2020: SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
Letter sent to London Review of Books. A much shortened version was published in the 7 May issue.
Joanna Biggs is quite right to stress the importance and impact of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. (LRB, 16 April) I am old enough to remember a time, before the post-1968 explosion of feminist literature, when almost any discussion of the oppression of women would soon make reference to what was effectively the book on the question.
However there is more to be said about the genesis of the book. Biggs notes that “the Second Sex germinated in conversations with Sartre”. But she is wrong to say that that de Beauvoir wrote “the ethics of existentialism (Sartre never got that far)”. Sartre did not publish at any length on the subject, but he left behind an extensive manuscript published after his death under the title Cahiers pour une morale. This devotes great attention to the question of oppression. De Beauvoir would certainly have been familiar with this, and indeed doubtless made a contribution to the development of Sartre’s ideas.
But the roots of The Second Sex go back much further. Biggs refers to discussions with surrealist women in 1943. But strangely, though she lovingly chronicles the details of de Beauvoir’s frenetic sex-life, she never mentions perhaps her most important friendship of the 1930s, that with Colette Audry, a remarkable political activist and member of the Gauche révolutionnaire of the Socialist Party (SFIO). (Whether there was any sexual element to this friendship I don’t know – and don’t care.) It was Audry who repeatedly argued with de Beauvoir that it would be useful to write a book that would encourage women to reject their oppression. De Beauvoir was sceptical, but some ten years later decided to write that book. Audry remained associated with the project, writing a defence of the book in a survey of reviews in Combat, against the hostile tirades from the Communist Party and elsewhere. Audry’s role should not be hidden from history.