Simone de Beauvoir

29 February 2016

Simone de Beauvoir was probably best known as a novelist, and a feminist thinker and writer, but she was also an existentialist philosopher in her own right and, like her lover Sartre, thought a lot about the human struggle to be free. As a philosopher trained in the analytic tradition, I have to admit, I don’t know a whole lot about existentialism, so I’m curious to discover on this week’s show with guest Shannon Mussett how Beauvoir’s feminist thought relates to her existentialist philosophy. 

Beauvoir’s most famous work was The Second Sex from 1949, a hugely influential book which laid the groundwork for second-wave feminism. Where first-wave feminism was concerned with women’s suffrage and property rights, the second wave broadened these concerns to include sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, and so on. All that started with Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, where Beauvoir outlines the ways in which woman is perceived as “other” in a patriarchal society, second to man, which is considered—and treated as—the “first” or default sex. 

One of the most famous lines from that work is: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” What I think Beauvoir means by this is that the roles we associate with women are not given to them in birth, by virtue of their biology, but rather are socially constructed. Women are taught what they’re supposed to be in life, what kind of roles they can or can’t perform in virtue of being of "the second sex." Today we might express this idea using the distinction between sex and gender, where one’s sex is just a biological fact, but one’s gender identity is socially constructed. In 1949, this was a truly radical idea.

So how does this idea relate to existentialist concerns about freedom? One of the main questions existentialists worry about is how to achieve “radical freedom,” or the kind of freedom that comes from making decisions in what Sartre called “good faith.” These are the decisions that come from and express an authentic self. If someone is living in “bad faith,” they allow themselves to be ruled by identities imposed on them from the outside. Their decisions do not reflect who they truly are. 

It makes sense, then, that if someone is taught her entire life that to be a woman, she must look a certain way, act a certain way, play a subservient role within her family, and work only certain kinds of jobs, it is going to affect her sense of freedom and authenticity. Being seen—and seeing yourself—as “the second sex” certainly seems to complicate the question of how to achieve this radical freedom existentialists worried about. Indeed, it makes the struggle to achieve this kind of freedom sound like a white male problem, something you have to be in a privileged position to even think about at all.

Although third-wave feminism often critiques second-wave feminism for its focus on the struggles of white middle-class women, ignoring the plight of women of color, poor women, women in the developing world, disabled women, etc., Beauvoir’s insight about the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world can naturally be extended to include the experience of being black in a white world, or being “other” in any world where you’re constantly taught that you’re second class. That’s going to shape what you think your life choices are—it’s going to change how you perceive your own freedom. 

Beauvoir herself explicitly makes the connection between the plight of woman and the plight of the black slave, so I wonder what she would make of feminist thinking today and its critque of second-wave feminism. I also wonder what she would think about the progress women have made in the 65 years since she wrote The Second Sex

I often think about the differences between my own life and that of my mother, who grew up in Ireland during the Second World War. She, like all her sisters before her, had to leave school in her early teens in order to get a fulltime job to help support the family; that is, until she was married and pregnant and was no longer permitted to work outside the home. Her brother, of course, was allowed to complete his secondary education, pursue a career, and have a family. 

As I was growing up, I too was taught that a woman’s role in life was that of wife and mother. Almost all the adult women I knew did just that and most of the girls I grew up with repeated the pattern. Despite all this, things had changed sufficiently between my mother’s generation and mine that not only did I attend college in Ireland, which was certainly not expected, but I went on to get a PhD in Philosophy, a discipline that to this day is very male-dominated. 

Was I expressing my “radical freedom” in making these life choices? Was my mother living in “bad faith”? What Beauvoir might say is that, because of the very real differences in our situations, I saw and therefore had different choices than my mother. The gender roles prescribed for women were, for my mother, so strongly enforced on a social level and so deeply entrenched on a psychological level, that none of what I did seemed even remotely possible for her. It simply wasn’t a choice that was available, given my mother’s lived experience. 

If we’re going to talk about “radical freedom” at all, then it should be in the context of the real-life choices we are presented with in our lived experiences. It can’t be an abstract choice to be free. This was one of Beauvoir’s biggest insights. 


Comments (13)'s picture

Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you, Philosophy Talk,

Thank you, Philosophy Talk, for a fascinating podcast on Simone de Beauvoir with Shannon Musset and for the essay above by Laura Maguire. 
Regarding the critique of second-wave feminism by the third-wave for its supposed focus upon white middle-class women, it could be argued that any specific movement for the freedom of human potential (eg, the civil rights movement, the gay-rights movement, etc) is exclusive.
As Laura suggests, paraphrasing de Beauvoir, the larger human-potential movement really entails the life of anyone who is arbitrarily forced to be " 'other' in any world where you?re constantly taught that you?re second class" . . . for any given pretext.
So all of these constructs, "woman," "gay," "black," etc are in a sense ways of reinforcing the power & dominance of the white male.
To quote one of the women in the documentary film "Salt of the Earth," about a 1954 New Mexico miner's strike, whose struggle with her husband amidst the group's struggle against the mine management, "Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none? ? Do you feel better having someone lower than you? Whose neck shall I stand on to make me feel superior? ? I want to rise and push everything up as I go."
I think this quote perfectly illustrates the internal, intra-psychic dynamic which drives oppression of all kinds, and it speaks to what I have said elsewhere on this blog about male emotion being a very powerful force, irrationally squelching progress and the contributions of others because of their gender, sexuality, or race.
Thank you again for stimulating thinking!

