Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
Katherine Klinger
Hannah Arendt, 1950
Hannah Fröhlich
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Dagmar Fink
Long version
Short version
Reference text Beauvoir
Tom Holert
Billie Holiday, 1939
Jamika Ajalon
Rúbia Salgado
Adrian Piper, 1983
Belinda Kazeem
Anna Kowalska
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
Liberatingly feminine
Dagmar Fink, 2011

The first (and for a long while only) time I read excerpts from The Second Sex [1] was in my first or second year at the university in the late 1980s. I think it was for a seminar called “Critiques of Patriarchy as Social Analysis”—in any case, it must have been a seminar on feminist theory in the social sciences. What I remembered from this reading was that The Second Sex gives a comprehensive, sharp-witted, and extremely erudite analysis of the situation of women in the first half of the 20th century. (Actually, the book deals only with the situation of White, [2] mainly middle-class, western, heterosexual women—but this I noticed only on rereading it.) In particular, Beauvoir denounces women’s legal situation and lack of economic independence, but she also discusses—in 1949!—sexuality as a political issue. Thanks to the incomparable Nina Hagen, I am also always reminded that Beauvoir views the prevailing ideology of motherhood as an instrument of repression. She sings: “Simone de Beauvoir sagt: Gott bewahr! Und vor dem ersten Kinderschrei’n muss ich mich erstmal selbst befrei’n” (Simone de Beauvoir says: Au revoir! And before the first baby’s scream, I gotta begin by freeing me). [3] Accordingly, another thing I retained from my first reading was that Beauvoir “unmasks” femininity as a patriarchal myth that serves to turn women into submissive, male-identified housewives and mothers. Women who fall for this myth and fail to reject femininity are not only not emancipated, but also complicit in their own repression. So much for what I remember from my first reading, which has merged with memories of other feminist texts I read at the time and that come to similar conclusions regarding femininity.

“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (One is not born, but rather becomes, woman)—probably Simone de Beauvoir’s most famous sentence—long circulated in German as: “Man kommt nicht als Frau zur Welt, man wird dazu gemacht.” (One is not born, but rather made woman). This translation suggests that femininity is a form of disfiguring or training that turns human individuals into women. And, actually, that is what Beauvoir means. But the more accurate version—“man wird es” (one becomes woman)—also suggests that women do not occur naturally and that femininity is not an innate quality. And this, too, reflects Beauvoir’s view.

Thus, she is compatible with a queer-feminist perspective of the kind most prominently advocated since the 1990s by Judith Butler: with the concept of heteronormativity, this view calls the naturalness, unambiguity, and immutability of gender and sexuality into question and identifies the two-gender [4] model and the heterosexual norm as central power and dominance relations in society. The heteronormative matrix structures the diversity of gendered modes of existence into two unambiguous, clearly distinguishable, and mutually exclusive genders and demands a direct correspondence between sex, gender, gender identity and sexuality. Exploring gendered modes of existence that subvert heteronormativity and the two-gender model has been a logical consequence. Cross-dressing, transsexuality, female masculinities such as butches or drag kings, but also drag queens, were celebrated as subversive, camp performances of gender. Curiously, however, it was never femininities that were queer, subversive, or parodic. Not even drag queens could be celebrated as subversive male femininities without reservation—somehow they bore the “taint” of the feminine. They were suspected of wanting to be “better women,” of being misogynous, and ultimately of not calling heteronormative femininity into question but striving to perfect it. The marginalization and (implicit) disdain of femininities, then, was perpetuated in many queer-feminist models.

Angered by this devaluation, I have in recent years increasingly turned my attention toward femininities. My main interest has been in the femme as a figuration of queer (i.e., critically distinct from the heteronorm) femininity. [5] She is not simply “femme,” i.e., woman, but “femme“: similar to “woman” and at the same time willfully different. In their self-representations, femmes use symbols of traditional femininity, but they rework, displace, and re-signify these symbols. Their ironic and joyful play on “appearing like” at the same time as “not appearing like” destabilizes heteronormative expectations—but without entering into opposition to femininity. [6] While many femmes are mistakenly read as women, their assigned sex was / is not necessarily female: there are also male femmes, transfemmes, etc.. In the context of theorizing queer femininities, several writers note as necessary and important feminist analyses of traditional, stereotypical femininity as oppression of so-called “women” as “women”. Yet, they argue, it is equally important to understand the ways in which femininities can be subversive and powerful. Femininity is not a fate, but a decision—even for those who within a heteronormative order are read as “women”.

