France has long been known for the cultural prominence it grants to its philosophers. Even so, such prominence doesn’t simply come to every French philosopher, and some have had to work tirelessly indeed to achieve it. Take Simone de Beauvoir, who most powerfully announced her arrival on the intellectual scene with Le Deuxième Sexe and its famous declaration, “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.” Those words remain well known today, 36 years after their author’s death, and their implications about the nature of womanhood still form the intellectual basis for many observers of the feminine condition, in France and elsewhere.
Le Deuxième Sexe was first published in English in 1953, as The Second Sex. By that point de Beauvoir had already traveled extensively in the United States (and even written a book, America Day by Day, about the experience), but her readership in that country had only just begun to grow. An avowed feminist, she would through the subsequent decades become a more and more oft-referenced figure among American writers and readers who sought to apply that label to themselves as well.
One such feminist was the psychologist Dorothy Tennov, who’s best remembered for coining the term limerence. A few years before she did that, she traveled to France to conduct an interview with de Beauvoir — and indeed “in her Paris apartment, provided the TV crew was all-female.”
Aired on public television station WNED in 1976, this wide-ranging conversation has Beauvoir laying out her views on a host of subjects, from abortion to homosexuality to feminism itself. “What do you think women feel most about feminism?” Tennov asks. “They are jealous of the women who are not just the kind of servant and the slaves and objects — they are themselves,” de Beauvoir says. “They fear to feel an infériorité in regard with the women who work outside, and who do as they want and who are free. And maybe they are afraid of the freedom which is made possible for them, because freedom is something very precious, but in a way a little fearful, because you don’t know exactly what to do with it.” Here we see one reason de Beauvoir’s work has endured: she understood that man’s fear of freedom is also woman’s.
An Animated Introduction to the Feminist Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir
The Meaning of Life According to Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir’s Philosophy on Finding Meaning in Old Age
Lovers and Philosophers — Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir Together in 1967
Simone de Beauvoir Tells Studs Terkel How She Became an Intellectual and a Feminist (1960)
Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre Shooting a Gun in Their First Photo Together (1929)
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.