Writers & Company

Looking back at the extraordinary Simone de Beauvoir on the 70th anniversary of The Second Sex

Three Beauvoir enthusiasts joined Eleanor Wachtel in 2008 for a discussion about the lasting legacy of the late French intellectual, novelist and memoirist.
From left: authors and Simone de Beauvoir enthusiasts Toril Moi, Nancy K. Miller and Hazel Rowley. (Valeria Soave, Marcia Ciriello, Mathieu Bourois)
Listen to the full episode52:25

Simone de Beauvoir was a visionary French feminist, intellectual, novelist and memoirist, best known for her revolutionary book on women, The Second Sex.

Published in 1949, The Second Sex was banned by the Vatican and provoked extensive controversy. At the same time, it sold 22,000 copies in France in its first week and went on to become a foundational work for Second Wave, 20th-century feminism.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex, Writers & Company revisits a conversation from 2008 with three Beauvoir enthusiasts.

Norwegian writer and academic Toril Moi is the author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. She teaches at Duke University in North Carolina, where she's the director of the Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature.

Nancy K. Miller is the author of Breathless: An American Girl in Paris, about her experiences living in Paris in the 1960s. She's a distinguished professor at City University of New York, specializing in French literature and feminism.

Australian biographer Hazel Rowley was the author of Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives & Loves of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre. Rowley was living in New York when she died in 2011. The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship is established in her memory.

Moi, Miller and Rowley joined Eleanor Wachtel to discuss Simone de Beauvoir's groundbreaking work on gender, her unconventional relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and her lasting impact on modern-day feminism.

Toril Moi:

"I was 14 or 15 and I was reading The Second Sex in a very abbreviated Norwegian translation. I went to high school in a tiny village of about 2,000 people on the west coast of Norway, very far from Paris... [but] it seemed to me that she was describing everything I saw around me. I was totally fascinated by her life. I was reading this fantastic analysis of my own life written by this woman who had done everything I one day wanted to do. It was marvelous.

"Now when I reread The Second Sex as an adult, I realize that half of it is about sex and love and men and all that which I knew nothing about as a 15-year-old. But there was this incredible desire for freedom. She wanted women to do whatever it took to make them feel they had a fulfilling and good life. She was opening up horizons.

"She was showing me that it was possible to desire to do things that nobody I knew had ever done. The book was just remarkable in its way of opening up the whole world for me. I could suddenly start dreaming about leaving the village and going to other places and seeing the world and just having exciting adventures."

Nancy K. Miller:

"I was in Paris when I read Beauvoir's autobiographical Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It was the late 1950s, almost the 1960s. So I was leading a life in which I was trying to be free, and my family was not a French Catholic family but an assimilated Jewish family. But it was just as patriarchal. Reading the book, I was totally fascinated by the idea of being free and also somehow getting what you wanted through being in school — which maybe doesn't make sense to young people today, but it certainly seemed at that time as though being in school and studying was a way to freedom.

"I was also very envious that she found the person who really would understand her and help her become the person she could be. I had not encountered that yet. I had only adversarial or slavish relations with men; it was also very hard for me to imagine being in a relationship of something like equality. Intellectual equality with a man, that seemed to me still very illusory."

Hazel Rowley:

"I was studying French at Adelaide University in South Australia. My first year at university was 1969, followed by 1970, which were really the watershed years in terms of the women's movement. I was studying French and we were reading Simone de Beauvoir. It was a life-changing experience for me because that old world — where women were expected to get married at the latest by 25 and absolutely as virgins — was a very curtailed world, sexually, professionally, in every respect.

"Then I read Simone de Beauvoir, which was like a bolt of lightning. This was a woman who was not only highly educated and a writer, but also so passionate — had affairs, travelled the world, had fun! I just absolutely knew that this was the life I wanted — right down to never wanting to marry, never wanting to have children. I absolutely modelled my life on Simone de Beauvoir."

The panellists' comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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