Simone de Beauvoir in Britain: Activism and Academia (1940-1980)
Bethany Parkes est doctorante en histoire contemporaine à l’université de Birmingham. Je lui laisse la parole sur ce carnet, et dans cette rubrique « (Re)découvrir Simone de Beauvoir et son oeuvre », pour présenter ses recherches incontournables.
This is a condensed version of a previous paper presented at the 25th International Conference of the Simone de Beauvoir Society in October 2018. Beth Parkes is an Economic and Social Research Council funded doctoral researcher in History at the University of Birmingham (BXP240@student.bham.ac.uk).
Recently featured in The Times’ ‘Top Twenty Academic Books that Changed the World’, The Second Sex is one example of Simone de Beauvoir’s literary oeuvre of imperishable uniqueness. This article introduces the many ways by which de Beauvoir’s Second Sex influenced British culture. De Beauvoir changed the trajectory of British feminism from a focus upon legal reform by women of the first-wave, to an intellectual pursuit with an advanced social vision and theoretical outlook. A focus on the personal, intellectual, and political by those in the second-wave encouraged the critique of “cultural systems of representation” and the impact on women’s lives in the social and intellectual sphere. Feminist historian Hilda L. Smith, emphasised this directional change: “Each phase of the women’s movement credited the ideas of those who preceded them, with women’s liberationists acknowledging the influence of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.”
In 1953, Jonathan Cape published H. M. Parshey’s English translation. Though the book’s influence was not felt entirely until the 1960s, it saw Simone de Beauvoir gain “international renown as the fiery exponent of women’s emancipation.” Simone de Beauvoir’s insights quickly became “common coin in British feminist arguments.” Her existentialist doctrine and belief that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” penetrated the British feminist movement. This provided women with a consciousness of their unequal position in a socially constructed, male dominated society. De Beauvoir exposed the “masterful and devastating” discovery that “social conditioning” transformed women into an object of male superiority. De Beauvoir laid bare the root of women’s inferiority: evolving from a system of ‘Othering’ and confinement to one role in society. This profoundly advanced the theoretical foundations and intellectual importance of feminism in the U.K.
The Second Sex appealed to many emerging feminists who found a language for their growing discontent and angst. Under the influence of de Beauvoir, these women developed distinct profiles and catalysed the progression of intellectual thought behind the writing and activism in the British feminist movement. This article argues that in Britain, de Beauvoir’s ideas of power relations and patriarchy were used by feminist newspaper Spare Rib, activists, and academics in British universities in order to advance the feminist cause. Two generations of feminist intellectuals were influenced and had differing reactions to her theories in a British context. Jean McCrindle, feminist activist and intellectual, described the ideological divide between women who had discovered de Beauvoir from its initial publication in 1953, and those whose involvement in feminism introduced them to The Second Sex. The former “emphasised the relief felt at having the problem named,” whereas the latter were “critical of the negative portrayal of the difficulties of being a woman.” De Beauvoir’s influence was intergenerational, interpersonal and interconnected within the currents of British feminism and society.
Traditional women’s magazines such as Woman’s Weekly centred around the ideology of separate spheres and scarcely questioned the status of women. By contrast, British feminist underground magazine Spare Rib, began in 1972 and covered a diverse range of topics such as abortion, racism, and anorexia. It soon became the “most wide-reaching feminist publication” because it was “frank about issues that conventional women’s magazines would not touch.” For many women, the only means of connection with British feminism was through Spare Rib. It provided the vital connection between British women and The Second Sex. De Beauvoir featured in fifteen issues of Spare Rib from 1972-1984. Alice Schwarzer, a prominent contemporary feminist, conducted an intimate interview with de Beauvoir and described The Second Sex as “the bible of feminism… and the most vibrant source of inspiration to the feminist movement.” Her work presented a woman who dared to challenge prescribed social boundaries, long before the women’s movement united in the 1970s.
Simone de Beauvoir’s thought featured prominently in British academia, for example, within the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. The CCCS had a crucial engagement with intellectual developments in academia and progression and direction of thought in activist circles. Many of the members of this centre engaged with, and interpreted, many of de Beauvoir’s distinctive arguments. Rebecca O’Rourke joined the CCCS as a graduate student in 1976, and argued that “within my generation of feminists Simone de Beauvoir was an influential thinker.” O’Rourke stated that ideas of a dual-role model of gender “may well have been challenged by those who readThe Second Sex.” Maureen McNeil was a prominent member of the CCCS in the 1970s and 1980s and was instrumental in emphasising the importance of feminism in the department. McNeil used The Second Sex as a basis for doing so, and argued that The Second Sex presented a “pioneering examination of sex roles in Western society.” McNeil equated de Beauvoir’s influence with Virginia Woolf, who was considered as the foremost influential British feminist, novelist and modernist of the twentieth century. Thus, the dissemination of theory on the exposure of women’s subjugation initiated by de Beauvoir, crossed national boundaries and was perpetuated by academics in Britain.
