Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Second Sex (Part 2) by Simone de Beauvoir


Source of book: I own this


Every March for the past eight years, I have read a selection for Women’s History Month. I have generally chosen works connected with Feminism. Although demonized by the Cultural Fundamentalist circles I was raised in (and sadly by an increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist Evangelicalism as well), it really shouldn’t be controversial. Feminism is simply this:


The Cultural, Political, and Economic Equality of men and women.


Of course, the problem with this for many is that this idea is anathema to them. Their worldview depends on a structural inequality of the sexes, one where men control the institutions of power and the money we use as a means of exchange. In order to justify this, they cling to ideas of a congenital inferiority of women (whatever euphemisms they use to deny this), whereby women are unfit for leadership, or even control of their own lives and destinies.


Here are my selections for previous years:


Are Women Human? By Dorothy Sayers (2014)

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (2015)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (2016)

Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara Babcock (2017)

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (2018)

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (2019)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2020)

The Second Sex (Part 1) by Simone de Beauvoir


You can also find these and other feminist books on my Women’s History Month page.


As I noted last year, I decided to split this book up, since it was written in two parts. I read the first part last year, and then finished the book this year. The second part is roughly twice as long as the first, but it is a bit less philosophy-heavy, and was thus a bit easier to read through. 


It is always interesting what ages well in books and what doesn’t. In my experience, while there are some exceptions, what rarely ages well are ideas related to medicine and psychology. It is easy to forget sometimes just how far we have come in our medical knowledge in the nearly 80 years since this book was written. Some of the author’s statements were current back then, but have since proven to be flat out wrong. Others seem weirdly condescending in a patriarchal way, although again, she was speaking from her place of knowledge at the time. I’ll discuss a few of these as I go along. 


The other thing that feels out of date is her descriptions of cultural norms. Which is to say, society in the first world has changed pretty dramatically since she The Second Sex was written, and many of her complaints seem a lot less valid now. This is not to say that everything is perfect now, but that progress has been made. 


Just to give a few examples, most careers are now available to women, and a large percentage of women are now primary or equal breadwinners for their families. Here in the United States, a majority of college graduates each year are women, and this has been the case most of my life. Finally, unlike back in the day, a woman who has a college degree is significantly more likely to marry than one without. This is the polar opposite. What has changed is what de Beauvoir hoped: men have adjusted, and in fact have come to believe that educated, intelligent, strong women are in fact sexy as hell and good choices as life partners. (That is 100% my view, and it is shared by a lot of men my age and younger. Progress is possible.)


That said, it was certainly disconcerting to read the descriptions of female roles and beliefs about women. It was pretty much the exact same shit that Christian Patriarchy teaches - and what the Religious Right wishes to return our country to, by force of law if necessary. In that sense, the book still feels highly relevant. 


In terms of layout, this second part of the book takes a sweeping look at the lived experience of females, starting with childhood, through old age, then examines some of the coping mechanisms women use to function in a society that limits them, and ending with a vision for a more egalitarian world. 


I took a ton of notes, so this post is probably going to be ridiculously long. I’d apologize, but it will still be far shorter than the book. I do recommend reading it, but I will not pretend that it is easy. 


[Side note: my copy is 800 pages of very small print. Right before I started the first part last year, I realized that my eyesight - excellent for most of my life - was falling victim to aging. So, I have to say I am glad to live in the modern world, because reading this book without the technological assistance of reading glasses would have been impossible - and I would be looking at the real possibility of losing my ability to read at all. Of course, back in the day, I would have died in infancy, thus avoiding the aging process altogether.] 


So, starting at the beginning of this part, de Beauvoir looks at the differences in how boys and girls are raised. Right from the start, it is obvious that times had changed even when I was a kid decades ago. And by the time you get to my kids, it is unmistakable that there has been a profound change in childrearing generally and specifically in how we see female children. The gap between how my mother was raised and how she raised my sister is even more glaring than the gap to how I raise my own daughters. This isn’t to say that there isn’t still a gendered set of expectations in society or in families, but that, well, take a look at this:


[S]he is taught that to please, she must try to please, must make herself object; she must therefore renounce her autonomy. She is treated like a living doll, and freedom is denied her; thus a vicious circle is closed; for the less she exercises her freedom to understand, grasp, and discover the world around her, the less she will find its resources, and the less she will dare to affirm herself as subject; if she were encouraged, she could show the same vibrant exuberance, the same curiosity, the same spirit of initiative, and the same intrepidness as the boy. Sometimes this does happen when she is given a male upbringing; she is thus spared many problems. 


I mean, my kids’ generation takes for granted that girls like to play sports, show curiosity, are good at school, have opinions, take initiative, and take risks. Times have changed, and for the better in this case. 


I was thinking about this, again in connection with the generational differences in my own family. When my mom was in high school, all the [male, always male] math teachers openly stated that women couldn’t excel at math. By the time my wife was in college, only the old troglodytes said this, and at this point, any teacher who says that in class is likely to be reported and disciplined. (And is also likely to be objectively wrong by any reasonable measure.) The ideas that de Beauvoir was pushing back against have been and are being proven to be mere prejudice and lack of opportunity and training, not a biological reality. As educational opportunities become available to women, they thrive. 


As Terry Pratchett said about this:


Unseen University had never admitted women, muttering something about problems with the plumbing, but the real reason  was an unspoken dread that if women were allowed to mess around with magic they would probably be embarrassingly good at it …


And yes, Christian Patriarchy wants to undo all of this. Which is why the expectations put on my wife to regress to those older gendered expectations was a shock to me - it was so different from how I was raised. De Beauvoir describes this gender essentialism - baptized in religious language - so well.  


The girl will be wife, mother, grandmother; she will take care of her house exactly as her mother does, she will take care of the children as she was taken care of: she is twelve years old, and her story is already written in the heavens; she will discover it day after day without shaping it; she is curious but frightened when she thinks about this life whose every step is planned in advance and toward which every day irrevocably moves her. 


This is the way my wife felt when part of the Lindvall cult. She was determined not to marry, if this was what awaited her. In the actual event, she met an egalitarian guy, and has shaped her own life as she was determined to do. 


It would take too much space to talk in much depth about the section on the dismal state of sex education in France in the 1940s. It is hard to believe, but France was more anti-feminist than the United States once, although that has clearly changed. Sex Ed here is bad in many places. I was fortunate enough to get a mostly excellent education. Scientifically, it was good. The only real weakness was that it still insisted on the “sex only in marriage between a man and a woman” religious belief, so I had to deprogram from that over the years. (Considering the time, my parents were somewhat progressive by Evangelical standards, honestly. We didn’t hate LGBTQ people, and always had some in our lives.) 


