Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999


Nancy Bauer

Beauvoir’s First Philosophy, The Second Sex

and the Third Wave

Readers of The Second Sex, even highly sympathetic ones, often accuse Simone de Beauvoir of eliding the concept „woman“ with a very specific picture of what it means to be a white, bourgeois female in contemporary Western culture. This charge is ordinarily linked to the observation—sometimes critical, sometimes friendly—that The Second Sex is riddled with contradictions, contradictions of which, it is repeatedly underscored, Beauvoir herself appears to have been profoundly unaware.[1]The implication, often, is that at best what The Second Sex offers us is an opportunity to thresh the dross of ethnocentrism, class-bias, and racism—not to mention „masculinism“— from the usable kernels of Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s „situation.“A particularly negative version of this view of Beauvoir is memorably expressed in Elizabeth Spelman’s merciless attack on The Second Sex in her book Inessential Woman.Beauvoir, Spelman claims, runs roughshod over „the populations she contrasts to ‘women’“ and doesn't reflect on what her own theoretical perspective strongly suggests and what her own language mirrors:namely, that different females are constructed into different kinds of ‘women’; that under some conditions certain females count as ‘women,’ others don’t (68).

If there is any merit in this charge—and, given the range of distinguished readers of Beauvoir who at least sympathize with Spelman’s sense that Beauvoir’s text teeters precipitously on an unstable foundation of contradictions, there must be—then it is no wonder that you will not find The Second Sex front and center on the desks of most third-wave feminist philosophers.We third-wavers are in the challenging (in a stingy mood, you might even say self-contradictory) position of wishing to do philosophy—that is, at some level or other to make generalizations about the way things are with women—but we wish to do it precisely without making generalizations about The Way Things Are With Women.That is to say, we wish to make some generalizations, only not the kind that philosophers have traditionally made.

It seems to me that the only way for this sort of position to make sense is for us to realize that what it calls for is not merely new philosophical methods and strategies but in fact a serious rethinking of what philosophy is—of what counts as generalization or universalization and of what features of generalization and universalization do the work that philosophical work has traditionally done, whatever that work on inspection turns out to be.What I want to claim here is that, ironically enough, perhaps the central achievement of The Second Sex—an achievement, by the way, of which I think Beauvoir was very much aware—is precisely this rethinking of what philosophy is; and thus there’s no better way that I know of for us third-wave feminist philosophers to figure out how to take particular individual and community characteristics seriously in our work than to understand what Beauvoir is doing in The Second Sex.

In holding this view I am not denying or overlooking the moments in the book that other philosophers have conceptualized primarily in terms of the notion of „contradiction.“Rather, I wish to account for these moments by rethinking what exactly it is that The Second Sex achieves at the level (on my view, its primary level) of advancing our understanding of what philosophy can and ought to aspire to be.In a longer piece of work that is prefaced by a version of the present paper, I work out in detail the claim that Beauvoir’s landmark book on women constitutes nothing less than a challenge to philosophy to transform itself, internally and from the ground up.And I trace the astonishing power that The Second Sex has had as a feminist and humanist document precisely to Beauvoir’s calling for and forging of this new conception of philosophy.Here, my goal is simply to motivate the idea that we third-wave feminists have set a task for ourselves that requires our forging a new conception of philosophy and to indicate why Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is a promising place to begin our search.

The way I’m going to precede in the paper is by taking a very brief look at what I take to be four of the most familiar strategies for doing feminist philosophy and to say something about why none is quite up to the task at hand.At the end of the paper, I will try at least to indicate why, in light of the various problems with these other strategies, a return to Beauvoir can look significantly more promising.

