Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was a French philosopher most notably associated with her contribution to feminist ideology. Her work is grounded in the philosophical project of exploring the lived experience of women, the birth of patriarchy, and how male superiority has been legitimised and propagated in our culture. What is it to be a woman? What are the ideas from which patriarchy has been legitimised and maintained? These are questions central to Simone de Beauvoir’s work and we will explore them in this explanation.

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    Simone de Beauvoir photograph of Simone de Beauvoir StudySmarterFig. 1 - Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir: biography

    Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer and philosopher who laid the foundation for modern feminism. Simone de Beauvoir, whose complete name was Simone-Lucie-Ernestine-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, was born in 1908 in Paris. She was raised as a catholic in an upper-middle-class family.

    In her youth, she was so devoted to Catholicism that she intended on becoming a nun. However, during her teens, her intellectual curiosity led her to renounce her faith, and instead dedicate her life to the study of philosophy, maths and literature. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (a prestigious university in Paris). It was here that she met the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who she then went on to have a famously unconventional romantic relationship with.

    In 1949, De Beauvoir published her famous book The Second Sex. This is considered her best-known work. The book was a critique of the patriarchy and the status granted to women over the course of history. While today the book is revered as one of the most important foundational feminist works when it was published, it was greeted with controversy: critics classed the book as pornographic and the Vatican banned the text.

    Simone de Beauvoir and feminism

    Understanding Simone de Beauvoir’s feminism requires that we turn to her great work, The Second Sex. Her work here explores the specific ways that the social and natural sciences have justified patriarchal domination of women through the production of an ideology that dictates that women are ‘naturally’ inferior. In 1976, she wrote:

    Just as I do not believe that women are inferior to men by nature, nor do I believe that they are their natural superiors either.

    The Second Sex

    The Second Sex is, is in essence, an argument for sexual equality that rejects previously unchallenged, dominant beliefs about the natural inferiority of women.

    Her argument can broadly be summarised as taking two directions. The first of these is that masculine ideology exploits genuine sexual differences between men and women, yet it uses these differences to establish and maintain inequality.

    The second part of her argument responds to the idea of thinkers such as Plato, who argue that sexual equality can be achieved once we dissolve sexual differences – in essence, making masculinity the absolute human type.

    Plato’s Republic

    Plato argues men and women are both equally capable of entering the ‘guardian class’ (in The Republic, Plato divides society into three classes, one of which is the guardian class that is responsible for ruling his republic). However, according to Plato, if women are to be admitted in this class, they must live as men or act in a masculine way. Thus, in Plato’s work masculinity retains its dominance despite it appearing, on a surface level, to reject patriarchal ideology.

    Simone De Beauvoir instead argues that men and women must treat each other as equals while acknowledging there are sexual differences. These differences don’t need to be erased to achieve equality, they must simply be validated. Importantly, for De Beauvoir, equality is not synonymous with being the same.

    In line with this thinking, she sees traditional justifications of patriarchy on the basis that there are objective sexual differences between men and women as unjust and immoral. Moreover, the foundation on which the assumption that males are superior to females lies is weak at best and reflects a bias that had yet to be questioned.

    Consider the common belief that men are stronger than women. De Beauvoir prompts us to ask which criteria are used to draw this conclusion. Most probably, this conclusion comes about from criteria such as body size and upper body strength. Yet, what if we were to use longevity as our basis for measuring strength? It would then be inappropriate to conclude that men are the stronger sex, and we seemingly have no good reason to not think of longevity as a criterion for strength. De Beauvoir, therefore, concludes that this thinking exposes the biases inherent in the criteria traditionally used to legitimise the patriarchy.

    One is not born but becomes a woman.

    This is, arguably, the most famous quotation from The Second Sex and it is a recognition of the sex and gender distinction. While sex is biological, referring to our genitalia and DNA, gender is a social construction that by definition must be learnt or instilled into us (it has no biological basis).

    By introducing this idea, De Beauvoir’s commentary on sexual inequality becomes an exploration of the social construction of femininity and a critique of both how these constructions arise and their validity. For De Beauvoir, femininity is not biological, but instead a manifestation of social norms.

    The supposedly ‘essential’ sexual differences between men and women are not rooted in nature. They are a reflection of differences in the lived experience of men and women. Legitimising patriarchy on the basis of sexual differences between men and women thus loses credibility as these differences (other than basic biological differences) are borne from external, societal, and cultural influences.

    The Other

    A central concept in De Beauvoir’s writing is that of women as ‘the other’, who exist in opposition to the subject. The subject is absolute, while the other is inessential. It is this dichotomy that underpins De Beauvoir’s writings on sexual inequality.

    A fundamental part of this distinction is that the subject, i.e. men, identify as the paradigmatic epitome of what it is to be human. With this belief internalised, De Beauvoir argues men measure women by their own standard, thus concluding them to be inferior.

    Women’s supposed shortcomings are identified through the conclusion that they fail to meet the paradigm of the absolute human that men or ‘the subject’ perceive themselves to be. As a result, these arbitrary conclusions are used to justify the treatment of women as ‘the other’.

    Simone de Beauvoir and philosophy

    As we’ve mentioned, Simone de Beauvoir is most accurately described as a philosophical writer. Her philosophical project about the roots of sexual inequality is rooted in her identification with existential phenomenology.