Simone de Beauvoir’s intellectual reputation was not without criticism. Some British journalists in mainstream press saw her as Sartre’s adjunct, and expressed sexist attitudes towards the success of her writing. In December 1954, the Evening Express stated that a ‘woman’ had won The Prix Goncourt because she was a “disciple of existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.” In 1977, de Beauvoir described how initial reactions to The Second Sex were “very hostile… from everybody.” De Beauvoir was the first woman to politicise and intellectualise female sexuality, placing herself on an “intellectual terrain not dominated by Sartre.” Producing what Pierre Bourdieu would call a miraculée, such resentment is unsurprising. 
In 1967, Hélène Lazareff, journalist and founder of Elle magazine, was right to suggest that “ten years from now… Simone de Beauvoir will still be influential.” Nearly twenty years later in 1984, Adrienne Blue praised de Beauvoir as the women’s movement’s “most distinguished recruit. Even as a septuagenarian, [she is] a very spunky activist and intellectual. Long may she spit in propriety’s eye.” These powerful words evidence the legacy of de Beauvoir’s influence upon British feminism. Whether responses are hostile or in adulation, “by the very act of becoming intellectuals, such women have made themselves the true daughters of de Beauvoir.” From 1950-80, Simone de Beauvoir maintained a reputation of being a fiercely influential intellectual and second-wave initiator in Britain. Above all, her “founding work of contemporary feminism” influenced the feminist movement, academics, and journalists in Britain more than she has been previously credited for.
Today, the importance of contemporary feminism is particularly pertinent worldwide in the need to address issues of the gender pay gap, sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond, racial discrimination, and attacks upon a person’s right to sexual freedom. This becomes clear at the most basic level, when elected politicians and world leaders continue to fall short in addressing these issues. De Beauvoir does not have the same presence in British popular culture and contemporary feminism as she once had. While feminist and equal rights activists may not directly credit de Beauvoir, or protest with her in mind, her role remains undeniable in the initial motivation of the international feminist movement today.
The Times Higher Education (2015) https://www.timeshighereducation.com/carousels/top-20-academic-books-changed-world, [Accessed 02.09.16].
J. Kelley, ‘The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory’, in J. L. Newton, M. P. Ryan, J. R. Walkowitz (eds.) Sex and Class in Women’s History (London, 1983), p.259.
A. Ferrebe, Literature of the 1950s: Good, Brave Causes: Volume 6(Edinburgh, 2012), p.92. Legal reform on women’s suffrage, marriage, and the right to employment.
H. L. Smith, ‘Women’s History as Intellectual History: A Perspective on the Journal of Women’s History’, Journal of Women’s History, 20 (2008), pp.26-32, p.29.
J. Leighton., Simone de Beauvoir: On Woman (London, 1975), p.7.
Leighton, On Woman, p.220.
S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, (London, 1953), p.330.
Ibid., p.266. The notion that women find their own purpose in life. ‘Woman’ is a socially ascribed category and stereotype, not a natural occurrence upon birth.
Leighton, On Woman, p.219.
Beauvoir, TSS, p.26. “He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.”.
Few include: J. Mitchell.,Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York, 1974), J. Mitchell and A. Oakley, (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women(London, 1976), J. Mitchell and A. Oakley, (eds.) What is Feminism? (London, 1986), A. Whitmarsh, Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of Commitment (Cambridge, 1981) and M. Evans, ‘Views of Women and Men in the Work of Simone de Beauvoir’, Women’s Studies Int. Quarterly, 3 (1980) pp. 395-404.
J. McCrindle, ‘Celebration on Simone de Beauvoir, Held at the Africa Centre, London, on 5thMay 1979’, History Workshop, 8 (1979) pp.190-192, p.191.
A. Phillips, ‘Spare Rib Magazine (United Kingdom)’ in J. D. H. Downing (ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Movements (London, 2011), p.505. No other underground magazines were specifically intended for women.
A. Schwarzer, ‘Talking to Simone de Beauvoir’, Spare Rib, March 1977.
R. O’Rourke, Personal E-mail Correspondence, 26thNovember 2015.
UOB, CRL, USS86/1/3, Rebecca O’Rourke, ‘Feminism as Femininity in the Fifties’. Although undated and the wider context of this document us unclear, it engages with important issues of feminist thought and interpretations of de Beauvoir.
University of Birmingham, Cadbury Research Library, US141, Maureen McNeil, Women’s History Writing Guide, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham Staff Papers: Papers of Maureen McNeil, 21stJanuary 1981.
Ibid.and S. Roe and S. Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf: Cambridge Companions to Literature(Cambridge, 2000), p.I.
‘Woman Wins Prix Goncourt’, Evening Express, 6thDecember 1954. It was not just British critics who thought this, American and French journalists also expressed these opinions. See: T. Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman(Oxford 2008), p.4.
Schwarzer, Talking to Simone de Beauvoir.
Moi, Intellectual Woman,p.205-209.
Ibid., p.205-209. Bourdeau: A miraculous exception to the statistical rule.
H. Lazareff, ‘Women Who Haveto be the Centre of Attraction’, Daily Mail, 15thJune 1967.
A. Blue, ‘Minding’, New Statesman, 29thJune 1984.
Moi, Intellectual Woman, p.200.