[(essay date 2004) In the following essay, Scarth contends that Beauvoir essentially asserts in The Second Sex that both women and men "do not live their bodies authentically within patriarchy," and thus fail to achieve "true human subjectivity" and "pure transcendence."]
Beauvoir's criticism of patriarchy's denial of full subjectivity to women, of women's Otherness, is also a criticism of patriarchal masculine subjectivity itself, of the way patriarchal definitions impoverish the lived and embodied experience of both women and men by limiting the body's possibilities and what the body can express. To see this, we need to read The Second Sex as an integral part of Beauvoir's ethical project and as a text that follows on and develops the thought of her earlier ethical essays.
Some critics have argued that Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, holds to a masculine conception of subjectivity as transcendence that denies the body and suggests that the female body is a barrier to freedom. This interpretation is often based on a contentious passage in The Second Sex that describes the origin of and key to women's oppression in early nomadic societies in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic.1 For Beauvoir, women's oppression seems to have its foundation in women's bondage to reproduction, since, as she writes, "it is not in giving life but in risking life" that humanity distinguishes itself from the animal, and women were biologically destined to give life and not to risk their lives in the nomadic horde.2
However, this passage may give us the key to Beauvoir's analysis of subjectivity in a different sense. If we consider the continuities between Beauvoir's ethical essays and her analysis of the structure of oppression in The Second Sex, and specifically the concepts of ambiguity and conversion that thread through both texts, we can and should read these passages in a different light. Just as in the ethical essays we see Beauvoir jumping off from her starting point in Sartre and developing the ideas of ambiguity and conversion considerably, in The Second Sex we see her appropriating Hegel for her own purposes. She reads the master-slave story in terms of her framework of bad faith, the desire to be, and conversion. The effect is startling: Beauvoir removes the dialectic from the historical grounding given it by Hegel. She describes patriarchy as a stage of the dialectic stuck in time, and she reworks and changes the notion of risk that founds human subjectivity. Rather than the risk of life in the context of a violent struggle to the death that marks Hegel's account, the risk that founds subjectivity is transmuted by Beauvoir into the risk of asserting oneself as a freedom while assuming one's ambiguity. The nomadic scene describes a time in which women didn't have the opportunity to risk, and The Second Sex as a whole argues that patriarchy is to be condemned for creating a feminine situation that continues to bar women from risk--in essence, for illegitimately excluding them from the struggle for...