    Existentialism is the philosophical theory concerned with the desire to get at the heart of human experience and existence.

    Phenomenology, literally speaking, is the study of phenomena; more specifically, the study of how ‘things’ appear in our existence and how we experience these things.

    Thus, existential phenomenology, which underpins De Beauvoir’s philosophy, combines these two projects.

    De Beauvoir’s philosophy, therefore, is the exploration of the reality of the lived experience of being a woman, and how women are perceived. Her work and analysis are fundamentally grounded by her interest in existential phenomenology.

    Critics of Simone de Beauvoir’s works

    Like all philosophically and politically engaged writers, Simon de Beauvoir’s works have invited criticism.

    A common critique of De Beauvoir’s work is that it is actually misogynistic, and is framed by the male imaginary. Some argue De Beauvoir advocates for a masculinised feminism. Usually, what people refer to when they suggest this is De Beauvoir’s negative description of the feminine sexual experience, maternity, menopause, and menstruation. These descriptions can be found in The Second Sex.

    Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-French philosopher, is most notably associated with criticisms of De Beauvoir that follow this line of argument.

    Simone De Beauvoir Photograph of Julia Kristeva StudySmarterFig. 2 - Julia Kristeva

    However, De Beauvoir has been defended from these critics by acknowledging that her comments are a product of the social context in which she wrote The Second Sex. Let’s not forget that she published this book in 1949, when abortion and birth control were illegal and thus maternity was not a choice but a requirement. As a result, De Beauvoir did not see the celebration of maternity liberating for women.

    Another critique of Simone de Beauvoir’s work is that it is blind to class and racial inequality. Elizabeth Spelman (1988) argues that De Beauvoir uses white, middle-class women as the paradigm for the lived experience of all women. On a similar note, some philosophers argue that De Beauvoir’s arguments in The Second Sex are based on hetero-sexist assumptions. Claudia Card (1990) argues that many of her arguments are founded on a discriminatory premise that homosexuality is a choice while heterosexuality is fundamental.

    The importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s works

    The importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s work lies in her foundational contribution to the history of feminism. Her analysis on the phenomenology of womanhood has been undoubtedly influential in the formation of feminist ideology concerning the nature of sexual inequality across societies.

    Her quotation, ‘one is not born but becomes a woman’ is vital in understanding her contribution to feminist ideology.

    Before De Beauvoir, a social constructivist view of gender and how this contributes to sexual inequality was rare, if not non-existent. Beauvoir’s historical and philosophical approach to analysing the phenomenology of sex-based inequality was foundational in highlighting the illogical nature of patriarchy legitimised by a biased and flawed understanding of natural, biologically-ensured superiority.

    Since the publication of The Second Sex, many believe this is where contemporary feminism began.

    Simone de Beauvoir - Key takeaways

    • Simone de Beauvoir was a French philosopher and writer concerned primarily with sexual inequality.
    • Her analyses of sexual inequality were framed by the philosophical lens of existential phenomenology.
    • De Beauvoir saw traditional justifications of sexual inequality on the basis of sexual differences as flawed and reflective of internalised biases.
    • She was deeply critical of the view that being a woman was primarily biological. Instead, perceptions of women are embedded almost explicitly in cultural and societal norms and expectations.
    • She believed society saw women as ‘the other’, i.e. inessential. This perception is upheld by the patriarchy, which dictates that men are the paradigm for what is to be human. The failure to meet this paradigm ensures the subordination of women.


    1. Fig. 2 - Julia Kristeva BNF ( by Guinness88 ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Simone de Beauvoir

    How was Simone de Beauvoir a feminist?

    Interestingly, Simone de Beauvoir was initially reluctant to call herself a feminist and refused to be labelled as such. Regardless, her analysis of the subordination of women and the arbitrary nature of such subordination, from a social-constructivist point of view, underpins second-wave feminist ideology. 

    She has undoubtedly provided a philosophical analysis of female existence that highlights the immoral and illogical nature of sexual inequality.

    How important is Simone de Beauvoir’s work?

    This is a matter of opinion. Simone de Beauvoir has been influential in the development of feminist ideology that rejects the view that sexual inequality is justifiable on the basis of the biological differences between sexes. 

    The importance of her work, therefore, lies in her contribution to feminist understandings of sexual inequality.

    What is the main focus of Simone de Beauvoir?

    Simone de Beauvoir’s main focus lies in her exploration of the lived experience of women and their perception in society. She focuses on dispelling the myth that sexual inequality is justified on the basis of supposedly ‘natural’ differences that legitimise women’s subordination.

    Who is Simone de Beauvoir?

    Simone de Beauvoir was a French philosophical writer engaged with the critical analysis of sexual inequality.

    What is Simone de Beauvoir's philosophy?

    Simon de Beauvoir’s philosophy is an existential phenomenological approach to understanding the experience and existence of women. She uses this approach to critically analyse how sexual-inequality has been historically legitimised and perpetuated.

    What is the main focus of Simone de Beauvoir?

    Simone de Beauvoir’s main focus is the philosophical enquiry into the structures that maintain and legitimise the subordination of women.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why does the type of sexual equality raised by Plato in The Republic, arguing that both men and women are equally capable of becoming members of the guardian class, not appeal to Beauvoir?

    Which of these statements have been raised by critics of Simone de Beauvoir’s works?

    How had patriarchal notions of male superiority previously been legitimised?


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