From the Publisher
"The effect of the new translation, which should be applauded, is to make Beauvoir more herself. . . still lively, still apropos." Slate
“This is the edition Beauvoir herself would have wanted, one so true to the original that we can hear her voice in the text. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation is long overdue, and it is a triumph.” —Margaret Simons, Distinguished Research Professor Emerita, Southern Illinois University
“[Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s translation] can be read with confidence, enlightenment, and pleasure. . . . A significant step forward and a remarkable achievement. So if you’re one of those people who always meant to read The Second Sex—why not now?” —Women’s Review of Books
“From Eve’s apple to Virginia Woolf’s room of her own, Beauvoir’s treatise remains an essential rallying point, urging self-sufficiency and offering the fruit of knowledge.”
"[A] long-awaited achievement." –"Book Bench," newyorker.com
...The Second Sexhas what Plutarch said of the buildings on the Acropolis: " there is a certain flourishing freshness in it." it is a threadbare cliche to speak of not doing justice to a book, but in this case I must resort to the cliche, for I have never been so acutely conscious of incomplete justice.
Books of the Century, New York Times review, February, 1953
Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is the most important feminist book ever written, and yet English readers have never known precisely what it says. The 1953 English translation of the book by H. M. Parshley, which cemented its international reputation, was an abridged version, with cuts made at the insistence of its American publisher, Alfred Knopf. As feminists often note derisively, Parshley was a zoologist who lacked grounding in the existentialist philosophy that gave de Beauvoir much of her vocabulary. But until now, his translation has been the standard one, and no complete English version of The Second Sex has existed. So the arrival of Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's new, unedited edition, which comes out just over sixty years after the book's first appearance in France, is an important literary event.
Yet it adds a bit less to our understanding of de Beauvoir's ideas than one might think. In fact, reading it suggests that Parshley deserves more credit than he's previously been given. This new Second Sex is less a revelation than a reminder of the messy, headlong brilliance revealed in the previous English edition. On a word-for-word level, it might be more exact, but it is, if anything, less lucid.
The new edition has already drawn withering criticism from some de Beauvoir scholars. "The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley's version, and that some sections…are better than others," Toril Moi, author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, wrote in the London Review of Booksin February.
The new translators are American women who spent decades teaching English at France's Institut d'Etudes Politiques; like Parshley, their background isn't in philosophy. By all accounts, they attempted to be scrupulously faithful to de Beauvoir's words, but the result, wrote Moi, "is what Nabokov, a great champion of literal translation, called 'false literalism' (as opposed to 'absolute accuracy'). The obsessive literalism and countless errors make it no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley." Moi is not alone in her estimation; in a letter published the next month, Nancy Bauer, a Tufts philosophy professor who the translators consulted for help, faulted their work for an awkwardness "so pervasive that it makes reading the text painful on pretty much every page."
Yet if the prose is often clunky, it doesn't obscure the astonishing scope and insight of the book itself. Despite its flaws, this new and complete version gives us a valuable opportunity to revisit a canonical work that prefigured so many of the famous feminist texts that came after it.
The Second Sex was de Beauvoir's exhaustive effort to grapple with the strange predicaments that being a woman creates for a human being. The dilemmas she analyzed continue to obsess and sometimes torment modern women -- the conflicts between meaningful work and maternity, the temptations of dependence, the painful artifices conventional femininity requires. Her work anticipates both second wave feminism and the reaction to it. "[T]he independent woman today is divided between her professional interests and the concerns of her sexual vocation; she has trouble finding her balance; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices and juggling that keep her in constant tension," she wrote, words that are no less true all these decades later.
De Beauvoir's fundamental insight, which is now such conventional wisdom that it barely seems like an insight at all, is that throughout recorded history, humanity has been understood as male, with women situated as inessential others. Man is subject, women is object. This asymmetry, de Beauvoir argued, frustrates women's dreams, deforms their psyches, and alienates them from themselves, while also dooming attempts to form reciprocal, loving relationships with men.
