- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
Simone de Beauvoir was often overshadowed in her own lifetime by her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Since her death in 1986, however, Beauvoir’s reputation as one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers and a pioneer of modern feminism has been firmly established.
The main problem Beauvoir faces today is misunderstanding rather than neglect. Much of the commentary on Beauvoir’s work ignores the dialogue with Marxism in which she was engaged. Beauvoir identified the many ways in which gender and class oppression were linked and stressed the need for a broad emancipatory movement based on socialist principles.
How has the discussion of Simone de Beauvoir’s work and ideas been affected by what we know — or perhaps what we think we know — about her personal life?
Simone de Beauvoir is someone with whom millions of people have always felt very familiar — someone that they’ve felt acquainted with, and often, perhaps, someone whose life choices people feel very free to comment on. She’s probably first and foremost known as the beautiful partner of the most important European philosopher of her time, Jean-Paul Sartre — even though she herself was a very engaged and diligent philosopher, but that’s really been overlooked.
The overlooking of Beauvoir as a philosopher is not entirely unrelated to sexism. There is a question of whether society found it too difficult to embrace the reality that a woman was philosophizing. And there are significant implications regarding the fact that we have overemphasized her life over her work. Her work has not been taken seriously as philosophy. We have always known so much more about her love life than her work and are so familiar with images of her writing rather than the particulars of her philosophical acuity and originality.
First, her corpus was viewed primarily as fiction, so she was celebrated as a writer. When she was ultimately recognized as a philosopher, or the philosophical dimensions of her work were noticed, it was believed that she was deploying existentialist jargon and that it was an echo of her boyfriend’s influence rather than being an original and sustained engagement with Western philosophical history. In reality, Beauvoir was a philosopher in her own right, rather than a shadow or an echo of Sartre’s ideas.
One reason why we know more about her life than her work was that she narrativized her life in pseudo-autobiographical fiction and assiduously detailed it in a four-part memoir. She was not straightforwardly instrumentalizing her life to cultivate fame and her own mythology, although she definitely did achieve that. She played with her life and her lived experience as textual and philosophical fodder. Her literary-philosophical preoccupations played a role in, and contributed to, scholars failing to engage carefully, systematically, and empathetically with her body of work as philosophy.
As is well known, she rejected the mantle of philosopher, deferring to Sartre. She would insist “he’s a philosopher, I am a writer.” We might say that she challenged our conceptions of what philosophy is or should be. The Second Sex is a philosophical investigation — an exploration of what it means to be a woman. And she was committed to a form of literary-philosophical investigation as a phenomenologist. She was detailing her own lived experience in a body as philosophy.
In some respects, we can’t say that we focus on her life rather than her philosophy in a simple way, because she was blending the two and challenging our ideas about what philosophy was. This is, of course, a dimension of her feminist praxis, too. She was sharing the details of what was at the time considered to be a highly unorthodox, liberated, and inspiring life.
Finally — and it does line up quite neatly with her 1986 death — her work since that time has been treated and recognized as philosophy. At the start, in the late 1980s, there were debates in the scholarly commentary regarding who influenced who, and there was some rather heavy-handed feminist revisionist scholarship claiming that Beauvoir’s thought was the basis of Sartre’s tome Being and Nothingness, for instance.
These days, things are a bit more measured. It’s not a question of whether she derived all of her ideas from him or whether he was in fact copying everything she ever thought. Commentators are finally recognizing the fact that Beauvoir’s work emerged in a specific literary-philosophical milieu and was influencing and being influenced by a number of works by different people.
Today, Beauvoir studies is absolutely blooming. She is finally having her day and being properly recognized as a philosopher.
What was the political and intellectual context in which she prepared to write The Second Sex in the late 1940s?
The late 1940s in France was a very interesting time. Beauvoir’s generation had transitioned straight from World War II and the German occupation into the Cold War. The atrocities of World War II certainly influenced the works of Sartre and Beauvoir. I would conjecture that the climate made Beauvoir’s philosophy uniquely attuned to a dialectical relationship between circumstance and freedom. In May 1949, she started publishing discrete chapters of The Second Sex and then published the text in two complete volumes.
She was part of the Left Bank intellectual milieu, referring to a dynamic, fluid ensemble of musicians, writers, philosophers, and artists who would drink, party, and share ideas on Paris’ Left Bank. And it’s important to qualify that Beauvoir and Sartre were also firmly on the Left, which meant that they were anti-capitalist and passionately believed in a socialist alternative.
However, Beauvoir and Sartre were in a rather precarious position politically. They ran the journal Les Temps Modernes (“Modern Times”), which sought to be neutral in a Cold War context, meaning they were against segregation and racism in the United States, but also against the Stalinist misappropriation of Marx and emerging reports regarding gulags in the Soviet Union.
