" Simone De Beauvoir's sociology in historical context: Engels - Freud - Lacan - De Beauvoir - Firestone - Butler
See notes and quotations. See also the lecture on Judith Butler

Simone De Beauvoir's sociology in historical context

Click A historical guide to thinking sociologically

From Owen and Engels to Judith Butler.

1949: In Le deuxième sexe (second sex), Simone De Beauvoir discussed the social theory of human identity at the time, with special reference to what it is to be a "woman"

She focuses on the power of marxism and psychoanalysis to explain the issues, on the implications of these two perspectives, and on their deficiencies

De Deauvoir drew on early work of the psychoanalalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) about the formation of a

"mirror image" of self.

In a mirror you meet yourself as an other person might see you.

Determination and self-determination

De Beauvoir says:

"No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine."

Biology, psychology (psychoanalysis), economics (marxism) on their own are inadequate to explain identity.

Two other dimensions are necessary:

  • the self determining action of the individual who "presents" him or herself

    See extracts from Erving Goffman on The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)

  • and the influence of society (civilisation)

    See quotes from Talcott Parsons on "The superego and the theory of social systems" (1952)

    De Beauvoir's existential perspective is one:

    in which a human being grasps (understands, takes hold of) issues in the total perspective of his or her existence.

    Developing De Beauvoir

    De Beauvoir's critique of sociology at mid-century has been developed in the later part of the century by Shulamith Firestone and Judith Butler.

    19th century socialist feminism

    De Beauvoir relates socialism (communism) and feminism, so we will begin by looking at he early history of socialist feminism:

    Friederich Engels Principles of Communism 1847:

    What will be the influence of communist society on the family?

    "It will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene."


    Society intervenes in relations between the sexes through the institution of marriage. In Engels' day marriage involved a woman giving up many freedoms that she retains today.

    Engels continues:

    "It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage, the dependence rooted in private property, of the woman on the man and of the children on the parents."

    Socialism and women's emancipation through collective education
    # The picture shows the South London Rational School meeting in the Large Theatre of the Rotunda in the 1840s (source)
    not communal sex:

    We will understand more about the way communal education, alongside the abolition of child labour, were to liberate women and children when we consider Owenism and socialist feminism, and consider the work of children and women in the coal mines.

    However, Engels draws our attention to a scandalous attack on socialists (communists) that suggests their object is group sex:

    "And here is the answer to the outcry of the highly moral philistines against the "community of women".

    The third stage of a Rake's progress

    "Community of women is a condition which belongs entirely to bourgeois society and which today finds its complete expression in prostitution. But prostitution is based on private property and falls with it."

    "Thus communist society, instead of introducing community of women, in fact abolishes it."


    [In speaking of communal provision Engels draws on Owenite theory.
    See the community plan illustrating Owen's 1817 proposal

    Owen envisaged the un- employed being provided with employment in villages of co-operation which would be laid out in the manner suggested by the following diagram:

    The picture is based on 
Owen's description.
Click it to read what
Owen wrote

    One advantage that the socialists perceived in communal facilities for eating, cleaning, child-care, education, entertainment and production was that it could free women from dependence on men and allow inter-personal relations being self-determining.


    Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto 1848

    "The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.

    Young woman working in an 1840s coal mine

    "The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

    "He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.

    # If you want to know more, read Barbara Taylor's 1983

    Eve and the New Jerusalem. Socialism and feminism in the nineteenth century

    1917: Communist Revolution in Russia

    1949: De Beauvoir

    A world where men and women would be equal is easy to visualize, for that precisely is what the Soviet Revolution promised: women raised and trained exactly like men were to work under the same conditions and for the same wages.

  • Erotic liberty was to be recognized by custom, but the sexual act was not to be considered a "service" to be paid for; woman was to be obliged to provide herself with other ways of earning a living;

  • marriage was to be based on a free agreement that the spouses could break at will;

  • maternity was to be voluntary, which meant that contraception and abortion were to be authorized and that, on the other hand, all mothers and their children were to have exactly the same rights, in or out of marriage;

  • pregnancy leaves were to be paid for by the State, which would assume charge of the children, signifying not that they would be taken away from their parents, but that they would not be abandoned to them.
  • But is it enough to change laws, institutions, customs, public opinion, and the whole social context, for men and women to become truly equal?
    We must not believe, certainly, that a change in woman's economic condition alone is enough to transform her, though this factor has been and remains the basic factor in her evolution; but until it has brought about the moral, social, cultural, and other consequences that it promises and requires, the new woman cannot appear.

