On the publication of The Second Sex
Source: The third volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography: Force of Circumstances;
First published: in 1963, translated by Richard Howard, and published by Penguin, 1968;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, January 2005;
Proofed: and corrected by Andy Blunden, February 2005
I have described how this book was first conceived, almost by chance. Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of woman in general; first I considered the myths that men have forged about her through all their cosmologies, religions, superstitions, ideologies and literature. I tried to establish some order in the picture which at first appeared to me completely incoherent; in every case, man put himself forward as the Subject and considered the woman as an object, as the Other. This assumption could of course be explained by historical circumstances, and Sartre told me I should also give some indication of the physiological groundwork. That was at Ramatuelle; we talked about it for a long time and I hesitated; I hadn’t expected to become involved in writing such a vast work. But it was true that my study of the myths would be left hanging in mid-air if people didn’t know the reality those myths were intended to mask. I therefore plunged into works of physiology and history. I didn’t merely compile; even scientists, of both sexes, are imbued with prejudices in favour of man, so I had to try to dig for the exact truth beneath the surface of their interpretations. From my journey into history I returned with a few ideas that I had never seen expressed anywhere: I linked the history of woman to that of inheritance, because it seemed to me to be a by-product of the economic evolution of the masculine world.
I began to look at women with new eyes and found surprise after surprise lying in wait for me. It is both strange and stimulating to discover suddenly, after forty, an aspect of the world that has been staring you in the face all the time which somehow you have never noticed. One of the misunderstandings created by my book is that people thought I was denying there was any difference between men and women. On the contrary, writing this book made me even more aware of those things that separate them; what I contended was that these dissimilarities are of a cultural and not of a natural order. I undertook to recount systematically, from childhood to old age, how they were created; I examined the possibilities this world offers women, those it denies them, their limits, their good and bad luck, their evasions and their achievements. That was what I put into the second volume: L’Expérience vécue.
I spent only two years on this, work.1 already knew some sociology and psychology. Thanks to my university training, I had the habit of efficient working methods; I knew how to sort books out and strip the meat off them quickly, how to reject those that were merely rehashes of others or pure fantasies; I made a pretty exhaustive inventory of everything that had appeared on the subject in both English and French; it was one that had given rise to an enormous literature but, as is usually the case, only a small number of these studies were important. When it came to the second volume, I also profited from the continual interest that Sartre and I had had for so many years in all sorts of people; my memory provided me with an abundance of material.
The first volume was well received: twenty-two thousand copies were sold in the first week. The second one also sold well, but it shocked people. I was completely taken aback by the fuss it provoked when the extracts from the book appeared in Les Temps Modernes. I had completely failed to take into account that ‘French bitchiness’ Julien Gracq mentioned in an article in which – although he compared me to Poincaré making speeches in cemeteries – he congratulated me on my ‘courage’. The word astonished me the first time it was used. ‘How courageous you are!’ Claudine Chonez told me with an admiration full of pity. ‘Courageous?’ ‘You’re going to lose a lot of friends!’ Well, I thought to myself, if I lose them they’re not friends. In any case, I had written this book just the way I wanted to write it, but there had been no thought of heroism in my mind at any time. The men whom I knew well – Sartre, Bost, Merleau-Ponty, Leiris, Giacometti and the staff of Les Temps Modernes – were real democrats on this point as well as on any other; if I had been writing it for them I would have been in danger of breaking down an open door. In any case I was accused of doing just that; also of inventing, parodying, digressing and ranting. I was accused of so many things: everything! First of all, indecency. The June, July and August issues of Les Temps Modernes sold like hot cakes; but they were read, as it were, with averted eyes. One might almost have believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had never existed. What a festival of obscenity on the pretext of flogging me for mine! That good old esprit gaulois flowed in torrents. I received some signed and some anonymous epigrams, epistles, satires, admonitions, and exhortations addressed to me by, for example, ‘some very active members of the First Sex.’ 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. Certainly it is monotonous writing inscriptions on lavatory walls; I could understand that many sexual maniacs might prefer to send their lucubrations to me for a change. But I was a bit surprised at Mauriac! He wrote to one of the contributors to Les Temps Modernes: ‘Your employer’s vagina has no secrets from me,’ which shows that in private life he wasn’t afraid of words. When he saw them printed, it upset him so much that he began a series in Le Figaro littéraire urging the youth of France to condemn pornography in general and my articles in particular. Its success was slight. Although the replies of Pouillon and Cau, who had flown to my rescue, were suppressed – and probably those of many others as well – I had my defenders: among others, Domenach; the Christians were only gently indignant, and on the whole the youth of the nation did not seem excessively outraged by my verbal excesses. Mauriac lamented the fact bitterly. Exactly at the right moment to close his series, an angelic young lady sent him a letter so perfectly calculated to grant his every wish that a lot of us got a great deal of amusement out of what was obviously a godsend for Mauriac! Nevertheless, in restaurants and cafés – which I frequented much more than usual because of Algren – people often snickered as they glanced towards me or even openly pointed. Once, during an entire dinner at Nos Provinces on the Boulevard Montparnasse, a table of people nearby stared at me and giggled; I didn’t like dragging Algren into a scene, but as I left I gave them a piece of my mind.
