The Second Sex
Read in 15 min.
Listen in 19 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Simone De Beauvoir

The Second Sex

The historical and cultural reasons behind sexual inequality

“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”: the famous quote by author Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher, writer and social existentialist, as well as feminist icon, comes from her years of in-depth research into women’s lives throughout history, and is still valid right up to the present day. In her book: The Second Sex, Beauvoir questions the meaning of femininity and of what it means to be a woman, as well as looking at the reasons for the continuous subordination of women. In this powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman” she begins by contemplating whether there is some natural or biological destiny that relegates women to the lower ranks of society, and explores the concepts of inequality and otherness. The book is as pioneering and pertinent today as it was sixty years ago, and continues to provoke and inspire generations of men and women alike.

The Second Sex
Read in 15 min.
Listen in 19 min.

Since the dawn of time, men have been thought of as perfect human beings, while women are considered a variant: the second sex

Instead of being a complementary relationship, something like a battery, where the two opposite ends are equally necessary to complete the energy circuit, the relationship between a man and a woman has always been one of subordination, in which one member of the species dominates the other. In everyday language, the word man is often used to denote all human beings. In this unbalanced relationship, man is believed to be essential, while woman is seen as the Other of man, and her status is “inessential” (to use one of Beauvoir’s terms) meaning that alone, she is not sufficient or autonomous, and that her development can only be achieved with the help of a man.

Since there is no single point in history which led to the current disparity between genders, it is not easy to comprehend the reasons for this subordination of women. Males and females are in fact nothing other than two individuals from the same species that can be defined in comparison with one another only with regards to their reproductive function, which by necessity does not depend on any hierarchy. In essence, males and females are just random variations of the same species.

In pre-agricultural societies, the differences between the two sexes were used to define each person’s role, and did involve a differentiation of tasks, but these were complementary. The division was based on physical ability, which was then crystalised and transformed into laws, moral precepts, and religious rules, which served the men as they gradually took over in the newly formed communities.

Although men and women are different biologically, those differences are functional to the continuation of the species, but are not grounds for the establishment of any hierarchy. Neither of the two functions is more important than the other because they are complementary, yet no other species has turned the biological diversity between males and females into a form of subordination.


The key ideas of "The Second Sex"

Since the dawn of time, men have been thought of as perfect human beings, while women are considered a variant: the second sex
Throughout history, women’s fate has always been predominantly linked to the concept of private property
Femininity is associated with multiple myths or stereotypes that help perpetuate women’s position of diversity and isolation
Becoming a woman is a process that begins in very early childhood, and which puts females on a path of restricted lifestyles, and shrouds them in a cloak of obligation which they wear for most of their lives
The transition from childhood to adulthood is particularly traumatic for the girl, above all for the freedom it deprives her of, and for the sudden narrowing of future prospects that it entails
The adult woman who is now a wife and mother, soon realises that the dream of love that she had been sold is not enough for her to feel completely fulfilled
The subordination of women is also perpetuated through unrelenting barriers to any freedom in how she manages her body, her motherhood or her sexuality
Women have never managed to come together in solidarity for one another, which is why they have not successfully been able to oppose patriarchy as a collective
The only possible condition for both sexes to enjoy true happiness and for women’s liberation is the achievement of equal independence through collective processes
Take-home message
4books preview

Try 4books Premium for free!