A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing at Elliot Bay when I overheard a woman trying to sell her used books. “Sorry. No WOOM-stud,” the employee told her.
I must have been in a book-browse-induced daze, because I thought this might be an obscure new side-category of novels, about Eastern European cowboy gigolos or something. The woman was as confused as I was. “No women’s studies,” he said. (Ah.) “They don’t sell.”
I’ll admit it. I’m a bad woman. Short of collecting books that I “should get around to eventually,” I’ve tended to avoid women’s studies. Most surprisingly, I’ve never read The Second Sex, even though I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a feminist and a fan (no, worshipper) of Simone de Beauvoir. I realized recently, though, that while I could tell you that Sartre called her “Beaver” and Nelson Algren was uncomfortable with her need for freedom, I could not tell you anything of substance about her famous philosophical work, published in 1949, and what many call the founding text of the ’60s-’70s feminist movement.
A copy of the book has been in my house for years, but I never seemed to want to pick it up. I figured I already knew what was in it. I was raised in the wake of said movement: My mom taught me to get a job not a man. She purposefully did not teach me how to cook or sew. She had “the talk” with me (complete with a mail-order kit and pamphlet) when I was 10. I didn’t know if the book would be illuminating (like, oh, I totally get my mom now!) or if I would be completely bored.
It’s 60 years old this year, so, what the hell, I decided to give it a read.
First thing I noticed: I felt uncomfortable reading it in public places. The tagline on the front is, “The first manifesto of the liberated woman.” No matter who you are, if you’re reading a book like this, you're doomed…
Young woman: Isn’t that cute?
Boomer woman: Nostalgic. "Shrill.”
Young man: Trying too hard.
Woman somewhere in between (me): Are you serious? You might as well be driving around in a Datsun blaring Helen Reddy.
I do have a peach, swirly-font 1970 edition, which gives me some comfort (i.e., I’m just reading this casually, people; it’s not for a class or anything). Apparently, Beauvoir shared my hesitation. She opens:
“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new.”
Once I knew she was on my side, that she was not going to preach at me or go into a bunch of confessional sexual stuff (well, at least not right away), I was on board.
The book is actually two books: “Facts and Myths” and “Women’s Life Today.” The second book is probably the most well-known (It opens with the oft-quoted, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”). For actual women’s studies majors, developmental psychologists, or molecular biologists, the first book is hopelessly out of date, I’m sure. But for knowledge generalists who can geek out on the lit crit and take old, unsourced stats and theories with a grain of salt, it’s a good read.
It’s a crazy hodge-podge of philosophy, psychology, literary analysis, sociology, opinion, and history—and I totally love that about it. And it’s not completely outdated. We still don’t have equal pay for equal work, and “liberated” women with careers are still generally expected to smile, look pretty, and have a lovely, tidy home.
Some of the portrayals of women are a little dated, but the time-capsule quality of a statement like this…
“Society in general—beginning with her respected parents—lies to her by praising the lofty values of love, devotion, the gift of herself…”
…can be enjoyable in a Mad Men, ha ha, “we did use to be like that” sort of way.
The translation is irritating. About 100 pages into Book II, I looked into it and found that it is famously bad , and it’s the only one available. I decided to stop wading through “The Formative Years” right around the “Sexual Initiation” chapter and wait for the new translation, which is in the works.
I have to say, it was a relief to put it back on the shelf. It isn’t often that I have a valid excuse to abandon a book. I could sell it, get another paperback out of my poor book-laden apartment, but I can’t. I’ll need it to compare the old translation to the new, of course.