Biology Is Not Destiny: “The Independent Woman: Extracts from The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir”

By H. Patricia Hynes

Originally published on Truthdig, on March 8, 2019

“The Independent Woman: Extracts from The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir”

A book translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Annotated and introduced by Martine Reid

“The Second Sex,” a two-volume classic by French writer Simone de Beauvoir, was published in 1949 and quickly became an eminent—some contend the preeminent—book in the pantheon of 20th century feminist and existentialist writings. Like the biologist Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962), “The Second Sex” kindled a revolution across the Western world that is ablaze today in the global quest for women’s human rights, as witnessed by the January 2017 Women’s March on every continent, including Antarctica. De Beauvoir’s core proposition animates every page: The subordination and inequality of women is not our fate by reason of our biology; it is a gendered construct of society that has been accepted as natural (by most men and women) for millennia.

Like a sower scattering seeds, de Beauvoir planted an abundance of critical thinking that fed the feminist revolution in consciousness and activism of the 1960s and ’70s—popularly known as the Second Wave of Feminism. As with all radical social movements, debates and challenges ensued and persist. But the iconic message irrevocably lives: Biology is not destiny. The reduction of women to the feminine, sexualized lesser sex is an artifice constructed of vested prejudices that deprive women (and the world) of our fullest existence.

A small book of selected extracts from “The Second Sex” has now been released under the title “The Independent Woman.” It offers a trail studded with gems of insight, from which I cull a few to comment on today’s events, findings and social thinking regarding girls and women. Entwined within the extracts are a radical timelessness of feminist analysis and the shortcomings of a period piece.

“Humanity is male,” writes de Beauvoir, “and man defines woman not in herself, but in relation to himself: she is not considered an autonomous being. … [T]he male sex sees her essentially as a sexed being. … He is a Subject. … She is the Other.” Here, however, she is not referring explicitly to widespread sexual violence against women, including stalking, sexual harassment, rape, pimping and exploitation of women in prostitution, lack of reproductive freedom and other violations of women’s bodies, psyches and souls. Rather she is signifying the condition of women: essentialized since birth into domestic and passive feminine roles and, as her contemporary Virginia Woolf wrote in “A Room of One’s Own,” serving “all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

De Beauvoir then describes the tangled web in which women, unlike any other oppressed group, live intimately with their oppressors and often collude in their own oppression: “They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic interests and social conditions to certain men—fathers and husbands—more closely than to other women.” She describes with great nuance the detritus of inequality among intimates, banalized in popular culture as the “battle between the sexes.”

Click here to read long excerpts from “The Independent Woman” at Google Books.

Her prescription for liberation and equality is straightforward: Do what self-realized men have done. Seek a comparable education and aspire to excel. Set high goals for yourself in work and career; don’t fall prey to self-limiting messages from home, school, the workplace, society and your own internalized version of sex-based inferiority. Stellar messages to girls and women, but are they sufficient?

A recent nationally representative poll of 1,000 U.S. children and adolescents 10-19 reveals that while many girls and young women have sought and achieved substantial gains in precisely these prescriptions for achieving fulfillment, a riptide of sexual objectification persists, as if to undermine their pursuit of equality and excellence. “For me,” responded 13-year old Hiree Felema, “it’s important to be intelligent and confident. For women, in society, I think people just want you to be attractive”—an insight echoed by many girls surveyed. Girls reported as much interest in math and science as boys and slightly more in leadership, yet they did not feel equal with respect to their bodies. Three-quarters of teenage girls felt judged for their looks and unsafe as a female, including from sexual predators online. Many reported boys asking for nude photos, daily hearing sexual comments or jokes from boys in school and from men in their families. And, interestingly, girls felt more pressure to be kind than boys did, reflecting society’s stubborn, sex-based stereotypes of what is valued in women but not necessarily in men.

In 2017 the Pew Charitable Trust surveyed 4,573 Americans about what society values and (and doesn’t) in men and women. “Power,” “leadership,” and “honesty” were positive attributes in men, whereas “power” and “ambition” were largely seen as negative in women. “Compassionate,” “kind” and “responsible” were qualities viewed positively for women, while “emotion” and “compassion” largely ranked negatively for men. Just half of respondents chose “independence” in women and “caring” in men as positive traits. “Beauty” was valued for women, while “provider,” exclusively for men. Two hopeful results among the otherwise timeworn gender-based stereotypes: “Brain” was valued in women; and “sexism,” negatively in men.

In the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we had a riveting view of the outfall of privilege for entitled men who pander in unrestrained displays of anger, self-righteousness and ambition over the moderated self-presentation of women. Had Dr. Christine Blasey Ford “spoken with the same tone and flippancy [as Kavanaugh], she would have been described as unstable or combative,” notes former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman. Her prescription: Increase the number of women in leadership roles (something that white, married conservative women—identifying more with white men than other women—appear reluctant to do, judging from their voting patterns).

Since “The Second Sex,” the ascendancy of women has proven to be both more challenging than just imitating successful, “autonomous” men, as even aspiring 11- and 12-year-old girls know, and more complex than de Beauvoir proposed. Recent studies of women in leadership in public and private sectors have concluded that women in high-level positions and on boards deal more effectively with risk, focus more strategically on long-term priorities, and are more successful financially. Experimental studies of women and men negotiating post-conflict agreements have found that all-male groups take riskier, less empathetic and more aggressive positions, and they break down more quickly than negotiations that include women. Further, men are more satisfied with decisions made when women are involved than with all-male groups.

Parsing these findings, many women, educated like men and in comparable positions of influence, integrate qualities of their socialized development—compassion, not acting rashly or aggressively, a sense of responsibility—as assets into their leadership. In other words, they set more integrated, smart and nuanced goals for themselves than merely imitating men, and have succeeded where men have not.

The lesson in this, insufficiently probed in “The Second Sex” as reflected in “The Independent Woman,” is that men need to work as hard and as persistently for their liberation from masculinism (especially the normative sexual objectification of women) as women have strived for our equality. As the Buddhist critic and teacher Lama Rod Owens writes, “Like white people challenging whiteness, it is men who must do the work of understanding that a significant portion of our identity is based on a toxic, patriarchal masculinity.” [We need] “a widespread divestment in patriarchy and a complete interrogation of the ethics of power. We all have work to do.”

Reaching our full human capacity is the task of both sexes. If that were achieved, the world—riven with wars, endangered by nuclear weapons and climate change, rent by increasing economic inequality and declining democracy, under almost exclusive male leadership—will have a far better chance of survival.

Men their rights and nothing more: Women their rights and nothing less.—Susan B. Anthony, 1868