Simone et moi: She truly lived the ideal, and the pain, of an
politically autonomous woman, becoming the role model of a generation
in the 1960s
by Lynne Segal
January 11, 2008
Outside university French departments, no one in Sydney (where I grew
up) read Simone de Beauvoir before the 1960s, when The Second Sex was
reissued as an abridged paperback. Ironically, I encountered the book
in the bedroom of a lover during a brief relationship in my first
year at university during that remarkable decade. It lay there
because of its sexy cover (the back of a naked woman, turned to
expose her breasts) and because of its accounts of lesbian sexuality,
which he had underlined and read out to me.
Soon however, as I describe in my memoir Making Trouble, it was women
who were most eagerly discussing the book. Men were often beating a
hasty retreat from those women in awe of De Beauvoir's symbolic
presence as an iconic "liberated" woman, the one who had chosen to
remain single and sexually active in pursuit of an independent life:
"Simone de Beauvoir was a cold draft against his frail invalid
masculinity ... [her] books seemed to move like gas through and out
of the minds of women dissatisfied with men", the budding Australian
author Frank Moorehouse lamented, at the close of the decade.
More than any other influence, it was De Beauvoir who first supplied
the text, set the goal and, above all, lived the life of an
autonomous politically committed woman. By the close of the 1960s she
had helped inspire women the world over to think again about our own
emancipation. The evidence is clear even staying within my home
patch, so distant from Paris. "We shouted yes", the writer Sylvia
Lawson recalls her delight in discovering The Second Sex as a young
housewife, immediately sharing her reading with friends. Already a
student radical, the Sydney historian Ann Curthoys corroborates the
impact De Beauvoir had on my generation of women, at least who would
form the women's liberation movement of the 1970s, "her life was
truly exemplary, to be pondered and explored for clues on how to live
differently". "It helped me make sense of my confused and isolated
depression", another Australian writer, Margaret Walters, adds of her
young self, before leaving for London. Other women could recite the
same story from any radical enclave of the 60s.
Second-wave feminists would later turn against our first "idealised
mother". She stood accused of rejecting, rather than simply
analysing, the "feminine" side of sexual difference, of expressing
her distaste for that circumscribed "womanhood", whose symbolic,
social and political subjection she had mapped so exhaustively. Yet,
her legacy is critical, not just for understanding the contemporary
history of feminism, but also for exploring the ambivalences and
contradictions of the radical imagination more generally, alongside
the inevitable mutabilities of political commitment. She lived her
politics so personally and yet so publicly, always stressing her
dependence upon the lives of others and the contingencies of history.
She was frequently self-critical, engaged early on in supporting
those struggling against colonialism and cultural denigration, later
emphasising that much that she wanted to say was linked to her
"condition as a woman", before throwing her weight behind women's
liberation and all its activist campaigns, when already in her old
age. She wrote poignantly of her fears of the fate of the ageing
woman, later again exhaustively exploring the cultural patterns of
ageing, detailing the innumerable ways in which its humiliations are
so distinctly a cultural as much as a personal affair. Her five books
of memoir writing, appearing long before the contemporary appeal of
that genre, make reading De Beauvoir today both relevant and
instructive: "A life is such a strange object," she wrote in Force of
Circumstance (1963), as she laboured to register the significance of
every move she made, "at one moment translucent, at another utterly
opaque, an object I make with my own hands, an object imposed on me
... how heavy it is and how inconsistent: this contradiction breeds
many misunderstandings". Indeed, it does and she can still help us
Simone de Beauvoir was the mother of feminism... and on her
centenary, all they write about is her scandalous love life
By Gemma O'Doherty
Saturday January 12 2008
'Women, you owe her everything!" So ran a headline the day Simone de
Beauvoir died in April 1986, when more than 5,000 mourners lined the
streets of Paris to mark the passing of one of the world's most
influential philosophers. Her legacy to literature, The Second Sex,
an encyclopaedic analysis of women's oppression, is still considered
the greatest feminist tract of all time.
