Judith Revel | On The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (English Version)

By Judith Revel

Translated from the French by Sabina Vaccarino Bremner (Columbia)

It is difficult to consider the posterity of a text as anchored in the debates of its own time as The Second Sex by Beauvoir. Seventy years, that’s what separates us from these one thousand pages. Methodologically, I therefore had two possibilities.

The first consisted in measuring the widening distance between a book so clearly foundational for second-wave feminism on the one hand, and our own historical and political situation on the other. We who come after—and if you will permit me the biographical note: I, who was twenty years old the year Beauvoir died in 1986—we who have in mind the necessary reformulations of third-wave feminism, the demand to recognize non-white, non-bourgeois, and non-Western women, who have learned to recognize the intertwining of the disqualifications, subalternizations, and logics of erasure both distinct and combined that have led to this generic noun ‘women’ to be declined in an infinitely more complex way: non-white women, working-class women, precarious women, women stigmatized due to their sexuality, their religion, their age, their body—we measure our distance from this book from 1949. An unfathomable distance, from a certain point of view, separates us from a text that, from the beginning, relates its reflection to the question of the alterity of ‘woman’ (the woman [in French, la femme]: one notes in passing the use of the singular, very present throughout the text).

In contrast, the second consists in recalling the lovely little film, Pour mémoire, made by the comedian and feminist activist Delphine Seyrig in 1987, which is now being shown at an extraordinary exhibition at the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid dedicated to Delphine Seyrig and her feminist activism (and by extension to the feminist activist uses of this video from the 1970s on), and which can also be seen at the Simone de Beauvoir Audiovisual Center, founded by Delphine Seyrig, Carole Roussopoulos, and Iona Wieder in 1982. Delphine Seyrig came to the Montparnasse Cemetery one year after Beauvoir’s burial and found the tomb overflowing with flowers. For her, it became the occasion to interlace images of the messages in all languages that had been left on the tomb amidst the flowers for that first anniversary in April 1987 with images of Beauvoir’s burial one year earlier: the march in her honor on April 19, 1986, the hundredconts of banners and streamers from all over the world, the unimaginable variety of women—perhaps should also be said, of the battles of women and feminist activism—which comprised the procession that accompanied Beauvoir to the Montparnasse Cemetery. This is more than a moving gesture: here is something that testifies, in its own way, to Beauvoir’s importance for contemporary feminism long after The Second Sex had been published.

Of course, it might be asked whether Beauvoir’s feminism is limited to The Second Sex; and, conversely, whether the generation of the MLF (the Mouvement de libération des femmes, the French Women’s Liberation Movement) of the 1970s—a generation separated by twenty or thirty years from Beauvoir, and whose politically formative experiences had been so different (the war in Vietnam, 1968,…)—really owed so much to the famed ‘Momonne’. In an excerpt from a talk in English, which can be heard in Seyrig’s short film, Beauvoir says herself that she only “started to become much more active once she had been introduced to the MLF”, which postdates her feminist activism by close to twenty-five years after the publication of The Second Sex.

Due to my lack of time and expertise, I won’t refer to the history of this book; nor to the even vaster history of Beauvoir’s feminism: that has been done excellently in the past few years, and the bibliography is abundant. I would simply like to try to explore that tension, a tension that doesn’t indicate that a book is good or bad, or that it is true or false, but only that it is subject to the erosion of time in certain ways—testifying, in its own fashion, to a change in the world that it cannot completely follow, but which on other points, it formidably anticipates that which had not yet emerged.

I apologize for being a bit schematic in what follows.


  1. Behind ‘woman’: women.

First and foremost, the variety of the discourses that this book offers must be emphasized: a veritable palette in which every woman can recognize herself, and which has probably done much for its success. Beauvoir deploys, in particular in the second part of the book, a whole series of analyses resting on types—the young girl, the lesbian, the single woman, the married woman, the mother—whose general system must be noted, which is to say the system of representations and constrictions, of discrimination and bias, associated with it as well. The almost encyclopedic form of the work, which employs a near totality of knowledge to produce a critique of that same knowledge, is definitively one of its strong points, since it allows for a certain ‘fine’ recognition of reality, implying the notion that, behind ‘woman’, or behind ‘women’, or behind ‘the category’—three expressions Beauvoir does use—is a plurality of systems of oppression, prejudice, and representative biases which flood the different fields in which this or that woman may find herself situated, as much in her formative years as when she enters into what may seem to be the ineluctable transition of all female life—the institution of marriage—or into everyday routine, the necessities of feminine self-adornment and personal upkeep, and social expectations.

