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The Second Sex
The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
Knopf, 2010
832 pp., 40.00

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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

The Second Sex, the Second Time Around

A new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking book.

It's a bit like getting into a time machine to re-read a controversial book from one's undergraduate days in the 1960s. Knopf, publisher of the first English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's feminist treatise The Second Sex, sponsored a new translation to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the book's appearance in France in 1949. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (both American scholars working in France) spent three years doing it, with admirable results in terms of completeness, readability, and fidelity to Beauvoir's existentialist framework and writing style. Actually, one should use the term "book" advisedly, since the original appeared in French as two consecutive volumes. Moreover, Knopf's 1953 one-volume translation was a considerably abridged version of the two French texts. It was undertaken by Smith College biologist Howard M. Parshley, who had done respectable translations of French scientific papers but knew little about philosophy and thus mistranslated a number of key existentialist concepts, in addition to cutting about a third of the original text—which its American publisher judged to be repetitive and overly zealous in its inclusion of long quotations from Beauvoir's primary sources.

Whether read in its abridged or now-complete translation, The Second Sex is an encyclopedic survey and critique of the received view of women in Western thought just prior to the second wave of feminism, whose advent in the 1960s it unquestionably facilitated. Combing the archives of history, biology, psychoanalysis, and Marxist economics in the first volume, Beauvoir acknowledged the contribution of each to women's situation while refusing to be seduced into reductionistic conclusions on the basis of any of them. Human beings are above all meaning-producing agents, she insisted, and while women—like men—are undoubtedly affected by their biology, psychology, and material situation, they are much more influenced by the myths and ideologies woven around these constraints. These she illustrated in a further survey of several male literary figures, French and English. In the second volume she switched to a developmental and phenomenological approach in order to describe and deconstruct reigning bourgeois norms for femininity. These included training girls to adopt a largely passive, ornamental mode of being, teaching them all the wrong things about sex, and constraining them as wives, mothers, and older women. Religion—whose Catholic pieties Beauvoir learned and then rejected as a teenager—was, with few exceptions, seen as just another of the many institutional architects of feminine false consciousness.

All of which helps explain why working through the new, unabridged 800-page translation often felt like running a marathon, despite its improvements over Parshley's earlier effort. But two things made the exercise more than merely worthwhile, the first of which was reading the volume in tandem with Deirdre Bair's excellent biography of Beauvoir.[1] That work itself runs to just over 700 pages, but is so well-crafted and balanced in its assessment of Beauvoir's legacy (Bair wrote it with her subject's blessing and cooperation in the form of many interviews in the last years of her life) that it makes The Second Sex come alive in its historical context. The other was that my reading of both coincided with historical reminders that were (dare I say?) existentially meaningful.

One of these was the 40th anniversary, in May 2010, of the Kent State University shootings. At that school, as at others in the United States, massive protests had been mounted against the invasion of Cambodia by U.S. troops crossing over from Vietnam in May 1970. The Ohio governor's response was to send the National Guard to the Kent State campus, where, in a panic, they fired on unarmed students, leading to four deaths that stunned the entire nation. I was a graduate student at the time, a veteran reader of the first English edition of The Second Sex, and a member of the nascent feminist caucus at Northwestern University, where the resulting protests shut down normal academic activities for several days. Instead of regular classes, there were "teach-ins" presided over by a variety of faculty and student anti-war activists. I will never forget sitting in the front row of a crowded lecture theater with some other women doctoral students when the male undergraduate who was organizing the event up on the stage announced that they needed someone to take notes on the proceedings. Spotting another of our woman colleagues sitting on the side of the stage among several men, he thrust a clipboard and pen at her and said, "Here—you take notes." Without any mutual prompting, and with less than a second's delay, the women in the front row shouted in unison, "Don't do it, Beatrice!" Beatrice, I am happy to report, dropped the pen like a hot potato, and after about half a minute of stunned silence, another male student shuffled awkwardly forward, mumbling, "Alright, OK—I'll take notes," though he said it with a distinctly martyred air, picking up the pen and clipboard as if both were slightly polluted.

The older Beauvoir would have recognized this as a classic moment of bad faith on the part of the men. Reflecting on student demonstrations in France in the 1960s, she commented, not long before her death in 1986, that militant French feminism

grew directly from the '68 demonstrations … when the women discovered that the men of '68 did not treat them as equals. Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soapboxes and the podiums, but women were in the kitchen making coffee. So they got fed up with this, because they were intelligent women …. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later …. [Women] could no longer sit waiting patiently for men to change society for them because it would never happen unless they did it for themselves.[2]

I say "the older Beauvoir" because it took her a long time—even after the publication of The Second Sex—to become politically engaged, either directly or indirectly, in feminist causes. Born in Paris in 1908 to a politically conservative, bourgeois Catholic family, she was destined to grow up in a tight web of Catholic girls' school education (leading either to wifehood or the convent), an arranged and suitably dowered marriage, followed by a life of middle-class motherhood and domesticity: sans franchise (women were not added to the French voting rolls until 1947); sans economic independence (under the Napoleonic Code, wives could not buy or sell property, or do any waged work without their husbands' consent); and sans birth control (those bidets in French bathrooms were meant to circumvent such restrictions under the guise of more hygienic bottoms). The masculine, she later wrote, has been historically constructed for doing, the feminine for mere being.