I.Four Strategies

The first feminist-philosophical strategy I will discuss is that of using philosophy to justify particular feminist political positions.I’m thinking here mainly of work by feminists in the domain of applied ethics, particularly work on social issues primarily affecting women in our culture, such as birth control, abortion, the family, sexual discrimination and harassment, and rape.In this sort of work, philosophy is regarded as something like a set of conceptual tools, and the goal is to use these tools to work up arguments to fortify feminism.Now, an obvious worry about this approach, at least from the perspective of what’s motivating my inquiry, is that there’s no guarantee either that traditional philosophical analysis will produce results that coincide with a person’s experience of sexism or that a commitment to seeing this experience as specifically an experience of something called sexism is compatible with the rigorous application of traditional philosophical methods of analysis.There’s no guaranteeing, in other words, that philosophy will give you the „right“ feminist answer, whatever you conceive that to be, or that the right feminist answer will be recognizably philosophical.When philosophy does yield the right feminist answer, it’s going to be a coincidence.

Furthermore, even when we happen upon such a coincidence it’s not at all clear that the result will actually matter in the real world.This is a point that Richard Rorty presses in a 1990 Tanner lecture of his called „Feminism and Pragmatism.“Like feminist and other philosophers who do applied ethics, Rorty conceives of philosophy as consisting in a set of conceptual tools.But he thinks that these tools are essentially useless for feminists, who need to remember, he says, that they are not just tinkering with the current social order but rather are engaged in a utopian movement for social and political change.And he argues quite forcefully that the best way to get things to change is not to waste time trying to provide philosophical arguments that change is necessary.This is because what’s transfixing sexist people is not that they are lacking arguments, per se, for feminist views but that their own sexist views of the world are deeply entrenched.Rorty’s position is that this entrenchment is in large part the product of the way we currently speak about the world, including the way we currently construct philosophical arguments.So what’s needed to overturn sexism is not more of these arguments but rather the creation of conditions under which what Rorty calls a „new idiom“ is likely to emerge.This new idiom, this new way of speaking, is going to be the product not of group efforts but rather of inspired individuals, whom Rorty calls „prophets.“He’s thinking here of people like Catharine MacKinnon, whose development of the notion of sexual harassment, for example, has indeed led to dramatic changes in the terms in which we speak and think about the meaning of sex difference in our culture.

If you agree that philosophy is just a set of tools used to construct arguments, then it’s going to be hard to counter Rorty’s pessimism about philosophy’s usefulness for feminism.But why think of philosophy this way?Why can’t philosophy be, for example, a form of what Rorty calls prophecy?This is a way of asking why Rorty can’t entertain the possibility that MacKinnon, his paradigmatic feminist prophet, might be tapping into power that is deeply philosophical precisely at certain high rhetorical moments in her work.In the middle of his essay Rorty scolds MacKinnon for defining feminism as the belief „that women are human beings in truth but not in social reality“(Rorty, 236, quoting MacKinnon in Feminism Unmodified, 126). The problem here on Rorty’s view is that in her appeal to „truth“ MacKinnon seems to lower herself, as it were, to the level of metaphysical debate, a level on which, Rorty famously contends, there is a lot of blather which obscures the fact that the way things are is merely a matter of the way we choose to describe them.Furthermore, Rorty claims, MacKinnon’s indulging in the language of metaphysics weakens the rhetorical radicality of her point, which would be better expressed, presumably, by the stark declaration that „women are not human beings.“

What Rorty fails to see is that for MacKinnon, a woman, to declare that she both is and is not a human being seems patently of philosophical interest.Her declaration raises questions about what it means to claim that one is not treated as a human being, about what it is to identify oneself as a human being while the culture denies you this status, about what it is to use speech in order to observe that you aren’t acknowledged as a speaking being.It is precisely these sorts of questions—questions, I’m claiming, that philosophy ought to recognize as falling within its purview—that, I wish to show, a genuinely inclusive feminist philosophy gives us the space to pose.But in order to see what I’m talking about, you have to be open to the possibility of a less impoverished conception of philosophy than Rorty has.To the extent that I share Rorty’s enthusiasm for MacKinnon, it is precisely because her work provides glimpses of what a richer conception of philosophy might look like.And yet these moments are embedded in writing that sees itself to be endlessly warding off philosophy—as, of course, its admirer Rorty’s does.An example of this warding offis to be found in MacKinnon’s insistence on the foundational truth of some of her most controversial ideas.„Objectivity,“ she flatly declares, for example, „is the epistemological stance of which objectification [of women] is the social process“ (Toward a Feminist Theory, 114). Such sentences implicitly convey a refusal of philosophy, which makes MacKinnon’s writing in general a poor candidate for helping people genuinely interested in doing feminist philosophy to figure out how to do so without denying the sorts of injustices that MacKinnon is concerned to expose.

