The meaning of life according to Simone de Beauvoir - Iseult Gillespie
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A core belief of existentialism is the idea that “existence proceeds essence”, in the words of De Beauvoir’s intellectual and romantic life partner Jean-Paul Sartre. This means that humans do not possess our traits “naturally,” but adapt to the social and cultural world we’re born into.
De Beauvoir applies this idea to gender in The Second Sex, which she summarizes in the trailblazing statement: “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” Here she makes a crucial distinction that revolutionized the way we think about bodies and behavior: gender is socially and culturally constructed. To learn more about why you should read The Second Sex, visit this page; then take a look at this visual essay about De Beauvoir’s life and work. You can access the introduction to The Second Sex here.
De Beauvoir insisted that systems of oppression and exclusion can never be taken to be natural - rather, we must all understand ourselves as molded by society. Thus The Second Sex is not solely about the plight of women. Rather, it is De Beauvoir’s attempt to reveal the power structures that govern our perception of the world. As she states in this interview, “I’m against all forms of oppression.” You can listen to a detailed discussion of her legacy and ideas in this radio documentary.
Her argument resonated with many readers who struggled to untangle social, sexual and political hierarchies. In its first week of publication alone, the book sold 22,000 copies. While many readers admired her candor and rigorous intellectual standards, others were dismissive of her anger or scandalized by her frank discussion of women’s bodies. De Beauvoir lambasted numerous myths that many believed to be hard facts about women - that they have an inherent maternal instinct, for instance, or that they are more emotional than men. She argued that women can only escape these narrow roles by pursuing her own version of freedom, independently.
As this essay argues, the importance of pursuing concrete, livable versions of freedom is one of De Beauvoir’s biggest contributions to a philosophy that was often abstract. Visit this page for an exploration of De Beauvoir’s radical thoughts on happiness as an important form of freedom.
De Beauvoir knew that the pursuit of freedom was by no means easy: her own refusal of social norms was a life-long process. Although she had wanted to be a nun as a child, she rejected her strict Catholic upbringing and studied math, philosophy and literature at university. She led a long open relationship with Sartre, which involved editing each other’s work and collaborating on intellectual projects such as the journal Les Temps modernes. Read this article to learn more about her colorful life and social circles at university.
Despite being a prolific philosopher, memoirist, and accomplished editor, De Beauvoir became embroiled in a publishing debacle which ironically involved the sort of suppression of female thought she resisted in her work. Soon after The Second Sex was published, the wife of the New York publisher Alfred Knopf, Blanche, was traveling through France. Initially under the impression that the book everyone was talking about was a sex manual, Knopf purchased the rights and enlisted Howard M. Parshlety to translate it from French. But Parshlety was a zoologist with little knowledge of existential feminist philosophy, who dismissed De Beauvoir’s deep analysis as “verbal diarrhea.” He cut or paraphrased swathes of the original text, and De Beauvoir could do nothing to stop the translation’s release. Read more about this controversy here.
Subsequent editions has since reversed many of these errors, and De Beauvoir’s language and ideology continue to ignite curiosity and debate. Many of the ideas expressed in The Second Sex became crucial reference points in feminist theory, literature and activism. Over time, people have grappled with concepts proposed by De Beauvoir as the project of intersectional feminism continues. For an interactive overview of intersectional feminism (and consideration of De Beauvoir’s role in it), click here. As key texts of radical feminism and philosophy, the work of Simone De Beauvoir never be static - rather it’s a living archive to return to, dispute and discuss.
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