• LibraryThing
  • Book discussions
  • Your LibraryThing
  • Join to start using.

The Second Sex — 2016 group read

Feminist Theory

Join LibraryThing to post.

Apr 22, 2016, 7:13pm Top

I thought I'd start a fresh thread for this discussion. We mentioned trying to start the read in May, so I'll post a few "teaser" passages to try to get people interested.

I realize some of you can/want to read the original French. That's great! But that will never be an option for me, so I'm enjoying the Borde & Malovany-Chevallier translation . . . so MUCH better than the old one . . . but if that's all you have, don't feel pressure about translations . . . just READ!

I've started looking over my many flagged passages. What I love about the Borde & Malovany-Chevallier translation is I have a better sense of when deBeauvoir is being ironic than I did back when I read the other translation.

So here's the opening of SdB's introduction to The Second Sex, Volume 1: Facts & Myths (not to be confused with the intro by Judith Thurman on pp. ix-xvi):

"I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let's not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about. And the volumes of idiocies churned out over this past century do not seem to have clarified the problem. Besides, is there a problem? And what is it? Are there even women? . . . It is hard to know any longer if women still exist, if they will always exist, if there should be women at all, what place they hold in this world, what place they should hold. "Where are the women?" . . . ."

Relevant questions . . . even today . . .

Apr 24, 2016, 10:21am Top

Just making myself present--I got as far as finding the book (no small feat in my chaos...)

I don't know what to make of the excerpt you quoted; what do you see in it? When I hear "There are no women any more/ Are there any women any more/Where are the women", I tend to think that what is meant is that some old paradigm of "woman" has supposedly disappeared. (It works with "man" too.)

To which I always feel like saying, "if only it were so, and good riddance". But I think there's probably more to whatever Beauvoir means by it; I'm still under the influence of having just read one of D. H. Lawrence's jeremiads about the unnatural, lost, poor etc. modern woman.

Edited: Apr 26, 2016, 12:16am Top

hmmm . . . I read it as her presenting all the arguments she considered for NOT writing a book on woman . . . but then had to reject because the questions needed to be analysed and answered . . . but then I've already read the first 200 pages, so I know that she will be examining (and tearing apart) what Biology, Psychology, History, and Myth have said about "the woman question" . . .

As I said, I hear her being ironic . . . "The subject is irritating, especially for women" . . . almost as if she is saying: "I really wish I didn't feel compelled to address the question, but so much of the information out there is total BS that I'm going to have to take the time to write an 700 page book addressing all the ways in which that vast literature has been full of BS . . ."

And it doesn't quite work with "man" too . . . because most of these fields treat man as an assumed default value . . . but treat "woman" as "other" and thus in need of categorization . . . but I'll let SdB cover that as we get into the book. (She gets into it on p. 5 when she addresses "What is a woman?" . . . )

Apr 26, 2016, 10:36am Top

I meant that questions like "where are the women" etc. or "where are the men", when asked today (and they do get asked), typically hark to some traditional paradigm of femininity and masculinity... that, again typically, modernity has "tragically" undermined. :)

Agreed about irony.

Apr 30, 2016, 12:18pm Top

My copy was published in 1991, with a preface by Benoîte Groult (nice coincidence, I've read a book of hers recently) itself (the preface) dating from 1990.

A few remarks from the preface, in no particular order of importance: Groult points out that at the time of publication, 1949, Beauvoir wasn't/didn't consider herself a "feminist"--she was a philosopher. It's a nuance to remind us that we are talking about the past. Feminism and feminists didn't exist, least of all in France. Beauvoir still believed socialism would usher complete equality between the sexes; she was eventually disillusioned by the situation in the USSR.

Groult mentions that the book is dated in some ways, especially in the "biological" part, for example in the way Beauvoir writes about puberty and menopause.

Something I didn't know: Beauvoir and Sartre graduated the same year with the same number of "points" but he got the "first" and she the "second" because women were considered a qualitative "surplus" (quantitatively they were of course vastly outnumbered by men) and matter of factly suppressed when it came to prizes and honours. Groult adds that this discrimination was still in effect some years within 1990, when she was writing the preface.

More stuff I didn't know: about the reception of The Second Sex by intellectuals du jour (the LIST OF SHAME!!!):

--ridiculous bastard François Mauriac declares "we have attained the limits of the abject"

--steaming turd Julien Gracq denounces "the stupefying indecency of tone of The Second Sex"

--unbelievable arsehole Albert Camus declares the book is "an insult to the Latin male"



This is gonna be great.

Apr 30, 2016, 12:31pm Top

Oh, forgot to add, Shitmeisters Central, the Vatican, put the book on the Index, as it would The Mandarins too.

May 2, 2016, 11:55am Top

I've only just started reading this again -- god it's been years -- so I'll chime in soon. But this came across my facebook feed and I thought it worth point to:

Paris Review Interview with Simone de Beauvoir

It is about her fiction, but there is this:


In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.


Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren't, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They're on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.


None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.


Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.


In your novels, it seems to be the women—I'm thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.


The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don't have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they're also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it's also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.


You've never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?


I've shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.

May 2, 2016, 12:34pm Top

Interesting, thanks.

May 14, 2016, 11:43am Top

>4 LolaWalser: Yes. What is interesting to me is that many people think that the undermining of femininity/masculinity is a relatively recent phenomenon . . . but it is exacly what SdB was doing all those years ago! All of the recent questions/controversies/debates about the "essential" nature of "woman" (e.g., born women, trans women, intersexuality . . .) are building on (or sometimes ignoring) all the in-depth analysis SdB (and others) did. Today people seem to jump on one or the other bandwagon about "What is woman?" without actually considering where their ideas might be coming from. SdB spent 800 pages trying to unwrap some of those "sources" of our ideas. Of course now there are 65 more years worth of "theories" and "stories" about men and women to add to the list of things to analyze!

