Speaking Volumes: The Second Sex

May 17, 1996

Maria Slowey on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex .

I first came across The Second Sex in a second hand bookshop in Dublin. At the time I was attending my first consciousness-raising sessions, and felt very daring about it all. Ireland was just beginning to emerge from a long period of cultural quiescence and the women of the country were starting to flex their muscles. That was in the early 1970s when most women in Ireland were either married and not in work, or not married and in work. We had the married unwaged women, the single working women, the widows and the nuns, all defined by their relationships to men.

To this day, I do not know why I bought the book. Nobody had recommended it to me, it certainly was not on my reading lists for mathematics and economics, none of my friends had read it - maybe it had something to do with it being written by a French woman of letters who was the companion of Jean Paul Sartre (whom I had read), and contained that magic word (and I do not mean "second") in the title.

The book, first published in France in 1949, is a tour de force. Volume one sold 22,000 copies in the first week, provoking enthusiastic and scandalised reactions in more or less equal measure. Taking as her theme the role of women within society, Beauvoir draws upon a range of academic disciplines to explore issues that, although commonplace today, had rarely been addressed previously. Sweeping across history, sociology, anthropology, biology, economics and psychoanalysis with a somewhat cavalier disregard for many of the substantive technicalities of each discipline, she succeeded in putting her finger on the pulse of a new age - an age in which the role of women within society is centre stage. Beauvoir scripted a new play.

The play that she wrote has two principal characters - the subject (men) and the other (women) - "humanity is male and man defines woman not in her self but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being". For Beauvoir. the resolution of this historical play pivots around the strategies that women should develop in order for them to achieve independence and shape their own destiny. Taking as her starting point the value of objectivity and rationality she embarks upon a detailed analysis that exposes femininity as essentially a cultural construct. The way forward that she advocated could be interpreted as being for women to become more like men.

This all seems heresy to contemporary thinking, feminist or otherwise, and The Second Sex is now regarded by many as an outdated work - criticising the feminine mystique only to end up accepting the masculine mystique. However, Beauvoir did ask a series of profound questions in a systematic, albeit idiosyncratic way, and came up with answers which, at the time, challenged what was then contemporary thinking. That to my mind is enough to make The Second Sex a work of the first importance.

On a more personal level, The Second Sex prompted me to think about social and educational issues in a broader context. Leaving aside the detail of the arguments and the evidence, my lasting impression of the message of this book is the potential that we all have to make ourselves anew. I subsequently became involved in adult education, which is based upon this essential principle. In retrospect I think that the emphasis placed in this book on knowledge as the basis for promoting personal and social change had some influence in pointing me in that direction. Thanks Simone.

Maria Slowey is professor and director of the department of adult and continuing education, University of Glasgow.

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