"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."
Simone de Beauvoir is often seen in the shadow of Jean Paul Sartre, with whom she had a life-long relationship, but this detracts from her own brilliance as one of the great philosophers.
"Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female - whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male."1
Simone de Beauvoir was both a great writer and philosopher in her own right. One of her most significant philosophical works, The Second Sex, has become known as a bible of feminism; it made her an iconic figure for the feminist movement. The most significant part of her feminist theory was the notion of "l'autre" (the other). In The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote:
"She is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called 'the sex', meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute. She determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other."
It was never difficult for its English readers to understand the feminist significance of its analysis of patriarchy, but for a long time its philosophical importance may not have been fully acknowledged. This has now changed with a new and generally accepted better translation of The Second Sex, which came out in 2010.
Beauvoir suffered living under the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II, not least through being separated from Sartre; they were "soulmates" spending most evenings together, often critiquing each others' work. The occupation informed her writing of her other great work, The Ethics Of Ambiguity, which was published in 1947. In it she identifies herself as an existentialist and identifies existentialism as the philosophy of her time, it being the only philosophy that takes the question of evil seriously. She argues against the terrors of a world ruled only by the authority of power.
However, later in her memoir Force of Circumstance, she criticizes The Ethics of Ambiguity for being too abstract. Although she does not repudiate her arguments, she states that it erred in trying to define morality independent of a social context. She appears to have used The Second Sex, published later in 1949, to correct her perceived inaccuracy.
It was relatively late in her life, in 1972, when Beauvoir declared herself a feminist, after continually refusing to align herself with the feminist movement. She joined other Marxist feminists in founding the journal Questions Féministes. Although she eventually declared herself a feminist, Beauvoir did not call herself a philosopher; rather, she claimed to merely follow Sartre's position on existentialism. But since her death, others have recognised that her work positions her as one of the most influential thinkers of her generation.
On marriage and children, Beauvoir refused to marry Sartre, yet had she done, she would not have been separated from him under Nazi occupation. She said that mother-daughter relationships are "generally bad" as "the mother wants to be a friend at the same time as she also wants to be the one to direct her daughter"
Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908; in 1929 she became the youngest person ever to obtain the agrégation in philosophy at the Sorbonne, coming second to Sartre. During her life she taught at lycées at Marseille and Rouen (1931 to 1937), and in Paris (1938 to 1943). When the war finished she developed into one of the leaders of the existentialist movement, working with Sartre on the journal Les Temps Modernes. She also wrote a number of novels, perhaps her most famous one was The Mandarins, which she wrote in 1957; it was awarded Le prix Goncourt, a prize in French literature given by the académie Goncourt to the author of "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year".
For more information about the great philosophers, existentialism and evil, read Finding Happiness.
1 Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex.