Monday 12 January 2009

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (Review)

This is a man's world/This is a man's world/But it would be nothing/Nothing without a woman to care

‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’

James Brown

It’s difficult to review a 741-page book like ‘The Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist literary landmark. But this milestone, first published in 1949, needs to be championed by and passed down from generation to generation since many of the issues that Simone addressed at the time are still relevant today.

‘The Second Sex’ is divided into two books: ‘Facts and Myths’ and ‘Woman’s Life Today’. The former focuses on the biological, historical and mythic aspects of women’s situation since the primitive communal system. The latter concentrates on woman as an individual within society, placing her in different categories and analysing each category in depth. Holiday reading material, this ain’t.

‘The Second Sex’ appeared at a time when Europe had just come out of a bloodthirsty conflict and was trying to come to terms with the devastating effects of Nazism. Ironically it was mostly women who had kept the Old Continent going in the absence of men. It is in this context that we ought to analyse this treatise.The thesis that underpins the book is based on the fact that man (as in the male of the species) is not only in control of most of the social, political and economic structures upon which modern polity is based, but also that he models this society according to his whims and tastes. In order to prove this, de Beauvoir conducts a thorough analysis, delving into the biological, psychoanalytical and historical aspects of woman’s life from ancient to contemporary times (at least until 1949). However two caveats: Simone does not see woman as a powerless victim (even if sometimes it feels exactly like that) and she does not come across as a pessimist (at least to me). In chapters like ‘The Independent Woman’ she avers that woman can indeed gain a degree of autonomy which would free her from economic dependence on man.

What conclusion, then, did I arrive at after I finished reading the last word of the last page of this literary behemoth? Can woman ever achieve the freedom and independence that Simone believed she had the right to? Could that be accomplished in our lifetime?


There are various reasons why, in my humble opinion, woman will remain at the bottom of the ladder at least for some time to come. These reasons are political, economic and social and in no way invariable, but at times they are difficult to alter. Let’s deal with each one briefly.

Politics dictates that whenever there is a change of government in a modern democratic nation the new status quo will address the issues which formed the agenda that brought it to power. Because woman sits at the bottom of the exploitation table, she is discriminated against not just for being a woman but also for belonging to the groups that occupy the echelons above her. A classical example is a gay, black, disabled woman. She will face discrimination for being gay, for being disabled and for being black, but her strongest identity marker, her femininity, will be airbrushed. If the government of the day decides to advance her agenda on account of her disability she might find herself arguing against other campaigners who disapprove of her homosexuality or her skin colour. Therefore, the result of political tepidity is disadvantegeous to the female of the species because she finds herself at the mercy of decisions and laws which she has not lobbied for or voted for in any way. Also, in modern democratic nations, government bodies are usually male-led and male-dominated.

The economic factor can better be explained through the times we are living now. The credit crunch was brought about by a combination of reckless banking and imprudent investment. This was chiefly carried out by men. Those who reported the news, those who appeared on the news, those whose opinions were sought after by avid journalists, were men in their majority. Those who ‘saved’ the day were mostly men. Women were mainly shown shopping desperately in an attempt to take advantage of sales, discounts and offers in major shopping centres. Jump to your own conclusions. Woman is the ultimate spendthrift, the media seem to say, despite the fact that woman’s economic planning at home is the kind of template that would have saved Lehman Brothers.