This deployment of particularized approaches, which tends to desubstantialize ‘woman’ as a collective subject, is nevertheless reinforced by the deliberately reduced part of the book accorded to determinations that are not purely situational, institutional, or cultural (which is to say historical and social, which does not reduce their violence at all): recall the pages Beauvoir dedicates in her first volume to women’s physical and psychophysiological determination in the section entitled “Destiny”. But it comes to an end in the chapter “The Point of View of Historical Materialism”, where she immediately distances what proceeded it, and which of course necessarily had to be passed through. I cite here its first few lines: “Humanity is not an animal species: it’s a historical reality. Human society is an anti-physis: it does not passively endure the presence of nature, it takes it over for itself. This overtaking is not an internal and subjective operation, but is carried out objectively in praxis. Thus woman cannot be considered simply as a sexed organism: among the biological facts, the only ones with importance are those that take on a concrete value in action. Woman’s consciousness of herself is not defined only by her sexuality, but reflects a situation contingent on the economic structure of society, a structure which betrays the degree of technical evolution attained by humanity.”[1] That the vocabulary in which this radical anti-physicalism is expressed may seem dated to us should not impede us from acknowledging the importance of this claim: if, as Beauvoir remarks at the beginning of the second main part of her book, “this world has always belonged to males”[2], the conclusion that must be reached is both the necessity of a historical, economic, and social diagnosis of women’s situation, and the possibility of a reversability of this situation. The “common basis uniting all individual female existence”[3], that’s the world as it is “in its actual state of upbringing and customs.”[4]


  1. A political materialism, a historical constructivism.

The most famous phrase of the book, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, must be taken seriously: it effects, in Beauvoir’s own terms, a rupture with any sense of a “biological, psychic, economic” destiny.[5] From then on, what must be produced is an analysis of the dynamic constituting women as fit only for their particular roles and limits. The long section entitled “Formation”, from birth to entry into adulthood, bears with it the mark of a shift owed to the 70 years separating us from 1949; the vintage effect is clear, even if the pages dedicated for example to the institution of the family, or to sexuality, remain astonishingly timely. At times, the anticipatory effect is stunning: the passages dedicated to motherhood, and to the preempting of the demand for reproductive control of one’s own body, has formulated the outline for the demand of the right to contraception and abortion since 1949.[6]

At other times, in contrast, the reasoning has aged terribly, not by its own fault, but because it is the world that has changed. I will only take up one example, but it is a sizable one.


  1. Productive work, reproductive work.

The whole book—since it would take much more time to demonstrate it, I will limit myself here to asserting it—is devoted to a sort of Marxist rereading of Chapter 4 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: if man risks his life in estranging himself from animality, woman, on the contrary, gives her life and remains bogged down in her naturality. One example among the numerous occurrences: “Certain passages of the dialectic by which Hegel defines the master/slave relation would apply even better to the man/woman relation. The privilege of the Master, he says, comes from his affirmation of Spirit against Life, from the fact of risking his life. But in fact the vanquished slave has known the same risk, while woman is first an existent who gives life (‘la Vie’) without risking her own life (‘sa vie’); between her and the male, there has never been a contest; Hegel’s definition would apply only to her…. The female is, much more than the male, prey to the species; humanity has always tried to avoid its specific destiny; by inventing the tool, the maintenance of life became man’s activity and project, while woman remained bound to her body in motherhood, like an animal.”[7] In following the analogy to the Hegelian text, man is also he who, having achieved the position of master, does nothing else than perpetually consume the world, while the slave, woman, having chosen not to risk her life and remaining trapped in this respect in the animality rejected by the master, discovers another way to distance herself from that animality after all. We know that Hegelian reasoning accords a paradoxically emancipating function to work, because the activity of transforming the world also transforms the slave himself. The whole political question of women’s emancipation will be about rebuilding the historical conditions of this transformation: “It’s by her work that woman has, in large part, bridged the distance separating her from man; it’s her work that can alone guarantee her concrete freedom,” Beauvoir writes.[8]

