For many women all over the world, Simone de Beauvoir's death in Paris last month was experienced as a deeply felt personal loss.
Though Beauvoir had no biological children, there are many who consider her their spiritual mother because of the feminist revolution her path-breaking book, "The Second Sex," did so much to set into motion. Indeed, so far-reaching have been the effects of this rich, complex, and occasionally maddening book that it has changed the lives of many women who have never read it and probably never will.
In it, Beauvoir made the now famous pronouncement: "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman." Patriarchal society is still reeling from the implications of this revolutionary assertion made more than 30 years ago. Anatomy, Beauvoir taught us, is not destiny; what we call "woman" is not in any essential way different from man, rather a socially constructed being, an Other created by man to ensure his own privileged status as universal subject, the measure of all things. The belief that womens' lives need not be ruled by their bodies, that the self-serving notion of an "eternal feminine" need not limit the possibilities for women to achieve their professional goals has been and remains fundamental to the movement for sexual equality which has swept over Western societies in the second half of the 20th Century.
And yet the Beauvoir I mourn for is not or not merely the mother of modern feminism. For contrary to popular belief, "The Second Sex" is not the work of a militant feminist. By her own admission, Beauvoir was not a feminist when she wrote the book, she became one as a result of the effect it produced on other women. "The Second Sex" is the work of an extraordinarily gifted female thinker, a woman intellectual, and for many these expressions are contradictions in terms.
To grow up in the 1950s was to experience the full horror of the anti-intellectualism so rampant in American society. Intellectuals, facetiously described as "egg-heads" or "pointy-heads" were the butt of many jokes. For any child growing up at that time to aspire to lead a life of the mind was a challenge, for a girl it was an act of courage, not to say folly. It meant certain unpopularity, even ostracism. Men, it was said, did not make passes at girls who wore glasses: to read was to court spinsterhood.
One knew, of course, from reading biographies of famous women that, against all odds, ever since the founding of the Republic women in America had achieved great things, overcoming class, race and sex prejudices without the benefit of affirmative action. There was, however, a figure missing from this pantheon of great women: I read of nurses and doctors, social workers and lawyers, all pioneers in their respective fields and yet all examples of the feminine role of devotion to others.
I never read of a woman whose sole claim to fame was the distinction of her mind, whose greatest passion was not service to others, but the play of ideas. For if a writer is one who loves words, the intellectual is one who loves ideas.
To be female and intellectual in the '50s was to have to make up your life a day at a time, without any model to guide your steps. Until, that is, you discovered Simone de Beauvoir. Here at last was a woman who had achieved international recognition for the sheer brilliance of her mind.
For her life, as she recounts it in her autobiography, was not so much that of a writer, though she was a prize-winning novelist, not so much that of a political activist, though she and Jean Paul Sartre were indefatigable champions of peace and justice, but of an intellectual. Her uncompromising commitment to a life animated by ideas made it possible for women struggling against isolation and ridicule to pursue their own intellectual activities, however strange and unfeminine they might appear to others. In short, by her example, Beauvoir empowered others.
And yet, today, many are those among Beauvoir's spiritual daughters who feel that in one crucial respect she failed us. By her example and through her writings, Beauvoir implied that for women family life and the life of the mind were incompatible. For Beauvoir a woman could not have it all: It was either the book or the baby, never both. Beauvoir, who never did want to "have it all," provided women who did, who do with no supportive analysis of the multiple forces--economic, political, cultural-- that conspire to assign to women the primary responsibility for child care.