I think in general, my kids’ generation has a better grasp of sex, at least biologically, than the preceding ones. It could be better, but it is better than it was. What did seem familiar about the description of the sorry state of sex ed for females in particular is that it sounded like my mom’s description of how she was raised, and how she felt about sex as a kid. (Her claim: every woman, when she first understands how sex works, is horrified and disgusted. De Beauvoir says this as well, although she blames it on the inherently problematic view of sex held by males and the horrid way most of them treat women in the bedroom. She is not entirely wrong about that last point. But, it needs to be said, not all women hate sex with men, and not all men suck in bed.) 


The section entitled “The Girl” uses an archaic meaning of that word. What the author means is young women going through and post puberty. Not a “girl” as in a child, but not yet a woman, or sexually initiated. Here, again, are descriptions that very much were true in the past, and are exactly what Christian Patriarchy wishes to inflict on the rest of us again. For example, the problem of the teen girl (and woman) before marriage. What is she to do with herself while she waits to be chosen by a male? 


As she is already detached from her childhood past, the present is for her only a transition; she sees no valid ends in it, only occupations. In a more or less disguised way, her youth is consumed by waiting. She is waiting for Man. 


This is something that I noticed a lot in Fundie circles: a whole bunch of directionless females, with nothing to do but “prepare to be a wife and mother,” and no real meaning in their lives other than “I must get a man to love me.” This is a pathetic way to live, bad enough when a teen, but farcical in one’s 30s. And believe me, there are plenty of those “stay at home daughters” in Fundie circles. It turns out that Fundie women are not nearly as “marketable” in our modern times as they were promised. There isn’t exactly a long line of decent men tripping over themselves to marry someone with a “quiet and submissive spirit” and no life beyond housekeeping and children. 


(Two prior posts of interest here: My John Thompson Story, and Love at First Sight. I most certainly did not want a woman who made me and our eventual children her sole source of meaning in her life.)


Unfortunately, the flipside to the way females are raised is the way males are raised. De Beauvoir is spot on here, and it is truly tragic for both. 


At about thirteen, boys serve a veritable apprenticeship in violence, developing their aggressiveness, their will for power, and their taste for competition; it is exactly at this moment that the little girl renounces rough games.


This too has changed, although not enough. In particular, I believe boys are still socialized to orient toward violence, and this continues to take a toll on our society. I for one, have never been comfortable with violence, aggressiveness, a will for power, or really competition in general. Sure, I enjoy a friendly sports game, or cheering for my team. But I was never that competitive, except with myself. I am just not that kind of boy. I am grateful my parents did not expect me to be that way. And, on the other hand, I have competitive girls, and, while sports aren’t our thing, I am glad they are not made to take the passive role.  


In another area, I am glad to see that society has changed for the better, despite the delusions of Fundies. This next passage reads very much like Fundie propaganda, and does not fit with the actual evidence.


In fact, she will gain value in the eyes of males not by increasing her human worth but by modeling herself on their dreams…From the most servile to the haughtiest, girls all learn that to please, they must give in to them. Their mothers urge them not to treat boys like companions, not to make advances to them, to assume a passive role. If they want to flirt or initiate a friendship, they should carefully avoid giving the impression they are taking the initiative; men do not like tomboys, nor bluestockings, nor thinking women; too much audacity, culture, intelligence, or character frightens them. 


Reading this, I laughed. See, my wife treated me like a companion. She made advances to me once she realized that I thought she was out of my league. She totally took the initiative. (It is totally true that she proposed to me long before I proposed to her.) She is, by the standards of that time, a “tomboy,” AND a bluestocking. So very much a bluestocking. And she is a thinker. Oh, and she is all audacity, culture, intelligence, and character. 


And you know what? She didn’t frighten me one bit. You know who she did frighten? Who has found her unacceptable from the first? That would be, not some male of her own age….but my mom. Funny how that works…


I was tempted to try and quote the whole section on how women, denied equal power in their relationships (under patriarchy) turn to manipulation and playacting at being herself. This is something I have observed over and over again both professionally, and socially. The most egalitarian marriages are the ones in which the woman feels no need to control and manipulate and play games. It is the ones where the man is believed to have all the ultimate power that a woman will be the most devious, nagging, vicious, and manipulative. And why is this a surprise? 


But it isn’t limited to the marriage. This next line stood out to me because it is literally the story of my family. 


She interferes in the destiny of others so that she can count; she uses any weapon she can; she tells secrets, she invents others, she betrays, she calumniates; she needs tragedy around her to feel alive since she finds no support in her own life. 


So yeah, my mom fits the first bit of this. She still feels a need to interfere where it is none of her business, because her entire identity is tied up in that of “mother,” and specifically “mother who gave up her own life to raise children in the Authoritarian Fundamentalist faith so they had better follow the rules to the letter.” But the whole sentence describes my sister, word for literal word. 


At the close of this section, de Beauvoir hints at what will be her ultimate conclusion: as long as women are not equal, and do not have the opportunity to pursue their own dreams, they will naturally get the next best thing, which is reflected glory from a successful male. 


As long as perfect economic equality is not realized in society and as long as customs allow the woman to profit as wife and mistress from the privileges held by certain men, the dream of passive success will be maintained in her and will hold back her own accomplishments. 


This too fits with the previous passage. Rather than finding something meaningful to do, women embrace both the passive role of “mattering” because of what they do for a man, and the active role of controlling others (particularly their children or other subordinates in society - hence why Southern white women supported enslavement) as a substitute for a genuine calling and purpose in life. 


While sexuality is mentioned in the earlier chapters, it forms the focus of the chapter on “Sexual Initiation.” I am going to say at the outset that there is a lot that is outdated in this chapter. Particularly her reliance on Freud for much of the sexual psychology. But also, I think that her understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity is very much of its time, before much of our current research came out. I also think that her beliefs about female sexuality were very much colored by her own bisexuality - she assumes that all women are like her at heart, although this is at best a debatable conclusion. Particularly her claim that all women are either bisexual or homosexual. Yes, I know that there have been some more modern claims to that effect, but every time I have poked deeper, the evidence seems shallower. Whereas, I think that male bisexuality is probably higher than believed, because of the continued strong stigma against male homosexuality, as part of toxic masculinity in general. (And I say that as a Kinsey Zero.) 


Going one deeper, I also found that her belief that homosexuality was all the result of nurture, not nature, to be retrograde. Again, particularly the parts that tend to blame parents for having LGBTQ kids - one of the most harmful beliefs I was raised with. 


I’ll mention a few quotes from this chapter, both because of the way that they fit all too well with the teachings of Patriarchy, and their relevance for today. In order to understand much of what she says, it is helpful to review her views on the biological implications of the reproductive binary, found in part one. 