"History has shown that men have always held all the concrete powers; from patriarchy's earliest times they have deemed it useful to keep woman in a state of dependence; their codes were set up against her; she was thus concretely established as the Other," she wrote. Yet while de Beauvoir saw this situation as nearly universal, she didn't see it as natural. Rather, it was the result of patterns of culture and socialization that emerged from the material circumstances of human history, patterns subject to transformation. As she famously wrote in Parshley's translation, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." (In the new edition, that line is rendered as "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman," which is less elegant without being more accurate).
When The Second Sex was first published in the United States, Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in the Partisan Review, called it "madly sensible and brilliantly confused." That judgment still holds up. It's a huge, often repetitive behemoth of a book, and its treatment of womanhood is alternately absurdly exhaustive and narrow.
De Beauvoir galloped widely, and sometimes wildly, across history and disciplines -- the original choice of a zoologist for a translator makes more sense when one encounters her opening section on sexual differentiation in insects, birds, and mammals. But her understanding of humanity can be strikingly narrow, as if extrapolated entirely from the lives of middle-class Western intellectuals. There's sometimes an audacious recklessness to her generalizations, particularly when it comes to motherhood, a state she regards with barely disguised horror. "A mother must have a rare mixture of generosity and detachment to find enrichment in her children's lives without becoming a tyrant or turning them into her tormentors," she wrote, a line which says more about her own life than about the human condition. Each reader's own experience will determine which parts of The Second Sex feel shockingly perceptive, and which wrongheaded.
As a committed existentialist, de Beauvoir saw the freedom to create one's own life, to define one's own values and choose one's own projects, as essential to human dignity. Denied such freedom, women are reduced to slavery or vassalage, even if they don't know it. Because de Beauvoir hated the way society molded women, some passages in The Second Sex seem almost misogynist. "[T]he woman has been assigned the role of parasite: all parasites are necessarily exploiters; she needs the male to acquire human dignity, to eat, to feel pleasure, to procreate; she uses the service of sex to ensure her benefits," she wrote. But this is not a criticism of anything essential about women -- rather, it's an indictment of the male society that deforms them. De Beauvoir wrote, "Many of the faults for which they are reproached -- mediocrity, meanness, shyness, pettiness, laziness, frivolity, and servility -- simply express the fact that the horizon is blocked for them."
De Beauvoir didn't deny basic biological and even erotic differences between men and women, nor dream of an androgynous culture. "Man is a sexed human being; woman is a complete individual, and equal to the male, only if she too is a sexed human being. Renouncing her femininity means renouncing part of her humanity," she argued. She never figured out precisely how to combine difference and equality, though no one else has, either. We're all still struggling with the problems she illuminated.
Beauvoir's classic book is now retranslated with some historical passages restored—those thought too long for the patience of readers of English. The translators—two Americans who have worked for 40 years at an elite French university—do a good job and maintain (questionably) that they have better captured the nuances of an existentialist jargon still being forged in 1949, when the original was published. Despite controversies, the main points still stand, as Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (Virago, 2010) demonstrates. The Second Sex is much more than a series of complaints. It is an application of the moral theory brilliantly laid out in The Ethics of Ambiguity (Philosophical Library, 1948, and several editions since). The essence of the Ethics is that there is a constant struggle between our desire to grasp "being," reality as it is, and keep faith with ourselves as responsible self-creators. The demand for freedom initiates a world in which we seek to dominate and so turn others into mere objects. VERDICT As relevant now as it was when it was first published, this classic feminist text belongs in all academic collections.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa, Ont.
Read an Excerpt
In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir began to outline what she thought would be an autobiographical essay explaining why, when she had tried to define herself, the first sentence that came to mind was “I am a woman.” That October, my maiden aunt, Beauvoir’s contemporary, came to visit me in the hospital nursery. I was a day old, and she found a little tag on my bassinet that announced, “It’s a Girl!” In the next bassinet was another newborn (“a lot punier,” she recalled), whose little tag announced, “I’m a Boy!” There we lay, innocent of a distinction— between a female object and a male subject— that would shape our destinies. It would also shape Beauvoir’s great treatise on the subject.
