In “The Second Sex” Simone de Beauvoir doesn’t use the term “gender”, however several statements in her work imply the distinction of “sex” and “gender” in the way that contemporary feminism applies. And what does the term “gender” mean? Joan Scott proposes two definitions for the term. She states that at first “gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes”, and secondly “gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” In this paper, I’ll be tracing Scott’s definitions together with some other feminist approaches that Scott examines, in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”.

Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” basically points out the cultural-social constitution of womanhood. De Beauvoir subsequently states that, “no biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” De Beauvoir first of all by indicating that womanhood isn’t constructed on economic factors, opposes Marxist Feminist criticisms which, as Scott summarizes, treat the concept of gender “as the by-product of changing economic structures” through claiming that “gender has had no independent analytic status of its own.” On the other hand de Beauvoir certainly undertakes a Marxist analysis when she asserts that liberation of women will bring about the true fulfillment of humanity, for both men and women, since Marx has said “the direct, natural, necessary relation of human creatures is the relation of man to woman.” Secondly, when she says that “the feminine” is described as the intermediate between male and eunuch; she prioritizes “the perceived differences between the sexes” which is the key aspect in Scott’s first definition of gender.

Simone de Beauvoir presents an example to illustrate the ways in which women’s selves disappear while men’s are existent and oppressive in daily conversations: “In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so you are a woman’; but I know that my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true’, thereby removing my subjective self from the argument.” Apart from the issue of selflessness and oppression of women in these utterances, the example de Beauvoir presents also remarks that even in “abstract” discussions, distinctions between manhood and womanhood come into play in order for men to dominate and oppress women. At this point, this implication of de Beauvoir’s example coincides with what Scott suggests as the second definition of gender as “a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated.” Additionally Scott states that “… we need to replace the notion that social power is unified, coherent, and centralized with something like Foucault’s concept of power as dispersed constellations of unequal relationships, discursively constituted in social ‘fields of force’.” In this respect de Beauvoir’s example points at a “field of force” where the man exercises power over the woman in the form of an utterance (as a discursively constituted way), as similar to what Foucault would suggest. Eventually, following Scott’s second definition of gender, one can conclude that de Beauvoir also underscores the role of gender as signifying relationships of power in society.

Scott furthermore declares the need for “refusal of fixed and permanent quality of binary opposition, a genuine historicization and deconstruction of the terms of sexual difference.” Besides rather than accepting the binary oppositions as self-evident or in the nature of things, one should revise and displace the hierarchical constructions. Despite the fact that de Beauvoir acknowledges the duality of “the Self” and “the Other” which sort of includes an existential binary opposition, she doesn’t take binary oppositions on sexes for granted, and she explicitly states that “this duality was not originally attached to the division of sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts.” De Beauvoir, by pointing to the fact that the duality between sexes wasn’t naturally established, intends to displace the established hierarchies of gender, which are at the same time taken as self-evident. Therefore following Scott, de Beauvoir’s work can be characterized as deconstructive.

Finally de Beauvoir criticizes “the uniformity” of the world in terms of sexual differences and she accuses “institutions” for creating uniformity which leads the world to boredom, while she brings forward “Christianity” and “the Harem” as examples for those institutions. In this regard Scott mentions of “normative concepts”, which “set forth interpretations of the meanings of the symbols,…(and) take the form of fixed binary opposition, categorically and unequivocally asserting the meaning of male and female, masculine and feminine” and also which depend on “the refusal or repression of alternative possibilities.” De Beauvoir’s emphasis on the need for multiplicity of differences as opposed to uniformity in terms of sexes and her wish of “differences in equality” to be actuated, posits an “alternative” approach against what Scott defines as “normativity” secured by “religious, educational, scientific, legal, and political doctrines” which are, in de Beauvoir’s terms, equivalent to “the institutions” inducing uniformity.
Works Cited
Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex (1949)” in Modern Feminisms: Political, Literary, Cultural, ed. Maggie Humm, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992, pp.44-50.
Joan Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” The American Historical Review, 1986, 91(5), pp. 1053-1075.
• Picture retrieved from