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An epochal fiery work that lit the fire under the MeToo movement

This is a literary force, a platform, a fire and a raging manifesto for what it means to be a feminist in a world driven by men – since time began. Simone de Beauvoir may not be here to lead the MeToo movement but she sure as hell was there to light the fire in the public square at a time less open than today. The Second Sex was published in 1949, a time when birth control was illegal and male dominance had spread to every corner of society – politically, economically, sexually. Then Simone de Beauvoir stood up and said, “Enough.”

Tarana Burke founder of Me Too movement

This book is as good as it gets as a polemic against a patriarchal culture and it is a fierce denunciation of women’s secondary place in society. If you believe in the MeToo movement then this is a must read. At least get it on your bookshelf for reference. In it are the roots of where we are today and it was the vanguard to Germain Greer’s, The Female Eunuch (1963), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, (1970), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), and inspiration for Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Malala Yousafzai and Tarana Burke (founder of MeToo in 2006) – just to name a few who have followed de Beauvoir’s lead.

Simone de Beauvoir’s work sweeps across biology, philosophy, economics, psychology, anthropology and culture to make the case for more than half the world’s population. She takes on men, marriage, motherhood, reproduction, menstruation, breast-feeding, insemination and the “exhausting servitude” of being a woman. At times, she goes to extremes to make a point (i.e., the fetus is a “parasite”), but she does make her point. Yes, there are a few times she misses the point, like in her declaration that, “One is not born, but rather becomes a a woman.” Because this overly simplistic philosophy is refuted today by our deeper understanding of genetics. Perhaps she didn’t read enough Darwin because his theory on natural selection would have caused her pause before writing such a hypothesis.

“It is when the slavery of half of humanity is abolished and with it the whole hypocritical system it implies that the division of humanity will reveal its authentic meaning and the human couple will discover its true form.” – Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir 1947. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Surprise! de Beauvoir really liked men, just not the objectified position women occupied opposite them. She believed that women’s recognition and achievement of their rightful place was equally important to both sexes. But it started with “the second sex.”

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the 20th century existentialism savant, was her main heterosexual life-companion, even though she had a passionate affair with American author Nelson Algren. Sartre’s influence can be seen in how de Beauvoir portrays women as the weaker sex, destined to ‘so exist’ according to existential thinking, and always be in opposition to the genetically stronger male species. It is a complex hypothesis that this book begins the arduous task of untangling.

The subjugation of women stirred her wrath and mounted a passion destined to examine the travails of women and relentlessly question them. She deplored what she called the “curse” for women who faced “attachment, resentment, hatred, resignation, laziness, hypocrisy … and boredom.” In this magnificent book, she  marshals theory and evidence for an unprecedented defense of women against “violation” and “alienation” by men. If women are to have a Bible in their nightstand, this should be it.

Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements of her philosophical, social and economic impact is the fact that The Second Sex was on The Vatican’s list of “Forbidden Books.” Fortunately, she laid the foundation for a new religion for the independence of women.

“And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” – Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was considered the father of existentialism, before Sartre, but either way, de Beauvoir was steeped in the philosophy. From this came the core of her women-are-cursed thinking. And because of it, her studies and beliefs allowed her to write this ambitious book that perhaps explains, better and more impressively than any other, the inner feelings and workings of women facing a history of male thinking and writing, carved in stone from the Bible and Aristotle to Hippocrates and Hegel. Only a handful of writers, including Darwin and de Beauvoir, have become the saints of the female species. But they have constructed the scaffolding on which today’s women can build their rightful position.

“One of the few great books of our era.” – Phillip Wylie

From the opening pages, the book sets de Beauvoir’s stage for her brilliant, implacable polemic, and the titling of Part One, Destiny and Chapter 1, Biological Data, is an indication of the cornerstones on which she builds her thesis.

Chapter 1: Biological Data

Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: She is a womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her. From a man’s mouth, the epithet “female” sounds like an insult; but he, not ashamed of his animality, is proud to hear: “He ’s a male!” The term “female” is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but because it confines her in her sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him. Nevertheless, he wants to find a justification in biology for this feeling. The word “female” evokes a saraband of images: an enormous round egg snatching and castrating the agile sperm; monstrous and stuffed, the queen termite reigning over the servile males; the praying mantis and the spider, gorged on love, crushing their partners and gobbling them up; the dog in heat running through back alleys, leaving perverse smells in her wake; the monkey showing herself off brazenly, sneaking away with flirtatious hypocrisy. And the most splendid wildcats, the tigress, lioness, and panther, lie down slavishly under the male ’s imperial embrace, inert, impatient, shrewd, stupid, insensitive, lewd, fierce, and humiliated. Man projects all females at once onto woman. And the fact is that she is a female. But if one wants to stop thinking in commonplaces, two questions arise. What does the female represent in the animal kingdom? And what unique kind of female is realized in woman?

The remaining 700+ pages are an exploration in the hands of the Red Queen of all things feminist, a clarion call to all women to fight, adapt and grow. And it should be in the hands of every independent woman.


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