Some of us were unhappy when the NY Times’ first notice of the new translation of The Second Sex focused on Beauvoir’s body and her sexuality. Now there’s a review of the book that is supposedly an assessment of its intellectual merits.
Readers may find themselves, as I did, suspecting the particular reviewer, Francine du PLessix Gray, was not the best choice, despite her 1952 BA in philosophy from Barnard. Thus she says:
The other pivotal notion at the heart of “The Second Sex” — a more problematic one, which Beauvoir came to on her own — is her belief that, in Parshley’s translation, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This preposterous assertion, intended to bolster her argument that marriage and motherhood are institutions imposed by men to curb women’s freedom, will be denied by any mother who has seen her toddler son eagerly grab for a toy in the shape of a vehicle or a gun, while at the same time showing a total lack of interest in his sister’s cherished dolls. It has also been disputed by certain feminist scholars, who would argue that many gender differences are innate rather than acquired.
Mothers’ observations, acute though they may be, are not going to tell us what is carried by the genes and in utero hormones. The fact that some feminists would agree with Gray’s conclusions indicates the diversity of views within feminism, if not a uniform competence.
I don’t think the reviewer is actually hostile to Beavoir or feminism. But as her discussion of the “preposterous assertion” above indicates, she may not be engaged enough with the relevant issues. Further, she may be sufficiently in love with her gender role that she misses too much in what Beauvoir is saying:
“What a curse to be a woman!” Beauvoir writes, quoting Kierkegaard. “And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” No one has done more than Beauvoir to explain the conditions of that curse, and no one has more eloquently, irately challenged us to turn that curse into a blessing.