"Woman is a pain that never goes away." – Menander I, 130 BC
"Of all the wild animals, none can be found as harmful as women." – St. John Chrysostom, 386 AD
"It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women." - British Medical Association, 1878
These ideas, ranging from the ridiculous to the obscene, each held their place in history when Simone de Beauvoir penned The Second Sex. First published in France in 1949, her book challenged long-held beliefs about the treatment of women and the deeply rooted sexism impacting women of the time.
Beauvoir’s insightful and thorough analysis is so well-loved that The Second Sex is still studied in progressive colleges today. If you attend a liberal arts college with a curriculum based on great books, you can engage with Beauvoir’s work firsthand. You’ll be able to see just how her words have resonated with feminists of past and present.
Learning to Unmask the ‘Mystique’ with Beauvoir & Great Books Studies
At the core of The Second Sex is Beauvoir’s takedown of a “woman's nature.” She writes that the “divine, motherly nature of women” is not inherently feminine, but is instead a tool used by men to control women. She says that “the great historical defeat of the female sex” came from telling women they were naturally predisposed to focus on motherhood and femininity instead of politics, technology or anything else outside of home.
In great books studies, you will learn about how great works shaped broader cultural movements. In 1963, American writer Betty Friedan expanded on Beauvoir’s themes with her book The Feminine Mystique. It publicized the profound inequality and unhappiness of women in the 1950s and 1960s, and is widely acknowledged as sparking the second-wave feminist movement.
In the 1950s, Shimer’s vibrant campus shifted from women-only to coeducational
Friedan wrote that women’s unhappiness came from the difficulty of keeping up an image of feminine perfection, or “the feminine mystique.” While many women pursued higher education and careers in the 1960s, the same goals Beauvoir described as overwhelming and oppressive in the 1940s (the aim of getting married, being an elegant wife, a competent housekeeper, and an attentive mother) were still stopping many women from reaching their full potential.
Within the year of The Feminine Mystique’s publishing, women began taking to the streets in protest of social and political inequality and lawmakers heard their call. The movement saw the USA’s first commission on the status of women and the monumental Equal Pay Act of 1963.
Understanding How Beauvoir & Butler Break Traditional Gender Confines
In more recent years, Beauvoir’s views have been forwarded by Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble. Butler’s writing challenges the confines of traditional gender stereotypes and describes a now widely-accepted theory of “gender performativity.” If you study gender, feminist philosophy, or queer theory along with your great books foundations, you’ll often encounter this concept.
Butler sees The Second Sex as the starting point for a radical understanding of gender. Beauvoir's claim that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” establishes that gender isn’t inherent, but “gradually acquired.” Girls learn how to perform femininity and boys learn how to perform masculinity, making gender more social than biological.
In Gender Trouble, Butler describes the distinction between sex and gender; sex being biological and gender being socially imposed. This work is of vital importance to society’s current understanding of queer and transgender issues—which some consider to be feminism’s latest frontier.
Shimer students perform the contemporary feminist play, ‘The Vagina Monologues’
If you’re passionate about feminism, equal rights, women’s history, or politics in general, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex deserves a place on your bookshelf.
Would you like to study great books at one of the best liberal arts colleges Chicago has to offer?
Visit Shimer to begin today.