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Lisa Hadioui on Le Deuxième Sexe
15 November, 2023
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (de Beauvoir, 1949)
Simone de Beauvoir’s work as a pioneering feminist philosopher and writer is not lost on anyone. In her most famous contribution to feminist theory, “The Second Sex” published in 1949, she challenged traditional conceptions of gender by introducing the notion of “Woman as Other”. This relational theory proposed a new understanding of femininity by positing that womanhood has only been defined in relation to what man is not.
In de Beauvoir’s words, “woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity [from man].”1 According to her, the very essence of woman is contingent upon her being juxtaposed with man – a perspective rooted in the historical interpretation of woman’s biological difference as inferiority. This bold assertion was a strong call to reconsider the deeply entrenched societal norms that relegated women to a subordinate position where they were stripped of individuality, subjecting them to a state of dependency on their male counterparts. De Beauvoir astutely distinguishes between sex, the biological differences between male and female, and socially constructed gender roles, which were – and still are – imbued with power dynamics and expectations. Her analysis shattered the illusion that femininity was an inherent, immutable trait, emphasizing instead that it was a product of cultural and historical context. Such a take was evidently revolutionary at a time when rigid gender norms permeated every aspect of society.
Moreover, because de Beauvoir’s insights extended beyond binary understandings of gender, she provides a theoretical framework that could encompass queer experiences. The notion of “otherness” she articulated spoke not only to the condition of women in a patriarchal system, but also resonated with those who simply did not conform to conventional notions of sexuality and identity. This way, de Beauvoir laid the foundation for a more inclusive feminist theory that acknowledged, in a broader scope, the diversity of human experiences. However, this also speaks to the limitations of her writing as it notably overlooks the complex intersections of racial categories and social classes with women’s perceived “otherness”. The experiences of women of colour, disabled women and of those coming from unprivileged socio-economic backgrounds are distinct and influenced by multifaceted layers of discrimination. De Beauvoir’s work, while innovative for its time, does not fully account for the intricacies of these intersecting identities and the unique challenges they face, thus necessitating a more nuanced exploration of intersectionality2.
In closing, it is still worth noting that Simone de Beauvoir’s writings laid crucial groundwork for feminist theory. Scholarship has since evolved, and contemporary feminist thinkers continue to build on her legacy, recognizing both the enduring relevance of her contributions and the need for ongoing refinement and expansion in the pursuit of gender equity and social justice.
1 Being “only the negative” is understood in relation to man as the positive. “Man” stands for the positive and the neutral, the gender through which human beings in general are understood and is thus the universal subject to woman as the “Other.” It is “Man” who stands for mankind. Beauvoir, Simone de, and Judith Thurman. 2011. The Second Sex.
2 “Intersectionality”, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, precisely addresses this issue of theoretical studies often failing to acknowledge that individuals hold multiple identities that intersect in multiple ways and lead to unique experiences of oppression or privilege. In Crenshaw’s perspective, women’s experiences are not uniform, and various aspects of their identity (such as race, class, sexuality, disability, etc.) intersect to shape their individual realities. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2014. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings.