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.