The violence and level of these reactions left me perplexed. Among the Latin peoples, Catholicism has encouraged masculine tyranny and even inclined it towards sadism; Italian men have a tendency to combine it with coarseness, and the Spaniards with arrogance, but this sort of meanness was particularly French. Why? Primarily because in France a man feels himself economically threatened by feminine competition; to maintain, or to assert the maintenance of a superiority no longer guaranteed by the customs of the country, the simplest method is to vilify women. A tradition of licentious talk provides a whole arsenal calculated to reduce women to their function as sexual objects: sayings, images, anecdotes and the vocabulary itself. Also, in the erotic field, the ancestral myth of French supremacy is being threatened; the ideal lover is now generally attributed to the Italian rather than the Frenchman; finally, the critical attitude of liberated women wounds or tires their partners; it makes them resentful. This meanness is simply the old French licentiousness taken over by vulnerable and spiteful men.2
In November, the swords were unsheathed once more. The critics went wild; there was no disagreement: women had always been the equal of men, they were forever doomed to be their inferiors, everything I said was common knowledge, there wasn’t a word of truth in the whole book. In Liberté de l’esprit, Boideffre and Nimier outdid each other in contempt. I was a poor neurotic girl, repressed, frustrated, and cheated by life, a virago, a woman who’d never been made love to properly, envious, embittered and bursting with inferiority complexes with regard to men, while with regard to women I was eaten to the bone by resentment.3 Jean Guitton, with great Christian compassion, wrote that The Second Sex had affected him painfully because one could so clearly see running through it the thread of ‘my sad life’. Armand Hoog outdid himself: ‘Humiliated by being a woman, agonizingly conscious of being imprisoned in her condition by the eyes of men, she rejects both their eyes and her condition.’
