Musing on Gender Integration in the Military with Simone de Beauvoir

November 30, 2020

Forty years after the first military service academy classes with women graduated and 25 years after some combat roles were opened to women, gender integration and equality in the military remains incomplete and a challenge for the services. Just in the past decade or so, there have been dozens of studies on the subject, including more than 20 in the Marine Corps alone.

Issues such as male-on-female sexual assault, which remains a persistent problem, and a low female officer retention rate compared with their male counterparts are two examples. When I entered the Naval Academy in 1984, women had been there for just short of a decade. Jim Webb’s 1979 Washingtonian article, “Women Can’t Fight,” was still a source of great controversy. In 1987, Navy Lt. Niel Golightly published “No Right to Fight” in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings. The tone of Webb’s article is one of foreboding — the United States, through this misguided social experiment, is imperiling its national security, and someday this will become tragically apparent. (Webb would go on to become a U.S. senator from Virginia.) Golightly’s argument centers on the widely held view at the time that integrating women into combat units would undermine combat effectiveness, because on a deep psychological level, men’s martial spirits are fueled by a need to protect women (Golightly has since renounced this position). These views may be harder to openly express today, but they nevertheless linger not far beneath the surface in discourse on the topic, as Megan Mackenzie demonstrates well in her recent book, Beyond the Band of Brothers: The U.S. Military and the Myth that Women Can’t Fight.



Late in my Navy career, I worked on gender integration and other personnel challenges while serving as a Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group fellow in Newport, Rhode Island. While I was a fellow, I sought a deeper understanding of the sources of gender inequality. In doing so, the best book I read was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Le Deuxième Sexe), a remarkable work of social, historical, and philosophical criticism from one of the great Existentialist philosophers of the 20th century. De Beauvoir was not the first writer to attempt a serious analysis of the subject — think of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1861), for example. However, as Deirdre Bair explains, “Simone de Beauvoir was the first writer on the subject of women who examined all existing systems of inquiry through the philosophical methodology of Existentialism.” It is a powerful and comprehensive inquiry — a book I wish I had read earlier in my career. It remains quite relevant to the discussion of gender equality in the military today. If nothing else, reading de Beauvoir’s monumental achievement makes it clear that the effort to integrate women into the military rests on a rich philosophical tradition, rather than (as many of its detractors have it) an intellectually flimsy partisan agenda that cares little about military effectiveness.

The first ship on which I served (from 1988 to 1992) had an all-male crew, but subsequent sea tours were on ships with mixed-gender crews. In my many years in uniform discussing this topic with other men in the military, many, although certainly not all, exhibited a genuine sense of fairness for women in the military. I believe I was fair as a leader, yet not until my year as a fellow did I think or read well enough on the status of women in the military, or in society at large. It enriched my perspective and, had I read it earlier in my career, would have anchored my judgments in a deeper foundation of understanding and respect.

The Second Sex is long and, in places, quite difficult. Book I consists of three parts: Destiny, History, and Myths. Book II is devoted to an examination of woman’s state of being. Book I deals with the why, and in Book II, the focus is ontology — the study of being. While Book II is well worth the read, so much has changed for women in the 70 years since de Beauvoir surveyed woman’s state of being (in not just France, but in the United States as well) that Book I is more relevant to the ongoing issue of gender integration in the military. What follows is a short background on the author and her approach, followed by some analysis of Book I’s sections that I feel most support the assertion that the book remains relevant.

Simone de Beauvoir and the Book

Before publishing Book I of The Second Sex in 1949, de Beauvoir was known mostly as a minor novelist and a longtime partner of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. By her own admission, she resisted writing the book for years. In a 1960 interview with Madeleine Chapsal (“Une Interview de Simone de Beauvoir” in Les Écrivains en Personne), de Beauvoir noted that “For a long time, I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new.” But something nagged at her: “One day I wanted to explain myself to myself … And it struck me with a sort of surprise that the first thing I had to say was ‘I am a woman.’” She wondered, why is that?

The Second Sex was first translated to English in 1953 by H. M. Parshley, a professor of zoology at Smith College, at the request of Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. When published in France, the book was at once popular and a minor scandal (women could not vote in France until 1947, and de Beauvoir became the target of a nasty reactionary campaign). Credit Blanche Knopf for recognizing the book’s importance and convincing her husband to take it up, because she felt that interest in French Existentialism on American campuses would ensure that it would at least generate modest sales.

