Both Ms de Beauvoir’s parents tended towards right-wing ideology, providing an early background of debate and thought for Ms de Beauvoir. Her family life was a happy one, although strict, and she received a privileged private education at the Catholic Institut Adeline Désir. Her father would encourage intellectual pursuits and as a child Ms de Beauvoir took it upon herself to teach her younger sister Hélène (known as Poupette). A loss of fortunes in Ms de Beauvoir’s adolescence hit the family hard, and her marriage prospects became reduced. This worked in Ms de Beauvoir’s favour as it meant she was freed up to pursue her desire to become a writer and teacher.
As Ms de Beauvoir grew up, she questioned religion more and in adolescence identified as atheist. This removal of a fundamental pillar of living further opened her up to philosophical and political debate. At school she became best friends with Elizabeth Mabille, who died in 1929. Ms de Beauvoir was convinced that it was not the official cause of meningitis which caused Ms Mabille’s death, but the inter-family arguments around an arranged marriage to which Ms Mabille was to be subjected. This had a profound effect on Ms de Beauvoir’s philosophy around gender equality and the strictures facing women.
Also in 1929 Ms de Beauvoir left the family home to live with her grandmother and study Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Upon graduating at the age of 21, the youngest person ever to pass the agrégation in philosophy, Ms de Beauvoir taught at a number of schools (Lycées) around Paris and the nearby town of Rouen. She graduated second of her class, and Mr Jean Paul Sartre placed first. After this success, Mr Sartre requested a meeting with Ms de Beauvoir and they began a lifelong friendship.
Ms de Beauvoir began journaling as an adolescent and continued this throughout her life. She and Mr Sartre became a part of a group of philosophers who developed the theory of existentialism, and Ms de Beauvoir herself was widely influential as a feminist. They spoke of marriage early in their relationship, first proposed by Mr Sartre, but both concluded it would not be apt for their relationship, and they evolved to have an open relationship, mutually supportive and creative although not without problems. The decision not to wed met with disapproval from friends and relatives but Ms de Beauvoir stuck by her principles. The inequality of gender in society was reflected in the judgment Ms de Beauvoir faced regarding her intellectual capabilities resulting from the decision not to wed.
Ms de Beauvoir continued to live with her grandmother until 1931 when she moved to Marseille to teach there, near to Sartre who likewise moved for a teaching position. By 1932 she had moved to Rouen to teach Advanced Literature and Philosophy. The rise of Nazism and the second world war impacted her, and she faced official reprimand for advocating feminist ideology and for being a pacifist. In 1943 she was dismissed from her teaching post for corrupting a minor female student, and she never returned to teaching.
In 1945 she, Mr Sartre and several others co-founded Les Tempes Modernes, a left-leaning newspaper for which she wrote a number of articles. Extracts of what was to become her seminal feminist book, 1949’s The Second Sex, were first published in this paper.
Ms de Beauvoir was not a communist but admired some parts of communist thought and this led to false accusations and criticism throughout her life. She was a philosopher and feminist and did not declare herself for any particular political party. Her writings developed political and sociological beliefs, and she and Mr Sartre became central to the post-war European intellectual circle which included Picasso, Bataille and those she worked with pre-war such as Paul Nizan and Andre Hermaid.
In 1948 Ms de Beauvoir moved to the United States, where she met and began a 15-year relationship with Nelson Algren, a writer. Her 1954 novel, The Mandarins, is based on her relationships with Algren and Sartre, and was awarded the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.
Ms de Beauvoir continued to publish and travel, visiting China, USSR, Cuba, Japan, Egypt, Israel, and Brazil amongst other places, achieving fame unusual for philosophers. Such fame was partly reflected in criticism of stepping outside gender boundaries. She was a committed activist and in particular attacked the French military for their actions in the Franco-Algerian war, during which Algerians were tortured.
Mr Sartre passed away in 1981, as a result of which she wrote La Cérémonie des Adieux (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre). Ms de Beauvoir then officially adopted her companion Sylvie le Bon, who became her daughter and executor. Upon Ms de Beauvoir’s death on 14th April 1986, Ms le Bon de Beauvoir took charge of an estate whose literary, intellectual and philosophical work remains of immense value to feminism and society.
Selected Works (English Titles):
The Invitation (1943)
The Blood of Others (1945)
America Day by Day (1948)
The Long March (1958)
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1959)
The Prime of Life (1963)
Force of Circumstance (1965)
A Very Easy Death (1966)
The Woman Destroyed (1970)
FOTW No.26 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group:
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson