The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir – review
Simone de Beauvoir was a French feminist philosopher whose works I recommend greatly, whether you’re interested in learning more about feminism or you’re just looking for a new book for your shelf.
She introduces us to the concept of ‘the other.’ This concept is incredibly familiar to me – it’s something we as women experience all the time and boxing something up as ‘the other’ is something men do, perhaps unknowingly. ‘The other’ refers to women in contrast to man and not as an entirely separate, independent being. A part of patriarchy. From language, medicine to psychology man is seen as the standard subject, the ‘absolute’, while women are ‘the second sex.’
This book started off slowly but after a while I couldn’t put it down. De Beauvoir discusses many issues but a few jumped out at me…
The Second Sex was published in 1949, but don’t think that it’s outdated. De Beauvoir discusses the history of women and it’s only by understanding this that we can see the implications on the present. For example, ‘We open the factories, the offices, the faculties to women, but we continue to hold that marriage is for her a most honourable career.’
De Beauvoir witnessed the end of the Second World War, so she saw how, even though employers embraced women as a work force, sexism didn’t end. Women still had to be wives and look after their homes. Even if a woman was financially stable, she was still at an economic disadvantage.
These parallels between past and present were overwhelmingly consistent, in every chapter, on every page, even if I didn’t always agree with her conclusion.
As a third wave feminist who grew up in a diverse community, I can’t agree that the ‘warlike ideals of Islam.. [have] deprived woman of her magic.’ There’s so much talk about Muslim women being oppressed and I’d recommend thinking about her words critically (this piece by Nadiya Takolia on how she finds wearing the hijab political, feminist and empowering would be a good starting point for further reading). The Second Sex isn’t meant to be a feminist Bible and De Beauvoir was a philosopher who combined many branches of thought – her words may not rest easily with everyone.
Sex is seen as a taboo topic and the state of sex education in many places is frankly abysmal. And this was also true when De Beauvoir was alive. She describes the dilemma of the curious girl: ‘her information is incoherent, the books are contradictory.’ Even now, not all of us have access to all inclusive sex education, 37 states in America require abstinence education, 25 of which require this to be stressed – worse still ,only 13 require that sex education be medically accurate. De Beauvoir is turning in her grave.
De Beauvoir talked about the virginity myth before it was cool. The mystical power attributed to virgins, from virgin births like St Mary to great combat strength like the Valkyries. The ‘otherness’ of woman places her on a pedestal.
‘There are still villages in France where, on the morning after the wedding, the bloodstained sheets are displayed.’
While I can’t imagine such sheets being proudly showcased anywhere in my home town, the boasting rights and emphasis on virginity remain today. For example, the Italian model and reality star Raffaella Fico put her virginity up for auction in 2008 and said she would use the money for acting classes and to buy a house in Rome – but reportedly turned down an offer of $1.8 million. And she’s not the only one.
The Second Sex is an incredibly detailed, well thought-out book which reflects the second wave of feminism, definitely worth a read. De B writes passionately about issues still relevant today. Feminism has developed and grown since her time, but going back to the past gives us a broader perspective of where we’ve come from and how much more there is still to do.
In the words of Marcus Garvey, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Buy The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir on Amazon.