Beauvoir was then a thirty- eight- year- old public intellectual who had been enfranchised for only a year. Legal birth control would be denied to French women until 1967, and legal abortion, until 1975. Not until the late 1960s was there an elected female head of state anywhere in the world. Girls of my generation searching for examples of exceptional women outside the ranks of queens and courtesans, and of a few artists and saints, found precious few. (The queens, as Beauvoir remarks, “were neither male nor female: they were sovereigns.”) Opportunities for women have proliferated so broadly in the past six decades, at least in the Western world, that the distance between 2010 and 1949, when The Second Sex was published in France, seems like an eternity (until, that is, one opens a newspaper—the victims of misogyny and sexual abuse are still with us, everywhere). While no one individual or her work is responsible for that seismic shift in laws and attitudes, the millions of young women who now confidently assume that their entitlement to work, pleasure, and autonomy is equal to that of their brothers owe a measure of their freedom to Beauvoir. The Second Sex was an act of Promethean audacity— a theft of Olympian fire— from which there was no turning back. It is not the last word on “the problem of woman,” which, Beauvoir wrote, “has always been a problem of men,” but it marks the place in history where an enlightenment begins.
Simone-Ernestine-Lucie- Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in 1908 into a reactionary Catholic family with pretensions to nobility. She had a Proustian childhood on the Boulevard Saint- Germain, in Paris. But after World War I, her father, Georges, lost most of his fortune, and without dowries Simone and her sister, Hélène, had dim prospects for a marriage within their class. Their mother, Françoise, a banker’s daughter who had never lived without servants, did all the housework and sewing for the family. Her pious martyrdom indelibly impressed Simone, who would improve upon Virginia Woolf ’s famous advice and move to a room of her own—in a hotel, with maid service. Like Woolf, and a striking number of other great women writers,1 Beauvoir was childless. And like Colette, who wasn’t (she relegated her late- born, only daughter to the care of surrogates), she regarded motherhood as a threat to her integrity. Colette is a ubiquitous presence in The Second Sex, which gives a new perspective to her boast, in a memoir of 1946, that “my strain of virility saved me from the danger which threatens the writer, elevated to a happy and tender parent, of becoming a mediocre author . . . Beneath the still young woman that I was, an old boy of forty saw to the well- being of a possibly precious part of myself.”
Mme de Beauvoir, intent on keeping up a facade of gentility, however shabby, sent her daughters to an elite convent school where Simone, for a while, ardently desired to become a nun, one of the few respectable vocations open to an ambitious girl. When she lost her faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union (dreams that proved remarkably tenacious) shifted from Christ to an enchanting classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew. (Not many bookish virgins with a particle in their surname got drunk with the hookers and drug addicts at Le Styx.) Her mother hoped vainly that the worthless Jacques would propose. Her father, a ladies’ man, knew better: he told his temperamental, ill-dressed, pimply genius of a daughter that she would never marry. But by then Simone de Beauvoir had seen what a woman of almost any quality— highborn or low, pure or impure, contented with her lot or alienated— could expect from a man’s world.
Beauvoir’s singular brilliance was apparent from a young age to her teachers, and to herself. An insatiable curiosity and a prodigious capacity for synthetic reading and analysis (a more inspired grind may never have existed) nourished her drive. One of her boyfriends dubbed her Castor (the Beaver), a nickname that stuck. She had a sense of inferiority, it would appear, only in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. They met in 1929, as university students (she a star at the Sorbonne, he at the Ecole Normale Supérieure), cramming, as a team, for France’s most brutal and competitive postgraduate examination, the agrégation in philosophy. (On their first study date, she explained Leibniz to him.) Success would qualify her for a lifetime sinecure teaching at a lycée, and liberate her from her family. When the results were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second (she was the ninth woman who had ever passed), and that, forever, was the order of precedence— Adam before Eve— in their creation myth as a couple.
