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Book by Simone de Beauvoir
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In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir began to outline what she thought would be an autobiographical essay explaining why, when she had tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to mind was “I am a woman.” That October, my maiden aunt, Beauvoir’s contemporary, came to visit me in the hospital nursery. I was a day old, and she found a little tag on my bassinet that announced, “It’s a Girl!” In the next bassinet was another newborn (“a lot punier,” she recalled), whose little tag announced, “I’m a Boy!” There we lay, innocent of a distinction— between a female object and a male subject— that would shape our destinies. It would also shape Beauvoir’s great treatise on the subject.
Beauvoir was then a thirty- eight- year- old public intellectual who had been enfranchised for only a year. Legal birth control would be denied to French women until 1967, and legal abortion, until 1975. Not until the late 1960s was there an elected female head of state anywhere in the world. Girls of my generation searching for examples of exceptional women outside the ranks of queens and courtesans, and of a few artists and saints, found precious few. (The queens, as Beauvoir remarks, “were neither male nor female: they were sovereigns.”) Opportunities for women have proliferated so broadly in the past six decades, at least in the Western world, that the distance between 2010 and 1949, when The Second Sex was published in France, seems like an eternity (until, that is, one opens a newspaper—the victims of misogyny and sexual abuse are still with us, everywhere). While no one individual or her work is responsible for that seismic shift in laws and attitudes, the millions of young women who now confidently assume that their entitlement to work, pleasure, and autonomy is equal to that of their brothers owe a measure of their freedom to Beauvoir. The Second Sex was an act of Promethean audacity— a theft of Olympian fire— from which there was no turning back. It is not the last word on “the problem of woman,” which, Beauvoir wrote, “has always been a problem of men,” but it marks the place in history where an enlightenment begins.
Simone-Ernestine-Lucie- Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in 1908 into a reactionary Catholic family with pretensions to nobility. She had a Proustian childhood on the Boulevard Saint- Germain, in Paris. But after World War I, her father, Georges, lost most of his fortune, and without dowries Simone and her sister, Hélène, had dim prospects for a marriage within their class. Their mother, Françoise, a banker’s daughter who had never lived without servants, did all the housework and sewing for the family. Her pious martyrdom indelibly impressed Simone, who would improve upon Virginia Woolf ’s famous advice and move to a room of her own—in a hotel, with maid service. Like Woolf, and a striking number of other great women writers,1 Beauvoir was childless. And like Colette, who wasn’t (she relegated her late- born, only daughter to the care of surrogates), she regarded motherhood as a threat to her integrity. Colette is a ubiquitous presence in The Second Sex, which gives a new perspective to her boast, in a memoir of 1946, that “my strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author . . . Beneath the still young woman that I was, an old boy of forty saw to the well- being of a possibly precious part of myself.”
Mme de Beauvoir, intent on keeping up a facade of gentility, however shabby, sent her daughters to an elite convent school where Simone, for a while, ardently desired to become a nun, one of the few respectable vocations open to an ambitious girl. When she lost her faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union (dreams that proved remarkably tenacious) shifted from Christ to an enchanting classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew. (Not many bookish virgins with a particle in their surname got drunk with the hookers and drug addicts at Le Styx.) Her mother hoped vainly that the worthless Jacques would propose. Her father, a ladies’ man, knew better: he told his temperamental, ill-dressed, pimply genius of a daughter that she would never marry. But by then Simone de Beauvoir had seen what a woman of almost any quality— highborn or low, pure or impure, contented with her lot or alienated— could expect from a man’s world.
Beauvoir’s singular brilliance was apparent from a young age to her teachers, and to herself. An insatiable curiosity and a prodigious capacity for synthetic reading and analysis (a more inspired grind may never have existed) nourished her drive. One of her boyfriends dubbed her Castor (the Beaver), a nickname that stuck. She had a sense of inferiority, it would appear, only in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. They met in 1929, as university students (she a star at the Sorbonne, he at the Ecole Normale Supérieure), cramming, as a team, for France’s most brutal and competitive postgraduate examination, the agrégation in philosophy. (On their first study date, she explained Leibniz to him.) Success would qualify her for a lifetime sinecure teaching at a lycée, and liberate her from her family. When the results were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second (she was the ninth woman who had ever passed), and that, forever, was the order of precedence— Adam before Eve— in their creation myth as a couple.
