Patriarchy & The Second Sex

Second_Sex-20100831At prompting from a feminist pundit of my acquaintance, who I actually like most of the time, I sat down to read The Second Sex. I was told it would support their protestations of ‘patriarchy’, an idea I don’t subscribe to – at least in the modern west – a fact which flabbergasted them. Which isn’t to say patriarchy doesn’t exist or hasn’t existed, one need only look to the Middle East to see it is very much still kicking, just that we’re in a post-patriarchal society here and that it was never that simple or one-sided anyway.

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beavoir is considered a foundational Second Wave feminist tome. The Second Wave of feminism marks the beginning of the transition between the equity feminism of the first wave (concerned entirely with legal equality such as suffrage) and into gender equality – moving beyond the societal and legal sphere into other areas.

It’s the move from equal rights for women to rights for women – a subtle but important distinction.

I read it, a lengthy analysis and commentary follows.

TL;DR: It did nothing to demonstrate the existence of a modern, western patriarchy to me and is of interest only as an historical document, though the 1950s writing means a lot of the science is just plain wrong and it’s almost as hard to read as Shakespeare until you can mentally shift gears. It’s essentially a polemic, a very long and partisan anecdote.

Facts & Myths

The Second Sex operates through an existing, feminist lens. It wears its presuppositions on its sleeve and never really challenges them. They are simply taken as true. This biases the whole piece and without a male perspective on the same issues it exists in unchallenged isolation. Many of these concepts and ideas I do not think would stand up, were a man asked his opinion on them.

By way of example, Beauvoir confidently asserts that a man ‘never thinks of himself as a man’ and that related to this is the use of the masculine pronoun as the default, indicating normalcy and the othering of the female. Ask any man and, unless he’s being economical with the truth, he will tell you that he is often preoccupied with his masculinity.

Masculinity is as much of a performance as femininity, it must be asserted, protected and expressed in order to retain respect of ones peers and to advertise your sexuality. Stepping outside those norms is punishable – unless you have a firm foundation or inalienable maleness – by withdrawal of female interest and scathing male contempt.

As to the masculine pronoun, I don’t know the history when it comes to French, but I can speak to English. ‘Man’ used to mean human and sex was differentiated by prefix. ‘Wer’ for man, ‘Wyf’ for woman. So you would have ‘Werman’ and ‘Wyfman’. Over time the male pronoun withered away and we were left with the etymologically gender neutral ‘man’ while women retained a privileged position of having an identifier. We can only know the subject is a man through individual description or context, he can know the subject is female immediately.

Beauvoir makes some unflattering comparisons with racism and, later in the book, her views on lesbians and racial matters seem similarly problematic to modern eyes. This presents us with something of a problem. If we accept that her views on race and sex (‘Arab troglodytes’ and ‘masculine women’) are the product of her time and context, then we must do the same for her historical references to gender roles. In all three cases, race, sexuality and gender, we’ve moved on and so her work is only really of interest in an historical context.

Beauvoir also attaches the gender struggles to the left/right divide, associating feminist progress with the left and traditional, anti-woman views with the right. Needless to say I reject this, at least as relates to NuFem. My objections to modern feminism stem from a left-anarchist viewpoint, not the right wing. Equally a lot of NuFem seems authoritarian, censorious and concerned with creating and supporting new hierarchical and privileged powers, goals which are the antithesis of both socialism and liberalism.

Needless to say socialist egalitarianism did play a huge roll in securing equal rights but somewhere along the line something changed. It is true to say that many of those against feminism are also on the right and coming at it from a right wing perspective but the commonality between their objections and mine is in the region of personal autonomy and freedom, it’s just they’re libertarian rather than anarchistic.

It is also, I think, a valid criticism of feminism to associate it with the state (which can be left or right). A great deal is made of these right wing anti-feminists of the fact that the state props women up, disproportionately to the manner in which it does men. Men contribute more, women take more. This isn’t entirely a valid criticism since, being child bearers, women have greater recourse to public funds, public medicine etc but with women as a privileged class supported by and having their needs enforced by the state there is some truth in it.

