de Beauvoir was a French author and philosopher. She wrote novels,
monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues, essays, biographies,
and an autobiography. She is now best known for her 1949 treatise
Le Deuxième Sexe (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 born on
January 9, 1908 in Paris to Georges Bertrand and Françoise
(Brasseur) de Beauvoir. The oldest of two daughters of a conventional
family from the Parisian 'bourgeoisie', she depicts herself in
the first volume of her autobiography (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)
as a girl with a strong commitment to the patriarchal values of
her family, religion, and country.
the outset, she is subject to the opposing influences of her agnostic
father and her devoutly Catholic mother. The two formative peer-relationships
of her childhood and adolescence involve her sister Hélène
(whom she calls Poupette) and her friend Zaza. She traces back
to her relationship with Poupette, whom she sought to teach and
influence from an early age, her taste for teaching, and it is
the tragic life and death of Zaza that forms the subject matter
for her first, unsuccessful, literary endeavours.
After passing the baccalauréat 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. While at the Sorbonne, she met Jean-Paul Sartre
in 1929, who was taking courses there while enrolled at the elite
École Normale Supérieure. It is a common misconception
that de Beauvoir studied at the Ecole Normale. She was, however,
well acquainted with the school and its curriculum, thanks to
Sartre and others within their philosophic circle.
1929, de Beauvoir also became the youngest person ever to obtain
the aggrégation in philosophy. Sartre was first that year,
but she was a close second. While at the Sorbonne, she acquired
her lifelong nickname, Castor (the French word for "beaver")—a
pun derived from the resemblance of her surname to "beaver".
1943, de Beauvoir published L'Invitée (She Came to Stay,
1943), a fictionalized chronicle of her lesbian relationship with
Olga Kosakiewicz, one of her students in the Rouen secondary school
where she taught during the early 30s. The novel also delves into
the complex relationship between de Beauvoir and Sartre, as well
as how that relationship was affected by the menage a trois with
At the end of World War II, de Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les
Temps Modernes, a political journal Sartre founded along with
Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. De Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes
to promote her own work and remained an editor until her death.
her book Pour Une Morale de L'ambiguïté (The Ethics
of Ambiguity, 1947) has been little noticed, it is perhaps the
most accessible point of entry into French existentialism. Its
simplicity keeps it understandable, in contrast to the gnashing
of teeth that many experience when reading Sartre's highly analytical
Being and Nothingness. The ambiguity about which de Beauvior writes
clears up some inconsistencies many, Sartre included, have found
in major existential works such as Being and Nothingness.
Beauvoir was uninhibitedly bisexual. But when (the late 1940s)
she wrote The Second Sex, she had never experienced heterosexual
orgasm. Immediately after delivering the manuscript to her publisher,
she left for an extended visit to the USA, having been invited
by Nelson Algren whom she had met during a 1947 visit to the USA,
when she also met Richard Wright.
the hands of Algren and of other American men to whom he introduced
her, in sweltering Chicago, de Beauvoir finally experienced orgasm
with men. Thus in her own way, de Beauvoir anticipated the later
raunchy feminism of Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Algren, no
paragon of primness himself, was outraged by the frank way de
Beauvoir later described her American sexual experiences in Les
Mandarins (dedicated to Algren and on whose character Lewis Brogan
is based) and elsewhere, venting his outrage when reviewing American
translations of her work. Much bearing on this episode in de Beauvoir's
life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public
domain only after her death. On De Beauvoir's sexuality and the
paper trail she left.
De Beauvoir's The Second Sex, published in French in 1949, sets
out a feminist existentialism with a significant Freudian aspect.
As an existentialist, de Beauvoir accepts the precept that existence
precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one.
Her analysis focuses on the concept of The Other. It is the (social)
construction of Woman as the quintessential Other that de Beauvoir
identifies as fundamental to women's oppression.
Beauvoir argues that women have historically been considered deviant,
abnormal. She submits that even Mary Wollstonecraft considered
men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. De Beauvoir
says that this attitude has limited women's success by maintaining
the perception that they are a deviation from the normal, and
are outsiders attempting to emulate "normality". 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, reducing male consciousness
to immanence. An example of women choosing transcendence, one
not found in de Beauvoir's writings, would be a sorority in which
women could perceive their collective as a normal female "we,"
reducing male consciousness to the Other.
Her 1970 The Coming of Age is a very 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. She is buried next to him at the Cimetière
du Montparnasse in Paris. Since her death, her reputation has
grown, not only because she is seen as the mother of post-1968
feminism, especially in academia, but also because of a growing
awareness of her as a major French thinker, existentialist and
otherwise. She is seen as having influenced Sartre's masterpiece,
Being and Nothingness, while also having written much on philosophy
that is independent of Sartrian existentialism.