Beauvoir was then a thirty-eight-year-old public intellectual who had been enfranchised for only a year. Legal birth control would be denied to French women until , and legal abortion, until Not until the late s was there an elected female head of state anywhere in the world. Girls of my generation searching for examples of exceptional women outside the ranks of queens and courtesans, and of a few artists and saints, found precious few.
While no one individual or her work is responsible for that seismic shift in laws and attitudes, the millions of young women who now confidently assume that their entitlement to work, pleasure, and autonomy is equal to that of their brothers owe a measure of their freedom to Beauvoir.
The Second Sex was an act of Promethean audacity — a theft of Olympian fire — from which there was no turning back. Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in into a reactionary Catholic family with pretensions to nobility.
Like Woolf, and a striking number of other great women writers,1 Beauvoir was childless. Beneath the still young woman that I was, an old boy of forty saw to the well-being of a possibly precious part of myself.
Mme de Beauvoir, intent on keeping up a facade of gentility, however shabby, sent her daughters to an elite convent school where Simone, for a while, ardently desired to become a nun, one of the few respectable vocations open to an ambitious girl. When she lost her faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union dreams that proved remarkably tenacious shifted from Christ to an enchanting classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew.
Not many bookish virgins with a particle in their surname got drunk with the hookers and drug addicts at Le Styx. Her mother hoped vainly that the worthless Jacques would propose. An insatiable curiosity and a prodigious capacity for synthetic reading and analysis a more inspired grind may never have existed nourished her drive.
One of her boyfriends dubbed her Castor the Beaver , a nickname that stuck. She had a sense of inferiority, it would appear, only in relation to Jean-Paul Sartre. On their first study date, she explained Leibniz to him. When the results were posted, Sartre was first and Beauvoir second she was the ninth woman who had ever passed , and that, forever, was the order of precedence — Adam before Eve — in their creation myth as a couple. Both sexes attracted her, and Sartre was never the most compelling of her lovers, but they recognized that each possessed something uniquely necessary to the other.
And the burden of free love, Beauvoir would discover, was grossly unequal for a woman and for a man. If Beauvoir has proved to be an irresistible subject for biographers, it is, in part, because she and Sartre, as a pharaonic couple of incestuous deities, reigned over twentieth-century French intellectual life in the decades of its greatest ferment. Beauvoir herself was as devout an atheist as she had once been a Catholic, and she dismisses religions — even when they worship a goddess — as the inventions of men to perpetuate their dominion.
The analogy is fitting, though, and not only to the grandeur of a book that was the first of its kind but also to its structure. Beauvoir begins her narrative, like the author of. Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The two volumes that elaborate on the consequences of that fall are the Old and New Testaments of an unchosen people with a history of enslavement.
The epic concludes, like Revelation, with an eloquent, if utopian, vision of redemption:. The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom; if they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.
The first English edition of The Second Sex was published in Thinking that this sensational literary property was a highbrow sex manual, she had asked an academic who knew about the birds and the bees, H. While the translation was a labor of love from which Parshley nearly expired, he lacked a background in philosophy, or in French literature. He also lacked a credential more pertinent, perhaps, to the audience for a foundational work of modern feminism, a second X chromosome.
She is a bold, sagacious, often dazzling writer and a master aphorist, but no one would accuse her of being a lapidary stylist. It is hard to find a description for the prose that does justice both to its incisive power and to its manic garrulity.
The stamina that it takes to read The Second Sex in its entirety pales before the feat of writing it. On a trip to America in , she had met the novelist Nelson Algren, the most significant of her male others, and it was he who advised her to expand the essay on women into a book.
Her encounter with a racism that she had never witnessed firsthand, and her friendship with Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, helped to clarify her understanding of sexism, and its relation to the anti-Semitism that she certainly had witnessed firsthand before and during the war, but, with Sartre, had never openly challenged.
Yet a revolution cannot begin until the diffuse, private indignation of individuals coalesces into a common cause. Her insights have breached the solitude of countless readers around the world who thought that the fears, transgressions, fantasies, and desires that fed their ambivalence about being female were aberrant or unique. No woman before her had written publicly, with greater candor and less euphemism, about the most intimate secrets of her sex. One of those secrets — the hardest, perhaps, for Beauvoir to avow — is that a free woman may refuse to be owned without wanting to renounce, or being able to transcend, her yearning to be possessed.
Everything is against me. Beauvoir begins her narrative, like the author of Genesis, with a fall into knowledge. The epic concludes, like Revelation, with an eloquent, if utopian, vision of redemption: The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom; if they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.