MJA's picture


Saturday, March 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Freedom and Truth

Freedom and Truth
If you are still searching for the truth or One's true self, study Nature and remove any thoughts of faith, uncertainty or doubt. Enlightenment is this Way. Underneath it All is just you. 
As for freedom: if you think you have a grasp of it, let go!  ='s picture

Sunday, March 16, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Correction: The 1954 film

Correction: The 1954 film "Salt of the Earth" is not a documentary; it's a dramatization. It anticipates both the feminist movement and the Chicano rights movement.
May be a diversion from the current topic, but here's a link to a recent story about the film:

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, March 17, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

There is an elephant in the

There is an elephant in the blog/show/chat regarding Simone de Beauvoir.  I lurked in the chat but couldn't type out my questions to my satisfaction.  It takes a blind person to describe an elephant so let me give this a whack.  
Philosophy has a problem with women.   Thinkers need to right that ship - fix that problem - but Beauvoir is not the peg to hang that hat on.
Simone de Beauvoir was deeply flawed as a person.  Her relationship with Sartre is interesting to say the least and disturbing if one must say anything more about it.  This show took the tack of saying the least and that is the first part of the elephant I would touch upon.
De Beauvoir was a sexual predator of a selective cadre of her students.  She along with Sartre sexually entwined these young students using their role as philosopher and teacher in what I would consider bad faith but to them, in the time, was good fun.  The sexual politic of these liasons is as troubling as is the use of sexual politic to begin with perhaps.  I do agree that Simone should not simply be defined by her romantic liasons - but there is no attempt at complexity by skirting them as this show did.  The benefit of this ignorance is  a closer look at the philosophy of de Beauvoir which is another part of the elephant that I would touch upon.
Ken and Shannon had a nice exchange about the differences between Sartre's radical freedom and de Beauvoir's more complex and, I think, realistic understanding of roles, real life choices and her own concept of existential freedom.  De Beauvoir's philosophy was different from Sartre's.  I credit this show in helping me come to think about this difference.  It makes the purported lack of disagreement between Jean Paul and Simone vexing.  There is something troubling in the harmonious companionship of Sartre and de Beauvior.  A conversation was not had that should have been between these two philosophical giants about radical freedom and circumstance.  I would have liked to hear Dr. Musset discuss that.  De Beauvoir took the "other" side in her relation with Sartre and I'm wondering if that  first of all is true and secondly if she changed much in her later life - I'm sure there is biography I could read on that point.
Finally one last piece of elephant not touched on too well in the chat or show is the preponderance of what I think to be good science in gender studies and sexuality since The Second Sex came out.  It's interesting that it shared the bookstore shelf with the Kinsey Reports in its initial publication.  Not that I take that to be sound science, but I do think these discussions started the path to liberation and equality that we are still walking.  I take John's point that men are being feminized much more than women are taking on the roles of the "First" sex.   At the heart of this role reversal is the fact that men and women are not from Mars and Venus.  I would like to have heard the science to get a feel for the long lasting relevance of de Beauvoir's projects.
As it is I don't think I know how to take this show.  I had and still have different views on Simone de Beauvoir as a philosopher and mind...and I might be worse off than before the show in grasping her legacy.  That is probably a good thing.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, April 10, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Wow! Thanks for the great

Wow! Thanks for the great comments!
Tim, there's a lot to digest there, but very informative. It's a pity you didn't join in on the chat with Shannon.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 1, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Average people, with whom I

Average people, with whom I have daily contact and cordial conversation, are mostly ambivalent about philosophy and, usually, disinterested in any sort of philosophizing whatsoever. They simply do not see how any of it has a meaningful place in their lives, much less how even a few of their friends and acquaintances might be interested in something so, well, philosophical. Science? Now that is a different story altogether. Most everyone I know is terminally infatuated with information technology and its role in making their lives easier; responses to circumstances faster; and safety and security immeasurably improved. We have been socially engineered and culturally controlled for several centuries and more recent developments have only accelerated and streamlined this process. So, looking at the big picture, including the radicalization of change itself, it is not so surprising to see the questioning of traditional roles and rejection of antiquated customs which were always about maintaining status quo. DeBeauvoir's morality (or failings thereof) are peripheral to any objective discussion of her philosophy, as would be those of Sartre, seems to me. Their contributions to the world of philosophy are more significant than any of our possible objections to their personal behavior(s).
I came very late to an appreciation of and interest in philosophy-mostly for the reasons stated at the beginning of these comments. But, in the fullness of time, I acquired an intuition that was socially and culturally impossible for me as a much younger person. One achieves a different level of consciousness when one chooses to stray from the confines and comforts of the herd. Sooner or later, though, some sort of dissatisfaction with the status quo propels us to seek something more than grass and water. Kudos to you, Laura. Terrific job!
Harold G. Neuman 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, March 5, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

