“For a long time I have hesitated to write a blog post on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new,” is how the opening sentence to Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex reads. She did write a “book” of course, rather than a “blog post”, a very important work on the existentiality of women drawn from her experiences during the middle of the 20th century in France and beyond. She writes: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman….humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him.”
The Second Sex is considered to be one of the most influential works ever to come out of the existentialist movement. Following the footsteps of American author Kate Chopin, a century before her, she did not devote her work to the feminist movement, but rather to her own preoccupations and philosophical convictions. Times were different for women then, and considerably different from the times when Mary Wollstonecraft described marriage as a form of “legal prostitution.” Beauvoir, incidentally, decided to stay away from monogamous relationships and instead enjoyed an open relationship with intellectual partner Jean-Paul Sarte, among others.
Beauvoir’s book was first published in Paris in 1949, under the title, Le Deuxieme Sexe, after previously being printed serially in 1948. Translated from the French, reprinted in the 1953 English edition, published by Knopf, in New York and Jonathan Cape, in London, the book was actually better received in England and America than in France. While relatively scarce, first editions of both Knopf and Jonathan Cape, failed to attract collector interest. Wrapped in a rather plain dust jacket, authored by an unknown French author did not make a good recipe for success. Even today, copies from either publisher can be purchased for less than $200, well below the current cultural reevaluations of comparative works from either Kate Chopin or Mary Wollstonecraft.
Realization of the importance and value of Beauvoir’s work may still come. A combination of bad timing and publisher choices may have kept the importance of her work hidden from potential readers’. When first introduced to England and particularly in America, her message did not resonate with women who enjoyed a comfortable standard of living and an acceptance of inequality. Especially since, the 1950’s marked the Golden Age of Capitalism in America, where citizens prospered in the economy that followed the end of World War II. Mass market editions of the book in the late 50’s and 60’s, featured semi-nude women figures on the cover, essentially targeting the wrong, sexist audience. The translation into English by H. M. Parshley, was mediocre to say the least and thus had an adverse effect on the clarity and delivery of the message.
Simultaneously, during the period of 1945-55, the French and Western Europeans had more pressing concerns than the philosophical concepts of feminist arguments. The year of the book’s release was also the year that the Treaty of Brussels was signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Its purpose was to defend against possible German rearmament. At the same time, the Fédération Anarchiste begun insurrectionary strikes at the Renault factories and joined in the International Anarchist Congress of Puteaux, while the French Surrealist group led by André Breton openly embraced anarchism in collaboration with the Fédération Anarchiste.
Friction between the sexes will be part of our lives as long as human beings exist. Times change and circumstances may change, priorities may shift, but the fight for equality will continue to strive in the future as it has in the past. Beauvoir’s work may yet influence skeptics, critics, supporters and book collectors alike.