We must not, however, be any less mistrustful of feminists’ arguments: very often their attempt to polemicize robs them of all value. If the “question of women” is so trivial, it is because masculine arrogance turned it into a “quarrel”; when people quarrel, they no longer reason well. What people have endlessly sought to prove is that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man: created after Adam, she is obviously a secondary being, some say; on the contrary, say others, Adam was only a rough draft, and God perfected the human being when he created Eve; her brain is smaller, but relatively bigger; Christ was made man, but perhaps out of humility. Every argument has its opposite, and both are often misleading. To see clearly, one needs to get out of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, inferiority, and equality that have distorted all discussions must be discarded in order to start anew.

A somewhat ironic quote given the content of the book, but a notion that I think has a great deal of value to it. This is no longer a discussion. Feminism has become a – pardon the expression – shrill dogma to be screamed at people, not a topic for discussion or questioning. That a book such as this, one long polemic itself, calls out the issue is amusing, but also a warning.

Nothing must be assumed. Everything must be questioned, supported and examined.

Nullius in verba.

Another example of Beauvoir’s presupposition is in apparently thinking that the issue of biological and behavioural differences between the sexes is settled, though she seems to contradict herself elsewhere. A great deal of time is spent speaking, pointlessly, about very different species and their myriad of gender expressions and reproductive strategies – none of which are really relevant to humans.

If we want to examine animals to understand humans – and there are issues in trying to examine ourselves, despite the best efforts of Desmond Morris – we would need to look to the other apes. From chimpanzees in particular, our closest genetic cousins, we can perhaps see some of the behaviours and roles that shaped our own far prehistory.

There are differences between the sexes, genetically (and hence biologically) which are also likely to manifest in behavioural differences as well as physical differences. We’re a pretty dimorphic species, especially when it comes to sexual characteristics but we also note differences in the brain. In raw terms women have more white matter and men more grey matter, but we see much more autism spectrum in boys too as opposed to girls (1.8% vs 0.2%) and much more borderline personality disorder in girls than boys (80% vs 20% of diagnosed cases).

The differences in physical capacity are obvious and undeniable, but people will try to deny them by pointing out that ability is distributed on a bell curve. This is true, but it is not only at the extremes that we see the difference. The average man is stronger than the average woman. The average woman has greater endurance than the average man.

When it comes to capabilities that aren’t raw and physical things get muddier. IQ experiments and others for interpersonal skills and so forth are too controversial for many to pursue, though it seems likely that our capacities in intelligence at least are equal, but different. Neuroplasticity is the latest way to try and discredit biological truths when it comes to the brain and nervous system, but it cannot account for the changes since birth.

Behavioural differences are even harder to prove and even more controversial with few even daring to try.

While it is true that bad science has been twisted to support gender stereotypes in the past, just as it has race, the best way to refute these issues is with more, better and well evidenced science. The hostility to concepts such as evolutionary psychology are not based on good scientific objections, but on there being a desire for science not to find innate behavioural differences. That’s just as bad as abusing science trying to prove that there are.

Ideology should never be allowed to interfere with science, and yet we’ve recently seen ‘feminist biology’ emerge rooted in ideological objections to how biology has been presumed to study in the past. If you want historical lessons on how bad an idea this is, check out Lysenkoism.

There are certain biological truths implicit in our genders. Beauvoir both recognises and rejects this throughout the work, which makes it more than a little confusing as to what her stance actually is.

It is a currently inescapable truth that women carry babies. This has certain knock on social and physical effects which Beauvoir covers adequately and which I don’t feel need re-stating. The part she misses is that female vulnerability and status as child-bearers goes hand in hand with male disposability. A man is expected to sacrifice himself to protect women and there are sound evolutionary reasons as to why this would be so. From a certain perspective that also puts women in the privileged position of being the ones who are sacrificed for and while the ‘savannah ape’ we like to imagine might have done that by providing a cave bear with lunch, in other times the sacrifice has been made in terms of labour, resources and even legal punishment.

