This month marks the centenary of the birth of Simone de Beauvoir, the French writer and philosopher. She is best known for her feminist classic The Second Sex and her famous declaration, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
On publication in 1949 the book received criticism from both the French left and right and was labelled as “poison” by the Catholic church.
Nearly 60 years after its publication, Beauvoir’s condemnation of the discrimination women face and her investigation into the “myth of the feminine” continue to have relevance today.
She was not just a provocative and informative writer. She engaged with many of the most important political issues of her time and toward the end of her life was particularly involved in the campaign for women’s rights in France.
Beauvoir was brought up in a middle class family, whose economic situation drastically altered as a result of the First World War.
She went on to document her own intellectual development and her increasing rejection of her childhood values and her mother’s Catholic influence in a series of autobiographical books which she began to publish during her fifties.
Her desire to write, and brilliance as a student, led her to study at some of Paris’s most prestigious institutions.
Here she worked alongside students who would also go on to be some of the most outstanding intellectuals of the day: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Initially supporting herself as a teacher, she became a full-time writer during the early 1940s. Her novels were also often illustrative of her own political development, engaging with Resistance and Cold War politics.
One crucial and life-long relationship formed during her time at university was with fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. They worked and travelled together, visiting countries such as China, Cuba, Japan and Russia.
During the mid-1940s they helped to found the left wing journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times). Both were concerned with ideas of freedom, ethics, emancipation and oppression. Their relationship remains controversial today.
Some Beauvoir scholars have used textual analysis to reveal the sexist assumptions of commentators who view Beauvoir’s writing as purely influenced by Sartre’s philosophical development. Similarly, the nature of their open relationship has also been hotly debated.
Beauvoir, like Sartre, did not really become politicised until the Second World War when they formed a group supporting Resistance activities.
As anti-colonialists, they were also involved in campaigns against the French occupation of Algeria. This was a defining battle for the left in France and an issue that polarised national opinion. In 1962, Beauvoir received death threats as a result of speaking out against the abuse of an Algerian woman by French forces.
She also condemned the Vietnam War and demonstrated against the suppression of left wing newspapers by the Gaullist government during 1968.
Beauvoir held broadly socialist principles, was critical of Stalinist regimes but remained non-partisan throughout her life.
Her realisation that she had a privileged class position in comparison to the majority of French women provided the catalyst for her writing of The Second Sex.
She scrutinises the assumptions of society’s concept of “woman” and the many ways in which women become conditioned to accept certain ideas about ourselves.
The book includes a historical analysis of the roots of women’s oppression, a critique of psychoanalysis and a discussion of Frederick Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
Beauvoir also discusses the roles that she perceived as being open to women during the 1940s. She argues that women’s position in society and the roles they are expected to fulfil are “Other” or inferior when compared with those open to men. She condemned society’s emphasis on motherhood and the family.
In the final chapters, Beauvoir discusses her concept of “the independent woman”. She cites the need for women’s economic and social independence from men through work outside the home and criticised the “double burden” of childcare/housework and working life which many women face.
Although some parts of The Second Sex are now dated in their analysis of women’s situation, many of the practical issues Beauvoir highlights remain relevant today.
In particular, she notes the importance of women’s control over their own fertility, the right to safe, legal abortion, and access to childcare.
Concluding with a quote from Marx, Beauvoir agreed with the need for genuinely equal relationships between men and women so that women could flourish as human beings.
Many women identified with the problems and situations Beauvoir described. However, despite speaking widely on the subject, she did not actively campaign over these issues until the rise of the French women’s movement in the early 1970s.
The catalyst for what Beauvoir would describe as her “radical feminism” appears to have been the protests of 1968. Her changing views are documented in a series of interviews with fellow feminist Alice Schwarzer. Beauvoir was primarily writing Old Age, her book on society’s treatment of the elderly, during the protests and did not take a particularly active role in events.
However, conversations with her biographer Deidre Bair in 1984 reveal that the sexism female activists had encountered from some male protesters heavily influenced her own re-evaluation of the importance of women’s issues within the wider framework of socialist politics.
In the 1970s Beauvoir joined demonstrations for the right to legal abortion and publicly declared – alongside 342 other women – that she had undergone an illegal abortion. This act of solidarity is one way in which Beauvoir used her public position to further the case of women’s rights.
It took until 1975 for women in France to win the right to legal abortion in the first ten weeks of pregnancy.
Beauvoir also campaigned for unburdening women of childcare and housework, championed access to free contraception and demanded shelters for domestic abuse cases. Les Temps Modernes also started a column entitled “Everyday Sexism”.
Although Beauvoir’s position would gradually adjust itself over time, she never appears to have consistently adopted the separatist tactics of some within the women’s movement.
She was against the idea of a specific political party for women and condemned ideas within the movement which argued liberation could be achieved by embracing an alternative interpretation of “the feminine”.
By 1972, in a conversation with Schwarzer, it was clear that she was also dismissive of individual women’s choice as the solution to women’s oppression: “Liberation on an individual level is not enough. There must be a collective struggle, at the level of the class struggle too.
“Women fighting for women’s liberation cannot be truly feminist without being part of the left, because even though socialism is not sufficient to guarantee the equality of the sexes, it is still necessary.”
Beauvoir and her work were not always well received by the women’s movement. The Second Sex was criticised as having a narrow perspective on women’s situation and a middle class bias.
Some feminists saw her understanding of women’s emancipation as a demand for women to assume traditionally male characteristics. For others her critique of women’s oppression appeared to offer no concrete answers to the problem.
There are flaws in Beauvoir’s work. She would later recognise some of these herself. For example, she told her biographer, “If I were to write The Second Sex today I should provide a materialistic, not an idealistic, theoretical foundation for [women’s] oppression.” She never expanded on this topic, however, so it is difficult to assess how far her analysis had developed.
Many of Beauvoir’s ideas remain relevant. Sexism and the “myth of the feminine” continue to exist, albeit sometimes in a different form from Beauvoir's time.
Sadly today Beauvoir is often only mentioned within the context of her relationship with Sartre.
Her work and life should act as a reminder to us about how vigilant we must continue to be in challenging all forms of oppression in our fight for a better world.
To order writings by Simone de Beauvoir, phone Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, on 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarks.uk.com