    At this moment they have been realized nowhere, in Russia no more than in France or the United States; and this explains why the woman of today is torn between the past and the future.
    But if we imagine ... a society in which the equality of the sexes would be concretely realized, this equality would find new expression in each individual.

    Sigmund Freud 1856-1939


    beautiful baby In Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Sigmund Freud interpreted the symbolism of dreams in a way that he presented as a scientific exploration of the unconscious mind. In Beautiful Baby Laura Leland explains this.

    De Beauvoir on Freud:

    "it is civilisation as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine"

    Eunuch: A castrated man

    Freud maintains that

    "Sexual life does not begin only at puberty, but starts with plain manifestations soon after birth." (Freud 1938 par.3.2).

    But childhood sexuality is not like adult sexuality.

    It is not about desiring intercourse.

    [The picture is of a carving from a Hindu temple Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh (Between 950 and 1150AD)

    It is about desire.

    Oral (mouth) and anal (bottom) phases of childhood sexuality

    Babies obtain pleasure from sucking at the mother's breast. This is the first phase of infant sexuality

    The second phase is the anal phase, which Freud calls the sadistic-anal phase. He says that the sadistic impulses that have occurred with the appearance of the teeth develop,

    "because satisfaction is then sought in aggression and in the excretory function." (Freud 1938 par.3.5).

    Phallic phase of childhood sexuality

    The third phase is the phallic phase

    A phallus is an image of an erect penis that used to be carried in solemn procession in the Dionysian festivals in ancient Greece.

    The phallic phase of childhood sexuality is pre-occupied with images of the little boy's wee-wee and its absence in the little girl.

    Freud thinks that this is "a forerunner of the final form taken by sexual life" (Freud 1938 par.3.6).

    Celebration of the erect penis in drunken revels in ancient Greece.

    After such a drunken revelry we forget what happened (amnesia).


    Freud thought that after the phallic phase children fell victim to what he called `infantile amnesia', repressing all but a few memories of their early sexual life.


    A theory of the mind

    Freud divided the structure of the mind into three parts, which he calls the id, the ego and the super-ego.

    The id is the part of the personality that "contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth ... the instincts" (Freud 1938 par.1.3).

    Laura Leland writes: "The demands of the id are almost primitive in their simplicity ... a newborn baby ... only wants to feel warm and well fed. He wants to be comforted and satisfied by his mother's breast, with the pleasurable ... feelings ... this brings.


    The baby wants all this satisfaction immediately and cries until he gets it... The id demands instant gratification."

    The ego

    The baby eventually works out that gratification is not always immediate and when this happens the ego comes into being. The ego "acts as an intermediary between the id and the external world" (Freud 1938 par.1.4).

    It is a development of the id that stops the urges that might hurt it (like taking hold of something hot). It allows the id to seek pleasure whilst avoiding pain. The ego is governed by the `reality principle'.

    The super-ego develops as a result of the child going through the Oedipus complex

    Picture source
    Freud used a Greek mythological story of Oedipus to illustrate his ideas of the `love triangle' that exists in early childhood.

    In this story Oedipus puts out his own eyes in pangs of guilt at having inadvertently killed his father and married his own mother. The blinding reminds us that all this activity is blocked out of our memory.

    According to Freud, the boy child is so in love with his mother that he becomes jealous of his father. This brings him into conflict with his father; his urge is to kill him and take his place.

    Boy's castration complex

    During the phallic phase, boys become aware that they possess a penis. When they realise that touching it feels good, they "manipulate it frequently" and then find out that "adults do not approve of this behaviour." (Freud 1924 par.5)

    The boy's mother threatens him that if he plays with his wee-wee his father will cut it of. Freud argues that this threat of castration makes sense to the boy because he sees that his sister has not got a wee-wee. On seeing a naked girl, "the loss of his own penis becomes imaginable, and the threat of castration takes its deferred effect." (Freud 1924 par.7) #

    Freud connects childhood masturbation to an expression of mother love. Symbolically, possibility that his father will dismember him represents a love conflict with his father of possession of his mother. Because he has a "narcissistic interest in that part of his body ... the child's ego turns away from the Oedipus complex." (Freud 1924 par.8)

    Internalising civilisation

    The unconscious resolution of the conflict with his father results in the development of the super-ego. It is the result of the child internalising the parental authority figure, in this case the father, as part of himself.

