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.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker