A review of the life of this French thinker so influential in feminism.
Simone de Beauvoir is one of the great minds of the 20th century. A great thinker, novelist and, although she did not recognize it, a feminist, her fight for women’s rights has meant a before and after to achieve gender equality.
His way of being and seeing human relationships was a scandal at the time, especially considering the type of relationship he had with another great philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.
If you want to know more about the prolific intellectual life of this author and, also about her interesting personal life, read on for a short biography of Simone de Beauvoir, with which we will get to know her life and work.
Biography of Simone de Beauvoir
Next we will see the most remarkable vital events of Simone de Beauvoir, among them the great historical figures with whom she was able to interview and her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.
1. Early years
Her full name is Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, born on January 9, 1908 in Paris, France, into a bourgeois family in the French capital. From the early years of the young Simone de Beauvoir, there were two tendencies in her family that pushed her to touch the extremes.
On the one hand, her mother was a devout Catholic, while her father was an atheist, and invited the young woman to expand her vision and knowledge of the world through reading. It is perhaps for this reason that de Beauvoir’s childhood is deeply marked by an exalted faith in God, wanting to be a greater nun. But, upon reaching the age of 14, he permanently abandons these beliefs, assuring that God simply does not exist.
The young woman was always an excellent student, and in fact her father encouraged her to continue her studies. One of the phrases her father used to say to her and that perhaps contributed to her dedicating herself to thinking about the differences between men and women as an adult was “Simone thinks like a man”, understanding that he saw her as intelligent as a man the sexist perspective clearly predominant at that time.
2. Academic training
Around the age of 16, Simone de Beauvoir decides that she will study to be a teacher. This could not have been possible if the family had not gone through financial problems, which meant that they could not offer a good dowry to marry off their daughters and chose to have them study whatever they wanted.
After successfully passing the mathematics baccalaureate exams in 1925, de Beauvoir enrolled at the Catholic Institute in Paris. This was also combined with studies in literature and languages at the Saint-Marie Institute. Later, he would study philosophy at the Sorbonne, finishing his studies in 1928 and presenting his thesis on Leibniz.
At that time, Simone de Beauvoir was the ninth woman to achieve a degree from the Sorbonne, because until very recently in France it had not been possible for women to study higher education.
Years later, she took the exams to be a teacher in France (agrégation) and decided to attend the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris as a listener. It was during this time that he had the opportunity to meet some of the great French thinkers of the 20th century, such as Paul Nizan, René Maheu, and most notably Jean-Paul Sartre.
At the end of the agrégation tests, Sartre was in first place, while de Beauvoir was in second place, becoming at the age of 21 the youngest person to have managed to pass that exam.
3. Times of war
From obtaining the agrégation in 1929 until 1943, Simone de Beauvoir devoted herself to teaching in secondary education. She taught at lyceums in several French cities, including Marseille, Rouen and Paris. It was also from the year 1929 that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre became a couple.
In 1943 she decided to quit her job as a teacher and focus on writing, publishing that same year her first novel, L’invitée . At that time, Paris had been taken over by the Nazis and de Beauvoir devoted himself to reflecting on the responsibility of intellectuals in times of war, set out in his book Le Sang des Autres .
It was also in the years of the German occupation that he wrote his only play, Les bouches inutiles , which would be performed in 1945 at the Théâtre des Carrefours in Paris.
In 1944, together with other intellectuals such as Sartre, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Ollivier and Jean Paulhan, he founded the magazine Les temps modernes , an ideology close to that of the communist party and a publication in which existential thought was disseminated.
4. End of the war and philosophical maturity
After the end of the occupation, he began to publish his first philosophical essays, which would not go unnoticed. In 1947, he held several conferences in the United States in which he spread his philosophy. It was also that year that he published his probably best-known book: Le deuxième sexe , known in Spanish as The Second Sex . The publication of this work was very controversial, even for France at that time, a country which was considered tolerant and very secular with respect to its neighbors Spain and the United Kingdom.
In the 1950s, he made several trips both inside and outside his native country, including to countries under communist regime such as China and Cuba, meeting with Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
5. Last years and death of Sartre
Although with a strong Marxist ideology, de Beauvoir always defended human rights against his political vision, signing a manifesto against the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Despite being a French citizen, she was very critical of the French administration in Africa, defending the independence of Algeria. She considered that colonialism was just another form in which the oppression of the strongest towards the weakest is presented.