The social aspect is harder to pin down. This is one area where woman has been more visibly in recent decades, mainly in western societies with the second wave of feminism in the 70s. But just like woman has managed to make inroads socially in Europe and North America, man has upped the ante at the same time and prevented her from entering areas that are still considered men-only. Or even worse, like determining which areas are OK for her to trespass and which ones remain off-bounds. I think that the root of this malaise can be traced back to the absence of a social cataclysm that has seen the female population threatened with extinction just for being female. The important phrase here is ‘for being female’, a point I touched upon briefly in my review of Marilyn French's 'Women's Room'. I’ll explain. Jews had the pogroms in Nazi Germany and the concentration camps in WW2. The whole world shook its fist at such injustice and it vowed that never again would it let a similar event happen. Black people in the US had the civil rights movement to thank for their right to vote and to desegregate educational establishments. Milosevic’s trial was a display of judicial integrity in the midst of one of the worst conflicts Eastern Europe has ever seen. People sympathised with the Jewish women from the concentration camps, with the black women from the South of the US and with the Muslim women from Kosovo, but above all, they felt compassion because there was already an identity marker, an adjective preceding the noun: Jewish, black, Muslim. The fact that these women were being killed, raped or assaulted for being women did not occur to them, or maybe it did, but was secondary to their nationality or race. Both in Sudan, the Congo and Rwanda, rape has been used as a weapon; yet, we still refer to these actions as ‘side-effects’, 'collateral damage' of a terrible conflict. Actually, it’s anything but. The reason for women to be systematically abused and assaulted in those places is that there is already a social mindset that precludes any in-depth analysis of women’s delicate situation. And we are all part of that frame of mind. That’s why with every social gain that woman has made: the right to vote, the Abortion Act, employment rights, comes a backlash provided by a society that feels queasy about the leeway it gives to woman.

And there's a still another barrier that includes the other factors: the political and the economic ones. It's the elephant in the room, it's the uncomfortable issue that no one dares to discuss but on which we all have an opinion: immigration.

Globalisation has brought about a large displacement of people, relocation and mass migration. And we have not had time to come up with ways to solve what has turned out to be a time bomb. And the minority (majority) that has more often borne the brunt of the failure to set up effective systems to deal with immigrants is the female population. In the UK, at least, the rightwing press blames new arrivals for every single social malfunction. On the other hand, the liberal, leftwing media appease wife-beaters and mollycoddle so-called 'community leaders' who are nothing but covert mysoginists bent on keeping women down; this is usually called 'community cohesion'.

And lest I forget, within the social factors that work against woman we also have to name female antagonism towards her own gender. Rachida Dati anyone?

Then, that’s it. Woman will never ever be able to shake her shackles and get what she really deserves in a society that is so mysoginist.

Hold your horses, my chiquilines. I haven't finished yet.

Woman, in fact, can achieve a degree of parity with man, not as an adversary but as an equal. Simone pointed at economics and how independence in this area would put woman in an advantageous position. The other element is education.

I have always been a believer in education as the main factor in the formation of an individual. That entails not just state education (or private for that matter) but parental education, too, which to me is one of the most important pillars underpinning a child's upbringing. Woman is not determined by her hormones anymore than man is ruled by his penis. The abyss that separates both man and woman is created in early childhood and carried forward in their teenagehoood. By the time they both become adults the theory that justifies the abyss has taken full form and serves as the only reference to interact with the outside world. Only through a thorough, comprehensive, inclusive and encompassing education can the gulf between man and woman be bridged. It's not easy. Humans are individual beings who resist outside pressure most of the time. We believe ourselves to be owners of our destinies. Any government that tampers with this trait is in for a good kicking. However, a girl who is raised with the same demands and rewards as her male counterpart will cast aside any Oedipus complex, become a more fulfilled individual and serve society better as a whole. I believe that modern, secular and open-minded societies are better placed to achieve this, so theocracies and totalitarian regimes are out of the equation in my opinion. The former respond to a set of laws ouside the human realm, the latter might improve living conditions for women in the short term but end up subjugating them and leaving them in a worse state than they were before.

If we are to render the first two lines of James Brown's song obsolete (read the beginning of this post) we have to stop seeing woman as an Other and include her in humanity's historical development. After all we're more than just a mere species; we're men and women.

Copyright 20009


  1. Interesting reading and interesting views. I agree that education is the great key to unlock almost any door. And forevermore education will be by choice and necessity a truly life-long pursuit.

