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Book review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir Book review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
by Joseph Gatt
2021-11-27 10:23:42
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Published in 1949, simply put, Simone de Beauvoir answers Sigmund Freud's question: who are women.

The book mixes descriptive accounts of the social and individual lives of women with literary accounts of the social and individual lives of women. That, along with legal and religious views on all matters pertaining to women.

sec0001_400_01The common thread of the book: men usually live their life cycles without having to worry about getting pregnant, without having to worry about “forced hangovers” once a month which is what menstruations really are. And men usually don't have to worry about becoming anyone's sex slave or domestic slave or domination within the household.

So women are mostly reacting on a daily basis, on an hourly basis to these threats.

The rest is womanhood on a large scale, and there are hundreds of different conditions women have faced throughout history, and face in modern times throughout cultural and geographic spheres.

The book is in two volumes. The first volume deals with the rural female condition, in history and in modern times. The second volume deals with the city-dwelling, urban, modern female condition.

Disclaimer. There are two common misperceptions of the book.

The first common misperception of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, among those who didn't read the book, is that it is a book on how women can enjoy sexual intercourse, gain more pleasure from sexual intercourse, or enjoy liberated sex. Nothing remotely resembles that kind of content in the book. It's not a book about sexual intercourse.

The second common misperception among those who didn't read the book is that it's a book about female liberation. A sort of activist manifesto on how women are oppressed and should be liberated, perhaps even dominate men. That's not what it is.

The book is intended for both men and women to better understand women, because cohabitation between men and women is an obligation, not just for the reproduction of the species, but also for social, moral and psychological support and wellbeing.

The book does not follow chronological or a clear thematic order. The book is mostly a series of several more or less unrelated ideas on who women are as a gender in the species.

The book contains perhaps several hundred ideas and notions of who women are. De Beauvoir does not specify her methodology, at times does not cite her sources. But, very clearly, the book is the result of at least a couple of decades of investigation.

Like myself, de Beauvoir lived through war and turmoil and probably lost a lot of her field notes and observations, which is why, like myself, de Beauvoir seems to mix memories with field observations with press sources with literary sources. And scarcity of time probably means she didn't have time to review her sources and cite them precisely. And that does not make the book less enjoyable or enlightening in any way. No book on gender studies comes remotely close to the richness in content you'll find in the two volumes of the book.

So I'll mention a few ideas that stuck with me in the book, and give a few examples of the ideas de Beauvoir puts forward.

One idea: throughout history, and in modern times, in most places, women are denied autonomy and independence. This means women are “owned” by a husband, by a family or by a group of people. And ownership also means women have to seek authorization for personal needs, including hygiene needs, medical needs, clothing needs or food needs, which can cause embarrassment among women.

Problem with lack of independence and freedom according to de Beauvoir: women are not given a shot at success. And de Beauvoir defines success as the ability for an individual woman to create or produce goods or services that can be useful to society and reach survival independence from providing those goods. So half the population is denied that possibility. But more importantly, individual women are denied to possibility of being productive economic agents, in exchange for which they can freely take care of their personal needs, including their intimate needs. Note that at the medical and hygienic level, men tend not to have the kind of pressing needs that women have.

One idea: most women (75% according to a few surveys done back then) wish they were men because they believe life would be easier if they were men. Only 1% men replied to the same survey that life would be easier for them if they were women.

Other idea: men are present figures, but mysterious and absent figures in women's worlds. The father is a mysterious and absent figure. Women seek to solve that mystery by trying to discover in their husbands what they could not understand about their fathers. But, very often, the husband is a secretive, absent figure that does not answer the questions surrounding the mysterious character of the father figure.

Other idea: women long for men. Women's literature tends to center around female characters who long for an absent lover, an absent husband, or an absent love interest. Women want the male figure to be present in the household.

Other idea: women are nurtured by women in childhood, which de Beauvoir believes is problematic. Women are often nurtured by their mothers and sisters in warm environments, and grow up to find husbands to be too energetic and heavy and cold when female nurturing tends to be softer and smoother and warmer.

Other idea: women often discover men as dominant, cold, aggressive figures early in adult life. Women then neglect their husbands/lovers to spend more time with women (sometimes going as far as lesbian relationships) to look for a warmer, softer environments. But women eventually grow on to need a more dominant figure and tend to try to spend more time with domineering men and to accept male domination.

Other idea: the female identity crisis (which Frantz Fanon, probably inspired by de Beauvoir, also discusses among colonized peoples). Women often fantasize about being men, and have their own ways of doing so. Some women become tom boys and spend lots of time with men, while other women try to be as attractive as possible in the male world through seductive means. Frantz Fanon makes the same argument about colonized people (Black or Muslim Africans) who often imitate the colonizers (French or British subjects) either by behaving the exact same ways (dress code, education, language), or by remaining true to their cultures but through seductive means (hospitality, being servants to people from the colonial metropolis etc.).

