Woman as Other: The Master-Slave Dialectic in Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

by David Fan

In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir explicitly draws on the master-slave dialectic from G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) in her discussion of woman’s alterity in relation to man.[i] Feminist theorist and commentator of Beauvoir’s work Tina Chanter argues that Beauvoir’s engagement with this aspect of Hegel’s theory is problematic and creates theoretical tension.[ii] Contrary to Chanter’s view,  I argue that Beauvoir’s engagement with the master-slave dialectic is in fact a strategic rethinking of Hegel’s philosophical framework. Firstly, I briefly summarise Hegel’s master-slave dialectic as encountered in the French context. Secondly, I discuss Beauvoir’s adaptation and reworking of this dialectic in The Second Sex. Thirdly, I outline Chanter’s objection and reasons to support her claim to then finally,  provide a counter-argument to her view.

Introduced by Alexandre Kojève to the French intellectuals in 1933-1939, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic outlines the life and death struggle between one self-consciousness and another, who each seek recognition from the other through a process of domination and subordination.[iii] The historical outcome of this struggle (specifically between men) is that one exists for himself as the master, and the other exists for the master as the slave.[iv] Paradoxically, whilst the master wins the initial struggle, he does not achieve the recognition he desires because the slave is no longer an equal self-consciousness that he values but rather an object-like being who is unable to recognise another consciousness in a reciprocal way.[v] Interestingly, however, the slave is still able to transcend (that is, to ontologically surpass) his object-being through self-transforming labour.[vi] It is via this transcendence through his creative work that the slave is able to regain self-consciousness and, collectively with other slaves, drive historical progress.[vii]

While Hegel’s master-slave dialectic focuses on the historical struggle between men, Beauvoir simultaneously adapts and challenges Hegel’s theoretical framework in her analysis of relations between men and women in The Second Sex. On the one hand, Beauvoir appears to accept Hegel’s idea that “a fundamental hostility to any other consciousness is found in consciousness itself… the other consciousness has an opposing reciprocal claim.”[viii] On the other hand, however, she questions why “between the sexes this reciprocity has not been put forward.”[ix] In other words, although historically men’s consciousness struggled against one another, women were cast as others in relation to men without any form of struggle.  So although the master-slave dialectic obstensibly applies to man’s oppression of woman (that is, man as the master, woman as the slave), Beauvoir challenges Hegel’s inadequate  consideration of woman’s lived experience. Specifically, she points out that women’s oppression is unique in that historically women lacked “the concrete means” to contest men’s domination due to women’s dispersal amongst men and their shared economic interests with men.[x] In other words, while women’s oppression has an ontological dimension— and by this I am referring to their inability to transcend from object-beings to subject-beings—women’s otherness is also forced upon them through concrete, patriarchal socio-ideological structures such as kinship, marriage and family. As scholar Eva Lundgren-Gothlin explains, this unique nature of women’s oppression prevents them from entering the master-slave dialectic, even as slaves.[xi] Because woman lacks the concrete means to contest man’s sovereignty through Hegelian struggle, she is different to the Hegelian slave in that she cannot regain self-consciousness and reciprocal recognition through creative labour. This is clear when Beauvoir writes that “[a]ssimilating the woman to the slave is a mistake… Woman thus emerged as the inessential who never returned to the essential, as the absolute Other, without reciprocity.”[xii] Through contrasting two forms of alterity, man as other (the Hegelian slave) and woman as Other, Beauvoir reveals that woman’s otherness as more absolute and fixed than that of the Hegelian slave.[xiii] It is precisely through this departure from Hegel’s theoretical framework that Beauvoir critically rethinks the master-slave dialectic and how it does not apply to men’s oppression of women despite its seemingly universal claim.

