A writer, philosopher, and political activist, Simone de Beauvoir inspired a revolution regarding the role of women in society, making her the grandmother of 20th-century -- or second-wave -- feminism.
Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, in 1908, the daughter of a buttoned-up, bourgeois, middle-class family, which lost its wealth during World War I. She was raised a conservative Catholic but rebelled against her parents' values as a teenager, turning from religion to philosophy and literature. Her father regarded philosophy as gibberish; her mother worried -- correctly it would turn out -- that it would cause Simone to lose her faith. But with no money left for a marriage dowry, Simone knew she would not make a good catch. So off she went to the Sorbonne to read philosophy and pursue a career instead.
Simone was a famously successful student. Though one of very few women to win a place at the prestigious French University, she rose to the top of her class and was the youngest women ever to complete qualification exams to enter the teaching profession. And on a Monday morning in June, 1929, Simone crossed paths with another Sorbonne philosophy major: an intense young man by the name of Jean-Paul Sartre. She would spend the next 50 years by his side, although the two never lived together, often took other lovers, and had no children.
Theirs would have been looked upon as an unconventional relationship, even today: equal parts romantic and intellectual. It would last until Sartre's death in 1980. More than influence each other, the two philosophers completed each other -- they said so themselves. They held a profound mutual admiration for each other’s intellect. De Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity (1945), for example, furthered the ideas Sartre began in his Being and Nothingness (1943). Both works outlined the theory of existentialism, which emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent able to determine his or her own development through acts of will, thus refuting religious belief in fate as divined by the will of God.
Existentialism was mainly concerned with life and how we choose to live for the benefit of self and other. Asking such questions as, Who are we? What is our truth? and, Will we express it honestly?, existentialists were all about the freedom of self-definition.
When Germany invaded France in 1940, Sartre was conscripted into the army and de Beauvoir lost her job. Unable to teach, she turned to writing full time. Her novels and essays established her, along with her companion, as a leading philosopher of her day. Her success allowed her to establish a monthly magazine, which she did with Sartre after his return from World War II. Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times) gave her a medium through which to publish her views without the need for approval of an official or traditional press.
In 1949, she completed her magnum opus, The Second Sex. The philosophical treatise argued that the norm of inequality between the genders had been deliberately constructed by men throughout history, then reinforced by social practices. If ideas of womanhood were created by patriarchal rulers and societies, therefore, the only reason for the unfair treatment of women is cultural prejudice. De Beauvoir insisted that womanhood need not limit or define one's identity. Her claim in The Second Sex was that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," based on social norms and expectations.
The Second Sex was decades ahead of its time. Though the Catholic Church banned it, The Second Sex was a runaway best seller in France. Though controversial in Europe, it was translated into English in 1953 and traveled west. That's when Betty Friedan, an American intellectual also disturbed by discriminatory cultural attitudes towards women, discovered de Beauvoir.
Freidan was deeply influenced by the older French woman, as reflected in her own book, The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, it helped to launch the second-wave feminist movement, which drew a line from the efforts of the 19th century suffragettes through de Beauvoir to demand equal rights for women in education, marriage, and the workplace.
Never content to rest on her laurels as a feminist icon, de Beauvoir was an ardent activist as well. She vocally opposed the war in Vietnam and came down on the side of a women's right to choose in the ongoing abortion debate. She wrote prodigiously on many topics, including aging and death. When her best friend and soulmate, Sartre. died in 1980, she published Farewell to Sartre in his honor. She passed away six years later at the age of 78.
Simone de Beauvoir is buried alongside Sartre in Paris' Montparnasse Cemetery, linking them in death as in life. At her funeral, feminist writer and speaker, Gloria Steinem, praised de Beauvoir's influence, proclaiming, “if any single human being can be credited with inspiring the current international women’s movement, it’s Simone de Beauvoir.” That's why we're thrilled to claim her as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Huge thanks to Joanna Marple of the UK, France, and NY for nominating Simone de Beauvoir for the BLAST!
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