When Simone de Beauvoir died in 1986, Le Nouvel Observateur’s cover carried the headline “Women, You Owe Her Everything!” This was a male editor’s audacious revision of philosopher Élisabeth Badinter’s article “Women, You Owe Her So Much!”
It is almost impossible to imagine men ever being told that they owe one particular person everything. The cult of Simone de Beauvoir and the accreted legends surrounding her two-part 1949 essay The Second Sex have developed in the context of a profoundly sexist world.
Beauvoir always seems to be a few things all at once. She is an icon of sexual independence but also Jean-Paul Sartre’s faithful, betrayed, subservient girlfriend; a pioneering feminist but also an honorary male and enduring misogynist; a card-carrying leftist but also a lipstick-clad bourgeoise; a committed anti-colonialist and supporter of Algerian independence but also the embodiment of white Parisian chic, a cultural export. And on it goes.
These patterns of reception give us a sense of how the West tries to make sense of the so-called “key” choices women make. The all-too-eager contrary reading that is waiting just around the corner — independent yet promiscuous, polyamorous yet betrayed, accomplished yet childless — serve to remind women that the choices they make are ultimately not their own.
The drastically opposing perceptions of Beauvoir are again keenly felt when it comes to recent calls to “cancel” her, given the credible allegations that she groomed and seduced her underage female secondary-school students, while the Beauvoir commentator Margaret Simons is currently making a case for Beauvoir’s own history as a repeated victim-survivor of sexual violence.
Some assessments of Beauvoir are more judicious than others, as we shall see. But one prevalent line of criticism is particularly unjust. Irrespective of who she was, or how she lived her life, her feminist philosophy — at least as she expounded it in The Second Sex — was not exclusively concerned with, or exclusively applicable to, white bourgeois women. In fact, this popular critique reveals more about our current Anglo-American climate of opinion than it does about Beauvoir or her work.
Marriage, Maternity, and Monogamy
Women from all over the world still visit Beauvoir’s grave in Paris’s Montparnasse cemetery, leaving behind thoughtful hand-written notes of gratitude and devotion. For a French middle-class woman, born in 1908 and raised by a fiercely Catholic mother and atheist father, her rejection of marriage, maternity, and monogamy was tremendously unorthodox, and at least a little courageous.
By the mid-1950s, for many women in the West, Beauvoir represented a certain freedom of lifestyle: to travel, to pursue pleasurable sex, and to follow one’s creative and intellectual passions. And since that time, the public has maintained an unhealthy interest in her love and sex lives. Wedged awkwardly alongside her status as an icon of freedom, she was first (and best) known to the world as Sartre’s partner (and often inaccurately referred to as his “wife”).
Women were justifiably inspired by her independence as part of the Left Bank milieu, where she and Sartre collaborated and partied with prominent artists and writers. Beauvoir and Sartre lived separately, took other lovers, and kept their finances separate (though they covered for one another when required). Yet many biographers and commentators have contended that their open relationship suited only him and that his liaisons tortured her.
Certainly, there is ample evidence in Beauvoir’s autobiographies and fiction to surmise that his relationships caused her pain. However, this interpretation struggles to accommodate the fact that their arrangement enabled Beauvoir to passionately love other men, notably the American writer Nelson Algren and later the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, with whom she lived until she died.
It is best to view the grand Beauvoir-Sartre love story — and even Beauvoir’s heterosexuality — as delicately constructed fictions. They were first and foremost interlocutors and intellectual companions and were only sexually involved for a short time. After her death, it became clear that she had buried her relationships with women in both interviews and autobiographies.
A public fascinated with consuming (and policing) women’s sexuality viewed the posthumous revelations of her “lesbian connections” as tantalizing and scandalous. Indeed, this clandestine angle was instrumental to the publicity strategy for her recently excavated novel, The Inseparables.
Philosophy and Feminism
Beauvoir’s affiliation with Sartre proved to be a significant barrier to the acknowledgement of her philosophical acumen. For many, including Beauvoir herself, he was a philosophical genius — perhaps even the greatest of his time — and she his dutiful acolyte. The fact that Beauvoir firmly insisted that she was not a philosopher, preferring to identify herself as a writer, did not help the case.