In her blunt refusal even to consider the viability of the philosophical notion of objectivity, MacKinnon exposes herself to the wrath of Martha Nussbaum, who in an infamous essay that appeared a half-dozen years ago in The New York Review of Books limned what for us will be a second strategy, one closely related to the first, for doing feminist philosophy.The purpose of Nussbaum’s essay is to launch a polemic against feminists who question the usefulness of traditional philosophy for feminism and to claim, moreover, that feminists must use traditional philosophical methods to fight sexism.According to Nussbaum the entrenchment of sexism in our culture is ensured by what she calls „convention“ and „habit,“ and its extirpation requires fighting these things with the weapon that’s most effective against them, namely, with what she calls „reason.“If habit is in part responsible for sexism, and if reason is our best weapon against habit, then it follows that philosophy as we know it is not only useful for feminism, but absolutely essential to it.In her essay, which in large part takes the form of a polemic against feminists who question the usefulness of traditional philosophy for feminism, Nussbaum goes so far as to claim that the rejection by feminists of traditional philosophical methods „is a perilous theoretical position for feminists, and leaves them without the resources to make a convincing radical critique of unjust societies“ (62).These resources, she claims, are to be found in doing philosophy exactly the way it has always been done, only better.As she puts it near the conclusion of her essay,

[D]oing feminist philosophy is not really something different from doing philosophy…. To do feminist philosophy is simply to get on with the tough work of theorizing in a rigorous and thoroughgoing way, but without the blind spots, the ignorance of fact, and the moral obtuseness that have characterized much philosophical thought about women and sex and the family and ethics in the male-dominated academy (62).

Now, I take it that no one would claim that the purging from philosophy of blind spots, ignorance of fact, and moral obtuseness would be a bad thing.But what is it about feminism that should or could give us cause to imagine its practitioners to be less prone to blind spots, ignorance of fact, and moral obtuseness than anyone else?[2]This is a pressing question for Nussbaum since, in the early pages of her essay she implies that those feminists who question, e.g., the value-neutrality of philosophy’s commitment to things like reason and objectivity—feminists, that is, like MacKinnon—are themselves hopelessly blind, ignorant, and obtuse.And yet these feminists whom Nussbaum excoriates see themselves as doing precisely what Nussbaum recommends:they see themselves as attempting to work against the blind spots, ignorance of fact, and moral obtuseness one finds running through traditional philosophical work.They just see this blinds spots, etc., in a different, more fundamental, place from the place Nussbaum sees them.Nussbaum herself seems blinded to the Kant’s insight that philosophy can criticize itself, and at the deepest levels, and still be deeply philosophical.And she also seems blind to the taking up of this idea by Hegel and then by Marx, both of whom saw that certain people in certain positions—masters, for example, or capitalists—might be systematically blinded to the truth, so that their scanning their worldviews for mistakes would never suffice to reveal the basic injustice of their power. 

This insight, especially in its Marxist form, is behind the third feminist philosophical strategy that I will quickly survey today, namely, that of working from what is called a „feminist standpoint.“Feminist standpoint philosophy relies on the assumption that perfect objectivity is impossible and bases itself on the idea that we therefore need to develop and proceed philosophically from a subjective feminine or feminist stance.This stance, it is claimed, will, paradoxically, be more objective, in the sense of providing a better vista on the current state of affairs, than any male or masculinist stance.The idea of a feminist standpoint derives, of course, from Marx’s distinction between the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, whose self-interest blinds them to the truth, and the standpoint of the proletariat, who, Marx famously argues, are structurally in a better position to see things as they really are.One of the first and most influential advocates of feminist standpoint philosophy, Nancy Hartsock, put the point this way in an article of a couple of decades ago:

[L]ike the lives of proletarians according to Marxian theory, women’s lives make available a particular and privileged vantage point on male supremacy, a vantage point which can ground a powerful critique of the phallocratic institutions and ideology which constitute the capitalist form of patriarchy (Hartsock, 284).

