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The Lesbian

Book excerpt

By: Simone de Beauvoir

Date: 1949

Source: de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex, translated and edited by H.M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1993.

About the Author: The French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) is one of the most important figures in twentieth-century thought. She is the author of Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), one of the founding texts of modern Western feminism.


Simone de Beauvoir authored The Second Sex (1949) and other existential books exploring sexuality and the gender roles of women in history. One of the few female intellectuals of the twentieth century to achieve international fame and a pioneering feminist, de Beauvoir is a widely read and highly controversial figure.

The elder of two daughters, de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908. She met existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre when both were philosophy students at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. The two were together for more than fifty years but never married, lived in separate apartments, and frequently had affairs with younger partners. Sartre was jealous of de Beauvoir's greater intellectual reputation, one that she earned with a series of philosophical books as well as essays, novels, and plays. Although she did not identify as a feminist at the time that she wrote The Second Sex, de Beauvoir became a women's rights activist and remained active in radical feminist causes until her death in 1986.

The Second Sex, a two-volume work, is de Beauvoir's groundbreaking study of the situation of women from prehistory to the late 1940s. It famously introduced the idea that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." De Beauvoir argued that there is no natural feminity or masculinity or any maternal instinct. A woman becomes her gender by learning to conform to patriarchal society's requirements that she exist inauthentically.

De Beauvoir approached women's oppression from a materialist viewpoint. She believed that women could only achieve freedom by becoming economically free. She saw patriarchy as a social system in which women and men formed different classes with different interests. Critics of de Beauvoir's work believe that The Second Sex is fundamentally flawed by an oppositional conception of male and female, an inadequate understanding of the structure of the social world, and a commitment to the existentialist belief in the possibility of absolute free choice.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


Feminism would not have exploded worldwide in the mid-twentieth century without de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. The book set off shock waves upon its publication in France in 1949, with the first edition selling twenty-two thousand copies. However, in a deeply traditional France, most people only read summaries of the book. De Beauvoir analyzed the effects of patriarchal power in everyday life in a France in which women had only just won the right to vote in 1944 and where a woman could not work outside the home without her husband's formal consent. At the time of the book's publication, abortion and contraception were illegal, making de Beauvoir's exploration of sexuality all the more shocking. To many in France, The Second Sex was indecent and scandalous.

Following the appearance of an edited English translation in 1953, English-speaking feminists began to explore de Beauvoir's ideas. As time passed, her ideas seemed less shocking. The work was eventually translated into forty-nine languages. Key feminist theorists such as Shulamith Firestone of Canada, Germaine Greer of Australia, and Betty Friedan and Judith Butler of the United States have acknowledged their intellectual debt to de Beauvoir's work even as they moved in radically different directions. Although there are few explicit references to de Beauvoir in the publications of these women, her work helped establish a framework for their subsequent arguments about women's liberation.

The feminists inspired by the French feminist theory that developed in the 1970s, such as Luce Iri-garay and Monique Wittig, have tended to either ignore de Beauvoir or to treat her as a theoretical dinosaur. De Beauvoir worked with these feminists in the 1970s on such issues as abortion and violence against women. Although she never retracted any of her original arguments in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir also acknowledged that she had underestimated the political significance of women's sexuality.



Bauer, Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir: Philosophy and Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Duran, Jane. Eight Women Philosophers: Theory, Politics, and Feminism. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Tidd, Ursula. Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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