Simone De Beauvoir was more than ‘Second Sex’ and Sartre

One of the most influential of the second wave feminists was Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer and philosopher associated with the existentialist movement and the lifelong partner of French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Though her main concerns were social and abortion rights for women, she also advocated extensively for the rights of the elderly and the safety of factory workers.

Her two-volume treatise, “Le deuxi?me sexe” (The Second Sex), published in 1949, is one of the most widely read feminists works and contains her most famous aphorism, “One is not born a woman; one becomes one.” It delves deeply into the role of women as the disenfranchised “other” to borrow Sartre’s philosophical term, meaning “those who do not define the norm.” While its lasting truth is debated among feminist and philosophical scholars, it remains an respected and influential work in both fields.

Existentialism is a popular genre of twentieth-century philosophy which stresses metaphysical existence over corporal essence.

In the past, many of de Beauvoir’s philosophical and literary accomplishments were ignored because of her self-admitted dependency on Sartre’s intellect and writing, though in recent years many scholars have come to the conclusion that she contributed invaluably to Sartre’s works in both philosophy and literature. While his theories were more abstract, she helped ground them, apply them to contemporary society and expanded upon them in these contexts.

Born in 1908 in Paris to a quasi-noble bourgeois family. She would remain lifelong friends with her half sister, Poupette, born when she was two.

As a young adult she developed a solitary attitude which would follow her throughout her life. She began writing at age 8, drifting from her religious upbringing and would by the end of her life be an avowed atheist, like Sartre, claiming religion provided a reason to avoid truth.

In 1929 at the age of 21, she passed difficult final examinations at Sorbonne, where she met Sartre, joining his circle of friends and maintaining intimate ties with him for the rest of her life. From 1931 to 1943, she taught philosophy in several schools in Marseille, Rouen and Paris, and was professor at the Sorbonne from 1941 to 1943.

De Beauvoir’s first book, “L’Invit?e,” was published in 1943. It was a fictionalized rendition of Sartre’s affair with Olga Kosakievicz, and one of the several works dealing with her relationship with Sartre.

Their relationship became famous for their two vows, to remain free to love other people and to practice complete honesty about everything so nothing would be secret between them, though at times it caused them both great pain. Many of her subsequent works had autobiographical undertones.

During the occupation of Paris, she continued to write with immunity from the Germans. In 1945, she published “Le Sang des Autres,” a novel reflecting on the question of political involvement and the French Resistance. After the war, de Beauvoir founded the monthly review “Les Temps modernes” with Sartre.

“The Ethics of Ambiguity,” published in 1947, was highlighted by the post-war disillusionment in Europe and provides the foundation for her leftist political leanings in supporting the worker’s plight, turning away from an aristocratic, wealthy society.

The Roman Catholic Church banned “The Second Sex” and although her feminist interest was at first intellectual, it began to grow and she became active. She wrote and voiced strong opinions for women’s rights, focusing on the right of choice, sexual violence and the way the French institutionalized poor unmarried mothers.

After her mother’s death, she dealt with society’s apathy toward the aging in 1964’s “A Very Easy Death.” Her four-volume memoir was published in 1958 and dealt with her happy childhood, intellectual development, leftist political views, her complicated relationship to Sartre and her existentialist perspective.

In 1981, de Beauvoir wrote “Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre,” her memoirs of Sartre before her death in Paris, on April 14, 1986. She was buried in the same grave as Sartre. Her enduring legacy spans the feminist, literary and philosophical worlds.

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