Simone de Beauvoir and ‘The Second Sex’: What Is a Woman?

Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ challenged what it meant to “do” philosophy while being the secondary subject of philosophy: the woman.

Dec 7, 2022By Monisha Choudhary, BA Art History

simone de beauvoir second sex summary


Simone de Beauvoir, the feminist activist and existentialist philosopher, changed the course of political discourse and philosophy when she published The Second Sex in 1949. Adopted and revised as the “Bible” of feminism, The Second Sex is one of the most integral works in feminist and queer studies per its gender-sex distinction. While the rest of her philosophical and non-philosophical work is mostly overshadowed by her relationship with Sartre and her deviance from social norms, the Second Sex was too prominent a work to be obscured. This article looks into both volumes of the Second Sex and highlights the key concepts in the context of Beauvoir’s preceding works.


Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir by Francois Lochon via Getty Images.


Published in 1949, the Second Sex came to become a treatise on feminism. Beauvoir undertakes a phenomenological investigation in Second Sex– taking from the experience of women and solidarizing them in a way as to derive the methods of subjugation of femininity as a social construct. There are two volumes to this work- the first one dealing with Facts and Myths, and the second one with Lived Experience.


1. Woman as the “Other”

Market by candlelight by Petrus van Schendel, 1865, via Wikimedia Commons.


Beauvoir begins by tackling the question- “What is a woman?”. The distinction between the “man” and the “woman”, she argues, is primarily biological. However, this distinction has historically been used to establish “the fact of male supremacy a right”. Beauvoir argues that by attributing the biological difference to inferiority, the individuality of a singular woman is snatched away from her. This induced a collective comfort in the social and economic dependence on the “man”. For her, then, liberation is the recognition of the difference between the members of the community, establishing and creating “individual” women.


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Akin to Nietzsche’s ressentiment, women are taught to internalize the social idea of womanhood- leading them to wallow in the lack of their personhood. A man, however, remains “the One”, who does not need to justify his position as the default. The woman, on the other hand, is subjected to a social reality the man constructs and is relative to him as “the other”. Beauvoir finds the conditions of the existence of a woman shape her into complying with this hierarchy.


Hardcover of Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, Graphic by Michele Doying.


She then dives into the discriminatory basis of biological distinction in Biological Data, which is the first chapter of the first volume. Beauvoir begins by defining a woman as “a womb, an ovary”, a sexual object. Inferring from reproduction in lower animals such as the spiders, praying mantis, monkeys and wildcats, she posits that sexual differentiation cannot be deduced at the cellular level.


Beauvoir then draws parallels between the conditions of the animal kingdom and the relationship between man and woman with regard to reproduction. The male (or the man) goes out into the world to develop his individuality, while the female (or the woman) is left to birth and care for her children. Beauvoir finds that a woman’s body is her sole possession, and so the world around her is constructed in relation to her body. Therein, she establishes the theory of biological subjugation, which constitutes the foundation of lesbianism and anti-natalism.


Kitchen Scene by Jeremias van Winghe c.1613, via WIkimedia Commons.


She takes up in The Psychoanalytical Point of View, the task of breaking Freud down in his misogynistic approach to sexual development. For Freud, any kind of sexual drive, irrespective of its occurrence in the male or female, is inherently masculine. Also, the sexual development of a woman is completed when she achieves a “vaginal” orgasm, as compared to a “clitoral” orgasm. Penetration becomes an integral part of the development of a woman, as the phallus is made to be the centre of sexual development in man.


Further, it was noted that women who paint, write, or engage in politics, would be less “virile” (Freud used virile to describe potency in both genders). Psychoanalysts after Freud, such as Adler, have looked into the internalized resentment of women towards themselves and the notion of male superiority in the way it manifests in sex.  Beauvoir discusses the prospect of sexual indifference in women by attributing it to the trauma that comes with initiating sex, and the understanding of sex as a “masculine intervention”. Beauvoir goes as far as saying that defloration is rape, owing to the patriarchal framework within which sex is learned by and taught to women.


Simone de Beauvoir at the “Women’s Fair” organized at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes by the MLF in 1973, via Le Monde.


She then examines the “woman” in The Point of View of Historical Materialism, inferring that the identity of a woman is determined by her economic value. By depriving women of the resources and access to meaningful work, the woman is yet again reduced to a state of contingency on the man. She furthers that women would, by “accompanying” the man, as a secondary person, allow them to derive both economic and emotional benefits in their feats in the outside world.


