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A Critical Review of how Existentialism and its Men Influenced the Feminism of Simone de Beauvoir.

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One of the most influential figureheads in the history of feminism is undoubtedly Simone de Beauvoir. It is she who is credited with fuelling postwar debate on feminism, ethics, and existentialism. We look back to this period as a notable point of social change for women's rights, sexual liberation, and gendered equality beyond that of suffrage. It can, however, sometimes be seen when authors use de Beauvoir's arguments, they detach her from her existentialist roots, and see her solely as a feminist figurehead. Whilst the former does not preclude de Beauvoir from being idolised as the latter, existentialism-a philosophical ideology especially dominated by male characters-formed the very pillars of her thought on which she constructed her feminist manifesto. Therefore, existentialism should be considered and assessed, or at the very least acknowledged when de Beauvoir's Philosophy of Women is re-engaged and re-read in modern feminist exchanges. "A man attaches himself to woman-not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself." ~Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
British Mensa’s: ANDROGYNY, Volume 3 (Issue 1) - 15 -
Articles Literature Review:
A Critical Review of how Existentialism and
its Men Influenced the Feminism of Simone
de Beauvoir.
Sergio A. Silverio
One of the most influential figureheads in the history of feminism is
undoubtedly Simone de Beauvoir. It is she who is credited with fuelling
post-war debate on feminism, ethics, and existentialism. We look back
to this period as a notable point of social change for women’s rights,
sexual liberation, and gendered equality beyond that of suffrage. It can,
however, sometimes be seen when authors use de Beauvoir’s arguments,
they detach her from her existentialist roots, and see her solely as a
feminist figurehead. Whilst the former does not preclude de Beauvoir
from being idolised as the latter, existentialism a philosophical
ideology especially dominated by male characters formed the very
pillars of her thought on which she constructed her feminist manifesto.
Therefore, existentialism should be considered and assessed, or at the
very least acknowledged when de Beauvoir’s Philosophy of Women is re-
engaged and re-read in modern feminist exchanges.
“A man attaches himself to woman – not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself.”
~Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Simone de Beauvoir in Context
THE difference between sex and
gender has been long-established
and perhaps was most eloquently
documented in Rhoda Unger’s
pivotal paper (1979), where she
aligns sex with biological
mechanisms, and gender with
socio-cultural characteristic
differences. Recent debates
surrounding women and femininity
in the workplace internationally
have documented women having to
adapt their portrayed gender
identity, more so than men, in
accordance with their setting to
counteract the discrimination they
face on the basis of sex (Kjeldal,
Rindfleish & Sheridan, 2005;
Saavedra, Araújo, Oliveira &
Stephens, 2014). This can be
summarised, rather blithely, as
being the ‘feminine mother’ at home
and the ‘androgynous colleague’ at
work (see Silverio, 2015). It can be
argued Simone de Beauvoir did
exactly this whilst amongst her
predominantly male peers in the
academic echelons of 20th Century
Paris (Leick, 2008).
From “The Second Sex” (de
Beauvoir, 1949/2011) until the
present day, there have been many
who have taken strands of de
Beauvoir’s work and further
expanded our appreciation of the
hurdles to gender equality and
feminism. Whether it be Luce
- 16 - British Mensa’s: ANDROGYNY, Spring Edition April 2019
Irigaray known for driving forward
French feminist thought after de
Beauvoir; Judith Butler and
Germaine Greer in the English-
speaking world; or indeed, ‘the de
Beauvoir of the Arab World’,
Egypt’s: Nawal El Saadawi; each
have experienced considerable
backlash to their work. What we
see with de Beauvoir, however, is
not her working in extremities such
as Nietzsche’s seminal text: “Gay
Science” (1882/2001) where
humankind is the executioner for
everything remotely Godly, but nor
does she falter to the notion we (and
our genders) are constructed in the
world, with little choice, but to
perform our gendered societal
narrative, as Butler (1990)
suggests. However, the question of
how a woman could speak so
candidly on the issues of sexual
freedom, gender equality, erotic
fantasy and more (see Butler, 1990;
El Saadawi, 1969; Greer, 1971;
Irigaray, 1987/1993), and the fact
it was no secret Simone de Beauvoir
maintained a somewhat debauched
sex-life be it with Sartre or her
many male and female lovers
(Chrisafis, 2008; Silverio, 2019) did
not aid her acceptance in certain
societal circles at the time she was
alive. What it did do, was cement
a base on which future scholars
could develop their arguments, and
a role model to follow which broke
any mould which was expected of
women historically and well into the
future.
It is fair to state, Simone de
Beauvoir’s existentialist and
feminist works almost definitely left
her in constant tension. To be
valued as an equal woman of
thought and learning to whom
people would listen and heed advice
on gender equality. Feminism and
existentialism came together within
de Beauvoir (see also Silverio,
2019), and she managed to give an
equal share of the stage to both
during her lifetime, though she lives
on in the present day as a feminist
Philosopher. In many ways, this
dual aspect of her life undermined
her statements on how male
Psychology should be used to level
the two sexes (see Lerner, 1986), as
her critics and the public viewed
her existentialism-laced behaviours
as ‘machismo’ and inappropriate for
a high-society woman (Smith,
2008). Existentialism had a
profound effect on de Beauvoir, and
on her feminist expectations, and
some thought should be given to
the dyad of her genius when we
write using her feminist ideologies.
