“The whole of feminine history has been man-made.” This statement is Simone de Beauvoir’s first conclusion in her essay, “The Second Sex.” Beauvoir states that this can be drawn from a general overview of history. She is remarking on the seeming appearance that men control the lives of women, and will only allow women to dominate when it suits their own interests and not the woman’s interests.
According to Beauvoir, men have always controlled women and their status in society, alternating them to fit their own interests. Men have control in marriage and childbirth, for instance, yet women also play a major part in these issues. Men, dominating the governing authority, can determine whether a woman can have an abortion (which during Beauvoir’s time, abortion was forbidden), yet women are the ones either risking their health by receiving unsupervised abortions or finding themselves overburdened by excessive pregnancies.
An interesting point that Beauvoir makes is that a married woman has a place in society, yet has no rights in that society, and an unmarried woman has every legal right that a man possesses, yet has no place in society. This, of course, may have been true during the time Beauvoir wrote her essay (1949), however, many things have changed since then. Although men may still be in more positions of authority, an unmarried woman certainly seems to have a place in society and can lead a successful life. Also, married women today have many rights in their own society.
Another point that Beauvoir makes is that women who have accomplished things are usually defined in ways other than their gender. Beauvoir gives the examples of Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great, all of whom were, according to Beauvoir, “Neither male nor female – they were sovereigns.” She also mentions that women are only “on the margin of history,” achieving singular accomplishments, while men acquire great historical significance.
Beauvoir also explains the role of a peasant woman, who shares the man’s responsibilities while attending to her own. She has more prestige, yet a harder life, waking early in the morning and working all day, attending to daily chores, housework, and taking care of her family. Meanwhile, her husband has time to travel into town and drink with other men. A peasant woman has no time for these things. She is too busy running her household, while her husband has plenty of time for leisure. Yet, according to Beauvoir, the peasant woman is nevertheless labeled as “a beast of burden.” Beauvoir also describes the peasant woman has “having no time to care for her own health . . . she is prematurely withered and worn out, gnawed by sickness.”
Beauvoir also describes the conditions of a woman worker. She gets paid less than men because she is less specialized, yet when her work does equal that of a man’s, she still receives lower wages. Beauvoir states that, in general, women have fewer opportunities to succeed than men have. The best way for a woman to succeed is to have “masculine backing.”
Beauvoir also addresses the idea of marriage. She claims that marriage is an obstacle in the life of a woman if she wishes to be successful. She explains that parents teach their daughters to want to get married. As a result, the daughter sees marriage as something that she can benefit from, while she becomes less trained in special skills and thus less likely to succeed in a profession. This is another aspect that may have appeared obvious to Beauvoir at the time she wrote her essay, but seems not very applicable to the present time. Consider the average college female. She is most likely thinking of leading a successful professional career, while at the same time, viewing marriage as a favorable opportunity. There are many women who are successful in their careers and are also married. In the present time, I do not see the correlation between marriage and an unsuccessful career.
Beauvoir also addresses the antifeminist and what she considers their two arguments: “(1) women have never created anything great and (2) the situation of woman has never prevented the flowering of great feminine personalities.” Beauvoir feels that women have not created great things, not because they were unable, but because they obviously were not given the opportunity.
I feel that Beauvoir’s main argument, that femininity has been controlled by man, is accurate, but I feel that some of her points may not be relevant to the present age. Women seem to have quite a few more rights now than they did when Beauvoir wrote her essay. Women are now capable of successfully having careers and families, and are able to live unmarried with an honorable place in society. I do feel, however, that our society does reinforce the idea that marriage for a woman is “a most honorable career, freeing her from the need of any other participation in the collective life.” A woman is often taught that being a wife and mother is a noble career choice. However, there is also an opportunity for the woman to decide what she wants to do with her life. She is not forced into marriage. Even if society strongly communicates the message that perhaps the best career for a woman would be marriage, there seems to be little evidence that marriage stifles the professional career of a woman.