She discusses Engels in the context of the abolition of private property, which for Engels, would liberate women and equal workers. Beauvoir departs from Engels, however, in pointing out the obvious difference in the function of reproduction that is embodied by women. By referring to the primitive division of labour that facilitated equality between sexes, she finds that private property cannot, in any way, be the origin of patriarchal oppression. Although, liberation largely depends on private property. Beauvoir has often stressed the difference between the social revolution of the worker and the feminist revolution- which is primarily attributed to biological differences.


2. Economic Liberation

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels monument in Berlin, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.


For Beauvoir, humans can only find meaning in their condition by surpassing animals. Within this condition, women are bound to the biological function of birthing and rearing children and dismiss the “productive” capacity of reproduction as repetition. Men, on the other hand, rise beyond this repetition and embark on “new projects and inventions”.


She then uses this inherent capacity of women to justify the position women have in society. With the advent of private property, women also started being treated as the property of the man. This prescribed incredible value to fidelity, and loyalty in marriage because the alternative would hamper the man’s capacity to continue his lineage. Beauvoir recognizes that this is not a truth that represents the whole of the world, as there have been several accounts of matrilineal families.


However, she posits that women have to economically liberate themselves at the risk of being defaced, by taking to “low” professions, such as prostitution, which again revolves around the idea of chastity and fidelity. She finds that the measure of liberation is the extent of entrenchment of women in social structures, the ability to engage in the economy meaningfully and of their own volition, and finally, the ability to challenge male primacy politically.


Woman Pouring Water into a Jar by Gerrit Dou c.1647, via the Louvre.


By deliberately creating structures that oust women from the “human order” which is masculine by default, women appear as temptations. The prospect of subjection appeals to a man because it maintains the status quo: his superiority. Beauvoir analyzes Christianity as a means of demonizing sexuality, finding that women are especially suppressed by their characterization as temptations. Christianity even rendered abortion illegal, forcing women to reproduce, and reducing their chances of engaging in meaningful employment.


Women are often deprived of opportunities for not being “as good as their male counterparts”, and even because “obstructions do not stop great women from succeeding”. Beauvoir says we are witnessing a capitalistic and oppressive system that keeps women from prospering as individuals. The transfer of the status from that of a father’s daughter to a husband’s wife affords her some financial protection against such charges. Thus, women who pursue financial independence work against the norm, and have an increasingly difficult path ahead of them.


The development of liberalism, however, represents a nudge in a positive direction for Beauvoir as it fostered individualism across both sexes. She does, however, acknowledge that the privilege of economic and cultural participation granted to women was afforded to them by their class, or rather the class that their husbands belonged to.


3. Mystification and Representation

St. Catherine with the Lily by Plautilla Nelli c.1550s–1560, via Wikimedia Commons.


According to Beauvoir, after having established women as the “other”, as contingencies, men feel the need to constantly impose themselves on the world to prove themselves worthy of their superiority. In this process, they objectify and “possess” women, who rarely ever pose a threat to their existence. She draws some parallels between Nature and women, who seem to instinctively resist the advances of man. Since they are always the “other” in relation to men, they can never be completely possessed.


Beauvoir notes that religions which celebrate mortality tend not to fear women, Islam for instance, while religions which consider sexuality to be sinful, see in women all kinds of temptations. She posits that women represent nature and death, to an extent. Consequently, women become mystified objects of fear and temptation.


Scrutinizing the representation of women in literature, Beauvoir finds that women are often seen as “muses”, objects of admiration and inspiration. However, they are never seen as peers, only as a “mysterious other”- further reproducing the separation of womanhood from the quality of being human, i.e. dehumanization. This role, unfortunately, only works until women submit to men, and are of benefit to the man without being too cognizant of their identities as individuals. The “ideal woman” or the “real woman” is then expected to be altruistic, which is not required of men.


Since women are represented as a collective and never as singular, complex individuals, men often tend to make sweeping comments about how confusing women are. The total opposition that femininity poses against masculinity further frustrates the individual male, because he cannot at all understand what femininity entails. Beauvoir adds that women also contribute to their own “mystery” to protect themselves, by concealing their feelings and interests. She compels readers to find and pursue works that depict women, not as “mysterious” beings.


