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Reading The Second Sex in the Age of #MeToo

Where are we coming from, and where do we go?

In the firestorm of debates about the implications of #MeToo, feminist activists and commentators have found themselves circling around the definitions of a handful of essential terms: rape, harassment, assault, consent. We have seen the word “pleasure” disentangled, and the word “inappropriate” expanded. We have discussed power and victimhood, empowerment and solidarity. We have claimed that time is up for sexual harassers. Despite ongoing debates about the boundaries of harassment and consent, it seems that supporters of #MeToo activism have come to at least a tacit consensus that a) there is a problem b) that the problem is men’s power over women, specifically in the workplace and c) that this problem manifests for women in everyday experiences of harassment, abuse, and violence. What is less clear is at once the origins of this problem, and its long-term solutions. For the moment, short-term solutions have been the movement’s primary gain. Harassers and abusers have been fired from prominent positions of authority and publicly humiliated. They have offered public apologies that, although often misguided and insufficient, have helped give fuel to the continued legitimacy of the movement. More and more women, especially those with privileged access to the media, have found platforms to speak out against their abusers.

If the movement, however, is to have a lasting impact on the way American society approaches sex and sexuality, it must widen its scope — not only to encompass a wider array of activities that do not fall so neatly in “yes means yes” definitions of consent (as we have seen in the case of Aziz Ansari), but also to build a road-map toward profound and effective cultural change. The argument for cultural change is not a new one, nor is it exactly absent from the movement. Plenty of activists and feminist theorists have critiqued the over-sexualization of women’s bodies in modern media culture, the gratuitousness of sexual violence in television and film, and the unrealistic sexual expectations set by pornography. A new generation of feminists is still in the process of formulating their own theory of the origins of this sexualized culture, and their own vision of a feminist future. This new wave of feminist reckoning leaves one hungry for a clearer sense of continuity and rupture: what (unfinished) feminist projects from the past are we still building on, and which projects have (rightly) been abandoned?

One way to begin answering these questions is to take stock of the theories we, as feminists, have inherited from our predecessors. As Lindy West argued in her recent op-ed in the New York Times, “the notion of affirmative consent did not fall from space in October 2017 to confound well-meaning but bumbling men; it was built, loudly and painstakingly and in public, at great personal cost to its proponents, over decades.” Indeed, the culture of male sexual license that feminists are now challenging has been debated and contested for decades, even centuries. Though there are many ways one might approach an analysis of this lineage, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is certainly a respectable place to startPublished in French in 1949, and in English translation in 1953, Beauvoir’s 800-page feminist tome has become one of the foundational texts of contemporary feminism. It remains instructive not only for its still pertinent arguments about the social construction of gender, but also for the arguments within it that now feel outdated. Its relationship to our own feminist present reveals the very sense of continuity and rupture I spoke of earlier — the distance between 1949 and 2018, but also the shocking resemblances.

I would not feel like a responsible reader — or commenter — of Beauvoir if I didn’t begin with an exposition of my own position vis-à-vis the topic at hand — my own “situation,” as Beauvoir might say. I am a 25 year-old white, middle-class American. I am a cis-gender queer woman. I was born and raised in the United States but I am a historian of France. Already, this short description gives us an idea of how much has changed since The Second Sex was first published. Then, the words “cis-gender” and “queer” would not have entered the description. I probably would not have described myself as “white.” If I had described my sexuality, I probably would have chosen “homosexual,” or maybe “lesbian.” Most likely, I would have described myself, simply, as an American woman.

To say that much has changed since The Second Sex was published is a serious understatement. What is more surprising, perhaps, is how much has not. When beginning the book, I just assumed that it would open with Beauvoir’s now famous epigram, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” I was surprised to discover that this pithy phrase does not appear until several hundred pages in. Instead, she begins by stating her own misgivings about writing a theory of women’s situation in the first place:

I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about. (p. 3)

To twenty-first century readers, this might seem like a surprising statement. Feminism, almost over? In light of the sexual revolution that would erupt twenty years later on the barricades of May ‘68, and the sweeping changes in legislation that would follow across much of the Western world, this statement seems almost laughable. But indeed, to many contemporary readers of The Second Sex, the battle of feminism had been “won.” French women had finally been granted the vote, they could serve in elected office, and they were technically equal to men in the eyes of the law. Feminism, in this narrow view, was primarily a political movement, one whose purpose was the enfranchisement of women and whose raison d’etre, after this feat was accomplished, seemed to have been largely extinguished. For Beauvoir, the goal was no longer to reform the political system to include women, but rather, to challenge the idea that inclusion in this system necessarily made women “free.”

