Perhaps the most renowned French feminist writer of the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir (Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir) (1908-1986) made significant contributions to the French feminist and existentialist movements. Her work has been recognized globally and deeply influenced British and American feminism, with Le Deuxieme Sexe (The Second Sex, 1949) translated to English in 1959, then again in 2009. Interviewing dozens of women for The Second Sex, de Beauvoir paints a detailed picture of women’s lives in 1940s France and uses this research in conjunction with existentialist philosophy to create a feminist theory of sex and gender. She explores Hegel’s concept of the Other in relation to the gendered differences between men and women, arguing that although women are in an oppressed group, they do not have a shared history or means of organizing themselves into a cohesive group. By exposing gendered differences in society, The Second Sex also calls for a liberation movement. “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”--“One is not born but becomes a woman.”
Raised in Paris in a family that had lost its financial stability during the First World War, de Beauvoir was acutely aware of her diminished prospects of marrying upwards from a young age, resolving to support herself through writing and teaching. It was during her preparation for the agagrégation in philosophy that she would meet her future partner and academic collaborator of many years, Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as other prominent young thinkers such as René Maheu. De Beauvoir lived with Sartre for many years and many of her early writings, though she did not describe them as philosophical texts, echoed the existentialist ideas that they both were surrounded by. Despite her writings on the social construction of gender and womens’ place in a patriarchal society, de Beauvoir did not align herself with the feminist movement until a 1972 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur at the time of the founding of the feminist journal Questions féministes.
Despite the 1953 translation of The Second Sex gaining popularity in the English-speaking world, it was widely regarded as being negligently translated. De Beauvoir’s English publishers had hired a zoologist with a basic understanding of French for the initial translation, and the specialist language and philosophical nuance of the original text were poorly translated and in some cases fully omitted. The new and complete translation was published in 2009, opening de Beauvoir’s work up to a wider audience. Despite the quality of the early translation, de Beauvoir’s ideas were deeply influential to many of the Second Wave feminists in the United States, including Kate Millett, Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, all of whom credited their work to having read The Second Sex early on in their lives.
Manon Garcia, professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of On ne naît pas soumise, on le devient or We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women's Lives, has spent a decade analyzing de Beauvoir's writings. She has also advocated for France to accept de Beauvoir as a philosopher in her own right — rather than as a mere disciple of Sartre, or solely a novelist. Contemporary scholars such as Garcia, Kate Kirkpatrick (Becoming Beauvoir), Judith Coffin (Sex, Love and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir), Kate Manne (Entitled and Down Girl), and Nancy Bauer (How to Do Things with Pornography) are all breaking new ground by examining the contributions of feminist thinkers and philosophers of the past.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources:Feminism in the 20th Century.
You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings: