Understanding Simone de Beauvoir’s Feminist Existentialism

Women are other because they are not men. Men are free beings, independently determining the meaning of their life. How does Simone de Beauvoir connect this to existentialism?

Jul 24, 2023By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy



French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is considered the founder of the modern feminist movement. Beauvoir’s freedom-loving and existential views formed the basis of the struggle for equality. Also, they resulted in magnificent philosophical works about life, love, and women in this world. In this article, we will explore this question: what is the feminist existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir?


Simone de Beauvoir: The Atheist Who Wanted to Become a Nun

Simone de Beauvoir, via National Photo Collection of Israel


Simone de Beauvoir is one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. She was an outstanding writer, philosopher, and feminist theorist. At the same time, modern feminists would criticize some of her actions.


Still, much attention today is riveted to her personal life: a long-term partnership with one of the greatest philosophers and numerous love affairs with men and women. Simone de Beauvoir combined so many roles that it is difficult to understand who she really was.


Simone-Lucy-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born on January 9, 1908, in a family of aristocrats. From early childhood, Simone showed great interest in learning, so at five and a half years old, she was sent to school. When another daughter, Helen, was born into the family, Simone began to teach herself.

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Her father supported the intellectual zeal of young Simone. He gave her books early on and encouraged her to read and write. At the same time, the father still hoped that his daughter, having received a good education, would marry and take care of a family in the future.


Simone de Beauvoir, via Deutsche Welle.


But when Simone was a teenager, the family went bankrupt at her father’s fault. Now it was no longer possible to count on a good dowry and a worthy husband. The father blamed himself for it. Simone, on the contrary, always wanted to be a writer and teacher, not a mother and wife, and continued to study actively. Therefore, everything turned out well for her – education became her main ticket to a good life.


Simone had a serious conflict with her mother in her teenage years. The mother was a very faithful Catholic and raised her daughters following her faith. Therefore, Simone went to school at the monastery and even thought she could become a nun. However, at the age of 14, she experienced a crisis of faith, declared herself an atheist, and switched her attention from religion to mathematics, literature, and philosophy.


Simone de Beauvoir’s Relationship With Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre Beauvoir welcomed by Shlonsky Goldberg
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg, via via National Photo Collection of Israel.


At the age of 17, Simone graduated from high school, and in 1926 Simone entered the Sorbonne, where she continued to study philosophy in more detail. She completed her dissertation on German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. She was only the ninth woman who graduated from this university.


In 1929, Simone took a special exam required to select specialists in the humanities for vacant teaching positions. Simone passed the exam with better grades than the future famous philosophers Paul Nizan and Jean Hyppolite. By a small margin in points, she lost only to Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, with whom Simone de Beauvoir had a romantic relationship and intellectual partnership for over 50 years.


The couple met in 1929 while studying, and only Sartre’s death in 1980 forced them to separate. However, they were not married: Sartre once proposed to Simone, but she rejected him. As a result, they never lived under the same roof, had no children together, and were both free to seek other romantic relationships.


In fact, the relationship between de Beauvoir and Sartre was a fruitful intellectual partnership. Their interests largely coincided; they both actively supported communism and generally shared leftist views. Together, they also referred to themselves as existentialists. But at the same time, they did not depend on each other and successfully developed each of their careers in independent ways.


The important thing is that this relationship became the embodiment of de Beauvoir’s concept of true love. Simone, at the age of 18, formulated her own definition of love, which many years later she outlined in her most famous work, The Second Sex.


The Second Sex as the Basis for the Formation of Existential Feminism Thought

suffragette procession
Suffragette Procession, 1911, via Flickr.


Published in 1949, The Second Sex is a 1,000-page critique of patriarchal culture and the secondary status of women in society. The book, which is considered to be the basis of the modern feminist movement, was subjected to terrible criticism in its time, and the Vatican added it to the list of banned literature.


But despite this, a few years later, The Second Sex was released in English in America. It made Simone de Beauvoir one of the most prominent thinkers of our time and gave the feminist movement an ideology and a solid historical and philosophical foundation.


In this two-volume study, de Beauvoir shatters the thesis most often used by opponents of feminism: the differences between men and women are determined primarily by biology and, therefore, cannot be overcome.


De Beauvoir writes about the physiology and psychology of the two sexes and then digs into history. She explores the position of women in ancient Greece, medieval Europe, Napoleonic France, and the USSR.


De Beauvoir concludes that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” that is, she emphasizes the importance of the environment in which women live and the social attitudes that influence them.


yo mama mutu
Yo Mama by Wangechi Mutu, 2003, via MoMA.


She points out the differences in the upbringing of boys and girls, tries to challenge the idea of ​​an innate maternal instinct, and argues for the need for abortion.


