The Best Feminist Book You’ve Never Read

The new edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

More welcome than the arrival of roses and bare legs and platform sandals this spring is the new edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s wild and unruly masterpiece, The Second Sex, which should be read much more widely than it is.

From its first sentence, The Second Sex announces its refusal of cliché, its garrulous originality. Beauvoir writes, “I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new.” The intelligent reader is, of course, immediately seduced. The subject is irritating! And if it wasn’t new in 1949, imagine how we feel now … but she goes on from there to a surprisingly fresh literary and philosophical investigation into the creation of a woman that is as provocative now as it was then.

In her essay on Beauvoir, Elizabeth Hardwick called The Second Sex “brilliantly confused.” This is a pitch-perfect description of the massive tome, because confusion is precisely its strength: the ability to tolerate the contradictions, the nuances, the million tiny ambivalences and ambiguities of intimate life. This brilliant confusion has been all but lost by most of the great feminist books that came afterwards; it is, alas, at odds with causes and picket signs, with the more mundane ideological work of a political movement. We go in now, I am afraid, more for predictable simplicity.

But in her spirited, inventive archetype of the Girl, which draws on literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, Simone de Beauvoir is not afraid of ugliness. She is not afraid to talk in a very complicated way about rape fantasies or why girls giggle about sex or cut themselves. Here is Beauvoir’s description of the struggle of the young girl, or, as she calls her, “the unripe woman”: “She begins to let herself go, but just as quickly she tenses up and kills the desire in herself. In her as yet uncertain body, the caress is felt at times as an unpleasant tickling, at times as a delicate pleasure; a kiss moves her first, then abruptly makes her laugh, but then she wipes her mouth noticeably; she is smiling and caring, then suddenly ironic and hostile; she makes promises and deliberately forgets them.” Simone de Beauvoir is not interested in narrow, dogmatic interpretations of female development, but in a more expansive, fruitful vision of how one becomes a woman (or, in this rigorous new translation, how one becomes woman).

Beauvoir’s intellectual ambition and range are what save her from political rigidity: She is styling herself as a continental intellectual rather than an activist. The ideal reader she has in her head is more Sartre than Margaret Sanger. In part because of her singular temperament, and in part because of the new and widespread interest in Freud, her interest is in exploring and understanding and analyzing, rather than slapping a facile political interpretation on the heat and passion of real life.

One also has to admire the fact that Simone de Beauvoir managed to provoke scandal even after her death. In 2008, on the centennial of her birth, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur ran a photograph of her entirely naked, in her bathroom, in heels, from the back, on its cover. They called her “La Scandaleuse,” which is a word that we don’t have in English, which may be why we have to import our scandaleuses from France. The arresting photograph was taken in 1952. The intellectual is pinning up her hair, and somehow, from behind, with the reflection of her face in the mirror obscured, she manages to project the same supreme confidence and casual indifference to what other people think that must have gone into the creation of The Second Sex. But when the magazine cover appeared, feminists protested outside its offices. Outraged editorials ran in prominent newspapers saying that the sensational interest in her love life and the photograph was sexist; some brought up the fact that the way she lived her life was politically suspect.

The truth is that to many she had always seemed an ambiguous feminist heroine. Her relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, which involved procuring young lovers for him, struck many feminists as decidedly retrograde. Why should this great feminist thinker be in thrall to a man, why should she suffer for love? (She once said, for instance, “My greatest achievement was my relationship with Sartre.”) When Beauvoir was asked in 1984 how she responded to claims that her personal life was at odds with the feminist theories she expounded, she said, “Well I just don’t give a damn … I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say that it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life.”

The effect of the new translation, which should be applauded, is to make Beauvoir more herself: to add longer paragraphs, to take away the friendly pronouns added in by the last translator, to keep in dense philosophical riffs that had been omitted before. The book is more demanding than it was before, which is to say more stylish, more itself.

Certainly, The Second Sex is interesting from a historical point of view, but much of it is still lively, still apropos: Read her description of schoolgirls and see how much of it applies to our blue-jeaned teenagers slouching over their iPhones, or how much of her writing on love applies to their mothers. One hopes that college students will reach for this new old book instead of the next trendy hackish hardcover masquerading as feminist scholarship, so that we can bring back a little of that brilliant confusion: the naked woman in the bathroom and the serious intellectual.

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