The Second Sex by Simone de BeauvoirRead about the other books on the list.
“Unsatisfied, cold, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir of the reaction to the second volume of The Second Sex. This outpouring of angst – which included the Vatican placing the book on its banned list – was brought on by De Beauvoir’s frank discussion of female sexuality, including lesbianism and cross-dressing. But there is so much more to The Second Sex, which asks the most fundamental question in the whole of feminism: what does it mean to be a woman?
De Beauvoir rejects biological essentialism – a woman is more than a womb – and instead investigates the nebulous quality of femininity, leading to her most famous dictum: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Woman, she observes, is the Other, the exception, the oddity – allowing Man to become the unexamined default form of humanity. De Beauvoir compares women’s oppression to that of Jews, the US’s black population, the proletariat and colonised nations, but she concludes that sexism is a unique force because women live with, even love, their oppressors.
From these theoretical underpinnings, she offers a panoramic sweep through women’s lives: work, motherhood, representation in literature, economic independence, sexuality, ageing and the boredom of cleaning the dust behind the wardrobe. (Housework “is holding away death but also refusing life”, she observes, which is my new go-to explanation for the filthiness of my fridge). De Beauvoir’s prose is piercing, aquiline; she is unapologetic about its intellectual demands. Her answers are simple, but endlessly elusive: women must be educated like men, paid like men, and given unfettered access to birth control and divorce. Women must be treated like full human beings, as men are.
Unsurprisingly given its scope and force, The Second Sex was a publishing sensation. It sold 22,000 copies in its first week in Paris in 1949, and its English translation was an immediate bestseller in America. It has influenced feminists as divergent as Betty Friedan, Judith Butler and Audre Lorde. Its reputation has survived better than many of the second wave works it inspired, although in a 2010 review of the new translation, Francine du Plessix Gray criticised De Beauvoir’s “paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood... [which] is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious.” Modern feminism is also less judgmental about any woman who adopts stereotypically feminine mannerisms or clothing – such as “fragile” high heels that “doom her to impotence”. But De Beauvoir was well aware of the contradictions and complications of her own position, hence the epigram to the second volume, from her lover Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Dirty Hands: “Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else.”
The Second Sex is among Belinda Jack's five best literary counterblasts against misogyny and Lisa Appignanesi's top 10 books by & about Simone de Beauvoir.