Born into a French Catholic family, Simone de Beauvoir was raised to follow the path of religious devotion, marriage and children. Abandoning her predetermined destiny, de Beauvoir went on to become one of the greatest feminist thinkers of her century. She is also considered to be one of the most preeminent French existential philosophers.
Moved by a sense of urgency, in 1946, she contemplated writing about the feminine condition that she was brutally aware of. She went on to write a two-volume account to answer the question ‘what is a woman?’. Published (first volume) in 1949, The Second Sex had an intellectual impact on the discourse of feminism that followed. The conviction and the certainty with which de Beauvoir expresses herself is dazzling, so much that you wait a long time to read words like ‘maybe’ and ‘possibly’. Her words strike at the heart of the edifice of patriarchy that is summed up in her famous quote “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.
De Beauvoir draws a clear demarcation between the biological sex and the socio-historical construction of gender. Deciphering the problem, de Beauvoir hits at its roots by asserting that gender is not biologically bestowed but a social construction. The social construction of man and woman that is relative to each other. The man as the subject and the woman as the object, the Other, the Second Sex. She traces this social construction throughout history and how this tradition has been reinforced: “the present incorporates the past, and in the past, all history was made by males.” This social characterization of man and woman, as subject and object, is what leads to the rise of inequalities. While the man is conceived as an independent entity, the woman is conceived in relation to the man, signifying her dependency and snatching away her agency.
De Beauvoir goes on to define the process of ‘becoming woman’, the social construction that starts from early infancy which stands no choice to evade: “the abyss that separates adolescent girls from adolescent boys was purposefully dugout since early infancy”. She leaves no stone unturned, so much that she also addresses men with artificial sympathy for women: “The man most sympathetic to women never knows her concrete situation fully. So there is no good reason to believe men when they try to defend privileges whose scope they cannot fathom.”
It is close to seven decades since the book was first published, however, her ideas are still relevant. It has an intellectual impact on the reader irrespective of the reader’s sex. My intention to read this book was to serve my curiosity to understand de Beauvoir’s existentialist approach to feminism, it has rather set me into an introspection. An introspection questioning how much of patriarchy is still hiding in me that I unconsciously still wield. It is imperative to remember that we were born in a patriarchal society and society plays an important role in the construction of thoughts, beliefs and actions of an individual. As we educate ourselves to strengthen our notions of equality, at one end we are learning and at the other end, we are unlearning what is existing. Further, it is equally important that we allow this learning as well as unlearning seep into our thoughts, beliefs and actions. Until then, our notions of equality will be a top dressing on what is essentially unequal.
Shunmuga Sundaram Yadav has previously worked for an Italian consulting firm promoting Italian businesses in developing countries and assisting them to participate in projects funded by Multilateral Development Banks. He has also worked on consulting projects for strategizing market entry of Italian brands in India. He has completed a course in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering and a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. He is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Mumbai University.
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