    Picture source
    "The super-ego is in fact the heir to the Oedipus complex and is only established after that complex has been disposed of." (Freud 1938 par.9.2b).

    It is affected by parental influence, which includes "not only the personalities of the actual parents but also the family, racial and national traditions handed on through them." (Freud 1938 par.1.7b).

    daddy's girlfriend

    In his essay The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex (Freud 1924), Freud writes that girls too, develop an Oedipus complex, though it is of a much simpler variety than that which boys experience. He writes that

    "it seldom goes beyond the taking of her mother's place and the adopting of a feminine attitude towards her father." (Freud 1924 par.13)

    Freud maintains that a girl's Oedipus complex

    "culminates in a desire ... to receive a baby from her father as a gift - to bear him a child." (Freud 1924 par.13)

    Freud writes that the wish to possess a penis and the wish to bear a child

    "remain strongly cathected in the unconscious and help to prepare the female creature for her later sexual role." (Freud 1924 par.13)

    Girl's castration complex

    When comparing her genitals to those of her brother, a little girl thinks that she has been badly done by and feels inferior to him. She assumes that she once possessed a penis and then `lost it by castration'. Freud says that this is an essential difference between the sexes, because

    "the girl accepts castration as an accomplished fact, whereas the boy fears the possibility of its occurrence." (Freud 1924 par.12b)

    # Gender is just one of those things that Crona does not know how to deal with.
    "But I've never seen a guy with a screw sticking out of his head before! I don't know how I'm supposed to deal with a guy like that." Crona, Episode 8

    De Beauvoir:

    If the little girl were brought up from the first with the same demands and rewards, the same severity and the same freedom, as her brothers, taking part in the same studies, the same games, promised the same future, surrounded with women and men who seemed to her undoubted equals, the meanings of the castration complex and of the Oedipus complex would be profoundly modified.

    Assuming on the same basis as the father the material and moral responsibility of the couple, the mother would enjoy the same lasting prestige; the child would perceive around her an androgynous world and not a masculine world.

    # Androgyny is both man and woman

    andro (man)

    gyny (woman)

    Were she emotionally more attracted to her father - which is not even sure - her love for him would be tinged with a will to emulation and not a feeling of powerlessness; she would not be oriented toward passivity.

    Authorized to test her powers in work and sports, competing actively with the boys, she would not find the absence of the penis - compensated by the promise of a child - enough to give rise to an inferiority complex;

    correlatively, the boy would not have a superiority complex if it were not instilled into him and if he looked up to women with as much respect as to men.

    The little girl would not seek sterile compensation in narcissism and dreaming, she would not take her fate for granted; she would be interested in what she was doing, she would throw herself without reserve into undertakings.

    Jacques Lacan

    1936 First presentation of the theory of the "mirror stage" at the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) conference at Marienbad

    1949 De Beauvoir on Lacan's mirror stage theory.

    The child

    "is separated more or less brutally from the nourishing body.... the separation is accomplished, toward the age of six months... in carnal form he discovers finiteness, solitude, forlorn desertion in a strange world.

    "He endeavours to compensate for this catastrophe by projecting his existence into an image, the reality and value of which others will establish.

    # "It appears that he may begin to affirm his identity at the time when he recognizes his reflection in a mirror - a time that coincides with that of weaning... his ego becomes so fully identified with this reflected image that it is formed only in being projected.

    "Whether or not the mirror actually plays a more or less considerable part, it is certain that the child commences toward the age of six months to mimic his parents, and under their gaze to regard himself as an object.

    "He is already an autonomous subject, in transcendence toward the outer world; but he encounters himself only in a projected form."


