Born in Paris in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir belonged to that unlucky generation which lived through both World Wars. She was also one of the 20th century’s seminal thinkers.
Not only was she a key progenitor of the existentialist philosophical movement, but she also made a towering contribution to feminist theory, publishing her first feminist book, Le Deuxième Sex (The Second Sex) in 1949 – four years after the end of the Second World War.
The Second Sex sold 22,000 copies in the first week of its publication in France alone, and millions of copies have since been sold worldwide. It was a milestone in the Western feminist literary canon, preceded in the lineage by Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and followed by such stalwarts as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970).
The Second Sex challenged society’s misogyny and confinement of women to domestic roles, as well as the social, cultural, and intellectual inferiority often attributed to women. De Beauvoir’s ideas were explosive at the time, but have now become commonplace, shaping the fabric of Western life.
What is often forgotten, however, is that it was the experience of war that instigated de Beauvoir’s intellectual breakthroughs on the situation of her sex.
A common stereotype of philosophers and intellectuals is that they remain aloof from the real world. De Beauvoir herself admits that, early in her career, she conformed to this caricature – but any illusions of lofty distance were shattered with the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the Nazi occupation of France.
Looking back on that time in a 1985 interview with her biographer Dierdre Bair, she recalled, ‘To tell you the truth, I am not proud of what I was then – 30 years old and completely self-centred. I regret that it took the war to teach me that I lived in the world, not outside it.’
Watching the Nazi and Soviet attempts to build their different utopias – each, in their own ways, promising idealised visions of women’s role in society – de Beauvoir crystallised her theory about the reality of woman’s existence. She argued it was determined, to a great extent, by biological facts as well as social and political systems.
In both societies – overtly in the Nazi system, but discreetly in the Soviet one – de Beauvoir saw women’s role being reduced to the creation of mere cannon fodder by the realities of a world at war.
A product of her times, this experience enabled de Beauvoir to engage seriously with the other great ideological currents of the 19th centuries, producing piercing critiques – though not complete rejections – of Marxist historical materialism and Freudian psychoanalysis.
The Soviets promised women’s liberation on an economic basis, but ultimately the depopulation and vast reduction in manpower that occurred in Russia as a result of conflict made the encouragement of matrimony, coupling, and childbirth of prime importance.
Thus it was not the economic system alone that determined women’s oppression. The biological reality of women’s role in the reproductive process, which impinged much more on a woman’s daily freedom – even when she was not with child – than it did on a man’s, was clearly an important factor.
In Vichy France, women’s roles became increasingly restricted. By that point, an estimated 1.6 million Frenchmen were held as prisoners-of war, while 92,000 had died in combat.
The dearth of men and the resulting need for more manpower led to the introduction of laws to encourage the bourgeois institution of the family: abortions were considered to be a form of treason against the state, and divorce was prohibited for couples married fewer than three years. Women, de Beauvoir perceived, were trapped within the confines of domesticity.
De Beauvoir saw racism, slavery, anti-Semitism, and women’s oppression as interconnected. The development of slavery as an institution, and its links with racism, came from man’s desire to subjugate and dominate the ‘Other’ as a means of shoring up his own identity and self-worth. Why, in Vichy France, did some of her fellow Frenchmen hate Jews? It stemmed from an innate desire to possess and dominate those seen as outsiders.
Jews, women, and black slaves, as a collective group, were defined by their otherness in comparison to the ideal type of the (white/Aryan) male. Thus men sought to possess them through the institutions of slavery or marriage. It was not long before de Beauvoir’s time that Western women were, in legal terms, considered no more than the chattels of their husbands or fathers.
De Beauvoir argued that African American slaves and the Jewish people had come into consciousness of themselves as a constructed group seen as separate from the mainstream, but women had not. Instead of seeing themselves as collectively oppressed and defined by dominant men, women saw themselves as part of the patriarchal family, not external to it.
The Second Sex changed all that. It highlighted the vastly different ways that women were raised compared to men, and the different expectations placed on women, many of which seemed to transcend the dictates of biology.
‘One is not born a woman,’ de Beauvoir wrote. ‘One becomes one.’ She sought to bring women into consciousness of their existence as a group defined by men as the ‘Other’. The behaviours and mores associated with womanhood were not natural, she argued, but constructed against the ideal male type.
De Beauvoir’s sense of her active role in the world prompted her to intervene in the system of torture established during the Algerian War.
Torture, particularly of a sexual nature, was consciously adopted as a repressive technique by commanders in the French Army against the Algerians. In particular, ‘bottle torture’ – rape by use of a broken beer bottle – was a common tactic intended to subjugate colonial populations during the French Wars in Indochina, and it came into widespread use in Algeria too.
Djamila Boupacha, a victim of torture by bottle rape, instigated a legal case against the French Army to bring her perpetrators to justice. Under duress of torture, she had confessed to belonging to the Algerian Liberation Front and plotting to bomb a cafe in Algiers. For this, she was sentenced to death.
Djamila contested the legality of the use of torture to extract such a confession, taking her case to the courts. By this point, her case had hardly caused a stir in French public opinion; such occurrences were so frequent that the public had become desensitised.
It was exactly this kind of lack of public interest that Simone de Beauvoir came to criticise when she penned an article in favour of Djamila Boupacha’s case in Le Monde in 1960.
The French public – who were by now fully aware that torture was commonplace – were no longer ignorant, but indifferent, de Beauvoir argued. It was this indifference that rendered the public, as well as then President General de Gaulle, complicit in the systemic violence that was committed by the army in their name.
In 1962, along with Boupacha’s lawyer Gisèle Halimi, de Beauvoir wrote and published Djamila Boupacha : the story of the torture of a young Algerian girl, which shocked liberal French readers. She continued, with many other French artists and intellectuals, to campaign against torture. Boupacha was eventually granted her freedom, but so too were her torturers; they were neither publicly identified nor punished for their actions.
Throughout her lifetime, de Beauvoir’s ideas fed into the rise of feminist consciousness and the feminist movement as we know it today. They left an indelible mark on the world’s social and political scene – and it was the experience of the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Algerian War, that inspired them.
This article featured in the August 2018 issue of Military History Monthly.