This May, the OUP Philosophy team honors Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) as their Philosopher of the Month. A French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and feminist theoretician, Beauvoir’s essays on ethics and politics engage with questions about freedom and responsibility in human existence. She is perhaps best known for Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex), a groundbreaking examination of the female condition through an existentialist lens and a key text to the Second Wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. Even among her critics, Beauvoir is widely considered the most significant influence on feminist theory and politics during the course of the twentieth century.
Simone de Beauvoir earned her degree from the Sorbonne at a time when higher education was just becoming accessible to French women. When she was twenty‐one, she became the ninth woman to obtain the prestigious agrégation from the École Normale Supérieur, the youngest ever to do so in philosophy. There, Beauvoir met young philosophy student Jean‐Paul Sartre, who would soon be known as the founder of existentialist philosophy. Throughout their lifetime partnership, Beauvoir and Sartre collaborated intellectually and produced several projects, including founding the French political journal Les Temps Modernes, which Beauvoir edited all her life. From 1931 to 1943, Beauvoir taught at several institutions, after which she concentrated on her writing. She was the author of several novels, including She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, and The Mandarins, for which she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. She also produced philosophical treatises such as The Ethics of Ambiguity, a multivolume autobiography, travelogues, and The Second Sex, which became her best-known work.
In The Second Sex, De Beauvoir explains, women are cast as “the other” in relation to men. A patriarchal society imposes upon women an alienated, objectified image of themselves, rather than accepting women as free subjects acting in their own right. The process of alienation, embedded in the earliest childhood experiences, may result in the internalization of and identification with the patriarchal image imposed upon women. In the framework of this analysis, De Beauvoir addresses history, psychoanalysis, and biology, before offering a complex analyses of topics including childhood, heterosexuality, lesbianism, marriage, childbirth, menopause, housework, abortion, contraception, women’s work outside the home, women’s creativity, and women’s efforts to combine independence with authentic sexual freedom. While The Second Sex has not been without its critics, the issues it raised were to become central to feminist thought in the late 1960s.
For more on De Beauvoir’s life and work, browse our interactive timeline below.
Featured image: Bridge over the Seine River in Paris. Public domain via Pixabay.