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Simone de Beauvoir

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Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir
Born (1908-01-09)9 January 1908
Paris, France
Died 14 April 1986(1986-04-14) (aged 78)
Paris, France
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
Main interests
Notable ideas

Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, commonly known as Simone de Beauvoir (French: ; 9 January 1908 – 14 April 1986), was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory.[1] De Beauvoir wrote novels, essays, biographies, autobiography and monographs on philosophy, politics and social issues. She is known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism; her novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins; and her lifelong relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.


  • Early years 1
  • Middle years 2
    • She Came to Stay 2.1
    • Existentialist ethics 2.2
    • Les Temps Modernes 2.3
    • Sexuality, existentialist feminism and The Second Sex 2.4
    • The Mandarins 2.5
  • Later years 3
  • Works 4
    • Translations 4.1
    • Prizes 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
    • Bibliographic sources 7.1
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Early years

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on 9 January 1908. Her parents were Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir, a legal secretary who once aspired to be an actor,[2] and Françoise Beauvoir (née Brasseur), a wealthy banker's daughter and devout Catholic. Simone's sister, Hélène, was born two years later. The family struggled to maintain their bourgeois status after losing much of their fortune shortly after World War I, and Françoise insisted that the two daughters be sent to a prestigious convent school. De Beauvoir herself was deeply religious as a child, at one point intending to become a nun. She experienced a crisis of faith at age 14, after which she remained an atheist for the rest of her life.[3]

De Beauvoir was intellectually precocious, fueled by her father's encouragement; he reportedly would boast, "Simone thinks like a man!"[4] Because of her family's straitened circumstances, de Beauvoir could no longer rely on her dowry, and like other middle-class girls of her age, her marriage opportunities were put at risk. De Beauvoir took this opportunity to do what she always wanted to do while also taking steps to earn a living for herself.[5] After passing baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie. She then studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, writing her thesis on Leibniz for Léon Brunschvicg. De Beauvoir was only the ninth woman to have received a degree from Sorbonne at the time, due to the fact that French women had only recently been allowed to join higher education.[5]

She first worked with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss, when all three completed their practice teaching requirements at the same secondary school. Although not officially enrolled, she sat in on courses at the École Normale Supérieure in preparation for the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive postgraduate examination which serves as a national ranking of students. It was while studying for the agrégation that she met École Normale students Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan, and René Maheu (who gave her the lasting nickname "Castor", or beaver).[2] The jury for the agrégation narrowly awarded Sartre first place instead of de Beauvoir, who placed second and, at age 21, was the youngest person ever to pass the exam.[6]

Writing of her youth in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter she said: " father's individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual."[7]

Middle years

During October 1929, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir became a couple and, after they were confronted by her father, Sartre asked her to marry him.[8] One day while they were sitting on a bench outside the Louvre, he said, "Let's sign a two-year lease".[9] Near the end of her life, de Beauvoir said, "Marriage was impossible. I had no dowry." So they entered a lifelong relationship.[10] De Beauvoir chose never to marry and did not set up a joint household with Sartre.[11] She never had children.[11] This gave her time to earn an advanced academic degree, to join political causes, to travel, to write, to teach and to have lovers (both male and female – the latter often shared).[12]

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Balzac Memorial

Sartre and de Beauvoir always read each other's work. Debates rage on about the extent to which they influenced each other in their existentialist works, such as Sartre's Being and Nothingness and de Beauvoir's She Came to Stay. However, recent studies of de Beauvoir's work focus on influences other than Sartre, including Hegel and Leibniz.[1]

De Beauvoir was known to have a number of female lovers. The nature of some of these relationships, some of which she began while working as a professor, later led to a biographical controversy.[13][14][15][16] A former student, Bianca Lamblin (originally Bianca Bienenfeld), in her book, Mémoires d'une jeune fille dérangée, wrote that, while she was a student, she had been exploited by her teacher de Beauvoir, who was in her thirties at the time.[17] In 1943, de Beauvoir was suspended from her teaching job, due to an accusation that she had, in 1939, seduced her 17-year-old lycee pupil Nathalie Sorokine.[18] Sorokine's parents laid formal charges against de Beauvoir for abducting a minor and as a result she had her licence to teach in France permanently revoked.[19] She and Jean-Paul Sartre developed a pattern, which they called the “trio,” in which de Beauvoir would seduce her students and then pass them on to Sartre. Both he and she later regretted what they viewed as their responsibility for psychological damage to at least one of these girls.[20]

She Came to Stay

De Beauvoir published her first novel She Came to Stay in 1943.[21] It is a fictionalised chronicle of her and Sartre's sexual relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary school where de Beauvoir taught during the early '30s. She grew fond of Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she denied him, so he began a relationship with her sister Wanda, instead. Upon his death, Sartre was still supporting Wanda. He also supported Olga for years, until she met and married Jacques-Laurent Bost, de Beauvoir's lover.

