French writer, philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir remains relatively unknown in the United States, but her influence is far-reaching. Considered by some to be the mother of modern feminist thinking, de Beauvoir wrote Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), a 1,000 page long essay on the systemic oppression of women throughout time, as well as other books that explored the meaning of existence while pulling in themes of politics, ethics, economics and feminism.
Born in 1908 to a bourgeois family in Paris, France, de Beauvoir had a strict, Catholic upbringing. As a teenager she began to question religion and eventually existence itself. Her parents encouraged her studies and, in 1929, she became the ninth woman to graduate from La Sorbonne, where she studied philosophy. It was there that she met her lifelong lover and partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, a fellow existentialist thinker, would fundamentally shape her life. After graduation the two studied together for a prestigious nation-wide philosophy exam, the agrégation. Sartre, who took classes for the exam, narrowly placed first, while de Beauvoir, who could not afford the classes, came in second. At age 21, she became the youngest person ever to pass the exam.
Her relationship with Sartre demonstrates de Beauvoir’s view on life and love. Her philosophy focuses on the individual and being authentic to your true self. She believed that marriage as an institution prevented this, so she and Sartre practiced what might now be called an open marriage. The pair had relations with other people and never lived together, but they saw each other as equals and individuals. Traditionally, young women of bourgeois upbringing would marry and become financially dependent on their husbands. Since de Beauvoir could support herself with her teaching job and eventually her writing she never felt the need to marry, and thus broke the mold for what was expected of women in her time. She famously said of her relationship with Sartre, “The comradeship that welded our lives together made a superfluous mockery of any other bond we might have forged for ourselves.” Although never officially married, the two were together for over 50 years and helped one another with their work. De Beauvoir published only one book that Sartre did not read, which she wrote after his death in 1980, and many speculate that de Beauvoir wrote parts of some of Sartre’s books.
After graduating from university, de Beauvoir worked as a teacher before publishing her first major book, Le Deuxième Sexe. Although the book was written in 1949, a fully translated English copy of the book was not available until 2009. The book hugely impacted feminist thinking and helped kick off the second-wave feminist movement. De Beauvoir believed that one is not born a woman, she becomes one through oppressive expectations and constant treatment as the “other.” De Beauvoir describes women as the “other” because women are always characterized in opposition to men, not as a coexisting sex, and it is through this repetitive marginalization that women are stripped of their humanity. She also believed that women become feminine through external influence not because they are predisposed to, an idea still considered progressive today. At a time when women were expected to occupy the “domestic sphere” due to their “natural inclinations,” suggesting that gender is a socially conditioned phenomenon was incredibly controversial.
De Beauvoir went on to write other novels, memoirs and essays, and won many awards for her works. After World War II she wrote her most famous novel, Les Mandarins (The Mandarins), which hit on the instability of intellectuals and the necessity of political involvement in post-war Paris. For this book De Beauvoir became the first woman to be awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. As she aged her books changed to center on themes of aging and death and the mistreatment of the elderly.
De Beauvoir never accepted what others wanted for her. She had her own goals and dreams. Always a forwarding thinking, intelligent woman, she paved the way for herself and many women after her. She has allowed women to pass up traditional female expectations and pursue their own passions. Simone de Beauvoir passed away in 1986 but her questioning curiosity and desire for knowledge guided her life and her works inspire many to this day.
This article is published in honor of Women’s History Month.