Simone de Beauvoir on Emancipating Women

In The Second Sex (1952), Simone de Beauvoir maps a feminist path in which the inequality of men is addressed and women are emancipated from sexist oppression. De Beauvoir speaks of the challenges and difficulties of the modern female gender role:

How is it that this world has always belonged to the men and that things have begun to change only recently? Is this change a good thing? Will it bring about an equal sharing of the world between men and women? …

One of the consequences of the industrial revolution was the entrance of women into productive labour, and it was just here that the claims of the feminists emerged from the realm of theory and acquired an economic basis … Woman was ordered back into the home the more harshly as her emancipation became a real menace. Even within the working class the men endeavored to restrain women’s liberation, because the began to see the women as dangerous competitors—the more so because they were accustomed to work for lower wages …

At the present time, when women are beginning to take part in the affairs of the world, it is a world that belongs to men …

According to French law, obedience is no longer included among the duties of a wife, and each woman citizen has the right to vote; but these civil liberties remain theoretical as long as they are unaccompanied by economic freedom. A woman supported by a man … is not emancipated from the male because she has a ballot in her hand; if custom imposes less constraint upon her than formerly, the negative freedom implied had not profoundly modified her situation; she remains bound in her condition of vassalage. It is through gainful employment that the woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice. Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is no longer any need for a masculine mediator …

[T]he independent woman of today is torn between her professional interests and the problems of her [family and] sexual life; it is difficult for her to strike a balance between the two; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices, acrobatics, which require her to be in a constant state of tension … Whether the woman lives with her family or is married, her family will rarely show the same respect for her work as for a man’s; they will impose duties and tasks on her and infringe on her liberty. She herself is still profoundly affected by her bringing up, respectful of the values affirmed by her elders, haunted by her dreams of childhood and adolescence; she finds difficulty in reconciling the heritage of her past with the interests of her future …

In consequence of this defeatism, woman is easily reconciled to a moderate success; she does not dare to aim too high. Entering upon her profession with superficial preparation, she soon sets limits to her ambitions. It often seems meritorious enough if she earns her own living; she could have entrusted her lot, like many others, to a man. To continue in her wish for independence requires an effort in which she takes pride, but which exhausts her …

[T]he ‘modern’ woman accepts masculine values: she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself to be their equal …

Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority. She sets about mutilating, dominating the man, she contradicts him, she denies his truth and his values. But in doing this she is only defending herself … All oppression creates a state of war … The quarrel will go on as long as men and women fail to recognize each other as peers; that is to say, as long as femininity is perpetuated as such …

To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also; mutually recognizing each other as subject, each will remain for the other an other.


de Beauvoir, Simone. 1952 (1993). The Second Sex. New York: Knopf. pp. li, lii, xlix, 713, 731, 733, 735, 753, 752, 754, 767.


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