But it’s in its analysis of work that the text has aged the most, probably because Beauvoir’s conception of it in 1949 is difficult to export into the world of the beginning of the 21st century which is our own. This analysis consists of numerous points, but I will limit myself to emphasizing two which strike me as of particular importance.

The first is that it’s a question of working on the conditions of women’s transformation in praxis, and if this emancipation necessarily passes through work, then women’s struggle is internal to the more general proletarian struggle. Patriarchy, capitalism: here is a fundamental articulation I will come back to, and that Beauvoir had the merit of having seen. But articulation does not necessarily mean dissolution, or absorption.

Beauvoir has sometimes been reproached for adhering to a strictly individualistic perspective, a perception of the text no doubt supported by the abundance of singular voices that she cites and relies on, and which make up the real guiding thread of the book and its richness. The reproach is unjust, since the consciousness of what it takes to build a battlefront of collective emancipation remains clear: “Evil does not come from individual perversity—bad faith begins when everyone lashes into each other—it comes from a situation against which all individual conduct is impotent.”[9] But this model of resolving the contradiction consists first and foremost in social equality, which would as such contain equality between men and women: “A world where men and women would be equal is easy to imagine, since it’s exactly what the Soviet revolution promised: women, brought up and educated exactly like men, would work in the same conditions and for the same salaries.”[10] Much later, in 1972, in an interview given to the Nouvel Observateur, Beauvoir would return to the question and declare: “From everything that I can observe and which has led me to modify my position from The Second Sex, class struggle as such does not emancipate women.” But she continues to emphasize the necessary coalition of struggles: “As for me, my tendency is to want to relate female emancipation to class struggle. I feel that women’s fight, although it is unique, is linked to the one they have to lead with men. Consequently, I completely reject the total repudiation of men.”[11]

Here I’ll permit myself a brief digression. On her position at the time of publication of The Second Sex, we must advance a parallel to Sartre’s remarks on the question of race at the time of publication (in 1948, one year prior) of “Black Orpheus”, the preface which he had written for the Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor. Here’s what Sartre wrote then: “In fact, negritude would appear to be a slow tempo of a dialectical progression: the theoretical and practical affirmation of white supremacy is the thesis; the position of negritude as antithetical value is the moment of negativity. But this negative moment is not sufficient in itself and blacks who employ it know it well; they know that it aims to ready the synthesis, or human realization in a raceless society. Thus negritude is in favor of destroying itself: it is the transition and not the result, means and not final end.”[12] Let’s recall in passing Frantz Fanon’s definitive response in Black Skins, White Masks: “When I read that page, I felt that my last chance had been robbed.”[13]

At the same time, the parallel is not as well-founded as this, and we must of course be fair to Beauvoir: we feel her concern not to lose the specificity of women’s fight along the way, in spite of everything—a specificity which must be linked to the notion of emancipation, which remains a universal category. But the tension is there, and it is constant, because “the majority of workers today are exploited”,[14] and work is not freedom.

Second point, still on work. If work, as the activity of transforming oneself and the world, is a vector of emancipation, it is essential to define its limits. Productive work is, in the analysis of The Second Sex, systematically opposed to reproductive work, which must be left behind. ‘True’ work on the one side; on the other, that whole series of invisible and unrecognized, subjugating and disqualifying domestic activities that one must liberate oneself from. Beauvoir rightly acknowledges that domestic activity is paradoxically the condition of possibility of the work that would be considered worthy of the name: “Man as producer and citizen is connected to his community by the bonds of an organic solidarity founded on the division of labor; the couple is a social person, defined by the family, class the center; the race to which they belong”, she wrote then,[15] understanding the extent to which reproductive labor, if by that we understand not only biological reproduction, but every contribution to the reproduction of the labor force, constitutes the hidden condition of productive labor: a kind of erased condition, a pure means in service to an end which continuously masks it as such. Beauvoir insists: “But what renders the role of the woman-servant thankless is the division of labor that relegates her entirely to the general and the inessential; home and food are useful for life but do not confer any meaning on it: the housewife’s immediate goals are only means, not true ends.”[16] In sum: there is, in what we call ‘work’, an inside and an outside to work, an end (production) and a means (reproduction), a visibility and an erasure, and it is the form that the sexual division of roles and tasks takes in terms of its activity.

