By Francisca Carvalho
August 1, 2020
Simone de Beauvoir was as French as it gets. A woman who called the City of Lights her home for 78 years, who lived and loved, wrote and protested in the heart of Paris. A woman who refused to accept the norms that were imposed by the society of her time and was never reluctant in expressing her views. At a young age, Beauvoir rejected the education that had been imposed on her since childhood, denying the existence of God and questioning the validity of the Christian religion. This initial act of defiance would be reflective of the life that the existential writer would lead as a distinguished progressive thinker of the 20th century, setting in stone her role as a fundamental figure in the feminist movement.
Try to imagine Paris in the 1940s, the era marked by the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s most acclaimed piece of work, titled The Second Sex (hint: think stereotypical gender roles, ramped misogyny and normalized sexual harassment). During this time, as French men went off to war, women stepped into civilian jobs and were presented with more responsibilities in society. Despite this change of the social structure, women were still commonly regarded as ‘arm candy’. Beauvoir, a witness to this persistent inequality and injustice, began to write on the fact that men saw women as an “other” to themselves rather than as people in their own right. Women were simply “not men”, damsels in distress, beings on the Earth with the sole purpose of reproduction and caring for those that they bring into the world. The Second Sex, by directly addressing the issue surrounding the perception of women in society, before the Women’s Movement emerged, made it one of the earliest efforts to view history from a feminist perspective, and in doing so put equal rights at the forefront of political conversations.
While Beauvoir’s work proved to be a source of inspiration for the Women’s Liberation Movement, collective criticism and a raise of eyebrows could not be avoided. Soon after the publication of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s name became synonymous with terms such as lesbian, nymphomaniac and sexually frustrated. In her memoir, she recounts receiving mail offering to ‘cure’ her, dismissing her claims on the basis of being a “man-hater”. This initial reaction to its publication is, therefore, evidence that society in the 1940s was not yet prepared to accept the work and concerns presented by a woman – both in the academic world and in general society. For this reason, it was imperative for Beauvoir to write and publish her book when she did.
Let’s take a trip to the year 1929 at the University of Paris, when a 21-year-old Simone de Beauvoir meets a great name in philosophical literature, Jean-Paul Sartre. This was the man with whom she assumed a love story and partnership that would last a lifetime. This pair of intellectually defiant young Parisians continued to challenge modern thought, in their work and private lives, spending their days at Café de Fleur discussing existentialism over cups of coffee – not married, not living together, and both free to seek other romantic partners. Despite this liberal relationship being the subject of great controversy in her life, Beauvoir was adamant about maintaining her independence and such exceeded her need to be accepted by the public. This serves as proof that her convictions remained unaltered until her death in 1986. Beauvoir was never reluctant in voicing her opinion on the idea that it is men who manage the structure of the world, and that women are often tempted to devote themselves entirely to their marriage and children, at the risk of losing their own freedom. Today, at a distance, having an understanding of her life and work, it would seem that the attacks that Beauvoir received for the publication of The Second Sex had more to do with the resentment surrounding a possible change in the nature of women, something that Simone de Beauvoir exemplified.
Now, when discussing Simone de Beauvoir, her political activism is often overlooked. However, The Second Sex in itself can be viewed as an expression of her political beliefs – many of which continue to resonate today. In her work, Beauvoir analyzes the dynamic in which the presence of women, their recognition and prestige remains substantially inferior to that of men. Such was reflected in the household, but also in the academic world and within the government structure of her time. It is important, however, to recognize that this is not a condition limited to the 1940s. As someone living in the 21st century, you may wonder why Simone de Beauvoir, her work and her legacy are of importance. Have we not achieved equality? Aren’t the issues that she addressed already resolved? Sadly, the answer to both of these questions is a no. Let’s take a modern example as proof that many of the freedoms that Simone de Beauvoir fought to establish during a time of oppression are still under threat. In 1971, Beauvoir wrote and signed a document which paved the way for birth control and abortion freedoms in France. Flash forward to 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump states that it is natural and economical for a woman to solely give birth while men work, as for pregnancy is an inconvenience to businesses, and additionally continues to spread anti-abortion rhetoric and misinformation.
Beauvoir’s work and political philosophy proves to be timeless as through the arguments presented in her book written in 1949 readers are able to respond to comments made in 2018. Beauvoir states that we should expect these types of arguments which appeal to ‘nature’ to justify the restriction on women’s freedoms, serving as proof that many of the concerns she articulated decades ago are still of concern today. Not limited to this situation, she provided numerous interventions pertaining to gender pay gaps and the general inequality on the basis of sex – topics which led to the establishment of modern feminists and provided a landscape for their political demands. Whether you are walking down the street of Paris, marching in Washington, or simply engaging in a conversation with those closest to you, remember the words of Simone de Beauvoir. Remember her work. But mostly, remember her persistent fight to show women’s place in history.