The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Background: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was an advocate of existentialism and a life-long partner of Jean-Paul Sartre. Her novels and analytic works explored the issues of how to find meaning in a world devoid of it. In addition to her ground-breaking work on the role of women in society, she wrote perceptively on the problem of aging in our culture: “it is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny” (The Coming of Age).
What is the “subject matter” of this essay, if one were to judge by the introductory paragraph? What does the phrase, tota mulier in utero, (211) mean? How does de Beauvoir’s use of it contribute to an understanding of what the essay intends to explore? What do her ruminations on “femininity” suggest?
What do you think of her characterization of American women? (212) [Keep in mind that this was written at mid-century and that she would be referring to educated, privileged (white) women who had written on the subject.]
When de Beauvoir begins to describe women in terms of “negativities” or “lacks” (213), what is she getting at? Why is she doing this? What does it highlight in her analysis?
A key feature of de Beauvoir’s analysis is that woman is “other” — a notion she derives from Lévinas. Notice how she introduces this conceptual tool (214) and pay close attention to the ways in which she develops it throughout the rest of the essay.
Why is it that in most contexts the “other” must be held with a certain kind of relativity, whereas in the case of the sexes it is not? (214f) What does it mean to say that this relationship seems to lack the contingency of historical events? (215) Do you agree with de Beauvoir that women lack the means for organization (216) to face the correlative unit appropriately? If so, what are the means that are lacking to women?
Has anything changed since de Beauvoir claimed that women have always been dependent on men? (217) Do you think that what she says about the dependent relationship as being satisfied with being the other (217) is still in effect to a greater or lesser extent in our society today?
Do you agree with de Beauvoir’s claim that the fact of women’s otherness should cast suspicion on all men’s claims to justify it? (218) Why or why not? What do you think of her analysis of the “equality in difference” (219) position? [Aside: the current Pope, John Paul II, argues that women are equal, but that men and women share “complementary” roles in society; does this appear analogous?]
How does de Beauvoir analyze the situation where men can simultaneously declare that all human beings (including women) are equal while denying that women in fact are the equals of men? (221) What do you think of this analysis? Can you identify situations in our society today which would tend to confirm or challenge her analysis?
What is the basis of de Beauvoir’s argument that only women are properly situated to assess the position of women in today’s society? (222) Does she in fact make such a claim? Do you agree that espousing a feminist’s position is better than trying to analyze this situation from a position without bias?
Is de Beauvoir herself a feminist or not?
Does this essay have anything to do with the overall aims of a course on “the intellectual journey”? Does it have any relationship to the themes of this section of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium? Explain.