The unproductivity of female domestic activity, figured only as a condition of male production, in reality implies two components of reasoning.

The first, classically borrowed from the Marxist analysis of production, only recognizes productive labor when there is the production of surplus value, which was clearly not the case with domestic labor in 1949. In this framework, domestic labor is therefore fundamentally unproductive. This is also what sometimes emerges from Beauvoir’s later position. Here I’m thinking of that 1972 interview that I already cited, “La femme révoltée”, where she says, “I find that the analyses that make patriarchal oppression equivalent to capitalist oppression are unjust. The housewife’s work does not produce surplus value; it’s a different condition than the worker’s, in which surplus value is stolen from his work. I would like to know exactly what the relationship is between the two. The whole strategy that women must follow depends on it.”[17]

The second tends to distinguish men’s work, which produces lasting transformations of nature, and that vain, repetitive, daily work, which retains nothing on the surface of things and which consumes itself almost immediately, which is women’s. The Second Sex was written nine years before the publication of The Human Condition by Arendt, but when Beauvoir writes, “What’s saddest is when work doesn’t even result in a lasting creation…. Thus the product of housework must be consumed: a constant renunciation is required by the woman whose operations are only fulfilled in their destruction,”[18] or when she repeats the example of the dish just taken out of the oven and triumphantly placed on the table only to be negated by the family’s hunger, she distinguishes, in reality in almost Arendtian terms, the production of a transformation affecting the world and outliving itself, which is men’s prerogative, and the somewhat ridiculous evanescence of the products of domestic labor, which are destined to literally disappear without a trace. The pure consumption to which pure labor is destined—labor in the Arendtian sense—is here assigned to women; as for work, in Arendt’s terms, it is wholly under the jurisdiction of men’s efforts.

Beauvoir’s conclusion: “Thus, the work that woman carries out in the home does not confer autonomy on her: it is not directly useful to the community, it does not affect the future, it doesn’t produce anything.[19]


  1. Productive work, reproductive work, II.

A long time has passed since taking reproductive work into consideration has fully entered, not only into feminist claims, but into economic and sociological analyses of value production as well. Of the intense period of feminist battles demanding a domestic salary, of ‘wages for housework’, ‘un salario per il lavoro domestico’—I’m thinking here of the texts by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James—perhaps we remember too little, even if certain more recent feminists have taken up the thread of these essential analyses; I’m thinking here for example of Silvia Federici. We remember too little, perhaps, but it is clear that recognizing that women’s reproductive work, negated as work for such a long time, has today become the fulcrum of a whole sector that is sometimes called personal services, sometimes still ‘care economy’, and which is far from being external to capitalist exploitation, which is to say the extraction of surplus value. From educational work to care work, from the assistance of those in need to the multiple aspects of the affective valorization of productive services, the becoming-woman of work advances, it is at the heart of the current process of capital valorization, and it represents, in relation to Beauvoir’s analyses from 1949, a double paradox. It is with this double paradox that I would like to end.

First paradox: while women have historically been excluded from the world of work, and one of the aspects at stake in their emancipation has corresponded to a fight for a way out of these domestic walls and access to the labor market, today this same labor market increasingly, and even more generally, presents the characteristics of what has historically been considered women’s domestic non-work: a time of work confused with a whole time of life, an expanding invisibilization, an increasingly relevant breakdown of the juridical framework in which this activity is positioned, and whose qualities are turned completely towards the side of affectivity, understanding, emotion, patience and generosity, creativity and attention, availability and the capacity to adapt. In sum: ‘feminine’ qualities, the same qualities that in the past were clearly attempted to be naturalized as the essence of the generic noun ‘woman’, but which nevertheless have become the qualities that one today requires of everyone, male and female workers, in order to produce value.

