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The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
832 pp., 53.17
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen
The Second Sex, the Second Time Around
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 ...