To ask about the new feminism and contemporary American culture, I must begin with Le Deuxieme Sexe, which Simone de Beauvoir published in France 31 years ago. Joyless but monumental, that book articulated a concept of woman that American feminists, some 15 years later, were to accept as both accurate and appalling: a reality to recognize and repel. The text, a cultural feat, did not create the women’s movement, a social and political force. The massive changes in the lives of modern Western woman generated both. But after World War II, in the West, de Beauvoir named “woman.” She shaped our collective consciousness of a huge subject. So doing, she helped to incite a cultural force inseparable from feminism. As it grew, it differed from its origins and provoked the attention of an initially negligent larger culture. That development, which few early readers of de Beauvoir might have predicted or desired, is my subject now.
No stranger to dialectical argument, de Beauvoir dismissed some common ways of regarding women: the psychoanalytic, which, at its most pompous, construed the female as a maimed male; the Marxist, which, at its most crass, analyzed women as people whose wrongs would be righted when they entered productive spheres; and the naturalistic, which, at its most vulgar, presumed that biology decreed women to be maternal beings. Ironically, de Beauvoir’s thought was partially compatible with habitual assumptions that women were less than men. Her title, The Second Sex, projected women as a group universally subordinate to men. They were bodies that had both abandoned their freedom and had it stripped from them. They were the “Other” in an existential struggle for identity between “subjects,” who seek the certainties of a stable self and control, and “others,” who gratify such longings through submission. Finally, women had not constructed culture. Quiet, quiescent, they were
instead the constructs of culture, a collage of contradictory images that reflected man’s need to create woman for the sake of creating himself. Later feminist criticism, such as Mary Ellmann’s Thinking About Women (1968) and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), was to codify those images even more resolutely.