Life and times of ‘world’s first’ radical feminist

The Connexion celebrates one of France’s inspirational intellectual figures, who helped shape a global shift in political thinking in the Sixties and Seventies, but who is still defined by her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre...

25 September 2019
‘You aren’t born a woman, you become one’ Simone de Beauvoir
By Samantha David

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) is one of France’s towering intellectual figures.

A writer, philosopher, political activist, social theorist and a feminist, she wrote novels, essays, biographies, autobiography and articles on philosophy, social issues and politics.

Her 1949 treatise The Second Sex remains fundamental reading because it was the first time anyone had clearly articulated the separation of gender from gender-conditioning; the first time anyone had stressed women are born female but are conditioned or even groomed to become socially acceptable daughters, wives and mothers, rather than simply female people.

Her quote, “You aren’t born a woman, you become one,” remains pivotal to feminist theory.

It said female children are conditioned by society to accept a lower, secondary status – to become ‘women’.

In a 1975 TV interview with French journalist Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber (watch interview below - english subtitles), she explained ‘femininity’ is not innate, but taught from infancy.

The fact women produce children is used by society as a pretext to oppress and exploit women, she said. Their lowly status is not a biological fact.

The title of her seminal 1949 work refers to women being defined by their differences from men: Aristotle said women “are female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities”. Saint Thomas Aquinas remarked that women were “imperfect men” and “incidental beings”.

De Beauvoir was the first to point out that women are as capable of making life choices as men, and as capable of taking responsibility for themselves as men [the book was only accurately and completely translated into English in 2010, so earlier versions should be disregarded]. 

In the same 1975 interview, as an example of female oppression, she explained that 17th-century witch hunts, followed by banning women from medical schools, were ways of preventing women practising medicine.

They were classic examples of preventing women following the same careers as men, she said.

Some 43 years after that interview, in December 2018, Japan was hit by a scandal when it was discovered Japanese medical schools had been rigging exam results to favour male candidates and prevent women becoming doctors.

In May 2019, after exam rigging stopped, female candidates outperformed males. In July this year, Edinburgh University finally awarded medical degrees to seven women who enrolled and trained as doctors in 1869, but who were prevented from graduating on the grounds of their gender.

It is easy to guess what de Beauvoir would have had to say had she still been alive today.

She was born into a bourgeois Catholic family in Paris the First World War and thereafter struggled to maintain their standard of living.

Educated at a Catholic convent, she realised that, without money, she was unlikely to “marry well” and applied herself to studying maths and philosophy.

She got a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in 1928, and then studied for what would now be a Masters.

She was the ninth woman to receive a degree from the Sorbonne because woman had traditionally been excluded from studying there.

From 1929 to 1943 she taught in secondary schools in Marseille, Rouen, and Paris to support herself while she was writing.

De Beauvoir and Sartre at the Balzac memorial

She had met Jean-Paul Sartre years before and by 1929 they were in a relationship which lasted until his death in 1980.

It was not an exclusive relationship, however. They never married, or even lived together.

“I never wanted to marry or have children,” she explained. “The life of a housewife is the most oppressive for women.”

At the time, these ideas were new and incomprehensible to many people – but the intellectual circles in which de Beauvoir moved were more open minded and accepting of radical thought.

Over time, her ideas became more entrenched. In an interview with American feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan during the 70s, de Beauvoir declared that women should not be allowed to stay at home and bring up her children at all.

In her view, even making this a choice was a way of forcing women into living ‘secondary’ lives.

In France, women won the vote in 1944 (compared to the UK where women won the vote in 1918).

It was not until 1965 that married women could work or have a bank account without their husband’s permission; the sale of contraceptives was legalised in 1967, equal wages for equal work was introduced in 1970 (but women in France still earn around 18% less than men), abortion was legalised in 1974 but only reimbursed from 1982.

Rape was only made a crime in France in 1980; men and women only gained equal rights to manage a couple’s goods, belongings and property in 1984; and rape within marriage was only made illegal in 1992.

In this context, de Beauvoir’s lifestyle choices were as revolutionary as her ideas and thinking.

She had a series of high-profile relationships with men and women.

Her novel The Mandarins is based on her affair with American writer Nelson Algren, and from 1952-59 she lived with filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.

She was accused of having variously sexually exploited two students Bianca Lamblin and Natalie Sorokin, which meant she was barred from teaching.

During the Sixties and into the Seventies, a wave of social and sexual liberation swept much of Western Europe.

In 1971, de Beauvoir signed a petition calling for the legalisation of abortion, which finally happened in 1974.

In 1977, she was one of a group of intellectual signatories of a petition calling for the suppression of the age of consent.

The discussion of whether children could consent to sex, and if so at what age, was part of the era’s questioning.

Her relationship with Sartre fascinated people.

The couple meeting Che Guevara in Cuba in 1960

Both were sympathetic to the communist cause, feeling that change had to be comprehensive and revolutionary rather than incremental.

Both were broadly supportive of then-superpower the USSR, feeling that the class struggle was the most important after the Second World War, although neither was blind to or supported the failings of Russian communism.

The 1956 invasion of Hungary marked the end of their support for the ideology, though both remained staunchly left- wing throughout their lives.

Sartre’s main legacy is an emphasis on personal freedom to live life outside societal norms.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Beijing in 1955

He championed existentialism, a philosophical theory based on existence: a person exists, they are free and responsible for their own development, and happiness is only achievable through taking responsibility for oneself.

De Beauvoir lived according to these ideas. She rejected the conventional path of marriage, motherhood, and unpaid housework.

She rejected monogamy and heterosexuality, embracing instead a constant, open-minded search for the limits of personal freedom.

What fascinates people to this day about her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre is that despite being open, it lasted until his death.

When he died in 1980, she wrote an account of his final years; La Cérémonie des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), noting in the introduction that it was the only major work of hers that he had never read.

She also published his letters to her, editing them to preserve the privacy of people mentioned who were still living. Much of their correspondence has now been published but is heavily edited.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre – born before the First World War, and who came of age in the inter-war years – in many ways reflect an entire generation’s struggle to break free of the mores of the 19th century.

As students and teachers during the inter-war period, they made life choices that were unprecedented in public.

After the war, they were intimately involved with the societal shake-up of the Sixties and Seventies.

Having abandoned religion, they turned to socialism and even communism in an effort to find a more egalitarian way to live. Their respective works express this exploration, this struggle to break free of the past and embrace a new world.

De Beauvoir’s work, however, has often been perceived as having been heavily influenced – and even edited or part-written – by Jean-Paul Sartre, when she was his intellectual equal, and very definitely the author of her own texts.

In 1980, she adopted a younger friend, Sylvie Le Bon (b.1941) a philosophy professor, who became her literary heir.

This adoption had more to do with safeguarding her legacy than with any late-flowering maternal instinct.

Simone de Beauvoir died in Paris in 1986, aged 78, and was buried with her long-time partner Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery.

The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Paris
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