Born in Paris in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church until her teens, when she became an atheist and developed her study of philosophy. Beauvoir was a leading figure of second-wave feminism, and she has been lauded as the creator of the movement’s ideology. Beauvoir was the youngest person to pass the philosophy agrégation exam and got the second highest score behind the man who would become her lifelong partner, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Beauvoir was integral to the combination of feminist and existentialist theories. Her contributions to feminism, however, have often been criticized. This article will examine some examples of Beauvoir’s contributions to feminism and the controversies she endured throughout her career.
Simone de Beauvoir’s Contributions to Feminism
Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex, is still regarded as the blueprint for the second wave of feminism. She directly contributed to the passing of safe contraception and abortion laws in France. She was a leader in the feminist movement. Although she never wished to be called a philosopher, her mix of existentialist philosophy with feminism was revolutionary in explaining the story of women in society and how their equality and sense of self were affected by oppression. Her work is still the basis for modern gender and women’s studies, feminist theory, and queer studies.
The Second Sex
In 1949, Beauvoir wrote a 1000-page criticism of the “othering” of women in patriarchal society entitled The Second Sex. The two-volume work posits that women are constantly conceptualized as second-class citizens in society, using the philosophy of Hegel and Sartre when she defines the self and the other, respectively.
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The self needs its other to be able to explain what it is. This should, ideally, work both ways. The other defines itself by its relation to the self, and the self defines itself by its relation to the other. Beauvoir states that this sense of identity is thrown off in modern society, allowing men to become the solitary self and women to become the other. While men can define themselves against the position of the other, women cannot do the same.
Beauvoir explains that woman “is the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He [Man] is the Subject; he is the Absolute-she is the Other.” In framing the man as essential, the woman loses her sense of individuality based on biology. She is inferior simply because she is a woman, thus maintaining her status as the other of society. In reinforcing this standard, men force women into submission from the start, allowing them no expression of self from a sexual, material, or economic standpoint.
Beauvoir claims that a woman’s only possession is her body, and she is taught to use it in the service of the man. Women being held to strict standards of beauty and morality creates a submission that gives them no sense of identity beyond the capabilities of their bodies. Beauvoir also states that this is why women turn to homosexuality, to seek sexual and personal fulfillment in a relationship where they are not oppressed but equal. Beauvoir also uses this point to argue for the necessity of women banding together. Rather than letting men define their relationships, their “otherness” in society should prove to tie themselves to one another in a camaraderie against the social construct of gendered inferiority.
Beauvoir’s treatise deconstructs the idea of femininity being inherent, and instead, in stating “one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes a woman,” seeks to show that women have been brainwashed and repeatedly oppressed by society. It harnesses the existentialist belief that everyone should be able to define themselves and use their sense of self as a tool of freedom.
She argues that women have not been given this opportunity and that society’s laws, institutions, and projects should reflect the necessity for equalizing men and women. She stood, therefore, as an icon for the second wave of feminism insofar that the simple belief of inherent respect for oneself should demand her philosophy of women’s equality.
Manifesto of the 343
In 1971, Simone de Beauvoir penned a manifesto that sought to change the laws regarding abortion and contraception in France. This was an appeal signed by 343 women, of whom Beauvoir was one, to change the policing of women’s bodies through illegal abortion. The manifesto is considered integral to strides in feminist action, as it was an act of civil disobedience that opened the signers up to being prosecuted criminally. The manifesto reads:
One million women in France have abortions every year. Condemned to secrecy, they do so in dangerous conditions, while under medical supervision, this is one of the simplest procedures.
Society is silencing these millions of women. I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion.
Just as we demand free access to contraception, we demand the freedom to have an abortion.
The petition was published in April of 1971 in Le Nouvel Observateur, a French social democratic magazine, and was quickly received by feminist groups that sought to protect the signers. One of these groups, Choisir (To Choose), formed into a reformist campaign that heavily influenced the 1974 passing of the Veil Law, which decriminalized voluntary termination of pregnancy and the allowing of free access to contraception. This stride was only taken with the writing of Beauvoir, who bound the group of 343 together in the first place.