Even though their ideal was of a love without domination, it was part of the myth that Sartre was Beauvoir’s first man. After Georges de Beauvoir confronted them (they had been living together more or less openly), Sartre, the more bourgeois, proposed marriage, and Beauvoir told him “not to be silly.” She had emerged from her age of awkwardness as a severe beauty with high cheekbones and a regal forehead who wore her dark hair plaited and rolled— an old- fashioned duenna’s coif rather piquantly at odds with her appetites and behavior. Both sexes attracted her, and Sartre was never the most compelling of her lovers, but they recognized that each possessed something uniquely necessary to the other. As he put it one afternoon, walking in the Tuileries, “You and I together are as one” (on ne fait qu’un). He categorized their union as an “essential” love that only death could sunder, although in time, he said, they would naturally both have “contingent” loves— freely enjoyed and fraternally confessed in a spirit of “authenticity.” (She often recruited, and shared, his girls, some of whom were her students, and her first novel, She Came to Stay, in 1943, was based on one of their ménages à trois.) “At every level,” Beauvoir reflected, years later, of the pain she had suffered and inflicted, “we failed to face the weight of reality, priding ourselves on what we called our ‘radical freedom.’” But they also failed to fault themselves for the contingent casualties— the inessential others— who were sacrificed to their experiment. And the burden of free love, Beauvoir would discover, was grossly unequal for a woman and for a man.
If Beauvoir has proved to be an irresistible subject for biographers, it is, in part, because she and Sartre, as a pharaonic couple of incestuous deities, reigned over twentieth- century French intellectual life in the decades of its greatest ferment. But the most fascinating subjects tend to be those richest in contradictions, and The Second Sex, no less than Beauvoir’s prolific and important fiction, memoirs, and correspondence, seethes with them. Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir’s biographer, touches upon a fundamental paradox in the introduction to her admirable life. She and Sartre ’s biographer Annie Cohen-Solal had been lecturing together at Harvard. At the conclusion of their talk, she writes, “I could not help but comment to my distinguished audience that every question asked about Sartre concerned his work, while all those asked about Beauvoir concerned her personal life.” Yet Sartre ’s work, and specifically the existentialist notion of an opposition between a sovereign self— a subject— and an objectified Other, gave Beauvoir the conceptual scaffold for The Second Sex, while her life as a woman (indeed, as Sartre ’s woman) impelled her to write it. He had once told her that she had “a man’s intelligence,” and there is no evidence that he changed his mind about a patronizing slight that she, too, accepted as a compliment until she began to consider what it implied. It implied, she would write, that “humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself,” and by all the qualities (Colette ’s strain of “virility”) she is presumed to lack. Her “twinship” with Sartre was an illusion.
The Second Sex has been called a “feminist bible,” an epithet bound to discourage impious readers wary of a sacred text and a personality cult. Beauvoir herself was as devout an atheist as she had once been a Catholic, and she dismisses religions— even when they worship a goddess— as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion. The analogy is fitting, though, and not only to the grandeur of a book that was the first of its kind but also to its structure. Beauvoir begins her narrative, like the author of
Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The two volumes that elaborate on the consequences of that fall are the Old and New Testaments of an unchosen people with a history of enslavement. (“Facts and Myths” is a chronicle of womankind from prehistory to the 1940s; “Lived Experience” is a minutely detailed case study of contemporary womanhood and its stations of the cross from girlhood through puberty and sexual initiation to maturity and old age, with detours from the well- trodden road to Calvary taken by mystics and lesbians.) The epic concludes, like Revelation, with an eloquent, if utopian, vision of redemption:
The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom; if they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.
The first English edition of The Second Sex was published in 1953. Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred Knopf, Beauvoir’s American publisher, had heard of the book on a scouting trip to Paris. Thinking that this sensational literary property was a highbrow sex manual, she had asked an academic who knew about the birds and the bees, H. M. Parshley, a retired professor of zoology at Smith College, for a reader’s report. His enthusiasm for the work (“intelligent, learned, and well- balanced . . . not feminist in any doctrinaire sense”) won him the commission to translate it. But Alfred Knopf asked Parshley to condense the text, noting, without undue masculine gallantry, that Beauvoir “certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea.” Parshley appealed to the author for advice on the “minor cuts and abridgments” that Knopf felt were essential for the American market. She was either too busy or unwilling to reply, because he heard nothing until he received an indignant letter protesting that “so much of what seems important to me will have been omitted.” But she signed off graciously on the edition.
