I was wandering through a desolate shopping centre on the outskirts of Cambridge one evening in the winter of 2006, when I saw The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir stacked up on a discount table in a vast, empty bookshop. I bought it; I think I also bought a red boob-tube that day.
I was living with friends in a converted Chinese restaurant off Mill Road, the vaguely hippy area of the city. I was 22, finishing my degree. I began to read the book as soon as I got home, and continued reading, long into the night. I was electrified by it. Some parts made me sick with anger, some made me cry, some made me reflect back on my own experience – love, education, work, childhood. I wanted to burn the whole house down. I wanted to react. I wanted to fight. But how? For what?
The Second Sex is a call to arms. It explains that women are often complicit in their own subordinated status. They consent to live as dolls, rather than full human beings. They accept the rewards of submissiveness: love, protection, approval. In this way, they are “passive, lost, ruined.” De Beauvoir demands that women sacrifice all this cosy bondage and fight to the death for a freedom which is both harrowing and thrilling.
The book terrified me. It suggested that there was nowhere to hide, there was no excuse. Published in 1949, it combines existential philosophy with a staggeringly broad analysis of women’s condition: from fashion to sex to mysticism. De Beauvoir lampoons the myths that keep women in a passive position, such as the fairy-tale of romantic love, which promises salvation by a man. She warns of “the harsh punishment inflicted upon the woman who has not taken her destiny into her own hands.”
The Second Sex changed the way I look at the world and it changed my life. I started a PhD on romantic love and femininity and wrote a novel, Eat My Heart Out, which is about a young women, Ann-Marie, in thrall to the myths of post-feminist culture: hyper-sexuality and romantic love as the ultimate goal of life. She meets a second wave feminist, Stephanie Haight, who is equally flawed, but who tries to wean Ann-Marie off slavish romanticism in favour of independence.
Why do we allow ourselves to be objectified, abused, and humiliated, in the media and in life? Is submissiveness a condition of being loved and desired? Young women have recently become interested in feminism once again, and the questions posed by this visionary book seem more relevant than ever. A new wave is coming.
Zoe Pilger's 'Eat My Heart Out' is published by Serpent’s Tail