Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Simone de Beauvoir

Episode Summary

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French philosopher, social theorist, author, and foundational feminist.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Beautiful Mind was an incredibly influential 20th century writer, activist, existentialist philosopher, social theorist, and leading feminist. Her work has had an immense impact on modern feminist theory and, more recently, on gender theory. Let’s talk about the remarkable Simone de Beauvoir.

Simone was born on January 9, 1908 into a bourgeois Parisian family. Her father was an aspiring actor in his early years before settling down as a legal clerk. Her mother came from a wealthy banking family and was a very religious Catholic. 

As children, Simone and her younger sister were also very religious. For a while, Simone even had her heart set on becoming a nun. In the aftermath of World War I, her family lost most of their wealth, and Simone and her sister were sent to a prestigious convent school. While there, Simone withdrew from her religiosity and spent the rest of her life as a devoted atheist. 

In one of her later autobiographies, Simone wrote of her childhood and later chosen profession, “...my father's individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual.”

Like many of the Beautiful Minds we’re covering this month, Simone’s great intellect was apparent from a very early age. Her father regaled his friends with stories of her early intellectual exploits and would boast that she “thinks like a man,” which was apparently meant as a compliment at the time.

Simone studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne and graduated in 1929. 

During her studies, Simone met the young Jean-Paul Sartre, who himself would become one of the leading philosopher-writers of the 20th century. Simone became part of his circle of burgeoning Existentialists. 

Sartre and Simone would spend the rest of their lives together in one way or another, leading one of the most interesting and fruitful partnerships of the 20th century. Besides maintaining a life long “soul partnership”, equivalent to an open romantic partnership today, the two heavily influenced each other’s philosophical and literary work. 

Simone taught in various French private schools until 1943 when she was able to quit her day job to write full time. That year Simone published her first novel, She Came To Stay. A year later, Simone published her first philosophical essay on existentialist ethics. 

In 1945, after the end of World War II, Simone became co-editor of an influential monthly political journal that Sartre had initially founded with other major existentialists of the period. Simone would retain this editorial role until her death, and used the journal as a testing ground for many of her ideas before turning them into full-blown novels or essays. 

In 1949, Simone published what has become her most influential work, The Second Sex. In it, she first introduces the famous phrase, “One is not born but becomes a woman.” This is the first modern intellectual articulation of the idea that there’s a distinction between biological sex and the social constructions that we call gender. Simone argues that the fundamental basis for the historic oppression of women is not an in-born deficiency but a historical and social construction of women as the “other” by men. 

She argued that men have “othered” women by inventing  a false conception of women as having an aura of mystery that’s seemingly inexplicable to men. Thus men are not obliged to try and understand women or their problems, nor are they required to help with those problems. Simone compared this to similar forms of oppression that members of minority racial and religious groups experience.

Simone also argued that the option for women to stay in the home is further means of women’s “othering."

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Simone continued writing. She published many essays, and she continued writing fiction, including her famous novel The Mandarins in 1954. She also wrote a four-part autobiography, four books of philosophy, travel books on China and the U.S., and several volumes of short stories. 

In addition to feminism, Simone’s later work also discussed aging. She was horrified by what she saw as the indifference with which modern society treats the elderly. 

On April 14, 1986 at age 78, Simone died of pneumonia in Paris. She is buried next to Jean-Paul Sartre. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!