    However, I think I see a totally different trend that affects the equation at least in this country. That is the desire of younger generations to truly embrace "quality of life" issues regardless of gender. Young men as well as young women are looking at time as compensation, commute issues, urban vs. suburban lifestyles and self-identity (work vs. family and vocation vs. avocation) differently than my generation (I'm in my 50's).

    Will this last through this current economic crisis? In the long view, I believe so.

    Additionally, young couples starting families are looking at the dynamics of income, parenting and time differently. I know a fairly sizable number of young families where the wife/mother continues working because she is the primary wage earner while the husband stays home for the early years. With 2-3 career changes over the span of a lifetime becoming the norm, transitions in and out of employment, unemployment and education will become common place.

    I think the impetus for change may come as much from young men needing/wanting their own role to "improve" as for young women.

  2. Leading roles of men and women switch once in a while.
    Lets see what's next, but for the moment, I think, James Brown was right.
    Al Godar

  3. Definitely not light holiday reading.

    Impressive, thought provoking review.

    Education is key. I look forward to the day of equality for all.

  4. excellent, thank you!

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  6. Unfortunately add to the equation, the religious zealotry that permeates so many homes here and abroad and you see that our road is long.

    Great article. Ok, so you are a reporter or you write for a magazine, fess up...LOL.

  7. Intersting!

    "There are various reasons why, in my humble opinion, woman will remain at the bottom of the ladder at least for some time to come."
    --the bottom of the ladder with what on it I might aks? If compared only to men or everything? In many middle eastern and Asian countries women have lower worth than even one's pets, but I would say here in the US and UK women are number 2 at worst, and often differed to on many other different fronts, even idolised. Maybe not always financially but certainly on lots of other fronts. The course of the last 50 years shows that only increasing.

  8. Thanks for your comments. I will address two points, though.

    Cecile, I agree with you. I call this trend the 'side-effect' of social and economic development. For another example, look at fatherhood and how it's changed since the 50s (your generation) and how it's benefited women both directly and indirectly.

    Mmm. I half-agree with you (and not, I'm not sitting on the fence). I do agree that the achievements of the second feminist wave are laudable and ushered in an era of economic, political and social gains for women. But, and this is an important 'but', women still do the same jobs as men and get paid less, they still have to face a 'damn if you do, damn if you don't' social mindset and they are still looked upon as insignificant beings. Just look at the furore that Jacqui Smith, the current Home Office Minister, caused when she appeared on BBC News last year in a low-cut dress. Never mind the fact that she was addressing an important issue, terrorism, people were more interested in the colour of her bra. I think that in the UK and other western countries (never been to the US, so cannot vouch for it) women's discrimination is more subtle, although sometimes, as in the coverage of the murder of those prostitutes in Ipswich a couple of years ago, our dormant misogyny resurfaces very quickly.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

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  10. Cuban, trato de no ser machista aunque lo soy (lavo, cocino, no plancho, pero ayudo en la casa a mi doncella), sé bien que lo soy porque me gusta demasiado la mujer, sin embargo, todas las veces que me enamoré, no fue la vista lo que me ganó, sino las cosas que ellas guardaban adentro de ellas mismas, allí, donde es seguro que el sexo no tiene sexo.
    Un abrazo, tony.

  11. asere, la clave es en la frase "pero lo soy". Reconocer un fenomeno es el primer paso en la solucion del mismo. Muchas gracias por tu honestidad porque yo soy mas o menos de la misma forma.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  12. lovely Tony!

    this is a topic that will ever last, men & women are different, their bodies, brains and reactions are. It doesn´t mean gender marks any superiority, it all depends on cultural roles, history,social evolution, required abilities. But I think Simone de Beauvoir was right when marking economics and education as key for feminist prominence... I like both Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.
    BTW, I remember reading in one of her novels that Spanish "macho-man" characters strongly smelled to garlic (much sooner than posh Vicky Beckham said so)...
    greetings from Madrid for U Cuban

  13. Gracias, betty, is that the reason why Bardem likes garlic so much in 'Jamon Jamon' :-)?

    Greetings from London.