First, in the “captain obvious” category, is her note that reproduction does not require female pleasure. And men, for a variety of reasons, are not trained to either expect or seek female pleasure. 


Since she is object, her inertia does not profoundly alter her natural role: to the extent that many men are not interested in whether the woman who shares their bed wants coitus or only submits to it. One can even go to bed with a dead woman.


On the one hand, that is not me, and is not the many good men I know. But if my experience with divorce cases is any indication (to say nothing of the statistics), a lot of men just don’t care. 


The most harrowing part of this chapter are the first hand experiences the author quotes from other works, most often Frigidity in Woman. Man, so many of these “first time sex” stories are terrible. This is exactly what a lack of education, a belief in male entitlement, and a fetishization of virginity do to women. 


Quite a number of years ago, for both personal and professional reasons, I came to the conclusion that it is extremely important for the woman to “test drive” a potential partner, so to speak. Often you hear this from the male perspective, but I think that women take a lot more risk in marrying a man that they cannot be certain will be willing or able to satisfy them. Quite obviously, men almost always orgasm. Sure, an enthusiastic woman is a lot more fun for most of us. (Myself very much included.) But a woman risks physical damage, excruciating pain, humiliation, and more. This book - and all those stories - confirmed to me that I was on the right track. So many women (including ones I know personally) talk about how bad sex was the first time, and how much they hated it, and even how relieved they were when their husbands finally gave up and turned to masturbation. Sigh. That’s sad and unnecessary. We men should learn to be good lovers, and to listen and learn from our partners. Sex is supposed to be mutually fun and pleasurable, after all. 


Which is why I strongly disagree with de Beauvoir’s statement:


In any case, however deferential and courteous a man might be, the first penetration is always a rape. 


That was definitely NOT the case for my wife and myself. And it wasn’t merely that I was “deferential and courteous.” Rather, it was greatly desired by my wife, and she was physically and emotionally prepared. Which is the reason it was not painful or unpleasant. 


On the other hand, I fully agree with de Beauvoir’s prescription for a healthy sexual initiation for a woman. (And for a man too!)


The best situation for sexual initiation is one in which the girl learns to overcome her modesty, to get to know her partner, and to enjoy his caresses without violence or surprise, without fixed rules or a precise time frame. 


This is a great description of the progression of intimacy with my wife, and I think a great summary of the sexuality that Song of Songs describes. She goes on to note that factors that aid in this are partners that are of a similar age (not an older man and younger woman), a lack of taboos, and an organic progression from light physical touch to full intercourse at the rate that the partners feel right. Again, exactly my experience, to which I attribute our loving marriage of nearly 21 years. De Beauvoir also describes this establishment of a healthy relationship. 


This blossoming supposes that - in love, tenderness, and sensuality - woman succeeds in overcoming her passivity and establishing a relationship of reciprocity with her partner. The asymmetry of male and female eroticism creates insoluble problems as long as there is a battle of the sexes; they can easily be settled when a woman feels both desire and respect in a man; if he covets her in the flesh while recognizing her freedom, she recovers her essentialness at the moment she becomes object, she remains free in the submission to which she consents. Thus, the lovers can experience shared pleasure in their own way; each partner feels pleasure as being his own while at the same time having its source in the other. 


If that isn’t a beautiful description of the joys of “one flesh,” I don’t know what is. 


I mentioned the question of lesbianism earlier: de Beauvoir devotes an entire chapter to the issue. As I noted, she was bisexual - she had an open relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, and took both male and female lovers. (He sometimes shared the women with her, which caused scandal to her, but not to him. Nice double standard there.) As I said, I don’t think this section has aged as well as others, but there are still some interesting ideas. One of them is that saying that lesbians “act like men” is both inaccurate (they act like women, just not the kind of women they are “supposed” to be culturally) and completely misses the greater point. 


I have already said how psychoanalysts create ambiguities by accepting masculine-feminine categories as currently defined by society. Thus, man today represents the positive and the neuter - that is, the male and the human being - while woman represents the negative, the female. Every time she behaves like a human being, she is declared to be identifying with the male. 


Dorothy Sayers also pointed this out. Whenever a woman tries to act like a generic human being, she is accused of taking on the “male” role rather than staying in her limited role as the subhuman “female.” 


One unexpected passage in this chapter was about the way that, as de Beauvoir sees it, mothers often identify with their daughters in a quasi-sexual manner, because of a narcissistic tendency. While she doesn’t use the term, later psychologists have termed this “emotional incest.” It isn’t always overtly sexual, exactly, but it is a female-female emotional and social bond that shows all the elements of sexuality without a specifically orgasmic connection. And damn, yes this is a real thing. In the Fundie subculture, it is the rule, rather than the exception. It isn’t always female-female - it can go all the other ways too. But I know a lot of cases where the mother in particular has this unhealthy and tightly enmeshed relationship that looks outwardly very much like a romantic relationship, just without overt sex. De Beauvoir describes it as follows:


This uncoupling can occur in a maternal form; the mother who recognizes and alienates herself in her daughter often has a sexual attachment to her; the desire to protect and rock in her arms a soft object made of flesh is shared with the lesbian.


(Yes, this is my family. Yes, it is female-female. And yes, my mother has a long history of unhealthy and emotionally enmeshed relationships with other females. Combined with some of her descriptions of disgust with sex, and a seeming obsession with my wife’s “modesty,” this has made me wonder for a long time if she is closeted, even to herself.) 


Lots to think about from this chapter, particularly the way that sexuality and sublimated sexuality are linked to other aspects of life and self-conception. 


The book then moves on to marriage. And it starts off with a bang. I think the author is correct that marriage arose as a form of property - females were owned by males - and that our current culture wars are about the future and present of what marriage means. Because marriage is an economic institution, it is the changes in our economic system that are driving radical changes in the meaning of marriage. 


The economic evolution of woman’s condition is in the process of upsetting the institution of marriage: it is becoming a union freely entered into by two autonomous individuals; the commitments of the two parties are personal and reciprocal; adultery is a breach of contract for both parties; either of them can obtain a divorce on the same grounds. 


Yep, that is exactly what has happened - and why most people, even of my parents’ age, view marriage (and even adultery) on those terms. And not just marriage, but parenting has changed. 


Woman is no longer limited to the reproductive function: it has lost, in large part, its character of natural servitude and has come to be regarded as a freely assumed responsibility; and it is considered productive work since, in many cases, maternity leave necessitated by pregnancy must be paid to the mother by the state or the employer. 


Well, the rest of the first world, at least, seems to be doing that. The US is still backwards in recognizing the need for parental leave. 


