Simone de Beauvoir
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Simone de Beauvoir (pronounced [simɔn də boˈvwaʀ] in French) (January 9,
1908 – April 14, 1986) was a French author and philosopher. She wrote
novels, monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues, essays,
biographies, and an autobiography in several volumes. She is now best
known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay and The
Mandarins, and for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis
of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism.
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was the daughter
of Georges de Beauvoir, a one-time lawyer and amateur actor, and
Françoise Brasseur, a young woman from Verdun. She was born in Paris as
'Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir' and was educated at
a Catholic school for girls, something that was looked down on by the
intellectuals at the time. The Catholic schools for girls were seen as
places where the young were taught how to be mothers and wives more than
a place to learn. After World War I, Simone's maternal grandfather
Gustave Brasseur, president of the Meuse Bank, went bankrupt, throwing
his entire family into dishonor and poverty. The family had to move into
a smaller apartment and Georges de Beauvoir had to go back to work; his
relationship with his wife suffered.
Simone was always aware that her father had hoped to have a son,
instead of two daughters (her younger sister Hélène de Beauvoir became a
painter). However, he did tell Simone, "You have the brain of a man,"
and from a young age Simone was a distinguished student. Georges de
Beauvoir passed his love of theater and literature to his daughter. He
became convinced that only scholarly success could lift his daughters
out of poverty.
At 15, Simone de Beauvoir had already decided she would be a famous
writer. She did well in many subjects, but was especially attracted to
philosophy, which she went on to study at the University of Paris. There
she met many other young intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre.
After passing the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy,
she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and
literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie, then philosophy at
the Sorbonne. In 1929, while at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir gave a
presentation on Leibniz. Soon after she became involved in what was a
lifelong relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir studied at the
École Normale along with Sartre.
In 1929, at the age of 21, Beauvoir became the youngest person ever
to obtain the agrégation in philosophy, and the 9th woman to obtain this
degree. On the final examination she received second place; Sartre, age
24, was first (he'd failed his first exam). According to Deirdre Bair's
1990 biography of Beauvoir, the jury for the agrégation argued over
whether to give Sartre or Beauvoir first place in the competition. In
the end they awarded it to Sartre.
While at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir acquired her lifelong nickname,
Castor, the French word for "beaver" given to her because of the
animal's strong work ethic and the resemblance of her surname to the
English word "beaver".
She Came to Stay and The Mandarins
In 1943, Beauvoir published She Came to Stay, a fictionalized
chronicle of her and Sartre's relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and
Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary
school where Beauvoir taught during the early 30s. She grew fond of
Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she denied him; he began a
relationship with her sister Wanda instead. Sartre supported Olga for
years until she met and married her husband, Beauvoir's lover
Jacques-Laurent Bost. At Sartre's death, he was still supporting Wanda.
In the novel, set just before the outbreak of World War II, Beauvoir
makes one character from the complex relationships of Olga and Wanda.
The fictionalized versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a ménage à trois
with the young woman. The novel also delves into Beauvoir and Sartre's
complex relationship and how it was affected by the ménage à trois.
Beauvoir's metaphysical novel She Came to Stay was followed by many
others, including The Mandarins, which won her the Prix Goncourt,
France's highest literary prize. The Mandarins is set just after the end
of World War II. The Mandarins depicted Sartre, Nelson Algren, and many
philosophers and friends among Sartre and Beauvoir's intimate circle.
In 1944 Beauvoir wrote Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of an
existentialist ethics, which inspired her to write more on the subject.
This book, Pour Une Morale de L'ambiguïté (The Ethics of Ambiguity,
1947) is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism.
Its simplicity keeps it understandable, in contrast to the abstruse
character of Sartre's Being and Nothingness. The ambiguity about which
Beauvoir writes clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre
included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and
Sexuality, existentialist feminism, and The Second Sex
Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) was originally published as a
two-volume book in France. These works were very quickly published in
America as The Second Sex, owing to the quick translation by Howard
Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A.
Knopf. Because Parshley had only a basic familiarity with the French
language, and a minimal understanding of philosophy (he was a professor
of biology at Smith College), much of Beauvoir's book was mistranslated
or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message.
Nevertheless, to this day, Knopf has prevented the introduction of a
more accurate retranslation of Beauvoir's work, having declined all
proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars.
In her own way, Beauvoir anticipated the sexually charged feminism of
Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Algren, no example of restraint, was
outraged by the frank way Beauvoir later described her American sexual
experiences in The Mandarins (dedicated to Algren, on whom the character
Lewis Brogan was based) and in her autobiographies. He vented his
outrage when reviewing American translations of her work. Much material
bearing on this episode in Beauvoir's life, including her love letters
to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.
