Contingent ontologies

The pre-eminent place of Simone de Beauvoirʼs The Second Sex in the development of gender theory and feminist philosophy is undeniable. References to The Second Sex in historical and theoretical work in gender theory appear as if obligatory, not only because of the immense debt which many feminist scholars feel they owe de Beauvoir personally, but also because of the recognition that it was in great part The Second Sex that made gender theory itself possible. The use of the word ʻgenderʼ to refer to socio-cultural forms of identity, or to culturally and institutionally normative sets of rules governing patterns of behaviour, did not appear in English until the 1960s. No French word appears in The Second Sex which could neatly and unproblematically be translated as ʻgenderʼ with these particular meanings. Still, one sentence in The Second Sex is taken to be epochal: ʻOn ne naît pas femme: on le devientʼ; ʻOne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.ʼ1 That quotation is rarely continued. But de Beauvoir goes on: ʻNo biological, psychical, or economic fate determines the figure that the female human being presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.ʼ On the one side, then, the human female, an apparently biological category; on the other, this biological category figured in society, a production of civilization described as ʻfeminineʼ. In other words, it would appear, the Anglophone sex/gender distinction avant la lettre.2

For some, it was the sex/gender distinction that allowed second-wave feminism to get off the ground, and few feminist scholars would disagree on the fact, if not the nature, of its historical importance. More recently, dating perhaps from the mid-1980s, a concerted critique of the sex/gender distinction has not mitigated this sense of historical importance, or even historical necessity. But developments in feminist theory – in particular the claims being made on behalf of various feminisms of difference – and the coming into being of queer theory have contributed to a certain relegation of the sex/gender distinction to the past.3 Thus, while it is probably the case that a notion of gender, understood as a predominantly social category in opposition to the biological category of sex, is still the main theoretical tool in most feminist scholarship and in feminist-led discussions of social policy, the association of de Beauvoir with the sex/ gender distinction assigns The Second Sex the same fate as the distinction itself: historically important and interesting, the sex/gender distinction and The Second Sex are seen as being of only limited contemporary theoretical relevance.

This article attempts to locate the significance of The Second Sex in the here and now, rather than in the historical past. To this end, Judith Butlerʼs various readings of de Beauvoir can be seen as exemplary of a certain misreading. From an initially enthusiastic account of de Beauvoir, Butler has moved to an increasingly critical (but always ambiguous) position based on de Beauvoirʼs purported theoretical reliance on the sex/gender distinction. But what if there is no such distinction in The Second Sex? And what are the consequences of, and reasons for, Butlerʼs reading one into it? Following these questions through, The Second Sex may be read in such a way as to provide grounds for a critique of Butlerʼs own theoretical position on the ontological status of sex, gender and the body in her work of the Gender Trouble period, and shed light on what is, I will argue, the radicalized form of ontology at work in her later writings.




1. Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe [DS], Gallimard, Paris, 1976, Vol. II, p. 13; The Second Sex [SS], trans. H.M. Parshley, Picador, London, 1988, p. 295.

2. Conceptually, of course, something like a sex/gender distinction was already operative in, for example, Mary Wollstonecraftʼs 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Penguin, London, 1987) and J.S. Millʼs 1869 essay ʻThe Subjection of Womenʼ (in Three Essays, Oxford Unversity Press, Oxford, 1985). In both of these texts it is the detachment of the cultural attributes of ʻfemininityʼ from biological sex – the argument that actually existing ʻfemininityʼ is not predominantly determined by biology – that forms the basis for the critique of the prejudices of their peers. The sex/gender distinction is not, however, explicit; neither employs the word ʻgenderʼ, which, for both, would have had a primarily grammatical meaning. It is interesting that Raymond Williamsʼs Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana, London, 1983), first published in 1976, has no entry for ʻgenderʼ. Under ʻsexʼ, however, he notes the turn to the use of ʻgenderʼ in the 1960s and quotes (p. 286) Gladstone in 1878 as a precursor: ʻAthene has nothing of sex except the gender, nothing of the woman except the form.ʼ Even this, however, could be read as a reference to the grammatical meaning of the term, i.e. ʻsheʼ has nothing of the woman, but ʻsheʼ is still (grammatically) ʻsheʼ.

3. Moira Gatens, ʻA Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinctionʼ (in Judith Allen and Paul Patton, eds, ʻBeyond Marxism? Interventions After Marxʼ, Intervention, no. 17, 1983), is perhaps the best-known challenge. Gatensʼs essay (reprinted in her Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, Routledge, London and New York, 1996) makes a strong case for the dependence of the sex/gender distinction on a discredited (and implicitly rationalistic) body/mind dualism in which the body is mistakenly conceived as neutral and passive. However, Gatensʼs alternative account of the ʻimaginary bodyʼ is undermined by the fact that it treats the notions of ʻsex differenceʼ and ʻsexual differenceʼ (psychoanalytically understood) as if they were the same thing.

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