This month marks the 30th anniversary of the feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir’s death.
She was primarily known as an existential philosopher and novelist, but made contributions in a broad range of other fields – ethics, politics, and feminist theory included.
In the mid-20th century she was admitted into the male dominated philosophical fold and her ideas hold potency today – a testimony to her vast and voluble work.
One such idea she investigated was the existential dilemma of freedom and constraint -with a particular focus upon women.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” she writes in the cult-classic treatise “The Second Sex”, published in 1949. Women are not born anything. They overcome struggles and are determined by their choices.
Beauvoir brings attention to the ambiguities of how women can view themselves as oppressed and free. As an object of the male gaze and a free subject.
Becoming a woman is not simply a matter of biology – it’s about learning to deal with unique female experiences in a positive way.
“Madame de Beauvoir had a brilliant mind. She also had a wonderful body. Women win on both counts.” Says Florence Montrynaud, a popular feminist author in France who has written about whether women today are still the “second sex”.
Beauvoir had a strict catholic upbringing and originally intended to be a nun. But after she renounced her faith at the age of 12 she decided to dedicate her life to the study of existence.
How ironic that later on in her life the Vatican would decide to ban her book “The Second Sex” because it contained explicit passages describing lesbian fornication and graphic details on the functions of the female body.
Paris was her intellectual breeding ground. Café’s – way before the phenomenon of branded coffee chains, were the backdrop to her writing, often sitting (and smoking) alongside Jean-Paul Sartre.
It is hard to talk about Beauvoir without mentioning her life-long open relationship with Sartre. He was a philosopher, novelist, political activist, and they both influenced each other’s work in a big way.
Throughout his life he espoused a form of Marxism; despising the fact that bourgeois values like class and capitalism seeped through the cracks of the Parisian society he lived in and commented upon.
Not wanting to be defined by what they saw as rigid institutional norms, they never married and frequently had other lovers (this was back when gender roles were fully in play).
A former lover of de Beauvoir, the film director Claude Lanzmann has shattered the common image of Beauvoir as cold and haughty, by saying that “She was the least austere of women. Funny, full of fun. She was a real woman, an out-and-out woman.”
“She was like an open window” says Hugette Bourchardeau, a biographer of Beauvoir.
Somewhere, amongst the scandals and the lovers was a woman that found the most pleasure in her work and insisted upon living freely without confines.
Beauvoir will be remembered for the work and ideas she gave birth to.
Her legacy lives on.