Second paradox: if there is one intuition to take today from The Second Sex, it’s one that Beauvoir doesn’t know exactly what to make of, and which, until the 1970s, she never stops returning to: the postulation of a connection between critiquing patriarchy and critiquing capitalism. Beauvoir doesn’t know what to make of it, because the alternative she finds herself with seems to be limited to the choice of a stronger contradiction, or that of the ‘main enemy’, to use Christine Delphy’s example. As I have attempted to quickly demonstrate, the 1949 text is torn between the will to preserve the specificity of women’s emancipation and the idea that we must work for a universalization of the movements of emancipation in general, in which feminism will naturally find its place.

Here I ignore whether, in 1949, it was possible to think otherwise. What I know is that today, numerous are the feminists for whom the denunciation of patriarchy as an unequal system, as a subjugating social system, as the relegation of women to a presumed unproductivity (which is coupled, incidentally, with a postulated aphasia), comes with a radical reversal of this ‘unproductivity.’ Women produce continuously. Social reproduction has historically been the condition of possibility of what we have called ‘production’ for the last two centuries; today it has become production itself, whose systematic pillage, the dispossession of value, is at the core of the new extractivism of capital. Extracting value from our lives: who, better than women, can understand the machinery of this? Women have been historically submitted to this sacking prior to men: it’s up to them to show men how it works. To undermine the basis of the patriarchy is therefore to contribute to the production of a powerful critique of contemporary capitalism: not because women would be the new vanguard, because they would be better than men, or because their qualities as women would make them better political subjects. No, none of this: simply because capitalist exploitation has changed its face, and made its most intimate heart that which was for centuries ‘outside’ of production and assigned to women, and made women’s relegation the general setting for an exploitation that by now we have all shared in, men and women. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Beauvoir wrote in 1949. One would like to add in 2019, in the name of this becoming-woman of work and production against which we must rise up: men are not born women, but more and more they’re engaged in becoming-women. It’s up to us to teach them.


[1] S. de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Paris, Gallimard, 1949, chapter III: “Le point de vue du matérialisme historique”, vol. I, p. 98. My emphasis.

[2] Ibid., vol. I, second part: “Histoire”, p. 111.

[3] Ibid. vol. II, « Introduction », p. 9.

[4] Ibid. vol. II, p. 9.

[5] Ibid., vol. II, p. 13.

[6] See for example Volume II, p. 608: “There is one female function which is currently almost impossible to assume in complete freedom, which is motherhood. In England, in America, woman can at least reject it at will thanks to the practice of birth control, whereas we have seen that in France, woman is often forced into arduous and costly abortions…”

[7] Ibid., vol. I, « Histoire », p. 116-117. Beauvoir’s emphasis.

[8] Ibid., vol. II, Part 4, « Vers la libération », chapter XIV: « La femme indépendante », p. 587.

[9] Ibid., vol. II, p. 643.

[10] Ibid., vol. II, p. 643.

[11] S. de Beauvoir, « La femme révoltée », interview given to A. Schwarzer, Le Nouvel Observateur, February 14, 1972, p. 47-54, reprinted in F. Claude et F. Gonthier, Les écrits de Simone De Beauvoir. La vie, l’écriture, Paris, Gallimard, 1979, p. 482-497.

[12] J.-P. Sartre « Orphée noir », preface to L. S. Senghor, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, Paris, PUF, 1948, p. XL and following.

[13] F. Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, Paris, Seuil, 1952, p. 108.

[14] S. de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, vol. II, p. 588.

[15] Ibid. vol. II, chapter VII: « La vie en société », p. 387.

[16] Ibid., vol. II, chapter V: « La femme mariée », p. 272. Beauvoir’s emphasis.

[17] S. de Beauvoir, « La femme révoltée », full citation above, p.486 et 490-491.

[18] S. de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, full citation above, chap. V, « La femme mariée », p. 274.

[19] Ibid., p. 276. My emphasis.