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Was the French writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) a feminist? Her landmark book The Second Sex was one of the first inspirations to the activists of the Women's Liberation Movement, even before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. However, Simone de Beauvoir did not at first define herself as a feminist.
Liberation Through Socialist Struggle
In The Second Sex, published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir downplayed her association with feminism as she then knew it. Like many of her associates, she believed that socialist development and class struggle were needed to solve society's problems, not a women's movement. When 1960s feminists approached her, she did not rush to enthusiastically join their cause.
As the resurgence and reinvention of feminism spread during the 1960s, de Beauvoir noted that socialist development had not left women better off in the USSR or in China than they were in capitalist countries. Soviet women had jobs and government positions but were still unfailingly the ones attending to the housework and children at the end of the workday. This, she recognized, mirrored the problems being discussed by feminists in the United States about housewives and women's "roles."
The Need for a Women's Movement
In a 1972 interview with the German journalist and feminist Alice Schwarzer, de Beauvoir declared that she really was a feminist. She called her earlier rejection of a women's movement a shortcoming of The Second Sex. She also said the most important thing women can do in their lives is work, so they can be independent. Work was not perfect, nor was it a solution to all problems, but it was the "first condition for women's independence," according to de Beauvoir.
Despite living in France, de Beauvoir continued to read and examine the writings of prominent U.S. feminist theorists such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett. Simone de Beauvoir also theorized that women could not be truly liberated until the system of patriarchal society itself was overthrown. Yes, women needed to be liberated individually, but they also needed to fight in solidarity with the political left and the working classes. Her ideas were compatible with the belief that "the personal is political."
No Separate Women's Nature
Later in the 1970s, the feminist de Beauvoir was dismayed by the idea of a separate, mystical "feminine nature," a New Age concept that seemed to be gaining popularity.
"Just as I do not believe that women are inferior to men by nature, nor do I believe that they are their natural superiors either."
- Simone de Beauvoir, in 1976
In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir had famously stated, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Women are different from men because of what they have been taught and socialized to do and be. It was dangerous, she said, to imagine an eternal feminine nature, in which women were more in touch with the earth and the cycles of the moon. According to de Beauvoir, this was just another way for men to control women, by telling women they are better off in their cosmic, spiritual "eternal feminine," kept away from men's knowledge and left without all the men's concerns like work, careers, and power.
"A Return to Enslavement"
The notion of a "woman's nature" struck de Beauvoir as further oppression. She called motherhood a way of turning women into slaves. It did not have to be that way, but it usually ended up that way in society precisely because women were told to concern themselves with their divine nature. They were forced to focus on motherhood and femininity instead of politics, technology, or anything else outside of home and family.
"Given that one can hardly tell women that washing up saucepans is their divine mission, they are told that bringing up children is their divine mission."
- Simone de Beauvoir, in 1982
This was a way of rendering women second-class citizens: the second sex.
Transformation of Society
The Women's Liberation Movement helped de Beauvoir become more attuned to the day-to-day sexism women experienced. Yet, she did not think it was beneficial for women to refuse to do anything the "man's way" or refuse to take on qualities deemed masculine.
Some radical feminist organizations rejected leadership hierarchy as a reflection of masculine authority and said no single person should be in charge. Some feminist artists declared they could never truly create unless they were completely separate from male-dominated art. Simone de Beauvoir recognized that Women's Liberation had done some good, but she said feminists should not utterly reject being a part of the man's world, whether in organizational power or with their creative work.
From de Beauvoir's point of view, the work of feminism was to transform society and women's place in it.
Sources and Further Reading
- de Beauvoir, Simone. "The Second Sex." Trans. Borde, Constsance and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Random House, 2010.
- Schwarzer, Alice. "After the Second Sex: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir." New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.