Destiny, however, does not always work the way the middle class assumes it will. While she was still an infant, Beauvoir's banker grandfather lost all his financial assets, creating a domino effect of barely genteel poverty for his children and grandchildren. No dowry meant no prospects for a bourgeois marriage, for either Simone or her younger sister, Hélène. The family did manage to send the two girls to French convent schools, where Simone quickly discovered that she'd rather think than learn to flirt or pray. Her lack of dowry thus became the lemon from which she would make lifelong intellectual lemonade. Graduating with honors in mathematics and philosophy (yes, philosophy was and is taught both in religious and secular French high schools), she soon passed the rigorous oral and written exams to enter the University of Paris at the Sorbonne, where she was the contemporary of intellectual luminaries like future anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and budding philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, both students at the nearby élite (and all-male) École Normale Supérieure.

Beauvoir and Sartre, later nicknamed "the elves" because of their diminutive stature (she was just over, and he just under, five feet) and their Peter Pan-like lifestyle, were soon recognized as a powerhouse intellectual duo, and when they took the torturous agrégation finals in 1929, Beauvoir became at 21 the youngest person ever to pass the exam in philosophy—doing so, moreover, even though as a woman she had never been an official École Normale student. She came second to the 24-year-old Sartre by less than a fiftieth of a point, such was the hair-splitting nature of the evaluation process. After much agonizing, the examination committee (I'm not making this up) decided that since Sartre was the registered Normalien and he had, moreover, failed the exam the year before, he should be ranked first.

The two become lovers (though decidedly not monogamous ones) as well as intellectual sparring partners. They now had the credentials to become government-sinecured teachers—a significant milestone for Beauvoir, as it released her from economic dependence on her family and gave her (like Virginia Woolf, whom she would cite more than once in The Second Sex) "a room of her own" in which to nourish her intellectual gifts. And "room" was the right term: in their joint rejection of bourgeois values, she and Sartre never married, never had children, and stayed for much of their adulthood in separate modest hotel accommodations, conducting their intellectual life in cafés, summer retreat houses, and in France's Bibliotheque Nationale. This they combined with their responsibilities as philosophy professors at separate, single-sex lycées until both became famous enough as writers to support themselves without teaching.

Much ink has been spilled arguing about whether Beauvoir was more Sartre's intellectual dog's body than an independent thinker blazing her own trail. Up through the end of World War II, she certainly made it her business to be the editor, clarifier, and disseminator of his stream of existentialist writings—even ghost-writing some of his journal articles. "So what?" she would say. "The articles had to be written; what does it matter whose name was on them?" Yes, she acknowledged, she was intelligent—but Sartre was a genius, and if even his most brilliant male colleagues recognized his superiority, why shouldn't she? It was only much later in her life—when she began to connect with feminist activists at home and abroad—that she admitted she had contentedly embraced the role of token woman (a term that didn't exist in any language before the 1960s) in the male-dominated French intellectual scene. And the names the French press applied to her seem to underscore that self-assessment: she was variously referred to as Notre Dame de Sartre, La Grande Sartreuse, and La Mère Castor ("Mother Beaver"). Indeed, she was such an organized and tireless worker on so many fronts—writing, editing, teaching, meddling, mentoring—that Sartre himself called her "Castor" (not Simone) for the fifty years that they remained a professional couple.

Their relational lives were also something less than symmetrical. Sartre accumulated a string of female acolytes/lovers while Beauvoir strayed less often—and when she did, she always arranged her love affairs (e.g., forming an alliance with one of Sartre's younger male students, even as she brokered his marriage to one of her own former pupils) around her self-imposed practical and intellectual obligations to Sartre. At the time of his death Sartre had, by his own admission, nine other women in his life besides "Castor," with some of whom he and she had formed earlier ménages à trois—or more. Beauvoir even recruited younger female lovers for Sartre from among her own adoring high school students. If the clinical term "enmeshment" had been available back then, it would certainly have applied to this shifting patchwork of cross-sex and within-sex alliances, stretched across an archipelago of Paris hotel rooms.

In later life, Beauvoir came to regret the pain that she and Sartre inflicted, in the name of "radical freedom," through these highly asymmetrical experiments in free love. But even as they determined to shock the bourgeoisie with an in-your-face defiance of all its norms, it's amazing how much they retained of its symbolic, and even ethical, trappings. Sartre, who was less driven by lust than by a craving for constant admiration, would, as one of his colleagues put it, seduce young women by explaining their souls to them, then add them to "the family" (as he and Beauvoir called their lifelong, unwieldy entourage) while paying the hotel bills and trying vainly to keep peace among its warring factions. Beauvoir, for her part, more and more treated Sartre as a brilliant but hapless child who couldn't survive without her practical and professional ministrations.