I noted earlier, the “stay at home daughter” thing is mentioned in this book. While in 21st Century America, this is more popular among upper-middle-class white people, and based on a stated goal of using women as breeders to out-reproduce the brown people infidels, in mid-20th Century France, it was more a rural, lower-class thing. 


There are still many social strata where she is offered no other perspective; for peasants, an unmarried woman is a pariah; she remains the servant of her father, her brothers, and her brother-in-law; moving to the city is virtually impossible for her; marriage chains her to a man and makes her mistress of a home. In some bourgeois classes, a girl is still left incapable of earning a living; she can only vegetate as a parasite in her father’s home or accept some lowly position in a stranger’s home. 


There are several interesting things about how de Beauvoir describes this. In the first scenario, the woman is essentially a servant - she does unpaid domestic work in exchange for room and board, and is thus at the beck and call of her relatives, until she can be transferred as chattel to her new master - that is, her husband. If she never marries, she is a social pariah and will never be “free” in any meaningful sense. 


In the second scenario, where the economic value of an unmarried woman is lower - she has no economically valuable skills, just “charm” skills - the expected graces of her class that make her more attractive to a man - she is essentially a parasite, first of her birth family, then of her husband. I have seen both of these situations within Christian Patriarchy. For the “quiverfull” families, older daughters are valuable as free childcare - the older ones essentially function as mothers of the younger ones. Thus, these girls serve a vital role in making the militant fecundity possible. That they often deeply resent it is not considered important, of course - it is their role in life. Likewise, for Patriarchists who run “ministries,” their daughters serve as employees without the nuisance of having to get workers compensation insurance, pay payroll taxes on their earnings, or otherwise expend the money necessary for an actual employee. 


On the other hand, I have seen a number of Patriarchist families where the older daughters essentially have nothing to do with themselves, until marriage. And, as de Beauvoir notes in this chapter, their lives are ones of deep boredom, without a purpose beyond “catch a man.” 


Speaking of boredom, the book goes on to talk about the aftermath of marriage. Once the initial honeymoon period wears off, what is the woman left with? The man goes back to his job, his purpose in life, while she is now resigned to childbearing and domestic duties - not much of an intellectual stimulation, to be sure. She quotes Balzac as being in favor of loveless marriages (at least in his fiction) and coming to the bizarre conclusion that the sex is better without love. (No, I have nothing either.) De Beauvoir counters that without love, all you get is boredom, not passion. 


In truth, Balzac has cynically skirted the problem. He underestimates the fact that there are no neutral feelings and that in the absence of love, constraints, together with boredom, engender tender friendship less easily than resentment, impatience, and hostility. 


Of course, ask any divorce attorney if you need confirmation of this obvious truth. 


De Beauvoir also returns to an idea from the chapter on sexual initiation. She notes that there is a great variety in marital sexual satisfaction on the part of women, and that those who are sexually satisfied early in the marriage tend to have better and happier marriages. Indeed, a sexually satisfied woman tends to be more forgiving of a man’s faults. (Young men: take note of this. Being a thoughtful and skilled lover is worth the effort.) She also states outright what I did earlier:


It remains that the young girl runs a terrible risk in promising to sleep exclusively and for her whole life with a man she does not know sexually, whereas her erotic destiny essentially depends on her partner’s personality…To claim that a union founded on convention has much chance of engendering love is hypocritical; to ask two spouses bound by practical, social, and moral ties to satisfy each other sexually for their whole lives is pure absurdity. 


Another observation I have made along these lines is that of the marriages I most admired as a kid - the ones where the spouses seemed deeply in love decades later - they tended to be ones that started with a shotgun wedding. This doesn’t mean that all or even most shotgun weddings lead to long happy marriages. Most don’t. But a surprisingly high percentage of really good marriages seem to start with great sexual chemistry. On a related note, I would bet that most people who have had “purity” preached at them had parents who did the deed before the wedding. The hypocrisy is, as de Beauvoir puts it, “pure absurdity.” 


But it isn’t just in the bedroom that boredom takes a toll, of course. This next passage is something I have been saying for a long time. Because of the need to keep women subordinate - which means reducing them to domestic duties rather than permitting them to become financially independent - society has had to invent “duties” to keep them busy. As more and more household tasks become easier and less onerous, new ones have to be found. 


By contrast, bourgeois women who have help are almost idle; and the ransom of this leisure is boredom. Because they are bored, many complicate and endlessly multiply their duties so that they become more stressful than a skilled job. 


Let me give some examples of what I have seen. First, the average house size has nearly doubled since I was a kid, despite smaller family sizes. That means more to clean and maintain. For a certain social class, there is a competition in home decorating that often consumes immense time and money. And, of course, homeschooling. There are many reasons to homeschool, and I would be the last to assume bad motives. But it is also a big time suck. Which is, in my opinion, one reason that Patriarchists push it so hard. (The other is to keep children from learning anything other than the cult dogma.) It is easier to keep women in the home if they are told they have some great, grand mission to accomplish. 


One can foresee, however, that the boredom will return as soon as the artificially created tasks disappear. The kids grow up and leave, and now there is a lot of free time again. Maybe if you have kids until menopause, you can get all the way to retirement, but even retirement is a form of boredom if you do not have anything to fill the hours. 


Unfortunately, in my experience, one of the other ways that bored women fill the time is with trying to run the lives of others. In other words, being self-righteous busybodies. De Beauvoir is spot in that the best thing most of these women could do is get a job. The author discusses this in her passage on the ways married women “escape” from their ennui.


Some, as we have seen, are puffed up with importance and become tyrannical matrons and shrews. Others take refuge in the role of the victim, they make themselves their husbands’ and children’s pathetic slaves and find a masochistic joy in it. Others perpetuate the narcissistic behavior we have described in relation to the young girl: they also suffer from not realizing themselves in any undertaking, and, being able to do nothing, they are nothing; undefined, they feel undetermined and consider themselves misunderstood; they worship melancholy; they take refuge in dreams, playacting, illnesses, fads, and scenes; they create problems around them or close themselves up in an imaginary world…


Oh man, so many of those are familiar from my family. “They create problems around them” is particularly on point. The drama to stave off the boredom. The narcissism…


I won’t quote anything, but I should at least mention the extensive quotes from the diary of Sophia Tolstoy. Yep, the wife of Leo Tolstoy. What a horrible marriage. And most of that is on Leo, I would say - he was a horrible husband and a pretty nasty person, whatever his literary gifts. But de Beauvoir is correct that society bears a lot of blame too, because Sophia was inadequately prepared and educated, given in marriage to a significantly older man, and had no viable option to leave once it was clear that he didn’t love her and had no intention of treating her kindly. 


