One of the most prominent writers of her generation, Beauvoir was a member of the French left-wing intellectual circle associated with existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. She became identified as a leading feminist theorist with the publication of Le deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex), her comprehensive study of the secondary status of women throughout history. Additionally, in her autobiographies, fiction, and criticism, she addressed women's social, economic, and political status as well as the existential meaning of womanhood.
Born in Paris to middle-class parents, Beauvoir was raised a Roman Catholic. In early adolescence, however, she perceived hypocrisies and fallacies in bourgeois morality and rebelled against her class, privately disavowing her belief in God. Following her undergraduate studies at the Institut Catholique and the Institut Sainte-Marie, Beauvoir attended the Sorbonne in 1928, where she specialized in literature and philosophy, and later audited classes at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1929 she met fellow student Jean-Paul Sartre, and together they prepared for the agrégation examination in philosophy. Finding that they were intellectual equals, each of whom desired a lasting relationship free of conventional restraints, Beauvoir and Sartre agreed to a shared life outside the institution of marriage and also mutually consented to "contingent relationships." After graduating from the Sorbonne, Beauvoir taught in Marseilles, Rouen, and Paris. She and Sartre settled in Paris in the late 1930s and became prominent figures amid the intellectual society of the Left Bank, associating with such writers and thinkers as Albert Camus, André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and Michel Leiris. During World War II, Beauvoir and Sartre organized a resistance group to oppose Nazi occupation of France. Beauvoir spent most of her time during the war years writing. In 1944 she resigned from teaching and, together with Sartre, founded the leftist journal Les temps modernes. During the 1950s Beauvoir engaged in numerous social causes and attempted to live out the committed existence that she espoused in her writings by protesting the French-Algerian War, documenting French military atrocities in Les temps modernes, and signing a public manifesto against the war. Beauvoir maintained her involvement in social issues during the 1960s and, in particular, supported the radical student uprisings of 1968. Although she joined the Mouvement de la Libération des Femmes (MLF) in 1970 to participate in demonstrations supporting legalized abortion, Beauvoir did not declare herself a feminist until 1972, after which she began writing a column on sexism in Les temps modernes and became president of the French League for Women's Rights. Beauvoir continued to promote various social movements, especially those concerning women, until her death in 1986.
Beauvoir's major theoretical study, The Second Sex, is often said to be the first full-length socio-philosophical examination of the status of women in society. In this work Beauvoir incorporated existentialist concepts concerning personal freedom, or individual guidance by choice alone; responsibility, or accepting the consequences of one's choices; bad faith, or denying one's freedom by shifting responsibility to an outside source; and the role of the other, or the relation of an inessential being to an essential being. Positing that men have achieved the favorable status of transcendence while women have assumed that of immanence, Beauvoir proposed assimilation into the male universe as a means of achieving gender equality. Further, she called the existence of essentially feminine and maternal traits a myth and presented the female body in extremely negative terms, highlighting ways in which a woman's freedom is inhibited by her sexuality and fertility. Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (1958; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter), is Beauvoir's account of her early years, particularly her intellectual development as a young woman in bourgeois Paris. In this work Beauvoir applied many of the theories she had set forth in The Second Sex to her personal experiences, namely her realization that the myths of her childhood did not apply to her burgeoning adult life. In her fiction Beauvoir often portrayed women who depended on the men in their lives for happiness and were disappointed with the results. Her collection of novellas, La femme rompue (1967; The Woman Destroyed), characterized women whose dependencies on men have crippled their abilities to create positive identities and construct autonomous lives.
From the time of its publication, when it provoked the ire of both conservative and liberal critics, The Second Sex has dominated discussion of Beauvoir's theoretical position. Despite the initially negative reaction of critics to the work, it has attained widespread recognition and has proved vastly influential. Today The Second Sex is generally regarded as fundamental to the development of the women's movement of the 1960s as well as to the discipline of feminist studies. With the rise in the 1970s of new French feminists extolling feminine physical and psychological differences, The Second Sex was dismissed as out of date, and many feminists disparaged Beauvoir as a Sartrean revisionist, condemning her adoption of a masculine identity. More recently, critics have begun to reassess her importance as a pioneering thinker who established the groundwork for the study and liberation of women in modern Western society. Representing this position, Ellen Willis (see Further Reading) wrote: "Nearly four decades after it was first published in France, despite all the commentary the feminist movement has produced in the meantime, dated and parochial as it is in many respects, The Second Sex remains the most cogent and thorough book of feminist theory yet written."