De Beauvoir goes into great detail to debunk what she refers to as “the eternal feminine,” or that “vague and basic essence, femininity.” This myth takes many forms—the sanctity of the mother, the purity of the virgin, the fecundity of the earth and of the womb—but in all cases serves to deny women’s individuality and trap them inside unrealizable ideals. She uses the phrase “the eternal feminine” to describe all the terrifying processes of fertility and reproduction that arose from male discomfort with the fact of his birth and the inevitability of his death. As the author of human history, man has conflated woman with her womb. He has lumped all those mysterious processes of life and reminders of death, which both confuse and frighten him, under a single dismissive myth. De Beauvoir points out that just as there is no such thing as the “eternal masculine,” there is no such thing as “eternal feminine.” Or, to put it differently: there is no essence, only experience. All beings, de Beauvoir insists, have the right to define their own existences rather than labor under some vague notion of “femininity.”
De Beauvoir uses the term Other throughout The Second Sex to diagnose the female’s secondary position in society as well as within her own patterns of thought. One of her chief goals in undertaking the project is to answer the question of why woman is the Other. De Beauvoir explains that according to the philosopher Hegel, reality is made up of the interplay of opposing forces. Self-understanding is much the same. For a being to define itself, it must also define something in opposition to itself. “[A]t the moment when man asserts himself as subject and free being, the idea of the Other arises,” de Beauvoir states. For every subject, there must be an object. This reciprocal relation is a primary tenet of existentialist thought, and it points to the fundamental problem with the male monopoly on subjectivity.
This idea is uneven and imbalanced when applied to the relation between men and women. Throughout human history, man has occupied the role of the self, the subject, the absolute, the free being. He sees woman as the object, the deviation, the inessential. She has value as a sexual partner but not as an independent entity. According to the male schema, woman is contingent, deviant, and inessential. She completes him, but she herself is incomplete. Because it is fundamentally unnatural to live in the role of object, woman hesitates between the historical role offered her and an assertion of her liberty. To accept her role as the Other, she must deny a great part of her humanity and surrender all claims to freedom.
More main ideas from The Second Sex
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