If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through “the eternal feminine,” and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman? . . . The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say, ”I am a woman”; on this truth must be based all further discussion.
This quotation, from the Introduction, summarizes de Beauvoir’s project: to define woman in every respect. She first points out the inadequacy of defining woman either by her biological operations or by some broad understanding of the “eternal feminine.” She will revisit these definitions in much greater detail later in her study, but for now, she pursues a more general question: do women even exist? She admits they do, “provisionally.” The word “provisionally” is significant. As de Beauvoir develops her argument, she will make the radical suggestion that “woman” does not, in fact, exist as an immense category and that men and women alike should always be defined primarily as humans. Throughout history, woman has been denied this privilege. The latter part of this quotation introduces de Beauvoir’s personal motivation for writing this book. When looking back on her life, she finds that she cannot define herself without “first of all” defining herself as a woman. Her effort to find out what it means to be a woman, then, is also an effort to make sense of her experience on earth.
[T]he whole of feminine history has been man-made. Just as in America there is no Negro problem, but rather a white problem; just as anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it is our problem; so the woman problem has always been a man problem.
History was written by the victors: a truism that rings especially true in the case of women. De Beauvoir demonstrates this principle in the “Facts and Myths” section of The Second Sex, in her discussion of history since the French Revolution. Notions of femininity, almost without exception, originated in man: man defines the “eternal feminine”; man insists on female mediocrity; man chains his wife to the hearth. Women, who have no voice, cannot be the “problem,” just as the “problem” of Jews and blacks is one invented and perpetuated by their oppressors.
De Beauvoir draws this parallel between women and other oppressed classes of society throughout the book. However, she always includes a significant caveat: unlike blacks in America, Jews in Europe, or any other oppressed minority group, woman is not a minority. Females constitute roughly half the human population at any given period in history. Another crucial difference: woman has never lived segregated from man, as Jews have been segregated from Christians and blacks from whites. Economically, woman belongs to a lower “caste”—a term de Beauvoir uses often to emphasize the institutionalized quality of female subordination. Despite her lower caste, woman has always lived alongside her master. Man requires woman to survive, and their mutual dependence makes the fact of their inequality confounding.
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
This, the opening line of Book II, is de Beauvoir’s most famous statement. It represents the logical continuation of the proofs de Beauvoir offers in Book I to support her argument that femininity does not arise from differences in biology, psychology, or intellect. Rather, femininity is a construction of civilization, a reflection not of “essential” differences in men and women but of differences in their situation. Situation determines character, not the other way around. Woman is not born fully formed; she is gradually shaped by her upbringing. Biology does not determine what makes a woman a woman—a woman learns her role from man and others in society. Woman is not born passive, secondary, and nonessential, but all the forces in the external world have conspired to make her so. Every individual self, regardless of gender, is entitled to subjectivity; it is only outside forces that have conspired to rob woman of this right. Destiny is not a cosmic force but a human choice, the result of culture and circumstance.
If the definition provided for this concept [of the eternal feminine] is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine.
In the section entitled “Myths,” de Beauvoir outlines the mythology of the “eternal feminine,” then pits it against reality to reveal the many flaws in all-pervasive notions of femininity. As a result of these myths, the life of every woman is divided between her rights as a subject and the demands of Otherness. An irreconcilable contradiction exists between her vocation as a human and her “destiny” as a female. Those rare women who buckle under the characterization foisted on them, who refuse to be passive, elegant, and silent, are called defective, unattractive, and unfeminine. They are “not real women,” and they are punished for putting their humanity before their femininity. The problem, de Beauvoir argues, is not the individual woman, but the complex mythology that imprisons her. If the “definition” of femininity is undermined by the behavior of “flesh-and-blood women,” perhaps the definition is the problem, not the women.
[W]oman enjoys that incomparable privilege: irresponsibility.
In the final pages of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir attempts to chart the difficulties of achieving any parity between the sexes. In the conclusion, she issues this tongue-and-cheek comment following an exhortation for woman to take charge of her own destiny.
Women rely on men for shelter, sustenance, opinions, hobbies, conversation topics—in short, for a reason to live. Making no economic contributions to their household, they spend their lives engaged in useless, repetitive activities. However suffocating and unfulfilling, however grotesquely parasitic, life as a wife or mistress is a known quantity, and many women fear departing from societal norms and venturing into the wilderness of liberty. It is less demanding and less exhausting to abdicate all responsibility for one’s future to a man. Many women refuse the opportunities granted them; like their forebears, these women will discover that the “privilege” of irresponsibility is actually a curse, in love and in life. Any successful relationship between two parties grows from mutual liberty. Irresponsibility is a function of mutilation and incompleteness, of dependency and enslavement.