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Simone de Beauvoir and the feminist revolution
Simone de Beauvoir and the feminist revolution

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1 Freedom and women: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir and her partner, the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, shared not only their lives but also their ideas. However, Beauvoir’s originality has often been overlooked. Here, you will compare Sartre’s ideas about freedom of choice with Beauvoir’s, and evaluate whether there is in fact an important difference.

This 2-minute video will introduce you to key existentialist ideas. The video presents those ideas as exclusively Sartre’s, but in fact the view that there is no human nature, no God and no purpose or meaning in life beside those that human beings create for themselves are also Beauvoir’s ideas. Because of their close and lifelong collaboration, there is no way to establish whether their shared existentialist ideas are due to one or the other.

Video: Jean-Paul Sartre and Existential Choice [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (open the link in a new tab or window so you can come back to the course when you have finished).

You heard that for Sartre we are ‘condemned to be free’ and that we have to make choices. He believed that although we act and live our lives in very different situations, we make free choices, whether we want it or not; even not to choose, he argues, is a choice. Sartre discarded the suggestion, advanced by French writer Émile Zola, that heredity and social and cultural environments shape our character. For Sartre, human beings are not moulded but rather mould themselves, through their choices and actions. In the video, you heard that for Sartre, the fact that human beings are not moulded or designed is what distinguishes them from objects like a penknife or a book. However, the Other (individuals beside oneself) makes a person aware that other people see him as a determined being, an object.

But are all human beings really free to become what they want to become? Although Sartre, like most philosophers, talks about humans in general, in human societies individuals have been perceived as belonging to different types and categories. In all of them, the distinction between men and women has been fundamental. Female and male bodies are different, and only the former are able to carry babies. In all societies, women and men have played different roles, received different types of upbringing, have had unequal access to education, and generally have been perceived as fundamentally different. Are men and women equally free to create themselves, and to be who they want to be? The existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir addresses these questions in The Second Sex.