Sociology Index

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist, political activist, feminist, and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory. Simone de Beauvoir wrote novels, essays, biographies, and monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues. She was known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism; and for her novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins.

Simone de Beauvoir's most enduring contribution to literature is her memoirs, the first volume, “Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée” (1958), which have a warmth and descriptive power. Simone de Beauvoir won the 1954 Prix Goncourt, the 1975 Jerusalem Prize, and the 1978 Austrian State Prize for European Literature. Simone de Beauvoir was also known for her open, lifelong relationship with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. She first worked with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss, when all three completed their practice teaching requirements at the same secondary school.

Simone de Beauvoir sat in on courses at the École Normale Supérieure in preparation for the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive postgraduate examination which serves as a national ranking of students. Simone de Beauvoir met École Normale students Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan, and René Maheu. The jury for the agrégation narrowly awarded Sartre first place instead of Beauvoir, who placed second and, at age 21, was the youngest person ever to pass the exam.

Writing of her youth in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she said: "...my father's individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual."

Scholars point out that Simone de Beauvoir's ideal relationships described in The Second Sex and elsewhere bore little resemblances to the marriage standards of the day. Instead, she and Sartre entered into a lifelong "soul partnership", which was sexual but not exclusive, nor did it involve living together. Sartre and Beauvoir always read each other's work. Debate continues about the extent to which they influenced each other in their existentialist works, such as Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Beauvoir's She Came to Stay and "Phenomenology and Intent".

Beauvoir's prominent open relationships at times overshadowed her substantial academic reputation. Beginning in 1929, Beauvoir and Sartre were partners and remained so for 51 years, until his death in 1980. She chose never to marry or set up a joint household, and never had children. This gave her the time to advance her education and engage in political causes, write and teach, and take lovers. - Schneir, Miriam (1994). Feminism in Our Time. - Vintage Books.

In 1943, Beauvoir was suspended from her teaching position when she was accused of seducing her 17-year-old lycée pupil Natalie Sorokine in 1939. In 1977, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Paul Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and much of the era's intelligentsia signed a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France.

In 1944 Beauvoir wrote her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion on existentialist ethics. She continued her exploration of existentialism through her second essay The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947); it is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism. Beauvoir clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir confronts the existentialist dilemma of absolute freedom vs. the constraints of circumstance.

The Second Sex, Le Deuxième Sexe, turns the existentialist mantra that existence precedes essence into a feminist one: "One is not born but becomes a woman" (French: "On ne naît pas femme, on le devient"). With this famous phrase, Beauvoir first articulated what has come to be known as the sex-gender distinction, that is, the distinction between biological sex and the social and historical construction of gender and its attendant stereotypes. Beauvoir argues that "the fundamental source of women's oppression is its historical and social construction as the quintessential" Other.

Beauvoir defines women as the "second sex" because women are defined in relation to men. She pointed out that Aristotle argued women are "female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities", while Thomas Aquinas referred to woman as "imperfect man" and the "incidental" being. She quotes “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.” Beauvoir asserted that women are as capable of choice as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the "immanence" to which they were previously resigned and reaching "transcendence", a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, where one chooses one's freedom.