


Having just read the introduction written by Simone de Beauvoir, I admit I am slightly baffled at where to start with discussion questions.I have a feeling I may need to just read it and see where my mind feels like engaging with at this point. Basically, I wanted to quote that whole introduction as extremely relevant and interesting to discuss. I have already decided that I am just going to read it, see where it takes me, and reread it at some later date, hopefully with the critical questions posed by all of you to engage with the text more critically.

I do believe that De Beauvoir’s most famous assertion; “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” should offer us a good starting point for discussion. Recently it has been questioned with research in biology and the social sciences, how do you feel about this idea yourself? And what is it significance to feminism?

However, since I have only read a few pages up to now, I feel there should be much more to discuss. Do you have any ideas? Please let me know and email me at: irisonbooks [at] gmail [dot] com. Feel free to raise questions in the comments and your own posts as well.

10 responses to “Introduction: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Ingrid July 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Yay! I’ve been looking forward to this post. I’m interested to see what you think of the translation that you are reading. I read the Parshley translation, and actually I didn’t find it to be NEARLY as bad as I thought it was going to be after reading those articles, especially the one by Toril Moi. I LOVED reading this book and found the Parshley translation quite approachable.

    I don’t understand Existentialism extremely well, though I was familiar with it on a basic level as well as concepts such as the Other, since a few philosophers/scholars that I have read have written on that before … but I found that I was able to understand and enjoy this book without totally understanding Existentialism. It was pretty straightforward … not much philosophy in there at all (besides quite a few references to the Other), but maybe that’s because Parshley supposedly didn’t translate it correctly, so maybe I just totally missed it. Haha.

    Also, it was me that sent you the links to those articles. 🙂

    Thanks for the great post, looking forward to the discussion! Here is a link to my review of The Second Sex : http://thebluebookcase.blogspot.com/2011/07/review-second-sex-by-simone-de-beauvoir.html

  2. dangermom July 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    I only just got hold of a copy, and I’m intimidated too. I have 4 or 5 giant tomes to read right now and am wondering how to get through them…! I don’t think I’ll be able to get through the whole thing in time, but I’ll do my best.

    I don’t think I buy the “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” bit–but my idea of womanhood is probably very different than hers. There are a lot of things about the modern American idea of femininity (or masculinity) that are learned, which is true of any other culture’s ideas about womanhood too. I doubt that everything about being female (or male) is learned. It’s interesting to tease out what is cultural and what is biological or innate, and of course what is innate to one woman may not be for many others. I still don’t really buy it.

  3. Jennifer July 19, 2011 at 2:34 am

    Hi. I am new to this site, but am excited to have discovered this blog. I have read so much about this book in various women’s studies classes but never actually read the text itself — I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this could happen! Anyway, I have always wanted to read it but thought it would be incredibly daunting to read on my own. Now I know that if I pick it up now, I will have a bunch of people to discuss the book with! I will undoubtedly struggle with it a bit – I feel like my critical thinking skills might have melted a bit with the summer. I am off to get a hold of a copy for myself to start reading — I hope I’m not too terribly behind! Do you guys have a schedule or is it read at your own pace?

    As far as the semi-question for discussion that you posed, I fully ascribe to the notion that “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” From all of the feminism classes I have taken in college, this concept always made the most sense to me. Our notion of what is woman has nothing to do with the biology of sex distinction. It is something that is socially constructed. That premise I accept. And it starts from the moment a nurse comes and wraps a baby in a blue or pink blanket.

    I’m very interested and excited to see where de Beauvoir goes with this line of thought. I’m not sure which translation I will be able to get my hands on yet … I’ll have to see what the library has available or what I can download on my ipad for a decent price.

  4. Emma July 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I’ve already read this one (in French, since it’s my native language).
    I remember reading articles when the new translation was published and the first one seemed to have many major flaws and wrong translations and cut-off passages.
    The second one may be less literary but, according to the articles, it was more faithful to the original.
    PS: it is VERY rare to read articles about a new translation of a French book into English in French magazines. This one must have something exceptional about it.

  5. onereadleaf July 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for the background on existentialism. I’m slowly making my way through the new translation, and since I haven’t studied existentialism, I’m struggling a little with some of the vocabulary… transcendence/immanence, alienation, existence.

    She seems to be writing a lot about what “woman” represents and how that affects the lives of actual, living women, but she doesn’t always make that distinction as carefully as I’d like.

  6. Amy July 29, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    I just discovered this blog, and I am glad to have found it. I am sorry to say that my interest in feminism came quite late, as I foolishly bought the premise that to be feminist meant to be anti-men. Of course, I now realize that has nothing to do with it, and there is an extraordinary amount of value in feminism for all genders and minorities. But before I leap onto my soap box, I really meant to respond to your comments about existentialism.

    I am absolutely fascinated by existentialism, though I hesitate to call myself an expert. One of the key differences in my understanding versus your explanation is that I follow more strongly with Kierkegaard than Sartre. Nevertheless, you offered a solid explanation of the concept. Everyone has an existential identity that is different than his or her concrete identity, but it is only those who recognize this difference that experience existential angst. This angst typically takes place in the form of paralyzing ennui and a strong sense of hopelessness. I suppose the ultimate question of “Who am I?” that existentialists face is often paired with “What does it matter?” There is an identity that society places upon us which we adopt naturally, one built on accomplishments, characteristics, and social statuses. Yet there is also an identity of “essence” or “soul” or “spirit” – however you prefer to define it. The study of existentialism is one that explores this second, more authentic identity.

    The concept of “The Other” is not specifically limited to existentialism, but it is very important in feminism. The Other can come from the crushing sense of feeling so different than the rest of society once you recognize your true essence is split from your present identity. The Other is what gives us those superficial identities, telling us what it is to be “man” or “woman” or whatever label applies. It is absolutely necessary to separate oneself from The Other but it is impossible to make that separation entirely. The challenge is to create a connection to The Other yet remain authentically Self. I actually think Virginia Woolf explores this concept uniquely in her writing, particularly The Waves.

    A great deal of literature centers on characters in existential crises. Crime and Punishment is my favorite example, but The Awakening by Kate Chopin is an extremely valuable piece relevant to the purposes of this blog. I really suggest that you read this novella after finishing The Second Sex if you can fit it in. I think you would find that they correspond beautifully. Here’s a link to my thoughts about it if you’re interested:


    I hope you don’t mind my lengthy comments. I just got swept up in your post, and I look forward to following along!

  7. Pingback: From elsewhere: Reading The Second Sex « Philosophy Reading Group

  8. jscuro November 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for the info! We just started reading The Second Sex as well. http://philosophyreadinggroup.wordpress.com/

    I’m sure that you have all moved on … but it will be nice to pair the feminist readings with the philosophical ones. Thanks again!

  9. onereadleaf December 2, 2011 at 2:56 am

    I noticed the complaint on the bell hooks post that few people had posted about this, and realized I’d forgotten to link to my posts! So, here they are: one, two, three.

  10. Radha D Rajan October 5, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Pls publish a detailed summary of the “introduction” to The Second Sex

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