Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) was one of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals. In addition to writing “the feminist Bible,” The Second Sex, she was a philosopher, a prize-winning writer, and a feminist and anti-colonial campaigner whose activism led to dramatic shifts in political opinion and changes in legislation. She was also one of the century’s most infamous women, due to her unconventional and misunderstood relationship with the playboy philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
In the past decade, new diaries, manuscripts, and letters have become available that show both Beauvoir’s intellectual independence and originality, and the sexist onslaught she faced for saying what she did. From The Second Sex onward, critics continuously condescended to remind Beauvoir that women didn’t need feminism anymore. Why did she insist on being so passé? What was it she thought women still needed?
When Simone de Beauvoir published “The Sexual Initiation of Woman” in the May 1949 issue of Les Temps Modernes, the journal she had founded alongside Sartre four years before, it provoked strong and revealing reactions. In it she described her vision of a non-oppressive, reciprocal sexual encounter where women enjoyed sex as subjects, not objects. Instead of being passive and submissive to non-reciprocal male desire, Beauvoir wrote about relationships where a woman, in “love, tenderness, and sensuality,” established “a relationship of reciprocity with her partner. The asymmetry of male and female eroticism creates insoluble problems as long as there is a battle of the sexes; they can easily be settled when a woman feels both desire and respect in a man.” Later she wondered whether it was a mistake to publish that chapter first.
The esteemed Catholic novelist François Mauriac was quick to claim that Beauvoir’s writing “literally reached the limits of the abject”—was “a serious philosophical and literary review really the place for the subject treated by Mme Simone de Beauvoir?” This was the author whose steps Beauvoir had retraced as a student alongside the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty; for decades she had admired his way with words, and now he was using them to call her wayward.
“The asymmetry of male and female eroticism creates insoluble problems as long as there is a battle of the sexes,” wrote Beauvoir.
The subsequent June and July issues of Les Temps Modernes flew off the newsstands. Beauvoir had published chapters on lesbianism and part of her section on maternity in these issues, and many readers were outraged. Her reputation was already scandalous in some quarters at this point—tied as it was to Sartre’s, whose writing had been called pornographic since the novellas in The Wall, and to fictional depictions of their relationship—but now she attracted insults of a different order. “Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother,” she wrote in Force of Circumstance. She was propositioned by “sex maniacs” and “active members of the First Sex.” The Communists called her a petite bourgeoise whose analysis had nothing to say to the working classes.
This time, Mauriac—that respectable pillar of the conservative establishment—wrote to one of the contributors to Les Temps Modernes that his “employer’s vagina has no secret from me.” When these words were published in Beauvoir’s account of the book’s reception, in 1963, Mauriac was “horrified”; at the time, however, he began a series in Le Figaro Littéraire condemning pornography in general and Simone de Beauvoir in particular.
Just Like a Woman
In October, Beauvoir went to Provence to be with Sartre and write. The second volume of The Second Sex, published late that month, contained the famous line “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Since every woman is becoming, she argued, and not a closed book, Beauvoir wanted to include women’s own descriptions of their lived experiences, showing some of the ways that they were made “Other” throughout the course of their lives. She herself was still becoming Beauvoir, she reasoned, and in the process of trying to understand her own experience she realized that some of the obstacles she faced were endemic threats to other women’s becoming, too.
Despite the passage of time, Beauvoir was still the philosopher who had been inspired by Alfred Fouillée’s idea that “one isn’t born, but rather becomes, free.” Now she argued that it was not biology, psychology, and economics that determined women to live lives set apart from men, or submissive to them; civilization played a significant role, too.
Why did she insist on being so passé? What was it she thought women still needed?
Beauvoir’s candid treatment of female sexuality was scandalous, but it was her treatment of motherhood that came under the most sustained attack. Beauvoir thought society was in extravagant bad faith: how could they not see the duplicity in showing contempt for women and respect for mothers? “It is a criminal paradox to deny women all public activity,” she wrote in The Second Sex, “to close masculine careers to them, to proclaim them incapable in all domains, and to nonetheless entrust to them the most delicate and most serious of all undertakings: the formation of a human being.”
In addition to motherhood, Beauvoir returned to the theme that had preoccupied her for decades: the ethics of love and devotion. In The Second Sex, she claimed that the word “love” has different meanings for men and women, and that these differences are responsible for many of the disagreements between the sexes.
Men remained “sovereign subjects” in love, she said; they valued their women alongside other pursuits, as an integral part—but only a part—of their whole life. By contrast, for women, love was presented as life itself, and ideals of love encouraged women to live lives of self-sacrifice or even complete self-forgetting for the sake of their beloved. Men were raised to expect to be active in the world—to love but also to be ambitious and to act in other domains; women were taught that their value was conditional—that they needed to be loved by a man to have worth.
Although Beauvoir’s account in The Second Sex largely frames the discussion in heteronormative terms, she had in fact faced this tension in her sexual relationships with women as well. In 1940, following a conversation with Bianca Bienenfeld—a lover of both Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s—about Bienenfeld’s desire to occupy a more central role in Beauvoir’s life, Bienenfeld wrote to Beauvoir: “You don’t give yourself, you take. It’s false that I’m your life—your life is a mosaic. For me, though, you are my life—I’m all yours.”
“It is a criminal paradox to deny women all public activity,” Beauvoir wrote, “and to nonetheless entrust to them … the most serious of undertakings: the formation of a human being.”
Like Beauvoir’s fiction, The Second Sex raises the question of how much autobiography to read into Beauvoir’s philosophy—and which autobiography? In addition to her early encounters with Bianca, Beauvoir, in a letter to a later lover regarding her relationship with Sartre, identified “true reciprocity,” rather than sex, as the quality she found lacking. This raises the question: when she described “reciprocal love” in 1949, did she believe herself to have lived it?
Her chapter on lesbianism also provoked speculation. Prior to the posthumous publication of her letters to Sartre, there were only novels and suspicions to compare it with—what did she mean when she wrote about feeling “obscure longings” for women in her 1958 Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter?—but even so, people wondered: Was it rooted in her own experience, or even in suppressed desire? Was she in bad faith about her own sexuality? In the book she claimed that there is “no sexual destiny that governs an individual’s life,” and that homosexuality is “a choice made from a complex whole, contingent on a free decision.”
Brave New World
When Volume Two of The Second Sex was published, reviewers re-drew their weapons—Beauvoir would later refer to the coverage of this volume as “the scandal.” The Figaro columnist André Rousseaux expressed “embarrassment” for this “female follower of Bacchus” who had written about “sexual initiation,” who wanted to ruin love in order to claim the freedom of pleasure. After all, he said, women were already emancipated! Emmanuel Mounier, writing in L’Esprit, lamented the “tone of ressentiment” that he found in the book.
If it had been better controlled, he said, perhaps it “would have less impeded the lucidity of the author.” They called her life sad, neurotic, frustrated. Camus accused her of “making the French male look ridiculous.” The philosopher Jean Guitton expressed pain at seeing between its lines “her sad life.” L’Époque published a prediction that in 10 years no one would be talking about “this nauseating apology for sexual inversion and abortion.” The Vatican put it on its list of forbidden books.
Beauvoir found a more welcoming readership in the next generation. They read the book as something without precedent—something which talked frankly about female experiences that had been taboo. Some read it as a sex manual. Paris Match published excerpts in August, introducing their author as “Jean-Paul Sartre’s lieutenant and expert in existentialism, [who] is without doubt the first woman philosopher to have appeared in men’s history. It fell to her to extract a philosophy of her sex from the great human adventure.”
Kate Kirkpatrick is a professor at King’s College London.