May 16, 2016, 9:42am Top

Well, I finished the introduction of The Second Sex this weekend. I kept re-reading sections of it. I last read this book in college and frankly I thought, coming back to it, that it would feel dated for me. But this extended exploration into "the Other" and the way she so carefully frames the question of "why are women the Other" -- it is as timely and relevant today as it has ever been. In fact, I thought what she had to say about women and men as a species of the fundamental question of Self/Other ("Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought") amazingly profound in it's simplicity:

If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change. Proletarians say "We"; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects, they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into "others." But women do not say "We," except at some congress of feminists or similar formal demonstration; men say "women" and women use the same word in referring to themselves. They do not authentically assume a subjective attitude....They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received.

What a delight to rediscover such a beautifully reasoned account. I'm having a hard time not underlining entire paragraphs.

May 23, 2016, 9:21am Top

>10 southernbooklady: I totally agree!

Jun 22, 2016, 1:22pm Top

>10 southernbooklady:

That finds an answer of sorts in Benoîte Groult's words quoted in her obituary:

Married women, Ms. Groult wrote, were in a particularly poor position to lead an effective fight for equality. “When the ‘oppressor’ is your lover and the father of your children and often the principal purveyor of the funds, freedom becomes a complex and risky undertaking,” she wrote in her autobiography. “So much so that many women prefer security, even under supervision, to the hazards of freedom.”

Women in France won the right to vote only in 1945, when Ms. Groult was 25, and she spent a good part of her life without contraceptives, resorting instead to numerous illegal abortions.

I'd say these problems of internal contradiction would affect heterosexual women in general, not just married or financially dependent ones. One aspect of the problem I've noticed on several occasions with my straight friends is the well-known "playing dumber than you are" in order not to "scare" the boys away. It must be incredibly frustrating even on such a fairly trivial level.

Jun 22, 2016, 1:31pm Top

I think you recommended Ainsi soit-elle? I have it on my list for the next time I hit up the used book shops. I'm not terribly good at French but I can muddle my way through things.

Edited: Jun 22, 2016, 1:50pm Top

>13 southernbooklady:

As a look at 1970s French feminism, yes. It should be muddle-through-able, she writes very clearly. Incidentally, if you look at the (second I think, le Monde) link in the post I wrote in the "In memoriam" thread, there are a couple videos of her TV interviews (excerpts). I started watching the one with Mitterrand from 1965 but had no time to finish. They both enunciate so very carefully--early days of teevee yet!

ETA link to said post: http://www.librarything.com/topic/219897#5626605

Jun 22, 2016, 1:54pm Top

Oh, so much catching up to do. I'd meant to join this group read but work got in the way. Will follow along for now and join in the discussion when I actually start reading the book.

Plenty of good stuff here already. :)

Edited: Jun 26, 2016, 4:04pm Top

Well, I've just ordered Ainsi soit-elle from some Canadian bookseller. I should have it in a couple weeks and will report back.

I did want to say that as I read through the text of The Second Sex I'm finding it all weirdly familiar, and I am wondering if it somehow had stuck more deeply in me than I realized back when I was inhaling books for college coursework. When de Beauvoir writes:

How can a human being in woman's situation attain fulfillment? What roads are open to her? Which are blocked? How can independence be recovered in a state of dependency? What circumstances limit woman's liberty and how can they be overcome? These are the fundamental questions on which I would fan throw some light. This means that I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty.

Quite evidently this problem would be without significance if we were to believe that woman's destiny is inevitably determined by physiological, psychological, or economic forces.

...well, I realize that I have been asking the same questions, pursuing the same goals -- the fortunes of the individual in terms of liberty, not "happiness" -- and rejecting the same arguments about biological destiny, pretty much as long as I have been thinking about these things. Albeit hardly as coherently as de Beauvoir.

Did I get this inner certainty -- this conviction that liberty is centered in the individual, not dependent on any accident of biology or birth -- from reading The Second Sex all those years ago? I feel like it has been with me all my life, as obvious a truth as the laws of gravity.

Jun 27, 2016, 11:50am Top

>16 southernbooklady:

An interesting watershed point, that between liberty and happiness. I think the choice you make registers, and that the choice itself is made necessary by the circumstances and structures in which we live. But telling, that such a choice must be made.

I think it challenging enough to negotiate (with oneself) and create (out of one's life patterns) a measure of both, without one of these facing constant pressure and opposition. I mean, as a human being, I think that basic challenge is quite significant. So sad that it be further frustrated by unnecessary obstacles. So to be clear, I say this not to counter or oppose that a choice was made, but to observe a state of affairs. I certainly find it relevant that such a choice be faced, whether by me individually or by those I love. Part of the reason for following discussions like this one.

Jul 9, 2016, 11:40am Top

I expect I'm lagging behind everyone here, but I finally read Beauvoir's intro and the first chapter of Part I Destin, (Les données de la biologie).

The only comments I have relate only to my personal experience of reading this, which is excitement, sadness and fury--this book was already more than forty years old when I was a teenager, why didn't I read it then, why didn't someone give it to me then, how much it would have meant, and what it could have meant for my whole life--yes, seriously. It's all familiar NOW. But I feel I wasted decades blundering about reinventing the wheel, in complete isolation, as if I literally lived in a fucking desert, when in reality there were resources and knowledge and cities of women just a few steps away.

But, anyway, that's just my sad and stupid story.

How does it read? Like it was written yesterday.

Jul 9, 2016, 11:05pm Top

>18 LolaWalser:: Wow. Thank you for that. I'm definitely reading it this year yet. Keep putting it off because of an early memory of trying to read it and not getting it. But, I was very young then too.

And, yes, that part you describe as "But I feel I wasted decades blundering about reinventing the wheel, in complete isolation, as if I literally lived in a fucking desert, when in reality there were resources and knowledge and cities of women just a few steps away." -- SAME.

