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date: 24 January 2018

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Abstract and Keywords

Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 masterpiece, The Second Sex, is rarely considered a canonical text worthy of being studied within the history of political thought. Even within feminist scholarship, although it is often cited or acknowledged, only short excerpts, usually the introduction, are read carefully. This essay argues that the reception of The Second Sex has been marred by overly emotional and ambivalent responses, in part a result of its literary style. The Second Sex is written as a situated dramaturgical staging of conversation. Beauvoir puts men into conversation about women in Volume I and invites women into conversation with each other about their experiences in Volume II. These literary techniques invite readers of The Second Sex to also participate in the conversation, a conversation Beauvoir hopes will change the way we see and talk about sexual difference, conditions of oppression, and how to enlarge the space for freedom.

Keywords: The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, feminism, political theory, affect, political conversation, politics, authority

Since its publication in 1949, reception of The Second Sex has been ambivalent and fraught with emotion. Listen to how Beauvoir describes early responses to the book in her 1963 autobiography, Force of Circumstance: “Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to temper my labial appetites; I was promised revelations, in the coarsest terms but in the name of the true, the good and the beautiful, in the name of health and even of poetry, all unworthily trampled underfoot by me” (1992, 197). Beauvoir goes on for several pages documenting violent and aggressive reactions to her book.

From a very different, but also emotional and deeply ambivalent, point of view, Beauvoir was cast as the “mother” of feminism, a label she disavowed in a 1974 interview remarking that “mother–daughter relations are generally catastrophic” (Schwarzer 1984, 94) and “people don’t tend to listen to what their mothers are telling them” (Patterson 1986, 92). Her text has also been called “the feminist bible” even though Beauvoir herself was an atheist (Thurman 2010, xii). Over half a century later, the text still solicits powerful reactions. Reviewing the new 2010 translation in the New York Times, Francine du Plessix-Gray says: “Beauvoir’s truly paranoid hostility toward the institutions of marriage and motherhood—another characteristic of early feminism—is so extreme as to be occasionally hilarious.” She goes on to say that “pessimism runs through the text like a poisonous river” while reassuring us that Beauvoir did not hate men (Plessix-Gray 2010).

Even if we are reassured that Beauvoir did not “hate men,” the book is indeed about women. But unlike Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, another “seminal” book about women, The Second Sex is rarely considered a canonical text worthy of being read and studied within the history of political thought. Even specifically within feminist scholarship, while The Second Sex is almost always cited and acknowledged, only a few excerpts, mostly the introduction, are regularly read. Moreover, certain criticisms of the text render it politically noxious. It is said that the claims of The Second Sex are limited to mid-century French women or that despite a half-hearted nod to inclusivity and diversity, Beauvoir’s text reproduces a white intellectual perspective (Markowitz 2009; Spelman 1988). We are also reminded that were we sensitive to Beauvoir’s own criticisms of claims to universality proffered by traditional philosophy, we would regard The Second Sex as historically situated and limited by a particular perspective produced in a unique moment.

Overall, our ability to appreciate the political and philosophical significance of The Second Sex has been limited by intense rejection or veneration, excessive historicizing,1 and the debates that ensued when the text was published in English, translated by Parshley in the 1951 edition and by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chavalier in the 2010 edition. Like Toril Moi (2010), Emily Apter has commented on how the philosophicality of Beauvoir has always been lost in translation for English-speaking feminists. Analyzing the translation debates in a political register, Apter suggests that we can see philosophical untranslatability itself as a way to “pose the problem of sexual difference to ontology” (Apter 2013, 171).

Given all these caveats and criticisms, why, and more importantly, how, should we read The Second Sex as political theory?2 The reading advanced here links affective responses to the text to its form, which itself produces its most valuable political insights. The form Beauvoir chooses, a situated dramaturgical staging of conversation, is a method of political engagement that both reveals affect—emotional states, ways of relating, and even bodily dispositions—and is itself affective and agonistic, putting several voices into conversation but leading to no resolution or prognosis for a certain future. As a political conversation, as opposed to philosophical argument or utopian manifesto, The Second Sex unearths and evaluates dominant oppressive features of our world and relationships, but promises nothing. Rather, Beauvoir leaves it up to us to find our way via a politics that is localized, affective, and agonistic.