Simone de Beauvoir’s Controversies
While Beauvoir is considered one of the founders of feminist philosophy, her work was not well-received by all from the start. When The Second Sex was published, there was no actual canon regarding feminism and philosophy, and the conservative ideologies of Western Europe remained firmly in place. Thus, her work was considered controversial at its inception, as no one had yet challenged the oppression of women and their place in a patriarchal society.
In addition to the conservative critics, in more recent years, Beauvoir’s work has been criticized by modern feminists as lacking distinction within the image of a woman as it comes to race, social standing, and sexuality. Beauvoir also faced many personal controversies that conflicted with her work, leading to her being often branded as a “sexual deviant.”
Criticisms: Intersectionality & Conservatism
Beauvoir’s revelations about women’s otherness in The Second Sex were groundbreaking, and she received praise from feminists while also receiving criticism. While Beauvoir was a feminist, her conception of feminism aligned with her use of identity politics. She describes women as the definitive other regarding gender, comparing the woman to the Black or Jewish person. In her comparison, Beauvoir showed that she sees gender, race, religion, and social class as separate categories of otherness.
Ostensibly, this means that the women Beauvoir refers to her in her work are white women. She suggests that women are the overarching and definitive others, that otherness due to race, religion, and class fight for an individuality the groups once had. She claims that groups, like those subjugated to chattel slavery, were once free, and their otherness resulted from newer oppression. She argues that as women have always been different from men, they are the only true others biologically.
As Hui Wong, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, states, Beauvoir’s other is not a definitive category of otherness but rather an example of the experience of otherness. Other modern scholars, including Judith Butler and Audre Lorde, argue that Beauvoir’s ideas of otherness do not consider women of other races and sexualities, so they fall short. Her conception of woman as a white woman intentionally discredits the otherness experienced by those whose womanhood is experienced in combination with their religion, race, or sexuality. In summation, Beauvoir misses the mark of accounting for the otherness of women as their identity intersects with other facets of their characters.
In addition to her lack of intersectionality in feminism, Beauvoir was (and still is) hated by conservatives for her depictions of women. The Second Sex was part of the Vatican’s list of prohibited books because of her argument that religion is a tool of oppression toward women and, presumably, her views on abortion and a woman’s right not to be a wife or mother.
In a period where feminism was not a mainstream topic, and Western Europe still held largely conservative values, Beauvoir’s work was immediately criticized for subverting the traditional image of the woman as a mother and caretaker. Beauvoir’s work has inspired many conservative critics to dismiss her as a “man-hater” and say she shames women who choose to be mothers and wives.
Allegations of Abuse
However, Beauvoir’s controversies are not solely based on her work. Her personal life has long been a subject of criticism of her sexuality and her relationships. Her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre was considered very unusual for the time, as the two never married, never had children, and kept their partnership non-exclusive. This led to a long string of lovers for Sartre and a few highly publicized affairs on the part of Beauvoir.
While this would have been scandalous enough for the time, Beauvoir was also accused of sexual abuse of her female students, many of whom were minors. Another aspect of the abuse was Beauvoir’s supposed grooming of young women for Sartre. The couple spoke of their “conquests” of young women in discovered letters. The letters coldly speak of their lovers, describing lies they told them and their discarding of the women after they had “finished” with them. These letters, of course, leave more of a stain on Beauvoir as a seductress and groomer for Sartre, who was seen as merely a macho womanizer. Meanwhile, formal charges were brought against Beauvoir for seducing a 17-year-old student, and she was stripped of her teaching license, though it was later reinstated.
While Beauvoir was often marred by controversy, it is worth noting that this seldom occurred with male philosophers. Her status as a woman who broke the mold did not sit well with her contemporaries, and they sought to discredit her in any way they could. Perhaps it is easy to criticize Beauvoir in a modern context, as her moral and philosophical characteristics often left something to be desired, and it is certainly impossible to ignore such allegations of abuse. However, her impact on contemporary feminism and her direct contributions to women’s rights cannot be understated and should indeed be considered groundbreaking.