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The French existentialist philosopher, writer, and social essayist Simone de Beauvoir is most widely known for her pioneering work Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949) or The Second Sex. Her expose of woman as ”Other” and her calling attention to the feminine condition of oppression as historically linked to motherhood are considered her major contributions to modern feminist thought.
While not generally acknowledged as a sociologist, Beauvoir nevertheless contributed to sociology in The Second Sex, The Coming of Age (La Vieillesse 1970), a study of old age, and to a lesser extent, her writings on the media and death and dying. Simone de Beauvoir is also internationally read and widely known for her novels, autobiographies, and travelogues. Beauvoir’s theorizing corrects androcentric biases found in earlier gender-neutral theoretical frameworks, particularly in her use of social categories to inform individually oriented philosophical theories of self-determination and freedom. She systematically examined the historically situated or lived experiences of women relative to men.
Deeply influenced by the existential philosophy of her lifelong companion Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir extended Sartrean existential philosophy to encompass social and cultural determinants of the human condition. She used existential philosophy, as a guide for understanding herself as a woman and as a framework for understanding the condition of women, more generally. True to her existentialist philosophy, Beauvoir’s writings avoid any attempt to discover a single universal ”truth” as prescriptive for intellectual or personal freedom for all women. Her efforts to understand women’s historical oppression, contemporary situation, and future prospects drew from fiction and literary criticism, as well as from biology, historical anthropology, political economy, and psychoanalysis. However, Beauvoir found extant writings either erroneous or incomplete and developed her own distinctively sociological argument emphasizing the crucial feminist insight that, ”One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Consistent with existentialist philosophy, Beauvoir saw the human condition as defined foremost by the freedom to choose, as humans are born with no fixed essence or nature. Despite this freedom, however, it is external social forces that undeniably shape transcendent possibilities for self creation. Thus for a woman to be defined as Other is to be defined as second to man, less than man, and for man’s pleasure.
Beauvoir’s theorizing took a distinctively sociological dimension in The Second Sex, contributing to the social basis for the study of gender. Similarly, the scope of her research methodology contributed to revisionist history, as she theorized from sources and documentation from women themselves, including letters, diaries, autobiographies, case histories, political and social essays, and novels.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1953.
- Bair, D. (1990) Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. Touchstone, New York.
- Deegan, M. J. (1991) Simone de Beauvoir. In: Deegan, M. J. (ed), Women in Sociology: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, New York.
- Walsh, M. (2000) Beauvoir, feminisms and ambiguities. Hecate (May): 26.
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