[Note here: Tolstoy was really fucked up in his beliefs about sex, particularly toward the end of his life. The Kreutzer Sonata and Family Happiness, two novellas, were hugely influential on me, because despite his personal failings, he was able to write superbly about the different kinds of unhappy marriages. After reading those two books, I determined to find a better way.]  


Speaking of wanting a better way, I decided early on that the last thing I wanted was a marriage where a woman used “female” weapons - manipulation, tears, silent treatment, passive aggression - in lieu of adult discussion and negotiation. I also understood that the reason women use those weapons is that they were denied the use of the legitimate and grown-up ones. In the historical sense, of course. Women in many subcultures (especially the Fundie ones) are trained explicitly and by example in the use of “feminine” weapons - and are discouraged from thinking, speaking, and negotiating as equal adults. Here is a bit from the book on this, describing a scene in a novel:


Older, more cultivated, and more educated than Berthe, Albert uses this pretext to deny any value to opinions of his wife that he does not share; he untiringly proves he is right; for her part she becomes adamant and refuses to accept that there is any substance in her husband’s reasoning: he persists in his ideas, and that is the end of it. Thus a serious misunderstanding deepens between them. He does not try to understand feelings or deep-rooted reactions she cannot justify; she does not understand what lives behind her husband’s pedantic and overwhelming logic. He even goes so far as to become irritated by the ignorance she never hid from him, and challenges her with questions about astronomy; he is flattered, nonetheless, to tell her what to read, to find in her a listener he can easily dominate. In a struggle where her intellectual shortcomings condemn her to losing every time, the young wife has no defense other than silence, or tears, or violence. 


I have seen this play out plenty, which is why I very much wanted a woman who was my equal intellectually, educationally, and who was unafraid to engage me as an equal. And I got one. 


I should also note how frustrating this dynamic is. The relationship of husband to wife is one thing - and it is described well above - but it is another, and equally frustrating when it is mother and son. Add in the problem of willful ignorance - partly because of the gendered belief in female intellectual inferiority, and partly because of the Fundie project to destroy critical thinking in favor of unquestioning acceptance of dogma - and you have a lose-lose situation. There is no easy way forward to an adult relationship of equals. You have the less informed party still clinging to an idea of authority (and a firm belief in spiritual superiority, because Fundie doctrine, yo) and no way to assert some independence, and you have the reason my teen years were more difficult than they should have been. (And, speaking from middle age, I was so fucking right about 99% of the things we argued about. But my opinions, based on evidence and reason, were “rebellion” and “hurtful” which meant the “female” weapons had to come out. And believe me, my sister learned how this worked – to her advantage - so damn fast, which is why she is out of my life completely. 


This too, though, is driven by society. Morality in women is determined primarily by their adherence to gender roles and gender stereotypes. This hurts everyone, even those who “win” at the game. And for the stronger, more assertive women like my wife, it is impossible to “win” in the patriarchal system. 


Woman is doomed to immorality because morality for her consists in embodying an inhuman entity: the strong woman, the admirable mother, the virtuous woman, and so on. As soon as she thinks, dreams, sleeps, desires, and aspires without orders, she betrays the masculine ideal. 


This is so true. “Moral” women are those who embody the stereotypes. “Immoral” women are those who think, dream, and aspire without regard for the orders imposed by others, whether fathers, husbands, or in my family’s case, the dirty old men whose poisonous teachings were accepted as coming from God. 


This question of how to handle being a human while being expected to be a “type” is often “resolved” by a woman turning inward and crushing her own self. De Beauvoir describes it as the Stoic idea of “seek to conquer one’s own heart rather than fortune.” Passively accept your fate as a woman, and use your energy to force yourself to become “godly.” Which is why the independent woman is such a threat to the system. Once one starts thinking for herself…


I love how de Beauvoir talks about the alternative to this system: the egalitarian relationship. She notes that no relationship based on one partner “completing the other” will succeed. It requires two healthy persons who are secure in themselves. And who come together as equals. 


This balanced couple is not a utopia; such couples exist sometimes even within marriage; more often outside of it; some are united by a great sexual love that leaves them free in their friendships and occupations; others are linked by a friendship that does not hamper their sexual freedom; more rarely there are still others who are both lovers and friends but without seeking in each other their exclusive reason for living. 


I love that. I have that truly rare marriage where we are lovers and friends, but neither of us seek in each other our exclusive reason for living. 


One final quote from this chapter is on point. In my experience doing divorces, the most patriarchal men are usually the ones that complain the most about women. De Beauvoir has the perfect response. 


Men who declare themselves antifeminist with the excuse that “women are already annoying enough as it is” are not very logical: it is precisely because marriage makes them “preying mantises,” “bloodsuckers,” and “poison” that marriage has to be changed and, as a consequence, the feminine condition in general. Woman weighs so heavily on man because she is forbidden to rely on herself; he will free himself by freeing her, that is, by giving her something to do in this world. 


Yep. Want to not have to pay spousal support? Marry a woman who makes as much as you do. (Which is not the point antifeminist men - the MRA sorts - are making. They want to get better service – and control - for the money they are paying…) 


The next chapter, “The Mother,” opens boldly by talking about….abortion. Yep, that was a bit surprising. But it makes sense. Because before we talk about the role of mother, we really do need to talk about consent, including consent to gestate a child. If you want to talk about a part of the book that HAS aged well, this is it. The arguments surrounding abortion are largely the same, including the fact that the anti-abortion crowd is also vicious toward children who have been actually born, at least if they are poor or non-white. I’ll try to hit some highlights here, including the way that de Beauvoir boldly and fearlessly turns the arguments back around on the anti-abortionists. To begin with, she insists - correctly - that abortion isn’t a moral fault women commit, but rather something they are forced into by men unwilling to forego their sexual pleasure. For de Beauvoir - and for me - the idea of forced gestation is as unthinkable as forced organ donation. It is a non-starter, so any reasonable discussion of the situation has to start with the basic assumption that women are fully human, and have the right to deny the use of her womb to others if she chooses. So, reducing the number of abortions - which de Beauvoir favors, by the way - she feels abortions are to a degree traumatic, and she would know, having had an illegal one in her youth (at the time, abortion was illegal in France, although legal in some states in the US)  - needs to look at other options than mere prohibition. Again, nothing has changed. De Beauvoir is correct that prohibition does not actually reduce abortions, because the need for them remains. It is as silly as outlawing eating - people will steal to live if they have to. 


So let’s start with this one, a real gem:


There are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibits more hypocrisy: abortion is a repugnant crime to which it is indecent to make an allusion. For an author to describe the joys and suffering of a woman giving birth is perfectly fine; if he talks about a woman who has had an abortion, he is accused of wallowing in filth and describing humanity in an abject light: meanwhile, in France every year there are as many abortions as births. It is such a widespread phenomenon that it has to be considered one of the risks normally involved in the feminine condition. 