Beauvoir and Sartre had a very complex relationship with the dominant French Communist Party (PCF). Beauvoir was suspicious of the PCF’s hard Stalinist line. The PCF was equally suspicious of Beauvoir and Sartre, assuming that they were useless bourgeois intellectuals who didn’t want to get their hands dirty, and that their upbringings and preoccupations made them dangerously remote from working-class concerns.
However, Beauvoir still thought that the PCF was a lesser evil than the capitalist, imperialist West. Beauvoir explained that she shared the horror of the PCF at all the things it was fighting against, although she stressed that she could never be a party member. Sartre continued to work with the PCF after the liberation, though in a way that he framed as being with the party but outside it — a position from which he would offer both support and criticism.
In Modern Times, Beauvoir and Sartre were trying to mobilize and engage with less deterministic aspects of Marxism, reformulating and exploring what a non-Stalinist Marxism would look like. The PCF thought that this project was extremely arrogant.
Beauvoir traveled to the United States in 1947 and wrote a very interesting travel diary, America Day by Day. She was increasingly familiar with works that addressed race-based oppression. Beauvoir credited the book An American Dilemma by Gunnar Myrdal (who was white and Swedish) and cited conversations with black American novelist Richard Wright as being instrumental in developing The Second Sex’s structure and argument.
I should make one final comment on the French context. Don’t be fooled by editorial introductions to The Second Sex that claim that the text emerged in a timely moment because women had just been granted the right to vote. French women had fought for that right for a very long time. And when Charles de Gaulle’s government finally granted it to them in 1944, it was meant as a gift for their contribution to the war effort rather than an act of recognition of their status as equal citizens.
Beauvoir was writing in a context where French women were engaged in paid work outside the home — women tended to work in agriculture prior to World War II and then in low-paid service jobs after the war — yet the workforce was structured around the assumption that women were first and foremost mothers.
In fact, during the late 1940s, women were expected and heavily encouraged by the state to leave the workforce and boost the depleted French economy. Women were offered welfare and family allowances that increased with every child. As Beauvoir argued in The Second Sex, the idea of women as mothers whose natural vocation was in the home was a central, immutable, and implacable dimension of the French imagination.
What was the reaction to the book at the time of its publication in France?
The Second Sex really hit a nerve. It was hugely provocative. It was rejected by the Gaullist and Catholic right as well as the Communist left. In 1963, Beauvoir reflected that she was not surprised that the Right didn’t like the book, but she was shocked that the Communists were so harsh about it. She stated that her thesis owed so much to Marx and gave it such a prominent place that she expected some impartiality from the PCF.
Beauvoir released three of what were probably the most salacious chapters, titled “Motherhood,” “Sexual Initiation,” and “The Lesbian,” igniting shock, horror, and scandal before she had even published the two complete volumes. The reviews consistently likened the text to pornography and smut, arguing that the book was thoroughly indecent and revolting.
People at both ends of the political spectrum thought it was disgusting. It was clear that she had ruffled some feathers: there was a sense that in discussing women’s sexuality, she was saying something she wasn’t meant to say and bringing out France’s dirty secrets.
Let’s not forget that there was a feeling of humiliation and wounded masculinity felt by French men at the time. France was not merely defeated in 1940 — it had collaborated with the Nazi occupation. There was a sense of shame and defeat in the war’s aftermath, which seemed to create what we might today call a toxic moment of masculine fragility. Beauvoir’s text appeared to rub salt into that wound.
We can understand why men were angry. Beauvoir attacked bourgeois morality and French norms from which men directly benefited. She was not merely discussing what you were not meant to discuss — female sexuality and the reality that women might be able to enjoy sex, yet most do not. She was forthright in her attack, pointing out, for instance, that the illegalization of abortion was hugely hypocritical.
Interestingly, Beauvoir’s work on motherhood was almost as provocative as her work on female sexuality. Her argument that motherhood is basically something of a scam and that women are fed the falsehood that it is their natural destiny to be mothers and love it while simultaneously being divested of control and volition over that choice was very poorly received. Even Communist journalists accused Beauvoir of discouraging women from being wives and mothers (although it’s not clear that she was actually doing that).
The way that Beauvoir opens the chapter on motherhood with a passionate defense of abortion still seems strikingly courageous even in 2023. Even today, we associate abortion with pregnancy, but it is still taken to be a bit of a thematic faux pas to frame it and introduce it so directly alongside the theme of motherhood.