Even though their ideal was of a love without domination, it was part of the myth that Sartre was Beauvoir’s first man. After Georges de Beauvoir confronted them (they had been living together more or less openly), Sartre, the more bourgeois, proposed marriage, and Beauvoir told him “not to be silly.” She had emerged from her age of awkwardness as a severe beauty with high cheekbones and a regal forehead who wore her dark hair plaited and rolled— an old- fashioned duenna’s coif rather piquantly at odds with her appetites and behavior. Both sexes attracted her, and Sartre was never the most compelling of her lovers, but they recognized that each possessed something uniquely necessary to the other. As he put it one afternoon, walking in the Tuileries, “You and I together are as one” (on ne fait qu’un). He categorized their union as an “essential” love that only death could sunder, although in time, he said, they would naturally both have “contingent” loves— freely enjoyed and fraternally confessed in a spirit of “authenticity.” (She often recruited, and shared, his girls, some of whom were her students, and her first novel, She Came to Stay, in 1943, was based on one of their ménages à trois.) “At every level,” Beauvoir reflected, years later, of the pain she had suffered and inflicted, “we failed to face the weight of reality, priding ourselves on what we called our ‘radical freedom.’” But they also failed to fault themselves for the contingent casualties— the inessential others— who were sacrificed to their experiment. And the burden of free love, Beauvoir would discover, was grossly unequal for a woman and for a man.
If Beauvoir has proved to be an irresistible subject for biographers, it is, in part, because she and Sartre, as a pharaonic couple of incestuous deities, reigned over twentieth- century French intellectual life in the decades of its greatest ferment. But the most fascinating subjects tend to be those richest in contradictions, and The Second Sex, no less than Beauvoir’s prolific and important fiction, memoirs, and correspondence, seethes with them. Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir’s biographer, touches upon a fundamental paradox
in the introduction to her admirable life. She and Sartre ’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal had been lecturing together at Harvard. At the conclusion of their talk, she writes, “I could not help but comment to my distinguished audience that every question asked about Sartre concerned his work, while all those asked about Beauvoir concerned her personal life.” Yet Sartre ’s work, and specifically the existentialist notion of an opposition between a sovereign self— a subject— and an objectified Other, gave Beauvoir the conceptual scaffold for The Second Sex, while her life as a woman (indeed, as Sartre ’s woman) impelled her to write it. He had once told her that she had “a man’s intelligence,” and there is no evidence that he changed his mind about a patronizing slight that she, too, accepted as a compliment until she began to consider what it implied. It implied, she would write, that “humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself,” and by all the qualities (Colette ’s strain of “virility”) she is presumed to lack. Her “twinship” with Sartre was an illusion.
The Second Sex has been called a “feminist bible,” an epithet bound to discourage impious readers wary of a sacred text and a personality cult. Beauvoir herself was as devout an atheist as she had once been a Catholic, and she dismisses religions— even when they worship a goddess— as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion. The analogy is fitting, though, and not only to the grandeur of a book that was the first of its kind but also to its structure. Beauvoir begins her narrative, like the author of
Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The two volumes that elaborate on the consequences of that fall are the Old and New Testaments ...
How few women are bank presidents, judges or newspaper editors?
Why is equal pay for women still several generations away?
The Second Sex is required reading for anyone who believes in equality.
Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman'. In this book she defines the situation of women, explodes the myths of femininity and highlights the limits to women's freedom. She shatters our perceptions of the social relationship between men and women and argues that women's economic independence is the key to their freedom.
Drawing on sociology, anthropology and biology, The Second Sex is a passionate and important book as relevant today as when it was first published in 1949.
'Discovering The Second Sex was like an explosion in my skull, shattering illusions bred in a conventional fifties childhood... It is still entirely relevant. Despite advances, women are as much in need of liberation as ever'
'Simone de Beauvoir uses her own experience to explore the emotional costs of jealousy, attachment, monogamy, sexuality and love'
In their acclaimed new translation, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier have produced the first integral translation, reinstating a fifth of the original work. This definitive edition includes a foreword by Sheila Rowbotham.
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Description du livre Vintage, 1989. Soft cover. Etat : New. Newly translated and unabridged in English for the first time, Simone de Beauvoir’s masterwork is a powerful analysis of the Western notion of “woman,” and a groundbreaking exploration of inequality and otherness. This long-awaited new edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as it was sixty years ago, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come. N° de réf. du vendeur ABE-1520276721194