For contemporary feminists, this goal remains essential. The #MeToo movement has made it clear that anti-discrimination legislation has not been enough to reform cultures of harassment in the workplace. We have seen first-hand that inclusion in institutions — whether political, social, or economic — has not produced freedom for women within these institutions, and thus, has missed the mark of full equality. Though we are still fighting battles for better legislation and for its consistent and equitable enforcement in the courts, the issue of sexual harassment runs deeper. What Beauvoir is calling for in The Second Sex is a re-examination, and reconstruction of what we would now call “gender” roles — of the socially assigned roles given to individuals based on their “sex.” Women, in Beauvoir’s formulation, have not been allowed full freedom as individuals precisely because their paths to productive work, creative output, and romantic fulfillment have been barricaded by male privilege and power.

Importantly, she is not blaming any singular system for creating this imbalance. Though she critiques capitalism for excluding, exploiting, and undervaluing women’s labor, she simultaneously pokes holes in Marxist materialist explanations of women’s oppression, with its overblown emphasis on private property as the “historic defeat of the female sex.” Though economic equality and women’s full integration into the workforce is a primary concern for Beauvoir, she contends that economic integration alone will not bring about women’s true liberation until “it brings about the moral, social, and cultural consequences it heralds and requires.” This is why, though she does devote a chapter to “The Point of View of Historical Materialism,” the bulk of the book is dedicated to the “Lived Experience” of women. Beginning in early childhood and continuing through adolescence, sexual initiation, marriage, and old age, she paints a startling portrait of woman’s thwarted freedom at every stage of her life. This portrait is complicated, problematic, and disproportionately weighted toward a white, French, bourgeois experience. In fact, Beauvoir would be accused by many second-wavers of being a “bourgeois maman.” Nonetheless, the very structure of Beauvoir’s book is an argument in itself: to truly rectify the manifold inequalities of women’s situation, we must zoom out from each specific moment of oppression, and attempt to trace the larger patterns that undergird her consistent exclusion from full public life and personal fulfillment.

Though political and economic changes must be made to facilitate women’s freedom, they cannot ensure it. For true freedom to be realized, according to Beauvoir, men and women must begin to recognize each other as “peers” — as two subjects who are able to come together in a spirit of selfless love and, ultimately, “brotherhood” (fraternité, in the original French) without attempting to possess each other. This is an existentialist vision of feminist freedom par excellence. Its emphasis is not on collective liberation, but on individual transcendence. Its goal is not to realize “justice” or “human rights” but to affirm that “being a human being is infinitely more important than all the singularities that distinguish human beings.” It is not a positivist argument for a pre-existing, natural ethic of equality, but a philosophical argument for a future-focused, culturally determined definition of freedom that does not capitulate either to “nature” or to past cultures that have defined “freedom,” or “women,” differently.

There are useful continuities to be drawn, then, from Beauvoir’s theory of women’s situation. It helps us unravel the deeper causes of surface-level eruptions of male privilege and power, and it offers a way forward that emphasizes the structural barriers to women’s self-actualization. And there are, also, necessary ruptures with Beauvoir’s formulation. For one, her articulation of women and men as “peers,” though emphasizing a common human need for “dignity” in the pursuit of desire, relies heavily on a heterosexist vision of society. Indeed, while Beauvoir interrogates the cultural meaning assigned to women as a sex, the existence of “women” as a category remains largely unquestioned. Differences between men and women “will always exist,” according to Beauvoir, and women will continue to be governed by a greater “sensuality” and “sensitivity” than men in their sexual and affective lives. Contemporary American feminists — especially queer and trans activists — have increasingly contested the idea that, as Beauvoir phrases it, “the relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being.” New generations have taken Beauvoir’s nascent social constructionist approach and developed it into a full blown critique of sex and gender as binary containers of human biology, affect, and sexuality.

