The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Paradigm-shifting. Should have been required reading for my philosophy degree. Beauvoir applies existential analysis to a real problem: the treatment of women through ages of male domination.

Her writing is clear and lucid throughout, whether elaborating the trails of a young girl approaching adulthood or demolishing arguments against legal abortion. This is philosophy at its best, digging past the concrete details of our lives to show the broken abstraction behind it all.

As someone who came into the book thinking men and women should be equal in all things, it’s still completely changed how I view the world. I had no idea of the scope of pressures women feel, starting almost from birth, to conform to an ideal of what it means to be female, an ideal that often prescribes their inferiority. There are so many traps to fall into, traps that keep women from achieving their full potential, many of which I can only see now, after Beauvoir has pointed them out.

It would be impossible for me to boil down everything I’ve learned from the book. But let me pull out three things that struck me:

  • When abortion was illegal in France, it still occurred (her estimate is one million abortions a year) but was much more dangerous. She describes one instance where a women waited in bed, bleeding, for four days after a botched abortion, for fear of being sent to prison.
  • In patriarchal societies, adolescence is much harder on women than on men. Teenage boys are given more freedom, so they can find their place in the world. Teenage girls have their former freedoms stripped away, so they can prepare for a life spent under their husband’s thumb.
  • Cultures that will readily grant some rights to unwed women (holding a job, owning their own property, etc) often strip women of those rights when they get married, and saddle them with a slew of new responsibilities. Thus so-called “family values” societies actually incentivize women to skip marriage and having children altogether.