Existentialism to understand division of the sexes. 

Defne Güner

Simone de Beauvoir fundamentally changes how sexual division is understood by asking the question: what is a woman?

This question challenges the idea that a woman is a “given” and her status is due to a certain type of pre-determined destiny. In her 1949 book The Second Sex, she adopts an existentialist approach to understand and explain sexual division. 

Existentialism refers to the philosophical approach that puts existence before essence. Hence, when looking at sexual division, an existentialist approach would refuse that any sex is born with an essential quality that causes its exclusion or dominance. From an existentialist viewpoint, there is no inherent quality about men or woman, such as physicality, that results in sexual division.

Beauvoir argues that to understand sexual division we must understand the patriarchy as a social construct that both sexes are exposed to after birth which determines their uneven relationships and asserts it as “natural”. Women become the “Other” or the “object” while men are the “One” and the “subject” and thus can not only grasp their freedom but exercise it to live authentically. Women, on the other hand, are stripped of their selfdom as they are defined through a negation, as “not men”. But why is this unbalanced relationship between the sexes is perpetuated? Why do women allow themselves to be regarded as the “inessential” and the “Other”? 

The objectification of woman and her status as the “Other” is inflicted upon her as she grows up, therefore in order to question her otherness and rebel against it, first, she must grasp not only the social forces that lead to her otherness but also her existence as a subject. This process would require her to question and deconstruct everything that she is taught about being a woman. She must understand what is real and what is presented as real. Yet, these questions are not accessible to her due to the patriarchal system that falsely defines her reality. 

Regarding woman’s stranded position as the “Other”, Beauvoir writes: “hence woman makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means, because she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as Other.”[1] Women see men as the “essential”, and again, define themselves and are defined only in relation to men. Therefore, to rebel against the patriarchal division of the sexes would signify the loss of woman’s current identity. To reject man’s “absolute” and “essential” nature would mean to reject the way women learn to understand themselves. 

How and when does one become ‘woman’? Approaching this question becomes difficult as Beauvoir emphasizes woman’s conformity with her position as “the second sex” which is not only linked to her constructed dependence on men as discussed previously but also the issues surrounding an existentialist approach to life. To assert oneself as subject carries with itself the task of understanding and exercising one’s freedom which makes one responsible for creating her own meaning, moral code, and philosophy.

Beauvoir states: “beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject – an ethical claim – lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing”.[2] Thus, although existentialist approaches centre around the individual’s freedom, accepting such a freedom and a responsibility is shown to be not a simple task but still necessary.

A very different approach to sexual division is Engels’ understanding, which is based on historical materialism and focuses on the development of modes of production. Engels argues that the patriarchal family dynamic was a result of the division of labour after the introduction of private possessions. 

Engels writes that “the man seized the reins in the house too, the woman was degraded, enthralled, became the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children”.[3] Therefore, the division between the sexes is viewed as a natural occurring due to physical abilities relating to production, an economic destiny that determines the role and the status of women. 

The family dynamics, the social context, and the division of the sexes all centre around economic factors but the reasoning for this is not justified. The perspectives that determine the value of specific types of labour and production, and economic ambitions within the society are not explained. 

Regarding the centrality of private property in defining sexual division, Beauvoir writes: “the very idea of individual possession can acquire meaning only on the basis of the original condition of the existent”.[4]Without one’s existence, their properties would have no meaning and thus, Engels’ argument is flawed as he puts individual possessions and economic factors before existence.  

Beauvoir writes that human society “does not passively submit to the presence of nature, but rather appropriates it”.[5] Hence, to question how society appropriates such elements one must base their exploration on the existence of peoples and societies, and the perspectives that are formed by them. In addition, one could suggest that the discussion shouldn’t be focused on who first gained dominance over modes of production in history but on the current patriarchal forces acting on both sexes as a social fact.

Beauvoir’s approach challenges and invalidates previous accounts of sexual division such as Engels’ historical materialism. Engels explores woman in relation to certain essential characteristics such as economic capability which fail to account for an accurate and complete understanding of woman because they fail to ask: “what is woman”. For Engles, woman is a given and her relationship to man is defined in terms of her role within the modes of production. Yet, the existence or the importance of an economic destiny that acts as the determinant of sexual division is never justified or explored by Engels but presented as essential facts. 

As a response, Beauvoir’s existentialist approach provides one with tools of understanding sexual division through first recognizing the primacy of existing. Such an understanding allows people to deconstruct patriarchal structures that are believed as essential parts of reality. Beauvoir demonstrates the importance of such a deconstruction in relation to sexual division as it would allow both sexes to live an authentic life that centres around individual freedom. 

“The Second Sex” urges the reader to explore her condition as a being and understand the forces that make her into a “woman” and an “object” to reclaim her freedom and her “subjectivity”. 


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. Borde Constance and Malovany-Chevallier Shelia. London: Vintage, 2011.

Engels, Frederick. Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. ProQuest Ebook Central, 2000. Electronic Book. <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=3008609.&gt;.

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. London: Imago Publishing Go., 1949.

[1] Beauvoir, p.10

[2] Beauvoir, p.10

[3] Engels, Frederick. Origin of the Family Private Property and the State. ProQuest Ebook Central, 2000. Electronic Book, p.65

[4] Ibid.

[5] Beauvoir, p.64

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