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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 25, 4th May 2021
The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, Episode 1
00:00:00 00:58:51

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, Episode 1


Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s  The Second Sex. Written in 1949, this 800-page work chronicles woman’s condition in exhaustive depth and breadth, and is considered the founding work of second-wave feminism. Because this text covers so many topics so thoroughly, we have decided to break it into two parts, and today we will be covering just the first half.

Before we dig into this massive repository of brilliance, I want to introduce my reading partner today, Fyza Parviz. Hi, Fyza!


Thank You Amy for organizing this amazing project and inviting me to participate. Hello everyone, I am Fyza Parviz. Like Amy, I am also a graduate student in the MLA department at Stanford. Before embarking on my studies in the Humanities, I worked as a Software Engineer in the valley for a decade. My bachelors is in Electrical Engineering. I am originally from Pakistan and had moved to the United States for College. 


I also like to ask each guest what interested them in this project. Can you tell me a little about that?


I have been interested in Beauvoir for about a decade. I have read her autobiographies “Memoirs of a dutiful daughter” and “The Prime of Life.” And also her novel ‘The Mandarins’ and her collection of short stories ‘The Woman Destroyed’. There was a period of my life when I was very much interested in French Existentialism. I used to host a book club in San Francisco on Modern Literature where we read novels by Sarte and Camus, etc . 

When my husband and I last travelled to Paris, we made sure to pay a visit to Sarte and Beauvoir’s grave. 

I had read ‘Second Sex’ twice before, but everytime I come to this text, at different points in my life, I discover something new. I now read this book after becoming a mother and was fascinated by Beauvoir’s understanding of motherhood and surprised that I had previously overlooked this aspect of her philosophy. And I would love to discuss this in detail with you today Amy.


[Respond to Fyza, then introduce Beauvoir’s bio]

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, on January 9, 1908. Her mother was a devout Catholic, and young Simone was a fervent believer as a child and even considered becoming a nun. She eventually lost her faith during her teenage years. 

Beauvoir was intellectually precocious, fueled by her father's encouragement; he reportedly would boast, "Simone thinks like a man!" The family had lost much of its fortune after World War I, and because she could no longer rely on her dowry to find a good match in marriage, she  took the opportunity of an excellent education to prepare to earn a living for herself.

She attended a prestigious Catholic school, and after passing baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique de Paris and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie. She then studied philosophy at the Sorbonne.

Next, she sat in on courses at the École Normale Supérieure in preparation for the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive postgraduate examination which serves as a national ranking of students. It was while studying for this exam that she met Jean-Paul Sartre

About Sartre and Beauvoir, NYT writer Judith Thurman wrote in 2010:

They met in 1929, as university students … cramming, as a team, for France’s most brutal and competitive postgraduate examination, the agrégation in philosophy. (On their first study date, she explained Leibniz to him.) When the results were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second, and that, forever, was the order of precedence — Adam before Eve — in their creation myth as a couple.

 (I must add here, however, that at the time she was the ninth woman who had ever passed, and the youngest person, male or female, ever to pass that exam)

**[Here I have to mention that in my research I was brushing up on Existentialism, and I watched a few videos on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The videos that I watched about Beauvoir all mentioned Sartres, but the videos I watched about Sartres did not mention Beauvoir. Almost every single photo of Sartre features Beauvoir right there with him - marching with Che Gevara, meeting with Castro in Cuba, laughing with other philosophers in Paris. And we know they read and refined and contributed to each other’s work. But she was not mentioned in his online biographies. So then I looked her up on Stanford’s philosophy website and found that Beauvoir herself called herself an “author” but not a “philosopher,” and considered herself the “midwife” for Sartres’ Existentialism, It has only been after her death that she has gained a place in the philosophical pantheon, where she belongs. Even though she was so independent, so enlightened, it seems that for some reason she too was the “second sex” even in her most intimate relationship.] 


Back to the NYT article:

In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir began to outline what she thought would be an autobiographical essay explaining why, when she had tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to mind was “I am a woman.” 

