It was written at the end of the first-wave of feminism, which lasted for roughly 100 years from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s.
De Beauvoir begins her work by wondering if the subject of feminism hadn't already been done to death by 1949:
For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman ... Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it.
But she does go on to say more. She tells us that the first-wave of feminism was so radical that it doubted the real existence of a separate womanhood:
Are there women, really? Most assuredly the theory of the eternal feminine still has its adherents who will whisper in your ear: 'Even in Russia women still are women' ... One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should ....
Why did people doubt the existence of women? It wasn't, argued de Beauvoir, because of the disappearance of physical distinctions between men and women. There were still individuals with uteruses. Rather, it was that womanhood was thought to require some measure of femininity:
... we are told that femininity is in danger; we are exhorted to be women ... It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.
De Beauvoir rejects the idea that the feminine has a real, essential existence:
Is this attribute [femininity] secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence ... Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable.
... the biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to women ...
So it was already the case in 1949 that femininity was rejected as an artificial social construct.
Once the reality of femininity is denied, there is the option of declaring that the male role should define a single "human" category, applicable to everyone. This is the conclusion that some people had already reached in 1949:
If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman.
Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.’
De Beauvoir could have left things here. She couldn't accept, though, that there were not two distinct categories of male and female:
In truth, to go for a walk with one's eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different.
So if the existence of "woman" wasn't based on a real, feminine essence, how could de Beauvoir explain it? She turned to the idea of a power differential, in which "male" is considered both neutral and superior and "female" is thought of as the deviant "Other":
... man represents both the positive and the neutral ... whereas woman represents only the negative ... there is an absolute human type, the masculine ... Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him, she is not regarded as an autonomous being ... she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute - she is the Other.
De Beauvoir goes on to develop the idea of the Other in strikingly modern terms:
... no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over and against itself ... if, following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness, the subject can be posed only in being opposed - he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object.
The way de Beauvoir describes it, there is something oppressive about having the category of the "other" - as this involves one category setting itself up as sovereign, privileged and essential in opposition to another category, which becomes inessential and a mere object.
This is a very radical move. It means that it is somehow advanced to break down any categories of "otherness". Instead of celebrating differences between men and women, or between nations, the focus is on overcoming these distinctions - especially from the side of those considered the dominant "subject" who are thought to be the agents of the othering process.
In other words, the very idea of my being an Australian becomes suspect as it is thought to involve an oppressive act of othering - and it rests more on myself as the "subject" of the othering process to overcome it - to prove that I don't make any such distinctions between myself and others.
What I hope is clear from all this is that de Beauvoir's argument leads her to a very difficult place. If the problem is "othering", then isn't heterosexuality itself suspect? (I'll see if de Beauvoir deals with this problem later in the book) Isn't any sense of a distinct communal tradition suspect?
A second conclusion is that the kinds of ideas common on the left today go back further in time than is commonly supposed. It was not a long march through the institutions that brought them into being some time in the 1960s.
Third, it's interesting to note the intellectual source of the leftist concept of the "Other". Apparently, it can be traced back to a dubious claim by Hegel that "we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness".
Finally, we should take note of an early step in de Beauvoir's chain of thought. She openly rejects the idea of essences, so that femininity can only appear to her to be an artificial social construct.
This is the part of the argument traditionalists have to go back to. If de Beauvoir is wrong, and natural differences between the sexes do exist, and if there are essentially feminine qualities that can be known to us, then womanhood does have a real and dignified existence - and one that can exist in a complementary rather than a hostile relationship to men.
What I'm suggesting is that traditionalists have a strong position here. We don't have to doubt the real existence of womanhood; nor explain it as a subservient category created by men. It exists as an essential quality in its own right.
A feminine woman can be admired for embodying an important life principle or quality.
There are other important aspects of de Beauvoir's thought to discuss, but I'll take these up in the next post.