Baffling feminist commentators, Beauvoir insisted that The Second Sex, a trailblazing work of feminist literary criticism in which she critically digested hundreds of texts from a sexist European literary and philosophical canon, had only one influence: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Some commentators have interpreted her reflections as evidence that Beauvoir was ridden with what we would now call “internalized misogyny.”
Yet some aspects of her self-conception feel more like loaded clues left for future feminist-philosophical excavation than the average discrepancies we encounter in autobiography. Was it simply more accurate to eschew the mantle of “philosopher” when she associated that term with an enduringly sexist and “systematizing” tradition?
Typically, The Second Sex is viewed as having been instrumental in developing an American feminist consciousness. Canonical US feminist authors like Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and Betty Friedan were all expected to dutifully recognize their debt to Beauvoir. Perhaps because of the text’s prominence, critics also ascribe immense responsibility to it, presenting Beauvoir not merely as the founder of the feminist second wave but also as a key source of “white feminism.”
Beauvoir’s American Critics
Since the 1970s, commentators have repeatedly found fault with The Second Sex for what they see as its exclusive preoccupation with white, Western European, middle-class, heterosexual women. In 1994, for example, Norma Alarcón described Beauvoir as being responsible for Anglo-American feminist theory’s grounding in “a highly self-conscious ruling-class white Western female subject locked in a struggle to the death with ‘Man.’”
The Anglo-American “diversity” or “intersectional” critique of The Second Sex draws in large part on Beauvoir’s analogies between women’s oppression on the one hand and forms of oppression based on race or class on the other. In the introduction to The Second Sex, she states:
If woman discovers herself as the inessential, and never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about this transformation herself. Proletarians say “we.” So do blacks. Positing themselves as subjects, they thus transform the bourgeois or whites into “others.” Women — except in certain abstract gatherings such as conferences — do not use “we.”
A reader could certainly be forgiven for assuming that, in comparing the position of women to that of proletarians and blacks (and elsewhere to that of Jews in the face of antisemitism), Beauvoir presumes a subject that is white, non-Jewish, and bourgeois.
For the diversity critics, this analogy functions to exclude those at the crossroads of intersecting identities — woman and proletarian, or woman and black. In fact, according to Patricia Hill Collins, The Second Sex privileges the oppression such women face, presenting it as the constitutive form of oppression. However, this interpretation, with its focus on Beauvoir’s analogical thinking, only tells us part of the story.
Beauvoir wrote Le Deuxième Sexe in two volumes in 1949. It then made a long journey from the original context of postwar Paris to the Anglo-American academic paradigm of exclusion, intersectionality, and diversity. It is anachronistic to evaluate a text written in the late 1940s according to standards set in the late 1980s, and anatopic to evaluate a French text by American standards. In short: of course The Second Sex is not strictly “intersectional,” and nor could we reasonably expect it to be.
However, there is a longer and more interesting way of looking at this question. Although Beauvoir and her friends enjoyed extraordinarily rich lives, they were politically engaged and by no means blind to their privileged role as public intellectuals.
Beauvoir was horrified by the French colonial war in Algeria, and she felt deeply alienated from French society. In January 1959, she wrote to Nelson Algren, her American boyfriend, that she couldn’t possibly write “in this kind of France.” Though it might sound trivial to us, writing was everything to Beauvoir. The war provoked in her a dark and profound depression.
Despite facing a significant backlash, she spoke out publicly against the violence of the French state, putting her name to the “Manifesto of the 121” demanding Algerian independence. She published testimony about the war from Algerians and French soldiers alike in Les Temps Modernes, and she wrote an article for the national daily Le Monde exposing the torture and rape of Djamila Boupaucha, a Muslim member of the Algerian Liberation Front, by French soldiers.