This theme of my humiliation was taken up by a considerable number of critics who were so naively imbued with their own masculine superiority that they could not even imagine that my condition had never been a burden to me. The man whom I placed above all others did not consider me inferior to men. I had many male friends whose eyes, far from imprisoning me within set limits, recognized me as a human being in my own right. Such good fortune had protected me against all resentment and all bitterness; my readers will know too that I was never infected by such feelings during my childhood or my adolescence.4 Subtler readers concluded that I was a misogynist and that, while pretending to take up the cudgels for women, I was damning them; this is untrue. I do not praise them to the skies and I have anatomized all those defects engendered by their condition, but I also showed their good qualities and their merits. I have given too many women too much affection and esteem to betray them now by considering myself as an ‘honorary male’; – nor have I ever been wounded by their stares. In fact I was never treated as a target for sarcasm until after The Second Sex; before that, people were either indifferent or kind to me. Afterwards, I was often attacked as a woman because my attackers thought it must be my Achilles’ heel; but I knew perfectly well that this persistent petulance was really aimed at my moral and social convictions. No; far from suffering from my femininity, I have, on the contrary, from the age of twenty on, accumulated the advantages of both sexes; after L’Invitée, those around me treated me both as a writer, their peer in the masculine world, and as a woman; this was particularly noticeable in America: at the parties I went to, the wives all got together and talked to each other while I talked to the men, who nevertheless behaved towards me with greater courtesy than they did towards the members of their own sex. I was encouraged to write The Second Sex precisely because of this privileged position. It allowed me to express myself in all serenity. And, contrary to what they suggest, it was precisely this placidity which exasperated so many of my masculine readers. A wild cry of rage, the revolt of a wounded soul – that they could have accepted with a moved and pitying condescension; since they could not pardon me my objectivity, they feigned a disbelief in it. For example I will take a phrase of Claude Mauriac’s which perfectly illustrates the arrogance of the First Sex. ‘What has she got against me?’ he wanted to know. Nothing; I had nothing against anything, except the words I was quoting. It is strange that so many intellectuals should refuse to believe in intellectual passions.5
I stirred up some storms even among my friends. One of them, a progressive academic, stopped reading my book and threw it across the room. Camus, in a few morose sentences, accused me of making the French male look ridiculous. A Mediterranean man, cultivating Spanish pride, he would allow woman equality only if she kept to her own, and different, realm; also, he was of course, as George Orwell would have said, the more equal of the two. He had blithely admitted to us once that he disliked the idea of being sized up and judged by a woman: she was the object, he was the eye and the consciousness. He laughed about it, but it is true that he did not accept reciprocity. Finally, with sudden warmth, he said: ‘There’s one argument that you should have emphasized: man himself suffers from not being able to find a real companion in woman; he does aspire to equality.’ He too wanted a cry from the heart rather than solid reasoning; and what’s more, a cry on behalf of men. Most men took as a personal insult the information I retailed about frigidity in women; they wanted to imagine that they could dispense pleasure whenever and to whomever they pleased; to doubt such powers on their part was to castrate them.
The Right could only detest my book, which Rome naturally put on the blacklist. I had hoped it would be well received by the extreme Left. Our relations with the Communists couldn’t have been worse; all the same, my thesis owed so much to Marxism and showed it in such a favourable light that I did at least expect some impartiality from them! Marie-Louise Barron, in Les Lettres françaises, confined herself to remarking that The Second Sex would at least give the factory girls at Billancourt a good giggle; which implies a very low estimate of the factory girls at Billancourt, replied Colette Audry in a ‘review of the critics’ she did for Combat Action devoted an anonymous and unintelligible article to me, delightfully decorated with the photograph of a woman held fast in the passionate embraces of an ape.
The non-Stalinist Marxists were scarcely more comforting. I gave a lecture at the École Émancipée and was told that once the Revolution had been achieved, the problem of woman would no longer exist. Fine, I said; but meanwhile? The present apparently held no interest for them.
My adversaries created and maintained numerous misunderstandings on the subject of my book. Above all I was attacked for the chapter on maternity. Many men declared I had no right to discuss women because I hadn’t given birth; and they?6 They nevertheless produced some very distinct opinions of their own in opposition to mine. It was said that I refused to grant any value to the maternal instinct and to love. This was not so. I simply asked that women should experience them truthfully and freely, whereas they often use them as excuses and take refuge in them, only to find themselves imprisoned in that refuge when those emotions have dried up in their hearts. I was accused of preaching sexual promiscuity; but at no point did I ever advise anyone to sleep with just anyone at just any time; my opinion on this subject is that all choices, agreements and refusals should be made independently of institutions, conventions and motives of self-aggrandizement; if the reasons for it are not of the same order as the act itself, then the only result can be lies, distortions and mutilations.