Jul 14, 2016, 9:25am Top

Up to Part 2, the chapters on psychoanalytical and historico-materialistic view were short, but I expect the ideas in them will keep getting revisited. On psychoanalysis I have little to comment, it just angers me that Freudianism persisted for so long--but the reason it persisted, of course, is because it was just another enablement of misogyny, and patriarchy can always use those.

I take similar issue with myth and symbolism (i.e. religion), all that claptrap about yin and yang and the moon and the sun and darkness and light that yokes women prejudicially into "negativity", weakness, submission and servitude, the other (evil, demonic) side etc.

Beauvoir's critique continues to amaze me with its perspicacity. From Freudianism she salvages the primacy of the body (Sade could have taught us the same). Her observations on Engels' theory of the origin of gender inequality and expectations that a working class victory would automatically do away with it are also I think valuable, but there's much more to be said on that.

Reading this morning about white men whose primary motivation in upcoming American elections is to keep women and non-whites "inferior", it's clear that economic and political power is the most important in gaining--and keeping freedom.

American women are already experiencing a war in which their lives are undervalued and their rights are apt to be further diminished. Whatever the truth about the psychological "dramas" purportedly driving every individual, the concrete manifestations of misogyny deny women political power in public life, and political and economic equality in public life.

Jul 14, 2016, 10:14am Top

Read your posts this morning on the white male demographic, LolaWalser, and though it's not an agreeable fact, it is a fact nevertheless: white males have long supported and perpetuated these inequalities and concomitant brutality. I'll say at this point I fit right in that demographic, and have to face it even while striving to oppose that demographic's prevailing views and actions.

It's worth pointing out (I know I'm not the first) an underlying tension within this demographic: namely, we have an incentive to oppose this inequality, even as we have an incentive to uphold it for personal gain. And that opposing incentive is precisely our relationships with our mothers, sisters, daughters, other family and friends in our communities. I acknowledge that while that's true, nevertheless the inequality perseveres. Still, I don't accept the simple analysis "because white males stand to gain personally, the demographic overall will always support this inequality."

There must be a way to dissolve the connection in that demographic. I believe there is, and strive to dissolve it through my individual actions, but am looking for ways to dissolve it at another level, not just as an individual actor but on the level of culture.

Jul 14, 2016, 10:28am Top

>21 elenchus:

Well, the problem as I see it is already in your (or anyone's) expressing concern via personal connections to individual women--mothers, sisters, daughters etc. That's understandable, and no doubt many people gain insight through events that harm someone they care for.

But the problem with this is that personal concern is compatible with generalised misogyny. Everyone who loves their mom/sister/etc. knows that they love their mom/sister/etc., and, if anything, the fact that they love these individual women may only serve to blind them to the contempt they feel for women in general.

Women are people, that's the important thing to know.

Edited: Jul 14, 2016, 10:35am Top

Agreed: the contradiction between the personal and the political, would be another way of putting it. But that's just the point: it's a contradiction. Easy enough, apparently, for many to overlook or explain away, but no less a contradiction for all that.

Perhaps the underlying question for me is: why do so many let their views of inequality define their understanding of women in general, rather than their views of their mothers, daughters, etc? Why does the one prevail, and not the other?

Jul 14, 2016, 10:38am Top

>22 LolaWalser: Everyone who loves their mom/sister/etc. knows that they love their mom/sister/etc., and, if anything, the fact that they love these individual women may only serve to blind them to the contempt they feel for women in general.

They also love them as mothers/sisters/wives etc. That is, it is impossible to disentangle the person from the role they fill.

Jul 14, 2016, 10:43am Top

Isn't that the crux of quite a bit of LGBTx acceptance? Someone comes out to you, you suddenly realise "these aren't abstract considerations. These are decisions that effect someone I know and care about."

As much as the personal is political, it sometimes helps to understand how the political effects us personally.

Jul 14, 2016, 11:00am Top

Personal concern is no doubt powerful as a means of apprehending the injustice that affects individuals different to us, but it shouldn't be the only or most important focus--ideally it should serve as a spur to enlarge our horizons. But that doesn't happen too often. Lots of racists claim to have black friends, many a Nazi thought highly of this or that individual Jew, and generations of men were raised to believe that liking to fuck women means they "love" women.

Emphasis on the personal, especially when it limits experience to the personal, tends to obscure systemic discrimination. It falls prey to the same kind of thinking that makes of, say, Oprah proof that blacks and black women have nothing to complain about.

And that's when it's passive. It can also be a deliberate tactic, an active refusal to consider that systemic injustice is possible when so many individual men "love" individual women.

Jul 14, 2016, 11:15am Top

>24 southernbooklady:

Yes, this.

Elenchus, I think Nicki is pointing to the best answer to what you call a contradiction. Love for mothers/sisters/wives etc. is by and large self-serving, frequently exclusively so. I'm fortyish and most men of my parents' generation I've known didn't respect "their women" as individuals but--at best--as their (man's) property, belongings, attributes. The form this "respect" took was commonly prohibition to outsiders to abuse these women--but the man could and did abuse "his" women and women in general.

This is basically Mediterranean family life in a nutshell to this day.

Jul 14, 2016, 11:39am Top

I recognise that as a reality, certainly, and the world of my direct experience reflects that reality.

I think >26 LolaWalser: captures quite well the prevailing situation:
Emphasis on the personal, especially when it limits experience to the personal, tends to obscure systemic discrimination. It falls prey to the same kind of thinking that makes of, say, Oprah proof that blacks and black women have nothing to complain about.

And that's when it's passive. It can also be a deliberate tactic, an active refusal to consider that systemic injustice is possible when so many individual men "love" individual women.

