The Second Sex at Fifty

The Second Sex at Fifty

This year The Second Sex turns fifty. Now deep into my own middle age, I reread the book in the wake of thirty years of thought and feeling much influenced by its steady presence among us and I find, turning its pages, that the question on my mind is not, “How does it read?” but rather, “How did it get written?

In the 1989 Vintage edition of The Second Sex de Beauvoir’s biographer, Deirdre Bair, tells us that in the fall of 1946, when

Sartre was under sustained verbal attack in Paris… [de Beauvoir] believed she could defend [his] positions… by writing an essay in which she defined herself personally as a woman and philosophically as an existentialist. Her intention was to relate them both to Sartre’s system, which she had accepted unquestioningly as her own. . . .In order to defend what she believed were Sartre’s universal principles, she had to begin with the specific and the individual, which in this case was her role within his system. . . .One idea began “to emerge with some insistence” from her thinking. It brought her to “the very profound and astonishing realization” that she was different from Sartre “because he was a man and I was only a woman.”