Gender and Class
The Second Sex is full of examples that demonstrate Beauvoir’s ability to analyze the relationship between class and gender (as Meryl Altman’s book Beauvoir in Time has also pointed out). Few sections demonstrate this more clearly than her powerhouse analysis of abortion in a chapter titled “The Mother.” For Beauvoir, abortion is a “class crime” — “there are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibits more hypocrisy.” She notes that the same powerful men who publicly denounce it often rely on it in private.
She makes the sober point that a woman’s experience of abortion is wholly dependent on her financial and geographical circumstances. Beauvoir confronts the reader with visceral accounts of what happens when the authorities make abortion illegal, mentioning one desperate woman who perforated her womb with a knitting needle, and another who accidentally injected vinegar into her bladder. With immediate relevance to at least fourteen American states today, she points out that while wealthy women will travel to access safe abortions, poor women cannot.
Beauvoir was candid about her Marxism and her socialist commitments in lectures, interviews, and autobiographies. After reading Capital, she recalled:
The world lit up with a new light when I saw labour as the source and as it were substance of values. Nothing ever made me deny this truth, neither the criticisms which the end of Capital arouses in me, nor those I found in books, nor in the subtle doctrines of more recent economists.
While French and Anglo-American commentators alike have consistently missed it, Beauvoir herself thought that The Second Sex was a straightforwardly socialist text. In her 1963 autobiography Force of Circumstance, for example, she recalled her surprise at the negative reception that the work received from the French Communist Party, remarking that it “owed so much to Marxism and gave it such a prominent place that I expected some impartiality from them!” In 1972, she stated that while writing The Second Sex in the late 1940s, she was a “pure” socialist, supposing that “the problems of women would resolve themselves automatically in the context of socialist development.”
The formidable erudition of The Second Sex and the sheer length and breadth of resources with which it interacts also function to conceal or bury her engagement with Karl Marx’s works. Interestingly, Beauvoir only mentions Marx’s name and those of his works explicitly a few times. While one might assume that the obvious place to find him is in the chapter titled “The Point of View of Historical Materialism,” this chapter actually engages with the book of his collaborator Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which appeared the year after Marx’s death — although recent research suggests that Engels drew upon Marx’s unpublished notebooks in writing it.
Beauvoir’s engagement with Marx’s works in the history chapters of The Second Sex enables her to offer a nuanced account of the experience of being both working-class and a woman. In fact, she makes use of Marx to establish the specific ways in which women were “more shamefully exploited” than workers of the opposite sex, noting that employers preferred hiring women (and especially mothers) to men because women “did better work for less pay.”
Some key passages in these chapters show that Beauvoir did not exclusively imagine the working class as male (and nor did Marx for that matter). Drawing on Marx’s work, she demonstrates how women workers are uniquely oppressed on the basis of their gender — inexperienced in political organization, sexually harassed and abused. As girls, they are socialized into docility; later, as workers, they are reluctant to assert their rights. And as working mothers, canny employers ruthlessly find new ways to exploit them.
In a 1975 interview, Beauvoir explicitly rejected the idea of a privileged white feminism that was blind to class inequality:
In truth we need to change the society itself, men as well as women, to change everything. It is very striking in Betty Friedan: what she wants is for women to have as much power as men do. Obviously, if you are truly on the left, if you reject ideas of power and hierarchy, what you want is equality. Otherwise, it won’t work at all.
The comparison between Friedan and Beauvoir is a useful point of departure. While Friedan’s Feminine Mystique laments that the American, implicitly middle-class “suburban wife” endures a “problem with no name,” Beauvoir instead names the problem. In The Second Sex, the suburban wife is bored, boring, and ruthlessly self-interested.
Clinging to Her Golden Chains
The Second Sex includes scathing passages on the bourgeois housewife that indict her as a traitor to women less fortunate than herself:
It is easier to put people in chains than to remove them if the chains bring prestige, said George Bernard Shaw. The bourgeois woman clings to the chains because she clings to her class privileges.
According to Beauvoir, the housewife enthusiastically accepts her lot, no matter how abominably dull it may be, because she has wealth and prestige on her side.
