“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, argues Simone de Beauvoir in her magnum opus, The Second Sex. Womanhood as a social and cultural construct seems obvious today, but back in 1949, when the book was published, her ideas were rated highly controversial. As a matter of fact, the Vatican put The Second Sex on its list of prohibited books. With her famous one-liner, de Beauvoir extended the existentialist notion – formulated by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifelong partner – “Existence precedes essence” to the domain of feminism. Sartre – one of the leading figures of existentialism – thought that the mere being (existence) of a thing is more fundamental than its nature (essence); by this, he meant that the purpose of an individual is not predetermined. Simply put: the human being does not possess any inherent identity, thus rendering it inevitably free. Therefore, one must seek and create one’s meaning and purpose oneself.
By integrating this Sartrean existentialist concept into her own philosophy, de Beauvoir not only pioneered written feminist theory but she was the first theorist to write down that sex does not determine gender, which is still a relevant discourse today.
Building on Hegelian philosophy, de Beauvoir says that the self needs otherness to define itself as a subject. She uses this concept to explain the repression of womanhood: without a woman to rule over, being a man is not possible. Thus, a woman is not considered as an autonomous being; she is not defined by herself or in relation to herself, but by relation to men.
Even though, one might think that the otherness of womanhood has its roots in biological differences, cultural and historical reasons are much more significant. The categorization of females as others started in prehistoric matriarchal clans and communities. These societies – mostly agricultural – handled children as the most valuable asset they have; they were the means of perpetuating the community. Since females were the ones able to give birth, they were at the top of the hierarchy. Females were powerful, their children inherited their clan name – in contrast to the norm today -, and their communities worshipped female gods, such as Ishtar in Babylon or Gaea, the Greek earth goddess. Thus, it is not a surprise that in these periods many myths got created about females and their power; women were feared, they became the mysterious, they became the “Other”.
As humans became more adventurous, they started to expand their territories and conquer other communities; patriarchy took over. While men were fighting wars, women stayed at home, hence their value in society decreased. As de Beauvoir would formulate it: women fell into immanence – a static, uncreative, and repetitive yet mysterious role -, while men – the conquerors of the world – began to ascend into transcendence; the life of the initiator, the creative. This made men the active, and women the passive.
Property rights, inheritance laws, and the institution of marriage helped to perpetuate women as the “Other”. In contrast to earlier societies that held property communally, patriarchal ones glorified private property; families typically kept their properties within their circles, which meant that fathers passed their possessions on to their sons. Women got excluded from family lines; this reduced the nature of their being to an object. They were treated as assets; daughters were owned and controlled by their fathers, until their marriage, when their husband took over the rights for ownership and control.
Key actors of turning women into the “Other” were western religions: Judaism and Christianity. The tale of creation says that God formed Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden. As time went by, Adam got lonely, so God removed some of his ribs to create a companion – Eve – out of them. Later, Eve persuaded Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which made her responsible for the fall of man and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This story reduced women into mere flesh and sin. Flesh, that reproduces the original sin, making newborn girls guilty even before birth.
As the Christian thinker, Tertullian (c.160-c.225) put it: “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man Adam. Because of what you deserve – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.”
It is easy to think that women have a better life nowadays: men and women have almost equal rights in the west, and we live in a post-religious era. De Beauvoir says that the specter of immanence is still haunting them, however. Growing up as a female, you are constantly being taught how to act like a woman. As a child, you are given a doll that you play with. You make it look pretty, comb her hair and dress her up; you treat her as an object. When you go to school, you leave it at home, thinking about her waiting for you at home. While you are learning how to act like a woman and a mother, you do not even realize that you are internalizing and normalizing the male perspective. By the time you grow up, you have learned to accept to be treated as an object whose sole function is to look out for children and appeal to the male gaze.
Stuck in their role of immanence, women have limited opportunities to create something themselves. They take care of their children and husbands, isolated from society, far away from the chance of self-expression and being creative. While taking care of a family might offer some fulfillment, once women learn that their partners and children can live without them, they get overwhelmed by the feeling of loneliness and isolation.
As girls become women, they began to dress up in a way that appeals to the male gaze. They think that wearing short skirts, high-heels, and skimpy lingerie makes them feel good when the truth is rather that they feel desired by the male gaze, which is forcing them to feel desired in the first place. As they get older, appealing to the male gaze becomes even more critical. Women dress as they used to when they were young, trying to hold on to their fading desirability, which is the essence of their womanhood. In contrast, as men grow older, their manliness and agency grow with them. This amplifies the differences between man and women as time passes by. Women can fight this by letting themselves grow old, and let their once blooming desirability fade. By this, they can overcome womanhood and escape the male gaze. This is possible because older women do not have to take care of their children anymore and they cease to be an object of desire. Unfortunately, this usually happens too late, when they have no real opportunities to exercise their agency and live a liberated life anymore.
As women get older, they internalize the male gaze, and they start to justify their role as a sexual object and their subjugation by thinking that they are being loved by men. When a girl realizes that she is different from boys and she can never attain their position in society, she starts to desire what seems to her the next best thing: being loved by men. In her prison as a mother and a wife, she convinces herself that the love surrounding her is worth all the suffering. Sometimes they turn into an object of desire even in their own eyes and fall in love with the picture of their womanhood. They see themselves as objects, which is mere flesh and beauty, nothing more.
The Second Sex remains to be an essential work of feminist theory. De Beauvoir demands equality between women and men, and she wants us to strive for changes in the law and education to achieve this goal. She maintains her existentialist view, however; she says that every individual of all genders, races, classes, and religions must fight for their own purpose and their own liberation, and they have to deal with the responsibility that comes with it.
De Beauvoir is often criticized and called a white feminist for being overly western focused. Even though she mentions the issues of race, ethnicity, class, non-heteronormatve sexualities, and their oppression, de Beauvoir fails to give an in-depth analysis of them. She is not clear about intersectionality, which is a theoretical framework that attempts to explain how the oppression of different social strata is intertwined, and why they cannot be studied separately.
Nonetheless, I sustain my opinion that The Second Sex is an essential and necessary read. The main takeaway can be summarized with her famous quote that was mentioned before: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. As a society, we need to learn that womanhood is a social, historical, and cultural construct. In fact, all genders are. If we want to liberate ourselves, we need to escape the prison of traditional gender roles and of the gender binary. Otherwise, our purpose in society will remain reduced to the reproduction of the workforce and perpetuating the patriarchy.