Beauvoir was then a thirty-eight-year-old public intellectual who had been enfranchised for only a year. [That’s worth repeating - she had lived her entire life in France, until the age of 37, without the right to vote. France granted suffrage to women in 1945.] Legal birth control would be denied to French women until 1967…. Not until the late 1960s was there an elected female head of state anywhere in the world. Girls… searching for examples of exceptional women ...found precious few. 

So she began researching for this essay, and like Gerda Lerner and others would do in the 1980’s she began with the earliest known human records. Her research expanded and expanded into an eight-hundred-page encyclopedia of the folklore, customs, laws, history, religion, philosophy, anthropology, literature, economic systems, and received ideas that have, since time began, objectified women. [Reading the book, I thought several times “this must have taken ten years.”] And yet it was completed in about fourteen months.

 In 1949 the first edition of The Second Sex was published in France, and it sold 22,000 copies in the first week. It was eventually translated into 40 languages, and was placed on The Vatican’s list of prohibited books. 

In 1953 the English translation was published, and even from the very beginning this edition was criticized for being inaccurately translated and improperly abridged. Even so, it took the world by storm, gaining a reputation of being a “feminist bible” as it gave voice and language and a philosophical framework to women’s struggle. Again quoting Thurman’s article:

Beauvoir not only marshaled a vast arsenal of fact and theory; she galvanized a critical mass of consciousness — a collective identity — that was indispensable to the women’s movement. Her insights have breached the solitude of countless readers around the world who thought that the fears, transgressions, fantasies, and desires that fed their ambivalence about being female were aberrant or unique. No woman before her had written publicly, with greater candor and less euphemism, about the most intimate secrets of her sex.

[This reminds me of so many prior episodes of this podcast, but especially Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, where Lerner talks about individual women struggling alone, and individual brilliant women calling out into the void, and then the momentum that finally began to build, finally in the 19th Century with the organization of women’s movements. If you look at a timeline or continuum of feminist consciousness, Beauvoir’s work is what women had been building toward for centuries]

After the publication of The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote many other works, she continued to think and write and work with Jean-Paul Sartre, she traveled extensively, and she participated in the Women’s Rights movement in France. After Sartre died in 1980 she published an edited version of their letters to each other, and when she died of pneumonia in 1986 at age 78, she was buried next to Sartre in Paris.

So that’s an introduction to the author, and I think before we can understand her work, we need a brief primer on Existentialism, since that is the framework in which Beauvoir viewed human life. Fyza, could you talk about Existentialism?





Fyza: Introduction of Existentialism as a background

The roots of French Existentialism lie in German phenomenology. 

German phenomenologists' quest was to understand life as one experienced it. They claimed that a person is already thrown in the world--a world that is filled with things, or filled with the appearance of things, or phenomena (Greek for ‘things that appear’). Hence these philosophers decided to focus on the encounter with the phenomena. The leading thinker of this group was Edmund Husserl. Later another phenomenologist Martin Heidegger stated that the most important question in philosophy is the question of Being: What is it for a thing to be? 

In other words, phenomenology was a way of doing philosophy that connected with the lived experience. 

Existentialism: Existence precedes essence. There is no creator God that determines the essence for man. There is no purpose of final cause. Hence humans exist first and then decide their essence or they let other humans decide their essence for them.

Beauvoir's perspective is often identified with that of Jean-Paul Sartre, author of Being and Nothingness (1943) and Beauvoir's intimate friend from their days as philosophy students.

Sartes’s is a philosophy of the absurd: man is "a useless passion," "condemned to freedom," unable to find either solace or meaning in relationships with nature or other people. Encounters with nature lead to "nausea," with other people to masochism and sadism ("Hell is other people"). 

Anguish: Has a positive connotation in Sarte and Beauvoir’s philosophy. A person is an anguish as the meaning of their life needs to be constructed. Things have meaning that we give them, and we are responsible for our own world.

Amy: Today we are going to cover Beauvoir’s Introduction, and her chapters on women’s general experience throughout History. On our next episode we will cover Beauvoir’s observations on women’s lived experiences through the chapters entitled “Childhood, The Married Woman, The Mother, and Woman’s Situation and Character.” 

