Note: this is from my drafts. I think I had more to say, but it is sufficiently long since I read the book that I don’t remember what it was. Re-reading it I think it holds up okay so I’m publishing it.

This book changed how I think about women, and about feminism.

De Beavoir’s analysis of the position of women is a clear, historical meterialist one. Women are faced with a cascading series of disadvantages, each of which builds on the previous one, both historically/causally and in the current state.

1) Biological: women are “enslaved to the species”

Nature and biology weight more heavily on them: they are physically weaker; they menstruate; they must give birth to and nurse children, which is debilitating and time-consuming; sex is dangerous for them since it can lead to pregnancy. They are alienated from their bodies because their bodies are bent to the purposes of the species; they are forced into being a substrate for the next generation of life whether they will it or not.

2) Existential: women are perceived as objects (specifically, not subjects), as “Other”

The particular advantages of men help them to strive, to extend their reach and the reach of the species, in other words to find the existentialist meaning in life that de Beauvoir considers essential. Women are therefore naturally positioned in opposition to this, as the Other, identified with that which is overcome; mystery; life; nature.

But women are subjects, just like men, and it is a great injustice not to recognize them as such.

Of course, de Beauvoir is an existentialist, and so for her this is where it ends: if womens’ existential freedom is compromised, that is bad, sipmliciter. As a non-existentialist, I thought I might disagree… but in practice I think that whatever your moral philosophy, it is hard to look at the picture de Beauvoir paints and not think “this is really bad”. In particular I think the argument would be much the same if you replaced all occurrences of “freedom” with “flourishing”: freedom and striving do seem to at least be part of the flourishing of a human life.

3) Sociological: women are trapped in a social relationship with men and each other that perpetuates their disadvantages

Women’s disadvantages are not insurmountable: as humans we suffer many things and overcome them in our striving. But the social situation in which women find themselves insidiously keeps them in their place.

Firstly, they are necessarily spread out through society, intermingled with men in a way of life that they cannot break without giving up on procreation entirely. This prevents the from discovering much solidarity with each other, and makes them vulnerable to the constant indoctrination into their role as the Other. One can imagine a society where this wasn’t true: where the women lived entirely separately in a self-sufficient village of their own, and men and women met only in negotiated exchanges to have children. In such a world, the “Men” might be more threatening; but they would be threatening as a force opposed to the goals of the “Women” - who would have leaders, hunters, and philosophers of their own. But in our society today, women exist in an emulsion amongst men, and it’s hard to see how that could change. So we need a society of men-and-women that is just to women.

Secondly, the “softness” of femininity acts as a trap. For de Beuvoir, life and freedom is struggle and hardship. Facing challenges and difficult tasks is how a person grows, discovers themselves and agency, and generates any value at all.1 Being exempted from the stress of work, from battle, from danger of all kinds is therefore poison in a sugar coating. Women too easily buy into the story of their own privilege and value, not noticing until it is too late that it stunts them in the ways that matter.

4) Psychological: women are trained to develop psychologically in ways that trap them further

Reading the later sections of the book where de Beauvoir talks about the lived experiences of women in diverse situations and the ways in which their behaviours are rooted in (and often indirectly support) the system that traps them, I can see why de Beauvoir has been accused of secret misogyny. She portrays most “normal” women as weak, vain, self-indulgent, indecisive, un-serious, timid, and easily distracted by the irrelevant. It would be easy to say she just doesn’t like women, but I think what she really hates is femininity (and I think it’s true to say that she thinks femininity is worse than masculinity).

For de Beauvoir, femininity is a cage. There is nothing distinctively valuable about what our society considers femininity, it is more like a set of psychological disabilities inflicted on women. The women who de Beuvoir admires are distinctly un-feminine, or those who have managed to deny it or bend it to their advantage: athletes, writers, intellectuals, (grudgingly) high-class courtesans (“hetairas”).

I think that de Beuvoir just wants femininity to go away. In her utopia, women would be much more like men. This is not because she idolizes men, but because she sees that they have advantages, both materially and (more importantly) existentially, which she wants for women as well. I think de Beauvoir would find some modern “feminism of differences” bizarre: rejecting the masculine characteristics that are associated with actual benefits merely because they are currently perceived as masculine is folly.

Action: what can we do about it?

De Beauvoir is a historical materialist at heart. That means that the progress we have made so far is ultimately a consequence of changes in our technology and society which have damaged some of the biological roots that hold women down. Modern work requires less physical strength and more intellectual activity, so women can work as well as men. Birth control (where available) lets women avoid the chains of pregnancy and children, so women can fear less and have more agency in the sexual realm. Painkillers and tampons reduce the pain and incapacity of menstruation, pushing down another barrier.

Of course, social struggle is required on top of this, but it likely will not succeed until the conditions are in place. Women got the vote because they worked; they worked because the nature of work had changed so they could do it. Sexual liberation followed birth control; not the other way around.

The prescription is obvious: keep hacking away at the roots of the problem. We will not be done until we have got rid of all of it: no privilege for strength2; total control over pregnancy; external gestation of children; communal (or at least ferociously equal) childrearing; control of menstruation. If we do this, then in the long run society will be forced to adjust to accommodate freer, more powerful women. Of course in practice that will not simply happen: there will be plenty of struggle to get there.


I think my instincts are with de Beauvoir.3

As a species we are always in conflict with nature: we do not want to eat what we are supposed to; mate like we’re supposed to; live or die like we’re supposed to. Nature is not our friend, and the burdens it puts on us ramify up through our society. We need to hack away at the roots, or we’re going to struggle to fight against their pull.

Perhaps this is a nerd thing: the materialist idea that we can fix our social problems by solving material problems (e.g. believing that external gestation technology would lead to reduced career impact on women from pregnancy) is an instance of the oft-criticised idea of “technical solutions to social problems”. But in this instance I think it’s pretty plausible. If a social problem has material roots then we should expect that technical or economic changes to the roots should affect the problem!4

I’m also suspicious of a feminism that rejects “masculine” qualities that are actually useful. For example, every now and I again I read something that suggests that we should reject “reason” entirely, since it’s a masculine way at looking at the world. Which just seems crazy to me: it’s a useful tool, why would you reject it?

This is by no means an endorsement of modern masculinity. There’s plenty wrong with it – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to preserve the good bits. Throwing the whole thing out is like saying “the people who currently win elections are assholes, therefore we shouldn’t try and win elections”. Bullshit, says de-Beauvoir-in-my-head, take the goddamn power and then worry about not being an asshole!

Similarly, I think there are good qualities in femininity, even if they are often learned as part of a package of oppression. It would be good if many of us were more empathetic, but many women learn to be empathetic as a defense mechanism against dangerous and unpredictable men in their lives. So I can believe that “femininity” is basically bad, even if there are good aspects – much like masculinity.

I am generally still confused about gender. I think my utopian future would have some kind of gender syncretism based on the positive parts of everything, perhaps with some well-known clusters for people who like to focus on particular bits. But that’s only going to work once you get rid of the material pressures.

  1. I was somewhat surprised by how much de Beavuoir commits to this. There is a passage that struck me where she comments favourably on boys fighting each other: it is important to know that one has the capacity for violence, to learn how to take a punch and endure pain, to negotiate with threatening opponents. 

  2. Random speculation: what would de Beauvoir have thought about gun rights? “God made men and women, Sam Colt made them equal”. 

  3. Reading this book also really helped me place myself in orientation to other feminist thought: it turns out I resonate a lot with second-wave feminism. 

  4. I certianly wouldn’t say I’m a materialist in the sense of thinking that all social problems have material roots, though.