4. The Making of a Woman

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, c.1480, via the Uffizi.


One is not born, but rather becomes a woman (Beauvoir 283).”


As the most quoted phrase of Beauvoir, it establishes womanhood as a continuous instillation of “femininity”. This directly contrasts Freud’s assumption that women behave the way they do because of their anatomy.


Beauvoir begins Volume II of the Second Sex by analyzing how girls are treated from childhood into becoming women. She draws from several pieces of research that show girls and boys exhibit similar characteristics until the age of 12 but are treated differently around the time of puberty. Beauvoir asserts that boys are pushed to be independent from a young age which induces pain, while girls are constantly protected. This leads to the celebration of the young male’s identity, while the young woman is reared into submission.


The genitals and sexuality of both girls and boys integrally constitute their identities but manifest in different ways. Since the boy is taught to wield his identity, his genital and his sexual expression are encouraged. Contrary to this, women’s sexuality and expression are repressed. As women are not openly praised or even wholly accepted, Beauvoir infers that women seek attention from adults- subsequently turning themselves into objects. This theory, again, is at odds with Freud’s “penis envy”, which furthers that girls always feel like they are inherently incomplete because they do not have a penis.


Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934, Freud Museum London, via Times of Israel


When growing up, girls are subjected to more restrictions and responsibilities than boys, such as tying them to household chores. Girls are taught to be emotionally compliant and ashamed of their sexuality. This is why subjects such as reproductive health and menstruation are still difficult concepts to grasp, both for young women and researchers. Girls then grow up to be alienated from their own sexual pleasure.


In adolescence, girls are taught to be more passive and to desire marriage. Strict beauty standards are imposed during this period, playing on girls’ insecurities, and further shaping them into objects of sexual gratification for their prospective husbands. This, according to Beauvoir, leads to the internalization of their grievances with themselves, often causing great pain.


Sex goes on to become a very complicated matter for girls. When becoming “men” and “women”, the inherent disproportionality in the distribution of power and responsibility affects their understanding of and appeal toward sex. Since women are conflicted about their own sexual desires, this works to the advantage of the man, who has been taught to dominate her. Subsequently, Beauvoir claims that homosexuality in women is a product of her social context. Insofar women who turn to lesbianism often do so in their pursuit of equal and fulfilling relationships.


5. The Faces of the Woman

Triptych of the Sedano Family by Gerard David, ca. 1495, via Wikimedia Commons.


In the Second part of Volume II, Beauvoir dissects the roles a woman takes on in the course of her life. She condemns every role as they are purported by a society that has internalized patriarchy and capitalism. It is worth noting that the observations of Beauvoir at the time may not hold true or be relevant today.


The Wife, although entitled to more rights within marriage, is still tied down by household chores. Beauvoir notes that the prospect of women’s employment, although economically liberating, doesn’t rid women of the social obligation of being the wife of their respective husbands. Women who do in fact engage in meaningful work are then often not able to liberate themselves from the role of a wife. Beauvoir doesn’t ignore the fact that women marry to save whatever social identity and reputation they have, in addition to seeking financial security.


Consequently, women tend to be obsessed with material aspects and the establishment of some kind of secondary reputation on the basis of their husband’s financial security. This turns into a showdown between women and drives a wedge between them. Beauvoir detests this and holds that women must rise above this, and create emotionally fulfilling bonds and friendships with other women. Beauvoir also gets into how sex is experienced by women as a violation, and not an act of love, due to the accumulation of shame, guilt, and even unawareness about it. Owing to their lack of freedom, married women tend to be overbearing so far as housework is concerned. This work, unfortunately, doesn’t translate into any shape or form of respect or financial gain; filling the wife’s life with remorse and torment.


Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1883-4, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Mother, in addition to the Wife’s bondage to the home, is bound by her children. In a circumstance where abortion laws are made by men per their political and religious inclinations, women often suffer. Anti-abortion laws simply seek to force a woman into becoming a mother, without any follow-ups to ensure her well-being. Childbirth places mothers in a situation of conflict: one where they enjoy the process of becoming a mother but are still aware of the narrowing down of their lives. This results in the mother dumping her emotions on her impressionable children.


