Simone de Beauvoir: Author, Trailblazer, Philosopher, Feminist

by Melissa Perez, age 14

Philosophers help us reflect in deeper ways about our everyday existence. Simone de Beauvoir was an exceptional women who made many contributions in the existentialist area of philosophy and as a feminist.

De Beauvoir was born in Paris on January 9, 1908. Growing up, de Beauvoir and her sister were influenced by their extremely religious Roman Catholic mother. Their father did not share their mother’s commitment to religion and advised his daughters to be free thinkers. This led 14-year-old de Beauvoir to question Catholicism, and ultimately adopt atheism.

At an early age, de Beauvoir decided to become a writer and teach philosophy. In 1927, she started studying at Sorbonne, the University of Paris. She then attended École Normale Supérieure, an elite graduate school, where she met her scholarly competitor, Jean-Paul Sartre. During her studies, she had a romantic, but open relationship with Sartre. De Beauvoir graduated second in her class while Sartre was first. At the young age of 21, de Beauvoir became the youngest person ever receive her teaching qualification. She also joined an exclusive philosophy group with Sartre at its center.

When the Germans invaded in 1940, she had been teaching in Paris. In 1941, the Germans briefly imprisoned Sartre, which led de Beauvoir to become more actively involved in the French Resistance. In 1943, de Beauvoir abandoned her teaching career and focused on her writing. Her first novel, She Came to Stay, was published in 1943. It was a fictionalized telling of a love triangle between one of her students, herself, and Sartre. During the war, she published four more books. In one of those books, The Blood of Others, she explored the experiences of a French Resistance leader, particularly his struggles with idealism and activism.

After the war, Sartre and de Beauvoir contributed to the wildly popular existentialist movement in Paris, which emphasized the importance of individual freedoms and personal responsibility.

De Beauvoir was a critic of capitalism. Her five-month visit to the United States in 1947 only. There she fell in love with Nelson Algren, an American author, which was the beginning of a 15-year on-off relationship. In, 1948 de Beauvoir published a novel, American Day by Day, which told of the social injustice, racial discrimination and class inequality in America.

De Beauvoir published her best-known work in 1949, The Second Sex, which delved into the oppression women have constantly faced. She argued that throughout history, women have been treated as an anomaly within the human race. She claimed that history, myths and literature enforced and reinforced the idea that women were frail creatures that will never amount to the same worth as a man. She largely focused on women who took control of their own lives and who dealt with the consequences. Her work was so controversial the Catholic Church banned it.

She later on published another book called The Mandarins, in 1955, considered by some to be her greatest work. The novel was loosely based off her relationships with Algren and Sartre. The book won the Prix Goncourt, the highest literature honor in France. De Beauvoir dedicated the book to her American lover, although he was not very pleased about the novel’s storyline. De Beauvoir also participated in feminist activism beyond her writing. She spoke out against institutionalizing poor, single mothers, and also participated in demonstrations to legalize abortion in the 1970’s.

Between 1950 and 1972, de Beauvoir wrote and published four autobiographies that displayed how she lived her life like her own heroines. Then, as she aged she wrote her last few books about death, the decline of life, and the social issues involved with aging.

One of her books talked specifically about her last few years with Sartre before he died in 1981. After Sartre’s death, de Beauvoir’s own mental and physical health began to deteriorate rapidly. Soon, she became dependent on alcohol and amphetamines, which lead to her death from pneumonia on April 14th, 1986. De Beauvoir was buried next to her lover, Sartre, in the Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris, France. But, Simone de Beauvoir’s legacy lives on through her literature and feminist ideals.

[Source: Women Who Changed the World]

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