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Simone de Beauvoir and ‘The Second Sex’

A new exhibition in Bonn revisits Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex." The French existentialist philosopher's book is more relevant today than ever, says German feminist Alice Schwarzer.

By: Deutsche Welle |
March 13, 2022 9:40:54 pm
Simone de Beauvoir at her desk in 1945. (akg-images/Denise Bellon)

Simone de Beauvoir’s most famous book, “The Second Sex” (“Le deuxieme sexe”), is just shy of 1,000 pages long.

Published in 1949, it has been translated into more than 40 languages over the years and is considered a standard work of modern feminism. In it, de Beauvoir analyzes the situation of women in the Western world and deals with taboo subjects including sexual initiation, lesbian love and abortion.

Bonn’s Bundeskunsthalle Museum has devoted an exhibition to the work. The show illuminates its genesis in post-war Paris and questions why to this day, “The Second Sex” has hardly lost any of its powerful effect.

De Beauvoir’s theses were groundbreaking, says Bundeskunsthalle artistic director Eva Kraus, adding it took a lot of courage to defend them without caving. “She still deserves a great deal of respect for that, which made her a role model at the time, and she remains one to this day — for me, too,” says Kraus.

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De Beauvoir: ‘This world is a man’s world’
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” — that is perhaps the most famous quote from “The Second Sex.”

De Beauvoir’s analysis brought the category of “gender” into focus for the first time, all the while consistently distinguishing between biological sex and cultural or social conditioning.

“This world is a man’s world, my youth was fed with myths invented by men, and I by no means reacted to them as if I were a boy,” she later wrote in her four-volume autobiography.

The first volume of “The Second Sex,” entitled “Les faits et les mythes” (“Facts and Myths”), appeared in June 1949 and sold 22,000 copies in its first week. The publication triggered a heated debate.

De Beauvoir’s ideas provoked numerous — for the most part male — critics. Albert Camus, a fellow French philosopher, felt men were being ridiculed. Alfred Kinsey, a US sexologist, accused de Beauvoir of a lack of scientifically relevant data. The Vatican, the Soviet Union and Spain placed the work on an index of banned books.

Still worth reading 70 years on

“Simone de Beauvoir is more relevant today than ever,” said Alice Schwarzer, de Beauvoir’s friend and founder of the German feminist magazine Emma.

Speaking at the exhibition opening, Schwarzer added she was shocked by the amount of propaganda girls and young women are subjected to on social networks today regarding body politics. “If she were here today, that would be unparalleled material for de Beauvoir,” Schwarzer said. But it’s not just the image of women in the media that makes de Beauvoir’s feminist classic still worth reading 70 years after publication.

Various social issues have brought the work back into focus, including the right to abortion, for which de Beauvoir demonstrated, and which is still the subject of heated debate in Germany today.

Other facts and figures make it clear that women and mothers have been involuntarily forced back into old role models during the coronavirus pandemic. Women bear the burden of the pandemic: What would Simone de Beauvoir have said about that?

Women in a patriarchy

What would she have said about attempts to belittle women who hold senior offices against all odds?

A documentary on Angela Merkel recently showed how Germany’s former chancellor held her own in the male-dominated political arena.

Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was thought by many not to be competent or experienced enough. In the current crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she has demonstrated aplomb as she appealed to the world community at the UN General Assembly in New York and promoted a resolution against Russia.

De Beauvoir always had to stand her ground, too, according to Alice Schwarzer: “She had acquired a brusque manner. You have to know that she was under fire for decades.” She was very much attacked and defamed as a woman, Schwarzer said, adding that no one analyzed being a woman and being a man in a patriarchal world as comprehensively and as consistently as she did.

De Beauvoir’s kind of radicalism is ‘rare these days’
“I always admired de Beauvoir for being too radical when in doubt rather than the opposite,” Schwarzer said. But her kind of radicalism has become rare these days, she argued.

For the German feminist and journalist, progress is not automatic, one must always fight for its preservation and further development.

The exhibition “Simone de Beauvoir and ‘The Second Sex'” runs from March 4 to October 16, 2022 at Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn.

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