May 26, 2022 • 8M

Simone de Beauvoir: Most influential feminist of 20th century


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Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French existentialist philosopher, political activist and feminist writer. Working alongside other prominent existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, de Beauvoir produced a rich volume of writings on feminism, ethics, fiction, autobiography and politics. Through her writings – including four volumes of autobiography and several novels – she heavily criticised patriarchy that was limiting women from achieving anything significant in their life.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), Simone de Beauvoir was born on January 9, 1908, in Paris to Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir and Françoise Brasseur. Her father, Georges, born into a family with some aristocratic lineage, was a staunchly conservative man. Despite his love for theatre, his aristocratic inclination drew him towards the extreme right. Françoise, Simone’s mother, was a deeply religious woman who wanted to raise her child in the Catholic faith.

Simone was precocious and intellectually curious from her childhood.  Her father encouraged her to read and write from a little age and provided her with carefully edited selections of classical literature. Even though she was religious during her childhood, she turned an atheist at the age of 14. She remained an atheist until the end.

Simone de Beauvoir wanted to become a writer and teacher rather than spending her life as a mother and a wife. She studied with vigour and passed her baccalauréat examinations in Mathematics and Philosophy in 1925. She then studied French and Latin literature before starting her study on Philosophy in 1927.

In her book The Second Sex, published in 1949, which is considered to be her magnum opus, Simone de Beauvoir discusses the treatment of women throughout history.

According to IEP, during her studies in Philosophy in Sorbonne, she passed examinations in History of Philosophy, General Philosophy, Greek, and Logic. After securing second place in the highly competitive Philosophy agrégation examination, de Beauvoir became the youngest Philosophy teacher in France in 1929.

She met Jean-Paul Sartre during that time which resulted in a lifelong association with him. She taught at a number of schools before turning to writing for livelihood. In 1945, de Beauvoir and Sartre founded and started editing Le Temps modernes, a monthly review.

In her book The Second Sex, published in 1949, which is considered to be her magnum opus, Simone de Beauvoir discusses the treatment of women throughout history. This book is one of the earliest attempts to confront human history from a feministic perspective.

In the book, Simone de Beauvoir argues that women have been denied full humanity, denied the human right to create, invent and to go beyond normal ways to find meaning for their life. According to her, man “remodels the face of the Earth, he creates new instruments, he invents, he shapes the future”; woman, on the contrary, is always and archetypally ‘Other’. She reiterates the fact that women are always seen as an object, not a subject.

Simone de Beauvoir always opposed any feminism that advocated women’s special virtues or values and rejected any idealisation of specifically ‘feminine traits’.

Through the chapters that range from the girl child, the wife, the mother, the prostitute, the narcissist, the lesbian, and to the woman in love, de Beauvoir explores the different aspects of her central argument – men fundamentally suppress women by characterising them on every level as ‘other’.

She says that “one is not born, but becomes a woman” and insists that a woman can change her condition, but she mistakenly looks for salvation in love.

Simone de Beauvoir always opposed any feminism that advocated women’s special virtues or values and rejected any idealisation of specifically ‘feminine traits’. She argued that supporting that kind of feminism is like agreeing to a myth invented by man to confine women.

According to her, there is no need for women to assert themselves as women. Instead, she wanted women to become full-scale human beings.

According to Philosophy Now, Though Simone de Beauvoir remained critical of some forms of feminism throughout her lifetime, she was impressed by the emerging Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). In an interview in 1972, she admitted that such a movement to struggle for the actual position of women was necessary. As equality has not been obtained in socialist countries, she believed that woman must take their destiny to their own hands.

Simone de Beauvoir’s other works include four autobiographical volumes – Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, The Force of Circumstance, and All Said and Done – as well as the 1964 book about her mother, ironically titled A Very Easy Death. These books take us on a uniquely detailed, remarkably frank, and often very moving journey through her own experiences. Her last major theoretical work, Old Age (1970), in which she struggles to maintain her cool rationality in the face of the ultimate, the inevitable, defeat, is perhaps her most moving book.

Simone de Beauvoir’s lifelong companion, Jean Paul Sartre, passed away in 1980, and it is recounted in her 1981 book, La Cérémonie des Adieux (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre). After that, de Beauvoir adopted Sylvie Le Bon, who helped in her literary works. 

Simone de Beauvoir died of pulmonary oedema on April 14, 1986.

Simon de Beauvoir is perhaps the most influential of all 20th century feminists. She remains important for her autobiographies and novels as well as for her great piece of feminist theory, The Second Sex. Her life is a successful example of how a girl had escaped the feminine role of ‘object- other’.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

Can you think of the reasons why Simone de Beauvoir rejected the idealisation of specifically ‘feminine traits’?

Can you think of the significance of the book The Second Sex in spreading awareness on the rights of women?

How would you describe the contributions of Simone de Beauvoir to the growth of feminism?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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