It's still a pressing question as to why that is the case. I don't see the self-serving outlook as inevitable or logically necessary, so if I'm to make any progress on this idea of a non-coercive culture (as I raised in another thread), I need to get at how it nevertheless prevails, even if it is not inevitable.

Jul 14, 2016, 11:57am Top

>25 Jesse_wiedinmyer: Isn't that the crux of quite a bit of LGBTx acceptance? Someone comes out to you, you suddenly realise "these aren't abstract considerations. These are decisions that effect someone I know and care about."

Yes, but there is a visibility issue here. The thing about knowing people that have come out it that suddenly your personal landscape has to be reinterpreted from one with no gay people to one where gay people are suddenly "there." It's like the pop into existence for you.

But women have always been "there." They are just only allowed to be "there" in a certain way. My mother is one of the most important people in my life. But to be brutally honest, she didn't really exist for me as anything but "mom" for most of that life. It is only within the last 20 years or so that I began to connect to her as a person, a woman who I liked, who had an existence that was independent of me and was, frankly, damn interesting.

Edited: Jul 15, 2016, 7:23am Top

>29 southernbooklady:

My personal experience with the coming out thing was a bit different. During high school, my guidance counselor had shipped me off to a local college to "trail" the curator of the college's Art Museum. I'd been doing poorly in school (eventually just took a GED) and my GC was desperately trying to find some way to get me engaged.

Trailing the curator was a bust, but while on campus, I had been browsing through the literary magazine, I'd stumbled across a poem that resonated deeply with me and my experiences with my brother's death the year before.

A year later, after having failed out of high school,I crashed that college's orientation week for lols. Some classmates from high school were going to school there, so I just showed up and walked in. Milling around a few days later, I was taking to a classmate's next door neighbor when I realised that I knew his name as the author of the poem from the year before.

I'd mentioned how much the poem had meant to me and we started talking a bit more deeply. My own brother had been killed in a car accident a year and a half prior. His father had drank himself to death 2-3 years before (and my own father was well advanced in the alcoholism that would end his life about 5 years later at 48.)

Denny and I clicked, regardless. We spent quite a bit of time hanging around each other, quite a bit of it engaged in college level stupidity (getting stoned, playing Nintendo, discussing books (I basically piggy-backed on his lit major for a year and a half. Morrison, Pynchon, Naylor, Garcia Marquez... these were all authors I came across first while sitting in Denny's dorm room reading his course selections) and watching too much Star Trek : Next Generation). I crashed out in his room for hours at a time when things were stupid at home. And when my mother eventually kicked me out of the house, I spent months sleeping on Denny's couch.

One night, I'd driven a bunch of people to a local diner. In a fit of youthful stupidity on the drive home, I decided I was going to go off-roading in my Jeep. And drove straight into a drainage ditch that was obscured by the darkness.

Everyone came out relatively unscathed. Denny had bumped his head on the roof of the car, though, and sustained a mild concussion and slight amnesia. The two us (though Denny was not quite altogether there) spent the next five hours doing laps around his school having the same three minute conversation on a continuous loop.

"What time is it?" Denny would ask.

"It's 3am, Denny"

"Christ, I can't believe it's that late already. I've got to finish that paper for English tomorrow."

It was like something out of a Stoppard play at times. I could predict his responses beforehand because I'd already had the conversation. It was fresh every five minutes for him. Like a DJ, I could remix the conversation by changing the order of the phrasing. Or I could leapfrog the conversation by mention ing the things that were going through his head before he understood they were going through his head "What time is it? 3am, but don't worry about the English paper."

Hours later, the amnesia wound down and Denny crashed out. The next morning, though he completely lost it when I had mentioned a poem that he'd been working on. Just massive panic and anger that cane entirely out of the blue from my perspective. After we'd discussed it a bit, it came to light that the poem was about him grappling with his bisexuality (previously unmentioned) and his feelings towards me (and of course, your friendly neighborhood autistic was completely oblivious to ALL of this.) And Denny, in dealing with his panic at the thought that he had unwittingly outed himself, outed himself.

I knew a handful of gay people at that point (at the level of acquaintance, mostly out classmates). One of the few classmates that I still talk to regularly is a woman who was attending Act-Up meetings when we were both in 8th grade. Her best friend was the year ahead of us and a flamboyantly out gay man. This wasn't remotely something that I was unaware or unfamiliar with.

In retrospect, I would guess that my views at the time were neutral at best. I grew up relatively rural, in a conservative small town. I was just a few years out of my own fundamentalist Christian phase. But it had never been an issue that rose above the level of abstraction.

And in an instant, I was suddenly faced with a situation where everything I had been told, or everything I thought I knew, or everything I thought I understood about homosexuality became directly personal. I had to reconcile my (ill-informed) understanding of homosexuality with the person standing in front of me.

And in being forced to choose between modifying my beliefs to accomodate Denny or modifying my view of Denny to hold onto my beliefs, it was pretty much no contest. Denny was (and still is) a wonderful person and, even if I didn't reciprocate his feelings, I could not come up with any way that this was changed by what he had inadvertently shared.

I've mentioned that I'd spent a bit of time in a fundamentalist phase in my early teens. Just the other day, I'd been chatting with an old friend from church on Facebook. We haven't really kept in touch, but he seems to be doing well. He's liberalized his beliefs a bit. A pastor now himself, with his own church.

We discussed my own lack of religion and why I'd left the church, and I'd mentioned my brother's death and how that shaped my thinking. Which had nothing to do with theodicy, or a crisis of faith precipitated by the unfairness and uncaring nature of the universe, etc. It was simply that when forced to choose between my dead brother and a religion that condemned him to Hell (he was "unsaved"), I couldn't abandon my brother.

Yeah, it sort of sucks that these things aren't obvious to us all from the get-go, and there's a touch of selfishness to it all (I only care if directly affects me), but I'd say that just about all of the major inflection points in my thinking have come from being forced to reconsider what I thought I knew in face of the personal testimony, or in witness to the effect on real people.

