One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. This simple sentence sums up the explosive content of Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece which came out in 1949, causing a great scandal (and was inserted into the Index of Prohibited Books in 1956). Being a woman is not a natural fact, it is not explained by biology or by psychoanalysis. It is a cultural fact, the result of the action of processes of symbolic construction which are at the root of human history. Women today, who have acquired the rights of official equality, find, according to the French writer, that they are facing the enormous task of discovering who they are. No woman, in fact, can claim to put herself beyond her own sex: even a privileged woman like de Beauvoir directly experiences discrimination. What no woman can escape is the question of what being a woman means. The female identity is something strange, constructed by the man’s gaze. A woman is not herself but the dark side of man, his object. The relationship between the two sexes is not a relationship of reciprocal recognition in which the two consciences relate to one another. Thus women are nothing other than the second sex: between the sexes a hierarchy exists. The man builds his freedom in his relationship with the other who is the woman; the woman does not build her freedom because she does not see the man as her other and cannot manage to emerge from her position as an object. She remains trapped in biology, the prey of the species and thus the prey of cultural constructions on the essence of the feminine.
If we ask ourselves, more than 60 years later, what is the legacy of philosophy to 19th-century feminism, we cannot but notice the seminal character of de Beauvoir’s thought. The denial of the biological basis of being a woman, even if it is declined in different ways, is prevalent in feminism, as is the identification of characteristics attributed to women by male thought. Regarding this aspect we can see in her approach a first example of the deconstruction of identity. However, the main interest of The Second Sex today lies in its philosophical structure whose origins are existentialist and hence in its placing of the question of freedom at the centre. Freedom is the subject on which different kinds of feminism converge, even despite the great differences between them, and is properly understood as Simone de Beauvoir meant it: not as a total of rights or of opportunities, but rather as a liberation, originally to define for oneself one’s being in the world, on one’s own footing. In de Beauvoir this intuition acquires the colours of Sartrian philosophy. This approach seems far from the most recent sensibility of feminist research on the subjects of care and relationships. However the ethical tension involved in the re-appropriation of a universal meaning of being a woman as a human being who must win her place independently of the mitsein, of being together, makes philosophy an indubitable mother of feminism.
St. Peter’s Square
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