Woman of the Month

Simone de Beauvoir

9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986

Early Life

Simone de Beauvoir was born Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir on January 9, 1908, in Paris, France. Simone was the eldest daughter in a bourgeois family. Being raised strictly Catholic she was sent to convent schools during her youth. However, at the age of 14 she had a crisis of faith and declared herself an atheist. With this new interest, she dedicated her focus to studying math, literature and philosophy.  

At 18 years of age Simone attended the prestigious Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy, completed her exams and a thesis on German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in 1929. That same year De Beauvoir met another young student, Jean-Paul Sartre. Jean-Paul was a budding existentialist philosopher. Simone and Jean-Paul would soon form a lasting bond that would profoundly influence both of their personal and professional lives. Their partnership lasted fifty-one years, which only ended because of Jean-Paul’s death in 1980.  

Simone De Beauvoir chose never to marry, never to bear children, and never to set up a joint household. This arrangement enabled her freedom to pursue advanced education, to write, to teach, to engage in political aspirations and to experience several lovers. 

Her Career

De Beauvoir taught philosophy and literature throughout the 1930s, but during World War II was dismissed from her post by the Vichy government after the German army occupied Paris in 1940. Meanwhile, Sartre, who was drafted into the French army at the start of the war, was captured in 1940 but released the following year. Both De Beauvoir and Sartre would work for the French Resistance during the remainder of the war, but unable to teach, De Beauvoir soon launched her literary career as well.  

In 1943 Simone published her first novel She Came to Stay. It was a chronicle of her sexual four-some with her, Jean-Paul and the Kosakiewicz sisters, Olga and Wanda. Olga and Simone met at the Rouen Secondary School in early 1930s where Simone taught and Olga was a student; her favorite student. 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 both sisters, Wanda and Olga, until Olga met and married Jacques-Laurent Bost who was one of Simone’s ex-lovers.  

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 fictional 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.  

Published in 1949, The Second Sex is De Beauvoir’s nearly 1000-page critique of patriarchy and the second-rate status granted to women throughout history. Now reckoned as one of the most important and earliest works of feminism, at the time of its publication The Second Sex was received with great controversy, with some critics characterizing the book as pornography and the Vatican placing the work on the church's list of forbidden texts.  

Simone De Beauvoir defines women as the “second sex” because women are defined in relation to men. This “what is” question is what philosophers sometimes called a question about essence. We can give examples of different women, but what is it that actually makes a woman a woman?  

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 says that it would not occur to a man to write a book asking, “What is a man?” because “man” is taken as an unproblematic term, equivalent with “human being.” “A man,” she says, “is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong.”  

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.  

Simone’s point is this: Throughout the history of thought in the West, thinkers have often claimed to talk about man (that is, human beings in general), while in fact, they are really only talking about men (that is, male human beings). Humanity is seen as male, and men define women—in relation to this standard—as not-male. “Man,” de Beauvoir says, “is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.”  

Women, that is, are defined in relation to men; men are defined in relation to themselves. This secondary status of women lies at the heart of women’s subjugation. In perhaps her most famous quote, she writes that, “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” The essence of what it means to be a woman is defined by society. But if this is so, what it means to be a woman can change.  

In the later stages of her career, De Beauvoir devoted a good deal of her thinking to the investigation of aging and death. In the subsequent years from 1964-1981 Simone crafted a few works detailing her mother’s death, analyzing the meaning of the elderly and a tribute to her deceased lover, Sartre.  

In 1964 she wrote A Very Easy Death about her mother’s passing. In 1970, Old Age which analyzed the significance and meaning of the elderly in society and in 1981, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre, published a year after his death, recalls the last years of her partner’s life.

Conclusion 

De Beauvoir died in Paris on April 14, 1986, at the age of 78. She shares a grave with Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery. 

 

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