Additionally, on account of their unfulfilling marriage, mothers often tend to have high expectations from their children. However, per Beauvoir, this almost always leads to disappointment, because children eventually grow to become individuals independent of the identity and the expectations of the mother. This is especially true in the case of the mother-son relationship, where the son goes on to become more qualified and lead a more dignified life than his mother. In the case of mother-daughter relationships, however, the mother often sees the daughter as an extension of herself and finds a friend in her. This is very harmful to the daughter because the mother essentially reproduces her condition into another human being, making her a woman.


The Garvagh Madonna by Rafaello Sanzio c.1510, via the UK National Gallery.


The Prostitute, according to Beauvoir, was initially an occupation created by men to compensate for sexual dissatisfactions in their marital life. While many women engage in prostitution of their own volition, there is a number of women who turn to it because they have no other avenues for sustenance. Beauvoir also discusses the role of actresses in this regard and expresses discontent regarding the use of the appearance of women to attempt to liberate themselves. She posits that these performances of femininity are ultimately unfulfilling and do not contribute to the general upliftment of women.


The Old Lady is a free but fearful woman who has been deprived of opportunities and resources all her life and can no longer do anything but depend on her children. Women often fear aging, Beauvoir infers, because of the value prescribed to their physical body and their “beauty”. As women grow older, they identify and understand their needs (both emotional and sexual) better, but are incapable of acting to fulfil them. As such, the only beacon of hope in their lives remains tied to the lives of their children.


6. Obstructions to Liberation

Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvie Le Bon during a demonstration organized by Mouvement de Libération des Femmes, via L’Obs.


Beauvoir sympathizes with the general community of women in their ignorance of the systemic oppression they face, and she believes it is ultimately the women who will liberate themselves. So in her concluding chapters, Beauvoir discusses how women respond to their oppression in a way that deprives them of their chances at liberation.


Narcissism, as Beauvoir describes it, is the process of objectification of the self. Herein, we begin to focus on the physical aspect of our livelihood. As women are misunderstood and not cared for, they tend to focus on themselves a lot. Most women, according to Beauvoir, yearn for their childhood days, when they were not “gendered”. This fixation on the self keeps them from pursuing genuine connections, as they are incapable of understanding the existence of other persons. She attributes narcissism not to an inflated sense of self, but to the unreasonable dependence on validation by others.


Love, when performed by women, has an all-encompassing nature, Beauvoir writes. Women tend to love by giving up their entire selves by putting the men they love on a pedestal. The woman expects great things from the man she loves, only to be disappointed when she finds that he is flawed. She notes a contradiction within how women love men- they submit to the man and expect the man to appreciate the sacrifices they make without holding their own. This disproportionate dependency of women on men as compared to the dependency of men on women has lasting impacts on women. So when a love affair fails, it has devastating effects on the woman. Beauvoir believes that this is the case because women usually rely on the love of a man to validate themselves.


The Lamentation by Giotto di Bondone c.1306, via Wikimedia Commons.


Religion, for Beauvoir, poses a similar problem to love and narcissism. She posits that when women turn to God, they are often looking for a figure they can confide in, and a figure that will look after them. This consumption by faith, renders women passive, according to Beauvoir, and keeps them from being rooted in reality, and actively working against structures that oppress them.


Beauvoir finally notes that these responses can and have been used by several women to liberate themselves. However, given the power dynamic intrinsic to these expressions, she recommends that women do not subscribe to them.


The Lasting Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir at home in 1957. Photograph by Jack Nisberg. Courtesy of the Guardian.


For all the discontent Simone de Beauvoir has with social norms and the distinction between the male and female genders, she concludes The Second Sex with optimistic undertones, hoping that either gender will eventually see eye to eye and accept each other as subjects and equals.


However, scholars have since dissected the Second Sex against intersectionalism and found it to be greatly insufficient. Beauvoir’s personal and sexual life have also been subjects of critical discussion in understanding her work. Against this backdrop, Beauvoir’s alleged “deviance” might provide more context to her reading for some, while it has pushed others over the fence. However, it is important to also question, based on Beauvoir herself, if the same skepticism would be awarded to a male philosopher in the same circumstances. Given what the Second Sex set into motion for gender and queer studies, and feminist activism, it most certainly deserves the benefit of any doubt there may be about Beauvoir personally.




Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Sheila Malovany-Chevallier and Constance Borde, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

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By Monisha ChoudharyBA Art HistoryMonisha is a researcher, writer, and artist pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Arts and in Law from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been engaged in performance arts, as a performer and a facilitator; and takes a keen interest in philosophy and politics.