While the translation was a labor of love from which Parshley nearly expired, he lacked a background in philosophy, or in French literature. He also lacked a credential more pertinent, perhaps, to the audience for a foundational work of modern feminism, a second X chromosome. This eagerly awaited new translation, by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier— the first since Parshley’s—is a magisterial exercise in fidelity. The cuts have been restored, and the English is as lucid and elegant as Beauvoir’s ambition to be exhaustive permits it to be. She is a bold, sagacious, often dazzling writer and a master aphorist, but no one would accuse her of being a lapidary stylist. It is hard to find a description for the prose that does justice both to its incisive power and to its manic garrulity. Elizabeth Hardwick came closest, perhaps, when she called The Second Sex “madly sensible and brilliantly confused.”
The stamina that it takes to read The Second Sex in its entirety pales before the feat of writing it. (Sartre was happy when his beaver was busy, Beauvoir told Bair, because “I was no bother to him.”) One is humbled to learn that this eight- hundred- page encyclopedia of the folklore, customs, laws, history, religion, philosophy, anthropology, literature, economic systems, and received ideas that have, since time began, objectified women was researched and composed in about fourteen months, between 1946 and 1949, while Beauvoir was also engaged with other literary projects, traveling widely, editing and contributing to Les Temps Modernes, Sartre ’s leftist political review, and juggling her commitments to him and “the Family” (their entourage of friends, groupies, disciples, and lovers) with a wild, transatlantic love affair. On a trip to America in 1947, she had met the novelist Nelson Algren, the most significant of her male others, and it was he who advised her to expand the essay on women into a book. He had shown her the “underside” of his native Chicago, and that year and the next they explored the United States and Mexico together. Her encounter with a racism that she had never witnessed firsthand, and her friendship with Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, helped to clarify her understanding of sexism, and its relation to the anti-Semitism that she certainly had witnessed firsthand before and during the war, but, with Sartre, had never openly challenged. The black, the Jew, and the woman, she concluded, were objectified as the Other in ways that were both overtly despotic and insidious, but with the same result: their particularity as human beings was reduced to a lazy, abstract cliché (“the eternal feminine”; “the black soul”; “the Jewish character”) that served as a rationale for their subjugation.
Not all of Beauvoir’s staggering erudition and mandarin authority in The Second Sex is reliable (she would repudiate a number of her more contentious or blinkered generalities, though not all of them). Her single most famous assertion—“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”—has been disputed by more recent feminist scholars, and a substantial body of research in biology and the social sciences supports their argument that some sexual differences (besides the obvious ones) are innate rather than “situational.” Instead of rejecting “otherness” as an imposed cultural construct, women, in their opinion, should cultivate it as a source of selfknowledge and expression, and use it as the basis to critique patriarchal institutions. Many readers have also been alienated by Beauvoir’s visceral horror of fertility— the “curse” of reproduction— and her desire, as they see it, to homogenize the human race.
Yet a revolution cannot begin until the diffuse, private indignation of individuals coalesces into a common cause. Beauvoir not only marshaled a vast arsenal of fact and theory; she galvanized a critical mass of consciousness—a collective identity—that was indispensable to the women’s movement. Her insights have breached the solitude of countless readers around the world who thought that the fears, transgressions, fantasies, and desires that fed their ambivalence about being female were aberrant or unique. No woman before her had written publicly, with greater candor and less euphemism, about the most intimate secrets of her sex.
