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The Second Sex

By Simone de Beauvoir
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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Synopsis

The Second Sex (1949), an 800-page feminist classic, explains how woman has been shaped into the “Other,” second sex – the negative counterpart to man. By examining history, myths, biology and life experience, de Beauvoir paints a clear picture of why woman is subjugated to man, and how womankind should respond.

Key idea 1 of 17

Across species, females differ from males, but this needn’t entail a difference in status.

When you look at most animal species, you’ll notice that there are differences between males and females. This is certainly true of humans, and many argue that the existence of such differences proves that males and females should have a different status in society.

However, this argument doesn’t hold up.

Yes, there are biological differences, but these don’t justify the subjugation of females to males.

Human males are often physically stronger, with more muscle mass, more red blood cells and greater lung capacity. But such male attributes are only important in a society where greater physical capacity is valued above all else. Some cultures forbid violence, thereby undermining any attempts for males to dominate females with their muscular supremacy. Indeed, it’s only when males are free to impose their physical strength that they can make others believe the arbitrary claim that males – and their muscles – should rule the roost.

In addition to biological arguments, psychoanalytical explanations for the inequality of males and females have also been put forward. These are also rather weak.

Freud places the beginning of the development of the difference between males and females at the genital phase, when the pubescent child starts to associate pleasure with another person, typically someone of the opposite sex. For the male, the penis is still the organ of pleasure, whereas the female shifts focus from clitoral to vaginal pleasure, making the penis – and penetration – the object of her desire. Furthermore, Freud believed that women suffered from penis envy – the sense of once having had a penis, which leaves females feeling bereft and mutilated, inferior to men.

But Freud’s theory has a fundamental flaw: it’s based on a male model. The concept of penis envy can only exist if male genitalia are considered the norm, and female genitalia are seen as lacking something – as being the Other.

So if it’s not biology or psychology that provides the basis for the difference in status between females and males, what is it?

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