When people think about women’s liberation today, the images that come to mind are often of young women in the 1970s burning their bras. Those willing to probe a bit more deeply into the past might remember consciousness-raising groups, or demonstrations held by women fighting for recognition and for equal rights. The publications most often associated with the women’s movement are Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves and possibly Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. But the latter is a product neither of the Seventies nor of the United States. Published originally in France in 1949, the book is framed not by identity politics but by Sartrean existentialism.
De Beauvoir begins by posing several questions.
For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The project is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new … After all, is there a problem? And if so, what is it? Are there women really? … One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should …? But first we must ask: what is a woman?
In her quest for answers, de Beauvoir covers a vast disciplinary terrain from biology and psychoanalysis to history, as well as myths about women and the very concept of Woman. She examines the situation of women in the France of 1949, when she was writing. In brief, de Beauvoir proposes that women are not born but made; that Woman is socially constructed as the subordinated and defining Other to Man, who represents humanity, the Subject, and the norm. Finally, the way to assess the situation of women is not in terms of happiness but freedom, and not only political freedom but economic, social and sexual freedom as well.
The book was an unexpected sensation upon publication in France, its author both lauded and vilified. But like all translations, the English language version is not precisely the book de Beauvoir originally wrote. Deirdre Bair, in her introduction to this 1989 edition, tells the story of the first English language translation, which appeared in 1953.
The popularity of de Beauvoir’s book in France caught the eye of the financially astute Blanche Knopf, wife of the publisher Alfred Knopf. She assumed it was a sex manual “à la Kinsey” that was couched in the existentialist language then popular among U.S. college students, and therefore likely to sell. Before committing to publication though, the Knopfs sought the opinion of an “expert,” and selected H.M. Parshley, an emeritus professor of zoology at Smith College who was both an authority on human reproduction and a translator of French scientific papers. In his initial report on the text, he commented that “a book on women by an intelligent, learned, and well-balanced woman, is, I think, a great rarity, and this is indeed such a book.” The statement seems outrageous today, but it was 1953 after all, and Knopf selected Parshley as the translator.
Knopf considered the original French edition too long, too “unwieldy” and in need of trimming. Parshley eliminated much of de Beauvoir’s history section, and he floundered a bit with the philosophical language, but to his credit, the translation is quite readable. Though it’s provoked a lot of criticism, for fifty-six years it was the only English translation available.
Fortunately, an English language version of the complete work, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malvonany-Chevallier, was finally published in 2009. That edition, too, has proved to be contentious, but that is another story about what is, in essence, another book.