Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) is a seminal text for both feminist philosophy and second wave feminism. In her "Introduction: What Is A Woman?," Beauvoir provides us with a philosophical framework for understanding women's political, economic, and social subjugation as a class. This is the subject of the latest thinkPhilosophy podcast session (take a listen here), which I elaborate upon below.
Everywhere Beauvoir turns, she notes that there is great controversy surrounding women in society: Women are disappearing; they aren't what they used to be; women have lost their way. Instead of engaging in these debates, Beauvoir attempts to get under the assumptions animating them by asking after theconcept of woman. There are two kinds of answers that are commonly given to the question and Beauvoir will show us why neither is sound.
The most common answer to the question, "What is a woman?," is that "woman is womb," a reduction of women to her biological capacity for reproduction. Beauvoir argues against this particular answer because, if true, then being a woman is a matter of kind, not of degree. If woman is womb, then you either have a womb/are a woman, or you are not. There would be no room for judgements over the quality or degree of women in society, and no controversy or need to investigate the matter.
The second kind of answer commonly given to our question identifies women with a feminine ideal - the "eternal feminine." But like a Platonic Form, femininity does not exist on earth except as embodied in imperfect women - it has no independent, real existence. If this is the case, if woman equals femininity, then logically speaking there are no real women, since no flesh and blood woman could ever achieve the ideal. Moreover, being a woman is not something that is finally achieved - as in waking up one morning realizing that one has accomplished the goal and if finished, moving on to other goals. As Beauvoir later writes, "one is not born, but becomes a woman," a quote we will examine in an upcoming podcast session and blog post.
[A note about language: Beauvoir here makes a distinction that is more easily made in English - that between sex and gender. Sex is identified with biology and gender with cultural norms, like the elusive feminine ideal. This sex/gender distinction will become the basis for most second wave feminist analyses and is key to understanding the modern feminist movement.]
Woman as Other
So if woman cannot be conceived of as womb and reduced to her reproductive function, nor as an essentialized femininity, then what is woman? Beauvoir asks her question anew, now that she has cleared the ground of common but mistaken approaches to the question. Her answer is that woman is Other with respect to man, but as to what kind of Other woman is, that is yet to be determined.
She is not like those subjugated economically by a rich and powerful minority, as is the case with the working class. Neither is she like a minority population subjugated by a majority, as is the case with racialized oppression. In fact, she is neither a clear minority nor majority, so her asymmetrical relation to man cannot be accounted for quantitatively. Unlike these others, women are not able to form a sense of themselves as a separate group with specific interests since they are not physically segregated, living in close quarters or in proximity to each other. They are spread out amongst men in society, and so are physically segregated from each other.
In fact, women are more likely to identify with the men of their class, race, or religion rather than identifying with other women of different classes, races, or religions. In what is a controversial moment of this introduction, Beauvoir says that women may even pleased with the role of the Other that is assigned to them from without, and that their dependence on men for everything means that it is difficult for women to imagine that their interests may lie elsewhere.
Woman's is Other in a more primordial, metaphysical sense than the examples above, where the origin of oppression can be traced back to a moment in history, to human events and actions - e.g., the rise of capitalism or the transatlantic slave trade. The origins of sexual difference fall outside of history, or are ahistorical, which point to this being difference in a metaphysical sense - a difference that structures reality and subjectivity itself.
According to Beauvoir's analysis, woman must be an Other in the sense described by Hegel in his master/slave dialectic: the concept of woman is constituted as the "slave" consciousness to man's "master" consciousness. I will explain this in more detail in the next podcast, which will be on Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), but here is the skinny: woman must come to realize man's dependence on her (that man/woman are co-constituted, asymmetrical differences) and come to make a counter claim. That is, when women assert that men are Other with respect to them, then a woman's standpoint will emerge to make women's economic, political, and social projects possible.
The power of this analysis has been proven by time, and it has also generated numerous critiques of Beauvoir and of feminism itself. Can you think of what critiques could be made of these ideas, so far? We will return to this text in a couple weeks, so stay tuned for more!
Like any other powerful texts, Beauvoir's The Second Sex is a platform from which liberal feminism, marxist/socialist feminism, radical feminism, continental feminism, and feminist schools begin. Liberal feminists see individualism, choice, and equality at the heart of Beauvoir's existential analysis. Marxist and Socialist feminists see an argument about women needing to come to consciousness as a class; Radical feminists hear an argument about sexuality being the key to women's oppression. And continental feminists read her as making an argument about sexual difference as primordial difference. In short, the roots of nearly all second wave feminist tendencies can be traced back to Beauvoir's The Second Sex.