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Becoming Beauvoir

A Life

By Kate Kirkpatrick
15-minute read
Audio available
Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick

Becoming Beauvoir (2019) recounts the story of French philosopher, writer and feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir for a contemporary audience. Making use of previously unpublished letters and diaries, Becoming Beauvoir describes how the famous intellectual became herself.

  • Those interested in feminism and gender studies
  • Budding existentialists
  • Philosophy students

Kate Kirkpatrick lectures in religion, philosophy and culture at King’s College London, in the United Kingdom. In addition to Becoming Beauvoir, she has written books on Jean-Paul Sartre, including Sartre and Theology and Sartre on Sin.

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Becoming Beauvoir

A Life

By Kate Kirkpatrick
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Becoming Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick
Synopsis

Becoming Beauvoir (2019) recounts the story of French philosopher, writer and feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir for a contemporary audience. Making use of previously unpublished letters and diaries, Becoming Beauvoir describes how the famous intellectual became herself.

Key idea 1 of 9

Simone de Beauvoir has been misrepresented all her life.

If you’re familiar with French philosophy, it’s likely that you’ll be able to conjure a mental image of Simone de Beauvoir. There she is, elegantly dressed, sitting at one of her favorite cafés in Montparnasse, with a pot of coffee and her notebook. And always accompanied by Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, and her lifelong friend and partner.

In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Beauvoir is often portrayed as being the slightly lesser figure in the partnership – not quite as self-assured, not quite as brilliant. This impression colored the way that she was seen throughout her life. It also couldn’t be further from the truth.

The key message here is: Simone de Beauvoir has been misrepresented all her life.

Since her emergence on the intellectual scene, Beauvoir has been misrepresented. The time in which she lived is largely to blame. During the twentieth century, many couldn’t imagine a woman who was independent – free in both thought and deed. This meant that important facts about her life were twisted and biographers and book reviewers turned a blind eye to her ideas.

But, in recent years, more facts have come to light that challenge this idea of Beauvoir. Her student journals, previously unpublished, and a number of letters she wrote to other men show that she was not merely a submissive figure in her relationship. 

Although Jean-Paul Sartre was a powerful influence on her work, Beauvoir had already discussed many ideas in her journals that were later attributed to Sartre. In fact, many of the philosophical ideas contained in Being and Nothingness, Sartre’s 1943 book, were explored by Beauvoir before its publication. For instance, her early distinction between being “for myself” and being “for others” is strikingly similar to a distinction drawn by Sartre in his book.

And then there are her letters to other men, which reveal that her romantic devotion to Sartre was far from complete. He was her great intellectual partner, but by no means the main romantic affair in her life. In fact, the only man she ever referred to with the affectionate tu, was the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, with whom she lived from 1952 to 1959.

Despite these truths, society continued to misrepresent her and belittle her ideas. In France, she was nicknamed “Notre Dame de Sartre,” our lady of Sartre. And the New Yorker described her, reductively, as “the prettiest Existentialist you ever saw.”

Why was she treated this way? Well, she was a woman with a formidable intellect and a powerful sense of independence. That was simply unacceptable.

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