This did not stop her from—indeed, it probably heightened her susceptibility to—falling head over heels into what she described as "a beautiful, corny love story" during her first visit to America, where she was invited to lecture in 1947 as a rising novelist and essayist increasingly distinct from Sartre. The object of her (eagerly reciprocated) passion was the Chicago author Nelson Algren, best remembered for his soon-to-be-published and much-feted novel The Man With the Golden Arm. For the next three years, they would exchange transatlantic visits—punctuated by hundreds of letters—and call each other "Frog wife" (a nod to her nationality) and "Crocodile husband" (a reference to Algren's toothy grin). Even after the affair ended—among other things, he could not countenance permanently leaving Chicago nor she Paris, let alone Sartre—Beauvoir would wear Algren's silver ring on her right hand till the day she died.

Corny love story aside, Algren's influence was one of the reasons why The Second Sex seems in many places to have a distinctly American cast. He introduced Beauvoir to the complexities of race in the United States, about which the nation as a whole had even less critical awareness at the time than it did about gender. Then the Swedish sociologists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal came to study and write about it in the early 1940s. [3] In a famous appendix to the resulting book, they drew up a series of comparisons between the "castes" of race and gender in America: women and "negroes" were equally branded as childlike, irrational, intuitive, sneaky, and vain. These, concluded the Myrdals, are adaptations developed by all disempowered groups, and thus have nothing to do with any unchanging essence of race or gender. Armed with these insights, Beauvoir had the scaffolding for her analysis of the second sex. Aside from her friendship in Paris with the African American expatriate writer Richard Wright, she knew little about black-white relations—but she certainly remembered what had happened to Jews in France during World War II. "The black, the Jew, and the woman, she concluded,'' writes Judith Thurman in her introduction to the new translation, "were objectified as the Other in ways that were both despotic and insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliché ('the eternal feminine'; 'the black soul'; 'the Jewish character') that served as a rationale for their subjugation."

In the feminist decades following its publication, The Second Sex was often criticized for laying out—in spades—the problematic situation of women without advancing any clear, structural solutions. From one point of view, this might not matter, since almost faster than you can say "denominationalism" the feminist movement started producing offshoots—Marxist, socialist, lesbian, psychoanalytic, radical, black womanist, evangelical, postmodern, and more—none of whose partisans were slow to voice their opinions about the shape of the cure. But in addition, Beauvoir has been taken to task for her apparent dread of bodily weakness. As feminist historian Rosemarie Tong has noted, the body is a problem for existentialists in that it is "a stubborn and unavoidable object limiting the freedom of each conscious subject."[4] And for women, Beauvoir believed, it is even more confining: "[T]o give birth and breast-feed are not activities, but natural functions," she wrote. "[T]hey do not involve a project, which is why the woman finds no motive there to claim a higher meaning for her existence; she passively submits to her natural destiny …. Man's case is radically different: Homo faber has been an inventor since the beginning of time." In her 1981 book Public Man, Private Woman, Jean Bethke Elshtain plausibly noted that writers like Beauvoir are unlikely to win many converts to feminism by likening pregnant women to vegetables, or by suggesting that their highest aspiration should be to think and act just like their (presumably more transcendent) brothers.[5]

These are legitimate criticisms, but they should not be allowed to gainsay Beauvoir's importance as a feminist role model. In the week following the publication in France of the first installment of The Second Sex, 22,000 copies were sold, and for the rest of her life Beauvoir would receive grateful letters from women of all classes and levels of education who had seen themselves—and along with that, other possibilities—in her writing, and this despite her highly academic prose and her apparent disparagement of (especially womanly) embodiment. Toward the end of The Second Sex, she would write about the education of young women that "it is not a question of abolishing the contingencies and miseries of the human condition in her, but of giving her the means to go beyond them." I was reminded of this when, earlier in the year, the international press was covering another historic landmark: a 16-year-old Australian girl, Jessica Watson, had just become the youngest person to sail around the world non-stop and unaided. Watson refused to see her accomplishment as heroic, calling herself "just a normal girl following her dream." She added that "people don't realize what young people, what 16-year-olds and girls, are capable of. It's amazing, when you take away these expectations, what you can do."[6]

Wherever she is, Simone de Beauvoir is probably smiling.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor and chair of the psychology department at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. She is also a charter member of the evangelical feminist organization Christians for Biblical Equality. Her most recent book is A Sword Between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates (Brazos Press).

1. Deirdre Bair, Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1990).

2. Deirdre Bair, interview with Simone de Beauvoir, "Women's Rights in Today's World," 1984 Britannica Book of the Year, p. 25 (quoted in Bair, Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 535-36).

3. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Harper, 1944).

4. Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Westview Press, 1998), p. 189.

5. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), Ch. 6.

6. The Guardian, May 10, 2010.

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