Arts & Culture

Beauvoir as intellectual, politico, sexual theorist

4 min read

At the centennial of her birth, scholars take another look at author of ‘The Second Sex’

Simone de Beauvoir would likely have had a lot to say at a slightly belated 100th anniversary of her birth on Feb. 20 at the Barker Center as a collection of great minds gathered to discuss her great ideas.

The outspoken, strong-willed, and renowned French philosopher, writer, and feminist, who conducted a famously open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, had a reputation for making her opinions known.

Though she died in 1986, she did in fact speak briefly at the event. For a few seconds her sharp, rapid-fire French shot out of a small tape recorder at the front of the room.

“If women really did have complete equality with men, society would become completely and utterly overturned,” translated Alice Jardine, professor of Romance languages and literatures and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, who said the recording underscored Beauvoir’s notion of the need for radical societal change.

“Beauvoir was not talking only about or even mainly about women, she was talking about changing the world, changing the world that she said trapped women and others in powerless, meaningless lives.”

As part of last week’s symposium, sponsored by the Humanities Center at Harvard, the Department of Literature and Comparative Literature, the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, three Harvard scholars reflected on Beauvoir’s intellectual life and its expansive influence on contemporary thought.

Beauvoir’s groundbreaking work, “The Second Sex,” was published in 1949 and quickly emerged as a cornerstone for modern feminist theory. Its main tenet — that women weren’t born with an inherent femininity but that they became women shaped by man’s and society’s definition of womanhood — resonated with women around the world. The book also explored female sexuality in detail.

The work was published on the heels of the first of Alfred Kinsey’s reports on human sexual behavior, itself revolutionary in its examination of the sexuality of men. While many complain that the subsequent pairing of the two put too much emphasis on the sexual elements in Beauvoir’s work, noted Judith Coffin, research fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, such an emphasis and a simultaneous reading of both works brings important insights.

“I don’t think we should squeak in indignation about this,” Coffin, who is working on a historical companion to “The Second Sex,” told the crowd. “In Beauvoir’s big book, women’s situation is inextricable from sexual subjectivity. I think we sometimes teach Beauvoir in a tame way, as the one who elegantly forms the sex/gender distinction and then move on to other thinkers. Sex, though, is very much a part of becoming a woman, and to read her alongside Kinsey — and to know that she had Kinsey on her desk — restores some of the edginess of the book.”

Coffin added that while the two projects are vastly different, “their coming together and unraveling takes us through much of the 20th century and from their time to ours.”

As the Algerian war of independence raged through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Beauvoir and Sartre both protested France’s role in the conflict, particularly its use of torture.

In her defense of a female National Liberation Front rebel, Beauvoir, said Judith Surkis, “described the government’s criminal cover-up of torture as a violation and humiliation of French principle.”

But while Sartre’s denunciation of torture as a system “was caught up with a vision of a heroic redemption in suffering,” Beauvoir, she noted, “implicated her reader in [her subject’s] and by extension, in France’s shame.”

Beauvoir’s opposition to torture, said the associate professor of history and of history and literature, “modeled her vision of intellectual ethics.”

Beauvoir has inspired generations of women throughout the decades, said Alice Jardine, who offered up as an example her own experience as both ardent follower and critical challenger of Beauvoir’s philosophy over the years.

As a Fulbright scholar Jardine traveled to France in 1973 to meet and study Beauvoir. Beauvoir’s influence on generations of thinkers, she said, was immeasurable and still resonates today.

Jardine said she agreed with scholar Deidre Bair who averred that “it was not up to Beauvoir to get it all right as she was living her life, but rather it’s up to us to keep moving and crossing along these collective pathways that she opened up for us in a way that not only changed gender arrangements for the better, but changed the world for the better.”