Form, Affect, Politics

The Second Sex stages a series of conversations across multiple identities and perspectives. More simply put, Beauvoir puts several different people into conversation, yet their identities and situations are permeable to each other and to the world. The people, as described by Beauvoir, are each situated by ontological, affective, economic, and historical conditions, but emerge transformed from the conversation as received by readers, opening up new opportunities for political collectivities to emerge. We should notice, too, that the text experiments in cross- and inter-disciplinarity, putting biology, physiology, philosophy, literature, qualitative sociological record, history, economics, psychology, and political science all into conversation about the meaning and hierarchy of sexual difference. These conversations diagnose both good and bad feelings about gender and belonging that are the products of patriarchal oppression. They also show how ideology and myth-making are themselves a product not only of systems, structures, and material conditions, but also of affective states and interactions that both arise from and result in material effects. Beauvoir asks us, via the conversation she constructs within the text and solicits beyond the text, to revisit and explore the anxiety produced by bodily facts, turn away from myth, ideology, history, and linguistic and institutional structures and practices of oppression to embrace ambiguity, better imagine our world, and radically recreate its meanings.

Her choice of conversational style, or “talking about” women as she colloquially puts it, simultaneously gives credence to diverse and unconventional claims to authority (from the body, from women’s experience, from heterogeneous locations) and unmasks and debunks traditional masculine claims to authority produced and reproduced in science, psychoanalysis, historical materialism, religion, and literature. The conversation Beauvoir constructs, and the way she invites multiple perspectives into her text by experimenting with this style, is especially adept for political thinking true to conditions of freedom as non-sovereignty, inter-subjectivity, and an enactment of future possibilities for collective political action. Indeed, conversation for Beauvoir works both within and beyond the text as an affective and emotive political appeal to bring a new community of women into being, one that is not founded on any “natural” or already existing identity that can be discovered.

The Second Sex brings our attention to several features at once: the emotions, biological realities, historical, economic, and social situation of the men and the multiple women she puts into conversation; the structures of feeling, as well as the material realities, that condition women’s “lived experiences;” and finally, the affect generated in our own responses to the text. Beauvoir’s method demonstrates that affective emotional states of the people in conversation create specific political assemblages, organizations, and modes-of-being, themselves noticeable and irreducible to the workings of structures and ideologies. Not only does Beauvoir note that the dominant masculine response to the human predicament of embodiment and finitude precipitates feelings of hostility, fear, and anxiety that result in the creation of myths and ideologies about sexual difference, she further argues that women, too, absorb and replicate these emotions and attitudes, and they are imprinted on female bodies. Female melancholy, narcissism, anxiety, shame, and investment in romance enhance patriarchal structures and ideologies and themselves substantially obstruct women’s individual and collective political agency, while also potentially signaling dissent, or at the very least, discomfort with the way things are. Ultimately, the form of the text itself invites new conversations: it unfolds as a political appeal, producing a community beyond the text inviting readers to invent new subjectivities, new thinking, and indeed to create a different future.

As I see it, Beauvoir’s substantive argument contains three interrelated parts. First, structural conditions of oppression arise from the myth of Woman, an ideology produced contingently via political meanings about sexual difference. These meanings, themselves a product of an affective state (male hostility and fear in response to the facts of human finitude, bodily facticity, and immanence), are assigned to bodies to reduce the complexity, contingency, and indeterminacy of biological, historical, and psychoanalytic “data.” Second, these constructed meanings perpetuate inequality (marking men as transcendent and women as immanent) to produce conditions of patriarchal oppression that are bolstered by both “good” feelings such as participation and belonging to a “woman’s culture” of femininity, and “bad” or “ugly” feelings3—shame, narcissism, melancholy, and thwarted desire—when one falls outside the boundaries or inexpertly or inadequately belongs. These emotions and affective assemblages are not quite captured by standard analyses of materially or economically situated power, structures, or ideology; and yet they are key to exploring more precisely why and how women’s agency and freedom are obstructed within patriarchal systems, and whether or how they might express dissent. Third, Beauvoir’s text brings another affective moment into play via her chosen form of conversation and the literary techniques she employs: the appeal to readers to break from oppressive gender bonds and disassociate from femininity in order to create a new future.