In the novel, set just before the outbreak of the Second World War, de Beauvoir creates one character from the complex relationships of Olga and Wanda. The fictionalised versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a ménage à trois with the young woman. The novel also delves into de Beauvoir and Sartre's complex relationship and how it was affected by the ménage à trois.

De Beauvoir's metaphysical novel She Came to Stay was followed by many others, including The Blood of Others, which explores the nature of individual responsibility, telling a love story between two young French students participating in the Resistance in World War II.[22]

Existentialist ethics

In 1944 de Beauvoir wrote her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, a discussion of an existentialist ethics. She continued her exploration of existentialism through her second essay, The Ethics of Ambiguity, (1947); it is perhaps the most accessible entry into French existentialism. Its simplicity keeps it understandable, in contrast to the abstruse character of Sartre's Being and Nothingness. In the essay, de Beauvoir clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, de Beauvoir confronts the existentialist dilemma of absolute freedom vs. the constraints of circumstance.[1]

Les Temps Modernes

At the end of World War II, de Beauvoir and Sartre edited Les Temps Modernes, a political journal which Sartre founded along with Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. De Beauvoir used Les Temps Modernes to promote her own work and explore her ideas on a small scale before fashioning essays and books. De Beauvoir remained an editor until her death.

Sexuality, existentialist feminism and The Second Sex

The Second Sex, published in French, sets out a feminist existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution. As an existentialist, de Beauvoir believed that existence precedes essence; hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one. Her analysis focuses on the Hegelian concept of the Other. It is the (social) construction of Woman as the quintessential Other that de Beauvoir identifies as fundamental to women's oppression. The capitalised 'O' in "other" indicates the wholly other. De Beauvoir asserted that women are as capable of choice as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the 'immanence' to which they were previously resigned and reaching 'transcendence', a position in which one takes responsibility for oneself and the world, where one chooses one's freedom.

Chapters of Le deuxième sexe (translated as The Second Sex) were originally published in Les Temps modernes,[23] in June 1949. The second volume came a few months after the first in France.[24] It was very quickly published in America as The Second Sex, due to the quick translation by Howard Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Because Parshley had only a basic familiarity with the French language, and a minimal understanding of philosophy (he was a professor of biology at Smith College), much of de Beauvoir's book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message.[25] For years Knopf prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of de Beauvoir's work, declining all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars.[25] Only in 2009 was there a second translation, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original publication. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier produced the first integral translation in 2010, reinstating a third of the original work.[26]

De Beauvoir anticipated the sexually charged feminism of Erica Jong and Germaine Greer.

In the chapter "Woman: Myth and Reality" of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argued that men had made women the "Other" in society by application of a false aura of "mystery" around them. She argued that men used this as an excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them, and that this stereotyping was always done in societies by the group higher in the hierarchy to the group lower in the hierarchy. She wrote that a similar kind of oppression by hierarchy also happened in other categories of identity, such as race, class and religion, but she claimed that it was nowhere more true than with gender in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.

Women who do not follow the domestic norm are looked down upon in society. She states, “What is a woman?’ […] The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. […] It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man,’ for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity.” (34-5) Men are the default setting and women are considered a recessive gender.[27]

De Beauvoir argued that women have historically been considered deviant, abnormal. She said that even Mary Wollstonecraft considered men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. De Beauvoir said that this attitude limited women's success by maintaining the perception that they were a deviation from the normal, and were always outsiders attempting to emulate "normality". She believed that for feminism to move forward, this assumption must be set aside.

Key concepts of the 1970s feminist movement related directly to the ideas concerning gender as a social construct presented in de Beauvoir's The Second Sex". Despite her contributions to the feminist movement, especially the French Women's Liberation Movement, and her beliefs in women's economic independence and equal education, de Beauvoir was reluctant to call herself a feminist.[5] However, after observing the resurgence of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, de Beauvoir stated she no longer believed a socialist revolution to be sufficient enough to bring about women's liberation. She publicly declared herself a feminist in 1972, in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur.[28]

The Mandarins

Published in 1954, The Mandarins is set just after the end of World War II and won her France's highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The book follows the personal lives of philosophers and friends among Sartre's and de Beauvoir's intimate circle, including her relationship with American writer Nelson Algren, to whom the book was dedicated. Algren was outraged by the frank way de Beauvoir described their sexual experiences in both The Mandarins and her autobiographies.
Dunes cottage where Algren and de Beauvoir summered in Miller Beach, Indiana
He vented his outrage when reviewing American translations of her work. Much material bearing on this episode in de Beauvoir's life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.