Whether or not one finds Marx’s claims about the proletariat convincing, and whether or not one buys the idea that the only alternative to disavowing one’s partiality is to proceed from it, Hartsock’s use of Marx’s model to justify privileging a feminist philosophical standpoint raises certain very difficult questions.What, for example, is to count as a „feminist“ standpoint?Who decides?How can we tell the difference between an appropriately partial standpoint and one that is inappropriately so?When do we know that the feminist standpoint is no longer necessary, which is to ask, are there special circumstances under which such a standpoint is necessary and others under which it is not? Even if we could answer these questions, one might be dubious about Hartsock’s claim, in the lines I just cited, that „women’s lives make available a particular and privileged vantage point on male supremacy.“Do women’s lives have enough in common with one another to allow us to make claims about a privileged vantage point they make available?Is this vantage point more privileged than the vantage point of certain men oppressed by the culture, for example, men of color or gay men?Why privilege something called the „feminist“ standpoint, if indeed it makes sense to talk about such a standpoint, more than that of any other movement of oppressed peoples?

These questions are of course at the forefront of feminism’s third wave, which is why feminist standpoint philosophy is distinctly out of favor these days.The problem, specifically, with feminist-standpoint philosophy is that it seems to be predicated on a metaphysical commitment to the idea that there is a deep and systematic difference between men and women.[3]That is, in its theoretical foundations it is hopelessly essentialist—to use the term common in feminist circles.Thus, another way of putting the task of third-wave feminism is this:we need to figure out how to talk about the oppression of women without lapsing into essentialism.This, I think, is surprisingly hard to do.For once the terms of the debate have come under the sway of metaphysics, once, that is, one feels obliged to undergird one’s feminist politics with a philosophical account of the concept „woman,“ then there’s no way, or at least no obvious way, back to the level of intuition, back to the sheer sense of feeling oppressed on the basis of your sex.If you try to provide such an account, then invariably there will be women who will deny that your account is accurate.If you say that these dissenting women do not really know what means to be a woman, you commit a crime that most feminists agree is quintessentially sexist: the tellingly named crime of paternalism.If, on the other hand, you simply deny flat out that you can give a metaphysical account of the concept „woman,“ on the grounds that women are not essentially like one another in any respect—a position that, it’s important to notice, entails a commitment to your thinking that the idea of giving such an account is at least coherent—then you leave yourself with a problem about how to justify a politics based on the oppression of women.This is the problem that hamstrings those opponents of essentialism who are identified in the current jargon as „anti-essentialists.“The debate between these two groups now dominates feminist theory.It’s a skeptical debate over the question, to put it plainly, of whether and in what sense „women“ (whatever that term means) exist.

It is the attempt to articulate an anti-essentialist position over and against the implied essentialism of feminist standpoint philosophy that constitutes the fourth potential kind of approach to feminist philosophy that I’m going to consider in this paper.A watershed moment for the development of an anti-essentialist feminist philosophy was the publication in 1990 of the book Gender Trouble by Judith Butler.Butler rejects the common view that the division of human beings into two biological sexes, let alone two genders, is in any sense natural.She contests the very tendency for human beings to conceive of themselves as necessarily either male or female—as, in other words, destined to identify themselves with one or the other pole of an inevitable binary opposition between two sexes.Her view is that biological sex is essentially like biological hair color:there’s a natural continuum, and how we choose to see that continuum is not determined by anything inherent to it.Thus, there’s nothing called „sex“ or „gender“ that precedes our own concepts.We don’t apply concepts of maleness or masculinity or femaleness or femininity to some set of qualities that’s already there.Indeed, Butler wants to say that our application of these concepts in a very real sense creates what then in retrospect appears to have been there already.And our failure to see that our sex and gender norms are constructed rather than natural—that, for example, there’s no such thing as a „woman“ apart from our construction of the concept—is the source of our systematic oppression.

