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Existential Female

A new translation of the age-old question about Woman.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By EMILY SCHULTHEIS
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Take, for example, Beauvoir’s introduction, for which I have always had a special fondness. It is now aggressive and defensive, and the translators, while being careful not to stray into anachronistic vocabulary, have adopted a very 21st-century tone. The first time I read the introduction to The Second Sex I felt as if I were talking to a particularly insightful friend who was encouraging me to look at the way I live and think about what it means. When I read it this time, I felt as if I were being lectured. 

Simone de Beauvoir has always been controversial, and the aspect of The Second Sex that usually ruffles the most feathers is her overarching hostility to motherhood. From the time of pre-agricultural peoples, when man’s dominance was established, to the modern woman “trapped” in motherhood, women have been doomed, she writes, to be mothers. Never having been a mother herself, and picking at the emotional scabs of a complicated relationship with her own mother—revealed especially in her autobiographical Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—Beauvoir takes an approach to motherhood that is not only unsympathetic, but unyielding to any who would disagree with her existential arguments.

On a larger scale, her wide anarchist streak is on display here, as in her novels and memoirs, and her firm status as a leftist will be an obstacle for any reader approaching The Second Sex from the right. But at its heart The Second Sex is the chronicle of an individual struggling with her place in the world, identifying the impediments to her liberty, and striving toward the greatest possible freedom. And though we cannot and should not make freedom fries out of someone as ineffably French as Simone de Beauvoir, there is something inherently noble, and intrinsically dignified, about an individual’s quest for liberty. Her struggle is played out on a difficult, existential plane; but at the root of her project is a desire to transcend her situation, to reach for something higher and better, to attain the right to choose her own projects and strive toward her own goals in good faith. This account of one woman’s struggle for profound liberty makes The Second Sex relevant and infinitely valuable. Even if I prefer the earlier, Parshley translation.

Emily Schultheis is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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