Later years

Antonio Núñez Jiménez, de Beauvoir, Sartre and Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960

De Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about time spent in the United States and China and published essays and fiction rigorously, especially throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She published several volumes of short stories, including The Woman Destroyed, which, like some of her other later work, deals with aging.

1980 saw the publication of When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of short stories centred around and based upon women important to her earlier years.[22] Though written long before the novel She Came to Stay, de Beauvoir did not at the time consider the stories worth publishing, allowing some forty years to pass before doing so.

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led Merleau-Ponty to leave Les Temps Modernes. De Beauvoir sided with Sartre and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In de Beauvoir's later years, she hosted the journal's editorial meetings in her flat and contributed more than Sartre, whom she often had to force to offer his opinions.

De Beauvoir also notably wrote a four-volume autobiography, consisting of: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter; The Prime of Life; Force of Circumstance (sometimes published in two volumes in English translation: After the War and Hard Times); and All Said and Done.[22]

In the 1970s de Beauvoir became active in France's women's liberation movement. She signed the Manifesto of the 343 in 1971, a list of famous women who claimed to have had an abortion, then illegal in France. Some argue most of the women had not had abortions, including Beauvoir, but given the secrecy surrounding the issue, this cannot be known. Signatories were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig and de Beauvoir's sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalised in France.

Her 1970 long essay La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age) is a rare instance of an intellectual meditation on the decline and solitude all humans experience if they do not die before about the age of 60.

In an interview with Betty Friedan, de Beauvoir said: No, we don’t believe that any woman should have this choice. No woman should be authorised to stay at home to bring up her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.[29]

In about 1976 de Beauvoir and Sylvie Le Bon made a trip to New York City in the USA to visit Kate Millett on her farm.[30]

De Beauvoir's and Sartre's grave at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

In 1981 she wrote La Cérémonie Des Adieux (A Farewell to Sartre), a painful account of Sartre's last years. In the opening of Adieux, de Beauvoir notes that it is the only major published work of hers which Sartre did not read before its publication.

After Sartre died, de Beauvoir published his letters to her with edits to spare the feelings of people in their circle who were still living. After de Beauvoir's death, Sartre's adopted daughter and literary heir Arlette Elkaïm would not let many of Sartre's letters be published in unedited form. Most of Sartre's letters available today have de Beauvoir's edits, which include a few omissions but mostly the use of pseudonyms. De Beauvoir's adopted daughter and literary heir Sylvie Le Bon, unlike Elkaïm, published de Beauvoir's unedited letters to both Sartre and Algren.

De Beauvoir died of pneumonia in Paris, aged 78.[31] She is buried next to Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.


  • L'Invitée (1943) (English – She Came to Stay)
  • Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944)
  • Le Sang des autres (1945) (English – The Blood of Others)
  • Who Shall Die? (1945)
  • Tous les hommes sont mortels (1946) (English – All Men Are Mortal)
  • Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté (1947) (English – The Ethics of Ambiguity)
  • Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) (English – The Second Sex)
  • L'Amérique au jour le jour (1954) (English – America Day by Day)
  • The Mandarins (1954)
  • Must We Burn Sade? (1955)
  • The Long March (1957)
  • Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958)
  • The Prime of Life (1960)
  • Force of Circumstance (1963)
  • A Very Easy Death (1964)
  • Les Belles Images (1966)
  • The Woman Destroyed (1967)
  • The Coming of Age (1970)
  • All Said and Done (1972)
  • When Things of the Spirit Come First (1979)
  • Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (1981)
  • Letters to Sartre (1990)
  • Journal de guerre, Sept 1939–Jan 1941 (1990); English - Wartime Diary (2009)
  • A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (1998)
  • Diary of a Philosophy Student, 1926–27 (2006)
  • Cahiers de jeunesse, 1926–1930 (2008)


  • Patrick O'Brian was de Beauvoir's principal English translator, until he attained commercial success as a novelist.
  • Philosophical Writings (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2004, edited by Margaret A. Simons et al.) contains a selection of essays by de Beauvoir translated for the first time into English. Among those are: Pyrrhus and Cineas, discussing the futility or utility of action, two previously unpublished chapters from her novel She Came to Stay and an introduction to Ethics of Ambiguity.


