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Remarkable Women of France – Simone de Beauvoir

May 25, 2017

In this series, Coucou student Lydia delves into the great contributions of French female historical figures beyond fashion icons, analyzing the accomplishments of Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Piaf, and Marie Curie.


By: Lydia Yale

The other day I was shopping around New York City when a clever sales associate caught my ear.

An uncertain shopper looked at herself in the mirror and questioned her try-on with the statement “I’m not sure about this piece.”

At that same moment, the aforementioned sales associate walked by and confessed, seemingly without motive and very honestly, “that makes you look so French!”


As far as weighing whether or not to buy or even wear something, being grouped together with French women is one of the ultimate bullet points in the pro column, and for good reason. French designers and icons are often considered the ultimate in fashion, and there is no shortage of ladies to prove it. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, and Jane Birkin (a British icon of French fashion – does the Birkin bag ring a bell?) along with countless other designers, models, and fashion bloggers continue to make French fashion the foundation of modern style. This is what French women are known for and what makes the adjectives beautiful, chic, and stylish synonymous with French women. So ingrained in us is the idea that French women equal style that we often forget how many amazing French women represented something else. Simone de Beauvoir, Édith Piaf, and Marie Curie have solid places in both French and world history as  the brilliant writer, formidable voice, and astute discoverer.


Simone de Beauvoir was about as French as one could get. She was born in Paris in 1908, was a member of the resistance in World War II, and was the instigator of her extremely open and liberal relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was instantly intrigued by her intellect. The two met while attending The University of Paris (this university was eventually split up into 13 separate universities including the Sorbonne, which is why some people use these two names interchangeably. The split did not happen until 1970). A curious individual, de Beauvoir wrote intellectually on many topics, but is most famous for her book Le Deuxième Sexe or, in English, The Second Sex, published in 1949. It would be great to say that to understand her thought process in writing this book we must imagine the world she lived in in the early to mid 20th century, but her thesis describing a world where men are the default sex while women must be specified is still relevant today.

Have you ever heard this riddle?

A boy and his father get in a car accident and the father dies on impact while the son, in serious condition, gets taken to the hospital and put in the ER straightaway. The ER surgeon, upon seeing the boy on the operating table, exclaims “I can’t work on this child, he’s my son.”


Think about it.

Maybe the context of the last paragraph gives it away; it’s because the surgeon is his mother. But It is still all too easy to automatically assume a random doctor, author, artist, or other profession to be a man’s.

Astute observations like the one above, and overall influence made de Beauvoir an early mover in the feminist movement that is still around today.

Before reading the following brief summary of The Second Sex, think for a minute about Paris in the 1940s, when she was writing her masterpiece. On the one hand it was a time when many of the French men were off at war, so women had to take care of duties that  might have otherwise fallen upon the men. At the same time, it was a a time when everything unabashedly fell to the men. If you’ve seen it, the show Mad Men might make an illustrative example of how women were thought of and treated at that time. It is even more impressive then that she wrote this cornerstone of the feminist movement at a time when women were thought of primarily as arm candy.

Summary of The Second Sex

The Second Sex discusses the way we think of women as participants in society and challenges their current placement. The oppression of women stems from oppression itself. Men saw women as “not men,” damsels in distress, rather than as people in their own right. Although she attempts to uncover the origins of male superiority, she cannot and ultimately argues that being feminine is imparted on a woman by society, rather than something innate in her. Women are forced to accept the societal, feminine roles of housework and childrearing because it is too difficult to achieve success in male dominated realms. Although many of her arguments describe the man’s part in sexism, she describes that women themselves buttress this place in society and that a woman must work to be free.