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

Volume I: Introduction

“There is a good principle that created order, light, and man and a bad principle that created chaos, darkness, and woman.”

“Everything that has been written by men about women should be viewed with suspicion, because they are both judge and party.”
Poulain de la Barre

I hesitated a long time before writing a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; it is now almost over: let’s not talk about it anymore. Yet it is still being talked about. And the volumes of idiocies churned out over this past century do not seem to have clarified the problem. Besides, is there a problem? And what is it? Are there even women? […] It is hard to know any longer if women still exist, if they will always exist, if there should be women at all, what place they hold in this world, what place they should hold. […] But first, what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero: she is a womb,” some say. Yet speaking of certain women, the experts proclaim, “They are not women”, even though they have a uterus like the others. Everyone agrees there are females in the human species; today, as in the past, they make up about half of humanity; and yet we are told that “femininity is in jeopardy”; we are urged, “Be women, stay women, become women.” So not every female human being is necessarily a woman; she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Is it enshrined in a Platonic heaven? Is a frilly petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women zealously strive to embody it, the model has never been patented. It is typically described in vague and shimmering terms borrowed from a clairvoyant’s vocabulary. In Saint Thomas’s time it was an essence defined with as much certainty as the sedative quality of a poppy. But conceptualism has lost ground: biological and social sciences no longer believe there are immutably determined entities that define given characteristics like those of the woman, the Jew or the black; science considers characteristics as secondary reactions to a situation. If there is no such thing today as femininity, it is because there never was. Does the word “woman”, then, have no content? It is what advocates of Enlightenment philosophy, rationalism or nominalism vigorously assert: women are, among human beings, merely those who are arbitrarily designated by the word “woman”; American women in particular are inclined to think that woman as such no longer exists. If some backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to undergo psychoanalysis to get rid of this obsession.

Volume II: Introduction, Formative Years

“What a curse to be a woman! And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.”

“Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone.”
J.-P. Sartre

Women of today are overthrowing the myth of femininity; they are beginning to affirm their independence concretely; but their success in living their human condition completely does not come easily. As they are brought up by women, in the heart of a feminine world, their normal destiny is marriage, which still subordinates them to man from a practical point of view; virile prestige is far from being eradicated: it still stands on solid economic and social bases. It is thus necessary to study woman’s traditional destiny carefully. What I will try to describe is how woman is taught to assume her condition, how she experiences this, what universe she finds herself enclosed in, and what escape mechanisms are permitted her. Only then can we understand what problems women—heirs to a weighty past, striving to forge a new future—are faced with. When I use the word “woman” or “feminine,” I obviously refer to no archetype, to no immutable essence; “in the present state of education and customs” must be understood to follow most of my affirmations. There is no question of expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems.

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society.


Le deuxième sexe, © 1949 by Editions Gallimard, Paris: The Second Sex, © 2009 by Random House, London. © 2010 and 2011 by Random House, New York. Translation © 2009 by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Quotes (from the 2011 edition): pp. v, 3-4, 277-279, 283.