Other idea: De Beauvoir argues that women use sexual intercourse to empower men. That is, when men are too powerful, they get denied sex. When men have their moments of weakness, that's when women “give” sex to empower the weakened man. But weak men also get denied sex. It is those powerful men who are granted sex in times of declining power.

Other idea: one man can impregnate thousands of women, but women can only be impregnated by one man. So you often have men discuss social trends and what goes on in society. Women tend to prefer discussing social markers and high-class social distinctions. And women tend to care more to display high-class social markers and to make it clear that they are from the high class, because if they are going to be impregnated, better be by a man from the high class.

Subtle reference at de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre: de Beauvoir never really directly discusses her relationship with Jean Paul Sartre. But she does discuss, and at length, Leon Tolstoy's relationship with his wife Sofia Tolstoya. Sofia Tolstoya was perhaps just as gifted as Leon Tolstoy when it came to writing. But Leon Tolstoy's absence from the household, popularity, and Sofia being stuck with 12 children at home, meant that all of Sofia Tolstoya's writings dealt with Leon Tolstoy's absence, as she could not think of anything else or explore any other topic. A subtle hint at why de Beauvoir refused to marry or have children with Sartre.  

Another idea: in modern times, infidelity is a sign of misogyny in men and misandry in women. That is, men who hate women as a group, or women who hate men as a group, tend to be unfaithful to their spouses. Those who have marital problems, but no problems with men or women as a group, tend to prefer ending the relationship before moving on to another relationship. Problem is: misogynous men and misandrious women tend to refuse to end the relationship with their spouse, which, according to de Beauvoir, is a common cause for suicide attempts. Women tend to make more suicide attempts related to this specific cause, but men tend to be more successful at suicide attempts, thus the higher suicide rate among men. Again, according to de Beauvoir, the main reason for suicide attempts is a resentful husband or wife who refuses to separate, thus liberating their partner and allowing them to enter new relationships.

Maybe save the crime idea for last: in the female world, crime works a little differently from the male world. Most men start off either selling illegal substances, stealing, or fighting to protect gang members. Women on the other hand usually start off as prostitutes. In de Beauvoir's time there was no protected sex to speak of, so prostitutes often caught STDs on their first or second paid sexual encounter. And that often meant they had to quit prostitution and find other sources of revenue, and usually worked as drug mules or in illegal substance logistics, and were willing to take the risk.

In prison, most men face a world of alliances, rival gangs, fights and forced gay sex. According to de Beauvoir, the female prison world seems to have more inclusiveness in it. Lots of solidarity, female prisoners all united as one. Of course lots of lesbian sex, but also something those men don't have: apparently, in the female prison world, inflamed love letters are part of the game and are exchanged among female prisoners, as a way to cope with the harshness of prison life.

And, the story of women would be incomplete without ideas on women and mental illness. Of course, the great majority of women are mentally stable. But de Beauvoir argues that some women develop forms of narcissism in the sense that they want everyone to pay attention to them all the time. So they dress in ways to attract attention, behave in ways to attract attention, and act in ways that will get attention.

Such women often think that when people pay attention, the attention automatically results in positive feelings and praise. When praise does not come in as expected, such women often develop megalomania, delusions of persecution, erotomania (thinking that every man in the world wants to have sex with them, date them or marry them) and other such delusions. Some men argue that all women have these features of mental instability, but only a minority of women display such signs. And a minority of men also display such signs. And there is no evidence that neglect in childhood leads to such behavior. Many neglected children do not display such signs in adult life, while children from tight-knit families can display such signs. The reason de Beauvoir gives for these forms of mental illness is “the difficulty an individual can have in constructing her ego”.

 My opinion on the two volumes: women are complex, just as men are, just as society is, just as any scientific topic is. You can't define women using one catch phrase or one sentence. You can't have one equation of one formula that defines women.

Simone de Beauvoir draws a large portrait of women and the female condition. Two volumes, which add up in total to the same length as the Old Testament in the Bible, a long enough read. I do have the feeling that de Beauvoir could have written a third, fourth, fifth, sixth volume on the topic, which would have been just as fascinating, but as a reader I feel I would have had to take a pause for a year or two before reading the third volume, which is why it's a great thing that Simone de Beauvoir stopped after two long volumes on the topic.

So, there's the historical aspect, the philosophical aspect, the biological aspect, the psychological aspect, the social aspect, the political aspect and of course the erotic and relationship aspect to women, all covered in great length. In an odd contrast with a philosopher de Beauvoir is often associated with, Jean Paul Sartre is an existentialist (meaning that things exist but don't really exist) when de Beauvoir is clearly a “hardcore” (pardon the expression) humanist. So Sartre would almost go as far as deny the existence of human beings, when de Beauvoir puts the human condition all over the wall.

