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The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Historical Figures List

Important Quotations Explained

Themes

Immanence vs. Transcendence

De Beauvoir uses “immanence” to describe the historic domain assigned to women: a closed-off realm where women are interior, passive, static, and immersed in themselves. “Transcendence” designates the opposing male lot: active, creative, productive, powerful, extending outward into the external universe. Every human life should permit the interplay of these two forces, immanence and transcendence, but throughout history, man has denied woman the transcendent role. In her stage-by-stage description of woman’s “situation,” de Beauvoir shows how women are forced to relinquish their existential right to transcendence and accept a circumscribed, repetitive imprisonment. There is no escape for them except through man, and even this is a dead-end. Man has projects, activities, accomplishments; woman just has man.

Nature vs. Nurture

De Beauvoir believes that woman’s inferiority in society is a result not of natural differences but of differences in the upbringing of man and woman. Male domination is not inherent or fated but conditioned at every stage of development. De Beauvoir says that “Man learns his power.” By the same token, woman is not born passive, mediocre, or immanent. Rather, she is socialized to believe that proper women must embody these characteristics and, subtly and not subtly, she is conditioned to believe that denying her true self is the only way to achieve happiness and gain acceptance. To bring about substantial changes in society, young boys and girls must be educated differently from the outset. Since they are born equal, the possibility exists of their being equal in adulthood as well as in childhood—but it is up to society to change its skewed perspectives.

Production vs. Reproduction

Women are both treasured and reviled for their reproductive function, and de Beauvoir explains that one of the central problems of the female situation is the difficulty of reconciling woman’s reproductive capacity with her productive capacity. Her productive capacity includes her ability to participate in labor or otherwise contribute to the economy of her society. On closer inspection, de Beauvoir finds that reproduction and production are not mutually exclusive. A woman’s reproductive capacity should not stop her from fulfilling a position in society beyond the home. Woman is neither exclusively a worker nor exclusively a womb.

Throughout history, woman has been enslaved to her reproductive function. Her life to the present has been an uninterrupted succession of pregnancies, and her contributions to society have been restricted to her womb. Technology has failed to incorporate woman into the workplace, for she must still juggle the burdens of childbearing and childrearing unassisted, an impossible task for even the most energetic mothers. For woman to achieve more than liberation and enter the workplace as man’s equal, the nuclear family must be reconfigured so that she is able to leave the home. Social stigmas against unwed mothers and abortion must be lifted to allow woman to take charge of her own pregnancies and control her own life. Though it is important for woman to be permitted to participate in work, it is more important for her to be integrated into the “totality of human reality” to become a true partner to man.

Motifs

The Eternal Feminine

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.”

The Other

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.

Symbols

The Praying Mantis

Women who try to achieve transcendence, reject the passivity imposed on them, and attain some mastery over their lives are looked on unkindly by patriarchal society. Among the many negative stereotypes heaped on this sort of woman is that of the praying mantis. This unflattering symbol refers to the female insect’s habit of devouring the male immediately following intercourse. The shrewish, nagging wife, the “ogress” who demands too much out of life, the tyrannical lover who withholds her body—any woman who threatens male supremacy is accused of cannibalism. Many women fear being regarded as too aggressive or powerful, and thus being called a praying mantis.

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