Years later, de Beauvoir, along with Sartre, would formally move away from communism after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet authorities.
During the sixties he continued his travels, going to Japan, Egypt, Israel and the USSR and, already in the following decade, he showed his opinions on such controversial issues as abortion, the Arab-Israeli conflict and women’s rights.
In 1980 Sartre died, ending their open relationship that had already lasted about 50 years. In honor and memory of him, de Beauvoir published La cérémonie des adieux the following year , recounting their relationship throughout the five decades.
Simone de Beauvoir died on April 14, 1986 from pneumonia at the age of 78.
Work and thought
Simone de Beauvoir’s thought has laid the foundations for the construction of feminism as it is understood today, in addition to being a hymn to individual freedom, both economic, sexual and reproductive.
Below we will briefly look at three texts written by the French philosopher, focused especially on the relationship of women with men, both in the more traditional and personal vision of de Beauvoir.
L’invitée , translated in Spanish as “The Guest”, is Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel published in 1943. In it she describes her relationship with Sartre and two of her students when she worked in Rouen, the Kosakiewicz sisters, although changing the names to the characters. In fiction, Sartre and de Beauvoir even have threesomes with the students.
2. Le deuxième sexe
Le deuxième sexe (1949) turns the most important principle of existentialism, that is, that existence precedes essence, into a feminist slogan : one is not born a woman but one becomes a woman.
The author distinguishes between the concepts of sex and gender. On the one hand, sex is something biological, defined by the X and Y chromosomes, while gender is understood as the historical and social construction of what it is to be a man and to be a woman. De Beauvoir also argues that the oppression of women is strongly linked to the historical concept of what femininity is.
The title of the book is already a declaration of intent. Simone de Beauvoir refers to women as the second sex because, traditionally, they have been defined in terms of their relationships with men.
Although it may surprise, de Beauvoir never considered herself a feminist, although feminism has been based on what has been explained in her most remarkable work. The doctrine of de Beauvoir exposed in Le deuxieme sexe , promoting the economic independence of women and the right to receive the same education as men, have been a great contribution to the constitution of feminism.
3. Les mandarins
Les mandarins , published in 1954, has been the work that has managed to win the most important literary award in France, the Prix Goncourt.
In this book, de Beauvoir explains in a literary key her relationship with philosophers close to the author’s environment, and her life with her partner, Sartre, in addition to explaining her relationship with Nelson Algren.
Awards and decorations
In 1954 she was awarded the Goncourt Prize for her work Les mandarins . In 1975 she received the Jerusalem Prize for Freedom of the Individual in Society and in 1978 she received the Austrian Prize for European Literature.
In 1998 an asteroid was named as (11385) Beauvoir, followed by asteroid (11384) Sartre. In 2000, a square was inaugurated in Paris in honor of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and in 2006 a small bridge was inaugurated in that same city in honor of de Beauvoir. Since 2008 the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom has been offered.
One of the best known and most striking aspects of Simone de Beauvoir is having had numerous relationships, even when she was paired with Sartre, something that continues to surprise today. Although this does not have to be seen as a negative thing, it has been able to partially overshadow her prolific intellectual output.
The relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre lasted fifty years. However, both met with other people, maintaining a kind of verbal contract that they renewed every two years, in which they allowed them to have an open relationship.
De Beauvoir never intended to marry, nor did she ever intend to become a homemaker and have children of her own. This allowed her to focus on her academic training, in addition to dedicating time to her literary production and philosophy and, in addition, to be free to meet whoever she wanted.
It should be said that although his bisexuality was already controversial at a time when sexual diversity was something little tolerated, the most controversial was the fact that, like Sisyphus of Lesbos, he had relationships with some of his students. In fact, one of her students at the Lycée Molière in Paris claimed that she was sexually exploited by Simone de Beauvoir. Due to rumors and comments of this type, de Beauvoir was suspended from employment in 1943 after also being accused, in this case by the mother of a 17-year-old student.
Simone de Beauvoir, along with other great intellectuals of the time, signed a petition for the age of sexual consent to be lowered in France.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1945) Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s La phénoménologie de la perception, Les Temps modernes, 2. 363–67
- De Beauvoir, S. (1945) Idéalisme moral et réalisme politique, Les Temps Modernes, 2. 248-68.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1946) Littérature et métaphysique, Les Temps modernes, 7. 1153–63.