“What is Woman?”: Ten Searing Quotes from Simone de Beauvoir

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah GoldbergVia Wiki Commons

The French existentialist was born 110 years ago today – here we look at some of her much-lauded wisdom

“What is woman?” asked Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking 1949 text The Second Sex. Heralded as responsible for ushering in second-wave feminism in the latter half of the 20th century, The Second Sex is a philosophical study of what it means to exist as a woman in a world dominated by men – i.e., as the “other” sex. De Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born but becomes a woman” – a feminist reinterpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist claim that “existence precedes essence” – in the seminal book, unpacking the complexities of gender stereotypes that are still palpable in today’s society, almost 70 years after its original publication. It’s a testament to the strength of De Beauvoir’s argument that The Second Sex is still read and revered, and plays a key role in studies of gender.

Born to a bourgeois French family in 1908, De Beauvoir’s intellect was outstanding from a young age, a trait that impressed her father (“Simone thinks like a man,” he would reportedly beam) and earned her a degree from the Sorbonne. It was while completing further studies in Paris that De Beauvoir met Sartre, and in 1929 the pair formed a partnership that would go on to last 50 years, though both maintained steadfast independence throughout. The duo influenced one another’s writing and thinking, and would always read each other’s works.

While De Beauvoir is best known for her unprecedented existentialist writing, novels and essays, she and Sartre also gained recognition for their unorthodox relationship because they shunned monogamy, each taking lovers throughout their lives. De Beauvoir infamously conducted affairs with students while she was a teacher, a practice which resulted in the end of her schooling career in 1943. Despite the controversy she courted and the difficulties she faced earlier in life – the De Beauvoir family saw their modest fortune depleted in the 1920s, leaving Simone with no dowry – she was lauded for her words, which were far, far ahead of their time. Here, on the 110th anniversary of her birth, we present ten of her most astute lines.

  1. “I was made for another planet altogether. I mistook the way.”
  2. “I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.”
  3. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”
  4. “That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”
  5. “A man attaches himself to a woman – not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself.”
  6. “What would Prince Charming have for occupation if he had not to awaken the Sleeping Beauty?”
  7. “Sex pleasure in women is a kind of magic spell; it demands complete abandon; if words or movements oppose the magic of caresses, the spell is broken.”
  8. “To catch a husband is an art; to hold him is a job.”
  9. “Be loved, be admired, be necessary; be somebody.”
  10. “‎A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.”