‘For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it.’ Often quoted as they are, these opening sentences of The Second Sex can still amaze. Yet on reflection one can come to agree with their author in some sense, or at least to see what she meant. For the subterranean forces that were to erupt as modern feminism were still so far buried in 1949 that their rumblings were scarcely audible even to the more sensitive ear; and what Simone de Beauvoir then meant by ‘feminism’ was a surface discourse about a segment of reality supposedly so culturally marginal that ‘to spill more ink on it’ might well have seemed disproportionate—the mark of some intellectual obsession or lack of balance.

If today these words of apology seem anachronistic to the point of quaintness, then it is the work they preface which more than any other has been responsible. This is the measure of de Beauvoir’s achievement for feminism. One cannot help feeling, moreover—and it is a further twist in the irony—that had she focused more narrowly on ‘woman’, or spilt her ink exclusively there, the enterprise of The Second Sex might not have meant so much to so many, nor occupied so ‘founding a role in a movement she herself was only to join’ around her sixtieth year. For the intellectual appetite, wide learning and breadth of vision which went to make that work so uniquely influential in character, are the same qualities which have always made her seek more registers than that of ‘women’s studies’ alone.

Indeed, what one values in her work as much as any discussion of feminism, is the record she provides of a life as it is lived: her capturing of the joys and miseries of living out her span in a world of infinite potential, but under the constraints of limited time and perishable flesh. At the same time, the sheer volume of her fiction and writings on topics other than gender is a reminder that the latter was never the sole—nor even always a central—thematic of her work.

It is this integration of more specifically feminist interests with other studies which has recommended her to many of her readers. And the same might be said of the stance on feminism itself which she thereby embodies, equivocal as it is between two contrary but equally compelling assertions of identity: ‘I am a woman’—‘I simply am’. But it is the sustained expression in her work of this ‘woman–person’ doublet which has also resulted in a compartmentalizing tendency in the commentary upon it. De Beauvoir’s fiction, her existentialism, her politics and her writing on women have all received extensive treatment;footnote1 but her work as a whole has not hitherto been submitted to a distinctively feminist scrutiny. Of course, it is not just the multifaceted nature of de Beauvoir’s contribution which is responsible for that, but the temporal anomaly of The Second Sex—its ‘prehistoric’ status, as it were, relative to the movement of modern feminism. The vexed issue of Sartre’s influence has also made objective feminist assessment that much harder. As Michel Le Doeuff has suggested, it is one thing for Sartre to promise at the time of de Beauvoir’s aggregation: ‘From now on I will take you in hand’, and another—and much more difficult to understand—for de Beauvoir to relate the episode years later without a hint of critical hindsight, even after writing The Second Sex.footnote2 These difficulties have to be faced. Only an ultra-feminism with no real grip on de Beauvoir would attempt to accommodate her ‘Sartreanism’ by pretending it did not exist. Equally to be resisted, however, is the converse attempt to circumvent her femininity—the route taken by those like Bieber who think they are complimenting de Beauvoir by ‘forgetting’ about her sex.footnote3

The works under reviewfootnote4 here avoid both errors. More importantly, they also make good the absence of any extended feminist critique. They are thus in refreshing contrast to academic recuperations of de Beauvoir, and attempts to restore her to ‘honorific male’ respectability. Mary Evans has written a timely and readable biography which for the first time discusses de Beauvoir’s work in the light of the divergent currents of argument comprising contemporary feminism. Coming hard on its heels, Judith Okely’s more personal assessment is less comprehensive but sets itself a similar critical task.

Both authors are sensitive to the difficulties of conducting this kind of ‘retrospection’ from within a continuing and complex debate upon so exceptional a figure as de Beauvoir, and both adopt distinctive strategies to accommodate them. On the whole the less embarrassed by the undertaking, Evans confronts the ‘problem’ de Beauvoir poses headon by questioning in what sense, if any at all, she can be reckoned a feminist. Neither in virtue of the fact that she wrote extensively about women, nor on grounds of her ambition and achievement, can she qualify, says Evans. For by both criteria many could be termed ‘feminist’ who have no particular concern for the social status of women or commitment to their emancipation. Moreover, even where de Beauvoir is explicitly addressing those issues which contemporary feminism has made its own, she is guilty, according to Evans, of imbuing her argument with the very patriarchal values and habits of mind that feminists would now question and condemn. ‘Her uncritical belief in what she describes as rationality’, argues Evans, ‘her negation and denial of various forms of female experience, her tacit assumption that paid work and contraception are the two keys to the absolute freedom of womankind, all suggest a set of values that place a major importance on living like a childless, rather singular employed man.’ Thus, though de Beauvoir accepts the essential thesis of the subordination of women, her message is confusing: ‘reject subordination as a woman by rejecting traditional femininity and taking on male assumptions and values’.footnote5 For Evans, then, any assessment of de Beauvoir’s contribution to feminism necessarily involves an attempt to define the nature and goals of the latter. This, however, she never really undertakes to do; but then, on the other hand, neither does she suspend judgement on de Beauvoir, but proceeds without much more ado to associate her with ‘bourgeois feminism’ (a position she briskly denounces as no more capable of offering a challenge to Western society than its antithesis in ‘maternal thinking’).footnote6 What is curiously absent from the discussion is any reference to de Beauvoir’s own, rather straightforward definition of ‘feminism’ as ‘fighting on specifically feminist issues independently of the class struggle’.footnote7 Consistently with that definition, de Beauvoir has argued that she has not been a ‘feminist’ for most of her life, and only became one through her association with the mlf in 1971.footnote8

In contrast, and less condescendingly perhaps, Judith Okely assumes de Beauvoir’s entitlement to the feminist label from the start, and adopts a more evolutionary perspective; de Beauvoir is indeed the founding figure of feminism, but feminism has since moved on, and now calls in question much of its original message. Her strategy is that of a double ‘then and now’ reading in which she looks back upon a ‘virginal’ 1960s response to de Beauvoir’s writings in the light of a later more critical ‘experience’. This mapping of earlier and later selves proceeds at the cost of fluency and sometimes declines into mere juxtaposition of contrasting sentiments. But what it lacks in flow and organization, it makes up for in the richness of its evocations: in this generous and honest ‘personal anthropology’, Okely has excavated more than her own past, and provided a valuable archive of the experiences through which many women similarly placed to herself have passed in their initiation into feminism.