One of those secrets— the hardest, perhaps, for Beauvoir to avow— is that a free woman may refuse to be owned without wanting to renounce, or being able to transcend, her yearning to be possessed.5 “As long as the temptations of facility remain,” she wrote, by which she meant the temptations of romantic love, financial security, and a sense of purpose or status derived from a man, all of which Sartre had, at one time or another, provided for her, a woman “needs to expend a greater moral effort than the male to choose the path of independence.” Colette, who would have smiled, and not kindly, at the phrase, “moral effort,” states the problem less cerebrally: “How to liberate my true hope? Everything is against me. The first obstacle to my escape is this woman’s body barring my way, a voluptuous body with closed eyes, voluntarily blind, stretched out full, ready to perish.”
To a reader of this new translation— a young feminist perhaps, for whom the very title may seem as quaint as a pair of bloomers— I would suggest that the best way to appreciate The Second Sex is to read it in the spirit it was written: as a deep and urgent personal meditation on a true hope that, as she will probably discover, is still elusive for many of us: to become, in every sense, one ’s own woman.
c h a p t e r 1
Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: She is a womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her. From a man’s mouth, the epithet “female” sounds like an insult; but he, not ashamed of his animality, is proud to hear: “He ’s a male!” The term “female” is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but because it confines her in her sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him. Nevertheless, he wants to find a justification in biology for this feeling. The word “female” evokes a saraband of images: an enormous round egg snatching and castrating the agile sperm; monstrous and stuffed, the queen termite reigning over the servile males; the praying mantis and the spider, gorged on love, crushing their partners and gobbling them up; the dog in heat running through back alleys, leaving perverse smells in her wake; the monkey showing herself off brazenly, sneaking away with flirtatious hypocrisy. And the most splendid wildcats, the tigress, lioness, and panther, lie down slavishly under the male ’s imperial embrace, inert, impatient, shrewd, stupid, insensitive, lewd, fierce, and humiliated. Man projects all females at once onto woman. And the fact is that she is a female. But if one wants to stop thinking in commonplaces, two questions arise. What does the female represent in the animal kingdom? And what unique kind of female is realized in woman?
Males and females are two types of individuals who are differentiated within one species for the purposes of reproduction; they can be defined only correlatively. But it has to be pointed out first that the very meaning of division of the species into two sexes is not clear.
It does not occur universally in nature. In one- celled animals, infusorians, amoebas, bacilli, and so on, multiplication is fundamentally distinct from sexuality, with cells dividing and subdividing individually. For some metazoans, reproduction occurs by schizogenesis, that is dividing the individual whose origin is also asexual, or by blastogenesis, that is dividing the individual itself produced by a sexual phenomenon: the phenomena of budding or segmentation observed in freshwater hydras, coelenterates, sponges, worms, and tunicates are well-known examples. In parthenogenesis, the virgin egg develops in embryonic form without male intervention. The male plays no role or only a secondary one: unfertilized honeybee eggs subdivide and produce drones; in the case of aphids, males are absent for a number of generations, and the unfertilized eggs produce females. Parthenogenesis in the sea urchin, the starfish, and the toad has been artificially reproduced. However, sometimes in the protozoa, two cells can merge, forming what is called a zygote; fertilization is necessary for honeybee eggs to engender females and aphid eggs, males. Some biologists have thus concluded that even in species capable of perpetuating themselves unilaterally, the renewal of genetic diversity through mixing of parental chromosomes would benefit the line ’s rejuvenation and vigor; in this view, then, in the more complex forms of life, sexuality is an indispensable function; only elementary organisms could multiply without sexes, and even so they would exhaust their vitality. But today this hypothesis is most inexact; observations have proved that asexual multiplication can occur indefinitely without any noticeable degeneration; this is particularly striking in bacilli; more and more— and bolder and even bolder— parthenogenetic experiments have been carried out, and in many species the male seems radically useless. Moreover, even if the value of intercellular exchange could be demonstrated, it would be a purely ungrounded fact. Biology attests to sexual differentiation, but even if biology were imbued with finalism, the differentiation of sexes could not be deduced from cellular structure, laws of cellular multiplication, or any elementary phenomenon.
