Feminist, philosopher and trailblazer,Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) met with her soul mate, Jean-Paul Sartre while they were both students. The two philosophers now share a grave in the Montparnesse Cemetery in Paris, France, after a lifetime of companionship. De Beauvoir was a pioneer, unrelenting in her pursuit of women’s rights and emancipation.
De Beauvoir became the youngest philosophy teacher at the Sorbonne after passing her final examination at the age of 21 years. She made significant philosophical contributions in the field of ethics from an existentialist viewpoint, insisting upon the individual’s ethical responsibility for him/herself and for others – for example those who are economically and socially oppressed.
The Power of the Individual
Existentialism is about the power of the individual; it claims that it’s not enough to rely on moral and/or scientific thinking in order to become a full-realised human being. At all times, a person must be true to themselves.
Her book, The Second Sex, published in 1948, focused on female oppression in all its guises. It undermined and challenged gender issues that were limiting and that denied women the right of self-determination. The strength of her commitment evoked wide-ranging criticism from both the right and left, and offended the Vatican who showed its disapproval by listing her book in their Index of Prohibited Books.
Simone de Beauvoir and the Eternal Feminine
In The Second Sex, we are introduced to the concept of woman being termed as “The Other” by men, thereby labelling her as inessential. According to this concept, man is “Subject” and “Absolute” making relationships between male and female unequal.
De Beauvoir decided to uncover the roots of this inequality, and to expose attitudes that helped to maintain the status quo, causing woman to live in a manner considered appropriate for her by men. There were certain requirements that needed to be recognised if women were to emancipate themselves.
“A modern woman prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating, on the same terms as men; instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal.” To achieve this the following changes were necessary, according to Jeremy Harwood, in Great Thinkers.
- The instigation of change in the existing social structure.
- The provision of universal childcare.
- Equality in education.
- Contraception and the legalisation of abortion.
- Women’s economic freedom and independence from men.
The Vanity of Women Limits Their Power
In her book, The New Feminism, Natasha Walter says, “Feminists down the ages have argued that the oppression of women is played out on their bodies, their clothes, their styles of adornment. To politicize dress has been one of the enduring projects of the women’s movement.”
Walter quotes Mary Wollstonecroft, who said, in 1792, that women were “…confined in cages like the feathered race… nothing to do but plume themselves… stalk from perch to perch.”
In this way women, it was claimed,became the object of men’s sexual desires rather than independent individuals… “thus society is not seeking to further her projects but to thwart them.”
Natasha Walter cites several examples of how women’s dress has been used against them, for example, beauty contests, make-up, hair-dye, so that she appears to be permanently on display. In Simone de Beauvoir’s words, “What is decorated is what is offered.”
The Root of the Problem is Not Vanity
However, Walter has a different angle of this viewpoint. She feels such issues are rooted in the fact of financial inequality between the sexes. “… men indulge their narcissism in ceremonial dress – the curling wigs of judges, the bright livery of the Horse Guards, the purple dresses of bishops, the stiff shirts of empire builders at dinner…”
Walter insists that providing our dress does not stop us from “doing things” (as crinolines might) we should not attribute such concepts to it.
“Narcissism by the ruling group will always be seen as powerful, narcissism by subordinates as demeaning,” she says.
Although later feminists, like Natasha Walter, declare that de Beauvoir’s message is misguided because it postulates that women should become more like men, this is not entirely fair. Jeremy Harwood says: “…nowhere did de Beauvoir say that male qualities are superior to female ones. What she did say is that only be achieving those ends can women become liberated.”
Simone de Beauvoir – Midwife of Sartre’s Existentialism
It is, perhaps, a little ironic that, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, de Beauvoir described herself as the “midwife of Sartre’s existentialism” rather than a thinker in her own right. When she died on 14 April 1986, she was famous for her support of women’s rights and as a writer, but not as a philosopher. The reason for this was because not only did she write about women, not a pressing philosophical issue during her lifetime, but because readers considered her work to be “echoes” of that of Jean-Paul Sartre.
In truth, she was very much a thinker in her own right and fully familiar with the work of Leibniz, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Marx, Descartes and Bergson.
Another key work of de Beauvoir’s was The Ethics of Ambiguity. She described her philosophical approach as “combining literature and metaphysics.”
Beauvoir, de, Simone. The Second Sex. (1949,1953). Jonathan Cape.
Walter, Natasha. “Let Boys Wear Pink,”The New Feminism. (1998). Little, Brown and Company.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. (1792 – 1992). Everyman.
Harwood, Jeremy. 100 Great Thinkers. (2010). Quercus,
Bergoffen, Debra. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2010). Metaphysics Research Lab, CSLI, Stanford University. Accessed November 18, 2013.© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past