Simone de Beauvoir on Freedom (For the Occasion of the Women’s March)

“Se vouloir libre, c’est aussi vouloir les autres libres” (“To want to be free is to also want others to be free”) –Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908.

Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908.

Today, over two million women around the globe– from Washington D.C. to Paris, London and Sydney– are marching in solidarity for a number of causes, not least equal rights, pay, and protections under the law, as well as the right for women to maintain control over their own bodies and destinies.

The Women’s Marches are being held just a day after the inauguration of a new American President who’s bragged about sexual assault and shown little commitment to protecting or advancing gender equality. They’re a loud, rousing rebuke of what many have identified as a sexist and misogynist backlash in American politics and culture during the last election cycle; and they’re intended to send the message that women aren’t backing down.

But the protests also (wilfully) represent something larger. Echoing de Beauvoir’s quote above, today’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. today is taking place with the understanding that “women’s rights are human rights“:

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.

In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

It seems fitting today, then, to pay tribute to how Simone de Beauvoir blazed some pretty major trails for what has come to be known as “intersectional” social justice. And it only begins with her assertion that to be free, you really need to work for everyone’s freedom.

The Women's March in Washington, DC

Collectively, the Women’s Marches around the US on Jan 21st were the largest in American history. Mobilus Mobili/Some rights reserved under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

The existentialist philosopher most famous for declaring that “One isn’t born a woman; one becomes one” in her lengthy, hugely influential treatise on women’s rights, The Second Sex  (1949) is largely credited for giving modern-day feminism one of its key ideas: that “womanhood” is at heart mostly a series of social constructs. For women to liberate themselves, de Beauvoir argued, they need to recognize the ways in which they “perform” norms of femininity on a daily basis, and refuse to continue conforming to ones that only serve to oppress and limit them. Civil disobedience, au feminin, if you will.

Less prominent in our memories, though, is the native Parisienne’s political activism in favor of a variety of groups she saw as suffering from oppression during her lifetime. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the height of the Algerian War, she advocated against the torture and rape of Algerian fighters, penning an impassioned treatise, “In Defense of Djamila Boupacha“, which sought justice and clemency for a young Algerian woman who had been tortured, raped, and sentenced to death for plotting to plant a bomb (she never did). Boupacha was eventually released, thanks in part to de Beauvoir’s efforts.

And later in life, in 1970, the Parisian writer published The Coming of Age, a little-remembered book on the injustices and oppressions suffered by elderly people. Here’s a fascinating interview she gave at the time about why she thought the topic was so important. Her advocacy likely helped usher in greater awareness about the unique sorts of injustice experienced by the elderly.

As millions march to the tune of “women’s rights are human rights”, it’s rarely been a more apt moment to remember the important work, and priceless legacy, of this Parisian thinker.

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Courtney Traub
Founder at Paris Unlocked
Courtney Traub is a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and somewhere around London. She's the editor of the About Paris Travel website, and co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region. She has written and reported for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, Reed Business Information, WWD, and The Associated Press, and is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums. She has a rather obsessive curiosity and passion for environmental history and ethics, the way we navigate and build stories around cities, and food. Probably the latter most of all, in truth.

1 Comment

  1. Beauvoir herself explicitly makes the connection between the plight of woman and the plight of the black slave, so I wonder what she would make of feminist thinking today and its critque of second-wave feminism. I also wonder what she would think about the progress women have made in the 65 years since she wrote  So how does this idea relate to existentialist concerns about freedom? One of the main questions existentialists worry about is how to achieve “radical freedom,” or the kind of freedom that comes from making decisions in what Sartre called “good faith.” These are the decisions that come from and express an authentic self. If someone is living in “bad faith,” they allow themselves to be ruled by identities imposed on them from the outside. Their decisions do not reflect who they truly are. 

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