See also


  1. ^ a b c Bergoffen, Debra, "Simone de Beauvoir", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  2. ^ a b Mussett, Shannon. Simone de Beauvoir Biography on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 11 April 2010
  3. ^ Thurman, Judith. The Second SexIntroduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s . Excerpt published in The New York Times 27 May 2010. Retrieved 11 April 2010
  4. ^ Bair, p. 60
  5. ^ a b c Roberts, Mary Louise. "Beauvoir, Simone de." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. : Oxford University Press, 2008. [2]. Retrieved 3 February 2014
  6. ^ Menand, Louis. "Stand By Your Man". The New Yorker, 26 September 2005. Retrieved 11 May 2010
  7. ^ Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Book One
  8. ^ Bair, p. 155–156
  9. ^ Bair, p. 157
  10. ^ Bair, p. 156
  11. ^ a b Schneir, Miriam (1994). Feminism in Our Time. Vintage Books. p. 5.  
  12. ^ Appignanesi, Lisa (10 June 2005). "Our relationship was the greatest achievement of my life". The Guardian (London). 
  13. ^ A dangerous liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, By Carole Seymour-Jones (London 2008), page 216 and 274
  14. ^ New studies agree that Beauvoir is eclipsing Sartre as a philosopher and writer, The Independent, by Lesley McDowell, Sunday, 25 May 2008
  15. ^ Contingent loves: Simone de Beauvoir and sexuality, By Melanie Hawthorne (London, 2000), pages 65–78
  16. ^ BBC Radio 4 Start the Week BBC Radio 4, Andrew Marr, 21 April 2008
  17. ^ Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1994, LGF – Livre de Poche; ISBN 978-2-253-13593-7/2006, Balland; ISBN 978-2-7158-0994-9)
  18. ^ Tête-à-tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Rowley, HarperCollins, 2005 , page 130-35, ISBN 0-06-052059-0;ISBN 978-0-06-052059-5
  19. ^ Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, Paul Johnson, Harper Perrenial, 1988, page 238-238, ISBN 978-0-06-125317-1
  20. ^ [3]
  21. ^ [4]
  22. ^ a b c Simone de Beauvoir
  23. ^ Appignanesi 2005, p. 82
  24. ^ Appignanesi 2005, p. 89
  25. ^ a b Moi, Toril 'While We Wait: The English Translation of "The Second Sex" in Signs 27(4) (summer, 2002), pp., 1005–1035.
  26. ^ reviewGlobe and Mail
  27. ^ [5]
  28. ^ Fallaize, Elizabeth (1998). Simone de Beauvoir : a critical reader (Digital print ed.). London: Routledge. p. 6.  
  29. ^ “A Dialogue with Simone de Beauvoir,” in Betty Friedan, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (New York: Random House, 1976), pp. 311–12
  30. ^ Appignanesi 2005, p. 160
  31. ^


  • Appignanesi, Lisa, 2005, Simone de Beauvoir, London: Haus, ISBN 1-904950-09-4
  • Bair, Deirdre, 1990. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, ISBN 0-671-60681-6
  • Rowley, Hazel, 2005. Tête-a-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Suzanne Lilar, 1969. Le Malentendu du Deuxième Sexe (with collaboration of Prof. Dreyfus). Paris, University Presses of France (Presses Universitaires de France).
  • Fraser, M., 1999. Identity Without Selfhood: Simone de Beauvoir and Bisexuality, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Axel Madsen, Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, William Morrow & Co, 1977.
  • Hélène Rouch, 2001–2002, Trois conceptions du sexe: Simone de Beauvoir entre Adrienne Sahuqué et Suzanne Lilar, Simone de Beauvoir Studies, n° 18, pp. 49–60.
  • Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute, 2002. Conférence Élisabeth Badinter, Jacques Lassalle & Lucette Finas, ISBN


Bibliographic sources

  • Beauvoir, Simone de. Woman: Myth & Reality
    • in Jacobus, Lee A (ed.) A World of Ideas. Bedford/St. Martins, Boston 2006. 780–795
    • in Prince, Althea, and Susan Silva Wayne. Feminisms and Womanisms: A Women's Studies Reader. Women's Press, Toronto 2004 p. 59–65.

Further reading

  • "Le Malentendu du Deuxième Sexe", by Suzanne Lilar, 1969
  • "Feminist theory & Simone de Beauvoir," by Toril Moi, 1990

External links

  • Simone de Beauvoir entry by Debra Bergoffen in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Simone de Beauvoir entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Works by or about Simone de Beauvoir at Internet Archive
  • Madeleine Gobeil (Spring–Summer 1965). "Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35". Paris Review. 
  • Guardian Books "Author Page", with profile and links to further articles.
  • Kirjasto profile
  • Victoria Brittain et al discuss Simone de Beauvoir's lasting influence, ICA 1989
  • Mim Udovitch – a contributing editor for Esquire (6 December 1988). "Hot and Epistolary: 'Letters to Nelson Algren', by Simone de Beauvoir". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  • Louis Menand (26 September 2005). by Simone de Beauvoir)"The Second Sex"Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir (Book review of the republished . Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  • "Simone De Beauvoir", Great Lives, BBC Radio 4, 22 April 2011
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