A Millennial Feminist’s Experience of Reading Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex– (and Why You Should Read it too!) – by Anna Lynn
Title : The Second Sex
Author : Simone de Beauvoir
Genre : Gender Studies/ Philosophy
Language : English
Publisher : Knopf, New York
Year : 1952 (First published)
Pages : 752
ISBN No : 978-030-7265562
A few days back, an aunt who is married with two children, called. She wanted help with returning to work. She told me she’d finished her Bachelors in Business Management and had worked as a Business Analyst for five years, until her marriage, after which she hadn’t worked for over ten years. After running by her previous work experiences as a Business Analyst and pitching through a few further options, I dropped in a light comment, ”You should do this, C, I said, and even use your position as a woman who had to take a break from work, shame them into giving you a job, even if it is a diversity card.” She chuckled. Her anxiety was palpable. She was eager to get out of the house and work, but the many years of ‘absence’ from the working world on her CV would be closely scrutinised and a million questions would be raised regarding her ability to hold a job, why she took a break, whether she plans on having other children, etc. Never mind all the unpaid labour as mother and homemaker that needed her to be ‘present’ in her own home!
From 1949, when Beauvoir wrote this seminal text, which heralded the Second wave of the Feminist movement, to two decades into the twenty-first century, not much has changed.
With each chapter I read, my millennial feminist knowledge was defined anew and given fresh depth I didn’t even imagine possible. Beauvoir starts with the beginning of the ‘gender debate’. She considers the biological, psychoanalytic and historical-materialist (or rather, Marxist) angle and concludes that not one single method can adequately explain a woman’s position throughout history.
Instead, she chooses to examine existence itself – the way in which we experience womanhood through the ages, within our societies and that of others. She begins by examining the myths that create sexual difference and percolates through history to control the discrimination of the sexes. In her second volume, she moves from history to lived experience.
To a millennial feminist, much of this experience in retrospection to one’s own circumstance is obvious. We are even equipped with certain vocabularies that name, even call out the behaviour of men and society at large that tries to push the women into a corner. I must admit that several of her chapters reduced me to tears with their accuracy. But why did several others induce an angry itch on my palms? Why was I struggling through her chapter, entitled, “Women in Love”? Perhaps, because it reminded me too much of the trauma we take on as young women – simply because our social systems prepare us for a future of self-sacrifice in the name of love?
Social media awareness and a lot of spaces for preventive action are present and available at our disposal today. What then is the purpose of reading a text that landmarked Second wave feminism? Especially as we move towards the later stages of the third wave of feminism – a post-technological, post-modern, queer and intersectional feminism.
The answer for me lies not in language or awareness. It lies in the act of observation and what it means for a feminist consciousness. This epochal volume of work by Beauvoir is a testament to what observation can do in an existent’s (here, a woman’s), ability to define herself. This knowledge creates the vocabulary necessary to bring forth our experience to awareness. For me, this is located in Beauvoir’s sections on ‘History and Myth’. “History” traces the evolution of societies through time until the post-war situation and woman’s changing roles throughout this history. At the end of five chapters, it is clear that the woman is still ‘Othered’ in the 1940’s even as Beauvoir is writing the text.
“Myth” on the other hand, creates an intriguing body of knowledge that offers a certain possibility for change. While the initial chapter details the relationship between various facets of women’s experience and mythical counterparts – from nature, creation myths, menstruation and the body, feminine magic, conjugal customs and other archetypes of femininity – the later ones use specific examples to relate the presence of such myths in the various representation of women across literature penned by men. However, what most matters to us here, is her thesis that these myths don’t simply remain in the realm of literature or stories, they have far-reaching consequences in lived experience [emphasis mine]. It drives social customs and behaviour to ensure the positing of women as the ‘Other’. And it is through language that this communication is brought to life. It is only through a rejection of these myths, or better still creating awareness of how these myths function – in other words, revealing the truth of how these myths function that we can attempt to break away from these created archetypes for woman as Other. I believe this provides a potential for social change [emphasis mine].
Beauvoir does go on to detail lived experience in the succeeding chapters. The nature of lived experience can be understood through a more obvious lens. As a woman, female introspection very often comes from experiences of the self. However, much of this dwells in the realm of thought. Gathering these as evidence for a social scientific thesis of the condition of women as a whole entail the use of a vocabulary, which can be provided by history. Beauvoir’s account borrows quite heavily from the historic, religious and literary tradition that she was surrounded by. (We must remember that this is only another way of realising the existential perspective.) She demonstrates in extensive detail the role of the Catholic Church, values and social customs of Christianity that have evolved through the ages in continuing to perpetuate the secondary position of women throughout Europe.
This brings two challenges into Beauvoir’s discourse – from an Indian perspective, can her analysis pass the test of geopolitical differences, and secondly, how far does she risk remaining in a binary understanding of the problem of the sexes?
