Simone de Beauvoir, one of the most respected and influential thinkers of her generation, was born in Paris (above the Café de la Rotonde in Montparnasse) in 1908. Her father was a lawyer of conservative views. She took a degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1929 and was placed second to Jean-Paul Sartre, who became her life-long friend. She taught at the lycées at Marseilles and Rouen from 1931 to 1937, and from 1938 to 1943 was teaching in Paris. After the war she emerged as one of the leaders of the existential movement. Her first novel, L'Invitée, was published in 1943, and in an essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, published in the following year, she developed some of the major themes of existentialism. Le Sang des autres appeared in 1945, when she also had a play, Les Bouches inutiles, presented at the Théatre des Carrefours. There followed Tous les hommes sont mortels and Pour une morale de l'ambiguité in 1947. Two years later she published her famous two-volume study of women, The Second Sex, and in 1954 won the Prix Goncourt with her novel, The Mandarins. Her other works include The Long March (1958), Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1959), Djamila Boupacha (with Giséle Halimi), The Prime of Life (1963), Force of Circumstance (1965), A Very Easy Death (1966), The Woman Destroyed (1969), Old Age (1972), All Said and Done (1974), When Things of the Spirit Come First (1982) and Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1984). In 1978 she was awarded the Austrian State Prize for her contribution to European literature.
Simone de Beauvoir died on 14th April 1986. In her obituary, The Times said, 'Simone de Beauvoir was always a very readable writer and a very likeable person. Her honesty, her sincerity, her almost Victorian high seriousness, commanded widespread respect.'
Simone de Beauvoir
About Simone de Beauvoir
An Interview with Simone de Beauvoir
More About Simone de Beauvoir
"My own particular
enterprise was the development of my life, which I believed lay in my own
hands. It had to satisfy two requirements, which in my optimism I treated as
identical: it must make me happy, and put the whole world at my disposal"
Simone de Beauvoir
thought-provoking; three terms frequently applied to Simone de Beauvoir,
pioneering political thinker, literary figure and life-partner of
From her days as a philosophy student at the
Sorbonne (where she met Sartre in 1929), to much of her early material (She
Came to Stay 1943, The Ethics of Ambiguity 1947) de Beauvoir was frequently
overshadowed by her famous partner.
With the publication of The Second Sex in 1949 she began to emerge
from his shadow as an independent and original thinker. Tackling issues
surrounding femininity and motherhood she stated that 'One is not born but
rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate
determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is
civilisation as a whole that determines this creature.' She then went on to
argue that man has always conceived of himself as the essential, the Self, and
made of woman the Other. Though both these ideas are now central to a large
body of feminist thought in 1949 they were perceived as revolutionary.
Equally if not more shocking was her rejection of the traditional female
roles. Motherhood, in particular, was described as a purely constraining and
repressive state of being. She dismissed it as: 'a strange mixture of
narcissism, altruism, idle daydreaming, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and
cynicism.' Her strength of feeling on this issue meant that she never had
children herself and she was one of the loudest voices in the campaign to
legalise abortion in France. In
The Blood of
Others the heroine, Helene, describes her reasons for having an
abortion saying: 'It's for me to choose'. A woman's right to choose has been at
the very centre of feminist thinking ever since.
The Second Sex was also incisive and descriptive of the dilemma of
lifestyle choices that were beginning to effect women. She wrote that the newly
independent woman is 'torn between her professional interests and the problems
of her sexual life; it is difficult for her to strike a balance between the
two; if she does, it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices, acrobatics,
which require her to be in a constant state of tension.'
It was only in the 1970s that de Beauvoir was happy to accept the label
'feminist', she was always careful to link the emancipation of women to the
wider emancipation of the working class. In an interview in 1976 she explained:
'just as it is up to the poor to take away the power of the rich, so it is up
to women to take away power from the men.' 'It is true that equality of the
sexes is impossible under capitalism
But it is not true that a socialist
revolution necessarily establishes sexual equality. Just look at Soviet Russia
Somehow the proletariat always end up being made up of
Paglia has described The Second Sex as 'the supreme work of modern
feminism'. She says: 'Most contemporary feminists don't realize to what degree
they are merely repeating, amplifying, or qualifying its individual sections
Greer's study of the crippling effects of the constructed concept of
'femininity' in The Female Eunuch - a book that came to embody the new
wave of feminist thinking in the 1970s - clearly owes much to the notion that
'a woman is born not made'.
Simone de Beauvoir herself made far fewer claims for the book. In an
interview in 1976 she explained: 'The Second Sex in no way launched the
feminist movement. Most of the women who became very active in the movement
were much too young
when the book came out to be influenced by it. What
pleases me, of course, is that they did discover it later.
They may have
become feminists for the reasons I explain in The Second Sex; but they
discovered those reasons in their life experiences, not in my book.'
She went on to express her admiration for the women of the newer generation
and their efforts at liberating themselves: 'They have managed to communicate
with a profundity that I never thought possible or imaginable when I was
Nevertheless, most modern feminists would not deny the power of her
arguments in shaping current debates on feminism. In 1999 140 scholars from all
over the world met in Paris to discuss her ideas and to reassert her importance
as an icon, example and philosopher.
Her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958) and
The Prime of
Life (1960) - the next instalment on of her autobiography - tell the
story of her transition from a conventional middle class daughter to a female
icon on the intellectual vanguard of modern thinking. In Memoirs of a
Dutiful Daughter she describes her early life, from her birth in Paris,
1908, to her student days at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre her
'dream-companion.' The Prime of Life tells the story of her life, from
the age of twenty-one, where she experienced the intoxicating freedom of being
a 'grown-up' in Paris for the first time, through the uneasy, rebellious
thirties, the war years and finally to the liberation of Paris in 1944.