Mihir Samson | In a world of many others – challenging structures of oppression by deconstructing masculinity

By Mihir Samson*

What is remarkable reading Simone de Beauvoir in 2019 is not only how current her criticisms of sexual oppression remain, but the extent to which these same critiques point towards, and can be used in the fight against other forms of oppression—including, as I will suggest in this essay, the caste system in India and repressive norms of gender expression and sexuality. We might do so by broadening the intersection she saw between economic and sexual struggles, and by deepening her critique of masculinity in order to fully deconstruct it.

In her efforts to gain an equal place for women in society, de Beauvoir fought hard to hold men accountable for the benefits they captured and enjoyed over centuries, which makes the conciliatory note in the conclusion of The Second Sex surprising.[1] In a striking passage, de Beauvoir claims that the oppression of women by men was “a necessary step to human development” (p. 746), and that the path forward lies in conciliation. But conciliation between the sexes seems elusive without reparations and other means of holding men accountable for their past actions. In fact, de Beauvoir’s notion of mutual respect between men and women will only be fully realized when it is broadened, not just across race, caste and class, but also to expressions of gender and sexuality that do not fit within the man/woman, male/female dichotomies.

Nevertheless, de Beauvoir’s analysis of societal power structures and the gender hierarchy has tremendous application in today’s times—allowing us to question formulations of masculinity, property, and societal norms.

Economic autonomy, property and the worker’s revolution

In de Beauvoir’s analysis, female economic autonomy is necessary in order to bypass the “male mediator” between women and the universe; however, in order for this economic independence to be plausible for all women, there also needs to be a socialist revolution. Her acute understanding of the intersection of these struggles is an important reminder to us today, when the feminist struggle seems to be making important strides while labor movements are being crushed by large capitalist forces.[2] The failure of the latter inevitably affects the success of the former: to take but one example, while the MeToo Movement has successfully targeted many abusive and criminal men at the top of the capitalist hierarchy—movie directors, conductors, CEOs—it has not yet had the same success in the most vulnerable work sectors, where women continue to be abused and coerced with little public visibility. As de Beauvoir saw, the independence of women will remain incomplete until the exploitative social structures created by men are removed and society is reorganized.

Given the importance of economic independence to complete freedom, de Beauvoir’s examination of the central role of property in man’s subjugation of women is also crucial, and recent research in the intersection of caste and sex in India both illuminates and nuances her basic point.

As Uma Chakravarty explains, in India the intersection of caste with gender has resulted in the control of women’s sexuality, not just to ensure patrilineal succession, but to maintain caste purity.[3] The complex interaction of these two forms of oppression in India underlines a potential danger in using caste to describe the hierarchy between men and women, as de Beauvoir does. Although there are many parallels that make the word-choice apt, such as the supposed permanent “impurity” of both women and members of lower castes, using the same word could also obscure the power structures within genders—say, between a between a Brahmin woman and a Dalit woman. These women’s experience of their sexual caste will be markedly different.[4] Or to add to de Beauvoir, one could say that female liberation is not only symbiotic with economic freedom, but with social freedom as embodied in the overthrow of the caste system.

Liberation from masculinity as freedom for the others

According to de Beauvoir, men are slaves to the construction of masculinity: they fear women and are deeply concerned with appearing masculine and asserting their superiority. Thus, as she persuasively argues, the liberation of women would also liberate men from their own constricting ideas of masculinity.

One could perhaps add to her argument on masculinity by deconstructing the idea more fully. If indeed, in de Beauvoir’s view, a woman is not born but is something one becomes, the same ought to be true for a man as well. The ‘essence’ of masculinity, therefore, is up for grabs. In fact, de Beauvoir’s challenge to the biological essentialism in the construction of womanhood allows us to challenge all biologically dependent constructions of sex and gender.

Unsurprisingly however, given the period in which she was writing, and despite her passing reference to traditional transgender identities (referred to as “eunuchs”), de Beauvoir does not engage with gender identities that do not conform to binary notions. Little room is left for the myriad genders that people experience and the manner in which they are expressed. And yet, given the fundamental role the penis plays in the construction of the male identity, the contemporary reader can’t help but wishing that after noting the existence of communities for whom castration procedures are considered a source of power, de Beauvoir had continued into a more general discussion of their experience of gender.[5]

If de Beauvoir had been alive today, one might suppose she would have been one of the most trenchant thinkers on such matters. She was deeply cognizant of the risk that women take when they defy their femininity, and she knew that the social punishments could outweigh the benefits. This risk remains all too real for women, which is why dismantling the essential construction of masculinity and the privilege that it entails would radically demolish the structure of power around sex, and could also open up spaces for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

* LL.M. 2020, Columbia University; B.B.A, LL.B, Symbiosis Law School, Pune (2010).



[1] Simone De Beauvoir, “The Second Sex,”First Vintage Books Edition, May 2011.

[2] See for example:International Trade Union Conference, “2018 ITUC Global Rights Index: The World’s Worst Countries For Workers”, 2018, https://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/ituc-global-rights-index-2018-en-final-2.pdf

[3] Uma Chakravarti, “Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 14 (Apr. 3, 1993), pp. 579-585.

[4] Sharmila Rege, “Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’ and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 44 (Oct. 31 – Nov. 6, 1998), pp. WS39-WS46.

[5] Serena Nanda, “Neither Man nor Woman – the Hijras of India”, 1999, 2nd Edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company.