“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 produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most influential feminist thinkers of the 20th century. A novelist, political activist, memoirist and philosopher, she is most well-known for writing the 1949 text ‘The Second Sex’ which was revolutionary in its discussions on the role of women in society. In addition to her work, de Beauvoir had a lifelong polyamorous relationship with fellow existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Born in 1908 to a Catholic bourgeois family in Paris, the de Beauvoir family lost the last of their wealth after World War One. Whilst at the Sorbonne in 1929, she met Jean-Paul Sartre when they were studying for a postgraduate examination in philosophy. De Beauvoir became the ninth woman to pass the exam and the youngest ever to pass. She ranked second overall in the examination with Sartre, who, in re-sitting the exam, beat her to first place.
Following her graduation, de Beauvoir worked as a teacher, and she and Sartre began a relationship which would last until his death in 1980. Based on their belief in radical freedom, de Beauvoir characterised their love as ‘essential’ with an emphasis on emotional honesty. Both engaged in romantic relationships with men and women throughout their relationship and although they saw each other daily, they never lived together and did not have any children.
De Beauvoir and Sartre’s relationship was also based on a profound admiration of each other’s philosophy and intelligence, with de Beauvoir believing that she’d found her intellectual equal in Sartre. Indeed, following the publication of Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ in 1943, de Beauvoir published ‘The Ethics of Ambiguity’ in 1945 which developed the ideas in Sartre’s work and outlined existentialist ethics.
‘She Came To Stay’ was de Beauvoir’s literary debut and was published in 1943. Influenced by her relationship with Sartre, and the sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz, the novel explores what happens to a couple in an open relationship when they form a ménage à trois. Characterised as a metaphysical novel, it explores the fundamental existentialist belief that humans are ultimately responsible for themselves – a theme which would recur throughout de Beauvoir’s work.
In 1949, ‘The Second Sex’ was published in France. Presented in two parts, the first part looks at history through a feminist lens and explores how women came to occupy a subordinate place in society. The second part examines the reality of women’s lives under de Beauvoir’s contemporary context. Throughout the work, de Beauvoir argues that there is no reason for the unfair treatment of women throughout history, but rather, asserts that gender norms have been deliberately constructed, and then reinforced, by society. ‘The Second Sex’ was, and remains, incredibly popular and influential, and is seen as one of the key early texts for second wave feminism.
Simone de Beauvoir continued to publish fiction and nonfiction throughout her life. She won the Prix Goncourt for her novel ‘The Mandarins’ in 1954 which satirised the lives of Sartre, Camus and other leading French intellectuals. Her other novels included ‘The Blood of Others’, ‘All Men Are Mortal’, ‘Les Belles Images’ and ‘The Woman Destroyed’. She also published four memoirs which examined her life with great intellectual insight, including ‘Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter’, ‘Force of Circumstance’, ‘The Coming of Age’ and ‘All Said and Done’. After Sartre’s death in 1980, she published ‘Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre’ which poignantly discussed the last years of her beloved’s life.
Throughout her life, de Beauvoir continued to speak out on political issues. She was a great champion of women’s rights and supported the abortions laws in France and Algeria and Hungary’s battles for independence. De Beauvoir also condemned the Vietnam war.
She died on 14 April 1986 at the age of 78. She is buried next to Jean-Paul Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. Upon her death, her fellow feminist writers Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan both praised her influence, with Steinem proclaiming that “if any single human being can be credited with inspiring the current international women’s movement, it’s Simone de Beauvoir.”