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Simone de Beauvoir ( ) (January 9, 1908 ‚Äď April 14, 1986) was a French writer, existentialist philosopher, feminist, and social theorist. She wrote novels, monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues, essays, biographies, and an autobiography in several volumes. She is now best known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins, and for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women's oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism. She is also noted for her lifelong polyamorous relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.

Early years

Simone de Beauvoir was the daughter of Georges de Beauvoir, a one-time lawyer and amateur actor, and Françoise Brasseur, a young woman from Verdunmarker. She was born in Parismarker as 'Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir' and was educated at a Catholic school for girls, something that was looked down on by the intellectuals at the time. The Catholic schools for girls were seen as places where the young were taught how to be mothers and wives more than a place to learn. After World War I, Simone's maternal grandfather Gustave Brasseur, president of the Meuse Bank, went bankrupt, throwing his entire family into dishonor and poverty. The family had to move into a smaller apartment and Georges de Beauvoir had to go back to work; his relationship with his wife suffered.

Simone was always aware that her father had hoped to have a son, instead of two daughters (her younger sister Hélène de Beauvoir became a painter). However, he did tell Simone, "You have the brain of a man," and from a young age Simone was a distinguished student. Georges de Beauvoir passed his love of theater and literature to his daughter. He became convinced that only scholarly success could lift his daughters out of poverty.

At 15, Simone de Beauvoir had already decided she would be a writer. She did well in many subjects, but was especially attracted to philosophy, which she went on to study at the University of Parismarker. There she met many other young intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre.

De Beauvoir, whose private life came to be admired nearly as much as her work, chose to never marry and did not set up a joint household with Sartre with whom she had a lifelong relationship. She did not ever bear a child. This gave her time to earn an advanced academic degree, to join political causes and to travel, write, teach, and to have lovers.

Middle years

After passing the baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique and literature/languages at the Institut Sainte-Marie, then philosophy at the Sorbonnemarker. In 1929, while at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir gave a presentation on Leibniz. Soon after she became involved in what was to become a lifelong relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir studied at the √Čcole Normalemarker along with Sartre.

In 1929, at the age of 21, Beauvoir became the youngest person ever to obtain the agrégation in philosophy, and the 9th woman to obtain this degree. On the final examination she received second place; Sartre, age 24, was first (he'd failed his first exam). According to Deirdre Bair's 1990 biography of Beauvoir, the jury for the agrégation argued over whether to give Sartre or Beauvoir first place in the competition. In the end they awarded it to Sartre.

While at the Sorbonne, Beauvoir acquired her lifelong nickname, Castor, the French word for "beaver" given to her because of the animal's strong work ethic and the resemblance of her surname to the English word "beaver".

She Came to Stay and The Mandarins

In 1943, Beauvoir published She Came to Stay, a fictionalized chronicle of her and Sartre's relationship with Olga Kosakiewicz and Wanda Kosakiewicz. Olga was one of her students in the Rouen secondary school where Beauvoir taught during the early 30s. She grew fond of Olga. Sartre tried to pursue Olga but she denied him; he began a relationship with her sister Wanda instead. Sartre supported Olga for years until she met and married her husband, Beauvoir's lover Jacques-Laurent Bost. At Sartre's death, he was still supporting Wanda. In the novel, set just before the outbreak of World War II, Beauvoir makes one character from the complex relationships of Olga and Wanda. The fictionalized versions of Beauvoir and Sartre have a ménage à trois with the young woman. The novel also delves into Beauvoir and Sartre's complex relationship and how it was affected by the ménage à trois.

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, and The Mandarins, which won her the Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary prize. The Mandarins is set just after the end of World War II. The Mandarins depicted Sartre, Nelson Algren, and many philosophers and friends among Sartre and Beauvoir's intimate circle.

Existentialist ethics

In 1944 Beauvoir wrote Pyrrhus et Cin√©as, a discussion of an existentialist ethics, which inspired her to write more on the subject. This book, Pour Une Morale de L'ambigu√Įt√© (The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1947) 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. The ambiguity about which Beauvoir writes clears up some inconsistencies that many, Sartre included, have found in major existentialist works such as Being and Nothingness.

