The Story Behind Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex,’ the Most Influential Work of Existentialism

With characteristic erudition, accessibility, intellectual seriousness, and good humor, Sarah Bakewell’s robust new history of existentialism, At the Existentialist Café, traces the history of the movement. In the below excerpt, Bakewell explores Simone de Beauvoir’s revolutionary The Second Sex, which, as she explains, is existentialism’s most important and influential work. — Jonathon Sturgeon, Literary Editor


One day, somewhere around the time of the 1948 Berlin trip, Beauvoir was sitting with pen in hand, staring at a sheet of paper. Alberto Giacometti said to her, ‘How wild you look!’ She replied, ‘It’s because I want to write and I don’t know what.’ With the sagacity that came from its being someone else’s problem, he said, ‘Write anything.’

She did, and it worked. She took further inspiration from her friend Michel Leiris’ experimental autobiographical writings, which she had recently read: these inspired her to try a free-form way of writing about her memories, basing them around the theme of what it had meant to her to grow up as a girl. When she discussed this idea with Sartre, he urged her to explore the question in more depth. Thus it is in relation to three men that  describes the origin of her great feminist work, The Second Sex.

Perhaps the starting point had been a modest idea in need of masculine encouragement, but Beauvoir soon developed the project into something revolutionary in every sense: her book overturned accepted ideas about the nature of human existence, and encouraged its readers to overturn their own existences. It was also a confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism’. Beauvoir used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity — which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy — and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age. The two stories are interdependent, but occupy two separate parts of the book.

To flesh them out, Beauvoir combined elements of her own experience with stories gathered from other women she knew, and with extensive studies in history, sociology, biology and psychology.



She wrote quickly. Chapters and early versions appeared in Les Temps modernes through 1948; the full tome came out in 1949. It was greeted with shock. This freethinking lady existentialist was already considered a disturbing figure, with her open relationship, her childlessness and her godlessness. Now here was a book filled with descriptions of women’s sexual experience, including a chapter on lesbianism. Even her friends recoiled. One of the most conservative responses came from Albert Camus, who, as she wrote in her memoirs, ‘in a few morose sentences, accused me of making the French male look ridiculous’. But if men found it uncomfortable, women who read it often found themselves thinking about their lives in a new way. After it was translated into English in 1953 — three years before Being and Nothingness and nine years before Heidegger’s Being and TimeThe Second Sex had an even greater impact in Britain and America than in France. It can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement.

Beauvoir’s guiding principle was that growing up female made a bigger difference to a person than most people realised, including women themselves. Some differences were obvious and practical. French women had only just gained the right to vote (with Liberation in 1944), and continued to lack many other basic rights; a married woman could not open her own bank account until 1965. But the legal differences refl ected deeper existential ones. Women’s everyday experi ences and their Being-in the-world diverged from men’s so early in life that few thought of them as being developmental at all; people assumed the differences to be ‘natural’ expressions of femininity. For Beauvoir, instead, they were myths of femininity — a term she adapted from the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and which ultimately derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘genealogical’ way of digging out fallacies about culture and morality. In Beauvoir’s usage, a myth is something like Husserl’s notion of the encrusted theories which accumulate on phenomena, and which need scraping off in order to get to the ‘things themselves’.

After a broad-brush historical overview of myth and reality in the first half of the book, Beauvoir devoted the second half to relating a typical woman’s life from infancy on, showing how — as she said — ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

The first influences begin in early childhood, she wrote. While boys are told to be brave, a girl is expected to cry and be weak. Both sexes hear similar fairy tales, but in them the males are heroes, princes or warriors, while the females are locked up in towers, put to sleep, or chained to a rock to wait to be rescued. Hearing the stories, a girl notices that her own mother stays mostly in her home, like an imprisoned princess, while her father goes off to the outside world like a warrior going to war. She understands which way her own role will lie. Growing older, the girl learns to behave modestly and decorously.

