Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1996)
Paris, France

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris to an upper-class family, but when she was young her family lost their money. Without servants to do the work, her mother took over the domestic chores. Watching her mother, who resented the unfairness, but didn’t question that it was her duty, affected de Beauvoir greatly. She decided that people should be free from prejudices about the sexes.

De Beauvoir was a part of a school of philosophy called existentialism, which focused on individual human existence. Among the animals only people are creative and can rise above their creaturehood to create their own lives. De Beauvoir incorporated what she learned watching her mother into her book The Second Sex, which was the first time anyone had explored why women allowed themselves to be dominated by men. She decided that “women are not born, but made.” Because of this book and her work for the independence of women, de Beauvoir is known as “the mother of feminism.”

De Beauvoir believed that one way for women to achieve their freedom was through education. They could only rise above the oppression by using their brainpower. She also believed that freedom of choice was the measure of morality and immorality. Good acts increase one’s freedom, while bad ones limit ones freedom.

De Beauvoir went to university at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre, another existentialist philosopher. They were partners until his death in 1980. She considered this period to be a moral phase of her life and it led to the writing of most of her books and essays.

Classroom Discussion Questions:

  • If Simone de Beauvoir were alive today, how would she answer the question, "Which is more powerful, love or hate "?
  • In a historical context, what would Simone de Beauvoir think was the greatest
    challenge facing humankind during her lifetime?
  • How was existentialism different from earlier philosophies, such as the writings of Kant, Plato, Dewey, and Nietzsche?
  • De Beauvoir never married, never had children, and refused the conventional female role. According to her philosophy, why were these choices more moral than following “the rules”?
  • Would de Beauvoir believe that women still are oppressed? Why or why not? Do you think women are oppressed? Why or why not?

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DeweySocratesPlatoConfuciusRandLockeCamusCavendish Sartre Rousseau KingDescartes Spinozade BeauvoirNietzscheKant HypatiaThoreau