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Simone de Beauvoir | Biography


Early Life and Education

Born in Paris on January 9, 1908, to a devout Catholic mother and an atheist father, Simone de Beauvoir laid claim early on to radical differences between the sexes. She inherited her father's distrust of organized religion and his love of books. At age 14, she abandoned her commitment to Catholicism, announcing there was no God. Still, she attended a private Catholic girls' school until she was 17.

Having decided to study philosophy and become a teacher, Beauvoir passed her baccalaureate in mathematics and philosophy in 1925. In 1926 she gained certificates for teaching Latin and French literature and went on to the prestigious university the Sorbonne, receiving certificates for History of Philosophy, General Philosophy, Greek, and Logic in 1927, and Ethics, Sociology, and Psychology in 1928. Beauvoir attended classes at the famed École Normale Supérieure, where she placed second in the notoriously competitive written exam in Philosophy, called the agrégation. At age 21 Beauvoir was publicly acknowledged as one of France's most brilliant woman.

Relationship with Sartre

First place for the agrégation went to French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Shortly thereafter, Sartre arranged to meet Simone, and they quickly became a couple. They pledged to each other an "essential" love in the name of freedom. This meant they frequently had lovers whom they sometimes shared. Based on their bohemian lifestyle, their groundbreaking work, and their radical politics, Sartre and Beauvoir became the most notorious intellectual couple of the 20th century. Although they never married or even lived together in one house, their liaison was lifelong.

Publications and Death

In 1943 Beauvoir's first novel, She Came to Stay, a bold autobiographical account of a three-way relationship with a student, gained her recognition. From 1941–43, she wrote The Blood of Others, reputedly the most important novel of the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II (1939–45). During this period Beauvoir published her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus and Cineas. This work demonstrates her departure from aspects of Sartre's philosophy. Although she agrees with the basic premise of Sartre's existentialism—the idea that individuals determine fate through free will—she lays the groundwork in her essay for the principles of relativity and reciprocity that explain a sense of otherness that defines traditional gender roles, the backbones of her argument in The Second Sex. Although Beauvoir rejected the title of philosopher and gave Sartre all the credit, current commentary confirms her gifts as an original thinker, second to no man.

Beauvoir continued to write novels and essays about ethics and philosophy, and with Sartre, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and other intellectuals, she published the leftist journal Modern Times in 1945. It was The Second Sex, however, that established her credentials as a feminist. Her love of travel resulted in two books, America Day by Day (1948) and The Long March (1957), written after a lecture tour in China. Later publications include a four-volume autobiography, a work attacking the French war in Algeria, and The Coming of Age (1970), a study of mistreatment of the elderly. In 1981, a year after Sartre's death, she published Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre. She died April 14, 1986. More than 30 years after her death, Beauvoir's ideas on gender equality, and her study of the dynamics between men and women, continue to resonate with readers in the 21st century.

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