However, the pervasive view that the text was revolting is what we find in the external historical sources. In other words, we’re dealing with reviews and articles written by the arbiters of what was considered indecent, most of whom were men. And yet the first volume of The Second Sex was immensely popular, selling twenty-two thousand copies in the first week in France. This popularity and the work’s enduring historical influence show us that while the arbiters of fine philosophy, good literature, or French culture may not have embraced it, a hell of a lot of women did.
How did The Second Sex go on to influence the development of feminist theory in the Anglophone world?
The Second Sex is often compared with the Bible in order to underscore how authoritative it is for second-wave feminism. But this comparison has some unintended but accurate valences. Like the Bible, owners of The Second Sex often guiltily acknowledge they haven’t read all of it and that in lieu of sustained, cover-to-cover readings, they know extracts better than the whole. That’s without even going into how these extracts are used and abused.
Beauvoir is also frequently described as having been instrumental in developing an American feminist consciousness. Those who we identify, not unproblematically, as key second-wave authors and activists, such as Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and Betty Friedan, were all expected to dutifully recognize their Beauvoirian debt.
Betty Friedan, for example, explained that The Second Sex “led me to whatever original analysis of women’s existence I was able to contribute to the women’s movement and its unique politics,” referring to her 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique. Kate Millet, who’s often been described figuratively as Beauvoir’s daughter, reflected later in life that she now realized she was probably cheating all over the place and owed a great deal to what Beauvoir had said. Millet ultimately conceded that her analysis of D. H. Lawrence was painfully indebted to Beauvoir’s analysis in The Second Sex.
Firestone, who was once described as the American Simone de Beauvoir, dedicated The Dialectic of Sex to Beauvoir, even though her argument is profoundly different from that of The Second Sex. Judith Butler, who is probably the most important gender theorist in the West today, drew heavily and explicitly on Beauvoir in their first book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, which put forward the thesis that gender is performed, maintained, and perpetuated by iterative repetitions.
Beauvoir’s impact on the Anglophone world of feminist theory was not, of course, limited to the United States. For example, Australian writer Germaine Greer also credited The Second Sex as an important source in canonical work such as her 1970 book, The Female Eunuch. Overall, The Second Sex set out an extraordinarily rich approach to feminist philosophy that has been taken up.
Beauvoir’s declaration in The Second Sex that one is not born a woman but becomes one is an extraordinarily famous formulation, suggesting that gender is a cultural and psychological formation. But The Second Sex does not actually propose a sex-gender split. You have likely heard the popular paraphrasing that “gender is a construct,” which is actually a misunderstanding of Beauvoir’s thesis.
It is very easy to find evidence to support a social constructionist reading of the text and to align this with a particular view of Beauvoir’s critical program — that is, one that demonstrates that patriarchal discourse and institutions have made the human female. Beauvoir’s poetry accounts for how myths of femininity are received by the body and the way in which embodied experience reinforces those feminine myths.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir asks, “what has it meant to me to live as a woman?” As a phenomenologist she asks, “what does it mean to live as a woman in this body?” In asking this, we might credit her with having inaugurated feminist phenomenology. Beauvoir also drew significantly on Hegel’s idea of alterity or the Other, which she originally accessed through Alexandre Kojève’s Paris lectures. We can see the idea of woman as an inferior citizen and as othered everywhere in the current feminist theory.
In the introduction to The Second Sex, Beauvoir explicitly vows to challenge a biological- essentialist understanding of women according to which anatomy is destiny, or through which we might define women in terms of a so-called female body. Beauvoir eschews a notion of gender as a mere construct, as well as a biological conception of what it is to be female as a requisite ingredient of being a woman. In today’s context, The Second Sex contains some useful rebuttals to trans-exclusionary, so-called radical feminism through its effective takedowns of biological essentialism.
In your article for Jacobin, you took issue with many of the criticisms of Beauvoir and The Second Sex that have been made by some contemporary feminists. How would you sum up the main lines of criticism and how well, in your opinion, do they stand up to scrutiny?
The Second Sex is often dismissed as an embarrassing relic of a naive white feminism whose day has long passed. It’s often seen as outdated, biased, passé, racist, classist, or misogynistic. There is a significant consensus among Anglophone commentators that The Second Sex is exclusionary when it comes to women of color, Jewish women, and working-class women, and that it’s certainly not intersectional in its approach.
According to this Anglophone diversity critique, The Second Sex assumes as its subject privileged, white, heterosexual women, who only experience oppression on the basis of gender and not on the basis of class, race, sexual orientation, or other factors. The idea that Beauvoir and Sartre were bourgeois intellectuals, writing only for their own milieu and only with themselves and their friends in mind, is a consistent line of criticism that they faced throughout (and now apparently subsequent to) their lives. They were loathed by the Right and often still today are considered too bourgeois, individualistic, and privileged for the Left.
