The Mother of Modern Feminism
By Gabriel Blanchard
Beauvoir's thought and legacy are as interesting as they are thorny.
Simone de Beauvoir is probably among the most polarizing and unexpected figures on our author bank, alongside names like Friedrich Nietzsche or Charles Darwin. However, for that very reason, it is important to read her work: even if we wish only to disagree, we cannot disagree intelligently if we do not first understand. Moreover, few criticisms are entirely without merit—everything has its flaws, after all—and by listening carefully to our opponents, we may be able to strengthen our own ideas.
Born in Paris in 1908, Beauvoir began teaching in her early twenties. She met the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre shortly thereafter, and the two formed a lifelong partnership, both romantic and intellectual. They never married, and their ongoing affairs scandalized French society. Nevertheless, the two stuck together until Sartre’s death in 1980; Beauvoir herself died in 1986, having published six novels, a four-volume memoir, and a large assortment of essays and nonfiction books. Of these, the two most influential are arguably The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex.
The Ethics of Ambiguity is deeply rooted in existentialist philosophy, and particularly in the work On Being and Nothingness by her partner Sartre. A key phrase in this school of existentialism is that “existence precedes essence.” This means that the mere fact a thing exists is metaphysically prior to anything else about it: where earlier philosophers had defined things according to a nature or purpose which preceded their actual existence, Sartre and Beauvoir contended that things like purpose were in fact secondary, almost tacked on—the product of human decision and imagination, not of anything truly inherent in the things themselves. (Indeed, the title On Being and Nothingness may partly represent a rejection of St. Thomas‘ volume On Being and Essence.)
Using this as her foundation, Beauvoir roots all ethics in radical human freedom: since all things acquire value solely because humans choose to value them, feigning objective values becomes a form of shirking one’s own responsibility. She applies this in a number of ways. Those who desire power over others, according to her, try to inculcate the falsehood of objective values, and particularly the falsehood that their oppressive authority is natural, rather than an artifact of human decision. In another part of the book, she critiques Marx‘s thought for its determinism, which fails to recognize the radical freedom she believed inhered in humanity. Her system does, on a casual reading, seem imperfectly consistent (if nothing has inherent value, why is oppression wrong?); but it must be admitted that oppressors do frequently try to justify oppression in the very way Beauvoir describes, a notable historical example being the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
But it is the 1949 book The Second Sex with which Beauvoir’s name is most associated. Feminism was of course already old at the time—what is called first wave feminism began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and focused on women’s right to vote, receive education, own property, and be otherwise politically and economically independent of men. With The Second Sex, the accent shifted to other legal and cultural issues, largely revolving around the workplace, the home, sexuality, and abortion. Right or wrong, Beauvoir’s thought here is a major key to understanding subsequent feminist literature and activism.
The first question she raises, and which gives her book its title, is “What is woman?” She argues that while man is treated as the default by modern society, woman is relegated to the status of “other” (giving examples as far back as Aristotle and Aquinas, who literally defined women as being essentially defective men). According to Beauvoir, the practical disadvantages of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood have historically allowed men to assume a disproportionate amount of power in every sphere, simultaneously demanding fertility from women and stigmatizing its attendant attributes, in order to both perpetuate and justify male power over women. Marriage itself “almost always destroys woman” because of the domestic expectations it imposes; it is partly on these grounds that she argues for (among other things) sexual liberation, contraception, and a socialistic model of child-rearing that does not require a child’s biological parents to take primary responsibility for them.
Many of us would object to a great deal of this for obvious reasons! But Beauvoir’s work is not without nuance here. For example, surprisingly, the one woman in history that she thinks may have lived entirely according to her own choices was not a revolutionary libertine at all—it was St. Teresa. Moreover, in both The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity, one of Beauvoir’s principal concerns is not the independence of people from one another, but their interdependence. Radical freedom might be the root of everything, but radical freedom always has a context. “The fact that we are human beings is infinitely more important than all the peculiarities that distinguish human beings from one another … Both sexes are gnawed away by time and laid in wait for death, they have the same essential need for one another; and they can gain from their liberty the same glory.”
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces, like this author profile of St. Thomas à Kempis, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of monarchy, or this student essay on the epistemological significance of evil. And be sure to check out our podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle to seven nephews, a freelance writer, and a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.