Existentialism A Man’s World?
Existentialism prevailed over the
post-WWII period as a branch of
Philosophy concerned with the
notion of existence and the human
condition within world, whereby
humans first exist, but largely
spend their time on earth
attempting to alter their essence (or
their fundamental identity as a
human being). It was
fundamentally a man’s game,
governed by, debated over, and
contested between its figurehead
Jean-Paul Sartre, and others on the
circuit such as Albert Camus and
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (the latter
of whom went on to influence
feminist philosophical perspectives
of the body). There was however,
one woman who did have a seat at
the Existential Philosophy table:
Simone de Beauvoir. Not only was
she privy to the Paris café scene
where most Philosophers’ ideas
were formulated, written,
British Mensa’s: ANDROGYNY, Volume 3 (Issue 1) - 17 -
discussed, debated, and inspired,
but she was expertly skilled in
Existential Philosophy having
founded it with her companion,
Sartre. Whilst not especially liked
by some of her compatriots, she and
her prowess were accepted (see
Silverio, 2019). Having proofread,
Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’
before it’s 1943 publication,
Madame Beauvoir had indeed
edited the so-called ‘rule book’ for
existentialism, and as Jean-Paul
Sartre’s lover and intellectual
equal, she also had the referee on
side (Appignanesi, 2005). If there
was anything about existentialism
anyone ever needed to know, de
Beauvoir was the ‘Oracle Consort’.
To understand the inner
workings of de Beauvoir’s inner
psyche one must strip back the
layers of her work and reference the
marked change points which
consequently altered in guise over
time (as did Sartre’s; see Silverio,
2019). Towards the end of her life,
de Beauvoir became less dogmatic
in her existentialism musings and
sided more and more with her
earlier rebuttal to Jean-Paul
Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”
(1943/2003) published as “The
Ethics of Ambiguity” (de Beauvoir,
1947/2015). In this volume and
again in lectures later in her life,
she argued for a more
compassionate approach to ‘being’ –
accepting mankind as intricate and
nuanced agents of their destiny;
and to how ‘nothingness’ enabled
humans to live with freedom to do
and create whatever they wish. It
can be said this creativeness is
what allowed de Beauvoir to live her
life in such an untraditional way,
writing and producing volume after
volume of philosophy and studies
on humankind. However, for de
Beauvoir, it simply was not
conceivable to live an ethical life, if
the life itself had no rules except for
one to do what pleases them.
de Beauvoir The Woman.
The outer existentialist shell for de
Beauvoir, was riddled with flaws
and much like crackled glass,
fogged the deeper feminist agenda
held by de Beauvoir to set out her
mark on the state of women and the
human condition after the horrors
of warfare, and in the wake of a new
beginning across Europe and the
Western World. We must ask:
“What was her agenda?”. Some
argue her as a feminist. Others
claim her historical importance as
cultural figurehead in the wake of a
global power struggle. Some depict
her a philosopher, so entrenched in
academic life she was, in fact,
totally blind to the depravity of the
morose reality which she inhabited,
but never acknowledged. But it is
just possible, her agenda was little
more than to be a woman, but a
woman heard.
One text which cannot be
ignored is her most notable work:
“The Second Sex” (de Beauvoir,
1949/2011). It is a colossal
reference text to all things ‘woman’.
Within it there are indeed
arguments which transcend the
class divide such as women being
seen through the male gaze (see
Mulvey, 1975); the experience of the
menopause and a woman ageing,
but largely she avoids referencing
the lower socio-economic and
working classes and remains where
she is comfortable, talking from her
own privileged standpoint. It could
be argued her privilege entitled her
to her existentialist (and perhaps
- 18 - British Mensa’s: ANDROGYNY, Spring Edition April 2019
even her feminist) existence, but
through her own admission de
Beauvoir stated her life would have
turned out very different if she had
taken different paths in life, and
likewise should she have never met
Sartre, not only her life, but his,
and possibly the very philosophy
they co-founded would have taken
very diverse forms (de Beauvoir,
1972/1977). Furthermore, de
Beauvoir did not cower away from
topics of which she had no lived
experience, namely chapters five
and six, “The Married Woman” and
“The Mother”, respectively.
Interestingly, the text ends with
chapter fourteen: “The Independent
Woman” though it was well-
documented, just as Sartre was
never truthfully independent of de
Beauvoir, de Beauvoir was never
truthfully independent of Sartre
either (Silverio, 2019).