There are big sections on Freudian psychology and on Historical Materialism, both of which are largely out of favour and considered wrong or at least outdated, so there’s not a lot of meat here for the modern reader unless – again – they’re interested in the history of feminism and the socio-economic and political context in which it existed in the 1940s and 1950s.

An economic examination, supply, demand and labour, may still be useful however and it is certainly a favourite amongst the libertarian objectors I know. Men have the demand for sex and children, women have the supply. Historically men have traded labour not exactly in exchange for these things, but to prove his worth and his capacity to care for the woman. In Marxist terms you could consider men then – at least historically – to be the proletariat and women to be a sort of ‘gender bourgeoisie’ living off the labour of others. This is, of course, simplistic and the division of labour was and is not exactly down gender lines but we can see vestiges of this in the expectations of gifts, paying for dinner etc and the way in which the home-making partner (still predominantly women) controls the joint finances.

Historically, as Beauvoir admits, male dominance was down to raw physicality. Males were the better hunters, the better fighters and eventually the better manual workers and farmers, simply because of greater muscle strength and size. Systems emergent from that favoured men in certain ways and women in others. Rather than a patriarchy per se you might describe such emergent organisation as paternalistic. Back then this might have held some water but in the modern technological age such excuses do not stand up to scrutiny as raw power is no longer related to societal or economic power. This paternalism, incidentally, is often the excuse offered within Sharia Islam for its treatment of women – protecting and treasuring them.

“Later, more value was attached to children. But in any case, to give birth and to breast-feed are not activities but natural functions; they do not involve a project, which is why the woman finds no motive there to claim a higher meaning for her existence; she passively submits to her biological destiny.”

I do not know that this remains true in a post-industrial and post-pill world. The great liberators of women have been advances in medicine, industrialisation and contraception. Birth is no longer as dangerous, work is available (almost) despite physicality and reproduction is now under our control. As such it is a choice, not a destiny and to give birth and care for a child are, now, chosen activities.

“Little by little, man mediated his experience, and in his representations, as in his practical existence, the male principle triumphed. Spirit prevailed over Life, transcendence over immanence, technology over magic, and reason over superstition.” – It is these victories that have enabled female emancipation.

This theme occurred earlier in the work as well, the association of these qualities with ‘maleness’. I’m not sure I agree with the first two, in my experience women are more spiritual, on average, in both meanings presented here. Technology over magic and reason over superstition I have had described to me as ‘bad’ and even ‘phallocentric’ by a certain type of feminist and yet I find that confusing. Reason and technology are available to anyone and how can understanding reality and applying that understanding be bad? If these are male qualities yet they have enabled female emancipation, then where precisely is the problem?

Why is man being described as an oppressor in these instances if his actions and victories have liberated women? Oppressor/protector depends on your paradigmal lens and – funnily enough – reason is the only way to try and see without that distortion. It is the same with supposed male privilege which, from a different point of view, can be seen not as privilege but as duty, imposition, or connected with those things.

“It is natural for them to give woman a subordinate situation; one might imagine, however, that they would consider her with the same benevolence as children and animals. But no. Afraid of woman, legislators organize her oppression.”

When this was the case, no argument. However, in this day and age legislation has defined us equally and given women more rights, privileges and concerns than men in many arenas. Are we, then, to consider men as an oppressed class? If we admit that oppression must be enacted through governmental force than how can women – any longer – be oppressed?

Women did used to be paid lower wages and it’s interesting to compare this, and the reaction, to modern concerns about immigration – especially coming on the back of UKIP doing well in the local elections. When women entered the workforce in larger numbers, they already had access to money – their husband’s – so the wages were not so important to them. They were willing, for a long time, to work for less than the going rate. This had a depressing effect on wages for men as well and, to their mind, threatened their jobs. Exactly the same complaints we see today about migrant workers, fear dressed up as racism just as fear was once dressed up as sexism.

Beauvoir often makes assertions about mens’ motivations and thoughts in a way that doesn’t seem, to me, to be justified and rather seems like speculation or dubious psychoanalysis. She ascribes huge meaning to silly things like boys being able to pee standing up, for example, a supposed empowerment that men have that made me laugh out loud but which was treated with great seriousness.

