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Simone de Beauvoir: the french philosopher who shaped the women's liberation movement

“...her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.” ― Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir was a feminist, social theorist, philosopher, political activist and writer born in France on January 9, 1908. She was born into a bourgeois family and was educated in a convent school. She was deeply religious as a child but discarded her faith as a teenager and remained an atheist the rest of her life. Her family ran into financial difficulties following WWI and Simone took this as an opportunity to earn a living for herself. She passed baccalaureate exams in mathematics and philosophy in 1925 and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and completed her degree in 1928. She was the 9th woman to have received a degree from Sorbonne. At the age of 21 she became the youngest person ever to pass the agrégation in philosophy, a highly competitive post graduate examination. While studying for the exam she met Jean-Paul Sartre and in October 1929 they became a couple. Marriage was proposed but they instead entered a lifelong “soul partnership” which was sexual but not exclusive and did not involve living together, they remained linked until his death in 1980.

Simone did not define herself as a feminist, but her philosophy is considered one of the major inspirations for the Women’s Liberation Movement. Simone may be best known for her work The Second Sex, it was first published in 1949 and it is from this book the famous quote is from :

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone articulates the distinction between biological sex and the social and historical construct of gender and its stereotypes. She argues that “the fundamental source of women’s oppression is its historical and social construction as the quintessential Other”. She defines women as the “second sex” because women are defined in relation to men, women are understood through the mind of men and are obsolete on their own. Simone argued that women have agency, they have choice and capabilities outside of what they can do for a man or what they mean to a man. She states that women are capable of choosing their freedoms. She saw through the social construct of gender-based hierarchy and she abolished the ideal of woman. She did not consider herself a feminist initially because she believed a socialist revolution would be enough to bring about equality but as the decades changed she reconsidered her stance and officially declared herself a feminist in 1972.

Simone de Beauvoir died on April 14, 1986 in Paris. She is often linked with her soul partner – Sartre, that is how I first discovered her, but she stands on her own. She understood the world around her, she understood how society worked and what changes needed to be made. She had agency and she used it to expose the truths of human culture and unwittingly became a feminist icon in the early years of the first feminist movement.

Written by: Alicia Whitcome

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