And later, quoting Stekel:


“Prohibition of abortion is an immoral law, since it must be forcibly broken every day, every hour.” 


And she goes on:


It must be pointed out that the same society so determined to defend the rights of the fetus shows no interest in children after they are born; instead of trying to reform this scandalous institution called public assistance, society prosecutes abortionists; those responsible for delivering orphans to torturers are left free; society closes its eyes to the horrible tyranny practiced in “reform schools” or in the private homes of child abusers; and while it refuses to accept that the fetus belongs to the mother carrying it, it nevertheless agrees that the child is his parents’ thing…


Nothing has changed, has it? The same people who insist on forced birth also are demanding that parents literally own their born children, and can keep them from learning, say, accurate history and human sexuality.


So, that whole discussion is excellent, and has aged well. Not so good is the discussion of pregnancy. Some of this may be due to the fact that de Beauvoir never gave birth. But a lot more of it is a combination of seriously outdated and sexist as hell. The core problem is a belief that while pregnancy-related health issues are real, they are caused by psychological factors. Worst is the blaming of hyperemisis gravidarum on anxiety or ambivalence about the pregnancy. We now know that this is bullshit on a stick. And we could have know that had we actually listened to what women were saying. So, chalk this one down to de Beauvoir relying far too much on the all-male medical establishment of her time. 


Moving on, there were some good things in the discussion of childrearing, and specifically, the fact that many mothers are ambivalent about parenthood. (Yes, I know, this is heresy to the cult of domesticity.) But there is a lot of nuance here too. And the author points out that maternity is rarely some pure goodness, but is rather more often “a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion, and cynicism.” Yep, pretty human, and I concur, even as a father who truly loves and enjoys his children. And then there is this line, which stopped me in my tracks:


Like the woman in love, the mother is delighted to feel needed; she is justified by the demands she responds to…


This is a perfect description of my mother, and it explains why my relationship with her as an adult has been difficult at best. She has a desperate need to be needed. (She has a lot of childhood trauma and neglect, so it makes sense. I very much sympathize.) As an infant, I needed her. As a small child, I needed her. And because I needed her, she felt her existence was justified, worthwhile, meaningful. But, as I got older, I needed her less and less. As a teen, very little. As an adult, I do not need her at all. What should replace this one-sided need is a healthy, reciprocal relationship. As I say about my wife, she doesn’t need me. But she wants me. Big difference. So, because I no longer had this constant need for my mother, she wasn’t able to relate to me, and felt I didn’t love her anymore. And, worse, my wife has never needed my mother and never will. So, my wife realized early on that she would never be accepted by my mother, because of this lack of unhealthy needing. My sister, on the other hand, feeds this need in my mother - there is a reciprocal narcissism that they share, which I described as emotional incest earlier in this post.


For me, in my own relationship with my kids, this means I have had to be aware of this tendency, and make sure I am not expecting my children to need me, but instead build adult relationships with them as they grow up. 


Also fascinating is a passage in which de Beauvoir describes the complexities of a typically unhealthy relationship between mother and daughter. This particular one is very different from the emotionally incestuous one, and is more typical of mothers and daughters who hate each other later in life. I have seen a lot of these outside of my family, and it was interesting to see how they are described. 


A light also went on with this one as it relates to my own family. Because my mom and sister went the emotionally incestuous route, the role of the “bad daughter who is perceived as a threat by the mother” role was given to my wife. Take a look:


Imprisoned in the snares of seriousness, she envies all occupations and amusements that wrench her daughter from the boredom of the household; this escape makes a sham of all the values to which she has sacrificed herself.


Yep. My wife’s job and other interests gave her a freedom my mom didn’t have; and the forced seriousness of authoritarian fundamentalism was something my wife and I rejected.  


The older the child gets, the more this bitterness eats at the mother’s heart; every year brings the mother closer to her decline; from year to year the youthful body develops and flourishes; this future opening up to her daughter seems to be stolen from the mother…This new woman is offered still-indefinite possibilities in contrast to the repetition and routine that are the lot of the older woman: these chances are what the mother enviews and detests; not able to take them herself, she tries to diminish or suppress them: she keeps her daughter home, watches over her, tyrannizes her, dresses her like a frump on purpose, refuses her all pastimes, goes into rages if the adolescent puts on makeup, if she “goes out”; she turns all her own rage toward life against this young girl who is embarking on a new future; she tries to humiliate the young girl, she ridiculules her ventures, she bullies her. 



I think this encapsulates why my mother always hated my wife. She represented what my mom wished she had been. And some of these are really literally on point. My mom tried to force my wife to dress like a frump. Not able to thrive in a career, she denigrated my wife’s job at every chance, trying to diminish its value, and browbeat her into quitting and staying home. I believe she turned her own rage at her own life against Amanda. And yes, she was a bully about it, until my wife had enough, and withdrew from the situation. 


Again, de Beauvoir quotes from Stekel:


Children are not substitutes for one’s disappointed love; they are not substitutes for one’s thwarted ideal in life, children are not mere material to fill out an empty existence. Children are a responsibility and an opportunity…They are neither playthings, nor tools for the fulfillment of parental needs or ungratified ambitions. Children are obligations; they should be brought up so as to become happy human beings. 


I think this is a crystallization of what went wrong after my fairly happy childhood. With the embrace of Bill Gothard and authoritarian fundamentalism, the goal of childrearing changed from that of creating a loving and nurturing environment into seeing children as tools - “arrows in the quiver” - destined to fulfill that need for purpose in life, and attain those ungratified ambitions. 


The next chapter is about a woman’s social life. It starts with an acknowledgment that in our culture, women tend to be the ones who arrange things socially. This has been an adjustment for me, as I have had to largely take on that role. This is also a generational shift I have been seeing. 


The family is not a closed community: notwithstanding its separateness, it establishes relations with other social units; the home is not only an “interior” in which the couple is confined; it is also the expression of its living standard, its wealth, its tastes: it must be exhibited for others to see. It is essentially the woman who will organize this social life. 


Then, the discussion moves to the expectations placed on women in terms of clothing. This is, of course, a big sore point for me, regarding my family. De Beauvoir accurately describes the impossible tension placed on women. 


But it must be emphasized that decency does not mean dressing with strict modesty. A woman who teases male desire too blatantly is considered vulgar; but a woman who is seen to repudiate this is disreputable as well: she is seen as wanting to look like a man: she’s a lesbian; or to singer herself out: she’s an anarchist. If she simply does not want to be noticed, she must still conserve her femininity. Custom dictates the compromise between exhibitionism and modesty; sometimes it is the neckline and sometimes the ankle that the “virtuous woman” must hide; sometimes the young girl has the right to highlight her charms so as to attract suitors, while the married woman gives up all adornment: such is the usage in many peasant civilizations…


Next up is the chapter on prostitutes and hetaeras. Which is certainly thought-provoking. De Beauvoir nails it with the idea that prostitutes are necessary in order to have “pure” and subservient wives. The book quotes Mandeville on this point:


“It is obvious that some women must be sacrificed to save others and to prevent an even more abject filth.”


