Jonathan Cape £30 (819pp) £27 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

The Second Sex, By Simone de Beauvoir trans. Constance Borde & Sheila Malovany-Chevallier

When Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that "one is not born, but rather becomes, woman", she was not thinking about the physical transformations which would one day produce a Katie Price. The process Beauvoir had in mind was the way civilisation produced "this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine". But cosmetic surgery is merely a recent addition to that process, reiterating that femaleness on its own is never enough; in the 21st century, some women feel they have to resort to ever more extreme methods to declare themselves truly feminine.

Martin Amis's misogynist dismissal of Price – "all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone" - misses a point which Beauvoir would have understood instantly. Women who transform themselves through surgery are seeking power through a process which ultimately disempowers them. It's the method which is the mistake, not the aspiration, and I like to think that Beauvoir would write mordantly on this and other subjects if she were alive today. Reading this new translation of The Second Sex is a reminder of a fearless intellectualism which isn't sufficiently valued in contemporary life.

It seems very unlikely that Beauvoir thought of herself as writing simply for women. Although it is a feminist classic, The Second Sex is an inquiry into a subject with profound implications for the entire human race, and its ideas are as fresh and inspiring as they were when she began work not long after the Second World War. That doesn't mean Beauvoir was always right and some passages, notably her discussion of biology, have been overtaken by advances in science. That's inevitable with a volume first published in 1949, but this new translation also arrives with an unsettling revelation. Readers of the standard English text have been making do with a shortened version for more than half a century. H M Parshley's 1954 translation left out around 20 per cent of the French text, cutting passages about historical figures he didn't find sufficiently interesting.

Now Beauvoir's great work is available in a full English translation for the first time thanks to Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. It is a fine piece of work, a lucid translation which stays close to Beauvoir's syntax and lengthy (though not rambling) sentence structure. In her foreword, Sheila Rowbotham hails it as "both a return and a revelation", and clearly it is better to be able to read the book in its entirety.

At the same time, The Second Sex has had such a profound impact - the translators judge that it "empowered women by providing the philosophical and theoretical fabric on which our history has been woven" - that it's hard to argue it was hampered by an imperfect translation. Readers encountering the book for the first time are unlikely to care much about arguments over terms from existentialist philosophy, but if they know anything about 20th-century feminism they will find some of its most original and influential ideas in Beauvoir's text.

Beauvoir set out to show that women are "the Other", a category against which men define themselves but without an existence in their own right, and she forensically analysed that process. This is not the starry-eyed feminism which yearns for matriarchy and earth mothers, imbuing women with touchy-feely character traits; Beauvoir isn't a Marilyn French, whose fierce intelligence sometimes lapsed into an unsettling romanticism. Beauvoir is as tough on women as on men, recognising the temptations as well as the distortions of submission. It is, she says, "an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided. The man who sets the woman up as an Other will thus find in her a deep complicity".

Beauvoir lived in Paris during the war, and her observation could easily apply to the collaborators who saw a way of profiting from the German occupation. But the recent turmoil in Europe intrudes very little into an internal landscape which shows Beavoir's penetrating intelligence applying itself to a great mass of written material: novels, diaries, psychoanalytic texts.

She lays out the contradictory strategies women use to survive in the hostile territory of a world under male control, from narcissism to morbid jealousy and tyranny over children. Female narcissism, sometimes asserted as "the fundamental attitude of all women", is exposed as a consequence of frustration and the denial to girls of boy's activities: "It is because they are nothing that many women fiercely limit their interests to their self alone, that their self becomes hypertrophied so as to be confounded with All".

The diaries of Countess Sofia Tolstoy provide Beauvoir with rich material for an examination of the origins of female jealousy. Sofia appears first as an excited bride, marrying a great writer 17 years her senior, and her transformation into an embittered wife and mother is terrifying to witness.

Sofia did not love her husband, found him physically disgusting and was bored by his ideas, but could not admit any of it to herself. Instead, she fell into a state of morbid jealousy, imagining a rival to compensate for the emptiness in her life: "Never feeling fulfilment with her husband, she rationalises in some way her disappointment by imagining him deceiving her".

Beauvoir decided not to have children, a much bolder choice in the mid-20th century than it is now. Instead of subscribing to sentimental notions about mothers, she used shocking phrases such as "masochistic devotion" and "capricious sadism" to describe the unforgiving regimes imposed on children by women trying to compensate for their lack of power elsewhere. For early readers, these passages were among the most astonishing and liberating in the book, explaining the origins of mother-daughter conflict to a generation of women who had felt unloved or even persecuted as they grew up. Beauvoir's analysis underscored the urgency of her project to free people - men and children as well as women - from the consequences of inauthenticity.

For Beauvoir, economic independence was the key to casting off women's second-class status. Since The Second Sex was published 60 years ago, women have done just what she hoped for, emerging from the home into the workplace in unprecedented numbers. If this development has not altered relations between the sexes as radically as Beauvoir expected, it is in part because capitalism is adaptable and has turned extreme femininity into an industry, as Katie Price's celebrity attests.

But it is undeniable that women's lives have improved, in the West at least, since Beauvoir declared that the average Western male's ideal was "a woman who freely submits to his domination, who does not accept his ideas without some discussion, but who yields to his reasoning". That's no longer a reliable generalisation, even if true equality is still some way off.

Joan Smith's novel 'What Will Survive' is published by Arcadia

A life of firsts: Simone de Beauvoir

In 1929, two French students almost tied at the top of the nationwide exam that qualifies for teaching posts: Simone de Beauvoir and (three years her senior) Jean-Paul Sartre. Their partnership, as lovers, collaborators and mentors, only ended with his death in 1980. As well as 'The Second Sex', her books include novels such as 'She Came to Stay' and 'The Mandarins', and four volumes of memoir. In 1970 she analysed 'Old Age', and in 1981 (five years before her own death) wrote her 'Adieux' to Sartre.

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