Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir created a whole new way of thinking. Although she did not think of herself as a philosopher, the writer, teacher, and activist is now considered a pioneer in feminist theory and feminist existentialism, having penned a groundbreaking treatise on gender that ushered in a new wave of feminist thought.
As a child, de Beauvoir was a gifted and precocious student at a time when intellectual curiosity was not considered a proper pursuit for girls. Her father would proudly brag, “Simone thinks like a man!”
Later, with no dowry to offer, she had limited prospects for marriage and was encouraged to pursue her education in order to be self-sufficient. But she didn’t view education as a mere necessity, she considered it a calling, and marriage not a salvation but a prison.
De Beauvoir wrote several novels and essays on political and social issues, but most consider her greatest contribution to be The Second Sex, a treatise that explores the long-standing oppression of woman by man and her relegation to the role of man’s “other.”
“Humanity is male and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him,” she wrote. Women, hence, were “the second sex.”
De Beauvoir was a proponent of existentialism, a central tenet of which is that the individual – rather than an arbitrary social construct imposed by others — creates one’s own values and determines the meaning of one’s own life. She observed that women’s freedoms, and thus their ability to reach their full potential, were constrained by long-held systems built by and for men. Systems which granted men more autonomy and greater opportunity to express themselves. As a pioneer of feminist existentialism, which aims to dismantle the socially imposed gender roles and cultural constructs that limit women’s self-actualization, de Beauvoir inspired such writers as Kate Chopin, Joan Didion, and Margaret Atwood.
Simon de Beauvoir is often associated with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she maintained a 51-year open relationship after they met while studying for their philosophy exams in college. They are buried beside each other at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.