The Rites and Rights of Conversation

Beauvoir introduces her topic of conversation, “a book on woman,” in an ironically dismissive way. She says that the “subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new:” Indeed, “enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about” (3). There is no doubt that by opening the book we have stumbled upon a creative and sometimes baffling textual beast. Introducing “woman” as a subject that is suitable, although irritating, to “talk about,” the text unfolds as two sequential parts of an extended conversation; or we might think of it as like attending two dinner parties, with different guests talking about the same topic, during back-to-back evenings. Volume I features male authority figures—scientists, politicians, historians, psychoanalysts, philosophers, playwrights, theologians, and novelists—declaiming on the roots, legitimacy, and meanings of sexual difference. With the introduction of a diverse group of women in Volume II, the conversation gets even more heated and we see the world from a new perspective. Here we meet famous and minor characters from fiction, authors of autobiographies, Beauvoir’s friends and acquaintances, actresses, prostitutes, wives, mothers, girlfriends, girls and friends—sharing the “lived experiences” of becoming women.

One of the techniques that Beauvoir employs throughout the first volume of The Second Sex is to give male authority figures space to speak for themselves and in conversation with other authority figures while at the same time undermining, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in more subtle ways, their assumed right to shape, determine, and dominate conversation. Beauvoir admits early on that she “used to get annoyed in abstract discussions to hear men tell [her]: ‘You think such and such because you’re a woman’” (5). In response to this conversation stopper, Beauvoir says a woman is forced to answer, “I think it because it is true,” rather than “You think the contrary because you are a man.” “It is understood a man is in his right by virtue of being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong” (5). Today, a woman could hold her own, if not carry the day, by responding: “you think the contrary because you are a man.” Yet this assertion of equal particularity, or equally shared and competing claims to authority, much like the proliferation of new gender identities or the right to marry who one happens to love regardless of gender, does not ultimately serve to undermine masculine authority and norms of bourgeois ideology. Beauvoir is doing something different, and far more radical and potentially transformative, than to simply add more voices to the mix when she stages conversations in The Second Sex.

Another textual technique at play is Beauvoir’s mimicking of male voices in a complex and what can be a confusing patchwork that sometimes results in readers not knowing who or what position Beauvoir is endorsing. Beauvoir does indeed warn us about her strategy: “It is noteworthy that physiologists and biologist all use a more or less finalistic language merely because they ascribe meaning [in this case, gendered hierarchical meaning] to vital phenomena; we will use their language” (26). But she also steps in at key moments, aggressively inserting herself into conversation to make a pointed and often damning observation. Commenting on the conclusion that the ovum is likened to immanence and the sperm to transcendence, for example, Beauvoir says: “In truth, these are merely ramblings” (28). As readers, though, we have to be attentive: we must never turn away for even a moment, for we might lose the thread. Were that to happen, we might not recognize who is speaking when, as in several instances, Beauvoir cedes the floor to a misogynistic male scientist or historian who chimes in with great gusto to conjure images of “devouring femininity” and “woman’s dream of castration” (33).

Beauvoir indicates repeatedly in the chapters on “Facts” that anxiety, fear, and disgust are common responses to biological realities and historical contingencies. Chapter one on “Biological Data,” for example, begins by noting that the term “woman,” when uttered by “those who like simple answers” such as “womb,” “ovary,” or simply “female,” is hurled as an insult; “female” is “pejorative not because it roots woman in nature” but rather due to the “disquieting hostility” “woman triggers in man” (21). And so, he (a singular term connoting the ideological mandates rendered true by scientific authority) abandons scientific method to “find a justification in biology for this feeling” (21). Strikingly, the conversation that Beauvoir constructs amongst male scientists reveals that “scientific” findings on biological reproduction, the demands of the species, and the significance of sexual difference are all motivated by the search to find justification for a “feeling,” in this case, hostility.

Myths, too, are a response to certain ugly, or at least unsettling and uncomfortable, feelings such as anxiety. Myths rescue men from the existential dilemma of longing for both “life and rest, existence and being;” they cast woman as an “embodied dream;” “the perfect intermediary between nature that is too foreign to man and the peer who is too identical to him;” “She pits neither the hostile silence of nature nor the hard demand of a reciprocal recognition against him; by unique privilege she is a consciousness, yet it seems possible to possess her in the flesh” (2011, 160). Male myths, many and variable, depict woman as “privileged prey” as well as “Mother,” “Spouse,” “Idea;” (2011, 161–163); they co-exist in “opposition, and each has a double face” (2011, 161–163.). Like science, myths are not the products of rational thought; instead, they spring from men’s “hearts,” inspired by disgust, horror, embarrassment, fear, loathing, and repulsion (164–165, all Beauvoir’s terms). Myths arise in response to the grotesque truth of women’s flesh: the “chaotic obscurity” of women’s genitals; the “quivering gelatin that forms in the womb;” the “living magma” of the “pregnant woman’s stomach;” the “swollen breasts of the wet nurse;” the “regions of immanence” he “wants to escape;” the “roots he wants to pull himself away from” (163–165).

What unfolds in the first volume of The Second Sex, thus, highlights some of the political features of Beauvoir’s keen interest in affective states revealed in conversation. Moving between and amongst people in conversation, identities are seen as inherently unstable and relational, and affects as shifting and moving to both stabilize and destabilize material conditions and ideological perspectives. Put into staged conversation with each other, male authorities show how their identities as authority figures are built on shifting sand, and they reveal their affective preoccupations—fear, disgust, repulsion, hostility, and anxiety. These emotions motivate and undergird patriarchal ideology and structures, and themselves form a complex assemblage of emotions that hold men, and as we shall see, women too, emotionally, anatomically, and psychically captive to the hierarchy of sexual difference. What we learn in Volume II when Beauvoir includes women in the conversation to talk about their own bodies and experiences is no surprise: women are drawn into the web of these affective states by the demand to “be women, stay women, become women” (3, my emphasis). There are good feelings generated by the comfort that one receives from belonging to the community of women who embrace and manage femininity, and bad or ugly feelings experienced by belonging inexpertly or not at all. And yet, via the both formal and affective techniques Beauvoir utilizes to create new conversations (the staging and the appeal), we more clearly see the links between patriarchal structures and systems and their affective, particularly their emotional, hold on us. This method, she wagers, not only helps us see our shared world anew, it may also spark new antagonisms and solicit our investment in creating conditions for the emergence of new alliances.

Femininity’s Damaging Allure

The conversation that Beauvoir sets into motion amongst male authorities in Volume I discloses the way that feelings motivate oppression, lodge their effects on our bodies, and work with and through patriarchal structures and ideologies to hold us captive and limit our political agency. Volume II of The Second Sex can be read as tracking what Lauren Berlant calls the “bargaining with power and desire in which members of intimate publics always seem to be engaging” (2008, viii).4 But while Berlant addresses these affects as they register in popular culture—sentimental novels, films, and musicals—when we change the form, as Beauvoir does to solicit the complaint via staged conversations, we also enhance their political potential.

While Beauvoir is exceedingly attentive to the attractive affective links between oppression and identity, as well as the way these links emotionally bond us with each other and with repressive power, she simultaneously calls for dissociation from identity categories and the feelings, both good and bad, that they solicit. Put as an explicitly political question, Beauvoir asks: does femininity ever become a site of resistance whereby affects produced and nurtured via oppression can lead elsewhere? What we will see in the reading that follows is that while Beauvoir exposes both the attractive allure of femininity as well as the pathological characteristics its demands engender (Marso 2006), her appeal to her readers via the conversational form invites us to embrace the risks of freedom and collective action that a dissociation with identity and its affects makes possible.

Volume II begins with an (in)famous phrase: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”5 Many scholars have interpreted this phrase as introducing a distinction between sex and gender to claim that sex is natural and gender is cultural, but Beauvoir never saw the body in these terms. She argues instead that ontology is a concrete and political reality (we have bodies, we reproduce, we die, we are slaves to the species, we are configurations of cells, blood, tissues, bones, and muscle), and that the meanings ascribed to sexual difference, itself created as a key and central difference, stems from an actively emotive fear of bodies, biology, and the complexity and vitality of life processes.6 Rather than claim anything about gender, sex, and the relationship between the two, Beauvoir’s text questions and undoes any and all assumptions about women by posing the topic for conversation in the form of the question: “what is a woman?” (5).

Thus circumventing what has been called the “category of women” debates or the “subject question” in feminist discourse, Beauvoir acts as if women exist, since for all practical purposes they do,7 in order to question the way the idea of “woman” and the meanings of “femininity” take hold—physically, structurally, ideologically, and emotionally—in women’s lives. Dismantling all claims about the “eternal feminine” while at the same time rejecting nominalism (“women are not men,” she admits (4), Beauvoir says that nevertheless we can and should, in fact, speak in everyday language about and to women even though, and maybe precisely because, we do not know the answer to the question of what it is or what it means to be a woman. Indeed we must speak with and to those identified as women, and even speak emotively as if the category were meaningful, in order to begin to dismantle the many mechanisms that undergird the hierarchy of sexual difference.

Thus recognizing the draws and dangers of affectively lived identity and community, Beauvoir’s rhetoric willingly calls to women as female-identified selves, with their habits and experience drawn and lived through femininity, but the conversation unfolds to question the very ground on which such experience is located. So doing, she creates a conversation amongst female strangers that “feels” intimate and revelatory in order to challenge the emotional basis (our ties to femininity) of this same intimacy and shared feeling.

Rather than track the way affective bonds and women’s emotional life are presented in The Second Sex, scholarship on the text has tended to focus on Beauvoir’s theorization of situation to explain her unique contribution to understanding women’s oppression under patriarchy. Beauvoir argues that all humans are situated, located as we are within constraints of biology, history, social and political conditions, the existence and experience of time as linear and non-linear, ideologies and systems, the existence of others, and webs of discourse. Beauvoir recognizes these constraints, and furthermore argues that some of them—the ontological aspects of conditions within biology, for example, such as time and death—should be embraced. To avow and embrace ambiguity would be to accept that we are each simultaneously self and other, transcendence and immanence. Throughout her oeuvre, especially in The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir seeks to understand how some subjects (race, class, gender, and power are interlinked here) have been able to deny ambiguity, systematically and structurally, by assuming the role of transcendence for themselves and confining others to immanence.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir says women often acquiesce to conditions of oppression by acting in some combination of bad faith and reasonable assessment of their situation. Women do, she reminds us, have a vested material interest in assuming their inferior position: “Refusing to be the Other, refusing all complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them.” But there is an emotional component as well. Claiming freedom triggers the angst that accompanies making free choices. Ever present is “the temptation to flee freedom” and make yourself “into a thing.” This is what Beauvoir calls “an easy path” one where “the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence is avoided.” She concludes this part by noting “the man who sets the woman up as an Other will thus find in her a deep complicity” (10). Hence women often make no claims as transcendent subjects as a result of several interacting components: lacking the concrete means, sensing the necessary links connecting her to men, and deriving a certain satisfaction “from her role as Other.” The claim that women are emotionally and affectively invested in their role as “other” via psychic and social investment, via training in techniques to develop and perform femininity, and via participation in an emotive “women’s culture” has been mostly neglected in Beauvoir scholarship. But, as we will see, Beauvoir returns to the emotional and affective register again and again in Volume II to explore why and how bad faith can be such an attractive option, why and how the bonds that hold us captive look, and can even sometimes feel so good. (All quotations this paragraph, 10.)

Part of the attraction of belonging to what Berlant (2008, viii) has called an intimate public, in this case an affectively felt “women’s culture” built around norms of femininity, is that “aloneness is one of the affective experiences of being collectively, structurally unprivileged.” When you are part of a women’s culture, when you conform to the demands of femininity, you can feel better. Not only do you get positive reinforcement from patriarchal structures and from the individual men to whom you are attached, you also get the feeling of belonging to a culture that points beyond the self. As Berlant explains, “women’s culture” enacts a “fantasy that my life is not just mine, but an experience understood by other women, even when it is not shared by many or any” (2008, x).

Within the conversations she stages, Beauvoir reveals that women repeatedly consume the message that positive feelings arise from belonging to “the second sex” as men have shaped it. And indeed, while women are often able to take pleasure in relinquishing agency as she shows us in the chapters on “The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” and “The Mystic,” at the same time, the conversations illuminate that ugly feelings of anxiety, melancholy, envy, or the ongoing sense that one does not belong, are possible, acceptable, and potentially able to be politically mobilized. One of several things Beauvoir accomplishes in the conversation she creates in Volume II is to show that the pleasurable feelings women are supposed to get through their identities as “wives,” “mothers,” “girlfriends,” and “sexual partners” are, after all, often not those that women actually end up having. Beauvoir’s chapter on “The Married Woman,” as just one example, asks whether being a wife, the “destiny that society traditionally offers women,” is all it promises. Even the “single woman” is defined by marriage though she might be “frustrated by, disgusted at, or even indifferent to this institution” (439). Both good and bad feelings are exposed, and explored, by drawing us into conversation through our identity as “women,” as beings who are supposed to feel content by fulfilling patriarchal roles.

