Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), a French writer, first articulated what has since become the basis of the modern feminist movement. She was the author of novels, autobiographies, and non-fiction analysis dealing with women's position in a male-dominated world.
Simone de Beauvoir set out to live her life as an example to her contemporaries and chronicled that life for those who followed. Fiercely independent, an ardent feminist before there was such a movement, her life was her legacy and her work was to memorialize that life.
"I was born at four o'clock in the morning on the ninth of January 1908, in a room fitted with white-enameled furniture and overlooking the Boulevard Raspail." Thus begins the first of four memoirs written by de Beauvoir. It is through these autobiographies that de Beauvoir's readers best know her, and it is in her book The Second Sex, an early feminist manifesto, that de Beauvoir synthesized that life into the context of the historical condition of women.
The first child of a vaguely noble couple, de Beauvoir was a willful girl, prone to temper tantrums. Her sister, Poupette, was born when de Beauvoir was two and a half, and the two had a warm relationship. After World War I her father never fully recovered his financial security and the family moved to a more modest home; the daughters were told they had lost their dowries. Forced to choose a profession, de Beauvoir entered the Sorbonne and began to take courses in philosophy to become a teacher. She also began keeping a journal—which became a lifetime habit—and writing some stories.
Link with Sartre
When de Beauvoir was 21 she joined a group of philosophy students including Jean-Paul Sartre. Her relationship with Sartre—intellectually, emotionally, and romantically—was to continue throughout most of their lives. Sartre, the father of existentialism—a school of thought that holds man is on his own, "condemned to be free," as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness —was the single most important influence on de Beauvoir's life.
In 1929 Sartre suggested that, rather than be married, the two sign a conjugal pact which could be renewed or cancelled after two years. When the pact came due, Sartre was offered a job teaching philosophy in Le Havre and de Beauvoir was offered a similar job in Marseilles. He suggested they get married, but they both rejected the idea for fear of forcing their free relationship into the confines of an outer-defined bond. It is indeed ironic that de Beauvoir, whose independence marked her life at every juncture, was perhaps best known as Sartre's lover.
The first installment of de Beauvoir's autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is the story of the author's rejection of the bourgeois values of her parents' lives. The second volume, The Prime of Life, covers the years 1929 through 1944. Written in the postwar years, she separated the events taking place in Europe that led to the war from her own, isolated life. By 1939, however, the two strands were inseparable. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre were teaching in Paris when the war broke out. Earlier she had written two novels that she never submitted for publication and one collection of short stories that was rejected for publication. She was, she said, too happy to write.
That happiness ended in the 1940s with the outbreak of World War II and the interruption of her relationship with Sartre. The introduction of another woman into Sartre's life, and then the anxiety and loneliness de Beauvoir felt while Sartre was a prisoner for more than a year led to her first significant novel, She Came to Stay, published in 1943. She Came to Stay is a study of the effects of love and jealousy. In the next four years she published The Blood of Others, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, Les Bouches Inutiles, and All Men are Mortal.
America Day By Day a chronicle of de Beauvoir's 1947 trip to the United States, and the third installment of her autobiography, Force of Circumstances, cover the period during which the author was formulating and writing The Second Sex, her feminist tract.
The Second Sex
Written in 1949, The Second Sex is blunt and inelegant like her other writing. Its power comes from its content. Her themes and method of attack in The Second Sex are also the reoccurring issues of her work. The book rests on two theses: that man, who views himself as the essential being, has made woman into the inessential being, "the Other," and that femininity as a trait is an artificial posture. Both theses derive from Sartre's existentialism.
The Second Sex was perhaps the most important treatise on women's rights through the 1980s. When it first appeared, however, the reception was less than overwhelming. The lesson of her own life—that womanhood is not a condition one is born to but rather a posture one takes on—was fully realized here. De Beauvoir's personal frustrations were placed in terms of the general, dependent condition of women. Historical, psychological, sociological, and philosophical, The Second Sex does not offer any concrete solutions except "that men and women rise above their natural differentiation and unequivocally affirm their brotherhood."
If The Second Sex bemoans the female condition, de Beauvoir's portrayal of her own life revealed the possibilities available to the woman who can escape enslavement. Hers was a life of equality, yet de Beauvoir remained a voice and a model for those women whose lives were not liberated.
The fourth installment of her autobiography, All Said And Done, was written when de Beauvoir was 63. It portrays a person who has always been secure in an imperfect world. She writes: "Since I was 21, I have never been lonely. The opportunities granted to me at the beginning helped me not only to lead a happy life but to be happy in the life I led. I have been aware of my shortcomings and my limits, but I have made the best of them. When I was tormented by what was happening in the world, it was the world I wanted to change, not my place in it."
De Beauvoir died of a circulatory ailment in a Parisian hospital April 14, 1986. Sartre had died six years earlier.
Further Reading on Simone de Beauvoir
The most complete biographies of Simone de Beauvoir are her four autobiographies, Memoires of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), Force of Circumstances (1963), and All Said And Done (1972). Carol Ascher wrote an almost reverential analysis of the author's work, Simone de Beauvoir—A Life of Freedom (1981), which illustrates her effect on feminist thought. Simone de Beauvoir by Konrad Bieber (1979) and Simone de Beauvoir by Robert Cottrell (1975) both offer more critical analysis.