Simone de Beauvoir: A Woman’s Work

Elaine Blair at the NYRB:

Simone de Beauvoir; drawing by Karl Stevens

The writer who invented the genre was neither a feminist nor an American. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in France in 1949 when she was forty-one years old. A few years later, its English translation would haunt and inspire Friedan, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone. When she wrote it, Beauvoir, a socialist, did not see the need for a political movement specifically for women’s rights. It was a time of feminist quiescence, when activism on behalf of women seemed to belong to the past rather than the future. Earlier in the century, there had been an expansion of education opportunities for women in France: they had won the right to sit for the prestigious French agrégation exam that was the entry point to university teaching. Beauvoir had been the ninth woman to pass the exam in philosophy, and more women entered the field behind her. As of 1944, women also had the right to vote. They were on their way. But something nagged at the philosopher. “The situation of woman,” she writes in her introduction, “is that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other.”

more here.