Reading the text shows that she doesn’t just limit her citations to Eurocentric history. There are ample references of alternate cultural traditions, with references to the Indian caste system, Indian marriage traditions, even those of tribal customs around the world. In this sense, she does create a wide-ranging thesis on women’s othering from a global standpoint. Considering the second point of contention, Beauvoir is adequately able to detail and explain various behaviours of the more privileged sex, some of which are now commonly known as gaslighting, ghosting, tone policing, and bread-crumbing – associated with toxic masculinity and misogyny, often displayed to a greater extent in emotionally abusive heterosexual relationships.
A non-binary approach that moves away from reducing the problem of the sexes to a binary understanding of gender and sex, is not explicitly mentioned by Beauvoir. This gender essentialism is Beauvoir’s biggest drawback – effects of which follow in her treatment of the female characters in novellas like The Woman Destroyed.
To us, a non-binary approach is adopted in the realisation that either of the sexes is capable of indulging in such behaviours. But the prevalence of patriarchy makes it easier for the male to exhibit these characteristics. Furthermore, these characteristics are borne by experiences located in the body. She famously mentions, one is not born but becomes Woman. But this Becoming can be extended – any existent who violates the heterosexual matrix, locates and negotiates this experience through the body. And this further offers a site for gender non-conforming acts to present themselves. This allows room for placing Beauvoir within the limitations of her time – the spectrum of gender did not receive the importance that sexuality received. However, the fact Butler later uses Beauvoir to build on her deconstruction of gender and sexuality, significantly highlights the historical merit of Beauvoir’s work – it starts a conversation. Judith Butler also adopts a phenomenological/ existential experience departing from the concept of Beauvoir’s infamous “becoming” of woman to conceptualise the body as a site of gender, constituted through performative acts. This is that significant departure that The Second Sex sets the stage for.
But I would like to return instead to Beauvoir’s mention of women in the field of art and literature. Beauvoir cites extensively from French and English Literature to provide examples of the ‘Othering’ of women across infancy, childhood, adolescence, sexual initiation, a homosexual phase, and then to marriage and old age.
One of the writers she quotes extensively is the French female author, Colette. In one of Colette’s conversations with Missy – a gender non-conforming person that she had an extended relationship with, Missy tells Colette that with her Claudine novels, Colette has
1The departure that Butler develops into a thesis, borrows from the domain of theatre and performance. She derives from Richard Schechner and Victor Turner alike to draw the connection between performative acts and social laws, custom and lived reality.
provided young girls on the cusp of womanhood with a vocabulary to understand and express themselves.
This then is what art and literature do – provide a vocabulary that influences; and actions that could resist the “becoming” that patriarchal society and thought invariably imposes on the psyche and experiences of the woman.
In the final chapters, Beauvoir describes the difficulties that assail a woman in the field of art and literature. As a creator, she is doomed to narcissism or inferiority complex and is seldom able to persevere in her freedom to create because she is time and again imposed upon to succumb to pre-written myths of femininity. And so, she never moves beyond self-contemplation or intense observations, and thus never creates the world anew, or reaches the heights of male authors such as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
But later, in “Woman’s Situation and Character”, she writes, “the famous feminine sensitivity is part myth, part theatre; but the fact remains that woman is more attentive than man to herself and the world”.
Connecting the dots reveals a premature hint of what Butler later sharpens through extensively research into a sharpened theory of performance and gender. For me, this particular reference is a compass towards an extension of the entire body of work put together by Beauvoir. In many ways, this text can be read as a series of citations that present questions at their ends – what after this? How does a woman finally create independence for herself in a system so dominated by patriarchy? How do we redefine this for ourselves - and constantly, towards a feminist future?
Her sections on “Lived Experience”, “Justifications” and “The Independent Woman” are movements towards answering these questions. But they are by no means the end.
Each study, each experience is a movement that directs towards those answers, and it comprises the movement of feminism itself. As a millennial feminist embarking upon research in art and literature, I would like to hold on to her vision of a woman’s attentiveness to herself and the world.
I hope to centre this in studying women engaged within art and literature. Perhaps this would mean a feminist intervention in the way thought itself is understood, which may offer us newer manifestations of knowledge, writing and expression. Perhaps centring feminist vocabularies of self-contemplation and observation are themselves the creation of a world anew, if we shift the perspective of analysis – as an existentialist perspective should offer.
And just maybe we could start changing the spaces that create anxieties in a woman. This woman may be my aunt who just wants to return to work after her years of break, having and caring for her children, or you or me, and our many experiences, previously othered.
And that’s perhaps why, we all could try to read The Second Sex. ■■
Anna Lynn is a research scholar of comparative literature at EFL University. Her areas of interest include women’s writing, art and cinema. The anxieties of a queer heart are a constant muse and as the Woolfian stream passes, she presses watered images into writing. You can find her writing on The Chakkar, Sunflower Collective, In Plainspeak, Live Wire, Gulmohur Quarterly and other online platforms. Anna is on Instagram: @lettersinthemargins and @seagirlstories.