Boys run, seize, climb, grasp, punch; they literally grab hold of the physical world and wrestle with it. Girls wear pretty dresses and dare not run in case they get dirty. Later, they wear high heels, corsets and skirts; they grow long fingernails which they have to worry about breaking. They learn, in countless small ways, to hesitate about damaging their delicate persons if they do anything at all. As Iris Marion Young later put it in ‘Throwing Like a Girl’, a 1980 essay applying Beauvoir’s analysis in more detail, girls come to think of themselves as ‘positioned in space’ rather than as defining or constituting the space around them by their movements.

Adolescence brings a more heightened self-consciousness, and this is the age in which some girls become prone to self-harming, while troubled boys are more likely to pick fights with others. Sexuality develops, but small boys are already aware of the penis as something important, while the girl’s genitals are never mentioned and seem not to exist. Early female sexual experiences may be embarrassing, painful or threatening; they may bring more self-doubt and anxiety. Then comes the fear of pregnancy. (This was written well before the Pill.) Even if young women enjoy sex, female sexual pleasure can be more overwhelming, and thus more disturbing, says Beauvoir. It is generally linked to marriage, for most women, and with this comes the repetitive and isolating labour of housework, which accomplishes nothing out in the world and is no real ‘action’.

By now, all these factors have conspired to hold a woman back from establishing authority and agency in the wider world. The world is not a ‘set of tools’ for her, in the Heideggerian sense. Instead it is ‘dominated by fate and run through with mysterious caprices’. This is why, Beauvoir believes, women rarely attain greatness in the arts or literature — although she makes an exception for Virginia Woolf, who showed, in her 1928 work A Room of One’s Own, what disasters were likely to befall an imaginary sister of Shakespeare’s born with the same talents. Beauvoir sees every element of women’s situation as conspiring to box them in to mediocrity, not because they are innately inferior, but because they learn to become inward-looking, passive, selfdoubting and overeager to please. Beauvoir finds most female writers disappointing because they do not seize hold of the human condition; they do not take it up as their own. They find it difficult to feel responsible for the universe. How can a woman ever announce, as Sartre does in Being and Nothingness, ‘I carry the weight of the world by myself ’?

For Beauvoir, the greatest inhibition for women comes from their acquired tendency to see themselves as ‘other’ rather than as a transcendent subject. Here she drew on her wartime reading of Hegel, who had analysed how rival consciousnesses wrestle for dominance, with one playing ‘master’ and the other ‘slave’. The master perceives everything from his own viewpoint, as is natural. But, bizarrely, so does the slave, who ties herself in knots trying to visualise the world from the master’s point of view — an ‘alienated’ perspective. She even adopts his point of view on herself, casting herself as object and him as subject. This tormented structure eventually collapses when the slave wakes up to the fact that she has it all backwards, and that the whole relationship rests on the hard work that she is doing — on her labour. She rebels, and in doing so she becomes fully conscious at last.

Beauvoir found the Hegelian vision of human relationships as a protracted battle of gazes or perspectives a richly productive idea. She had been talking it through with Sartre for years. He too had been interested in the master–slave dialectic since the 1930s, and had made it a major theme in Being and Nothingness. Since his examples illustrating the battle of alienated gazes are particularly lively, let us detour away from Beauvoir for a few moments to visit them.

In his first example, Sartre asks us to imagine walking in a park. If I’m alone, the park arranges itself comfortably around my point of view: everything I see presents itself to me. But then I notice a man crossing the lawn towards me. This causes a sudden cosmic shift. I become conscious that the man is also arranging his own universe around himself. As Sartre puts it, the green of the grass turns itself towards the other man as well as towards me, and some of my universe drains off in his direction. Some of me drains off too, for I am an object in his world as he is in mine. I am no longer a pure perceiving nothingness; I have a visible outside, which I know he can see.

