I recently finished THE SECOND SEX by Simone de Beauvoir, which I had been "reading on" for more than a year. I adopted a system of reading chapters of it between other books after starting out great guns the summer of 2004, reading 200 pages and realizing that if I didn't do something to break it up, I would never finish it.
That is not to say that THE SECOND SEX is not a great book. It is. It's valuable. It's interesting. It's educational, not just about views of women in the first part of this century in Western culture, but also about the logical and writerly process that de Beauvoir uses to address such a massive topic: The topic of Woman; the topic, really of Woman as Other.
But there are issues with the translation that can't be ignored. If memory serves me, Parshley had trouble getting de Beauvoir to help him with his translation. Questions he directed to her went unanswered for months, so he not only translated the book, but cut large sections (yes, this 732-page version is abridged!) that he thought were not important, or were redundant. Parshley also was not a philosopher, but was a zoologist, and as such did not understand the depth of such existential and philosophical terms as "immanence." Once the translation was finished and published, de Beauvoir was furious with the results. Though Parshley can hardly be blamed given the situation in which he was working, it does make one wonder how much what one is reading resembles de Beauvoir's original ideas and objectives.
Considering her objectives, this leads me to one of my favorite quotes about THE SECOND SEX. Nelson Algren, the Chicago writer who was the longtime lover of de Beauvoir (with whom she traveled when she wrote America Day by Day; he was also the writer of The Man with the Golden Arm), said that when the book came out, there was much brou-haha, especially when 22,000 copies were sold in France the first week after it was published. Algren noted that de Beauvoir was the most reviled and the most beloved woman in Paris, and it was clear: "She meant it."
The book is quite logically organized, which makes it easy to pick up and put down (and to read bits of between other works). Part I: Destiny includes chapters on biology, psychoanalysis and historical materialism. The other parts of the book are: history, myths, the formative years, sitautions, justifications and toward liberation. De Beauvoir uses examples from myth, literature and doctor's case files to illustrate her positions. And her positions are more and less relevant today than they were in the 1940s when she wrote the book. The chapter on lesbians seesm less relevant, since she bases her understandings of the homosexual orientation on situational and envrionmental factors. However, I found her chapter on motherhood to be extremely cogent, as she deals with the issues of expectations of self-realization through children, the disappointments and the isolation of mothers, and the societal expectations of mothers of both girls and boys. And de Beauvoir notices the logical conflict between a society that lauds motherhood for women, but denies them a public voice and equal public standing. This is a typical style of argument for de Beauvoir, and I find her insight, her wisdom, her logic and her organization in this book to be impressive.
De Beauvoir writes, "One is not born a woman; one becomes one." I think it can be argued that she is not saying that female humans are born the same as male humans, because we all know, or are ourselves, people who were born with strong tradtional male or female traits inherently. Rather, after reading this large and complete work, I think she is saying that women are not born second-class citizens, they become them, through societal shaping, political pressure and self-monitoring. They become the Other because they start to believe they are. While I think we have made strides since THE SECOND SEX was written, reading this book nearly 70 years after it was written is a little upsetting: some of the saddest aspects of the life of the Other for women still ring true.