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Happy Birthday, Simone de Beauvoir, Author of “The Second Sex”

January 09, 2010
by Liz Colville
Simone de Beauvoir was a French feminist philosopher and lifelong companion of Jean-Paul Sartre, known for many influential works of fiction and feminist and existential philosophy including “The Second Sex” and “The Mandarins.”

Early Days

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Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908, to Francoise and Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir. Her father, Georges, was an aspiring actor who ended up studying law and working as a civil servant and legal secretary. Georges was a “staunchly conservative man,” according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, despite his artistic leanings and atheism. His wife, Françoise, was born into a wealthy family and was a fervent Catholic. She and her eldest daughter Simone,  a “precocious and intellectually curious child,” would later come into conflict over their difference of beliefs. 

Beauvoir’s father encouraged her to be an avid reader and writer from a young age. At 14, Beauvoir “had a crisis of faith and decided definitively that there was no God.” It was after this revelation that she decided to study philosophy, also rejecting marriage as an apparent barrier to “living the life of an intellectual.”

Beauvoir studied math, literature and languages at the Institut Catholique and Institut Sainte-Marie before attending the Sorbonne, seeking a life as a writer and teacher. In 1929, she took the agrégation exam in philosophy at the École Normale de Supérieure, even though she was not a student there, and placed second behind Jean-Paul Sartre, becoming the youngest philosophy teacher in France at age 21.

She was a schoolteacher from 1931 to 1943; after a parent complained that she had “corrupted” one of her female students, de Beauvoir quit teaching and began writing full time.

Notable Accomplishments

After finishing her education, Beauvoir entered into a “progressive” relationship with Sartre; he proposed to her in 1931 but they never married or had children, did not live together, and throughout their lives had affairs with other people. Intellectually, they had an enormous impact on each other. For example, Sartre was reading the manuscript of Beauvoir’s first work of fiction, 1943’s “L’Invitée” (“She Came to Stay”) while he was writing “Being and Nothingness.” “She Came to Stay” was based on the relationship among Beauvoir, Sartre and a student of Beauvoir’s, Olga Kosakievicz. Though it was a novel, the book was considered to be Beauvoir’s “inaugural philosophical foray.” It is “is packed with philosophical reflections,” writes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “reflections on our relationship to time, to each other, to ourselves. These reflections are never, however, systematized, argued for or brought to closure.”

Her first philosophical essay, “Pyrrhus and Cinéas” (1944), asked such questions as: “What are the criteria of ethical action? How can I distinguish ethical from unethical political projects? What are the principles of ethical relationships? Can violence ever be justified?” The essay was written in Beauvoir’s “moral period,” coinciding with World War II and the French Resistance, when she contributed many works to the existential oeuvre, including “Le Sang des Autres” (“The Blood of Others”), published in 1945.

Beauvoir is best known for her great contribution to the feminist movement, “The Second Sex,” published in 1949. The book, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a scholarly and passionate plea for the abolition of what she called the myth of the ‘eternal feminine.’” The book was a bestseller worldwide and is thought of as part of the “prologue” to the women’s movement of the 1960s. It “raised feminist consciousness by stressing that liberation for women was liberation for men too.”

The Rest of the Story

Beauvoir traveled to the U.S. after the war, meeting and having an affair with writer Nelson Algren,. The novel “The Mandarins” (1954), for which she won the prestigious French literary prize the Prix Goncourt, is based on her relationship with Algren and Sartre, and is a “chronicle of the movement of post-World War II intellectuals from their “mandarin” (educated elite) status towards active political engagement,” according to the European Graduate School’s section on philosophers.

She wrote four volumes of an autobiography: “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” (1958), “The Prime of Life” (1960), “Force of Circumstance” (1963) and “All Said and Done” (1972). The books pondered such topics as “I” versus “we,” autonomy, her relationship with Sartre and others. 1964’s “A Very Easy Death” explores mortality through the lens of her mother’s death, and was followed by “Old Age” (1970), a “scathing critique of society’s indifference to the elderly.” She also wrote a tribute to Sartre, “Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre” (1981), following his death in 1980. Some, including Sartre’s adopted daughter Arlette El-Kaïm Sartre, criticized the work as a “cold report.”

Beauvoir’s health declined as she became a heavier user of alcohol and amphetamines. She died just five years after Sartre in 1986, and was buried beside Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
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