Simone-Ernestine-Lucie-Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908. Initially raised Catholic, Beauvoir had a crisis of faith at the age of fourteen and would, for the rest of her life, remain an atheist. From an early age, Beauvoir showed herself to be intellectually precocious. Her father nourished this tendency by introducing her to classic works of literature. He was not financially successful, however, and could not provide Simone with a dowry. This was distressing to her family, but Beauvoir showed little interest in marriage. Instead, she had decided early on to be a writer and to study and teach philosophy.
Beauvoir studied philosophy, mathematics, languages, and literature, and wrote her diplôme at the Sorbonne under Léon Brunschvig, on Leibniz. Fellow students at the time included Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Claude Lévi-Strauss. In 1929, she became the youngest woman to pass the very competitive philosophy agrégation exam at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, placing second to Jean-Paul Sartre, who, however, was taking the exam for the second time.
Sartre and Beauvoir were to remain intellectual and romantic comrades for the rest of their lives. They were fixtures of the Parisian intellectual scene, and the cafés of St. Germain-des-Près and Montparnasse were their hubs for philosophic and literary chatter. Over the years, they also engaged in various political causes, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s their views took a hardline Communist turn. Their extensive diaries further demonstrate their closeness.
Between 1931 and 1941, Beauvoir taught philosophy and literature in Marseilles and Rouen. In 1941 she was dismissed by the occupying Nazi government. Having been allowed to resume teaching, she was suspended again in 1943 after being formally charged with “corrupting” one of her students, seventeen-year-old Nathalie Sorokine. Bianca Bienenfeld, another student, leveled another such accusation against Beauvoir, in her memoirs. Beauvoir would never return to teaching.
The period of Nazi occupation was also what Beauvoir referred to as the beginning of her “moral period.” Her literary output increased, and she wrote Le sang des autres (The Blood of Others), from 1941 to 1943, Tous les hommes sont mortels (All Men Are Mortal), from 1943 to 1946, and Les bouches inutiles (Who Shall Die?) in 1944. This period also saw the publication of her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas. She also became involved, along with Raymond Aron, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty with the founding of Les Temps Modernes, to which she contributed several articles. After the war, in 1947, she published one of her most important “existentialist” writings, Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté (For an Ethics of Ambiguity).
In 1949 Beauvoir published her most important and most controversial book, The Second Sex. Although feminism had not been a major topic of her writing, The Second Sex established her reputation as a feminist. Embraced by many intellectuals, the book was also placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
After the publication of The Second Sex, Beauvoir became a well-known intellectual. This fame resulted both from her works and her relationship with the still more famous Sartre. She was often seen as merely his disciple, however, and it would take many years before she was generally regarded as an important thinker in her own right.
Later in life, Beauvoir travelled extensively. On the basis of these travels she wrote L’Amérique au jour le jour (America Day by Day) in 1948 and La longue marche (The Long March) in 1957. She also continued to write philosophy and fiction, as well as a four-volume autobiography. In 1981 she wrote La cérémonie des adieux (Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre) to commemorate Sartre’s death in 1980. She died on April 14, 1986, and was buried next to Sartre (whom she never married) in Paris.