The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred A Knopf, 1953, 732 pp
I began reading The Second Sex in August, 2008; I finished it in May, 2010. It is not a book one reads for pleasure, in the usual sense of the word. It is written in the style of a textbook, with Jean Paul Sartre's version of existentialism as the underlying philosophical base. Since de Beauvoir wrote it in the late 1940s, it is to some degree an historical document with a French middleclass viewpoint. When I began reading and experiencing the density of the prose, I attempted to read 50 pages a day, then decreased to 20 pages every few days and finally put it down for about a year. When I picked it back up, I finished it at the rate of about 10 pages a day a few times a week. If I hadn't studied up on some of the basic vocabulary and tenets of existentialism, I would never have made it.
Since so much has been written, critically as well as hysterically, about The Second Sex, I will leave that stance alone and merely attempt to state what the book meant to me. I am very glad I read it. The author was born eleven years before my mother, so that is the generational context. My mother was an intelligent and perceptive woman with musical aspirations. She married at the age of 28, after a short career as an elementary school music teacher, and for the next twenty years devoted her days to housekeeping, marriage, raising three daughters and contributing to her church as Sunday school teacher and choir member. She made her compromises and it wasn't until my youngest sister was in high school that she even stopped to wonder who she had become and who she might have been. She raised us in the conventional attitudes towards women in 1950s middle class America.
Even though I began to consider myself a feminist in the 1970s, that was primarily an attitude towards my first unhappy marriage. I have read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and other feminist writings, but it was The Second Sex that opened my eyes to the insidious examples, teachings and attitudes that pervaded my childhood concerning what it meant to be female.
Reading this book was an experience in emotional upheaval. I discovered thought patterns and methods of existing which I hadn't even known were deep in my makeup. I have had countless hours of mostly beneficial therapy but none of that went as deep into personal self-knowledge as did some of the chapters in The Second Sex.
Ultimately I finished the book feeling that I hadn't done too badly for a girl. Yes, I have missed several golden opportunities to become a more self-realized person but I feel at peace about all that. Now I am in my 60s, living the life I want to live with goals and achievements still ahead of me. I am writing a book which I hope will be enlightening for my grandchildren's generation as well as easier to assimilate than Simone de Beauvior's tome.
The very week I finished the 1952 translation by H M Parshley (a male professor of zoology), a new translation, by two American women who have lived in Paris and taught English there for many years, was released. Reviews have been mixed but so were they in 1953. I will probably not attempt the new translation in the years I have left to read. I am not sure that women who could be my daughters need to read The Second Sex. In some ways it is dated for modern women growing up in Western democratic societies. But to anyone of any age who has the stamina, I would recommend reading some version of it. The book is not a man-hating work. It is a demonstration of the truth that to be oppressed you must agree with oppression; to be free you must agree with freedom and take responsibility for your own.
(The original 1953 translation of The Second Sex is available in paperback; the new 2010 translation is available in hardcover; both by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)