And I think that can be a wonderful force for change.

Edited: Jul 15, 2016, 7:52am Top

>30 Jesse_wiedinmyer: Yeah, it sort of sucks that these things aren't obvious to us all from the get-go,

As a rule, people learn best from personal experience. I think we're all sort of hard-wired that way. We each seem to have to put our hand in the fire to prove to ourselves that yes, that burns.

Being able to see and touch something makes it real in a way that no "idea" can ever really compete with. On the one hand, this is a great strength of our species, because we have the capacity to connect with anyone in front of us. On the other, it has some dire consequences in that we can rationalize almost anything about those who are not standing right in front of us. So as a force for change goes, it means that we sometimes have to actually see people suffering before we can wrap our heads around the fact that they are suffering. Which really kind of sucks.

But it is why the more normalized a repressed group becomes, the more likely the repression will be alleviated. This doesn't really explain the continuing second-class status of women, though. We all know women in our lives, but by and large we don't see that the way they exist is in a state of repression.

Edited: Jul 15, 2016, 9:44am Top

Part 2, History, Chapter I

Another short one. Beauvoir proposes to explain in the light of existential philosophy how "the hierarchy of the sexes" was established. Let's say that she's proposing a "model", even if I'm not entirely clear on what is being modelled. (What exactly does "supremacy of the male" mean?)

I didn't care for this chapter but explaining why would take longer than it is itself. However, I don't mean that she's wrong--it's just an interpretation of things we cannot know, relying on, as she says, "terribly contradictory" information from ethnography, anthropology etc.

In short, she somehow decides that because men can't bear children they are allowed to do everything, while women, because they can bear children, are allowed to do nothing else. Moreover, men are then valued because they form projects beyond "repeating life" and women undervalued because they merely "repeat life".

It's not hard to see this is a circular argument, even if we accept (as I don't see why we should) that everyone ever recognised absolute value to "projects" and relatively lesser value to "repeating life".

I wish she wrote instead (maybe will) about the fact of the oppressive apparatus men build to keep women tied into prescribed roles, enslaved. Abstract depreciation is never enough, and personal domination matters not at all. What we see happening is women and men being born without and into privilege, into historical/cultural situations in which every single individual male is boosted by pre-existing conditions that make him "the master", and every single individual woman is weakened a priori by a horrendous array of inequalities, injustice and outright coercion.

And to me there is no better proof of the artificiality of the misogynistic systems of oppression than the structures, energy, intensity, effort that goes into maintaining them.

If women were really by nature nothing but baby-making machines there'd be no need for any part of the monstrous, monumental coercion that we see established through laws religious and secular, deliberate cultural practices, physical and psychological warfare and so on.

It's because women are people that it's so important to dehumanise us. So we can be used like things.

But, anyway, back to this chapter--it concludes--and I can't tell whether she writes this as her opinion or as a report of general opinion--that "male activity" (those "projects", in contrast to female baby-making) has given "value" to human existence; conquered chaotic life forces and placed Nature and Woman in his servitude.

I really hope this is sarcastic...

Jul 15, 2016, 9:26am Top

>32 LolaWalser:: "And to me there is no better proof of the artificiality of the misogynistic systems of oppression than the structures, energy, intensity, effort that goes into maintaining it.

If women were really by nature nothing but baby-making machines there'd be no need for any part of the monstrous, monumental coercion that we see established through laws religious and secular, deliberate cultural practices, physical and psychological warfare and so on.

It's because women are people that it's so important to dehumanise us. So we can be used like things."

AMEN. This is exactly what I've been telling certain folks -- including women -- since I've been in India these past months. The cultural/gender biases have been so internalized across men and women from an early age that many women don't even see the repression and oppression. It's quite amazing for me to hear certain crazy (to me) things from my own family members. Sigh.

Jul 15, 2016, 9:35am Top

>33 jennybhatt:

Yeah, I'm still having similar experiences myself. Heck, I still trip over my own misogyny more often than I care to admit.

And that then only makes me madder. :) Imagine, we are taught to hate ourselves. How exactly are we supposed to "win" at life?

Jul 15, 2016, 10:00am Top

>31 southernbooklady:

I think >33 jennybhatt: provides some context for that. At least from my perspective... A lot of the cues and ideas that I've internalized over the years have actually been provided by women.

Which might be just some completely Escheresque mirror mirroring a warped ideal as it's displayed in a mirror, but...

Referring back to the Baldwin, another of those lines that jumped out at me was...

The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.

Which actually pretty succinctly nails how I'm starting to feel about being a white male. But the brain washing started at birth, I didn't ask for it, and looking for clarification just gets internalized racist misogyny reflected back at me.

If that makes any sense.

Jul 15, 2016, 10:11am Top

Could we all make an effort to keep this thread on topic? It's the only one with such a narrow focus--dedicated to a single book. If you are not reading the book, please abstain from derailing. Thank you.

Jul 15, 2016, 10:14am Top

>36 LolaWalser:

I will gladly bow out until my library hold arrives.

You have my apologies.

Jul 15, 2016, 10:22am Top

>32 LolaWalser:

A great discussion of the chapter. (I'm not reading the book, but following along this discussion anyway.)

Very curious as to whether deBeauvoir will come back to this topic in another chapter, from another perspective.

Aug 5, 2016, 6:57am Top

This popped up in one of my feeds the other day and I finally watched it. It's 40 minutes long, but interesting and makes me again want to get to the book as I've been putting it off all year now.

Simone de Beauvoir Defends Existentialism & Her Feminist Masterpiece, The Second Sex, in Rare 1959 TV Interview.


Aug 8, 2016, 2:06pm Top

Hi all. Apologies that I dropped out of the discussion. Been packing up my entire house to move. Ended up with 35 boxes of books!