Prompted by my concurrent wish to understand why—paradoxically—femininity is also devalued in feminist and queer theory, I reread Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. After all, this book is something of a seminal feminist text. Moreover, Beauvoir understands gender in terms of becoming—and not of being. And if gender is something that is not given to us, but that we become, then we can become it in different ways. Consequently, there is no reason why femininity must be always-already heteronormative. Right? In which case, something must have gone wrong since Beauvoir if femininity is read exclusively, unhesitatingly, and without reservation, as a tool of patriarchal repression. In my rereading, I concentrated on the introduction and on the chapter on myths that was originally published as an advance excerpt of The Second Sex and in which Beauvoir explains femininity as a patriarchal myth. [7] In addition, I reread her chapter on “The Lesbian,” assuming it would contain some mention of femininity.

A word on an aspect I had completely forgotten: the pleasure I derive from Beauvoir’s language and her ambition of combining literary and academic writing. Even when analyzing the most complex issues, she aims for a poetic language that is capable of communicating things in ways different to those offered by a purely academic idiom. In some cases, this makes it possible for readers to not only understand her point, but also to feel it. In this regard, I am in two minds about the new German translation by Uli Aumüller and Grete Osterwald: It is certainly more precise in its terminology, making The Second Sex more accessible from today’s point of view. But it is also drier, replacing the “silky rustling of a petticoat” with just a “provocative petticoat”—thus entirely robbing the original phrase of its sensuality. [8]

Nevertheless, back to femininity. Like Irigaray after her, Beauvoir explains that there is no positive definition of woman: humanity is masculine and woman is defined as the Other of man, while man is not defined in terms of woman. Consequently, man appears as essential and absolute, woman as non-essential. The man imagines himself as a subject blessed with creative transcendence, as being-for-itself (être-pour-soi). Femininity, on the other hand, is equated with immanence, with being-for-others (être-pour-autrui), and thus with reproduction, nurture, physicality, transience… Only when women assert themselves as human, Beauvoir says, do they lose this quality of the Other. Correspondingly, she understands femininity as contrived and artificial, as training and mutilation. But this is not just an analysis of how (White, heterosexual, …) femininity is constructed in modern, bourgeois, western society, Beauvoir also follows this description and does not contradict it. Though she does criticize the construction of masculinity as pure being-for-itself, essentially, she remains within the matrix of humanity-equals-masculinity. And, specifically, she doesn’t inquire into the qualities that “becoming woman” (or rather: the appropriation of different femininities) may possess for different subjects. At one point she even goes so far as to compare feminine women with eunuchs. But the feminine woman Beauvoir contrasts with the emancipated and modern woman is not only a victim but also a perpetrator by turning herself into a “passive prey” and trying to reduce the man, too, to carnal passivity: “She works at entrapping him, at imprisoning him, by the desire she arouses, docilely making herself a thing.” [9]

In her thoughts on “the” lesbian, which move between glorification and trivialization, Beauvoir comes to some different conclusions: here, passivity in itself does not preclude wanting to be a subject. Nevertheless, this does not alter her perspective on femininity. For even when she is describing lesbian or queer relationships, she never sees them in anything other than heteronormative terms. With remarkable curiosity and openness, Beauvoir investigates diverse forms of femininity (and female masculinities). Using the example of literary texts (e.g., Gertrude Stein, Colette, Radclyffe Hall), she shows femininities that do not fit into the heteronormative matrix or that explicitly resist it. At the same time, she is unable to see anything other than “woman” and classifies all forms of femininity according to the two-gender model. This also becomes evident when she describes lesbian sex as a mutual mirroring: If one woman caresses another’s breasts, she writes, for example, then the one caressing not only feels the touch, but also knows how her lover is experiencing the caress. Beauvoir assumes, then, that there is a single female sexual body that is experienced by all in the same way. However, not all of those who have a female sexual body identify as women. In addition, each sexual body—even if it is female—is lived and experienced individually.

