Planet Waves | The Second Sex: An introduction



La Deuxieme Sex
a brief introduction by eric francis
above, 'ego dreams of being awake' by charlie lemay

The Second Sex is one of the few great early studies of women and their role in society, considered one of the foundations of the modern movement for gender equality, and the intellectual understanding of the plight of women. Today the book and its concepts live in obscurity. It is often compared to A Room Of One's Own, written by Virginia Woolf (actually, a lecture given at a women's college, which has a very different and more retreating tone). There are not many works in its genre. De Beauviore was married to the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. (Interesting that Sartre's name is built into spellcheck and de Beauvoire's is not!)

De Beauvoire's position is that, as the title suggests, women are the second sex, or outcasts in society, apparent if you study society, its institutions and so forth. While women have made some strides in the past fifty years, actually it's not that much better than when this book came out in 1949. Women still expect men to run the world. There is not economic equality, political equality, or significant changes, comparatively speaking, in the way that most women view themselves. Men are still taken more seriously, at face value; modern menstrual folklore still casts women as hystericals. Indeed, there has been a reversal of many of the gains of the Suffrage and Equal Rights movements of the 20th century, and it is understood that in the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated by women, not by men, which would be an interesting history to go over carefully and analyze for its validity.

She focuses a lot on the early psychoanalytic movement and its methods of marginalizing women, its presumptions about women's experience, feelings and thoughts, that were utterly theoretical and unfounded in reality, and the power that this gave the male intellectual establishment, particularly medicine, where women have been a guinea pig and object of fascination by doctors for centuries.

Culturally, the needs of women come second (needs, as distributed in and defined by society, not nature), for example: war comes before family, police before social needs, corporate welfare before regular welfare (with welfare mother portrayed as villain and corporate welfare chief as hero); children (left under the charge of women) are increasingly discriminated against economically, and so on. Family and children are the responsibilities distributed to women in a fully artificial rather than organic creation of our culture. The fact that women are automatically presumed to be saddled with sole responsibility for the kids by our society is an example of this. We act like this is "natural" when that is not the case.

She gives another example of how men and women are traditionally treated in the case of adultery (or, I would add, more illustratively, promiscuity), radically differently, and there are many other situations where there is a total double standard established between the genders. This is why my mother, a product of both these inequities and of Women's Lib, and then the power-conscious 80s where all bets were off, said, for example, she had to "Think like a man, act like a lady, work like a horse and fuck like a whore." A man could not say that. A man would just do his thing, knowing when to take the afternoon off and play golf with the V.P. (The first time my mother played golf, she got a hole-in-one, but everyone knows that golf is not about the game, it is about men strolling about talking to other men.)

De Beauvoire begins her whole case with a long lesson in biology, taking the position that, in reality, the differences between male and female are negligible, the physical potentials of the critical first 12 years are identical, and reproduction itself, on this planet, is not inherently based on sex - there are many other methods for other species available, which she goes over. There is also, more importantly, a wide range of potential behaviors for male and female parents once a child is born; nothing save for pregnancy and nursing is dictated by nature, and in fact there are cases of men lactating.

We all know that woman are just as intelligent, capable, resilient, emotionally strong and, for most practical purposes, physically strong as men. But they are not treated as such, and are conditioned to be dainty little things in urban culture. We view this as normal but it is not normal.

It is only through long and excruciating social conditioning that what we think of as a "woman" is created, second in all respects to her male counterpart, and viewed, by him, as an other, an outsider, and not a fellow, not one inherently included. The word "fellow" itself means, by usage, man, but it really means one with whom I have something in common. We have been so cultured in these realities that we don't notice, and we think nothing of "treating boys like boys and girls like girls" from the first moment of birth, to this day color coding their lives (blue and green for boys, pink and yellow for girls, so they 'grow up knowing who they are'). Then comes fashion. The result, she proposes, is an entirely unnatural creation, a cultivated inferior and denatured species, which I remind us is designed to be sold into slavery through the contract of marriage.

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," she writes. "No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that 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. Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as Other" [p. 295].

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Space graphic above from the Rosette Nebula in Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Sulfur.
Credit: T. A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanna. Planet Waves logo by Eric, and Via Davis.