The Second Sex is seventy years old. Simone de Beauvoir's book has to be one of the most influential in terms of social change, when we consider the status of women and how it has changed in that seventy years. But adult and community education also owes a debt to The Second Sex. It has been immeasurable in providing us with a lens which changes our perceptions and understanding of the world completely. Firstly, we can see that inequality is a social construction, rather than natural or inevitable. When de Beauvoir says:' One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman', it demolishes the persistent idea that women are essentially different to men, and let us not forget that education was key to dividing men and women into completely different social categories, with gendered institutions, subjects and expectations, as well as maintaining arbitrary parameters of masculinities and femininities.
But The Second Sex also starts us thinking that the poor are not essentially different to the rich, or people of colour are not essentially different to white europeans, that the dominant group 'Others' those they consider as subordinate. That is, de Beauvoir enables us to see that the difference on which inequality and unfairness is based is a human invention, which is upheld and supported by social institutions, including education. And adult and community education has long challenged traditional education, particularly in the ways in which education is a key social determinant: it divides people into professions, vocational work, unskilled work, and unpaid work, as well as dividing people in terms of participating in society and community.
Adult and community education have been deeply influenced by Women's Studies as it developed in the second wave of feminism. The Second Sex demonstrated that education and knowledge was biased against women, including history, philosophy, literature, and sociology. Out of that realisation, Women’s Studies emerged, which included women’s perspectives into the co-creation of knowledge. Women's Studies brought a number of elements into adult and community education, particularly the connections between seemingly different subjects; critical feminist consciousness; care of and for students, learners, educators and providers; the focus on personal development; making the connections between the personal and the political and social, and most of all, disrupting the underlying or unconscious gender bias.
It takes many years to bring about social change through adult and community education, but it is wonderful see adult learning flourishing, gaining influence in all spheres of education, but also, in the social and cultural spheres, as well as the world of work, not only through formal accreditation, but particularly through non-formal and informal learning, which brings about the most profound changes.
Here's to Simone de Beauvoir, and let's celebrate her role in igniting this new era.