Of course, activists and feminists would be very disappointed if they read the book. Anti-feminists would also be very disappointed. The book is a very descriptive, scientific; tell it like you see it kind of account. What de Beauvoir basically does is put the female condition under the microscope and start describing exactly what she sees, with absolutely no value judgment.

And of course the great thing is that it's a never-ending conversation. The kind of book where you could never stop adding content.

Now to a couple of things that de Beauvoir did not discuss and that crossed my mind. Successful women. Perhaps because in 1949, when the book was published, successful women were mostly the daughters of very successful men, as in politicians of businesswomen. Or women who were successful in nightlife but kept a low profile in day time, as in artistic or literary figures.

But in modern times there have been quite a few self-made successful women, although too few for my money.

Sometimes those successful women get lucky with social circumstances. Margaret Thatcher married a rich man, but a very shy and introverted man. So she did all the talking at social events, and answered all the questions directed at her husband, and that's how she grew to become who she became.

Sometimes it's political circumstances. Mary Robinson, a Catholic Irish woman, was told to get good grades and shut up at school by her conservative Catholic society. But Mary Robinson found out that Protestant circles welcomed talkative women, so she went to Trinity College Dublin (a Protestant university) and did all the talking in male circles. So Mary Robinson was one of those rare talkative and assertive Catholic women in conservative Ireland, and, as technically the leader should be a Catholic, she had both the Catholic background and the Protestant extroversion and female assertiveness which helped her become who she became.

Then you had Golda Meir, a socialist in anti-Communist America. They say McCarthyism gave France singer Joe Dassin (whose parents escaped to France due to McCarthyism) and Golda Meir to Israel. Socialist movements being marginal in the United States, Golda Meir could participate at socialist meetings as an equal, because there were too few socialists at the time. So she learned fundraising, community organizing, and rhetoric. That, and her background as a teacher in Milwaukee under constant threat of being fired for being a socialist, led Golda Meir to move to Israel and eventually lead the nation later in her life.

Of course, couldn't help thinking about the Kama Sutra, another one of the world's most misunderstood books. The Kama Sutra is not a guidebook for couples, but for matchmakers.

Although there is one chapter on sexual intercourse, the Kama Sutra mainly deals with who should marry whom and how life organizes within the household. The Kama Sutra, for example, tells the matchmaker what kind of woman she should look for if a homeless man comes to her and asks her to find a match. And yes, in the Kama Sutra, there is a match for homeless men and for men with skin disease, but also from men from smaller families, larger families, rich men, men of modest means, farmers, craftsmen and so on.

The rest of the Kama Sutra is how the couple should behave within the household, who does what chores and activities, and yes, one chapter on how to have sex and when to have sex. But the Kama Sutra was not mentioned by de Beauvoir at any point in the two volume book.

The final thought that comes to mind is of course, Hannah Arendt. Arendt argues that there are two natures within the mind (or the soul). The “true” nature and the “fake” nature. Now Simone de Beauvoir discusses the true nature of womanhood, very true at that.

There's all sorts of evidence that point to the true nature in de Beauvoir’s work. Women tend to watch lots of soap operas, tend to “search” for what could be the ideal man, and the ideal version of the woman they could be. Men usually don't search for the ideal woman or the ideal version of themselves as deeply as women do. Men tend to go with the trends of the moment, women tend to dig deeper to try to find the true version of the ideal man and ideal woman.

And that's how, for example, women tend to be very much interested in the childhood of the people they meet, when men want to skip straight to what the guy did yesterday. Women tend to love gossip magazines to get a better picture of what household life and couple life is, men tend to be more into the sports section and want to find out who won the game last night.

But, Hannah Arendt tends to argue, women tend to cooperate more than men in totalitarian times with the “fake” nature of humanity that is imposed by totalitarian regimes. That is, if women meet a good man, and that the totalitarian regime says that good man is a terrible man, women will more readily say he's a terrible man, but more readily believe the true nature of the good man deep inside. Men, on the other hand, tend to absorb whatever propaganda they are being fed, without really trying to find the true nature of things. But men are more likely to stay neutral during sham trials and lynchings, when women are more likely to go with the official version during sham trials or lynchings, albeit with a few hints at the truth.  That's usually how it works.

I'll finish with a few myths.

-De Beauvoir does not address the topic of domestic violence.

-Sexual liberation is not really discussed.

-De Beauvoir does not make the argument that women should be paid for being housewives.

-De Beauvoir does not discuss marriage, or the necessity of marriage.

To put things simply. The book is about the nature of being a woman and confronting the outside world, without discussing all the social norms and customs related to being a woman. It's not about traditions, it's about the body and mind experience of womanhood.

There's so much more to the book. The kind of book that takes lots of time and patience to read. So if you're really curious about the inner nature of women, that would be a great read.

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