“The Second Sex” (the original title is “Le Deuxiéme Sexe”) by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908- 186) is one of the first books of Feminist Theory. A book written by a woman to give voice to all the women – she was one of the few ones that could study at university and reach the position of Professor. The essay was published in 1949 and became suddenly a success: only in its first week, it sold in France 22,000 copies! As almost all the revolutionary books, “The Second Sex” was also largely criticized and perceived as dangerous – the Vatican State banned it from its libraries.
What is the main idea of “The Second Sex”? “A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male” writes de Beauvoir “But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’”. The French philosopher underlines how the female gender is perceived as “the Other”. Women are always defined in relations to men, because they live in a world thought and ruled by men. That our world is thought in masculine terms is quite evident. There are proofs all around us.
De Beauvoir criticizes the way that myth, literature, psychoanalysis, and philosophy describe woman (for instance, Freud believed that girls felt envy because they do not have a penis and that the clitoris was only a penis that does not grow up). Today it is common to use the expression “Male Gaze”, which indicates the representation of women in movies, marketing, etc., by a masculine perspective, where the woman is defined as an “object” of heterosexual male desire.
The language, is another example. In a lot of languages, in order to define a group of people where there are men, women, non-binary, etc., we use the word declined at the masculine gender. In German, “Menschen” means “men” or simply “people”. In Spanish, “los padres” means “the parents” (where “padre” is “father”, and “madre” is mother”). In Italian, if I have e.g. three sisters and only one brother, I have to say “I have four brothers” (“ho quattro fratelli”). In English, “mankind” is the equivalent of “humankind”; but nobody says “womankind”.
Therefore, as de Beauvoir pointed out about 70 years ago, woman is “The Other”, “The Second” gender, whereas man is “the Subject”, “The Absolute”.
But why, she asks, women have not been able come out of this condition of subordination for all these centuries? Although women are half of the population on earth, it is really difficult to reach emancipation. In fact, women have social and emotional bound with their oppressors. “Bourgeois women solidarize more with bourgeois men rather than with proletarian women; white women solidarize more with white men rather than with black women”, and so on.
“The Second Sex” invites all women to be aware of their own position in the society, and after that to unionize and fight for equality. That’s why it is worth to read it.
S. de Beauvoir, Il Secondo Sesso, Il Saggiatore, 2016.