De Beauvoir writes about the life of secular ladies and the position of courtesans and reflects on the stereotypes about the “second sex,” which are not only present among men but also among women.


The writer explains why men oppressed women, how women’s roles changed over the centuries, and what social and economic factors ultimately led to their emancipation.


The publication of The Second Sex is considered one of the events that served as a starting point for the start of the second wave of feminism.


Simone de Beauvoir presented a detailed historical analysis and sorted out philosophers’ views, cultural myths, and prejudices. It provided a good theoretical basis for critical discussions of sex and gender issues.


“One Is Not Born, but Rather Becomes, a Woman”

woman daughter makeup weems
Untitled (woman and daughter with makeup) by Carrie Mae Weems, 1990, via MoMA.


This provocative and somewhat mysterious adage was first heard in 1949 in Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex. It is an expression of the idea that gender identity is formed in the process of life through cultural and social influences.


In other words, Simone de Beauvoir argued that a woman should become who she wants to be and have the opportunity to determine her own destiny.


This principle was revolutionary for its time and significantly impacted the feminist movement. It is one of the key ideas that shaped Simone de Beauvoir’s thought, and that still resonates with modern feminists today.


Neither biology, the psyche, nor the economy can predetermine the human female’s appearance in society. Instead, Beauvoir argues that the environment where a woman lives and develops also plays an important role in her becoming a person. Therefore, to become a woman, the individual must be able to identify and develop her own unique capabilities and potential.


In essence, being a woman is not something predetermined but determined by the choices a person makes throughout her life. Roles and norms have changed over the centuries due to social and economic factors such as education, religion, and politics. At the same time, women must be free to create their own identities and not feel limited by the expectations of others.


The Basic Principles of Feminist Existentialism by Simone de Beauvoir

challenge ayon
Untitled (A Challenge) by Belkis Ayón, 1996, via MoMA.


Existential feminism is one of the approaches of the second wave, which, being influenced by existential philosophy and using its premises, namely “being for oneself” and “being in oneself,” seeks to explain gender differences and discrimination against women.


Simone de Beauvoir speaks of these ideas in her book The Second Sex. Being for oneself presupposes observation and freedom, and being in oneself requires being under observation and assimilation of a thing.


According to de Beauvoir, the physical structure of women and men and the significant influence of social conditions caused masculinity to become like a “being for oneself,” characterized by qualities such as fluidity, freedom, and certainty. And femininity has become like “being in itself,” having such properties as peacefulness, affection, and being on the sidelines.


This division de Beauvoir proposed in her book The Second Sex has become a foundation of feminist thought. She argues that building a social structure that neutralizes the differences between men and women is necessary; the goal is to create an environment where women have the same opportunities as men.


Simone de Beauvoir’s existential feminism was a fundamental explanation of the existence of gender inequality in society and opened up many possibilities for developing feminist thought.


According to Simone de Beauvoir, a woman should make a choice and act with the understanding that she is an independent person responsible for her life. The main principle of feminist existentialism is freedom, on which all other principles are built.


dominant curve kandinsky
Dominant Curve by Vasily Kandinsky, 1936, via Guggenheim.


It involves the belief that a woman should refuse to accept pre-assigned roles passively and instead create her own destiny. At the same time, de Beauvoir constantly emphasized that women should take responsibility for their decisions.


Simone de Beauvoir also argued that the issue of gender inequality was much broader than just politics or economics. She mentioned that it is a fundamental problem, affecting all aspects of human life and freedom.


How Did the Views of Simone de Beauvoir Influence the Future of Feminism?

hospital bed kahlo
Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo, 1932, via FridaKahlo.org.


In accordance with the typical practices of existential philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir concludes that the “women’s situation” can and must be changed; but the beginning of this change cannot come from outside.


A unique female existence must realize its non-objectionable nature and make every possible effort to become the mistress of her own life, the creator of her life project. According to de Beauvoir, creative self-consciousness and an active life position can change the world in which a person must achieve the triumph of the kingdom of freedom.


The work of Simone de Beauvoir had a decisive influence on the emergence and development of the “second wave” of feminism, distinguished by a greater degree of reflexivity and greater attention to the theoretical side of the “women’s issue.”


Under the influence of her ideas in the 1970s, centers of “women’s” or “feminist” studies appeared everywhere in Western universities with special programs, including specialists in biology, physiology, anthropology, ethnography, philosophy, history, and philology.


Thus, the existential-philosophical perspective, taken as a basis by Simone de Beauvoir, opened up new possibilities in understanding the peculiarities of the female position in society and helped to transcend the issue of female corporality beyond the framework of natural predetermination.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.