I devoted a chapter to the problem of abortion; Sartre had already written about it in The Age of Reason, and I myself in The Blood of Others; people were always rushing into the office of Les Temps Modernes asking Mme Sorbets, the secretary, for addresses. She got so irritated that one day she designed a poster: WE DO IT ON THE PREMISES, OURSELVES. One morning, when I was still asleep, a young man knocked on my door. ‘My wife is pregnant,’ he said distractedly. ‘Give me an address …’ ‘But I don’t know any,’ I told him. He swore at me and left. ‘No one ever helps anyone!’ I didn’t know any addresses; and I should scarcely have been inclined to have any confidence in a stranger endowed with so little self-control. Women and couples are forced by society into secrecy; if I can help them I have no hesitation in doing so. But I did not find it very pleasant to discover that I was apparently thought of as a professional procuress.
There were people who defended The Second Sex: Francis Jeanson, Nadeau, Mounier. It provoked public controversy and lectures, it brought me a considerable amount of correspondence. Misread and misunderstood, it troubled people’s minds. When all is said and done, it is possibly the book that has brought me the greatest satisfaction of all those I have written. If I am asked what I think of it today, I have no hesitation in replying: I’m all for it.
Oh! I admit that one can criticize the style and the composition. I could easily go back and cut it down to a much more elegant work. But at the time I was discovering my ideas as I was explaining them, and that was the best I could do. As for the content, I should take a more materialist position today in the first volume. I should base the notion of woman as other and the Manichaean argument it entails not on an idealistic and a priori struggle of consciences, but on the facts of supply and demand; that is how I treated the same problem in The Long March when I was writing about the subjugation of women in ancient China. This modification would not necessitate any changes in the subsequent developments of my argument. On the whole, I still agree with what I said. I never cherished any illusion of changing woman’s condition; it depends on the future of labour in the world; it will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production. That is why I avoided falling into the trap of ‘feminism’. Nor did I offer remedies for each particular problem I described. But at least I helped the women of my time and generation to become aware of themselves and their situation.
Many of them, of course, disapproved of my book; I disturbed them or opposed them or exasperated them or frightened them. But there were others to whom I did some service, as I know from numberless testimonies to the fact, especially from the letters that I am still receiving and answering after twelve years. These women have found help in my work in their fight against images of themselves which revolted them, against myths by which they felt themselves crushed; they came to realize that their difficulties reflected not a disgrace peculiar to them, but a general condition. This discovery helped them to avoid the mistake of self-contempt, and many of them found in the book the strength to fight against that condition. Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it. Psychiatrists have told me that they give The Second Sex to their women patients to read, and not merely to intellectual women but to lower-middle-class women, to office workers and women working in factories. ‘Your book was a great help to me. Your book saved me,’ are the words I have read in letters from women of all ages and all walks of life.
If my book has helped women, it is because it expressed them, and they in their turn gave it its truth. Thanks to them, it is no longer a matter for scandal and concern. During these last ten years the myths that men created have crumbled, and many women writers have gone beyond me and have been far more daring than I. Too many of them for my taste take sexuality as their only theme; but at least when they write about it they now present themselves as the eye-that-looks, as subject, consciousness, freedom.
I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with feminine problems, and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, lacerated, in a world made to put them at a disadvantage, for women there are far more victories to be won, more prizes to be gained, more defeats to he suffered than there are for men. I have an interest in them; and I prefer having taken a limited but real hold upon the world through them to drifting in the universal.
1 It was begun in October it 946 and finished in June 1949; but I spent four months of 1947 in America, and America Day by Day kept me busy for six months.
2 There exists a hatred of women among American men. But even the most venomous writings, such as Philip Wylie’s A Generation of Vipers, do not descend to the level of obscenity; their sights are not on degrading women sexually.
3 When Christiane Rochefort’s Warrior’s Rest appeared ten years later, there was less scandal, but there were still plenty of male critics ready to chant the old refrain: ‘She’s an ugly and frustrated woman!’
4 I by no means despise resentment and bitterness, or any other of those negative emotions; they are often justified by circumstances and one might consider that I have missed something in not having experienced them. If I reject their attribution to me here it is because I would like The Second Sex to be understood in the spirit in which I wrote it.
5A novelist pamphleteer of the Right, having been sharply attacked by Bost in Les Temps Modernes, exclaimed, very hurt: ‘But why so much hate? He doesn’t even know me!’
6 They went out and questioned mothers; but so did I.