Sartre then adds a twist. This time he puts us in the hallway of a Parisian hotel, peering through the keyhole of someone’s door — perhaps because of jealousy, lust or curiosity. I am absorbed in whatever I’m seeing, and strain towards it. Then I hear footsteps in the hall — someone is coming! The whole set-up changes. Instead of being lost in the scene inside the room, I am now aware of myself as a peeping tom, which is how I’ll appear to the third party coming down the hall. My look, as I peer through the keyhole, becomes ‘a look-lookedat’. My ‘transcendence’ — my ability to pour out of myself towards what I am perceiving — is itself ‘transcended’ by the transcendence of another. That Other has the power to stamp me as a certain kind of object, ascribing definite characteristics to me rather than leaving me to be free. I fight to fend this off by controlling how that person will see me — so, for example, I might make an elaborate pretence of having stooped merely to tie my shoelace, so that he does not brand me a nasty voyeur.

Episodes of competitive gazing recur throughout Sartre’s fiction and biographies, as well as in his philosophy. In his journalism, he recalled the unpleasantness after 1940 of feeling oneself looked at as a member of a defeated people. In 1944, he wrote a whole play about it: Huis clos, translated as No Exit. It depicts three people trapped together in a room: a military deserter accused of cowardice, a cruel lesbian, and a fl irtatious gold-digger. Each looks judgementally at at least one of the others, and each longs to escape their companions’ pitiless eyes. But they cannot do so, for they are dead and in hell. As the play’s muchquoted and frequently misunderstood final line has it: ‘Hell is other people.’ Sartre later explained that he did not mean to say that other people were hellish in general. He meant that after death we become frozen in their view, unable any longer to fend off their interpretation. In life, we can still do something to manage the impression we make; in death, this freedom goes and we are left entombed in other’s people’s memories and perceptions.

Sartre’s vision of living human relationships as a kind of intersubjective ju-jitsu led him to produce some very strange descriptions of sex. Judging by the discussion of sexuality in Being and Nothingness, a Sartrean love affair was an epic struggle over perspectives, and thus over freedom. If I love you, I don’t want to control your thoughts directly, but I want you to love and desire me and to freely give up your freedom to me. Moreover, I want you to see me, not as a contingent and fl awed person like any other, but as a ‘necessary’ being in your world. That is, you are not to coolly assess my fl aws and irritating habits, but to welcome every detail of me as though no jot or tittle could possibly be different. Recalling Nausea, one might say that I want to be like the ragtime song for you. Sartre did realise that such a state of affairs is unlikely to last long. It also comes with a trade-off: you are going to want the same unconditional adoration from me. As Iris Murdoch memorably put it, Sartre turns love into a ‘battle between two hypnotists in a closed room’.

Sartre derived this analysis of love and other encounters at least in part from what Simone de Beauvoir had made out of Hegel. They both pored over the implications of the master–slave dialectic; Sartre worked out his striking and bizarre examples, while Beauvoir made it the more substantial basis of her magnum opus. Her reading was more complex than his. For a start, she pointed out that the idea of love, or any other relationship, as a reciprocal encounter between two equal participants had missed one crucial fact: real human relationships contained differences of status and role. Sartre had neglected the different existential situations of men and women; in The Second Sex, she used Hegel’s concept of alienation to correct this.

As she pointed out, woman is indeed ‘other’ for man — but man is not exactly ‘other’ for woman, or not in the same way. Both sexes tend to agree in taking the male as the defining case and the centre of all perspectives. Even language reinforces this, with ‘man’ and ‘he’ being the default terms in French as in English. Women try constantly to picture themselves as they would look to a male gaze. Instead of looking out to the world as it presents itself to them (like the person peering through the keyhole) they maintain a point of view in which they are the objects (like the same person after becoming aware of footsteps in the hall). This, for Beauvoir, is why women spend so much time in front of mirrors. It is also why both men and women implicitly take women to be the more sensual, the more eroticised, the more sexual sex. In theory, for a heterosexual female, men should be the sexy ones, disporting themselves for the benefit of her gaze. Yet she sees herself as the object of attraction, and the man as the person in whose eyes she glows with desirability.

