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The Second Sex

This is an exposition of 20th Century philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work “The
Second Sex” that laid the foundations of modern feminist theory.

Women have been described throughout history, starting from Aristotle, as incomplete, as
reduced males. This has historically relegated them to a secondary status - they are the second
sex, the “Other”. And women have never been able to rise together to combat this challenge, as
they don’t have a common platform to stand united on, unlike other ostracised groups on this
earth. After the industrial revolution, women started working and earning wages, leading to more
suppression by men threatened by the prospect of the equality between the sexes. Hence a
re-imagination of gender is imminent, to bring into order any semblance of equality amongst
man and woman. To this end, it is of immense importance that all social aspects of gender are
cast out while examining the problem.

Starting from biology, it is evident that a female exhibits lesser individuality than her male
counterpart throughout the animal kingdom, as she has to share her physical identity with
another living being, her offspring, and care for it during a certain period. In humans, women are
physically weaker than men, and subject to the grind of menstruation. However, the “weakness”
can be termed so only in an established societal context, which has been defined by men so far.

Next comes psychoanalysis. Freud’s contentions about human sexuality assume the social
paradigm that is heavily prejudiced against women, and then seek to explain individual anxieties
as a consequence, hence are useless for our problem. However, it is important to call out
Freudian logic for its justification of male superiority - for example, a girl would undergo penis
envy only because she sees her father in a dominant position as she grows up, not because of
some original anxiety. Similarly, man’s desire to seek an extension of his individuality in private
property and tools marginalises women's economic imprint, particularly because reproduction is
not an economic activity, and does not allow a tangible impact on the external world like man’s
tools do.

With the advent of agriculture, man recognised a parallel between the earth’s fertility, on which
his existence now depended, and woman’s power of reproduction. Although this lent importance
to women, it did not provide them with political or social power, nor did it provide escape from
the Other. When man understood agriculture and began to control it, he dethroned the woman
goddess and established male gods far superior to the females. Similarly, he claimed children
as something he produced via the woman.

In ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, women enjoyed a certain liberty in
social participation and social conduct, though she was still tied to man on economic and
political basis. The middle ages, at least in the upper rungs of the society, accorded women the
respect and authority her position deserved, though she was still chained in marriage. The lower
rungs still enabled an equality amongst the sexes, as both the husband and wife had to work for
a living, and woman was not economically dependent on man. After the dark ages, societal
norms were coded, and one of the prominent aspects was strict intolerance of infidelity. This
gave rise to prostitutes as an essential part of society.

After the industrial revolution, women joined the workforce. Around the world, they got paid far
less for their labour than men, because it was a supplementary income for them, and because
they did not unionize early on. This led to much exploitation - 17 hour workdays, unhygienic
conditions, and the additional burden of household chores. In addition, there was no escape
from their reproductive function - it was a common norm to produce as many children as they
could, bereft of contraception and marred by high infant mortality.

As much as history, woman has been a construction of myth. She has represented raw nature
for man - something to conquer, something to tame and assert his independence on. In his
desire to establish private property, man has accorded woman the status of an object. The body
parts that are the least active - just lumps of flesh like buttocks and breasts - are the ones man
lusts after the most. Jewellery and makeup are forms of adornments that accentuate his sense
of control over her body. Her physiological imperfections are deemed justifications for her
inferior treatment. Women is considered to be mysterious in essence, thus providing man an
excuse to not understand her.

It is understood that the slavery and idleness of woman has left her over-developing her gender
identity. In childhood, identification with her mother and her secondary social standing left her
feeling inferior to her male counterparts, coupled with penis envy - compared to the male organ,
woman’s sexuality is represented in a visible absence of an appendage, and pushes the woman
to look inward, and cultivate a sense of mystery in her own body. Girls need dolls as dolls
provide a way for them to conceptualise themselves as the Other. A man doesn’t see himself in
a fixed image (mirror) as it does not capture his transcendence. As a young woman, she
understands herself as both incomplete and as an object of desire, both of which require
another being to fulfill her. This desire for love morphs into a desire for a husband that provides
her legitimacy in the world.

Sexuality in a woman is much more complicated than in men, as there is no obvious end to a
sexual act for a woman. Her desire for possession and submission is conflicted by her guilt and
rebellion over these very emotions. A woman’s love engulfs her whole existence, where in a
man is only seeking possession in love. Love for a woman is a chance to associate with the
superior sex. Her acquiescence to the male sex’s sueriority in such a way prevents her to
humanely attach herself with him. After the act of lovemaking, a woman feels like a remnant, as
she’s the one a man moves away from, completely satisfied. Hence she desires a continuation
of warmth post-coitus. If a woman is in a position of dominance over men at work, it might dilute
man’s prestige and his standing as the evidence of transcendence in the eyes of a woman, thus
leading to her disillusionment with men. As a lesbian, she, along with her partner, struggles to
portray normalcy in a world that does not have well-defined roles for her. As a consequence,
she has to, willingly or unwillingly, take on masculine characteristics to fit in.

Marriage entraps women as much as it gives them a well-defined role to play. For her, marriage
is social contract painted over with a veneer of possible conjugal love that is supposed to last for
the rest of her life. For the housewife, it also commits her to an endless struggle to keep the
house in order, day in and day out, to ensure continuity in her family’s life. This parallels a
woman’s struggle to keep her appearance youthful, because put up as an object, she is what
she looks.

Women, as an acceptance of fate, are pre-inclined to compromise and maintain the old order
rather than destroy and build something anew. Religion is another conservative state women
resign to due to their implicit understanding of male superiority and of authority by proxy of idols
created by man. Religion sanctions a woman’s self-love.

In conclusion, Beauvoir makes the assertion that the world stands to gain from an equality of the
sexes, and that this is as much the responsibility of men as it is of women. The world has come
a lot further since ​Christine de Pizan first raised her voice against the condition of women in
15th century, but it has a lot further to go to achieve Beauvoir’s vision.