So I’ll get us started with Beauvoir’s introduction. 


The first point I want to highlight are the two quotes Beauvoir inserts at the very beginning, before the table of contents. The first is by Pythogoras, who was of course the famous Greek mathematician in the fifth century BCE, and it reads, 

“There is a good principle that created

Order, light, and man

And a bad principle that created

Chaos, darkness, and woman.

And the second quote is by Francois Poulain de la Barre, who was a French philosopher in the 17th Century and wrote works on the Equality of the sexes. His quote is:

Everything that has been written by men

About women should be viewed with suspicion, 

Because they are both judge and party.

So of all the important parts in Beauvoir’s  introduction, I’m going to highlight just one concept:

The categories masculine and feminine appear as symmetrical in a formal way on town hall records or identification papers. The relation of the two sexes is not that of two electrical poles: the man represents both the positive and the neuter to such an extent that in French hommes designates human beings. ...Woman is the negative, 

...I used to get annoyed in abstract discussions to hear men tell me: “You think such and such a thing because you’re a woman.” But I know my only defense is “I think it because it is true,” thereby eliminating my subjectivity; it was out of the question to answer, “And you think the contrary because you are a man,” because it is understood that being a man is not a particularity; a man is in his right by virtue of being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. In fact, just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical that defined the oblique, there is an absolute human type that is masculine.” (5) 

[Beauvoir goes on to assert that men have created themselves as the SUBJECT, or the ONE. And from that position of primacy they determine that the woman is the OTHER. The ONE is the subject; the OTHER is the object. And my thought was that’s exactly what you would think if your creation story is that a male God created a male human being first, and then created a female out of the male’s body, to be a helpmeet to him. The man is the ONE, and the woman is the OTHER. (6) She further goes on to observe that women sometimes defend the system where they are secondary because]  “Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them. ...she often derives satisfaction from her role as Other.

[In my own observation this is especially true if a girl has been taught from childhood to derive satisfaction and pleasure from being a helper, being in an auxiliary role. I tried to have a conversation about gender equity once with a woman of an older generation and she was very upset, saying “I don’t need to have fame and glory to know I have value.” She had been taught that a “good girl” is a supporter, and it feels good to be a good girl! What she didn’t say also was that she was completely unequipped to function in the world without the care of a man. She would have lost all her money, all her status, She had  to derive satisfaction from being secondary, because she hadn’t been prepared or trained to be primary, or independent, in the world.]

“The vast majority of men do not explicitly make this position their own. They do not posit woman as inferior: they are too imbued today with the democratic ideal not to recognize all human beings as equals. Within the family, the male child and then the young man sees the woman as having the same social dignity as the adult male; afterward, he experiences in desire and love the resistance and independence of the desired and loved woman; married, he respects in his wife the spouse and the mother, and in the concrete experience of married life she affirms herself opposite him as a freedom. He can thus convince himself that there is no longer a social hierarchy between the sexes and that on the whole, in spite of their differences, woman is an equal. As he nevertheless recognizes some points of inferiority - professional incapacity being the predominant one - he attributes them to nature. When he has an attitude of benevolence and partnership toward a woman, he applies the principle of abstract equality; and he does not posit the concrete inequality he recognizes. But as soon as he clashes with her, the situation is reversed. He will apply the concrete inequality theme and will even allow himself to disavow abstract equality. This is how many men affirm, with quasi good faith, that women are equal to men and have no demands to make, and at the same time that women will never be equal to men and that their demands are in vain. It is difficult for men to measure the enormous extent of social discrimination that seems insignificant from the outside and whose moral and intellectual repercussions are so deep in woman that they appear to spring from an original nature. The man most sympathetic to women never knows her concrete situation fully. So there is no good reason to believe men when they try to defend privileges whose scope  they cannot even fathom. We will not let ourselves be intimidated by the number and violence of attacks against women; nor be fooled by the self-serving praise showered on the “real woman”; nor be won over by men’s enthusiasm for her destiny, a destiny they would not for the world want to share.” 15

Fyza’s Thoughts:

In The Second Sex Beauvoir moves to a social ontology (a branch of metaphysis that deals with the nature of being). [Her subject and the ethical ideal are the human Mitsein (being-with).]

Beauvoir showed that the "woman problem” that had plagued moral and social philosophy from the time of Plato and Aristotle, can only be solved by women acting collectively to gain the political and economic power to define themselves.

Drawing on Hegel’s Phenomenology, Beauvior describes the woman as the Other -- an existent doomed to immanence -- we will define this term in the next section.

Unlike other french philosophy books, i am thinking foucalt,  Beauvoir’s second sex is clear, readable, accessible. Even Though we are reading the translation.

Fyza: History

Chapter 1:

Beauvoir’s Project in the History section:

“This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient. By reviewing prehistoric and ethnographic data in the light of existentialist philosophy, we can understand how the hierarchy of the sexes came to be.” (71)

  • Beauvoir uses historical and literary accounts to understand the role of women
  • Mentions accounts by Herodotus on the traditions of Amazons
  • What caused women to become weaker than men?
  • Answer: “The Burden of reproduction” (72)
  • “As for ordinary women, pregnancy, giving birth, and menstruation diminished their work capacity and condemned them to long periods of impotence; to defend themselves against enemies or to take care of themselves and their children, they needed the protection of warriors and the catch from hunting and fishing provided by the males. As there obviously was no birth control, and as nature does not provide woman with sterile periods as it does for other female mammals, frequent pregnancies must have absorbed the greater part of their strength and their time; they were unable to provide for the lives of the children they brought into the world.”
  • Why can the woman not attain total autonomy from motherhood? Like certain female animals (Beavoir does not mention which animals)
  • Maternity has never granted women the highest rank, even in times when society needed high birth rates
  • Answer: “The reason for this is that humanity is not a simple natural species: it does not seek to survive as a species; its project is not stagnation: it seeks to surpass itself.” (73)
  • Why can a woman not Transcend through Motherhood?
  • Answer: “birth and to breast-feed are not activities but natural functions; they 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 biological destiny. Because housework alone is compatible with the duties of motherhood, she is condemned to domestic labor, which locks her into repetition and immanence; day after day it repeats itself in identical form from century to century; it produces nothing new.” (73)
  • “How a man differs is that he provides by acts that transcend his animal condition”
  • “Man has been an inventor since the beginning of time”
  • “Through his works he lays the ground for a new future”
  • “His activities often involve danger. He risks his own life.”
  • “It is the male who opens up the future towards which she also transcends” (74)

Chapter 2:

Beauvior claims that sexual differentiation came about after the following institutions were formed: property, inheritance, legal system.

  • When did this happen?
  • Answer: “It is when nomads settled the land and became farmers that institutions and law appeared.” (76)

Beauvoir proceeds to give a historical analysis of primitive culture to suppose that “in primitive times a veritable reign of women existed.”(80) “

The passage from matriarchy to patriarchy”

  • Beauvoir thinks that this so-called golden age of women is only a myth!
  • “Society has always been male and political power has always been in men’s hands” (80) by Levi-Strauss who confirmed this at the end of his study of primitive societies.
  • “that even at times when he was still confused by the mysteries of Life, Nature, and Woman, he never relinquished his power; 
  • when, terrified by the dangerous magic woman possesses, he posits her as the essential, it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby as the essential in this alienation he grants; in spite of the fecund virtues that infuse her, man remains her master, just as he is master of the fertile earth; she is destined to be subordinated, possessed, and exploited, as is also Nature, whose magic fertility she incarnates.” (82)  

Chapter 3:

Chapter 4:

Focuses on the anti-woman rhetoric throughout the ages

Saint Paul:

“The man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man”; and “Neither was man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” And elsewhere: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.”

Tertullian writes:

 “Woman! You are the devil’s gateway. You have convinced the one the devil did not dare to confront directly. It is your fault that God’s Son had to die. You should always dress in mourning and rags.” Saint Ambrose: “Adam was led to sin by Eve and not Eve by Adam. It is right and just that he whom she led into sin, she shall receive as master.” 

Saint John Chrysostom: “Of all the wild animals, none can be found as harmful as woman.”

