Step 2 Part 1 Fact Sheet 7: the second sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe) is a 1949 book by French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in which she discusses the treatment of women throughout history and in her own time.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This is Beauvoir’s most famous quote. In the book she contrasts a girl’s upbringing with a boy’s, who at age 3 or 4 is told he is a “little man.” A girl is taught to be a woman, and her “feminine” destiny is imposed on her by society.

De Beauvoir asks: “What is woman?” She argues that the man is considered the ‘normal’ human being. In this way, the views of what a woman is, how she should behave or what she should look like, are determined by male standards.

De Beauvoir relates the history of women’s suffrage, and writes that women like Rosa Luxemburg and Marie Curie demonstrate that the idea of women's inferiority to men is false. What these examples also show is that history itself, being mainly written by men, pays little attention to brilliant women. In this way we get the impression that men have always been superior to women.

According to De Beauvoir, while a woman knows how to be as active, creative and effective as a man, her situation keeps her being useful, preparing food, clothes, and lodging. 

De Beauvoir thinks it is pointless to try to decide whether a woman is superior or inferior, and that it is obvious that a man’s situation in society is “infinitely preferable.” She writes: “For a woman there is no other way out than to work for her liberation.”

In her conclusion, De Beauvoir looks forward to a future in which women and men are equals, something the “Soviet revolution promised”, but did not ever deliver.

The first French publication of The Second Sex in 1949 sold around 22,000 copies in a week. It has since been translated into 40 languages. The Vatican placed the book on its list of prohibited books.

The Second Sex is regarded as a major work of feminist philosophy and the starting point of second-wave feminism. (source)