Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986)

n 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published her best-known work, The Second Sex. The book deals with feminism and sexuality. In it, Beauvoir describes how women through every aspect of life is a set apart as lesser than men. Beauvoir explains that women are the quintessential Other. Many commentators see the book as marking the beginning of the second wave of feminism.

'Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth '

A French novelist, playwright and social critic, de Beauvoir, in her work, reopened the issue of gender politics and foreshadowed the ideas of later radical feminists. Addressing the question ‘What is a woman?’ she rejected the idea that women can be understood in terms either of their biological function or of the idea of the eternal feminine. In The Second Sex (1949), she developed a complex critique of patriarchal culture, in which the masculine is represented as the positive or the norm, while the feminine is portrayed as the ‘other’ – fundamentally limiting women’s freedom and denying them their full humanity. ‘Otherness’ thus explains the imbalances and inequalities that exist between men and women in terms of the fact that while men are defined independently of women, as free and autonomous beings, women are always defined in relation to men; they are man’s ‘other’. De Beauvoir placed her faith in rationality and critical analysis as the means of exposing this process.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Simone de Beauvoir. "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," she wrote in her best known and most influential work, The Second Sex, her exploration of what it means to be a woman in a world defined by men. Published in 1949, it was an immediate success with the thousands of women who bought it. Many male critics felt men came out of it rather badly. Beauvoir was born in 1908 to a high bourgeois family and it was perhaps her good fortune that her father lost his money when she was a girl. With no dowry, she pursued her education in Paris to get work and in a key exam to allow her to teach philosophy, came second only to Jean Paul Sartre. He was retaking. They became lovers and, for the rest of their lives together, intellectual sparring partners. Sartre concentrated on existentialist philosophy; Beauvoir explored that, and existentialist ethics, plus the novel and, increasingly in the decades up to her death in 1986, the situation of women in the world.

Simone de Beauvoir was known as the first existential feminist. The existentialist philosophical movement, founded by Kirkegaard in the nineteenth century, took hold among French intellectuals in the 1950s, notably Jean- Paul Sartre (de Beauvoir’s lover) and Albert Camus. Existentialism set the freedom of the individual against the constrictions placed on him or her by the moral and religious world around them and exhorted them to struggle against such restrictions by imposing their own will upon life. Failing to impose one’s own will is known as ‘bad faith’, but succeeding is known as ‘authenticity’. For de Beauvoir, for too long women had lived their lives in bad faith, imposed upon them by men.

She also developed the idea of women as the ‘Other’ (with a capital ‘O’). The idea of otherness was that men have characterised women as different, but different in a way of their (men’s) choosing, not the choosing of women themselves. De Beauvoir famously declared that ‘women are made, not born’. The problem is that they are made by men.

In her best known work, The Second Sex, de Beauvoir rejects the notion that girls are born with any nurturing instinct; rather, she asserts that they learn it from their parents and from their schooling. In existential terms, therefore, their freedom to choose their own way of life is removed almost from birth. The roles that women play have been determined for them by men. Even in their personal relations, women are inferior, as she writes in The Second Sex:

On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself — on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.’

Her solution to the plight of women was twofold. First, women must be granted the opportunity to make as many choices as men, to be able to escape from the drudgery of housework and their role in marriage as a kind of sex slave. This will be achieved largely through education, economic freedom, state-funded child care, legalised abortion and widespread contraception. But de Beauvoir also asserted that women must liberate themselves. They must seek sexual liberation and freedom from the strictures of the nuclear family.

De Beauvoir was an influence on all feminists who came after her, but especially on Friedan. While de Beauvoir used history and philosophy to confirm her theories, Friedan used specific research. However, despite their different methodology both women came to very similar conclusions. This extract from The Second Sex perfectly sums up the ideas of the early second wave feminists:

‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.’