  14. Yes Cuban, i think Britain is a more sexist country compared to US, professionally speaking that is.

  15. Fascinating and thought provoking read...
    as I read, I couldn't help thinking of R. Dati, not a day goes by that we don't hear a heated debate on the subject of her speedy return to work following the birth of her baby...had she taken her time, there would no doubt have been heated debates on those issues in 3 months time too..!

    Women can't win, unfortunately - particularly in the very macho. latin countries.

    I was criticized both for working full-time as a mother and then for not working (for health reasons that I did not widely broadcat) when I had our second daughter...
    What did they know? Nothing. It doesn't stop them criticizing though!

    It's a very complicated issue all round though...
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts..:)

  16. Interesting that Mmm thought that the UK was more sexist in than the US. I think the opposite. We haven't even voted a woman president, whereas, the UK has had Prime Minister Thatcher and several strong queens in power.

    I'm still waiting to exhale for that day here.

    Sometimes, I feel that people confuse us as the weaker sex because we are more accepting of roles. We have assumed the caregiver roles throughout history and when given the choice we still accept that role. And very proud of it.

    Here, in the US many women work, although, me included, have decided to put our careers to the side, in exchange for taking care of our children. I could easily be pursuing a fabulous career and be on the top of my game. However, chose not to. I do agree that education is the equalizer. Women are always trying to better themselves in whatever, role they have chosen.

    What we can't lose sight of, in the whole gender race, is that women have been aspiring for equality and to be heard not world domination. We have achieved that and can't lose it, now. The task is to educate those struggling societies where women don't have a voice. They need to seize the moment and prove to the men in their cultures that they are their equals. As it was done in many countries during WWII. We stepped up and have never come down since. Now, it's time to educate and remind the grand-daughters and daughters of the bra-burners that they have been given a gift of choice. CANNOT BE THROWN OR TUCKED AWAY!

    Loved the article. You must read Founding Sisters, as well.

  17. estoy mejorando mi pobre ingles contigo.thank you!
    saludos cubanito

  18. I'd like to see women treat each other better and feel that is key to anything progressive. Women finding value in women. I have a BEAUTIFUL best friend and the other night this other female said to me "If I were single, I couldn't stand next to her." That kind of mentality needs to be bred out of us. I stand proudly next to my gorgey bestie, because she's awesome. Everyone else is missing out.

  19. Thank you very much for your kind comments.

    Mmm, as I mentioned before I cannot comment on the gender attitude between UK and US. As for Thatcher I will reserve my opinion as it would be tainted by my living in Cuba at the time she was a Prime Minister. And Thatcher+Reagan+Cold War, jump to your own conclusions.

    There are two poins I would like to address, though. I wholly agree with the two correspondents who chose mcaring for her children over her career, because they made that choice. That's the fundamental word, there, choice. And secondly, I also agree with the poster who averred that women do not aspire towards world domination, just equality. Beautifully put.

    Thanks a lot for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Wow, quite an in depth investigation of the problem between the sexes. The book sounds excellent and I like your premise that education is key to everything.

    My chosen career was one of Army duty to my country. As such it is a truly MALE dominated profession. In my specialized field we had a truly white male dominated field. Women were always at the bottom of the totem pole. As such, I have a keen interest in gender issues.

    While in college I researched the glass ceiling. I complied stats from the 1960s on from women and men graduating from business school, and I compared that with the number of women in Fortune 500 companies. As you know, the percentage of women execs is not reflective of women business college graduates. Without going into detail I will say that according to my little bit of research, the percentage of women as execs in Fortune 500 companies will be proportional to women business graduates in the year-are you ready for this?-something like 2057 or so. I'd have to pull the paper for the exact year but this is close. I thought it neat. Though I will not be around to see if it comes true, as a woman I can only hope we finally get equalized in society and get our just due. Someday it will change, one can hope.