However, Chanter argues that Beauvoir’s engagement with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is problematic in several ways. Firstly, there is theoretical incompatibility between Beauvoir’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist framework and her use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.[xiv] On the one hand, Beauvoir’s existentialist position claims that women have radical freedom which enables them to transcend any given situation. Yet on the other hand, Beauvoir’s engagement with the master-slave dialectic reveals that women are historically fixated in their status as object-beings.[xv] This seems to suggest that although women are oppressed in the patriarchal context, the responsibility lies on women to overcome their situations—to be more like men. According to Chanter, this conclusion shows that Beauvoir fails to acknowledge the question of sexual difference and thus challenge Hegel’s master-slave dialectic as an exclusively male model.[xvi] Secondly, Chanter claims that there is a lack of detail in Beauvoir’s use of the master-slave dialectic as an analogy for  the relation between men and women.[xvii] Specifically, whilst the risk of lifehappens between two conscious individuals in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Beauvoir’s account of men’s risk of life occurs between men and wild animals in the context of hunting.[xviii] Chanter argues that the confrontation between men and animals in Beauvoir’s account already assumes man’s free self-consciousness prior to his encounter with the other.[xix] The hunter (an already-free subject) seeks to impress his peers (also free subjects) through the act of conquering animal “objects”. This is very different to the Hegelian idea that one can only establish self-consciousness when the other consciousness arises (i.e., the other precedes the free subject).[xx] Therefore, the parallel between Hegel’s framework and Beauvoir’s account is questionable. Lastly, Chanter argues that Beauvoir’s existentialist stance prevents her from appreciating the Hegelian slave’s unique position that enables the possibility for transcendence through labour, and how this compares with woman’s sexual difference to man.[xxi] In Beauvoir’s account, it is as though women’s potential for transcendence is already given, just like men, without the need for work or struggle. For Chanter, all these reasons suggest that Beauvoir’s engagement with Hegel creates theoretical tension in her work.

To counter Chanter’s argument, one may argue that this tension only exists due to a simplistic reading of The Second Sex. A nuanced interpretation reveals that these theoretical difficulties are part of Beauvoir’s deliberate challenge against Hegel’s work. As scholar Nancy Bauer suggests, many commentators fail to comment on Beauvoir’s focus on the ontological ambiguity of both the master and the slave.[xxii] In other words, both the master and the slave are simultaneously subjects and objects in relation to one another. Therefore, it is not the case, as Chanter suggests, that Beauvoir does not challenge Hegel’s work as an exclusively male model. Indeed, Beauvoir writes that the Hegelian conflict can be resolved by “recognising each other as subject, each [remaining] an other for the other.”[xxiii] Through mutual recognition and reciprocity, Beauvoir proposes an alternative relation between two subjects other than the fundamental hostility in Hegel’s framework. Therefore, Beauvoir suggests that to liberate women is not to ask women to transcend their situations and be more like men (as suggested by Chanter’s reading of Beauvoir), but rather through “friendship and generosity” between subjects.[xxiv] In other words, the emancipation of women requires intersubjective efforts from all women and men to recognise each other as subjects in their own right. Hence, one may argue that Beauvoir’s appropriation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic leads to a rethinking of his work, which opens the possibility for intersubjective collaboration and respect  for sexual difference.

To conclude, Beauvoir’s relation with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic in the The Second Sex is a critical adaptation and revision of his thought. Although this engagement with Hegel ostensibly creates tension in Beauvoir’s account of relations between sexes, a closer reading of her text reveals that Beauvoir’s departure from Hegel’s theoretical framework enables her to describe the unique nature of woman’s alterity to man. Through an acknowledgement of the complexity in Beauvoir’s relation with Hegel’s philosophy, a more nuanced and generous interpretation of The Second Sex suggests that Beauvoir’s focus on the reciprocal recognition between subjects subverts the fundamental hostility assumed by Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

David Fan is a part-time Bachelor of Arts student majoring in Philosophy. His main interest lies in French continental philosophy, especially the works of Luce Irigaray and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


[i] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Vintage Books, 2011), 7.

[ii] Tina Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers (New York: Routledge, 1995), 49.

[iii] Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 2-3.

[iv] Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 3-4.

[v] Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 4.

[vi] Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 4.

[vii] Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 4.

[viii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 7.

[ix] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 7.

[x] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 8-9.

[xi] Eva Lundgren-Gothlin, “The Master-Slave Dialectic in The Second Sex,” in Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader, ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 99.

[xii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 164.

[xiii] Lundgren-Gothlin, “The Master-Slave Dialectic,” 98-99.

[xiv] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 49.

[xv] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 50.

[xvi] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 50.

[xvii] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 57.

[xviii] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 61.

[xix] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 61.

[xx] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 61-62.

[xxi] Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 73.

[xxii] Nancy Bauer, Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 80-81.

[xxiii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 782.

[xxiv] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 163.


Bauer, Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Vintage Books, 2011.

Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Terry P. Pinkard. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lundgren-Gothlin, Eva. “The Master-Slave Dialectic in The Second Sex.” In Simone de Beauvoir: A Critical Reader, edited by Elizabeth Fallaize, 93-108. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Featured image by Charvis Tsevis via flickr

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