Another example is in thinking that in showing off his wife or girlfriend, revelling in and being validated by her affection, he is making a dominance display. She thinks a man ‘claims’ or ‘wins’ or ‘takes’ a woman rather than persuading, convincing and wooing and doesn’t recognise that it is her choice of him that gives him validation.

“Clearly man wants woman’s enslavement when fantasizing himself as a benefactor, liberator, or redeemer; if Sleeping Beauty is to be awakened, she must be sleeping; to have a captive princess, there must be ogres and dragons. And the greater man’s taste for difficult undertakings, the greater his pleasure in granting woman independence. Conquering is more fascinating than rescuing or giving. The average Western male’s ideal is a woman who freely submits to his domination, who does not accept his ideas without some discussion, but who yields to his reasoning, who intelligently resists but yields in the end.”

Why not yearn to be a hero? If you are liberating, helping or redeeming you are acting as an aid and supporter, trying to prove your worth. It’s not about the woman’s helplessness but her power as the gatekeeper to affection and self worth. The hero proves himself through his deeds in a manner more semantically rich, but no less demonstrative or deep than stags locking horns in front of a doe.

She says it herself, a man might want someone who submits – freely. Who accepts his arguments – because they’re sound. These, also, are about proving himself worthy.

I’ve never had much time for literary analysis, but the book contains a lot of it. It’s subjective analysis and I don’t especially want to spend time on it. I see it as being almost as pointless as the in depth analysis of pop culture today. The curtains were fucking blue.

Lived Experience

Oh, how I hate that phrase, along with ‘the personal is political’. I much prefer ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’ which, while considered rude, is really all you need to say when someone presents a story about their subjective personal experience as inalienable fact.

This renders much of this second half of the book irrelevant, as it is entirely subjective and personal though, again, it may be of some historical interest.

“Women of today are overthrowing the myth of femininity; they are beginning to affirm their independence concretely; but their success in living their human condition completely does not come easily. As they are brought up by women, in the heart of a feminine world, their normal destiny is marriage, which still subordinates them to man from a practical point of view; virile prestige is far from being eradicated: it still stands on solid economic and social bases.”

If the bases are solid then this is not prejudice or sexism but an emergent quality of social and economic interaction. Femininity, femaleness, does not seem to me to be a myth any more or less than maleness is. Our definitions and gender-suits (see fiction suit concept from Grant Morrison) may be too tight and too restrictive but I don’t think we can entirely eliminate innate, widespread qualities from our analysis.

Lest we forget, marriage is also the destiny of man.

Beauvoir also talks about the different experiences of childhood with girls being coddled for longer and boys being forced at a younger age to learn self reliance and stoicism. She presents this as an argument for patriarchy while I would hold it as an argument against. If this harms boys, as seems to be the argument, then it can hardly be patriarchal. Furthermore there are positives to having complimentary gender roles and a little stoicism can be a good thing, just as more developed empathy.

Menstruation is presented as traumatic, and doubtless it is, but boys suffer their own humiliations that stem from bodily changes from voices squeaking mid sentence to penis growth, mystery erections, wet dreams and learning to control and ignore a powerful sex drive. Puberty is not easy for either gender in any way.

“True, puberty transforms the girl’s body. It is more fragile than before; female organs are vulnerable, their functioning delicate; strange and uncomfortable, breasts are a burden; they remind her of their presence during strenuous exercise, they quiver, they ache. From here on, woman’s muscle force, endurance, and suppleness are inferior to man’s. Hormonal imbalances create nervous and vasomotor instability. Menstrual periods are painful: headaches, stiffness, and abdominal cramps make normal activities painful and even impossible; added to these discomforts are psychic problems; nervous and irritable, the woman frequently undergoes a state of semi-alienation each month; central control of the nervous and sympathetic systems is no longer assured; circulation problems and some autointoxications turn the body into a screen between the woman and the world, a burning fog that weighs on her, stifling her and separating her: experienced through this suffering and passive flesh, the entire universe is a burden too heavy to bear. Oppressed and submerged, she becomes a stranger to herself because she is a stranger to the rest of the world. Syntheses disintegrate, instants are no longer connected, others are recognized but only abstractly; and if reasoning and logic do remain intact, as in melancholic delirium, they are subordinated to passions that surge out of organic disorder.”