But this week, as her native country embarked on a week-long
commemoration for the centenary of her birth, the café society where
she and her long-term lover Jean-Paul Sartre once held court was more
caught up with her unconventional private life than any imprint she
may have left on modern thinking.
The French media dismissed pleas from academics that, 100 years after
her birth, she should be remembered for her radical ideas rather than
her racy love life. The Paris-based political weekly, Le Nouvel
Observateur, featured a provocative image of the writer's naked
high-heeled body on its front page while more than a dozen new books,
TV films and DVD box sets have created a deluge of interest in her
50-year affair with the existentialist philosopher which has been
called the "original open relationship".
Sartre and de Beauvoir's worlds collided in 1929 when they were
preparing for the notoriously difficult French teaching exam in
philosophy. She was the essence of Parisian chic and beauty; he, in
the memorable words of John Huston, "as ugly as a human being can
be", with a bloated face and yellowed teeth. But his seductive ways
and intellectual prowess had women falling at his feet.
He and his cosmopolitan classmate came first and second in the exam
respectively, although academics at the college believed she was the
brighter thinker. At 21, she was also the youngest person to have
ever sat the exam.
After falling under his spell, she became Sartre's lover, enthralled
by the fact that he treated her as an equal, would take her to bars
and engage in rigorous debate with her at a time when women rarely
questioned the possibility of life beyond the home.
He proposed to her, not marriage, but a "two-year lease" agreement
which would leave them free to engage in other affairs, with a
proviso they remain intellectually faithful to each other, keeping no
secrets and sharing all thoughts.
As soon as she had taken her first teaching post in 1932, he
encouraged her to find a "contingent" of lovers which he would often
then steal for himself, many of them vulnerable young women left
devastated by their involvement with the couple.
One suffered a nervous breakdown, two committed suicide, while
another endured three abortions to spare Sartre the burden of fatherhood.
During the occupation of Paris in the 1940s, the couple moulded
themselves into hip intellectuals, writing and debating in Left Bank
cafes and challenging the social conventions of the Bourgeoisie. But
it was the phenomenal success of her magnum opus, The Second Sex, in
1949 that catapulted the writer to worldwide fame and spurred a
feminist revolt within the French middle classes that spread to the
United States and as far as Japan.
A damning attack on marriage, which she described as the great
oppressor, argued that women had been held back throughout history
because of a perception that they are a "deviation" from the male
norm. Motherhood was dismissed as a "strange mixture of narcissism,
altruism, idle daydreaming, bad faith, devotion and cynicism."
Yet the questions she raised about the problems of sexuality, the
demands of the home and woman's place in society are as relevant
today as they were 50 years ago.
The newly independent woman, she wrote, is torn "between her
professional interests and the problems of her sexual life; it is
difficult for her to strike a balance between the two; if she does,
it is at the price of concessions, sacrifices, acrobatics, which
require her to be in a constant state of tension."
When she travelled abroad, she found herself mobbed by fans who hung
on her every word. She became leader of the French League of Human
Rights and an active member of the Women's Liberation Movement.
But her devotion to Sartre remained constant, and she spent the
Sixties supporting his causes -- including opposition to Charles De
Gaulle and the war in Algeria, and his defence of the killings of
Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 -- and turning a
blind eye to his wild sexual excesses.
In the final years of her life, she declared that despite all the
literary prizes she won in her professional life, her greatest
personal achievement was her relationship with Sartre.
He died in 1980, cutting her out of his will and bequeathing his
estate to his final mistress.
But at his funeral she sat on a chair by his graveside weeping her
heart out and clutching a rose. She insisted on being buried with him
and six years later, her ashes found their place next to her
intellectual companion of 50 years in Montparnasse Cemetery.
In Her Own Words, One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
-- Change your life today. Don't gamble on the future, act now, without delay.
-- If you live long enough, you'll see that every victory turns into a defeat.
-- To catch a husband is an art; to hold him is a job.
-- In the face of an obstacle which is impossible to overcome,
stubbornness is stupid.
-- When an individual is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact
is he does become inferior.
-- This has always been a man's world, and none of the reasons that
have been offered in explanation have seemed adequate.