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.
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.
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.
More main ideas from The Second Sex