The existence of heterogenetic gametes alone does not necessarily mean there are two distinct sexes;1 the differentiation of reproductive cells often does not bring about a division of the species into two types: both can belong to the same individual. This is true of hermaphroditic species, so common in plants, and also in many invertebrates, among which are the annulates and mollusks. Reproduction takes place either by selffertilization or by cross-fertilization. Some biologists use this fact to claim the justification of the established order. They consider gonochorism—that is, the system in which the different gonads2 belong to distinct individuals—as an improvement on hermaphroditism, realized by evolution; others, by contrast, consider gonochorism primitive: for those biologists, hermaphroditism would thus be its degeneration. In any case, these notions of superiority of one system over another involve highly contestable theories concerning evolution. All that can be affirmed with certainty is that these two means of reproduction coexist in nature, that they both perpetuate species, and that the heterogeneity of both gametes and gonad-producing organisms seems to be accidental. The differentiation of individuals into males and females thus occurs as an irreducible and contingent fact.
Most philosophies have taken sexual differentiation for granted without attempting to explain it. The Platonic myth has it that in the beginning there were men, women, and androgynes; each individual had a double face, four arms, four legs, and two bodies joined together; one day they were split into two “as one would split eggs in two,” and ever since then each half seeks to recover its other half: the gods decided later that new human beings would be created by the coupling of two unlike halves. This story only tries to explain love: the differentiation of sexes is taken as a given from the start. Aristotle offers no better account: for if cooperation of matter and form is necessary for any action, it is not necessary that active and passive principles be distributed into two categories of heterogenic individuals. Saint Thomas declared that woman was an “inessential” being, which, from a masculine point of view, is a way of positing the accidental character of sexuality. Hegel, however, would have been untrue to his rationalist passion had he not attempted to justify it logically. According to him, sexuality is the mediation by which the subject concretely achieves itself as a genus. “The genus is therefore present in the individual as a straining against the inadequacy of its single actuality, as the urge to obtain its self- feeling in the other of its genus, to integrate itself through union with it and through this mediation to close the genus with itself and bring it into existence—copulation.” And a little further along, “The process consists in this, that they become in reality what they are in themselves, namely, one genus, the same subjective vitality.” And Hegel then declares that in order for the process of union to occur, there has to be differentiation of the two sexes. But his demonstration is not convincing: the preconceived idea of locating the three moments of the syllogism in any operation is too obvious here. The surpassing of the individual toward the species, by which individual and species accomplish themselves in their own truth could occur without the third element, by the simple relation of genitor to child: reproduction could be asexual. Or the relation to each other could be that of two of the same kind, with differentiation occurring in the singularity of individuals of the same type, as in hermaphroditic species. Hegel’s description brings out a very important significance of sexuality: but he always makes the same error of equating significance with reason. It is through sexual activity that men define the sexes and their relations, just as they create the meaning and value of all the functions they accomplish: but sexual activity is not necessarily implied in the human being’s nature. In Phénoménologie de la perception (Phenomenology of Perception), Merleau-Ponty points out that human existence calls for revision of the notions of necessity and contingency. “Existence has no fortuitous attributes, no content which does not contribute towards giving it its form; it does not give admittance to any pure fact because it is the process by which facts are drawn up.” This is true. But it is also true that there are conditions without which the very fact of existence would seem to be impossible. Presence in the world vigorously implies the positing of a body that is both a thing of the world and a point of view on this world: but this body need not possess this or that particu lar structure. In L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), Sartre disputes Heidegger’s affirmation that human reality is doomed to death because of its finitude; he establishes that a finite and temporally limitless existence could be conceivable; nevertheless, if human life were not inhabited by death, the relationship of human beings to the world and to themselves would be so deeply upset that the statement “man is mortal” would be anything but an empirical truth: immortal, an existent would no longer be what we call a man. One of the essential features of man’s destiny is that the movement of his temporal life creates behind and ahead of him the infinity of the past and the future: the perpetuation of the species appears thus as the correlative of individual limitation, so the phenomenon of reproduction can be considered as ontologically grounded. But this is where one must stop; the perpetuation of the species does not entail sexual differentiation. That it is taken on by existents in such a way that it thereby enters into the concrete definition of existence, so be it. Nevertheless, a consciousness without a body or an immortal human being is rigorously inconceivable, whereas a society can be imagined that reproduces itself by parthenogenesis or is composed of hermaphrodites.
