Imagine What It Was Like To Sit Down At Simone De Beauvoir's Desk

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 10:31 am

Intellectual, philosophical, literary, rebellious, Simone de Beauvoir spoke a mile a minute, and wrote quickly, too — novels, essays, a play, four memoirs. She was an atheist, bisexual, pioneer feminist, and her longtime lover, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote the book on Existentialism. When she died in 1986 she was world-famous — now the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., is saluting her again.

De Beauvoir wanted to be a nun when she was little, but by her teenage years, she had decided to become a writer; it was what she wanted most in the world, she told a young friend.

De Beauvoir wrote like a scribe, according to museum library director Sarah Osborne Bender. She points out two small piles of graph paper — the kind French students use to discipline their handwriting. They contain an early draft of de Beauvoir's best-known book, The Second Sex, a 1949 feminist treatise on what it means to be a woman.

"When she finally decided that she was going to write this, the ideas just poured from her," Osborne Bender says.

You can see it on these pages — she wrote in longhand, the words marching steadily across the paper, only two small crossouts.

This manuscript is the only original object in the exhibit. "From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir" is a cozy assemblage of objects that could have been in her Paris apartment — desk, lamp, bookcases.

"Her apartment was cluttered, her desk was covered, her bookshelves were packed," Osborne Bender says.

Black and white photographs in the installation show the philosopher at home. You can also see snapshots de Beauvoir tacked to her walls — pictures of travels, loved ones, friends she referred to as "the family," and, occasionally a movie star.

It's a real intellectual's apartment — the digs of someone who spent time reading, writing and thinking. An end table holds some travel tchotchkes and a cast of Sartre's hands. Sartre was a Nobel Prize-winning writer, philosopher and existentialist. He and de Beauvoir had a lifelong virtual marriage of intellect, opinions, ambitions, intense conversation and Deux Magots coffee. It was an open relationship — no wedding license, no children and various lovers on the side.

De Beauvoir's deepest focus was feminism — existing as a woman in a man's world. "Being a woman was not a problem for me," she said.

But she found it was a problem for many women. Brilliant, confident and outspoken, she interviewed dozens of women about their lives, and analyzed their answers in The Second Sex. Decades before Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine, de Beauvoir declared: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." It's society that makes women second-rate, acquiescent, oppressed.

In the late 1960s, when women in France and the U.S. became activists for equality, de Beauvoir agreed with their goals. "They needed to take their issues into their own hands," Osborne Bender says. "They couldn't wait for men to invite them into the fold. If they wanted change and wanted their own place, they needed to make it."

Plenty has changed for women since de Beauvoir's lifetime, but Osborne Bender finds 21st century women still turn to the 20th-century feminist icon for inspiration.

"I was amazed at the presence she had in popular culture," Bender says. "If you search Simone de Beauvoir on Twitter or Instagram, the daily volume of content — her quotes, pictures of her, people saying they're reading her for a university class — every day there's content about her."

The de Beauvoir installation will remain at the Museum of Women in the Arts until August 12.

"She really holds a place," says Osborne Bender. "She's a very modern woman."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to tell you about someone who had a remarkable life. Simone de Beauvoir was a bisexual French atheist who wanted to be a nun when she was little, a pioneer feminist and prolific author who moved in elite philosophical circles. Her longtime lover wrote the book on existentialism. When she died in 1986, she was famous across the globe. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us how Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts is saluting her again.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Intellectual, philosophical, literary, rebellious - Simone de Beauvoir spoke like a machine gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: (Speaking French).

STAMBERG: She wrote quickly, too - novels, essays, a play, four memoirs. At 15, a friend asked what she wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE BEAUVOIR: And I said I wanted to be a well-known writer when I am a woman, and that was true.

STAMBERG: It was what she wanted most in the world, she said.

SARAH OSBORNE BENDER: She writes like a scribe, it just comes out of her.

STAMBERG: Sarah Osborne Bender runs the library and research center at the Women in the Arts museum. She's showing two small piles of graph paper, the kind French students use to discipline their handwriting. On the pages, an early draft of de Beauvoir's best known book, "The Second Sex," her 1949 feminist treatise on what it means to be a woman.

OSBORNE BENDER: When she finally decided that she was going to write this, the ideas just poured from her.

STAMBERG: You can see it on these pages, words marched steadily across the paper, only two small cross-outs.

OSBORNE BENDER: She wrote longhand.

STAMBERG: And nice penmanship, or penwomanship (ph), whatever she would have said then.

This manuscript is the only original object in the exhibit. "From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir" is a cosy corner assemblage of objects that could have been in her Paris apartment - desk, lamp, bookcases.

OSBORNE BENDER: Her apartment was cluttered. Her desk was covered. Her bookshelves were packed.

STAMBERG: Osborne Bender knows this from photographs, the philosopher in her element. Those black and white pictures are in the show, plus lots of other snapshots de Beauvoir tacked to her walls.

OSBORNE BENDER: Herself in travels, her loved ones, friends referred to as the family. Occasionally there's a movie star.

STAMBERG: It's a real intellectual's apartment, the digs of someone who spends time reading, writing and thinking. On an end table...

OSBORNE BENDER: Her travel tchotchkes. And these hands here are casts of Sartre's hands.

STAMBERG: De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, philosopher and existentialist, had a lifelong virtual marriage of intellect, opinions, ambitions, intense conversation and Deux Magots coffee. It was an open relationship - no wedding license, no children, various lovers on the side. Her deepest involvement, though, may have been with the notion of feminism, of being female in a man's world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE BEAUVOIR: Being a woman was not a problem for me.

STAMBERG: Sure, she was brilliant, confident, outspoken, but she interviewed dozens of women about their problems and analyzed them in "The Second Sex." Decades before Friedan, Steinem and Ms. magazine, de Beauvoir declared one is not born a woman, one becomes one. It's society that makes women second rate, acquiescent, oppressed. In the late 1960s, when women in France and the U.S. became activists for equality, de Beauvoir agreed with their goals.

OSBORNE BENDER: They needed to take their issues into their own hands. They couldn't wait for men to invite them into the fold. If they wanted change and that if they wanted their own place, they needed to make it.

STAMBERG: These days, women are in charge of nations and direct companies. They're organizing protests and raising daughters to be fearless. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Sarah Osborne Bender says in putting together her small exhibition, she saw 21st century women turning to de Beauvoir for inspiration.

OSBORNE BENDER: I was amazed at the presence she has in popular culture. If you search Simone de Beauvoir on Twitter or on Instagram, the daily volume of content - her quotes, pictures of her, people saying they're reading her for a university class. Every day there's content about her. She really holds a place. She's a very modern woman.

STAMBERG: In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.