In 1949, seventy years ago, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was first published, and became famous for the statement, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.’ The book came out in two volumes, Facts and Myths, and Lived Experience. She made many provocative observations, particularly emphasizing that because of childbirth woman was defined by her biology in a way man never is. ‘What is woman?’ ‘Other.’
For a long time, Deidre Bair’s biography of de Beauvoir represented the standard view of her life. It was the authorised biography, written with the cooperation of de Beauvoir and presenting all the usual givens about her life. Her love and loyalty to J P Sartre, her deferring to his superior intellect.
Now Kate Kirkpatrick, Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Culture at King’s College London, has written a biography using new material from de Beauvoir’s unpublished letters and diaries. It is both scholarly and readable, and presents material that allows one to make up one’s own mind about the ethics of de Beauvoir’s relationships, and her often tested loyalty to Sartre. Kirkpatrick refers to Deidre Bair, as ‘Bair’ and one can conclude that she is not too impressed by a biography that presents a picture of de Beauvoir as she wished to be seen.
A few quotes to whet your appetite:
Her love had lessened but there was also a physical problem: her body’s ‘tyrannical desires’ had awakened and demanded satisfaction. This problem was made worse because Sartre did not suffer from it: he referred seduction to sex. p 114
I read a great deal; I would read only as one can read at that age, naively and passionately. To open a novel was truly to enter a world, a concrete, temporal world, peopled with singular characters and events. p 210
Part of Beauvoir’s concern was that women who were ‘confined’ to private life lived precariously; in economic dependence on someone who could stop loving them at any time, leaving women without means and without the meaning around which they built their life. p 336
And now a quote from an Australian politician of the 1970’s. Sir John Cramer said, ‘A woman must be taught that her virginity is the most valuable thing she possesses.’ (Quoted in the obituary for Beatrice Faust , one of the founding members of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, in Melbourne Age 12-11-2019)
Some things never change.
We also had to contend with the Women Who Want to be Women.