Professor emeritus tackles de Beauvoir

Feminism and radicalism of the 1950’s and ’60’s could not be influenced more by anything other than Simone de Beauvoir, so argues Margaret Simons, professor emeritus of the philosophy department of SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences.  The world has changed a lot since Simons first tackled de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

Margaret Simons, photo courtesy of Bill Brinson SIUE Photo Services.

“I think it is probably the most important book theorizing the changing economic, social, and political position of women in the 20th century, in terms of its scope and theoretical interests,” said Simons, speaking of social history.   “It changed everything. You got women competing in a marketplace in a way they never had before.”

For Simons, this particular time in history has hardly left her mind.  Simons, with help from a host of others, is in the process of compiling a seven-volume edition of a collection of many previously unpublished works and diaries by de Beauvoir.

Simons stated that when she came to Purdue University in the ’60’s as a graduate student, she arrived with a ’60’s generation of political, radical interest only to discover a philosophy department full of gender discrimination.

As the first woman admitted to the graduate program at PU, in spite of a smear letter from her former university, Simons found herself in a male dominated field where no women were discussed in the readings.  In spite of it all, Simons received a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Paris to study de Beauvoir’s philosophy.  Interestingly enough, she received a letter of support from de Beauvoir, which would become the source of Simons’ consternation for the majority of her academic career.

A self-described hippy (at the time), Simons said she gave up a lot to travel to Paris, France to study de Beauvoir’s philosophy.  She said at the time, she had been working as a secretary and sold her car and most of her clothes in order to afford the trip.  But, after her studies at PU, she knew it had to be.

de Beauvoir had always been considered a student of Jean Paul Sartre, even being known as ‘Sartre’s girlfriend’ in many contexts.  Many previous scholars assumed that it was Sartre who influenced de Beauvoir, and Simons wouldn’t accept this belief.

“Well, I didn’t know.  How do you know if someone gets ideas from someone else or make them up?  How do you know?  But, I realized that when you compare Being and Nothingness, his big philosophy, with The Second Sex they don’t look alike.  He’s very much individualistic to the extent that he denies any social-historical reality.  It’s like it is all just an illusion.  We all are just isolated individuals choosing ourselves–what you call pure existentialism–any kind of discussion of how you are socialized or conditioned by society or history is seen as a bad faith evasion of your moral responsibility.  You can’t go around pretending, blaming people for your problems. It doesn’t matter if you were born poor or abused or whatever, you have to take responsibility for your life,” said Simons.  “Well, true enough, but if you don’t understand how society, laws, and economy shaped women’s expectations as children and their education, you can’t understand gender difference.”

Simons stated that she thought that de Beauvoir argued that one would need a political movement of women, based on the idea that only women would understand the shared oppression to force a political change.  Simons said this concept came from something de Beauvoir had learned from Richard Wright when she had travelled around the U.S.

“She was mentored by Richard Wright who wrote Native Son, who was a close friend and really helped her understand race relations and the experience of being a black person in a society that saw you as non-human. And, that helped her figure out–I think it really laid the theoretical framework for what she did in The Second Sex for women,” said Simons.  “It was kind of based on what Richard Wright was saying about blacks–the experience of being black as a person in a society that didn’t think you were a person.  It was very similar to the situation of a woman in a society where [women] were just thought of as breeders–with no public identity–aside from their role as wife and mother.”

When Simons arrived in Paris and finally had a chance to meet de Beauvoir, she asked her first question.

Cover of Simons' book, "Simone de Beauvoir: 'The Useless Mouths' and other literary writings."

“I said, ‘Reading The Second Sex, in the chapter on history, I see this analysis of history and it says that history has valued men who risk lives rather than women who give life.  And the way it’s written with a capital ‘L” for Life’–it look likes an important theorist, Kojѐve–who was responsible for translating Hegel’s Phenomenology in the ’30’s–and I said ‘it reminds me of Kojѐve’s reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology and I wanted to ask you…’ and she interrupted me, and she banged her fist on the table, and she said ‘Non, mademoiselle! The Only philosophical influence on The Second Sex was Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre!’”

Simons said that this didn’t make any sense to her and she spent the next tens years trying “every devious scheme, every rhetorical device” to trick de Beauvoir into answering her question about the real influence on her work.  In de Beauvoir’s six to seven volume autobiography, she never once takes credit for the philosophy behind The Second Sex and much of her other literary collection.

It wasn’t until 1990, when de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and literary executor began publishing diaries of de Beauvoir that Simons found the answer to her question.  Biographers of Sartre had always known that his main philosophy behind Being and Nothingness stemmed from his WWII war diaries.  Sartre’s philosophy and de Beauvoir’s novel, “She Came to Stay” were both published in 1943 and it was long accepted that his work was the influencing factor on her novel.  Simons found the proof she had been looking for in an older diary.

Another writer, Edward Fullbrook, came to realize the works were published at the same time, Simons said she realized that de Beauvoir was hiding a secret her whole life.

“When Edward [Fullbrook] figured that out, I realized that she was hiding a big secret, that she had been far more influential in defining, originating what came to be called Sartre-an existentialism than she could ever claim.  She would have been ridiculed.”

Simons said that had de Beauvoir attempted to claim this, people would have called her a bitter woman trying to claim something that belonged to another, and so ironically, she took the back seat and let Sartre have the credit.  The proof Simons found was in a 1927 diary by de Beauvoir.

“I find this part of the diary in 1927–two years before she met Sartre–that she is so excited about doing philosophy ‘I have got to start reviewing the things I have been thinking this last year and writing in this notebook and bringing my ideas together, above all it’s this idea of the opposition of self and other that I have been interested in since beginning to live,’” stated Simons.

The fourth volume of the collection is due out in October with the other three to be released in the next year and a half.  Simons stated that she has worked in collaboration with team of about 30 academics, with backgrounds in philosophy, language, and literature to shed light on the truth behind de Beauvoir’s writing.

Simons has co-edited the volumes with help from Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, the adopted daughter and literary executor of de Beauvoir.  The volumes are being printed by the University of Illinois Press with funding from a grant from the NEH.

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