The Second Sex

The Second Sex Study Guide

The Second Sex was published in 1949, at a time when feminism was not yet widely discussed as a pressing social issue. It is widely considered to be a formative text of second-wave feminism. This strain of feminism shifted focus from gaining certain legal rights—such as suffrage, property rights, etc.—toward considering how sexism also impacted women across many different spheres of their lives. Although this wave is often attributed to the 1960s, de Beauvoir’s text arguably helped to lay the foundations for the kinds of thinking that defined second-wave feminism. By considering the many ways in which femininity was significant in determining women’s outcomes across different spheres of society, de Beauvoir helped to push feminist thinking in new directions. After the publication of de Beauvoir’s text, feminists would consider many of the issues she had raised, such as the ways in which gender and sexuality are interrelated.

de Beauvoir’s work is also radical because it broke from existent theories for explaining differences between genders. Throughout her text, de Beauvoir rejects schools of thinking such as liberalism, Marxism, or psychoanalytic theory. Instead, she constructs her own model for how we should understand femininity in a philosophical perspective. Some critics have pointed out that, in order to do this, she relies heavily on Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. However, de Beauvoir makes use of this philosophy in new ways, to think through how gender shapes people’s relative abilities to find purpose in their lives. In this way, she continues to be innovative even when drawing from someone else’s ideas.

At the same time, de Beauvoir’s text was also important because it drew parallels to other social justice movements of her time. For example, she compares the situation of all women to the respective situations of African Americans, Jews, the colonized, and the proletariat. This comparison between different oppressed groups helped to bolster some of her thinking and give her ideas greater validity. However, more recently critics have pointed out that de Beauvoir does not take into consideration how these different identities can intersect. Although her text was important for second-wave feminism, feminist theory has come a long way since then. Today, readers may object to the fact that de Beauvoir primarily considers the situation of white, European women without acknowledging how intersectional identities can impact many of the concepts she discusses.