All I can say is that I'm surprised anyone would say any of these chapters is "short" . . . in my copy they are many pages of very small print and very dense ideas . . . but maybe that's just the edition I have.

In any case, I've been enjoying catching up on the discussion. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees The Second Sex as still relevant to things happening today!

I did keep SdB out of the packed boxes, so may get a chance to read if I get everything packed and still haven't sold my house (which is listing today).

Edited: May 18, 6:36pm Top

I mean to pick this up again shortly. I was going to earlier, then I started reading the first volume of Beauvoir's biography (Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée), raced through it, and am now waiting for the second part that I'm missing.

I've also started Elisabeth Badinter's book on masculine identity and there was a curious point echoed. In the bio, Beauvoir mentions something or other brought her into conflict with American feminists--to paraphrase, her attitude to men, broadly, she's not very clear on that, basically that she didn't see them as adversaries, as American feminists, it is implied, do. And Badinter says the same--not about Beauvoir, but speaking generally about French feminism, that it (they, French feminists) had been accused in the past by the Americans (or "Anglo-Saxon" feminism) of conniving (maybe not the best term but I can't look for the exact phrase now) with the men.

Anyway, this pointed-out difference (whatever it exactly refers to) interests me greatly and I'll be returning to it.

In the first installment of her memoirs Beauvoir shows the misogyny that surrounded her (she doesn't call it misogyny--not sure she used the term once actually), she even mentions in a few places how she internalised it but she doesn't analyse it at all. I'm actually most eager to read the next part of the memoirs to see whether and when insight starts happening.

She grew up listening to her father regretting that she wasn't a boy, given that she had "a man's brains", then to his complaints that she wasn't prettier, plus oodles of fantastic garbage from the church and the school (Catholic) regarding women, sex and sexuality, then every male friend not to mention family and casual acquaintances discloses limpidly their giant male assholery and misogyny--but Simone persists in feeling not implicated because SHE, you see, is SPECIAL. So all that crap about women is true and she believes it with the rest of them, but is not bothered because she is generally found to be an exception.

And it just stays there. She even says she felt that, that being the case, she already did something remarkable when she was just as good as her male counterparts. Therefore she never felt the need to "challenge" them. American feminists, it is implied, feel the need to "challenge" men.

I'll leave it at that for now. Maybe a separate thread on American vs. French feminism would be in order? I don't really want to plunge into history of feminism as history but I guess it all always relates to the ongoing problems, regardless. In any case, if anyone has references or knows what Beauvoir's quarrel with American feminists was about, I'd love to hear it.

May 19, 9:34am Top

My understanding of Beauvoir's take on this is that the first wave of feminism declared women "the same" as men. The second wave, which Beauvoir is credited for heralding, allows that women are equal and different.

My interpretation of this is that the second wave allows for women to show their maternal, their feminine, their sexuality and doesn't aspire to have women be the same as men.

The difference between American and French feminism seems to be the "same" versus "equal but different" argument.

I read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and didn't get the same take that you have from it. I didn't find it to be quite so fierce in the sense that there was criticism of "woman" from Beauvoir's viewpoint. But rather that she was finding her footing in being what would have been very unconventional in a very conventional family. I say conventional because the family really appeared to struggle to keep up their bourgeois status among their peers.

I want to re-read some of these passages with your view in mind to see if I can see it in the same light!

I found a PDF that you may be interested in outlining the differences in French versus American feminism.


I have The Prime of Life on my TBR pile and have not because I am looking too forward to it! Foolish, I know! But that happens sometimes, I don't want it to be a book I have already read!

May 19, 11:17am Top

>42 MegEynons:

Thanks for the link, I'll be consulting it again, seems to be exactly the answer to my question but feminist theory sure goes way over my head! I understood vanishingly little, must try again. My references are primarily experiential--what I saw and learned in the US and Europe, how I perceive the status of women in the US and Europe, and it's a bit of a job to sync that with theory.

I didn't see criticism in this first part of Beauvoir's memoirs, just exposition. She's relaying mostly her contemporary take on things; that's why I said I'm impatient for the analysis and reflection (of the critical kind) to kick in. I mean, she reflects a lot, but so far it's been all reconstruction of psychology and moods.

The only protest she reports making in the face of sexism is arguing that men as well as women ought to be chaste--that's the only positive (in the sense of active, normative) argument refering to unequal treatment of men and women, that she mentions. Guy after guy (and women) says that men have the right to and moreover are expected to exercise sexual license, and her position notably isn't, for instance, that women have the right to the same license, but that men ought to be held to the same established puritanical standards.

As for her view on women, she actually says in a couple places she believed women were inherently inferior (as she and everyone else was taught and generally had it demonstrated to them in myriad ways)--and then there's the typical idolatry of the male. All her heroes, all her paragons, all her idols are male. It's not surprising (hell, fervent dick-worship is still the educational standard and dominant cultural theme in Europe), it's simply there, and it's part of her worldview, moulding her sensibility, directing her ambition, shaping her values. Women are only good at self-sacrifice. If you want to DO anything, create anything worthwhile (people don't count, and if they did, it's all thanks to daddies), you have to look up to men.

I'm not being critical, by the way--just sketching where I think her incipient feminist instincts show up and how. It's fascinatingly horrible to compare her experience to mine and realise I grew up absorbing pretty much the same shit as someone born in 1908.

May 19, 4:53pm Top

>42 MegEynons: The difference between American and French feminism seems to be the "same" versus "equal but different" argument.

I am a very poor and muddled feminist philosopher -- like Lola, philosophy usually goes right over my head -- but I have to say, this speaks to me not at all. Is it some kind of essentialism? An debate on what a woman "really is"? If so, it seems like a doomed pursuit.

