Often cited as the seminal text of modern feminist theory, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 publication, The Second Sex still deeply resonates with readers who seek to understand the pervasive oppression of women. The magnum opus of her long and prolific career as a writer and existential philosopher, The Second Sex offers both a sweeping history of women’s subjugation, and a compelling theoretical statement on the nature of being a woman. Women, de Beauvoir argues, are Other. “Humanity,” she writes, “is male and man defines woman not as herself but as relative to him…He is the Subject, the Absolute—she is the Other.”
In this Olio seminar, we will embark on a close reading of this groundbreaking work of philosophy and feminist theory, examining how the experience of being other shapes women’s relationship to the world around them, to the men in their lives, and perhaps most importantly, to themselves. For, if de Beauvoir is correct, women are not simply “othered,” objectified, and subjugated by society, women actually come to experience themselves as other—indeed, as non-selves, “doomed to immanence, shut off to the relative.” However, according to de Beauvoir, there is nothing natural or even inevitable about women’s status as the inferior other. In one, swift, brilliant statement she reminds us, “One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” In other words, we are not born with some true essential self, which will be revealed to us over time. Rather, it is through the act of living that we become a self, and create our sense of “I”. The process of becoming, we must remember, is never complete. Thus, though women may be born into a world that relegates us to the status of other, through the continual process of becoming, we might make our “escape from the sphere hitherto assigned to them.” Women, she argues, can achieve transcendence.
Class One: Facts and Myths (July 9th)
In our first meeting we will learn about the philosopher, focusing on what drove her to write this important work, and how the book’s publication changed feminist thought forever. We will begin by reading the book’s introduction, and the first two sections, “Destiny,” and “History”.
Class Two: The Lived Experience (July 16th)
Our second meeting will be devoted to parts four, five, and six, wherein de Beauvoir analyzes women as mothers, lovers, wives, and eventually, as non-women—the woman of old age.
Class Three: Criticisms (July 23rd)
In our third meeting, we depart from the text, and discuss the possible limitations of de Beauvoir’s work. We will read brief excerpts from other classic feminist texts, such as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes.”
Class Four: Liberation (July 30th)
For our last meeting, we will return to The Second Sex, reading part seven, “The Independent Woman.” We will analyze and debate de Beauvoir’s prescription for personal liberation. And, importantly, we will also use our final meeting to drink, eat, celebrate our eventual smashing of the patriarchy.
Think Olio is not about learning a new skill or adding credentials to your resume. It is about getting together with other people and expanding our worldview. It exists as a conduit for fruitful discussions, a dissent from the regurgitation of facts, and an embrace of new perspectives.