This is a boggling thing to read in a feminist book since these are the kinds of justifications misogynists give as to why women are ‘inferior’. Male hormones are no picnic either and they are unrelenting in their assault, constantly requiring control and will. This whole passage seems counterproductive if the aim is for equality and it presents the experience in a way that denigrates and belittles women in far stronger terms than I would ever care to do.

“The woman is penetrated and impregnated through the vagina; it becomes an erotic center uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape.”

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the genesis of the ‘all sex is rape’ meme. It seems obvious, to me, that in context this is a metaphor – one reused later in the book – but some seem to have taken it to heart. In context the word ‘rape’ here seems to mean in the sense of plunder and despoil, trying to describe the first act of sex as traumatic rather than as literal rape. Somewhat ironic given the use of this meaning in computer games and online discourse, meeting with stern feminist disapproval.

“Nothing forbids the male to act the master, to take inferior creatures: ancillary loves have always been tolerated, whereas the bourgeois woman who gives herself to a chauffeur or a gardener is socially degraded.”

I don’t know that this is true any more, at least not to the extent in that time. If anything it feels more that condemnation of straying men has increased and women’s ability to play the field has increased. NuFem is a force I see as archly conservative and censorious and anti (male) sex. A great deal of slut-shaming seems to come from some quarters of NuFem especially with relation to pornography and sex work (though I recognise that this is not universal). Even men who don’t cheat, men who use pornography for example, are subject to shaming which becomes more ridiculous as adult content becomes ever more ubiquitous and common a field of experience.

“Man commits a grave error when he attempts to impose his own rhythm on his partner and when he is determined to give her an orgasm: often he only manages to destroy the form of pleasure she was experiencing in her own way.”

That men care about their partner’s pleasure is surely a victory for feminism? The pressure on men to perform is now immense. If he can’t make his partner multiple orgasm he has failed as a lover and I am not entirely sure the women I know would agree that striving to make them cum is a bad thing.

“Marriage has always been presented in radically different ways for men and for women. The two sexes are necessary for each other, but this necessity has never fostered reciprocity; women have never constituted a caste establishing exchanges and contracts on an equal footing with men. Man is a socially autonomous and complete individual; he is regarded above all as a producer, and his existence is justified by the work he provides for the group; we have already seen the reasons why the reproductive and domestic role to which woman is confined has not guaranteed her an equal dignity.”

There is a failure here to see that this role is also an imposition upon the man and demanding a sacrifice from him. His productive capacity traditionally went to looking after his wife and family. His worth was only what he could provide. Her worth was more intrinsic, a woman valued simply by being a woman and she would live on the sweat of his brow. House work was, of course, work but compared to – say – coal mining or fishing, not the deadliest of occupations. None of this remains true and men and woman are no longer equal partners going into these marriages.

Women no longer need men. At least not directly.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. Men still need women, or at least want them.


While an interesting – if difficult – read, this book has not served to convince me of the existence of a modern, western patriarchy. Some of the points made in the book were surprising but it is really only of historical interest. It makes no real case for itself, no real argument, rather it is a series of anecdotes cobbled together into a polemic.

Much of it is outdated, it lacks ‘peer review’ from a male standpoint, it makes a lot of bald assumptions and rests on too many presuppositions. Despite all these flaws it is somehow regarded as a very important piece on feminist philosophy and the advent of second wave feminism. That such a foundational document is nothing more than anecdote, speculation and cod psychology I find deeply concerning.

Sorry, it didn’t have the desired effect.

One response to “Patriarchy & The Second Sex

  1. Pingback: Playing Wendy: Laurie Penny amongst the ‘Lost Boys’ | The AtheFist

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