On my reading, however, The Second Sex is more intersectional than Anglophone critics have allowed. The area in which Beauvoir is very good while Anglophone feminists are on the whole very quiet is class. We’re often told that The Second Sex is unable to address the intersections of race- and gender-based oppression or class- and gender-based oppression. Yet this critique never actually looks at class-based oppression. It never looks at Beauvoir’s engagement with Marx in the text.
The Second Sex, in my reading, is a far more class-conscious text than most people seem to give it credit for. I think it speaks to something about the awkwardness toward communism and Marxism in these circles. People are reluctant to look at socialism and they’re reluctant to even explore it analytically.
Picking up on that point, how did Beauvoir engage with the Marxist tradition of social theory in The Second Sex and elsewhere in her work?
In some ways, it’s useful to think about the curious and rather precarious social position that an engaged intellectual occupied in France at the time. They’re too broke to be middle class, but the working class can be suspicious of them as well. Beauvoir and Sartre had a very complex and problematic relationship with the dominant party on the Left in France and were considered too bourgeois to be proper Communist intellectuals.
However, Beauvoir believed in Marxism. She recalled that after reading Capital, “the world lit up with a new light, when I saw labor as the source and as it were the substance of values, and nothing ever made me deny this truth” (and she was a young woman when she read it). Throughout her life, she insisted that Marxism was a huge influence on her as well as on The Second Sex.
Yet she only refers overtly to Marx sporadically in The Second Sex, although she declared Marx to be a foundational influence over the text. We feel the influence of Marx more explicitly in her 1970 study of the scandal of how we treat the elderly under industrial capitalism, which was translated into English with the title Old Age. But let’s talk about The Second Sex in particular.
The first way that we see Beauvoir’s Marxism on display in this text is through her direct engagements with his work. Although there aren’t that many direct citations of his work, she does offer a careful reading of Marx, which enables a nuanced account of the specific way that being working class and being a woman interrelate.
In the fifth chapter of the history section, she stresses how women are more shamefully exploited than workers of the opposite sex and speaks about the ambiguous results of the industrial revolution. On the one hand, women were presented with new opportunities, yet on the other, the combination of their gender and working-class status meant they were exploited in extreme ways.
Drawing upon Marx, she writes about how women were used mainly in spinning and weaving mills, where these activities were carried out under lamentable hygienic conditions. She explains that being a woman exposed them to specific forms of precarity in the workplace, including the threat of sexual violence.
These passages in which Beauvoir engages with Marx are important for a number of reasons. First, they show that neither Beauvoir nor Marx exclusively imagined the working class as being white and male — although she did have to look pretty hard to find those references in the work of Marx; sometimes she’s quoting from his footnotes.
Secondly, in these passages, Beauvoir considered the specific plight of the working-class woman. She describes how women workers are uniquely oppressed on the basis of their being women. They’re inexperienced in political organization as well as being sexually harassed and abused. Having been socialized into docility and passivity, they are reluctant to assert their rights or protect their welfare. In other words, they are unlikely to unionize.
Women workers are also oppressed on the basis of being working class. Specifically, she explains how the increased need of the married working woman is exploited by her canny employers.
Beauvoir’s class-conscious feminist analysis is on my reading to be found everywhere in The Second Sex. She indicts the bourgeois housewife as a traitor to women less fortunate than herself. She frames abortion as first and foremost a class crime, noting that there are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibits more hypocrisy. She also makes the sober and important point that a woman’s experience of abortion is wholly dependent on her financial and geographical circumstances.
Furthermore, Marx gave Beauvoir the opportunity and resources to envision what she calls an authentically democratic world, licensing her to imagine a world of equality and liberation, one without exploitation or classes. He also enabled her to comprehend social relations that put certain groups into situations of material dependency that make them vulnerable to — and often complicit in — their own alterity and oppression.
Beauvoir’s literary-philosophical approach in her fiction and essays is often historicist, materialist, and phenomenological all at the same time. She foregrounds concrete social relations and the question of how our bodies interact with and experience those relations. Finally, given that Beauvoir understood colonialism to be a particularly egregious form of capitalism, we can reasonably associate her writings in support of Algerian independence with her Marxism.
What effect did issues with translation have on the reception of The Second Sex among Anglophone readers in particular?
There are two English translations of The Second Sex in existence. Let’s start with the first one by H. M. Parshley from 1953, which is notoriously bad. There are a number of issues with it. To begin with, Parshley was a zoologist, not a philosopher, and he lacked the philosophical competence to negotiate a complex, cross-cultural, philosophical, and literary translation.