As the only female amongst
her contemporaries, de Beauvoir
was, for all intents and purposes,
had an uneasy relationship with
men. The line between intimate
colleague and clandestine lover was
oft blurred, resulting in many men
growing to dislike her (Bakewell,
2016). She challenged their
intelligence, picked holes in their
beliefs, and moreover she was a
spinster, though one who was
sexually charged and sexually
empowered (Smith, 2016). King
(2015) claims every nation’s great
epics which are passed down from
generation to generation categorise
the older women in these stories as
often bitter, baron, and
manipulative, and much like these
characters, de Beauvoir was
marginalised, patronised, and
made the subject of ridicule by
those around her. Her voice,
however, was heard and even those
who did not like her personally,
largely respected her work. With
this, further weight builds in favour
of the suggestion, underneath the
semblance of existentialism, and
even of feminism, de Beauvoir
longed to have a voice to which
society listened. To this effect, she
was successful becoming a leading,
and internationally respected
authority on the Philosophy of
Women and gender equality.
Conclusion
From a psychological point of view,
it is difficult to see how feminism
and existentialism could work in
synergy, with feminism’s endeavour
being for equality and
existentialism striving for
autonomy the two are far from
‘yin’ and ‘yang’, but rather magnetic
North and South repelling each
other’s core principles. However,
with de Beauvoir it is difficult to
prise the two ‘-isms’ apart. The
unethical practices of
existentialism taint the equalities
proposed by de Beauvoir’s
feminism, and in turn, the drive for
equity and being externally
charitable in feminism, undermines
the authenticity (being true to one’s
self and one’s internal desires)
aspect existentialism, leaving de
Beauvoir in ‘bad faith’ (addressing
societal desire, and not internal
personal wants). Yet, somehow de
Beauvoir reconciles the two and
brings balance to the table.
Simone de Beauvoir tackled
feminism not from an existentialist
viewpoint of what she wanted to
happen, but rather what was wrong
with the current situation, and
what she could do for others to
rectify it. Women were not
British Mensa’s: ANDROGYNY, Volume 3 (Issue 1) - 19 -
emancipated, and this was, and
remains, wrong. Women were
objectified, and this should be
changed. Women were “The Second
Sex”, and she ardently proved
through her intellect and status,
there was no reason for the woman
to be the subordinate gender.
Through her interrogation of
history and her scholarly treatment
of politics and public policy, Simone
de Beauvoir goes down in history as
a colossal contributor to the gender
revolution of the post-war period.
It is possible no further
knowledge of how she managed to
reconcile her two life projects will
ever be uncovered, but her works
will forever be the subject of lively
debate and amongst that debate,
one thing is for certain:
Undoubtedly Simone de Beauvoir’s
greatest success was putting
women firmly on the agenda for
humanity and ensuring a woman’s
voice could be and ultimately, was,
heard.
Acknowledgements:
The author would like to extend
thanks to Dr. Claire Jones for her
initial guidance on this manuscript,
and Mrs. Elaine Baker for her critical
reading of the finalised paper.
Sergio A. Silverio
MPsycholSci (Hons) L’pool, MBPsS, RSci
Sergio.Silverio@kcl.ac.uk
Research Assistant
Department of Women & Children’s Health,
King’s College London
Honorary Research Fellow,
EGA Institute of Women’s Health,
University College London
Honorary Fellow,
Department of Psychological Sciences,
University of Liverpool
Please cite as:
Silverio, S.A. (2019). A critical review of
how existentialism and its men
influenced the feminism of Simone de
Beauvoir. British Mensa’s:
ANDROGYNY, 3(1), 15-20.
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... Given the foundational role of de Beauvoir within this approach to feminism, and the way in which we have discussed her theory here, we will consider critiques specifically as they pertain to her work. Some of criticised de Beauvoir's seminal text 'The Second Sex' as only speaking to other white, middle class women, and neglecting to consider the experiences of less socioeconomically privileged groups (Silverio, 2019). Others have noted an inconsistency between de Beauvoir's works, highlighting that the women in her fictional works often conform to norms, rather than fighting against the Otherness they are oppressed with (Dolske, 2014). ...
... Others have noted an inconsistency between de Beauvoir's works, highlighting that the women in her fictional works often conform to norms, rather than fighting against the Otherness they are oppressed with (Dolske, 2014). Perhaps most significantly for a field concerned with practicality, de Beauvoir has been critiqued for her inability to transfer her existentialist feminist philosophy into praxis (Silverio, 2019), which could cast doubt on the use of this approach to affect meaningful change within health professions education. Though existentialist feminism goes further than liberal feminism to centre and highlight the experiences of women, critiques of the approach are not insignificant, and approaches to feminism originating within later waves also warrant consideration. ...
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A fresh look at Simone de Beauvoir: A thinker in a man's world
  • R Leick
Leick, R. (2008 January 9). A fresh look at Simone de Beauvoir: A thinker in a man's world. (C. Sultan, Trans.) Der Spiegel. (Original work published 2008).
On breaking the glass ceiling: Evidence for a loss of feminine identity caused by the feminist struggle for gender equality. Poster presented at the annual conference of The
  • S A Silverio
Silverio, S.A. (2015, July). On breaking the glass ceiling: Evidence for a loss of feminine identity caused by the feminist struggle for gender equality. Poster presented at the annual conference of The British Psychological Society (BPS) Psychology of Women Section (PoWS), Windsor, United Kingdom.