Sexuality, existentialist feminism, and The Second Sex

The Second Sex cover
Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) was originally published as a two-volume book in France in 1949. These works were 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 Collegemarker), much of Beauvoir's book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message. Nevertheless, to this day, Knopf has prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of Beauvoir's work, having declined all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars.

In her own way, Beauvoir anticipated the sexually charged feminism of Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Algren, no example of restraint, was outraged by the frank way Beauvoir later described her American sexual experiences in The Mandarins (dedicated to Algren, on whom the character Lewis Brogan was based) and in her autobiographies. He vented his outrage when reviewing American translations of her work. Much material bearing on this episode in Beauvoir's life, including her love letters to Algren, entered the public domain only after her death.

In the chapter "Woman: Myth and Reality" of The Second Sex, Beauvoir argued that men had made women the "Other" in society by putting 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 this also happened on the basis of other categories of identity, such as race, class, and religion. But she said that it was nowhere more true than with sex in which men stereotyped women and used it as an excuse to organize society into a patriarchy.

The Second Sex, published in French, sets out a feminist existentialism which prescribes a moral revolution. As an existentialist, 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 Beauvoir identifies as fundamental to women's oppression. The capitalized 'O' in "other" indicates the wholly other.

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. 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.

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.

A critical essay, "Le Malentendu du Deuxième Sexe", was written by Suzanne Lilar in 1969.

Les Temps Modernes

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

Later years

Beauvoir wrote popular travel diaries about her travels in the United Statesmarker and Chinamarker, 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.

In 1979 she published When Things of the Spirit Come First, a set of short stories centered around and based upon women important to her earlier years. The stories were written well before the novel She Came to Stay, but Beauvoir did not think they were worthy of publication until about forty years later.

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty had a longstanding feud, which led Merleau-Ponty to leave Les Temps Modernes. Beauvoir sided with Sartre and ceased to associate with Merleau-Ponty. In 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.

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.

In the 1970s 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, mostly falsely, to have had an abortion, then illegal in France. Beauvoir had not actually had an abortion. Signatories were diverse as Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, and Beauvoir's sister Poupette. In 1974, abortion was legalized 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 age 60. 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, Beauvoir notes that it is the only major published work of hers which Sartre did not read before its publication. She and Sartre always read one another's work.

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

Death, honors and legacy

Beauvoir died of pneumonia in Paris, aged 78. She is buried next to Sartre at the Cimetière du Montparnassemarker in Paris.

Since her death, her reputation has grown. Especially in academia, she is considered the mother of post-1968 feminism. There has also been a growing awareness of her as a major French thinker and existentialist philosopher.

Contemporary discussion analyzes the influences of Beauvoir and Sartre on one another. She is seen as having influenced Sartre's masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, while also having written much on philosophy that is independent of Sartrean existentialism. Some scholars have explored the influences of her earlier philosophical essays and treatises upon Sartre's later thought. She is studied by many respected academics both within and outside philosophy circles, including Margaret A. Simons and Sally Scholtz. Beauvoir's life has also inspired numerous biographies.

In 2006, the city of Paris commissioned architect Dietmar Feichtinger to design a sophisticated footbridge across the Seinemarker River. The bridge was named the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoirmarker in her honor. It leads to the new Bibliothèque nationale de Francemarker.



  • Philosophical Writings (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2004, edited by Margaret A. Simons et al.) contains a selection of essays by 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.


  1. Louis Menand, "Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir", page 4. (The New Yorker, December 26, 2005).
  2. Moi, Toril 'While We Wait: The English Translation of "The Second Sex" in Signs 27(4) (summer, 2002), pp., 1005-1035.


  • Bair, Deirdre, 1990. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Summit Books, ISBN 0-671-60681-6
  • Rowley, Hazel, 2005. T√™te-a-T√™te: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Suzanne Lilar, 1969. Le Malentendu du Deuxi√®me 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.
  • H√©l√®ne Rouch, 2001-2002, Trois conceptions du sexe: Simone de Beauvoir entre Adrienne Sahuqu√© et Suzanne Lilar, Simone de Beauvoir Studies, n¬į 18, pp. 49‚Äď60.
  • Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Nathalie Sarraute, 2002. Conf√©rence √Člisabeth Badinter, Jacques Lassalle & Lucette Finas, ISBN 2717722203.

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.

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