The Story Behind Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex,’ the Most Influential Work of Existentialism

One day, somewhere around the time of the 1948 Berlin trip, Beauvoir was sitting with pen in hand, staring at a sheet of paper. Alberto Giacometti said to her, ‘How wild you look!’ She replied, ‘It’s because I want to write and I don’t know what.’ With the sagacity that came from its being someone else’s problem, he said, ‘Write anything.’

She did, and it worked. She took further inspiration from her friend Michel Leiris’ experimental autobiographical writings, which she had recently read: these inspired her to try a free-form way of writing about her memories, basing them around the theme of what it had meant to her to grow up as a girl. When she discussed this idea with Sartre, he urged her to explore the question in more depth. Thus it is in relation to three men that describes the origin of her great feminist work, The Second Sex.

Perhaps the starting point had been a modest idea in need of masculine encouragement, but Beauvoir soon developed the project into something revolutionary in every sense: her book overturned accepted ideas about the nature of human existence, and encouraged its readers to overturn their own existences. It was also a confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism’. Beauvoir used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity — which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy — and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age. The two stories are interdependent, but occupy two separate parts of the book.

To flesh them out, Beauvoir combined elements of her own experience with stories gathered from other women she knew, and with extensive studies in history, sociology, biology and psychology.

She wrote quickly. Chapters and early versions appeared in Les Temps modernes through 1948; the full tome came out in 1949. It was greeted with shock. This freethinking lady existentialist was already considered a disturbing figure, with her open relationship, her childlessness and her godlessness. Now here was a book filled with descriptions of women’s sexual experience, including a chapter on lesbianism. Even her friends recoiled. One of the most conservative responses came from Albert Camus, who, as she wrote in her memoirs, ‘in a few morose sentences, accused me of making the French male look ridiculous’. But if men found it uncomfortable, women who read it often found themselves thinking about their lives in a new way. After it was translated into English in 1953 — three years before Being and Nothingness and nine years before Heidegger’s Being and Time — The Second Sex had an even greater impact in Britain and America than in France. It can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement.

Beauvoir’s guiding principle was that growing up female made a bigger difference to a person than most people realised, including women themselves. Some differences were obvious and practical. French women had only just gained the right to vote (with Liberation in 1944), and continued to lack many other basic rights; a married woman could not open her own bank account until 1965. But the legal differences refl ected deeper existential ones. Women’s everyday experi ences and their Being-in the-world diverged from men’s so early in life that few thought of them as being developmental at all; people assumed the differences to be ‘natural’ expressions of femininity. For Beauvoir, instead, they were myths of femininity — a term she adapted from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and which ultimately derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘genealogical’ way of digging out fallacies about culture and morality. In Beauvoir’s usage, a myth is something like Husserl’s notion of the encrusted theories which accumulate on phenomena, and which need scraping off in order to get to the ‘things themselves’.

After a broad-brush historical overview of myth and reality in the first half of the book, Beauvoir devoted the second half to relating a typical woman’s life from infancy on, showing how — as she said — ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

The first influences begin in early childhood, she wrote. While boys are told to be brave, a girl is expected to cry and be weak. Both sexes hear similar fairy tales, but in them the males are heroes, princes or warriors, while the females are locked up in towers, put to sleep, or chained to a rock to wait to be rescued. Hearing the stories, a girl notices that her own mother stays mostly in her home, like an imprisoned princess, while her father goes off to the outside world like a warrior going to war. She understands which way her own role will lie. Growing older, the girl learns to behave modestly and decorously.

Boys run, seize, climb, grasp, punch; they literally grab hold of the physical world and wrestle with it. Girls wear pretty dresses and dare not run in case they get dirty. Later, they wear high heels, corsets and skirts; they grow long fingernails which they have to worry about breaking. They learn, in countless small ways, to hesitate about damaging their delicate persons if they do anything at all. As Iris Marion Young later put it in ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, a 1980 essay applying Beauvoir’s analysis in more detail, girls come to think of themselves as ‘positioned in space’ rather than as defining or constituting the space around them by their movements.

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