  21. CIL, I just came over from OWL blog to read the most intense essay on the subordinate role of women in society. So let me catch my breath. One of the main forces that keep women in a subordinate position is the need for negotiation because of competing priorities.(Also, I think many men and women enjoy the feminine/masculine play between the sexes.) Women adjust to the stereotyped 'images' we both create and reflect because the need for connection, and the feeling of being understood makes life flow (in the short term)more easily. A little negotiation is no problem, but the women like Dr. Laura on WOSO (English AM talk radio in Puerto Rico) are allowed plenty of air time to crush women who don't adquately accept their duty-bound role which is expressed by the quality of service provided to their husbands. My family and I listen to her almost every day. It's a good chance to argue with the radio, and also clarify our positions with each other. It's also true that the 'bad mother' social discourse continues to hold women back. Most childrearing decisions are filtered through this lens. Especially when you make decisions about food, education and lifestyle that are seen as off the beaten path. I know I downplay difference until people get to know me-othewise we'd never have a chance to get to know each other. I love the line you wrote about how society feels queasy about the leeway it gives to women. So true. I'm not sure what you meant about the immigration/displacement issue as it relates specifically to women except that women bear children... Also, I have seen the media here in Puerto Rico, portray Hillary Clinton as cruel, manipulative, ugly and so on.(There was even an article about her wrinkles.) What impressed me the most was that the Puerto Rican people did not get influenced by the negative portrayal; she still won in the primaries. (of course everone is happy about Obama now, but before the election, there were insults on many -not just 2-sides.)I'm going to check out the "woman as ultimate spendthrift" discourse. Right now as images flash through my mind, this also feels true. Thank you for bringing up Simone de Beauvoir and "The Second Sex." I think we tend to overlook important work such as this..because of the early date
    (1949?). Or maybe there is fear about the 'radical' statements she makes-though they seem reasonable to me.
    BTW I enjoyed the audio clips, Elis Regina and Chucho and Bebo Valdez. Did you notice how Elis plays with femininity in the "Aguas de marco" song? The comment about being a fat 'sapo' is also charming...very Latin family friendly. Also when Chucko points with his lips to Bebo, "you take it now.." -charming. Back to the family cultural dynamic, I've heard Puerto Rican mother's call their children,"gordito" without the slightest mean intent. I hope I didn't overload your comment section space or attention span! Blame it on your excellent post.

  22. Thanks both to tina and cynthia for your lovely comments.

    No, cynthia, you did not overload my comment space :-).

    Just one quick remark. What I meant by displacement/immigration is that as more families relocate in our globalised world today, they take with them customs and traditions that might be contradictory to what their new host nation is used to. I won't give any examples so as not to offend anyone. What I have seen, though, time and time again is that this situation affects women more than anyone else (children would come a close second) because the voices who usually speak for those women are male voices. This makes it difficult for organisations and groups in the host nation to deal with issues that affect the new arrival. Some might not want to tamper with their traditions in the name of political correctness, others might not want to interfere because they deem it incorrect to intervene in issues that do not concern them. Whatever the case is, women, sadly, bear the brunt of this policy. I hope that throws some light into my argument.

    Greetings from London.

  23. ACIL, Ulysses and the Second Sex? Wow! You do like dense reads. I’m ashamed to admit to having read neither, but now I feel like I have skimmed the best parts of Second Sex thanks to your review. I like how you apply her theories to our current situation and from a global perspective.

    After living in both the UK and the USA, I think women get a fairer deal in the USA although domestic abuse continues to be an issue. And we’ve never had a female president. I’ve never felt worse off for being a woman although it is harder to re-enter the workforce after taking time off to raise kids. Really thought provoking post!

    Cecile, Liza, Tina and Cynthia, fascinating comments!

