The Second Sex










               The Second Sex is a challenging and yet interesting philosophical inquiry. Those are my personal impressions. It takes me some times to review my philosophical knowledge of Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. Through her reading of these philosophies and with an interdisciplinary study, de Beauvoir discovered the possibility of doing philosophy of woman. She had no ambitions to increase to the women and the feminists some advantages on how woman have to be. Her profound interest instead is to question why woman remains the second sex in relation to man in our modern time.

               The question abovementioned will be discussed during this class. This discussion consists of three parts. First of all, we will describe briefly curriculum vitae of the philosopher. Second, we will discuss important question which de Beauvoir addressed in her book. Third, we come to the core argument of the book: the second sex refers to woman as the other. Four, we will discuss the way of liberation proposed by de Beauvoir.

               As a philosophical forum, this discussion will use a “Socratic method”, which is a way of clarifying, questioning the terms and core arguments of the book. In doing so, by the guidance of our professor, hopefully we can come together to attain a better understanding of The Second Sex.



               Q: Maybe you have known about de Beauvoir? Who is she? Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was a France philosopher. She lived from 1908-1986. She died at the age of 87. She earned a doctorate in philosophy from Sorbonne University, Paris, 1929. Her philosophical thinking was influenced by some philosophers, among others, Merleau-Ponty, Levi Strauss, Karl-Marx, Hegel, and Jean-Paul Sartre. She has been well known as an existentialist philosopher, writer, political activist, and feminist.



De Beauvoir begins her philosophical exploration of woman with an important question: "What is a woman?" Q: what do you think ‘what a woman means?”

   If the functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through “the eternal; feminine,” and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman… the fact that I ask it in itself significant… But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say, “I am a woman; on this truth must be based all further discussion (p. 14-15)


Q: Why de Beauvoir prefers the question: WHAT is a woman? Why she does not begin by questioning: WHO is a woman?


Through this question de Beauvoir found some failures of describing the “eternal feminine” of a woman.

  • Biology – Q: What does biology as a science talks about human being?
    • Woman is only a womb, an ovary, a female (p.33).
    • De Beauvoir’s important question is: “What particular kind of female is manifest in female?” (p.33)
    • “The body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But her body is not enough to define herself as woman; there is no true living reality… Biology is not enough to give an answer to the question: why is woman the Other? (p. 64).
  • Psychoanalysis - Q: What do you know about psychoanalysis? What is the fundamental belief of human being?
    • Woman is biological disorder. She is psychosomatic in origin.
    • Woman’s awareness of herself is defined exclusively by her sexuality.
    • “Thus the psychoanalysts never give us more than an inauthentic picture…” (p.77)
    • “For us woman is identified as human being in quest of values in a world of values; a world of which it is indispensable to know the economic and social structure” (p. 78)
  • The historical materialism - Q: What do you know about this philosophy? What is the core assumption of historical materialism?
    • Woman is a “historical reality” that can be manipulated by the power of economy controlled by men: Homo Ecomicus
    • Woman’s awareness of herself is reflected a situation that depends upon the organization of society (p. 79)
    • “The problem of woman is reduced to the problem of her capacity for labor” (p. 82) 
    •  “The value of muscular strength, the phallus, and the tool can only be defined in a world of vales: it is determined by the basic project through which the existent seek transcendence (p.86).
  • History - Q: What do you know about the history as a science? What is the core assumption of the world?
    • Woman is a man-made: natural function and activities.
    • Hegel: “The other consciousness is the dependent consciousness for whom the essential reality is the animal type of life; that is to say; a mode of living bestowed by another entity” (p. 90).
    • “In truth women have never set up female values in opposition to male values; it is man who, desirous of maintaining masculinity prerogatives, has invented that divergence” (p. 90).
               The important question to be answered is: Why woman is the Other? – Q: What is your opinion?
               De Beauvoir maintains that the patriarchal system has forced woman to occupy the “second sex” in the world in relationships to man. Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that woman lack of some qualities. St. Thomas also called woman as “the imperfect man”, the incidental being. Women are placed the “second sex” not because of the essence of women's femininity but of educational situations and traditions controlled by man. 
               Using Levi-Strauss's analysis of primitive societies, de Beauvoir sees a biological relationship as “a series of contrast” in society. She develops the idea of ​​this contrast relationship by using Hegel’s analysis of the consciousness of reality. Consciousness is always an opposition to another consciousness, “.. the opposite to other, ... the object” (p. 17). In other words, man fundamentally oppress woman in such a way and place her on another level, as "the other". 
“Once the subject seeks to assert himself, the Other,… is none the less a necessity to him: he attains himself only through that reality which he is not, which is something other than himself” (p. 159)
“Man seeks in woman the Other as Nature and as his fellow being” (p. 163)
Q: If a woman is the Other, an opposition to man, something other than himself, then: How to make of wife a servant and a partner at the same time?
               As the Other, woman is nothing but the object of the men. Man is a subject, which is transcendental; meanwhile woman is an object, which is immanence. Q: what is the philosophical notion of transcendence? Immanent?
               De Beauvoir used the term transcendental to describe man’s active role in the world. Man imposes his power over external universe, including woman. Meanwhile, woman is acknowledged immanent in the sense that she is imperfect, inessential, and inferior to man. From this point of view, de Beauvoir stated a famous argument:              
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine (p.273). 
Q: what do you understand the meaning of this sentence: One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman?
               There is a process of coming to being, becoming, a woman. It is a construction of social reality, not natural. Here, also we can find a new paradigm of “sex-gender differentiation”: between biological sex and socio-historical construction and its labels. Yet, it is hard to reject the truth which de Beauvoir pointed out to man:
“There is a whole world significance which exist only through woman; she is the substance of man’s acts and sentiments; the incarnation of all the values that call out their free activity” (p. 211). Q: is it true also for your lived experience?



De Beauvoir’s effort now is to find the way out.

She realizes that sometimes woman imprisons by the complex mythology of femininity. The problem here is not the woman as an individual self but the mythology on the “flesh-and-blood woman”. Women trust on men for a cause to live. They seem have a “bad faith” (Sartre), namely, a fear and refutation to depart from norms in order to gain liberty which is their “privilege” as individual self.


Q: How can a human being in woman’s situation attains its fulfillment? What are roads opened to her? What circumstances limit woman’s liberty and how they can be overcome?  


“What woman needs first of all is to undertake, in anguish and pride, her apprenticeship in abandonment and transcendence: that is, in liberty” (p. 669). 

De Beauvoir argues that woman can be an independent self as long as she enters the male world with her femininity’s chances. Woman has to do this in every part of her life. 
               I have no intension to give assessment on de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I presume we accept her philosophical assumptions as a theoretical framework for doing philosophy of woman. Q: What is the new paradigm for doing philosophy of woman in the context of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?
Source: Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H.M. Parshley. London: Johantan Cape, 1956.