Simone de Beauvoir was a social theorist, existentialist philosopher, writer and feminist activist. She was born in Paris, France on the 9th of January 1908 to Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir and Françoise Beauvoir. While her family used to have an excellent social and economic status, since her father was a lawyer and her mother a prosperous banker’s daughter, they found it hard to maintain that status after World War I when they lost a large part of their fortune. Due to these unfortunate circumstances, de Beauvoir could no longer rely on her dowry meaning that her marriage opportunities were put at high risk. Although very difficult for a woman at that time, this gave her the motivation to pursue a living for herself.
To that end, she studied mathematics at the Institut Catholique de Paris and Literature at the Institut Sainte-Marie. Later, she studied Philosophy at Sorbonne which influenced her to think more of societal concerns than her own. After receiving her degree in Philosophy in 1928 she began to teach to support herself until she could be financially independent solely from the earnings of her writings. While she was only 21, she took courses to prepare herself for this very antagonistic postgraduate examination, the agrégation in philosophy, that ranks students by national level. After earning second place she was officially the youngest person ever to pass that exam
During her college years, Simone de Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre with whom she entered into a romantic relationship in 1929. After being confronted by her father, they had to marry even though she had no dowry. However, it seems that de Beauvoir’s ideal relationship as described in her writings was not in parallel with the marriage standards of her time. Finally, instead of marrying, she and Sartre ended up having a lifelong “soul partnership”, which was sexual but not exclusive while it also did not involve living together. Beauvoir and Sartre remained in this partnership for 51 years, until Sartre passed away in 1980. Her decision to never marry or have children gave her the time to evolve through her education and become involved with political causes, teach and write while experiencing new passions and relationships.
It is an undeniable fact that de Beauvoir’s decisions in her personal life often overshadowed her academic work. Possibly her most famous and intimate lover was the American author Nelson Algren who she met in Chicago in 1947.Their avant-garde relationship inspired Art Shay, an American photographer and writer, to write a theatrical play about Algren, de Beauvoir and Sartre’s triangular amorous entanglement. Breaking the taboos of her time once again De Beauvoir was also bisexual and had occasional romantic relationships with young women.
Perhaps her most famous piece of writing is, among others, The Second Sex. Chapters of the book were initially published in France in June 1949 and the second volume came only a few months later. Considered as a notable work of modern feminism, it has since been translated into more than 40 languages and remains accurate until today. The main point of the book was to study the situation of women in the Western world while referencing taboo subjects such as lesbian love, sexual initiation and abortion. She refers to women as the “second sex” because of how they are defined as inferior to men using examples such as that of Aristotle who once said that women are “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” or Thomas Aquinas who once called women “imperfect men”. With this book, de Beauvoir achieved to break the existentialist mantra that “existence precedes essence” and turn it into a feminist assertion where “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.