Anticipating contemporary work in cultural and feminist theory, but solicited differently through the conversational form as mobilized through people (both real and fictional), Beauvoir brings attention to the emotions and anxieties of women, diagnosing these affects as a response to situation expressed on and by the body and its comportment. She says, for example, that many women end up feeling melancholic as a result of being “locked into the conjugal community” (470). Listen to the following passage Beauvoir quotes from a diary:

I am terribly, terribly sad, and withdrawing further and further into myself. My husband is ill and out of sorts and doesn’t love me. I expected this, yet I could never have imagined it would be so terrible. Why do people always think I am so happy? What no one seems to realize is that I cannot create happiness, either for him or for myself (488).

Beauvoir reads this young woman’s unhappiness as a social condition: “This distress is what often causes long depressions and various psychoses in the young woman … In particular, in the guise of different psychasthenic obsessions, she feels the giddiness of her empty freedom” (491). More recently, Sarah Ahmed diagnoses that unhappiness gets attached to particular individuals, or “sticks to some bodies” (Ahmed 2004, 131) as a psychic condition but is generated through past histories of political, material, and social significance. As she shows in The Promise of Happiness (2010), emotions coalesce in social and material form to falsely appear for individuals as specific orientations that are the result of conscious choice. An example of this is Beauvoir’s remark that the young girl said to be “ashamed” of urinating in a squatting position, or the male whose penis expresses his “pride” should make us wonder “how the subject’s aspirations can be embodied in an object” (55). While affects do appear on particular bodies, it is the failure of emotions to be located solely in a particular body or object that allows them to reproduce and generate the effects that they do. It seems that as individuals, we are oriented on the right path or the wrong path, that our “unhappiness” or “melancholy” is the result of the wrong choice or a wrong relationship to our world. But with Beauvoir and Ahmed, we see that unhappiness, shame, and pride, for instance, are constituted by other means; they are saturated signs, rather than individual symptoms. In another passage, Beauvoir describes the “pathological melancholy” that some women feel after having an abortion as a feeling of guilt induced only by the atmosphere (the affects that circulate in and through bodies) that condemns the women who make this difficult choice (531). Reading with Beauvoir and Ahmed helps us to see affects and emotions such as unhappiness, melancholy, worry, anxiety, grief, obsessions, and so on, as produced within a social system, in this case under patriarchy. Reading this way, we see the circulation of affects between and across bodies and histories as registering a potential critique.

Invoking another common emotional state for women, Beauvoir talks about worry to diagnose it as lack of freedom. “Worrying” because she is prevented from “doing” anything, “long, despondent ruminations” ensue as the “specter of her own powerlessness” (645–646). Forms of melancholy are in other passages linked more directly to what Beauvoir, anticipating Berlant, specifically calls “the female complaint”: “together, women friends groan individually about their own ills and all together about the injustice of their lot, the world, and men in general” (646). She cites and interprets the diary of Sophia Tolstoy:

January 11, 1863: My jealousy is a congenital illness, or it may be because in loving him I have nothing else to love; I gave given myself so completely to him that my only happiness is with him and from him.

January 15, 1863: I have been feeling [out of sorts and] angry that he should love everything and everyone, when I want him to love only me … (496).

Whereas Berlant reads the female complaint as “the bitter vigilance of the intimately disappointed,” (2008, 1), Beauvoir’s analysis portends a politics, seeing the fact of complaint as an expression of “impotent anger” (496). Listening to this and the thousands of other experiences mobilized through the voices of women in the text, Beauvoir wagers that readers will see that what is framed as “private” or “personal” emotions and feelings are constructed through political and social contexts.

While Beauvoir admits that these behaviors and symptoms cannot be categorized as collective agency or anything approaching a conscious rebellion, she says that we can interpret them “as protest” (2011, 649). Berlant argues that the female complaint fuses feminine and feminist rage “hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little” (2008, 1). We might ask: how much is “a little?” Certainly not enough, but where might it take us? In the following and final section, I return to the significance of the conversational form to draw out its most explicit political implications.

