Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Birth of a Liberating Thinker

On January 9, 1908, a smart woman with liberating thoughts was born in France from the union of Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir and Françoise Beauvoir. Simone de Beauvoir was the eldest child of the de Beauvoir family, one of the bourgeois French families that lost much of their wealth due to WWI. Despite losing many assets, the de Beauvoir family strove to provide their daughter with education in prestigious institutions. As a result, de Beauvoir completed her studies and earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Sorbonne—France, in 1929.

De Beauvoir lived during the heyday of existentialist philosophy, one of the influential movements in France at that time. She lived contemporaneously with other prominent existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. De Beauvoir’s early years were spent researching and criticizing the social construction of women’s gender in French society at the time. It can be seen in several books, such as She Came to Stay, All Men Are Mortal, The Woman Destroyed, and The Second Sex.

Persistent Struggle for Liberation

De Beauvoir’s struggle for women’s liberation from patriarchal societal constructs continued throughout her life. Accompanied by her partner Sartre, she advocated for women’s freedom to choose and determine their destinies. De Beauvoir passed away in 1986 and was buried alongside Sartre. Although she passed away about 37 years ago, her thoughts and cries for liberation echo whenever there are women who must submit, obey, and become estranged from society.

Living with Sartre significantly influenced de Beauvoir’s thinking, which Sartrean Existentialism greatly influenced. Simone believed that there is no inherent essence to human existence. In the end, human existence is the essence or way of being. Additionally, Simone argued that humans are the only beings fully conscious of their existence; therefore, they have the free will to determine their way of being. This perspective aligns with Sartre’s argument that classifies existence into two categories: être en soi (being in itself) and être pour soi (being for itself).

De Beauvoir’s view of freedom also shares similarities with Sartre’s perspective. According to Sartre, because humans are aware of their existence, they can choose their way of being. However, freedom of choice does not come without the freedom to avoid consequences. Every choice brings consequences, and because humans are destined to be free, they must bear the burden of various consequences. Hence, this is where the expression that is characteristic of existentialists arises, “freedom is a curse.” It is so because humans are destined to be free to choose and bear the consequences of their choices.

Beyond the Self

Sartrean existentialism views that “I” is not the only free subject. All humans can claim and subject themselves as “I who am free.” Therefore, our freedom is not truly absolute. It must contend with the freedom of other humans to vie for a place to exist. According to Sartre’s perspective, humans always subject themselves by objectifying others. Thus, the struggle of an existentialist is the struggle to objectify other humans and then strive to exist as the only free subject, standing on one’s own will. Because the freedom of others must limit our freedom, and others are also struggling to objectify us, the saying of the existentialists, “hell is other people,” is born.

The last concept from Sartre that influenced de Beauvoir’s views and ignited an emancipatory dimension within her is the idea of “la mauvaise foi,” commonly known as bad faith. According to Sartre, bad faith is when humans rely on something greater or believed to be stronger. This dependence causes humans to forget about their existence. Ultimately, the dependence on something considered greater than oneself will tarnish one’s existence, leading to a loss of identity, estrangement from oneself, and ending up as an object.

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” is a quote that roughly reflects de Beauvoir’s opinion about the root of women’s oppression. Upon closer examination, she implicitly states that women are never born; they are products of the social construction of society, constantly living based on myths and stereotypes imposed upon them by society. For instance, in religious societies, it is narrated that women were created solely to accompany a lonely man. This story attaches to the myth that the function of women is limited to being companions to men.

Women’s Role as Tools and Objects

Traditional beliefs also often reduce women to their biological aspects alone. For example, women are assigned as tools for procreation. Additionally, in some cultures, women are treated as objects of transactions, where they can be bargained and traded by their family members in the name of tradition. In such cases, women are always placed in difficult positions.

Society constructs women as gentle, obedient, docile, submissive, graceful, passive, and humble. On the other hand, men are always portrayed as beings who are versatile, strong, dominant, leaders, rough, rational, and protectors. Understanding such essences makes women or men not born but rather produced by a society known as a patriarchal society. Therefore, the responsibility for women’s inferiority lies in constructing a patriarchal society, which is considered manipulative and not based on reality. According to de Beauvoir, this societal construction can be dismantled anytime because it is not based on reality or essential.

Trapped in Bad Faith

This societal construction has proven to trap women in patterns of “La mauvaise foi” or bad faith. It means that women believe they are conditioned in a produced essence and are then socialized in a patriarchal society. As a result, women cannot become masters of themselves and always fail to become free subjects expressing themselves. Ultimately, women will always live according to the demands of patriarchal society and become estranged from themselves. De Beauvoir refers to this process of creating women as the stage of “womanization.”

Because they are conditioned as “powerless,” women will always appear as complements to men. In a patriarchal society, women are always portrayed as being bound to the existence of men. Women cannot exist on their own. According to Hegel’s thesis on Others and the Self, women always appear as “the other” who are objectified by the subjectivity of “the self.”

If this thesis is returned to Sartean existentialism, “the other” is hell. “The self” and “the other” are assumed to be both free objects. However, “the self” is always limited by the freedom of “the other.” In this struggle for freedom, whoever dominates will objectify the other. Moreover, whoever succeeds in objectifying will exist as the only subject.

Dominance and Conflict

According to de Beauvoir, a patriarchal society will always place women and men in a state of dominance and conflict. Women or “others” trapped in bad faith will live depending on the existence of men or “self” and end up as second-class creatures in the hierarchy of patriarchal society The Second Sex. Meanwhile, men will always be threatened by the existence of “the other” or women, who are also free. Therefore, men must continue to place women as “objects” to perpetuate their position as “the self.”

As an existentialist, de Beauvoir opposes all ideas of essence preceding existence. According to her, the traditional construction of women’s essence as second-class creatures, The Second Sex, is merely a myth created by patriarchal society to perpetuate the existing social hierarchy. Existentialism demands freedom, whether for men or women. The confinement of any dogma, rules, and essential bonds must be shattered because they are not based on reality.

It is where the concept of feminism comes into play. According to de Beauvoir, women must be able to free themselves from all laws, rules, norms, and essences imposed upon them by a patriarchal society. Anything that restricts them will only hinder women from becoming their true selves, which is freedom. Additionally, women must break free from the trap of “la mauvaise foi.” They should stop relying on myths and forces they consider greater than themselves and instead be prepared to live in their true essence. Furthermore, women must realize that freedom is the only true essence of a self-aware being.

Liberating Women’s Minds

De Beauvoir projects women’s liberation on two levels: the level of thought and the level of practice. Liberation on the level of thought means women must free themselves from all dogmas and rules that postulate their essence. Women must know they are free humans with the potential to exist and determine their essence. Liberation on the second level is the level of practice, which means women must be independent in every aspect. Oppression always starts with dependence, and dependence always arises from powerlessness. Therefore, to be free, women must be self-reliant and have their bargaining power. This way, women will no longer be dependent on anything.

According to de Beauvoir, several steps must be taken in the process of women’s liberation:

  1. Prioritization, meaning women must dare to voice their freedom. Issues related to women’s rights must be emphasized to raise society’s awareness and find companions in the movement.
  2. Empowerment, where women must be trained to be self-sufficient.
  3. Equalization, where women can claim strategic positions in society.

Women can work and become intellectual members. By occupying strategic positions, women can bring about social transformation and break the oppressive patriarchal order that has been suppressing them. Ultimately, women are expected to contribute to society.


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