The Second Sex starts from the premise that woman has been the oppressed gender for thousands of years — this is not something de Beauvoir sees a need to litigate. De Beauvoir’s objective is to discover why this is the case, and she leaves no stone unturned. She writes as a philosopher should, maintaining a certain detachment from her subject as if she were a scientist in a laboratory.

De Beauvoir employs the existential concepts of essence, alterity, immanence, and transcendence extensively in The Second Sex. The starting point for de Beauvoir or any Existentialist is this: Our existence precedes our essence. Essence is something we become, but we all exist first as individual, sovereign human beings. “One is not born, but becomes, a woman,” de Beauvoir writes. Each choice we make leads us either toward greater freedom or away from it. The problem for women is that over thousands of years, their ability to choose has been severely constrained to the point that they came to understand their essence as predetermined to be the object of men, a state of alterity or “other.” A subject needs an object for affirmation, so it has been man’s project to cultivate a social environment where woman associates her affirmation with being an object. Man is the “desiring” subject, and woman is the object of “desire.”

Biology, Psychoanalysis, and Economics

In Book I, Part I, de Beauvoir examines three disciplines through which women’s second-class predicament was analyzed and justified: biology, psychoanalysis (which was still widely taught in the 1940s), and historical materialism (economics). She demonstrates this through close examination of why each approach fails. For example, being biologically female and thus responsible for bearing and nursing offspring cannot account for human women being socially oppressed, as the natural world provides no evidence to support this. As de Beauvoir notes, “But in truth society is not a species, for it is in a society that the species attains the status of existence — transcending itself toward the world and toward the future. Its ways and customs cannot be deduced from biology.” (All quotes in this essay are from the 1989 Vintage Books edition).

Based on my experiences in the Strategic Studies Group and in previous positions, including two years in command, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how the view remains widespread in today’s military, to say nothing of society at large, that being biologically female predetermines certain warfighting competencies. One finds it in Robert L. Maginnis’ 2013 book, Deadly Consequences: How Cowards are Pushing Women into Combat, and Kingsley Brown’s 2007 book, Co-Ed Combat: The New Evidence That Women Shouldn’t Fight the Nation’s Wars. While writers such as Mackenzie do more than an admirable job refuting these arguments, de Beauvoir was far ahead of her time in systematically debunking the larger belief that biological gender determines social status and occupational fitness.

Psychoanalysts would explain woman’s oppressed status as stemming from a deep desire to be subservient, originating in woman’s need to reconcile herself to nature. Thus, the psychoanalyst attempts to turn the biological equation upside down — it is not woman’s biological gender that accounts for her oppressed condition, but her emotional need to come to terms with that natural fact. Being a woman is more of a state of feeling than a physical reality. De Beauvoir is not warm to this position, to say the least, nor does she think much of the whole field of psychoanalysis. “It is not an easy matter to discuss psychoanalysis per se. Like all religions … it displays an embarrassing flexibility on a basis of rigid concepts … Words are sometimes used in their most literal sense … [at other times] they are indefinitely expanded and take on symbolic meaning.” In de Beauvoir’s telling, the psychoanalyst essentially denies the existence of human freedom — we never really make free choices because our choices are governed by impulses and forces in the unconscious. For de Beauvoir, neither women nor men are slaves to their sexuality. They are sexual creatures, to be sure, but that is not all they are. They exist first as free beings, and free beings choose.

Finally, historical materialism, or economics, also fails to explain how women seemed trapped in states of immanence (a state of unfreedom in which they cannot make choices and engage in projects necessary to make them freer). As with Freud and the psychoanalysts, de Beauvoir appreciates historical materialists such as Friedrich Engels. They had attempted an explanation of human history, and while de Beauvoir cannot accept their theory as complete, she credits them for constructing a philosophical argument against Darwin and the biologists. “The theory of historical materialism has brought to light some most important truths. Humanity is not an animal species, it is a historical reality. Human society is an antiphysis — in a sense it is against nature; it does not passively submit to the presence of nature but rather takes over the control of nature on its own behalf.”