But if the very category „woman“ is inherently oppressive, then identifying yourself as a woman ought to have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing your—and everyone else’s—systematic oppression.So how, if we are Butlerians, can we coherently base our feminist politics on the fact of our womanhood?Butler has suggested that it’s perfectly reasonable to „deploy“ the concept woman strategically in certain political contexts, even if the concept is theoretically suspect.[4]But this means that for her there needs to be some sort of significant gap between our politics and our philosophy.At the level of the philosophy, we have to deny that there’s any such thing as a woman.And so Butler’s theory paradoxically can’t reach down to the level of the experience that gives rise to feminism—namely, the sense of being oppressed because you are something called a woman.Once again, the feminist and philosophical moments do not coincide.

Butler’s work dramatizes why it’s so difficult to do something we can unabashedly call feminist philosophy.The problem, we can now say, is how to operate simultaneously at the level of our ordinary concepts—the level, after all, on which feminism situates itself—and at the level of philosophy, where these ordinary concepts are put in question.Now, it may strike you that by definition a moment can’t be both feminist in an everyday sense and philosophical at the same time—that the everyday is to be delimited, if you will, as exactly that which isn’t philosophy.But I’m suggesting that this paradox has to be overcome in order for there to be a genuine resolution to the apparent contradiction in the concept of feminist philosophy.And we’re now at a point at which it’s possible for me to begin to indicate why I find a potential candidate for this resolution in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

II.Beauvoir’s Model

We get a glimpse of Beauvoir’s willingness to keep a certain relationship between the everyday and the metaphysical in play in the early pages of the Introduction to The Second Sex, particularly at the following juncture.Beauvoir writes: 

If her female function does not suffice to define woman, if we refuse also to explain her by „the eternal feminine“ and if nevertheless we admit that, at least for the time being, there are women on the earth, we then have to ask the question:what is a woman?

The very posing of the problem immediately suggests to me a first response.It is significant that I pose it.A man would never have the idea of writing a book on the singular situation that men occupy in humanity.If I want to define myself, I am obliged first off to declare:„I am a woman“; this truth constitutes the foundation from which all other assertions will take off (LDS 13-14, my translation).

Here we see Beauvoir launching her inquiry by posing what appears to be a metaphysical question—What is a woman?—and then immediately suggesting an everyday answer:I am.This places a certain limit on what is going to count as an acceptable philosophical response to the question:it must account for Beauvoir’s own experience of herself as what is called a woman.But notice that this limit does not come from Beauvoir’s politics.Indeed, many women were embarrassed that Beauvoir wouldn’t call herself a feminist until more than 25 years had passed since the publication of The Second Sex in 1949 had played a key role in launching the feminist movement.Rather, the limit on what will count as an answer to the philosophical question „What is a woman?“ comes from our everyday criteria in using this word.That is to say, it’s not a political position that constrains Beauvoir’s philosophical investigation, but rather her everyday experience, her experience as a woman—her finding herself bound to identify herself as what the word „woman“ names, whatever it names.

For Beauvoir, then, no answer to the metaphysical question „What is a woman?“ will suffice that does not acknowledge the origins of this question in her ordinary sense of herself as, in the first instance, before all else, a woman.Because her philosophical inquiry into the question of sex difference is tethered from the start to her desire to understand her everyday identity as a woman, any evolution of this question into a different one—let’s say, a purely metaphysical one—is, at least, checked.It’s as if she’s keeping the investigation on track by insisting on what you might call its existential as well as its philosophical import.

Beauvoir’s attention to the simple fact that she is an instance of what a woman is means that part of her investigation will be an investigation of what it is to claim to be a representative instance of what is called a woman.But it also means that this investigation will have to answer to this particular claim to be a woman, made by this particular woman.In philosophizing as she does, Beauvoir is laying her own identity on the line, not just by evincing a willingness for philosophy to effect a transformation of this identity, but more importantly by offering nothing less than herself as the object of a philosophical investigation.By personalizing the philosophical question of sex difference in this way, she is able to avoid the terms of the essentialism/anti-essentialism debate.She doesn’t ask, Is there an essential similarity among women and an essential difference between the sexes? — but rather, What is to be made of the fact that I am no better or worse instance of a woman than anyone else who feels picked out by that term?I’m claiming that this is both a feminist and a philosophical question.

The reason that Beauvoir is in a position to ask this question is that she conceives of philosophy not as a set of tools or methods or problems or texts or anything else fixed, but rather as a mode of self-transformation and self-expression that stands or falls at one and the same time on its uniqueness—on, if you will, its originality, or particularity—and on its representativeness.Beauvoir’s model for philosophizing about sex difference serves the interests of third-wave feminists insofar as she insists on the rock-bottom importance of the expression of particular voices.And from the point of view of philosophy, her model offers a way to tether one's thought to its motivating origins—to keep it from straying away from its own interests.The model happens to come from a text that begot a political movement.Even if that's not quite an accident, you don't have to take an interest in the preoccupations of third-wave feminism in order to take an interest in the model.But if you already have such an interest—let's say because you're a woman trying to be both a feminist and a philosopher, and you want to make sense of the way your colleagues are inclined to inflect what you have to say—then discovering this model might feel, for the first time, like an invitation to speak.




Arp, Kristana. „Beauvoir’s Concept of Bodily Alienation.“ In Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1995.

Bauer, Nancy. First Philosophy and the Second Sex: Simone de Beauvoir’s Recounting of Woman. New York:Columbia UP, 2000.
Beauvoir, Simone de.Le Deuxième Sexe.2 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1949.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:Routledge, 1990.
----------.„Response to Bordo’s ‘Feminist Skepticism and the „Maleness“ of Philosophy.’“Hypatia, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 162-165.
Deutscher, Penelope. Yielding Gender: Feminism, Deconstruction and the History of Philosophy. New York:Routledge, 1997.
Evans, Mary.Simone de Beauvoir:A Feminist Mandarin.New York: Tavistock, 1985.
Gatens, Moira.Feminism and Philosophy: Perspectives on Difference and Equality. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1991.
Hartsock, Nancy. „The Feminist Standpoint:Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism“ In Discovering Reality:Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Holland:D. Reidel, 1983): 283-310.
Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill.Ithaca:Cornell UP, 1985.
Le Doeuff, Michèle.Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc.Cambridge:Blackwell, 1991.
MacKinnon, Catharine. Feminism Unmodified:Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA:Harvard UP, 1987.
----------.Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Cambridge, MA:Harvard UP, 1989.
Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir:  The Making of an Intellectual Woman.Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.
Nussbaum, Martha.„Feminists and Philosophy.“ The New York Review of Books, October 20, 1994: 59-63.
Rorty, Richard. „Feminism and Pragmatism.“Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 231-258.
Spelman, Elizabeth V. Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston:Beacon, 1988.


[1] Various inflections of the idea that Beauvoir contradicts herself are to be found in the work of, for example, Kristana Arp, Toril Moi, Penelope Deutscher, Moira Gatens, Michèle Le Doeuff, and Mary Evans.

[2]The idea that we tend to develop blind spots precisely when we are trying hardest to see is at the heart of Luce Irigaray’s tour de force reading of Freud’s paper „Femininity“ in her essay „The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,“ the lead piece of writing in her Speculum of the Other Woman

[3]At this juncture in this paper I must, because of space limitations, severely condense a set of thoughts on this subject that I articulate in more detail elsewhere (e.g., in my First Philosophy and The Second Sex:Simone de Beauvoir’s Recounting of Woman).What I lack the space to do here, in particular, is to justify the idea, central to my point here, that feminist-standpoint theory ought to be seen as resting on a metaphysical picture of sex difference.Standpoint theorists can—and have—argued that one needn’t construe sex difference in biological or metaphysical terms in order to support the notion of a feminist standpoint.(Indeed, Marx’s notion of the standpoint of the proletariat is precisely predicated on the idea that the proletariat itself is an historical, not an eternal, phenomenon.)In my book, I try to show that, and why, standpoint theorists tend to be unable to avoid the temptation to elide the concept „feminist“ with the concept „woman“ and to make essentialist claims about the latter.

[4]E.g., in her „Response to Bordo.“