All her heroes, all her paragons, all her idols are male. It's not surprising (hell, fervent dick-worship is still the educational standard and dominant cultural theme in Europe), it's simply there, and it's part of her worldview, moulding her sensibility, directing her ambition, shaping her values. Women are only good at self-sacrifice.

This sounds like a description of me.

Edited: May 19, 5:41pm Top

>44 southernbooklady:

Going by the last paragraph (the article in Meg's link), it would seem that a dose of pro/contra essentialism is going on. I think I'll first try to get a grasp on her conclusions in there and then start from the top.

By the way, Nicki, if you remember that question, "can 'Woman' be a philosophical concept"--from Badiou's seminar--I came across a bit in Annie Leclerc's (another French philosopher and a new name to me) 1974 Parole de femme (Woman's word or Woman's speech) that is basically a direct (and ironic) answer:

Our language is frank. Here there are no useless nuances, empty precautions, deference. No vir and homo, no Mann and Mensch. Man is enough.
An honest woman can't be an honest man. A great woman can't be a great man. In her, greatness is a matter of centimetres.

One can indeed write: every man is Man. But not: every woman is Man. It isn't just comical, it's incomprehensible.

I am like the others, I speak man's language. The difference between man and Man is inaudible. Man and man are the same; of course.

A woman isn't a man, therefore she isn't Man. A woman is a woman; nothing could be clearer.

(Franche est notre langue. Ici, pas de subtilités inutiles, de précautions oiseuses, de déférence. pas de vir et homo, pas de Mann et de Mensch. Homme suffit. Une hônnete femme ne saurait être un hônnete homme. Une grande femme ne saurait être un grand homme. La grandeur est chez elle affaire de centimètres. On peut bien écrire: tout homme est Homme. Mais pas: toute femme est Homme. Ce n'est pas seulement drôle, c'est incompréhensible. Je suis comme les autres, je parle la langue des hommes. La nuance entre homme et Homme est inaudible. Homme et homme c'est pareil; je ne vous le fais pas dire... Une femme n'est pas un homme, donc pas un Homme. Une femme est une femme; rien de plus clair.)

P.S. Still have to listen to the seminar.

May 19, 8:51pm Top

>45 LolaWalser: Franche est notre langue. Ici, pas de subtilités inutiles, de précautions oiseuses, de déférence. pas de vir et homo, pas de Mann et de Mensch. Homme suffit. Une hônnete femme ne saurait être un hônnete homme. Une grande femme ne saurait être un grand homme. La grandeur est chez elle affaire de centimètres. On peut bien écrire: tout homme est Homme. Mais pas: toute femme est Homme. Ce n'est pas seulement drôle, c'est incompréhensible.

Now that does make sense, even in French. I suppose I find myself wondering whether, if "Woman" cannot be a philosophical concept, then doesn't it follow that neither can "Man"? These are just placeholders, terms of convenience, like "Fast" or "Good" -- that are meaningless without a reference point -- a real person to anchor them in the real world. But it's that person who actually counts. Not some arbitrary assessment of how close or distant they are from the (nonexistent) Platonic ideal of "Man" or "Woman." I guess that's why I find myself speaking more and more frequently in terms of "human." I wonder if that puts me in the we're-the-same or the we're-different camp?

Edited: May 19, 10:08pm Top

Yes--what Leclerc is pointing out is a matter of usage, become deeply ingrained habit--we find it normal that "man" means "woman" too, but the opposite is ridiculous. Ever that "special case" status of woman.

These linguistic/semantic considerations are interesting but I wonder if there isn't a tendency to make too much of them, speaking of different cultures. I understand that Chinese isn't gendered but China is also a strongly misogynistic society. German culture, despite the existence of "Mann" and "Mensch" isn't less sexist than France (although, Badinter actually asserts, to my endless amazement, that French culture is least sexist, mentioning in evidence that it lacks misogynists of Schopenhauer's, Nietzsche's, Weininger's calibre. I think the French misogynists were simply too lazy for serious philosophy and preferred expression in literature and arts in general. A relatively frivolous treatment of subject in itself defined as nil and frivolous--but German professors WOULD bother breaking butterflies on wheels.)

And French and English happen to coincide in how these terms--homme, femme, woman, man--are used, but that didn't prevent development of, as people seem to argue, specifically "French" and "Anglo-Saxon" feminisms (or maybe dominant forms, or most notable forms of feminism, in respective cultures.)

On that subject, I'll always plump for culture "generally", rather than language, causing differences. To put it very crudely and not in the least feminist-theoretically, I see European women as less feminist-conscious, more subject to men, more conforming to misogyny, more accepting of sexism, than "the Anglos". This is actually "what I experienced" and no doubt skewed to my--well, everything--class, background etc. But I do feel I made this discovery literally, going from one place to another and eventually changing. The ideas that became available in the US, just in the ordinary daily existence, weren't part of the ordinary daily existence in Europe. The longer I lived in North America, the more insupportable European "everyday sexism" became. But most people, obviously, live staying put in one place and the best way to make do is to adapt, so...

By the way, I realise there are quantitative indicators that seem to go against my experience--the gender gap (I think consistently higher in the US than in Western Europe), this actual war on women in the US, with committees of men tailoring women's fate as if in Saudi Arabia--but those, imo, have more to do with the vagaries of politics than more permanent features of culture. The dreamspace of America, however bloody, is a frontier offered to people who want to be free. The dreamspace of Europe, however gilded, is a Catholic prison with Iron Maidens and witch-burning stakes.

Edited: May 20, 8:29am Top

>47 LolaWalser: The dreamspace of America, however bloody, is a frontier offered to people who want to be free.

America's rampant, ruthless individualism perhaps accounts for the difference you see in American and European feminist tolerance for everyday misogyny. We venerate "the self-made man," (an entity I don't think really exists, by the way). But if every person's fate is supposed to be in their own hands and thus their own responsibility, then once women are acknowledged to belong to the category of "people" they too get to determine their own fate without apology to anyone.

