Work place sexism, reproductive slavery, feminine destiny, and the continuous pursuit to try to please our male counterparts. First published in 1949, The Second Sex was a highly controversial novel, which landed itself on The Vatican’s list of prohibited books. Unfortunately, it has aged very well even 69 years after its French publication. With similarities reaching the present day, the fight for female liberation continues with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the advances in abortion rights in Republic of Ireland, just this year.
This book is not only a cornerstone to second-wave feminist critique, but also a solid foundation to begin with if you want a better understanding of the western feminist movement.
Beauvoir asks the question that is seemingly simple but proves difficult to answer—“What is a woman?”
Beauvoir writes about the difficulties that the ‘female’ must ‘woman and unwoman’ herself to survive in the separate male and female spaces. Women must exist as walking contradictions within the patriarchal society: as either the “slut” or the “virgin”, and either ‘the working, emotionless woman’ or the ‘domesticated housewife’. Womanhood requires so much costume change and emotional labour, that it results in the inability to be able to authentically find ourselves and established our own identities.
Beauvoir also described the work place remains inhibiting to women, due to the pay gap and what is argued to be an inferiority complex. This may explain why many women strive to please male counterparts and shy away from reaching their ambitions and taking on more leadership roles. Women must learn to give themselves permission, they must take advantage of their social advancements, and constantly push out the socially submissive roles.
Whilst Beauvoir explores many ideas regarding her initial question, she does not provide a straight-forward answer, instead, she leaves it up to the readers to come up with their own subjective thoughts. This could lead one to reach a possible conclusion: that we could not possibly ever provide a singular answer. This leaves women with an exciting alternative: to be whatever they want to be.
Beauvoir acknowledges the progress that has been made, but she still highlights the torment every woman must face on a daily basis. The message at the beginning of this book is clear and prevalent to this day – strides have been fought and made, yet there is still much work to be done.