Women, in other words, live much of their lives in what Sartre would have called bad faith, pretending to be objects. They do what the waiter does when he glides around playing the role of waiter; they identify with their ‘immanent’ image rather than with their ‘transcendent’ consciousness as a free for-itself. The waiter does it when he’s at work; women do it all day and to a greater extent. It is exhausting, because, all the time, a woman’s subjectivity is trying to do what comes naturally to subjectivity, which is to assert itself as the centre of the universe. A struggle rages inside every woman, and because of this Beauvoir considered the problem of how to be a woman the existentialist problem par excellence.

Beauvoir’s initial fragments of memoir had by now grown into a study of alienation on an epic scale: a phenomenological investigation not only of female experience but of childhood, embodiment, competence, action, freedom, responsibility and Being-in-the-world. The Second Sex draws on years of reading and thinking, as well as on conversations with Sartre, and is by no means the mere adjunct to Sartrean philosophy that it was once taken to be. True, she successfully shocked one feminist interviewer in 1972 by insisting that her main infl uence in writing it was Being and Nothingness. But seven years later, in another interview, she was adamant that Sartre had nothing to do with working out Hegelian ideas of the Other and the alienated gaze: ‘It was I who thought about that! It was absolutely not Sartre!’

Whatever had fed it, Beauvoir’s book outdid Sartre’s in its subtle sense of the balance between freedom and constraint in a person’s life. She showed how choices, influences and habits can accumulate over a lifetime to create a structure that becomes hard to break out of. Sartre also thought that our actions often formed a shape over the long term, creating what he called the ‘fundamental project’ of a person’s existence. But Beauvoir emphasised the connection between this and our wider situations as gendered, historical beings. She gave full weight to the difficulty of breaking out of such situations — although she never doubted that we remain existentially free despite it all. Women can change their lives, which is why it is worth writing books to awaken them to this fact.

The Second Sex could have become established in the canon as one of the great cultural re-evaluations of modern times, a book to set alongside the works of Charles Darwin (who resituated humans in relation to other animals), Karl Marx (who resituated high culture in relation to economics) and Sigmund Freud (who resituated the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious). Beauvoir evaluated human lives afresh by showing that we are profoundly gendered beings: she resituated men in relation to women. Like the other books, The Second Sex exposed myths. Like the others, its argument was controversial and open to criticism in its specifi cs — as inevitably happens when one makes major claims. Yet it was never elevated into the pantheon.

Is this further proof of sexism? Or is it because her existentialist terminology gets in the way? English-speaking readers never even saw most of the latter. It was cut by its first translator in 1953, the zoology professor Howard M. Parshley, largely on the urging of his publisher. Only later, reading the work, did his editor ask him to go easy with the scissors, saying, ‘I am now quite persuaded that this is one of the handful of greatest books on sex ever written.’ It was not just omissions that were the problem; Parshley rendered Beauvoir’s poursoi (for-itself ) as ‘her true nature in itself ’, which precisely reverses the existentialist meaning. He turned the title of the second part, ‘L’expérience vécue’ (‘lived experience’), into ‘Woman’s Life Today’ — which, as Toril Moi has observed, makes it sound like the title of a ladies’ magazine. To make matters more confusing and further demean the book, English-language paperback editions through the 1960s and 1970s tended to feature misty-focus naked women on the cover, making it look like a work of soft porn. Her novels got similar treatment. Strangely, this never happened with Sartre’s books. No edition of Being and Nothingness ever featured a muscleman on the cover wearing only a waiter’s apron. Nor did Sartre’s translator Hazel Barnes simplify his terminology — although she notes in her memoirs that at least one reviewer thought she should have.

If sexism and the existentialist language were not to blame, another reason for The Second Sex’s intellectual sidelining might be that it presents itself as a case study: an existentialist study of just one particular type of life. In philosophy, as in many other fields, applied studies tend to be dismissed as postscripts to more serious works.

But that was never existentialism’s way. It was always meant to be about real, individual lives. If done correctly, all existentialism is applied existentialism.


Excerpted from At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others, by Sarah Bakewell, published by Other Press on March 1, 2016. Copyright © Sarah Bakewell. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.