Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sat on my bookshelf for 5 years. It was picked up, dusted off, and thumbed through many times, but even after 2 serious attempts to read it from cover to cover the book sat defiant, its secrets safe and its intellectual rigour uncontested. If I’d conceived of a way to maintain my honour and consign the book to the bin, or worse, a charity shop, then it would have gone years ago. However, the pig-headed male in me couldn’t accept a philosophical tract could be beyond my reading ability or intellect, and so I stubbornly picked up the book again and forced myself on the tome once again.
Having now finished the book, I’m ready, nay forced, to write something of my experience, because although not an easy read The Second Sex is a book that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days. Its blend of history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology makes it an encompassing tract on Women’s place in history and contemporary life, and as such it’s an enticing read for anyone wanting to understand or at least investigate the social division between the genders.
But however enticing the book may be, it is also a hard book, and not because it contains ideas that sit uncomfortably within contemporary male-oriented society, nor because it lays the blame for gender inequality squarely on both genders, but because of the depth of its underlying research and the sheer volume of ideas it generates pertaining to the female condition.
Before my praise becomes indefensibly obsequious, I should point out the book has—like most philosophy books—many rough edges and fallible arguments, including frequent subjective musings from De Beauvoir that are based more on her whim than on reason itself, but these meanderings do nothing to diminish the intellectual spotlight that the book shines on the subject matter.
Although there are many later feminist books and books on gender studies that expand or contradict The Second Sex, this is a book that, above all, extols the feminist virtue of freedom: women’s freedom from sexual service; women’s freedom from the chains of marriage; but also men’s freedom from their gender’s historical role as the counterpart and gaoler of women.
This is not an easy read, but like a mountain there are many routes through the book, be it as a required text for students, or as a dusty tome to be pecked at gradually over years. Although the gender landscape has changed massively since De Beauvoir published The Second Sex, as a thorough examination of woman’s place alongside man in history and society this is a timeless and a critical read. For anyone that wants to grasp why the physical and physiological differences between the genders doesn’t excuse or even require the mental divide that cuts through the ages, then go get yourself a copy and a darned comfy seat.