Opinions about the respective roles of the two sexes have varied greatly; they were initially devoid of any scientific basis and only reflected social myths. It was thought for a long time, and is still thought in some primitive societies based on matrilineal filiation, that the father has no part in the child’s conception: ancestral larvae were supposed to infiltrate the womb in the form of living germs. With the advent of patriarchy, the male resolutely claimed his posterity; the mother had to be granted a role in procreation even though she merely carried and fattened the living seed: the father alone was the creator. Artistotle imagined that the fetus was produced by the meeting of the sperm and the menses: in this symbiosis, woman just provided passive material, while the male prin ciple is strength, activity, movement, and life. Hippocrates’ doctrine also recognized two types of seeds, a weak or female one, and a strong one, which was male. Artistotelian theory was perpetuated throughout the Middle Ages and down to the modern period. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Harvey, slaughtering female deer shortly after they had mated, found vesicles in the uterine horns that he thought were eggs but that were really embryos. The Danish scientist Steno coined the term “ovaries” for the female genital glands that had until then been called “feminine testicles,” and he noted the existence of vesicles on their surface that Graaf, in 1672, had erroneously identified as eggs and to which he gave his name. The ovary was still regarded as a homologue of the male gland. That same year, though, “spermatic animalcules” were discovered penetrating the feminine womb. But it was thought that they went there for nourishment only, and that the individual was already prefigured in them; in 1694, the Dutchman Hartsoeker drew an image of the homunculus hidden in the sperm, and in 1699 another scientist declared he had seen the sperm cast off a kind of slough under which there was a little man, which he also drew. In these hypotheses woman merely fattened a living and active, and perfectly constituted, principle. These theories were not universally accepted, and discussion continued until the nine teenth century. The invention of the microscope led to the study of the animal egg; in 1827, Baer identified the mammal’s egg: an element contained inside Graaf ’s follicle. Soon its structure could be studied; in 1835, the sarcode—that is, the protoplasm—and then the cell were discovered; in 1877, the sperm was observed penetrating the starfish egg. From that the symmetry of the two gametes’ nuclei was established; their fusion was analyzed in detail for the first time in 1883 by a Belgian zoologist.
But Aristotle ’s ideas have not lost all validity. Hegel thought the two sexes must be different: one is active and the other passive, and it goes without saying that passivity will be the female’s lot. “Because of this differentiation, man is thus the active principle while woman is the passive principle because she resides in her non- developed unity.” And even when the ovum was recognized as an active principle, men continued to pit its inertia against the agility of the sperm. Today, there is a tendency to see the contrary: the discoveries of parthenogenesis have led some scientists to reduce the role of the male to that of a simple physicochemical agent. In some species the action of an acid or a mechanical stimulation has been shown to trigger the division of the egg and the development of the embryo; and from that it was boldly assumed that the male gamete was not necessary for generation; it would be at most a ferment; perhaps man’s cooperation in procreation would one day become useless: that seems to be many women’s desire. But nothing warrants such a bold expectation because nothing warrants universalizing life ’s specific processes. The phenomena of asexual multiplication and parthenogenesis are neither more nor less fundamental than those of sexual reproduction. And it has already been noted that this form is not a priori favored: but no fact proves it is reducible to a more elementary mechanism.
Rejecting any a priori doctrine, any implausible theory, we find ourselves before a fact that has neither ontological nor empirical basis and whose impact cannot a priori be understood. By examining it in its concrete reality, we can hope to extract its significance: thus perhaps the content of the word “female” will come to light.
The idea here is not to propose a philosophy of life or to take sides too hastily in the quarrel between finalism and mechanism. Yet it is noteworthy that physiologists and biologists all use a more or less finalistic language merely because they ascribe meaning to vital phenomena. We will use their vocabulary. Without coming to any conclusion about life and consciousness, we can affirm that any living fact indicates transcendence, and that a project is in the making in every function: these descriptions do not suggest more than this.