He also excised around 10 to 15 percent of Beauvoir’s original text, and we know from a letter he wrote to his publisher that he was actually quite proud of that. As a number of scholars have shown, his cuts were not naive or innocent. He often cut philosophically nuggety material as well as a number of Beauvoir’s impassioned diatribes against misogyny. In other words, we get the sense that he was a bit rattled by some of the feminist content and took it out.
He also cut nearly every reference to socialist feminism, meaning that those in the Anglophone world are reading The Second Sex devoid of Beauvoir’s Marxism. He cut the names of at least seventy-eight women writers, excising the rich variety of women’s voices that make up the text. The Second Sex is rather like a patchwork quilt — it’s an archive of texts that Beauvoir cobbled together from anything available to her.
There has since been a 2010 translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. In one respect, this translation is superior to Parshley, because Borde and Malovany-Chevallier have not excised anything. However, the text runs the risk of having overcorrected and gone a bit too far in the other direction. It’s a very literal, word-for-word translation — almost a transposition. Of course, the art of translation entails taking some form of artistic license.
In many ways, the early translation made Beauvoir an easy target for criticism, robbing the text of its philosophical depth, complexity, and texture. The English-language text comes across as being much more simplistic and much less intelligent. It’s as if Beauvoir is making broad declarations rather than engaging with other people’s texts and voices.
First and foremost, when Parshley cut out the philosophical content, it meant that Beauvoir was not understood as a philosopher and the book was not understood as a work of philosophy. By cutting out the references to socialist feminism, he removed the context of Beauvoir’s Marxism. The loss of literary and philosophical texture and the range of interlocutors with whom Beauvoir is engaging means that it often reads as if she is legislating about life and presenting strangely normative claims.
The Second Sex is a work of literary criticism, laden with examples from other texts. It is almost polyphonic. Yet so many Anglophone critics have missed this aspect of the text because neither translation fully captures it. Beauvoir offers descriptions and examples from other texts, not to endorse them, but to show how things are for that particular person or that particular character in that particular book. Without careful readings and robust, confident translations, we lose that.
I think we’ve seen a lot of this heritage play out, particularly in early Anglophone feminist literature that has been explicitly influenced by Beauvoir. For instance, many people consider Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to be the American version of The Second Sex. But it is a much shallower kind of text.
As a final question to draw things together, what themes and arguments would you say in Beauvoir’s work have the greatest relevance to the debates that are being conducted today?
In our current, hypercapitalist and consumerist feminist atmosphere, we do talk about race, but class is consistently absent. For this reason, I think that Beauvoir’s feminist-Marxist analysis isn’t considered generally relevant. One reason that 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 Anglophone diversity critique puts an emphasis on race-based exclusion as the key lacuna of The Second Sex. It’s obviously very important to focus on the problem of race in Beauvoir’s work. Perhaps, though, it should not be our sole concern. We can get a lot out of examining Beauvoir’s socialist influences, too.
Through her appropriation of Marx in The Second Sex, Beauvoir explicitly warns us against a tendency to emphasize identity-based differences over and against the inequality that capitalism generates. She notes that the key outcome of workers coming together to unionize is to make gender differences between them feel less compelling.
In her account, although the women that Marx described were working under deplorable and exploited conditions, they neither saw themselves as working class nor were perceived as such by their male coworkers until they joined the union. She argues that the act of unionizing promoted a deeper consciousness of the shared situation of oppression among the workers, and that the problem was similar to that of the black labor force in the United States.
According to Beauvoir, the most oppressed minorities in a society can be used by the oppressors as a weapon against the class to which they belong, and it is necessary to develop a deeper awareness of the situation so that black and white workers or male and female workers can form coalitions instead of opposing each other. For Beauvoir, a coalition based on fellowship and solidarity would be neither a black movement nor a woman’s one, but an all-inclusive workers movement.
In other words, Beauvoir points out that the capitalist class might strategically emphasize the perception of difference between groups, while political collaboration in pursuit of equality can attenuate that perception. We can recognize our shared experience of exploitation, and such recognition is both a precondition and an achievement of the coalition she desires.
We can definitely criticize The Second Sex for neglecting the experience of black women (not to mention some of the terrible things that it says about Muslim women). But we shouldn’t overlook her interest in the plight of working-class women. As early as 1949, she identified our tendency to get bogged down in the politics of identity and forget about class inequality.
Importantly, she stresses that the inclination to emphasize gender and racial difference to the point of obscuring class inequality is a central ruling-class tactic. From my perspective, Beauvoir’s feminist-socialist analysis has an enduring relevance for our time.