De Beauvoir references, in particular, Engels and his work The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels’ culprit for the plight of women is the same for all the downtrodden — capitalism. In primitive human societies, a man’s labor produced no greater value to the collective than woman’s labor. He ate what he killed. Then something dramatic happened — men discovered the tools to produce more than what they needed to live. Using these tools was physically arduous, requiring man’s greater natural upper body strength. Therefore, for the first time, man’s labor was seen as more valuable than that of woman. In producing well beyond what he needed to live, man could now project out into the world — he could transcend his immediate existence, creating for himself a new type of freedom. Limited to domestic tasks, woman largely could not do this. And for man to protect his ability to transcend and pass down the fruits of his labor to his children, he needed to own his property. Thus, woman now depended on man in a material sense — she was the lesser gender because she produced less.

Engels and other historical materialists, such as August Bebel, who wrote Women in the Past, Present and Future (1885) and Women Under Socialism (1898), had the solution: the socialist revolution! Socialism and the elimination of private property would fully liberate women, returning them to a natural state of equality. While de Beauvoir supported many tenets of socialism as a political and economic system, she found historical materialism quite inadequate in explaining woman’s second-class status. The historical materialists provide no real evidence to support their theory of why humanity transitioned from a state of community ownership to one of private property. As with the psychoanalysts, they “[take] for granted facts that call for explanation … Engels’ account remains superficial, and the truths that he does reveal are seemingly contingent, incidental. The fact is that we cannot plumb their meaning without going beyond the limits of historical materialism.”

Biology, psychoanalysis, and economics simply will not do in explaining, entirely at least, the cause of women’s predicaments. That would require a much different line of inquiry, one based on existential ethics, that more fully accounts for the history of women.


In Book I, Part II, de Beauvoir provides a short history of women, from nomadic peoples, to the early agricultural period, to antiquity, to the Middle Ages, to the French Revolution, and finally, to their present day. While this is not an exhaustive survey (it is less than 90 pages), it radiates the authority of a writer who knows the history well. De Beauvoir treats with clinical precision woman’s place and role in different societies over thousands of years.

Part II leaves no major social, political, or religious system or institution unscathed. For example, as her focus is mostly on the Western woman, de Beauvoir takes a dead aim at Christianity. While Christian doctrine offered women redemption on equal terms as men, the Church rigidly maintains a patriarchal system of oppression. “Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman. Doubtless there is in the Gospel a breath of charity that extends to women as to lepers; and it was, to be sure, humble folk, slaves, and women who clung most passionately to the new law … women were treated with relative honor when they submitted themselves to the yoke of the Church … but they could only take secondary place as participants in worship.”

The final part of Book I concerns myths and is perhaps the most pertinent to contemporary discussion of gender integration and equality in the military. It’s worth noting that Mackenzie’s book frames the challenge of integrating women into combat units as one that should knock down a persistent myth. In Part III (Myths: Dreams, Fears, Idols), de Beauvoir is at the height of her intellectual power in rendering a lasting impression of how modern societies — and men in particular — still view women.


In Dreams, Fears, Idols, de Beauvoir examines the many myths perpetuated from before antiquity about women that retain, certainly in the 1940s but even today, a durable hold on the collective consciousness of societies. In one species of myth, a woman is dangerous and should be feared. As with Eve, she is the temptress, the moral weakling. She is also the sorceress, the witch, the demonic mystic. She leads man away from the path of righteousness. She must be contained and controlled. She must faithfully serve man and by extension the tribe, the clan, the state — the giving of herself for the perpetuation of the society and culture. In another species, a woman is purity in need of protection. She is the life-giving force, the “feminine mystique,” as de Beauvoir writes (this is also the title of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking American work on feminism, published in 1963, for which she credited de Beauvoir as a primary influence).

So, what should we make of these ostensibly conflicting myths? Do myths exalting women not counteract the ones that degrade them as a morally inferior or even wicked characters? Not at all, argued de Beauvoir. Both undermine them and contribute to their second-class status. This is the most fascinating analysis in Part III.

The feminine mystique is elaborate subterfuge. Myths exalting women are just another clever way to oppress them, for they lure women into complicity. De Beauvoir is unsparing at many turns in contending that, throughout history, women have betrayed their gender and been complicit in their own oppression — for status, for class, for wealth, for the power that could only be accessed through their attachment to and affirmation of the patriarchy. The power of the mystique is almost impossible to resist. For fear of being the sorceress or the temptress, what young girl does not want to be purity, innocence, or giver of life in need of protection in a dangerous world? She runs to this ideal for fear of the other. She sees no way to transcend the two mythical poles. Her status is one of subservience, and the feminine mystique is the balm that soothes that reality.