In her small book A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf enjoyed inventing the destiny of Shakespeare’s supposed sister; while he learned a little Latin, grammar, and logic in school, she was closed up at home in total ignorance; while he poached, ran around in the countryside, and slept with local women, she was mending kitchen towels under her parents’ watchful eyes; if, like him, she bravely left to seek her fortune in London, she could not become an actress earning her living freely: either she would be brought back to her family and married off by force; or seduced, abandoned, and dishonored, she would commit suicide out of despair. She could also be imagined as a happy prostitute, a Moll Flanders, as Daniel Defoe portrayed her: but she would never have run a theater and written plays. In England, Virginia Woolf notes, women writers always engender hostility. Dr. Johnson compared them to “a dog’s walking on his hinder legs.

(pp. 120-12

Chapter 5:

“The Revolution might have been expected to change the fate of woman. It did nothing of the kind. This bourgeois revolution respected bourgeois institutions and values; and it was waged almost exclusively by men. (p. 126)”


“Bourgeois women were too integrated into the family to find concrete grounds for solidarity with each other; they did not constitute a separate caste capable of forcing their demands:”

(p. 127). 

How change will occur:

When economic power falls into the hands of the workers, it will then be possible for the working woman to gain the capacities that the parasitic woman, noble or bourgeois, never obtained. (p. 127). 

“Napoleon wants to see woman solely as a mother;”

“Women belong to the family and not to politics, and nature made them for housework and not for public service,”

Balzac exhorts husbands to rein in wives to total subjugation if they want to avoid the ridicule of dishonor. They must be denied training and culture, forbidden to develop their individuality, forced to wear uncomfortable clothing, and encouraged to follow a debilitating dietary regime. The bourgeoisie follows this program exactly, confining women to the kitchen and to housework,

jealously watching their behavior; they are enclosed in daily life rituals that hindered all attempts at independence. In return, they are honored and endowed with the most exquisite respect. “The married woman is a slave who must be seated on a throne,” says Balzac;

 (p. 129). 

Main problem:

“It is drilled into her and she believes that women’s liberation would weaken bourgeois society; liberated from the male, she would be condemned to work; while she might regret having her rights to private property subordinated to her husband’s, she would deplore even more having this property abolished; she feels no solidarity with working-class women: she feels closer to her husband than to a woman textile worker. She makes his interests her own.”

(p. 130). 

Definition of Immanence:

 To give birth and to breast-feed are not activities but natural functions; they do not involve a project; ...she passively submits to her biological destiny. Because housework alone is compatible with the duties of motherhood, she is condemned to domestic labor, which locks her into repetition and immanence; day after day it repeats itself in identical form from century to century; it produces nothing new. (73)

She must ensure the monotonous repetition of life… it is natural for her to repeat herself, to begin again, without ever inventing, to feel that time seems to be going around in circles without going anywhere; she is busy without ever doing anything. ...Her life is not directed toward goals:...she takes credit for herself only when she is useful to her family. (644-645)

Definition of Transcendence:

Man’s case is radically different. He does not provide for the group in the way worker bees do, by a simple vital process, but rather by acts that transcend his animal condition. Homo faber has been an inventor since the beginning of time: ...bringing home freshly caught fish is not enough for him: he first has to conquer the seas by constructing dugout canoes; to appropriate the world’s treasures, he annexes the world itself. Through such actions he tests his own power; he posits ends and projects paths to them: he realizes himself as extent. ...This pride is still apparent today when he builds a dam, a skyscraper, or an atomic reactor. He has not only worked to preserve the given world: he has burst its borders; he has laid the ground for a new future. (73) 

Amy’s thoughts:

  • She doesn’t mention any joy in motherhood (She herself never had children. Also nothing limits a person’s joy in an activity like prohibiting them from doing anything else and telling them they must enjoy it)
  • She doesn’t mention any satisfaction in small daily tasks (consider the Amish, where both men and women find meaning in immanence)
  • Very few men get to experience transcendance. But almost no women do.


So Fyza, after all of your long-term, extensive knowledge of Beauvoir, what is one takeaway from this most recent reading or this particular conversation?