French Icon: Simone de Beauvoir and her views on gender equality

Simone de Beauvoir's views on feminism and her marriage to Sartre

A French feminist icon, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons NiaVasileva

Born in 1908 into a bourgeois Parisian family, Simone de Beauvoir was a writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. However, she didn’t consider herself a philosopher, despite having significant influence on feminist theory and being a contemporary feminist icon.

It was her ground-breaking 1949 book The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women’s oppression, that would bring her to the attention of many. This work is recognised as a foundational text that paved the way for second wave feminism in its analysis of the woman as the ‘other’. Beauvoir was also awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1954 for her novel The Mandarins, a post-war exploration of the personal lives of philosophers and friends in her social circle.

She was also known for being the life-long companion of Jean-Paul Sartre, and was an active member of the French intellectual scene throughout her life. In 2020, a tragic love story that Simone de Beauvoir thought “too intimate” to publish during her lifetime was published. Les inséparables details an adolescent relationship with her childhood friend, and was published in English in September. Her adopted daughter whom she cared for, published several unedited volumes of her letters to Sartre and others after she died.

Throughout this, she continues to be cited as a feminist icon whose existentialist belief in absolute freedom of choice allowed for philosophical thought that drove women to recognise the value of their own freedom.

She claimed that women’s lives should not be reduced to erotic plots; unfortunately her own life is often summarised as being Sartre’s lover, and much focus is placed on her personal relationships. She never married, and was in an open relationship with Sartre, viewing the concept of marriage as a restriction.

It is no doubt that Beauvoir’s book was a catalyst for the feminist movement from the 1960s onwards, and her enduring contributions to philosophy, politics and ethics saw her become a pioneering figure of philosophical feminism. She paved the way for a philosophy of thought that led to a more equal future for women and advanced gender equality. For this reason she is celebrated as a feminist icon on International Women's Day.

Beauvoir died in 1986 in Paris and was buried next to Sartre at the Montparnasse Cemetery.