Even the church fathers said as much, believe it or not. It was not until the last 100 years that - at least in the first world - more men had their first sexual experience with a social and economic peer, rather than a prostitute. 


Let me point out here that Jesus Christ spent a scandalous amount of time hanging out with the prostitutes. De Beauvoir’s point that stigmatizing sex workers is pure hypocrisy is exactly what Christ was getting at. And, of course, there is the uncomfortable truth that “traditional” marriage and prostitution are just different versions of the same thing. The book quotes Marro:


“Between those who sell themselves through prostitution and those who sell themselves through marriage, the only difference resides in the price and the length of the contract.” 


As long as women do not have the ability to support themselves fully, this will be the case. It is only recently that this has been possible. In a world where a woman will starve without selling her body to a man, marriage will always be long-contract prostitution. 


The next chapter is “From Maturity to Old Age,” and reminded me a good bit of a discussion I had with a former friend about how middle-aged women are disregarded in our society. Which is true. And it is true because we still view women as deriving their value from their bodies, in the form of beauty and ability to make babies. If we do not value them for their minds, then what good are older women, right? Rather, if women are valuable for being equal human beings, then then will be valued for the same human traits men are. 


(Sadly, this friendship ended during the Trump Era - she went off on a really racist tangent that I could no longer tolerate.) 


While the male grows older continuously, the woman is abruptly stripped of her femininity; still young, she loses sexual attraction and fertility, from which, in society’s and her own eyes, she derives the justification of her existence and her chances of happiness: bereft of all future, she has approximately half her adult life still to life. 


That’s a sad statement, isn’t it? And I think a lot of women feel that way. Fortunately, others choose to derive their worth from other things - I have a number of post-menopausal women as friends and in some cases, as co-adventurers. With the right attitude, in our more modern culture, older women can find freedom and purpose. 


I find it interesting that de Beauvoir believes that the woman who most got by on youth and beauty is actually not the one who suffers most from age. Rather, it is the one who sacrificed her youth who has the hardest time. 


The woman who has forgotten, devoted, and sacrificed herself will be disrupted much more by the sudden revelation. “I had only one life to live; this was my lot, so here I am!” To the surprise of her family and friends, a radical change takes place in her: expelled from her shelter, torn away from her projects, she brusquely finds herself, without resources, face to face with herself. 


That’s an interesting thought. And this too:


However, not everyone is able to cross over the wall of reality so boldly. Deprived of all human love, even in their dreams, many women seek relief in God; the flirt, the lover, and the dissolute become pious around menopause. The vague ideas of destiny, secrecy, and misunderstood personality of woman in her autumn years find a rational unity in religion. 


Something definitely accelerated in my mom around menopause. There was a shift from a wider range of reading (she introduced me to a LOT of great books that influence me today) to a narrow focus on alternative “medicine” and religious books. It was kind of a weird abrupt change that I have seen in a lot of Evangelicals, both men and women. I feel like they decided they had nothing more to learn from non-Fundie sources, and so just stopped growing and exploring, and instead looked to outsource their opinions to the authoritarian fundamentalist system. 


In the next chapter, de Beauvoir says this about women and religion:


There is a justification, a supreme compensation, that society has always been bent on dispensing to woman: religion. There must be religion for women as for the people, for exactly the same reasons: when a sex or a class is condemned to immanence, the mirage of transcendence must be offered to it. It is to man’s total advantage to have God endorse the codes he creates: and specifically because he exercises sovereign authority over the woman, it is only right that this authority must be conferred on him by the sovereign being.  


Oh, and here is another gem:


Nothing is rarer than a mother who authentically respects the human person her child is, who recognizes his freedom even in his failures, who assumes with him the risks implied by any engagement…the son has to justify his mother’s existence by taking hold of values she herself respects for their mutual advantage. 


And oh man, too long to quote, but the way that older women resent their daughters-in-law. Too real. And the bit about the problem facing older women: how to kill time. De Beauvoir posits that “women’s handiwork” was created to fill this gap. My wife is a knitter, and is part of a knitting guild locally, and, while I certainly do not begrudge any of them this hobby, one does wonder how much it serves to kill time. But it is better than the alternative of becoming a busybody. 


Not being specialized in politics or economics or any technical discipline, old women have no concrete hold on society; they are unaware of the problems action poses; they are incapable of elaborating a constructive program. Their morality is abstract and formal, like Kant’s imperatives; they issue prohibitions instead of trying to discover the paths of progress; they do not positively try to create new situations; they attack what already exists in order to do away with the evil in it; this explains why they are always forming coalitions against something - against alcohol, prostitution, or pornography - they do not understand that a purely negative effort is doomed to be unsuccessful, as evidenced by the failure of prohibition in America. As long as woman remains a parasite, she cannot effectively participate in the building of a better world. 


It is not a coincidence that, while the leaders are mostly male, the force behind the Religious Right’s Culture Wars™ is middle aged and older women, most of whom do not have enough to occupy their time. Their way of participating in society is to scream moral panics and try to prohibit whatever they fear. This is not a way to build a better world, and never has been. If these women would go get a job where they have to actually work with people different from them, they might gain some equity. And if they weren’t so privileged, they wouldn’t have the time to spend harassing and harming and denigrating others.


In the next chapter, de Beauvoir continues to look at this idea, and specifically why women - the privileged ones - are often the greatest supporters of injustice and oppression. Again, NOBODY was as passionately in favor of slavery as Southern women. Because of a lack of involvement in the action, women are able to be the most fanatical in compensation. 


If she belongs to the privileged elite that profits from the given social order, she wants it unshakeable, and she is seen as intransigent. The man knows he can reconstruct other institutions, other ethics, another code; grasping himself as transcendence, he also envisages history as a becoming; even the most conservative knows that some change is inevitable and that he has to adapt his action and thinking to it; as the woman does not participate in history, she does not understand its necessities; she mistrusts the future and wants to stop time. 


This too becomes tied up with religion all too easily. 


[T]hus the devotee camouflages her authority in humble obedience; raising her children, governing a convent, or organizing a charity, she is but a docile tool in supernatural hands; one cannot disobey her without offending God himself. 


Again, the story of my teen years. Any dispute would be ended by that “conversation ender”: god is on my side, so if you disagree with me, you are in rebellion against god himself. 