  24. Sarah, I felt pretty guilty taking up so much comment space too:) But gender is a hot button issue for me.

  25. Thank you both for your kind comments and do not worry ever about space on this blog. The space is yours :-).


    Greetings from London.

  26. En Alemania, en exactamente el mismo puesto de trabajo, un hombre gana más que una mujer. Ya por ahí la diferencia la impone quien paga, la mayoría hombres :-(

    Buen artículo, Cuban!

    La palabrita que me ha salido para la verificación está un poco "rara"... tendrá que ver en algo con el post?: "depigap"

  27. "Depigap"? Jajaja, esa si es buena, agu. Gracias por el comentario.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  28. This is a very interesting post Cuban..
    I am utterly convinced the key to women's freedom is indeed education.
    At times, i am so full of anger when i hear about the situation of women in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

    Since i moved to southern Spain, i experience now and then little acts of macho attitude and sadly domestic abuse is still high.

    I could go on and on with the subject but let me just give you one funny example...
    I don't know if you ever experienced this in las Alpujarras. Once, I went to the local shop of a tiny village, 3 women were waiting before me. Enters a man and the shopkeeper attends him. I immediately opened my mouth saying: "pero..que espere su turno!". The other women didn't react and one of them just explained to me, it used to be the custom a long time ago to attend the man first.

    My former neighbor who's from Madrid and used to spend the summer on the coast told me, 30 years ago, she was having lunch with her kids in Motril. Her husband would join them later. The waiter simply refused to serve them because the man had not still joined the table.
    Don't these "trivial" facts sound incredible ?

    ok ..i stop here because i'm afraid my comment is going totally out of focus (actually your post inspires me to write about women in Andalusia!)

    entonces saludos desde el valle de Lecrin soleado !

  29. Hi and thank you for visiting my blog and your kind comment. Something of a co-incidence to find you writing about Simone de Beauvoir when I had made a fleeting reference to her myself in my last blog.
    I do think that the journey towards equality is long and slow. If you had told me when I was 20 that many young girls in 30 years time would be obsessed with looks and celebrity I would not have believed you. That certainly wasn't what we believed liberation would look like. But there have been astonishing changes in the UK at any rate too. When I was expecting my first child I was taken out of my client facing role with a big accountancy firm because "it doesn't look professional". Impossible to imagine that happening now. And yes education and economics are key, along with the desire of men as well as women for change in the dynamics of family life.
    I am still (cautiously) hopeful.

  30. Gracias, my castle. In Cuba we have inherited both the macho culture from Spain and Africa, so imagine!

    Greetings from London.

  31. Thanks, elizabeth, for you kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  32. I came across this review trying to find some excerpts of the book, so I stopped to read and very much enjoyed your review.

    I liked your comment about layered discrimination with the "female" factor being at the bottom of the picking order... at least, that has been my experience throughout years of work in a male-dominated field. It seemed that organizations enjoy hiring people with different backgrounds (i.e. colour, dissability, culture, etc.) and they pat themselves in the back for being so proactive; yet, throughout my professional career, I've had to work double as a woman to barely catch up with my male colleagues, who had wives at home taking care of the home front (child rearing, shopping, etc.), while I had to do that all as a single parent. I think it's fair to say that most men won't keep children after a divorce, and the law hasn't caught up at all with this highly discriminating practice.

    Regarding immigration, there is a detail that I've noticed... that of exoticism. I have sometimes exploited this to my advantage. I would rather not do it and I've never done it beyond what's considered "ethical", but it's very frustrating when I find myself playing in such an uneven field. A double-edged sword for sure...

  33. Hi, pixy, I completely understand the 'exotic' element. I have also done it myself, even though as a man the world presents me with more opportunities than it would to you, for instance. The whole exoticism phenomenon is painful because it detracts from the person's core but sometimes you gotta do it.

    Many thanks for you comment.

    Greetings from London.



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