The dark side to individualism, though, is that it endorses exploitation, and doesn't value cooperation. "I" is more important that "we" and the feminism that develops in such a culture can look a little twisted. Seemingly misogynistic values embraced as "my choice."

May 20, 11:52am Top

No doubt I'm biased and project a lot so I try not to lean too hard on my experience, vital as it is for my sense of "what is the case". This difference between North America and Europe, insofar how women are regarded, is simply something I feel acutely every time I travel. But I'm sure the reasons are complicated.

We could also ask what serves women's cause for equality better, where are we, in the end, served better. In the US, where, say, it is forbidden to discriminate against women at employment and there is more and general consciousness about the wrongness of sexual harassment, or in Europe with free healthcare and childcare?

Yesterday, 1:14pm Top

>49 LolaWalser: Lola! You have asked the best question in your last paragraph. But I would say that in the US where it is forbidden to BE CAUGHT paying a woman less than a man for the same job and then inhibiting being caught by never disclosing wages for employees! (Sorry, a very sore point for most US women who are really aware that the Lilly Ledbetter law that was passed was just a pat on the head to women in the work place, once again!)

>44 southernbooklady: I would flatter myself to say that I am on the same page as you both are. You have much more knowledge and reading under your belt than I do, I am sure. I personally don't subscribe to one argument or the other whether there is "sameness" or "equal but different". The concept of American v French feminism is really a construct that came about in the 80's. I do think that all of the arguments that boil down to essentialism do tend to knock back any movement. Once the labeling becomes more important than the actual equality we get on a tangent that takes us decades to recover from. I agree with you completely.

I do love this discussion and I find that Beauvoir really speaks to me in my own voice, as it were. I am waiting to see if that continues in her autobiographies as she grows and changes as a woman. What do you think of the concept of becoming a woman versus being born one as Beauvoir states?

Edited: Yesterday, 2:53pm Top

>50 MegEynons:

What do you think of the concept of becoming a woman versus being born one as Beauvoir states?

Oh, totally true imo. And as Badinter is arguing in her book (XY : De l'identité masculine), the same is true of men and "masculinity". Gender is a construct.

Yesterday, 4:34pm Top

No, Lola! No! Another book that now must go on my list to be read!

But interestingly, if gender is a construct then how does that effect transgendered people? Does that then imply that they are choosing their gender? I know that may look a bit like I am trying to be controversial and more than a little off topic but I am ponder these things at the moment.

Yesterday, 5:18pm Top

>52 MegEynons: if gender is a construct then how does that effect transgendered people? Does that then imply that they are choosing their gender?

If you are told you can be either a man or a woman, and you know in your heart that there is nothing in you that feels like "man" does mean you choose "woman"?

Edited: Yesterday, 9:21pm Top

Ironically, Badinter's book (which is from 1992) refers a lot to various American sources, so here I'm re-translating (and possibly mangling the original) from French to English, but regarding gender she mentions Robert Stoller's scheme from 1963 according to which there is sex, gender and kernel of gender identity. Stoller hypothesised that the crucial factor (in gender-determination), is that "kernel of gender identity", which is a psychological sense of "I am male" or "I am female" that children get an inkling of by the time they are two or so.

The crucial point here is that this earliest conviction (I am male/female) need not correspond to biological sex and therefore does not seem to be caused (directly anyway) by what confers our biological sex. What causes the discrepancy is not known. What we know is that the phenomenon is real--there are people born with the feeling that they are in "wrong" bodies and getting consigned to the wrong gender.

Now, I know very little about transgenderism, and that's from a handful of first-hand, biographical accounts of varying focus (Jan Morris' Conundrum, Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues, Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Pat Califia, a few other people's journalistic pieces or essays...) Nothing academic or scientific, as far as people are concerned, so whatever generalisations I'm tempted to make are speculation.

Two striking things first come to mind: that trans-people are people reacting against the strongest barrier currently existing in society, with which nothing else compares--not class, not religion, not ethnicity, not even sexual orientation--and two, that the transgender narratives and self-perceptions are constantly enriching themselves.

I mean, compare Jan Morris and the kids in Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (2014). One is from a generation (and social background) with extremely strict gender roles; those kids from 2010s have a very different vision. Even when they feel--possibly/probably as strongly as Morris did--that their assigned gender doesn't fit them, their overall perception seems more flexible, more fluid.

Kate Bornstein is yet another different example. Closer to Morris in age, and similar in that they (their preferred form of address) lived for many years as a heterosexual man (and father), and then identified as female (and underwent gender re-assignement same as Morris), they have now opted out of gender binary, believing that gender (no less than sexuality) is better understood as a continuum.

If that is the case, then I think it is possible that, as with sexual orientation, there will always be people presenting with different gender perceptions of the self. For example, people who feel very strongly that they are female or male, for a mix of biological and social reasons; people with a definite answer if anyone asks them, but who don't otherwise "feel" their gender as a concrete object at all times; and people who feel genderless, or however they choose to describe that fluid state.

But to go back to the construction of gender, I would boil it down to this--Stoller's "kernel", whatever it's based on, is just that--a "kernel". The whole edifice of gender always needs to be elaborated, built, and then endlessly (is this Judith Butler's term?), in public, "performed".

Group: Feminist Theory

1,040 members

5,727 messages


This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.


Posting to this group is subject to moderation and group terms.

Moderator: southernbooklady

Group terms: We seek on-topic, respectful, and constructive discussion about feminism. The validity of feminism is a given. Dissent is acceptable; disruption is not. Comments should pertain to the thread topic. Obnoxious, insulting, abusive, and threatening comments are unacceptable.

You are using the new servers! | About | Privacy/Terms | Help/FAQs | Blog | Store | APIs | TinyCat | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | Common Knowledge | 114,378,548 books! | Top bar: Always visible