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Simone de Beauvoir
Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir (; French: [simɔn də bovwaʁ] (listen); 9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986) was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory.
De Beauvoir wrote novels, essays, biographies, autobiography and monographs on philosophy, politics and social issues. She was known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism; and for her novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. She was also known for her lifelong relationship with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Simone de Beauvoir was born on 9 January 1908 into a bourgeois Parisian family in the 6th arrondissement. Her parents were Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, a legal secretary who once aspired to be an actor, and Françoise de Beauvoir (née Brasseur), a wealthy banker's daughter and devout Catholic. Simone's sister, Hélène, was born two years later. The family struggled to maintain their bourgeois status after losing much of their fortune shortly after World War I, and Françoise insisted that the two daughters be sent to a prestigious convent school. De Beauvoir herself was deeply religious as a child, at one point intending to become a nun. She lost her faith in her early teens and remained an atheist for the rest of her life.
De Beauvoir was intellectually precocious, fuelled by her father's encouragement; he reportedly would boast, "Simone thinks like a man!" Because of her family's straitened circumstances, de Beauvoir could no longer rely on her dowry, and like other middle-class girls of her age, her marriage opportunities were put at risk. De Beauvoir took this opportunity to do what she always wanted to do while also taking steps to earn a living for herself.
After passing baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique de Paris and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie. She then studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and after completing her degree in 1928, she wrote her diplôme d'études supérieures (roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) on Leibniz for Léon Brunschvicg (the topic was "Le concept chez Leibniz" ["The Concept in Leibniz"]). De Beauvoir was only the ninth woman to have received a degree from the Sorbonne at the time, due to the fact that French women had only recently been allowed to join higher education.
De Beauvoir first worked with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss, when all three completed their practice teaching requirements at the same secondary school. Although not officially enrolled, she sat in on courses at the École Normale Supérieure in preparation for the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive postgraduate examination which serves as a national ranking of students. It was while studying for the agrégation that she met École Normale students Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan, and René Maheu (who gave her the lasting nickname "Castor", or beaver). The jury for the agrégation narrowly awarded Sartre first place instead of de Beauvoir, who placed second and, at age 21, was the youngest person ever to pass the exam.
Writing of her youth in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she said: "...my father's individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual."
From 1929 to 1943, de Beauvoir taught at the lycée level until she could support herself solely on the earnings of her writings. She taught at the Lycée Montgrand (Marseille), the Lycée Jeanne-d'Arc (Rouen), the Lycée Molière (Paris) (1936–39).
During October 1929, Jean-Paul Sartre and de Beauvoir became a couple and, after they were confronted by her father, Sartre asked her to marry him. One day while they were sitting on a bench outside the Louvre, he said, "Let's sign a two-year lease". Near the end of her life, de Beauvoir said, "Marriage was impossible. I had no dowry." So they entered a lifelong relationship.
Sartre and de Beauvoir always read each other's work. Debate continues about the extent to which they influenced each other in their existentialist works, such as Sartre's Being and Nothingness and de Beauvoir's She Came to Stay and "Phenomenology and Intent". However, recent studies of de Beauvoir's work focus on influences other than Sartre, including Hegel and Leibniz. The Neo-Hegelian revival led by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite in the 1930s inspired a whole generation of French thinkers, including Beauvoir and Sartre, to discover Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.
Beginning in 1929, de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were partners for fifty-one years until his death in 1980. De Beauvoir chose never to marry or set up a joint household and she never had children. This gave her the time to advance her education and engage in political causes, to write and teach, and to have lovers.
Perhaps her most famous lover was American author Nelson Algren whom she met in Chicago in 1947, and to whom she wrote across the Atlantic as "my beloved husband." Algren won the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1950, and in 1954, de Beauvoir won France's most prestigious literary prize for The Mandarins in which Algren is the character Lewis Brogan. Algren vociferously objected to their intimacy becoming public. Years after they separated, she was buried wearing his gift of a silver ring. However, she lived with Claude Lanzmann from 1952 to 1959.
De Beauvoir was bisexual and her relationships with young women were controversial. Former student Bianca Lamblin (originally Bianca Bienenfeld) wrote in her book Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée (English: Memoirs of a Disturbed Young Lady), that, while she was a student at Lycée Molière, she had been sexually exploited by her teacher de Beauvoir, who was in her 30s at the time. In 1943, de Beauvoir was suspended from her teaching job, due to an accusation that she had seduced her 17-year-old lycée pupil Natalie Sorokine in 1939. Sorokine's parents laid formal charges against de Beauvoir for debauching a minor and as a result she had her license to teach in France permanently revoked.
In 1977, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and much of the era's intelligentsia signed a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France.
She Came to Stay
De Beauvoir published her first novel She Came to Stay in 1943. It is a fictionalised chronicle of her and Sartre's sexual relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary school where de Beauvoir taught during the early 1930s. She grew fond of Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she rejected him, so he began a relationship with her sister Wanda. Upon his death, Sartre was still supporting Wanda. He also supported Olga for years, until she met and married Jacques-Laurent Bost, a lover of de Beauvoir.
