The Second Sex, by Simone De Beauvoir
It is not often that I take it upon myself to read sprawling and somewhat self-contradictory works that are considered to be milestones of feminist theory, but when a friend (and relative) of mine commented that she was related somehow to this woman, I thought it would be worthwhile to be more familiar with her thinking and writing. I have to say that this book is better than I thought it would be. There is a lot of criticism I have towards the book, but despite its almost 800 page length and my general dislike of feminist theory as a whole, this work is not a complete waste of time and is actually worth engaging with and puzzling over its obvious bias from the French point of view with an examination of French law, culture, and literature, which is easy to understand when one recognizes that the author was an unconventional and serious minded French woman. If this book is certainly not an authoritative work about gender studies that it sets out to be, it is at least a thoughtfully written work from someone with a strong point of view who has at least some insight into the position of women, and that is better than a book like this often manages to achieve.
The materials of this massive tome are divided into two books, seven parts, and 25 chapters that approach 800 pages not including the lengthy introduction, select bibliography, chronology, and author’s introduction. The first book consists of the author’s thoughts about facts and myths concerning women. First the author seeks to unravel the destiny (I) of women by looking at the data of biology (1), psychoanalytical views (2), and historical materialism (3). After that the author gives a rather materialistic view of the history of women (II) from nomads (4), to early tillers of the soil (5), to the ancient and classical world (6), the Middle ages and ancien regime (7), and the nineteenth century and beyond (8). This moves into some discussions of various myths about women (III) including discussions of dreams, fears, and idols (9), a look at the myth of woman in five authors (10), and myth and reality as the author sees it (11). The second book looks at woman’s life today according to the author, beginning with a discussion of the formative years (IV) like childhood (12), the young girl (13), sexual initiation, often during late childhood (!) (14), and the lesbian (15). This leads to a discussion about the situation of women (V) as a married woman (16), mother (17), woman’s social life (18), prostitutes and hetairas (19), from maturity to old age (20), and woman’s situation and character (21). Finally, the last two parts of the book deal with justifications (VI) and liberation (VII), with chapters on narcissism (22), the woman in love (23), the mystic (24), and the independent woman (25), at which the book mercifully concludes.
While it would be very easy for me to go on for considerable length about what this book gets wrong, because it gets a lot wrong, it is worthwhile to consider what the book gets right. It should be noted that the author views Jane Austen as being deficient in irony, which suggests that the author was not a profound reader on irony or that Austen was perhaps a bit too subtle for her to understand, not an unreasonable problem for someone from another linguistic culture. Besides this, though, one thing the author understands well and expresses well in this book is the ambivalence faced by women. Neither determined completely by history or biology, there are nonetheless real and significant differences in the situation of women relative to boys. Some of these have to do with hard reality and some of them have to do with women as they appear within culture. The author notes that religion can sometimes provide ways for women to be free and creative, and notes considerable variety in how women treat each other and how women interact with regards to men, in large part based on the views and behavior of those men. This respect for complexity and ambivalence and ambiguity suggests the author has genuinely struggled with what it means for women to be free, even where she is hampered by her focus on historical materialism, psychobabble, and a certain degree of bad evolutionary thinking. In reading this book, it is easy to think of how wonderful this book could have been had the author had better worldview foundations.