Golightly tapped directly into this myth in his 1987 article. More recently, in her 2013 Foreign Affairs article, “Let Women Fight: Ending the U.S. Military’s Female Combat Ban,” Mackenzie quoted then-Sen. Rick Santorum on the 2012 campaign trail, who was commenting on the need to keep the ban: “[Instead] of focus[ing] on the mission, [male soldiers] may be more concerned about protecting … a [female soldier] in a vulnerable position.” As a man, reading Dreams, Fears, Idols felt like an excavation of my psyche. Many things I had, at one time or another, thought about women were brought forth and placed before my eyes, as though de Beauvoir was saying to me, “Of course you think this about women. It’s to be expected, and this is why.”

Finally, to demonstrate how pernicious and deeply implanted myths about women are, de Beauvoir examines how they manifest in the work of five authors of some renown: Henry de Montherlant, D.H. Lawrence, Paul Claudel, André Breton, and Stendhal. Choosing such icons of literature was a daring move, but using lesser-known writers would have been less compelling. With these five writers, de Beauvoir shows how deep prejudices against and stereotypes of women reside in even the brightest literary minds. “Montherlant wishes woman to be contemptible. He asserts sometimes that the conflict between desire and contempt is a drama of pathos: ‘Ah, to desire what one disdains, what a tragedy!’” Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover) was a champion of the victims of dehumanizing industrialization and modernity, but he was also a staunch defender of a tradition in which women depend for happiness on husbands. “But there is always this reservation: what Lawrence is extolling — after the fashion of Proudhon and Rousseau — is monogamous marriage in which the wife derives the justification of her existence from the husband.”

For the poet, dramatist, and staunch Catholic Claudel, the Church has it right about women — she is holy, she is special, she occupies a place different but equal in its own way — not to preserve a patriarchy, but because that is God’s will. The poet André Breton exalted women as love incarnate — she is the muse that inspires our most ennobled sentiments and aspirations. Through her, we know true beauty and the sublime. De Beauvoir finds Breton’s viewpoint particularly noxious, not because she does not appreciate a woman’s beauty, but because for Breton and the poets, a woman is a pure object and never a subject. She is something to behold for inspiration. What a destructive myth for a young girl to indulge! “There is in Breton the same esoteric naturalism … as was in Dante choosing Beatrice for his guide and in Petrarch enkindled by the love of Laura.”

It was uncomfortable to read de Beauvoir’s analysis of Stendhal, long one of my favorite French writers. De Beauvoir writes that Stendhal loved women and was most incisive in his portrayal of them as deeply sensitive creatures. They are “alive: they know that the source of true values is not in external things but in human hearts.” Stendhal takes a scalpel to those Parisian women who scheme to advance their husbands’ careers in a corrupt, soulless, bourgeois society. Along with de Beauvoir, we see much to admire in Stendhal’s treatment of women. But here is the problem: Stendhal’s “external things” include almost anything a man considers to be serious occupations — politics, law, and finance — with which humanity needs to govern. For Stendhal, these occupations are necessary, but mundane and corrupt, sucking the life out of the men that should take them up. The professional world is a swamp where men’s vices thrive. Fortunately for women, they are not naturally endowed for these occupations and by a miracle of nature they can retain their authenticity.

Reading Stendhal is one of those fine enjoyments in life, and de Beauvoir knew it. The Red and The Black is one of the great 19th-century novels. I do not believe de Beauvoir wanted us to forswear these books, only to be aware that even with an artist such as Stendhal, who, through prose, exhibits such a profound and enlightened sensitivity, there is a not-so-subtle endorsement of the feminine mystique that contributes to woman’s degraded status. To worship a woman is still to demand that she be the object — the “other.”

For those engaged in the military gender integration debate today, de Beauvoir’s discussion of these five writers offers an additional reminder — those arguing against more integration may be no less intelligent and sincere than those championing change. But they still may be wrong. De Beauvoir’s discernment in analyzing their works holds up well with time, precisely because it is respectful without being dismissive.

Intellectual curiosity should seek the best writing on a topic. There are still questions to be debated regarding integrating women into the military, such as close quarters, coed living environments, and physical strength standards. But it will only help if more leaders have them from a more knowledgeable place. Simone de Beauvoir was a force with which to be reckoned and The Second Sex is arguably the best writing ever achieved on gender equality. It will not provide today’s military and political leaders with prescriptive solutions to specific gender integration challenges. But it will, if read carefully and with an open mind, help them distinguish facts from myths.



Bill Bray is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Image: The Ethics Centre