For a review of

For a review of existentialist sexual morality, see the movie Amigo. Good for a laugh.
It seem a bit fatuous to complain about violations of moral convention when the whole point is a rejection of them. But even in this light such complaints are unfair. Sartre made a career of demonstrating that moral values could no longer be based in obedience to some pre-determining moral law. Personal responsibility is paramount. Such a moral view is hardly likely to be gratuitous or wanton. The protagonist (I will not say "hero") of Cherche Longtemps (In Search of Lost Time) may have loved and left, but Sartre and Beauvoir made responsibility the central theme of their social relations. Sartre did have an affair with one of his students (something considered untoward but not immoral) and then with her sister, but he supported both until they were otherwise cared for (at a time when a woman could not reasonably be expected to support herself).
Is it possible to have a morality founded on the principle of radical responsibility? It could be said that both Sartre and Beauvoir failed. But they, like all others before them, regarded freedom as a personal property, rather than a response enabled by the act of rigor of another. If the most rigorous term is the loss of its antecedent determinant or guide, the freedom that results is most articulate as responsibility, of the worth of that loss being recognized, enabled in those of us in place to respond. It is a subversive process that is covert to any a priori or pre-determining terms or authority. The gods cannot be privy to their own demise! Hence the difficulty in explaining it.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, March 6, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I think that comes under the

I think that comes under the category of 'true, but uninteresting'.
In an unpublished novel by an unrecognized author, there is a scene in which a philosophy professor in a small community college is teaching logic to aspiring technocrats. He brings the lesson to a point where the failings of the whole logical system become apparent, and tries to explain to the class how this lapse in the logical/technological edifice actually opens the way for a more human presence central to the real, and, of course, proceeds to bring in all sorts of existential and moral issues. The class responds in outrage that they are wasting their time on vapid themes that they cannot see as furthering their career aims.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I'm assuming no such thing.

I'm assuming no such thing. And as a (largely) self-taught thinker myself I sympathize with your plaint. But what the academy does do is assure a comprehensive review of available material. There was a time when college was affordable, and it could be again. The professors do not set tuition rates, and most of them earn a lot less than was once usual. Most instruction in higher education is now conducted by "adjuncts", or teachers without a contract or any of the usual prerogatives so lavishly loathed by you and others. But you and those others forget that the these "luxuries" were at their height at a time when college was readily affordable.
The suggestion of a Sanders/Trump or Trump/Sanders ticket makes me doubt you sanity, and hopelessly confuses your political message. But it gives me the opportunity to put in my two cents about the great mystery of Trump "success" (with less than a third of voting Republicans, or, less than seven percent of eligible Americans). The use of brazen racial innuendo convinces white males that their feudal overlords are really on their side. But the notion that T. Rump (THE Rump, more joker than wild-card) is going to DC to shout "You're Fired!" at everyone is just fatuous. He offers mania, but would, if he could be elected, provide only depression. As for Clinton, I am leery of a nominee that only wins in states that the Democrats will not win in November. But a Clinton/Warren ticket, with a placated Sanders, could be the answer here. But no president can substitute for a lack of public representation in Congress. Electoral reform is the real answer.
As for Beauvoir (the nominal subject of this thread) it is not unusual for the avant-garde to be seen as anachronism by the time it becomes a publicly familiar theme. That's not her fault. I have not focused a lot on her work because there is little in it of philosophical interest that Sartre did not originate and elaborate more fully. I think it a dereliction on the part of current philosophy to be so dismissive of existentialism, though I also think that the existentialists were bit derelict themselves in presuming much too much in their terms, which fall flat upon closer examination. Contingent can mean exigent (imminence), as well as immanence. And it is not at all clear which they intended or why they do not clarify this. The point is, existence is the proven term that the logical hermeticity of antecedence and conclusion simply does not explain the real. And it is the human, not the divine, nor bloodless number, which supplies the deficit.
Meanwhile, Mr. Videla, I cannot figure out whether you are with the feudal overlords or with the people.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 -- 4:00 PM


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Philosophy Talk's picture

Philosophy Talk

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Gary, we have blocked the

Gary, we have blocked the user with whom you were dialoging, and we've deleted the content. (I don't know what BGI is either!) :-)

RichardWilliam's picture


Sunday, March 17, 2024 -- 9:13 PM

The way she highlighted the

The way she highlighted the social construction of gender roles and its impact on women's freedom is truly thought-provoking. It's also interesting to hear about your personal experience and how it relates to Beauvoir's insights. On a different note, have you ever tried Omegle? It's a platform where you can have anonymous conversations with people from all over the world

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