That is one rupture. But the other, equally fundamental rupture, has been with Beauvoir’s universalizing impulse more broadly speaking. This universalizing impulse, though useful for its challenge to what we would now deem a “not all men” approach to sexist oppression, occludes race, class, ability, and other “situations” that intersect and inform gendered barriers to self-actualization. Though The Second Sex was, in part, inspired by Beauvoir’s travels to the United States and her encounter with American racism, her analysis of racism remains at the level of analogy. Like Black Americans, she contends, women are treated as the Other by those in power, and oppressed in turn. Meanwhile, North Africans — referred to as “Arabs” and “Muslims” at different points throughout the book — remain the ever-present foil to the progress of Western civilization for Beauvoir. Whatever Western Europe and the US still have to figure out about gender equality, the book implies, at least they are better off than the Muslim world. This is one aspect of Beauvoir’s early feminism that many are all too ready to abandon.

On the whole, then, The Second Sex is a not only a historically situated text — one that speaks to the position of its author in a place, a body, and an era. It is also, importantly, a highly ambivalent text, one that often contradicts itself, and fails to develop some of its most provocative claims. Reading the book, one has the sense that women are a miserable sex — not by nature, perhaps (although Beauvoir’s descriptions of puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy are harrowing), but certainly by culture. One has the sense that this misery is not her “destiny,” but that a large part of the labor required to end this misery must be undertaken by women themselves, rather than the men who have prescribed this destiny. One has the sense that men have unfairly represented women as the “weaker” sex, but also that she is, indeed, weaker in her current historical iteration. One has a sense that true socialism will free her from this weakness by lessening the burdens of her “feminine” household duties, and giving her a chance to fully realize herself in productive activities. However, one also wonders how this will equalize women and men, considering that men’s role in reproductive activities is not slated to increase. And finally, one has the sense that women’s chance at full transcendence is thwarted by the aggressiveness of men’s phallocentric sexuality. Yet aside from the hope that men and women will come to treat each other as peers, women’s tendency for sensuality, rather than sexual assertion, goes largely unchallenged.

I point out these ambivalent conclusions as a reminder that no feminism is universal, and that whatever theories of origins and solutions we may come up as contemporary American feminists will necessarily be bounded. That does not mean we should avoid formulating them. Beauvoir’s book may have fallen into traps. It may have attributed too much culpability to women, and too little to men. It may have subscribed to a vision of sexual essentialism and binary gender that now feels decidedly outmoded. It may have been almost completely blind to race, and to what we would now call “intersectional” oppressions. It is a book of its time, and it need not be held up as a sacred feminist text.

To say that The Second Sex is in part, or in full, outdated, is not to say it is any less valuable for that. In fact, perhaps this is where its value lies. Only by interrogating the differences of our own historical “situation” from Beauvoir’s can we hope to escape teleological narratives of progress and begin the messy and necessary work of finding more freedom within our own, particular, and always unsatisfactory situation. After establishing what we are seeking freedom “from,” as feminists, we must also discuss what we are seeking freedom “for.” On this topic, I give Beauvoir the final word:

… assuredly, women’s autonomy, even if it spares men a good number of problems, will also deny them many conveniences; assuredly, there are certain ways of living the sexual adventure that will be lost in the world of tomorrow: but this does not mean that love, happiness, poetry, and dreams will be banished from it. Let us beware lest our lack of imagination impoverish the future; the future is only an abstraction for us; each of us secretly laments the absence in it of what was; but tomorrow’s humankind will live the future in its flesh and in its freedom; that future will be its present, and humankind will in turn prefer it; new carnal and affective relations of which we cannot conceive will be born between the sexes: friendships, rivalries, complicities, chaste or sexual companionships that past centuries would not have dreamed of…(p. 764)

Hannah Leffingwell is Ph.D Candidate at the Institute of French Studies at New York University, and a student assistant at the Office of Global Spiritual Life.

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