In the chapter "Woman: Myth and Reality" of The Second Sex, Beauvoir
argued that men had made women the "Other" in society by putting a false
aura of "mystery" around them. She argued that men used this as an
excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them,
and that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group
higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy. She wrote
that this also happened on the basis of other categories of identity,
such as race, class, and religion. But she said that it was nowhere more
true than with sex in which men stereotyped women and used it as an
excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.
Beauvoir's The Second Sex, published in French in 1949, sets out a
feminist existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution. As an
existentialist, Beauvoir accepted Sartre's precept that existence
precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her
analysis focuses on the Hegelian concept of the Other. It is the
(social) construction of Woman as the quintessential Other that Beauvoir
identifies as fundamental to women's oppression. The capitalized 'O' in
"other indicates wholly other.
Feminist author Adrienne Sahuqué, born circa 1890, dealt with sexual
prejudices against women in her 1932 Les dogmes sexuels (Sexual dogmas)
(Paris, Alcan, 1932). Her work did not gain as much notice as did
Beauvoir argued that women have historically been considered deviant,
abnormal. She said that even Mary Wollstonecraft considered men to be
the ideal toward which women should aspire. Beauvoir said that this
attitude limited women's success by maintaining the perception that they
were a deviation from the normal, and were always outsiders attempting
to emulate "normality". She believed that for feminism to move forward,
this assumption must be set aside.
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.
Les Temps Modernes
At the end of World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les Temps
Modernes, a political journal Sartre founded along with Maurice
Merleau-Ponty and others. Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes to promote
her own work and explore her ideas on a small scale before fashioning
essays and books. Beauvoir remained an editor until her death.
Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about her travels in the United
States and China, and published essays and fiction rigorously,
especially throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She published several volumes
of short stories, including The Woman Destroyed, which, like some of her
other later work, deals with aging.
In 1979 she published When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of
short stories centered around and based upon women important to her
earlier years. The stories were written well before the novel She Came
to Stay, but Beauvoir did not think they were worthy of publication
until about forty years later.
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led
Merleau-Ponty to leave Les Temps Modernes. Beauvoir sided with Sartre
and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In Beauvoir's later years,
she hosted the journal's editorial meetings in her flat and contributed
more than Sartre, whom she often had to force to offer his opinions.
Beauvoir also notably wrote a four-volume autobiography, consisting
of: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of
Circumstance (sometimes published in two volumes in English translation:
After the War and Hard Times); and All Said and Done.
In the 1970s Beauvoir became active in France's women's liberation
movement. She signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a list of famous
women who claimed, mostly falsely, to have had an abortion, then illegal
in France. Beauvoir had not actually had an abortion.
Signatories were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, and
Beauvoir's sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalized in France.
Her 1970 long essay La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age) is a rare
instance of an intellectual meditation on the decline and solitude all
humans experience if they do not die before about age 60. In 1981 she
wrote La Cérémonie Des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), a painful account
of Sartre's last years. In the opening of Adieux, Beauvoir notes that it
is the only major published work of hers which Sartre did not read
before its publication. She and Sartre always read one another's work.
After Sartre died, Beauvoir published his letters to her with edits
to spare the feelings of people in their circle who were still living.
After Beauvoir's death, Sartre's adopted daughter and literary heir
Arlette Elkaïm would not let many of Sartre's letters be published in
unedited form. Most of Sartre's letters available today have Beauvoir's
edits, which include a few omissions but mostly the use of pseudonyms.
Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary heir Sylvie Le Bon, unlike
Elkaïm, published Beauvoir's unedited letters to both Sartre and Algren.
Death, honors and legacy
Beauvoir died of pneumonia in Paris, aged 78. She is buried next to
Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.
Since her death, her reputation has grown. Especially in academia,
she is considered the mother of post-1968 feminism. There has also been
a growing awareness of her as a major French thinker and existentialist
Contemporary discussion analyzes the influences of Beauvoir and
Sartre on one another. She is seen as having influenced Sartre's
masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, while also having written much on
philosophy that is independent of Sartrean existentialism. Some scholars
have explored the influences of her earlier philosophical essays and
treatises upon Sartre's later thought. She is studied by many respected
academics both within and outside philosophy circles, including Margaret
A. Simons and Sally Scholtz. Beauvoir's life has also inspired numerous
In 2006, the city of Paris commissioned architect Dietmar Feichtinger
to design a sophisticated footbridge across the Seine River. The bridge
was named the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir in her honor. The bridge
features feminine curves and leads to the new Bibliothèque nationale de