At the age of 21, Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest person to take the philosophy exams at France’s most esteemed university. She passed with flying colors.
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The meaning of life according to Simone de Beauvoir
But as soon as she mastered the rules of philosophy, she wanted to break them. She’d been schooled on Plato’s Theory of Forms, which dismissed the physical world as a flawed reflection of higher truths and unchanging ideals. But for de Beauvoir, earthly life was enthralling, sensual, and anything but static. Her desire to explore the physical world to its fullest would shape her life, and eventually, inspire a radical new philosophy.
Endlessly debating with her romantic and intellectual partner Jean Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir explored free will, desire, rights and responsibilities, and the value of personal experience. In the years following WWII, these ideas would converge into the school of thought most closely associated with their work: existentialism. Where Judeo-Christian traditions taught that humans are born with preordained purpose, de Beauvoir and Sartre proposed a revolutionary alternative.
They argued that humans are born free, and thrown into existence without a divine plan. As de Beauvoir acknowledged, this freedom is both a blessing and a burden. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity” she argued that our greatest ethical imperative is to create our own life’s meaning, while protecting the freedom of others to do the same. As de Beauvoir wrote, “A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied.”
This philosophy challenged its students to navigate the ambiguities and conflicts our desires produce, both internally and externally. And as de Beauvoir sought to find her own purpose, she began to question: if everyone deserves to freely pursue meaning, why was she restricted by society’s ideals of womanhood? Despite her prolific writing, teaching and activism, de Beauvoir struggled to be taken seriously by her male peers. She’d rejected her Catholic upbringing and marital expectations to study at university, and write memoirs, fiction and philosophy.
But the risks she was taking by embracing this lifestyle were lost on many of her male counterparts, who took these freedoms for granted. They had no intellectual interest in de Beauvoir’s work, which explored women’s inner lives, as well the author’s open relationship and bisexuality. To convey the importance of her perspective, de Beauvoir embarked on her most challenging book yet. Just as she’d created the foundations of existentialism, she’d now redefine the limits of gender.
Published in 1949, “The Second Sex” argues that, like our life’s meaning, gender is not predestined. As de Beauvoir famously wrote, “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” And to “become” a woman, she argued, was to become the Other.”
De Beauvoir defined Othering as the process of labeling women as less than the men who’d historically defined, and been defined as, the ideal human subjects. As the Other, she argued that women were considered second to men, and therefore systematically restricted from pursuing freedom. “The Second Sex” became an essential feminist treatise, offering a detailed history of women’s oppression and a wealth of anecdotal testimony.
“The Second Sex”’s combination of personal experience and philosophical intervention provided a new language to discuss feminist theory. Today, those conversations are still informed by de Beauvoir’s insistence that in the pursuit of equality, “there is no divorce between philosophy and life.” Of course, like any foundational work, the ideas in “The Second Sex” have been expanded upon since its publication.
Many modern thinkers have explored additional ways people are Othered that de Beauvoir doesn’t acknowledge. These include racial and economic identities, as well as the broader spectrum of gender and sexual identities we understand today. De Beauvoir’s legacy is further complicated by accusations of sexual misconduct by two of her university students.
In the face of these accusations, she had her teaching license revoked for abusing her position. In this aspect and others, de Beauvoir’s life remains controversial— and her work represents a contentious moment in the emergence of early feminism. She participated in those conversations for the rest of her life; writing fiction, philosophy, and memoirs until her death in 1986.
Today, her work offers a philosophical language to be reimagined, revisited and rebelled against— a response this revolutionary thinker might have welcomed.
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