1. Yolanda Patterson (1986, 90) points out that Beauvoir “laughingly” dismissed the
idea that feminists look to her as a mother figure, noting, “People don’t tend to listen
to what their mothers are telling them.” Patterson writes that in spite of this, Beauvoir
has been proclaimed the “mother of the women’s movement, the mother of all liber-
ated women, whether or not they knew her name or her work” (90). Sartre does not
escape his duties as “father” either. Beauvoir and Sartre are scrutinized as “parental”
figures of mid- twentieth- century left politics: their sexual proclivities and rules of
romantic engagement as well as spheres of influence (on each other and subsequent
political and theoretical camps) have been extensively, even exhaustively studied.
Often Beauvoir is reduced simply to the role of “exemplary woman” of second-
wave feminism whose life lessons are to be followed or rejected. Her life is held up
as an example to follow or, in versions where she is seen as the girlfriend of Sartre, to
be avoided as deeply hypocritical. In Feminist Thinkers and the Demands of Feminin-
ity: The Lives and Work of Intellectual Women (Marso 2006), I also read Beauvoir as
an exemplary feminist, but in conversation with other historical and contemporary
feminist writers. I frame her work this way not to praise or criticize her choices and
activities but rather to provide a genealogical perspective on the several ways diverse
feminist thinkers recount their struggles with gender expectations.
2. Beauvoir’s existentialist emphasis on existence as action and activity and her
focus on the ways structural and psychological limitations impose constraints on indi-
vidual women direct our attention to individuals situated in relationship to structures
of oppression (sometimes as oppressors, sometimes as the oppressed, even both at
once, depending on the context) and habits of unfreedom. But to say Beauvoir is con-
cerned primarily with individual women or, as is sometimes said, concerned primarily
with white privileged women is to misread her diagnosis and her political commit-
3. Some decry Beauvoir’s embrace of communism instead of praising (or lament-
ing) her attention to liberal individualism. These interpretations are closer to the mark
in terms of Beauvoir’s political commitments, but still not quite right. Beauvoir ([1963]
1992, 12) explains her and Sartre’s early but transforming political project: “In our
youth, we had felt close to the Communist Party insofar as its negativism agreed with
Previous Page Next Page