We can set Beauvoir’s historical contextualization of the bourgeois housewife alongside the context-free appearance of a housewife in Friedan’s Mystique:
Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”
Distinguishing between doing housework and being a housewife, Beauvoir points out that for bourgeois housewives, housework often only entails administering tasks for others to complete. Contrasting the peasant housewife’s plight with that of a more prosperous woman, she notes that middle-class women writers might lovingly describe “freshly ironed linens” and “the whitening agents of soapy water, of white sheets, of shining copper,” yet a poor woman’s shack has no freshly ironed linen (or linen, or iron). Only those with the requisite material advantages could possibly have a sense of pride in their home or enjoy housework.
Beauvoir admonishes the bourgeois housewife for being in solidarity with her husband instead of with other women — especially working-class women:
She believes that women’s liberation would weaken bourgeois society; liberated from the male, she would be condemned to work; while she might regret having her rights to private property abolished; she feels no solidarity with working-class women: she feels closer to her husband than to a woman textile worker. She makes his interests her own.
Echoing her argument in the introduction to the Second Sex’s first volume that bourgeois women “are in solidarity with white men and not with black women,” she argues that the housewife is incapable of solidarity with other women because she has her own interests — the material advantages of her class, her husband’s wealth — at heart. Were the housewife to develop solidarity with working-class women, it would compromise her ability to protect her husband’s interests.
“No Place for the Other”
One reason commentators have overlooked Marx’s presence in The Second Sex and Beauvoir’s wider understanding of class is that our current Anglo-American climate of opinion does not consider all forms of exclusion to be of equal importance. The diversity critique puts the emphasis on race-based exclusion as the key lacuna of The Second Sex. While it is obviously extremely important to focus on the problem of race in Beauvoir’s work, it should not be our sole concern.
Through her appropriation of Marx, Beauvoir explicitly warned us against the tendency to emphasize identity-based differences over and against the inequality generated by capitalism. She notes that a key outcome of workers coming together to unionize is to make the gender differences between them feel less compelling:
While employers warmly welcomed women because of the low wages they accepted, this provoked resistance on the part of the male workers. Between the cause of the proletariat and that of women there was no such direct solidarity as [August] Bebel and Engels claimed. . . . It is understandable that male workers at first viewed this cheap competition as an alarming threat and became hostile. It is only when women were integrated into unions that they could defend their own interests and cease endangering those of the working class as a whole.
In Beauvoir’s account, although the women were working under deplorable and exploitative conditions, they neither saw themselves as working class nor were perceived as such by their male coworkers until they joined their union. The act of unionizing promoted a “deeper consciousness” of the shared situation of oppression among the workers:
The problem was similar to that of the black labour force in the United States. The most oppressed minorities in a society are readily used by the oppressors as a weapon against the class they belong to; thus they at first become enemies, and a deeper consciousness of the situation is necessary so that blacks and whites, women and male workers, form coalitions rather than opposition.
According to Beauvoir, if the workers were to become conscious that they all share this experience of exploitation, they could form a coalition between “blacks and whites, women and male workers” based on fellowship and solidarity. The coalition would be neither a black movement nor a women’s one but an all-inclusive workers’ movement. While the capitalist class strategically emphasized the perception of difference between the groups, political collaboration in pursuit of equality could attenuate that perception. In other words, recognition of their shared experience as exploited workers was both a precondition and an achievement of the desired coalition.
In the “Myths” section of The Second Sex, Beauvoir includes the following comment:
Socialist ideologies, which call for the assimilation of all human beings, reject the notion that any human category be object or idol, now and for the future: in the authentically democratic society that Marx heralded, there is no place for the Other.
While we can justifiably criticize Beauvoir for neglecting the experience of black women in The Second Sex, we must not overlook her interest in the plight of working-class women. As early as 1949, Beauvoir identified our tendency to get bogged down in the politics of identity and forget about class inequality. Importantly, she stressed that the inclination to emphasize gender and racial difference over and against — and to the point of obscuring — class inequality was a central ruling-class tactic. On my reading, at least, Beauvoir’s feminist-socialist analysis has an enduring relevance for our time.