Volume 20, 1998
Philosophy and Gender
Margaret A. Simons
Is The Second Sex Beauvoir’s Application of Sartrean Existentialism?
Simone de Beauvoir's 1949 feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex, has traditionally been read as an application of Sartrean existentialism to the problem of women. Critics have claimed a Sartrean origin for Beauvoir's central theses: that under patriarchy woman is the Other, and that 'one is not born a woman, but becomes one.' An analysis of Beauvoir's recently discovered 1927 diary, written while she was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, two years before her first meeting with Sartre, challenges this interpretation. In this diary, Beauvoir affirms her commitment to doing philosophy, defines the philosophical problem of 'the opposition of self and other,' and explores the links between love and domination. In 1927, she thus lays the foundations of both Sartre's phenomenology of interpersonal relationships and of her own thesis, in The Second Sex, that woman is the Other. Her descriptions of the experience of freedom and choice point to the influence of Bergson, specifically his concepts of 'becoming' and élan vital. Tracing Beauvoir's shift from her apolitical position of 1927 to the feminist engagement of The Second Sex points to the influence of the African-American writer, Richard Wright, whose description of the lived experience of oppression of blacks in America, and whose challenge to Marxist reductionism, provide Beauvoir with a model, an analogy, for analyzing woman's oppression.