Conversation and Collective Political Action

As Beauvoir constantly reminds us, seeking meaning through identification with god, myths, humanity, or any a priori or transcendent universal, even the belief in revolution, destroys the space and time between us, and thus destroys politics. Although a section near the end of the text on “The Independent Woman” offers a half-hearted embrace of socialist-world policies to get women into the workforce as a guarantee of concrete freedom (721), Beauvoir makes a clear break with a revolutionary historical dialectics to show not only that material contradictions and conditions are not enough to guarantee dissent and change, but that affective relations are themselves material and must be seen as such.

Theorized as an “endless becoming,” Beauvoir sees each person’s point of departure as creating “requirements and appeals to which only the creation of new requirements will respond” (Beauvoir 2004, 110). This open, never-ending, appeal and potential response of individual subjectivities, each themselves continually breaking the bonds of pre-set identities, happens within a context where “our judgment alone” (120) allows us to examine the conditions of our lives. Because “there exists no heaven where the reconciliation of human judgments is accomplished” (131) and because we are each singularly situated but necessary in our freedom as “foundation” for the existence of others, it is only through reaching out to others in their freedom that we can create a new and potentially liberating future.

The formal conditions of conversation, that “there must be men ready to hear me close by, and that these men must be my peers” (Beauvoir 2004, 137) is both met and not met in The Second Sex. There were men close by, but several were clearly not ready to hear Beauvoir’s voice. She also says, though, that many, both women and men, heard and responded to her appeal. Beauvoir says she is told the book sometimes “helped women” and she says this is partly because “it expressed them, and they in turn gave it its truth” (1992, 203). Could it be the case that hearing the female complaint, learning the truth of the origins of myths in male anxiety and fear, and making space for conversation between and amongst women is, itself, what feminist politics is about? Do these acts themselves create the possibility to encourage collective action? If we read The Second Sex as an appeal to solicit our judgments, and see politics as taking the form of an unending, open, and necessary conversation, we can see this text and its central question (what is a woman?) as a political conversation. Rather than being “now almost over,” (3) it is instead perpetually new.


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(1) Possibly this is a result of its strong links with inspiring women’s liberation movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, in France, and across the globe, and the pronounced tendency within feminist movements to conceptualize time as unfolding either in a linear and progressive improvement narrative (wherein the text would be seen as long surpassed), or as tinged by nostalgia for the past and disappointment about the failure to deliver a promised future (wherein the text would be read nostalgically or in anger). I diagnose stances towards feminist “time” and the labeling of the waves in the generational model to make a political argument for reading feminism as genealogy in Marso 2010.

(2) There has been a return to Beauvoir in recent years, particularly by feminist philosophers and academics studying her literature and fiction. Particularly important are the 2010 complete (albeit controversially received) translation of The Second Sex and the several volumes of Beauvoir’s work, edited by Margaret A. Simons with scholar’s introductions to each piece, published by the University of Illinois Press. Several volumes in this series have already been published (2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012). Attention to the political implications of Beauvoir’s work, however, has been limited. See Marso and Moynagh 2006; Marso 2006; Marso 2010, 2012a, 2012b, 2013; and Kruks 2012.

(3) I borrow Sianne Ngai’s (2005) phrase “ugly feelings” here to talk, as she does, about how such feelings, ongoing and sustained within oppressive structures, contribute to forms of suspended agency. e.g., in her chapter on “Envy,” she talks about how envy is an affective response to perceived inequality, rather than a sign of deficiency within the subject.

(4) Berlant (2008, viii) defines an “intimate public” as “marked by a commonly lived history; its narratives and things are deemed expressive of that history while also shaping its conventions of belonging; and, expressing the sensation, embodied experience of living as a certain kind of being in the world, it promises also to provide a better experience of social belonging—partly through participation in the relevant commodity culture, and partly because of its revelations about how people can live.”

(5) I have changed Borde and Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of this important line in light of Toril Moi’s (2010) critical review of their translation. Moi notes that when this line reads, as they put it, “one is not born, but becomes, woman,” rather than “one is not born, but becomes, a woman,” it makes it sound as if a girl grows up to be the incarnation of the male myth of Woman, rather than one woman among many, but still subject to women’s situation.

(6) Rather than depicting sex as natural and gender as cultural, Beauvoir analyzed the body as somatic, active, and affective, as well as created by and interpreted and lived through situation. For an insightful reading of Beauvoir’s body politics as it emerges in her aesthetic theory see Moskowitz 2014.

(7) “And the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests, and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way” (4).