    See 1909: Charles Horton Cooley on the looking glass self and (later) George Herbert Mead on children playing roles. Also consider some of the meanings of reflection


    Engels 1884

    Towards the end of his life, Marx became interested in the anthropological reports of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881). Morgan argued that human society has three inter-related spheres:

  • production,

  • reproduction (i.e. the family and child rearing) and

  • government.

    Something happening in one sphere would have repercussions for something happening in another.

    When Marx died, Engels inherited his manuscripts, including his notes on Morgan. Engels developed Marx's notes on historical materialism and the family into a book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884.

    De Beauvoir

    In 1949 Simone De Beauvoir started The Second Sex by analysing biological, psychoanalytic (Freudian) and historical materialist (Engels) perspectives on women, and argues that they are partial.

    From her existentialist view, biology, sex and economics cannot determine a woman's destiny

    "In our attempt to discover woman we shall not reject certain contributions of biology, of psychoanalysis, and of historical materialism;

    but we shall hold that the body, the sexual life, and the resources of technology exist concretely for [a human being] only in so far as he [or she] grasps them in the total perspective of his [or her] existence."

    An existential perspective is one in which a human being grasps (understands, takes hold of) issues in the total perspective of his [or her] existence.

    Shulamith Firestone

    Judith Butler in 2008
    Judith Butler

    Simone De Beauvoir argues that we explore the world in different bodies, but the natural differences do not mean that our worlds are very different - society builds difference around relatively insignificant biological differences

    Judith Butler does not dispute any of that, but she asks to what extent our bodies are natural?

    Butler argues that

    "there is no recourse to a body that has not always already been interpreted by cultural meanings; hence, sex could not qualify as a pre discursive anatomical facticity. Indeed, sex, by definition, will be shown to have been gender all along". (Butler, 1990 p.8).

    Bodies are performative:

    "I pronounce you different bodies"
    says society
    Language is performative if the saying of something does the deed. If the authorised person says "I pronounce you man and wife" in the right circumstances, the two people it is said to become man and wife

    Performativity is a pronouncement of what we will perform. Society does the pronouncing

    Judith Butler asks:

    "Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? And how does the category of "sex" figure within such a relationship?"

    A photograph

    published 2008 The materiality of the body

    1951 - published 2008

    au naturel

    to the natural (nature)

    in a natural state : without anything added

    We are born naked, but this picture of Simone De Beauvoir naked was considered scandalous.

    Is this a body as nature gives it? Or is it a body seen through the eyes of society (culture)? Is it shaped by society?

    Is this a presentation?

    Is this a performance?

    Is this performativity (a role that society prescribes)?

    Think about this quotation:

    "No male philosopher I can think of would have had such a lovely bottom. Mme de Beauvoir had a brilliant mind. She also had a wonderful body. Women win on both counts." (Florence Montreynaud 2008)

    This divides bodies (not minds) "naturally" into male and female.

    Sociologists often argue that the natural difference between male and female should be called sex and the cultural difference should be called gender

    But if Simone De Beauvoir's body is engaged in a performance, and if that performance is prescribed by society, perhaps sex, for human beings, is also a (gender) role?

    Another photograph

    How "natural" is photography?

    Sometime between 1877 and 1893 the old nurse posed with her teenage charge for a photograph by the new electric light

    The teenagers name is Charlotte Mew, from which you can work out that you should say she and her.

    But Charlotte thought (outrageous child) that she could imagine and write as she liked, and so in her poetry she is sometimes him and sometimes her.

    Sex and gender are identity problems -

    Modern mythology is creating new role models for us - which may pre-figure the future

    Gender is just one of those things that Crona does not know how to deal with.

    # Crona (Kurona meaning "Dark One") is a character in modern mythology (see manga). Crona is a Demon Sword Master whose weapon, Ragnarok, resides permanently within his/her blood. Crona is presented with an ambiguous gender throughout the entire series and while there have been hints toward Crona's sex in both directions, nothing definitive has been presented.

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    1949 marxism and psychoanalysis

    The mirror

    Determination and self- determination

    society and action
    individual and society

    Developing De Beauvoir

    19th century socialist feminism

    Engels 1847: marriage and family

    community education

    community sex



    De Beauvoir on communism in Russia


    De Beauvoir post-Freud


    Engels 1884

    De Beauvoir