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“One is not born, but becomes, a genius”: An Other Simone de Beauvoir
September 29, 2022 @ 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
Simone de Beauvoir has often been called the “mother” of second-wave feminism, and The Second Sex its bible. In the Anglophone world, especially since Judith Butler’s “Sex and Gender in The Second Sex”, The Second Sex has also been credited with introducing a distinction between sex and gender. Its famous line, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” is widely cited as a slogan for the view that gender is socially constructed. But the book itself never uses the word “gender”—and readers of the famous sentence often overlook the fact that it is not the first of its kind in The Second Sex, or in the history of philosophy: in the first volume of The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that “One is not born, but becomes, a genius”; centuries before her Erasmus wrote that “one is not born, but becomes, a man”. After outlining why I (and many Beauvoir scholars before me) take the attribution of this distinction to Beauvoir to be a significant mistake in the American reception of The Second Sex—due at least in part to its poor and partial first English translation by H. M. Parshley—I present another reading of Beauvoir’s magnum opus. On this reading, Beauvoir’s burning question is not the abstract metaphysical inquiry “What is a woman?” Rather, The Second Sex is an existential experiment, the aim of which is liberatory. Although the situation in which it was written is distant to many readers today, the challenge it poses is not: “How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself?”
Dr Kate Kirkpatrick is Fellow in Philosophy and Christian Ethics at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow. She is the author of several books and articles on French existentialism, especially the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Her biography of Beauvoir, Becoming Beauvoir: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2019) has been translated into over a dozen languages. She is currently writing a philosophical commentary on The Second Sex.