In the later chapter on mysticism as an unhealthy coping mechanism, de Beauvoir takes aim at the way female mystics tend to experience God saying “I love you so much more than any other woman.” Man, I have seen this too. This need to feel more special than everyone else is problematic, not least because it leads to the narcissistic belief that God has told them how everyone else should live their lives. They are the special ones, closest to god, and can impart that judgmental “wisdom” to the rest of us. 


Near the end is a trio of chapters describing ways women use coping mechanisms to mask their frustration with their roles. I won’t directly quote from the one on narcissism, but it was interesting for sure. The one about the woman who loses herself in love was likewise thought provoking. I have seen both of these in action. The most notable line was in a footnote, about how the “in love” woman draws her entire meaning from being loved by a man, which is, obviously, not healthy. 


The case is different if the wife has found her autonomy in the marriage; in such a case, love between the two spouses can be a free exchange of two self-sufficient beings.


The final chapter (except for a brief “conclusion”) is the presentation of an alternative: woman’s liberation. (This may be where the term came from.) In essence, women need to be economically, politically, and socially independent of men. As long as they remain dependent, they will not be able to fully thrive. And this economic autonomy is the most important. After all, it has been some time since women were formally required by law to obey their husbands. And women have had the vote for 100 years. But a woman economically dependent on a man for her living cannot be truly free. If there is no economic autonomy, the other rights remain abstract. 


I have noticed myself that when a woman is an equal breadwinner, the dynamic of the marriage changes dramatically. Sometimes, the marriage does not survive, for various reasons. (The woman no longer is willing to endure abuse; the man doesn’t like the change in power differential; the love left years ago, so independence means freedom, etc.) It is just so hard to be “equal” when one spouse has to ask the other for money. It just is. This is why I believe that the most crucial way to reduce domestic violence is for women to be financially independent. It is also the best way to shift the balance of domestic labor. As long as women’s time is worth less, they will be the ones expected to give up their income for other tasks. 


Another interesting idea in this chapter is that when the outlets for women are mostly hobbies, rather than actual jobs, women tend to dabble, rather than excel. This one reminds me a lot of many women of my parents’ generation, although it is certainly NOT limited to them. In fact, this is kind of similar to the horseshit that Gothard sold to parents to convince them to have their children work for starvation wages (or no wages) for his organization, rather than get a college education. 


Most women, though, do not understand the problems that their desire for communication poses: and this is what largely explains their laziness. They have always considered themselves as givens; they believe their worth comes from an inner grace, and they do not imagine that value can be acquired….


This idea that what one has to offer the world is a matter of one’s inner “grace” or as Gothard put it, “character,” is false. What one has to offer are skills - one’s ability to do something well. And doing something well takes….wait for it….PRACTICE. It requires learning, it requires hard work, it requires training. One is not some sort of “good person” that everyone wants to hire. One either can do the job or not. 


All of us professional musicians get this regularly: “It must be nice to be so talented.” And the temptation to respond: “It must be nice to imagine that I learned how to do this by sitting on my ass.”


And that is what de Beauvoir is pointing out here. It is possible to become a good painter, singer, actor - but it takes hard, hard work to do so. It isn’t fun, per se, and it doesn’t come because of some “inner grace” that one is born with. 


That said, I also did have to take issue with some of what de Beauvoir says in this chapter. She seems pretty down on the accomplishments of women, honestly. Particularly those before her own time. I take particular exception to her negative comparison of Middlemarch with War and Peace. While I do think Tolstoy was a great author, Middlemarch is a better novel than War and Peace. And I do not think it is particularly close. (I do not think that War and Peace is Tolstoy’s best work, actually. It suffers from a lack of focus, and from unrealistic characters.) 


The brief conclusion does a good job of summing up the arguments of the whole work. It also draws some important lines in the sand. The “battle of the sexes” is not a requirement of biology. Far from it, it is the result of the artificial constructs of human society. It is the natural and inevitable result of systemic oppression. 


All oppression creates a state of war.


And this is the case, despite all of the ludicrous claims (by the ruling classes, of course) that the lower castes in society have all the advantages. And specifically, the “blessing” that they don’t have to decide their lives for themselves. “The oppressed have the ‘best part’ they scream.” 


What is troubling is that by a stubborn perversity - undoubtedly linked to original sin - across centuries and countries, the people who have the best part always shout to their benefactors: It’s too much! I’ll settle for yours! But the magnanimous capitalists, the generous colonialists, the superb males persist: Keep the best part, keep it!


That is a superb bit of sarcasm. And on point. To quote from Fiddler on the Roof:


Perchik: Money is the world's curse. 

Tevye: May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.


The same goes for control over one’s own life. Neither the oppressor nor the oppressed would voluntarily take on the role of the latter. And both know it, no matter what sophistry they spew. Even the Pharisees of two thousand years ago thanked God they were not born a woman. 


I truly love the closing idea of the book, that while obviously change means some things are lost, change - and the future - mean that there is much to be gained. When we fear the future and cling to the past, we not only fail to gain the good that is there for the taking, but we ultimately lose the good of what has been. Change is inevitable, whether we desire it or not, and the key is whether we find ways of making the world better, or if we lose the good in our desire to cling to the part of the past that cannot endure. Likewise, whatever we males might “lose” by giving up our dominance, we stand to gain so much more in an egalitarian world. In these troubled times, when retrogressives are determined to make the world a more violent, bigoted, hateful, and ultimately dismal place, it is inspiring to read de Beauvoir’s closing line in this epic work:


Within the given world, it is up to man to make the reign of freedom triumph; to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and beyond their natural differentiations, unequivocally affirm their brotherhood. 


  1. A wonderful post. However, there is a line I feel compelled to give some nuance to. You briefly mention the irritation you feel when people praise your talent at playing an instrument. While your feelings aren't totally off base, allow me to share a personal story.

    I wanted to be a good singer so I could be the lead in musicals as a child. I had a private tutor for years. I tried out for musicals. I never got the lead role, at best one of the minor characters who only sung in a crowd. As it turns out, my efforts raised a bad voice to a tolerable one. I don't have the pipes to ever create a good singing voice. It was a harsh blow when I realized this. I'm sure you've put commendable effort into honing your skills. But be thankful your baseline was good enough to turn into something grander, unlike me and many others.

    1. You are right about that. There is a definite element of talent that either exists or not. I feel that a lot, because I am a decent, but not full-time professional talent, and there are things I struggle with regardless of the amount of work I put in. (I am not disappointed, because I did not expect to be a professional, and the fact that I can get paid a bit as a side gig is all gravy.) What I will say is that I know people who worked hard and didn't achieve greatness. But I do not know a single skilled musician who didn't work their ass off to get there.