In the novel, set just before the outbreak of World War II, de Beauvoir creates one character from the complex relationships of Olga and Wanda. The fictionalised versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a ménage à trois with the young woman. The novel also delves into de Beauvoir and Sartre's complex relationship and how it was affected by the ménage à trois.
She Came to Stay was followed by many others, including The Blood of Others, which explores the nature of individual responsibility, telling a love story between two young French students participating in the Resistance in World War II.
In 1944 de Beauvoir wrote her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of an existentialist ethics. She continued her exploration of existentialism through her second essay The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947); it is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism. In the essay, de Beauvoir clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir confronts the existentialist dilemma of absolute freedom vs. the constraints of circumstance.
Les Temps modernes
At the end of World War II, de Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les Temps modernes, a political journal which Sartre founded along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. De Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes to promote her own work and explore her ideas on a small scale before fashioning essays and books. De Beauvoir remained an editor until her death.
Sexuality, existentialist feminism and The Second Sex
The Second Sex, first published in 1949 in French as Le Deuxième Sexe, turns the existentialist mantra that existence precedes essence into a feminist one: "One is not born but becomes a woman". With this famous phrase, Beauvoir first articulated what has come to be known as the sex-gender distinction, that is, the distinction between biological sex and the social and historical construction of gender and its attendant stereotypes. "The fundamental source of women's oppression" Beauvoir notes, "is its historical and social construction as the quintessential" Other.
De Beauvoir defines women as the "second sex" because women are defined in relation to men. Aristotle referred that women are "female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities". De Beauvoir also points out that St. Thomas referred to the woman as the "imperfect man", the "incidental" being. De 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.
Chapters of The Second Sex were originally published in Les Temps modernes, in June 1949. The second volume came a few months after the first in France. It was very quickly published in America due 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 de Beauvoir's book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message. For years, Knopf prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of de Beauvoir's work, declining all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars. Only in 2009 was there a second translation, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original publication. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier produced the first integral translation in 2010, reinstating a third of the original work.
In the chapter "Woman: Myth and Reality" of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argued that men had made women the "Other" in society by application of 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 a similar kind of oppression by hierarchy also happened in other categories of identity, such as race, class and religion, but she claimed that it was nowhere more true than with gender in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.
Despite her contributions to the feminist movement, especially the French women's liberation movement, and her beliefs in women's economic independence and equal education, de Beauvoir was initially reluctant to call herself a feminist. However, after observing the resurgence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, de Beauvoir stated she no longer believed a socialist revolution to be enough to bring about women's liberation. She publicly declared herself a feminist in 1972 in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur.
In 2018 the manuscript pages of Le Deuxième Sexe were published. At the time her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, a philosophy professor, described her mother's writing process: Beauvoir wrote every page of her books longhand first and only after that would hire typists.
Published in 1954, The Mandarins is set after the end of World War II and won her France's highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The book follows the personal lives of philosophers and friends among Sartre's and de Beauvoir's intimate circle, including her relationship with American writer Nelson Algren, to whom the book was dedicated. Algren was outraged by the frank way de Beauvoir described their sexual experiences in both The Mandarins and her autobiographies. Algren vented his outrage when reviewing American translations of de Beauvoir's work. Much material bearing on this episode in de Beauvoir's life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.
De Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about time spent 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.
1980 saw the publication of When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of short stories centred around and based upon women important to her earlier years. Though written long before the novel She Came to Stay, de Beauvoir did not at the time consider the stories worth publishing, allowing some forty years to pass before doing so.
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led Merleau-Ponty to leave Les Temps Modernes. De Beauvoir sided with Sartre and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In de 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.
De 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 de Beauvoir became active in France's women's liberation movement. She wrote and signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a manifesto that included a list of famous women who claimed to have had an abortion, then illegal in France. Some argue most of the women had not had abortions, including Beauvoir. Signatories were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig and de Beauvoir's sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalised 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 the age of 60.
In an interview with Betty Friedan, de Beauvoir said: "No, we don’t believe that any woman should have this choice. No woman should be authorised to stay at home to bring up her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction."
In about 1976 de Beauvoir and Sylvie Le Bon made a trip to New York City in the United States to visit Kate Millett on her farm.
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, de Beauvoir notes that it is the only major published work of hers which Sartre did not read before its publication.
She contributed the piece "Feminism – alive, well, and in constant danger" to the 1984 anthology Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology, edited by Robin Morgan.
After Sartre died in 1980, de Beauvoir published his letters to her with edits to spare the feelings of people in their circle who were still living. After de 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 de Beauvoir's edits, which include a few omissions but mostly the use of pseudonyms. De Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary heir Sylvie Le Bon, unlike Elkaïm, published de Beauvoir's unedited letters to both Sartre and Algren.
De Beauvoir died of pneumonia on 14 April 1986 in Paris, aged 78. She is buried next to Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
List of publications (non-exhaustive)