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Simone de Beauvoir

About Simone de Beauvoir

An Interview with Simone de Beauvoir

More About Simone de Beauvoir

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.'

"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

Shocking, controversial, thought-provoking; three terms frequently applied to Simone de Beauvoir, pioneering political thinker, literary figure and life-partner of Jean Paul Sartre.

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 or Czechoslovakia … Somehow the proletariat always end up being made up of men.'

Camille 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 and paragraphs.'

Germaine 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 25.'

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.

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