Although Beauvoir does consider other social categorizations, such as race, class or ethnicity, she always views them as separate from femininity. The interfaces marking out what it means to be in the world as a bourgeois or a proletarian woman, as a White or a Black woman, and what this in turn means for concepts of femininity, are not taken into consideration. The Second Sex constructs a single myth of femininity that is White, western, bourgeois, and heteronormative. Beauvoir does analyze the historicity of this myth, but she treats the two-gender model—against her better knowledge—as a constant. As a result, she fails to identify different concepts of femininity as they are defined by society as well as performed and lived by individuals. Based on this assumption, Shakira, Amy Winehouse, Marla Glen, Johanna Dohnal [10] would all be grouped together under the same myth of femininity, while Boy George would not even be read as feminine. And precisely here, in the construction of a single femininity that is at odds with freedom (as I have shown using Beauvoir as an example) lies one of the causes for the devaluation of femininities.

If femininity is not to be in and of itself at odds with freedom, we must focus on its diversity: it is a matter of seeing the countless ways in which subjects appropriate femininity—both with the norm and against it. Only then will it be possible to analyze the effects of the various forms of non-heteronormative femininity. Or put another way: only then can we recognize and appreciate the possibilities for becoming liberatingly feminine.


Dagmar Fink is a cultural theorist, translator, and lecturer at Vienna University.

Edited by Sabine Rohlf & Jo Schmeiser

Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto


1) Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Paris 1949; Das andere Geschlecht, Hamburg 1951, new translation by Uli Aumüller and Grete Osterwald: Reinbek bei Hamburg 1992, The title of the German translation is actually not “The Second Sex”, but “The Other Sex”. Published in English as The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, New York 2010

2) Following usage in Critical Whiteness Studies, I capitalize “White” to underline the fact that it is not a “skin color” but a social position within a racist categorization system.

3) Nina Hagen, 1978, “unbeschreiblich weiblich” (indescribably feminine)

4) The German word “Geschlecht” does not differentiate between sex and gender, but encompasses both notions.

5) See for example:

6) See my essays: “Cherished As Well As Suspicious: Femme Femininities,” in: Walter W. Höbling et al (eds.), US Icons and Iconicity, Vienna 2006, pp. 167-185, and “Rot wie eine Kirsche, pink wie Fuchsia: Femme in Melissa Scotts queer-feministischer Science Fiction,” in: Barbara Holland-Cunz et al (eds.), Genderzukunft. Zur Transformation feministischer Visionen in der Science-Fiction, Königstein 2008, pp. 169-187.

7) An excerpt from the chapter on myths was published in 1948 as a preview in the magazine Les Temps Modernes, followed in 1949 by excerpts from the second volume of Le deuxième sexe. See Ursula Konnertz, “Simone de Beauvoir: Das andere Geschlecht,” in: Martina Löw, Bettina Mathes (eds.), Schlüsselwerke der Geschlechterforschung, Wiesbaden 2005, p. 32; Lieselotte Steinbrügge on: and Simone de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, Vol. 1: After the War, translated by Richard Howard, New York 1977, p. 175 & 185.

8) Das andere Geschlecht, 1951: p. 8, 1992: p. 9. In the English translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier it is a “frilly” petticoat. In her review of this new version, literary critic and Simone de Beauvoir expert Toril Moi makes a similar argument for the English translations: The first translation by H. M. Parshley published in 1953 had simply cut more than 10 percent of the original text and “made a hash of Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary.” Yet, according to Moi, it is—like the first German translation—“lively” and “readable.” She finds the new translation complete and, at times, philosophically more accurate than Parshley’s but—and this applies only to the English translation—she “found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.” Toril Moi, “The Adulteress Wife,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 3, 11 February 2010, pp. 3-6.

9) The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, op. cit., p. 754.

10) Johanna Dohnal is an icon of the Austrian women’s movement. In 1979, she became the country’s first secretary of state for women’s affairs and, from 1990, minister for women’s affairs. Facing fierce criticism from the political far-right, Dohnal was dismissed in 1995 by the social-democratic chancellor. She did active political work for NGOs and several women’s organizations until her death in 2010. Dohnal was also a very tough butch, always wearing a traditional suit in public.