With some books, reading the table of contents is sufficient. Merely by knowing the topics that are covered within the bounds of a book, an educated person can glean the kinds of arguments made, the overall gestalt of the discourse. Some books are quite explicit about this, while others require a more subtle reading between the lines. Sometimes, it is a mixture between the two, where a retroactive glance (perchance to find a specific section) reveals that it was all there all along, plain for everyone with eyes to see. Some books are meant to open those eyes, and the Second Sex is definitely one such book.
To be sure, “The point of view of historical materialism” might not strike the casual reader as a key heading at first glance, but retroactively it stands out as a significant keystone. So too does the headings listed under the keyword “situation”: The married woman; The mother; Social life; Prostitutes and hetaeras; From maturity to old age; Woman’s situation and character. The instant, intuitive takeaway from this string of words is that this is a book about women. The retroactive, even more intuitive takeaway is that this is a no-nonsense, materialist book about women. And about how everything else is not about women.
Reading de Beauvoir – the aforementioned chapter in particular – is a tour the force introduction into gender dynamics. A marriage is not just something that happens once a young man finds a suitable woman to settle down with; it is quite literally the determining factor with regards to how one’s life trajectory will shape itself over the coming (possible remaining) decades. Becoming pregnant is not just a cute period of time preceding parenthood filled with anecdotes about ice cream; it is quite literally a matter of life and death, where complications could prove fatal to mother and child both. The following period of being a mother – at home, unpaid, isolated – is not an unproblematic given either. At every stage of life, de Beauvoir takes womanhood to task and shows it to be a constant struggle under unfair conditions against the full brunt of social expectations. All this in a no-nonsense, straightforward way which would require more effort to misunderstand than to comprehend.
The key to understanding the significance of the Second Sex is to know that this – any of it – was simply not done before she did it. Like any other thing that is simply not done, it had been done with regularity and alacrity since time immemorial. It had also been swept under the rug, like so many other embarrassing official secrets one simply does not speak about. Everyone knows it, everyone does it, but no one speaks about it. Until now, in unequivocal terms. Now there is a book which documents it all, for everyone to see. The cat is firmly out of the bag.
The key to understanding the backlash to the book – and indeed to feminism in general – is to see it as an attempt to get the cat into the bag again. To return to a state of blissful willful ignorance, where women’s issues were pushed aside and delegated to those it belonged: women. Women’s issues were private, personal issues, and therefore it was categorically wrong to seek public recourse to solve these problems, no matter how systematically recurring they were. Things were fine the way they were, when women grinned and bore it in silence. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Definitely don’t voice your long-held discomfort using the new vocabulary gained from having them formulated in a book.
Things have gotten better since the book’s publication in 1949. Some progress has been managed in the seventy years since then. But it would be a mistake to think this dynamic a solved issue. Even now, gender studies is seen as an optional extra, something one does above and beyond the actual work, the things that matter. Bringing up the very real material consequences of actually existing policies that primarily affect women is still seen as a minor speed bump, an inconvenience. An embarrassment, albeit a publicly known one. Everyone knows it, everyone does it. But to speak of it?
That is simply not done. Not even in 2019.