De Beauvoir's father was a conservative and atheistic civil servant who encouraged his bright daughter to read, write and pursue intellectual activities at a very early age. Her mother, conversely, was a devout Roman Catholic, which lead to Simone's being educated at the Institut Adeline Désir, a private Catholic school for girls, until the age of 17.
In 1925 de Beauvoir passed the baccalauréat exams in mathematics and philosophy whereupon she proceeded to study mathematics, literature and languages at the Institut Catholique and Institut Sainte-Marie, respectively. She then passed exams for Certificates of Higher Studies in French literature and Latin before beginning the study of philosophy in 1927.
In 1929, de Beauvoir came in a close second place to Jean-Paul Sartre in the highly competitive philosophy agrégation exam (a civil service competitive examination for certain positions in the public education system - laureates are known as agrégés) beating both Paul Nizan and Jean Hyppolite. Unlike de Beauvoir, all three men had attended the best preparatory classes for the agrégation and were official students at the École Normale Supérieure. While de Beauvoir was not an official student, she attended lectures and sat for the agrégation. At 21 years of age, de Beauvoir was the youngest student ever to pass the agrégation in philosophy and thus became the youngest philosophy teacher in France.
It was at the École Normale Supérieure that de Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre who was to become her life-long lover and intellectual partner (she described herself as his philosophical disciple). Their liberal intimate arrangement was very progressive for the times, and thus, unfairly undermined de Beauvoir as an intellectual equal to her male counterparts. Unfortunately, at the time, it also undermined her authority as a philosopher.
Simone de Beauvoir's most significant philosophical works are The Ethics of Ambiguity and the feminism bible The Second Sex. Her thought developed from existentialist themes found in Sartre's work. For example, in Sartre, freedom of choice is a consistent condition of human life. Likewise, because of the enormous responsibility it entails, we tend to make excuses and to deny that we have the freedom to choose. Instead, we blame our 'nature' or other conditions for our actions.
De Beauvoir agrees with Sartre that individuals are born free and without predetermined essence. However, in the case of women, she argues that they have historically had their being defined for them through social-economic circumstances. As a result, women have been ignorant of the potential they have for their own freedom.
According to de Beauvoir, women must come to recognize their freedom and to define their own being. They must free themselves from the enslavement, as well as the rules and regulations that society and men, in particular, impose on them.
In The Second Sex de Beauvoir addresses the question 'Why is woman other?' with 'other' being a concept adopted from Sartre in which he differentiates three distinct categories of being or existence. First there is 'being in itself' which is non-human being such as that of a chair, tree or river.
Secondly, there is the 'being' that humans possess, or the being of consciousness. Sartre calls this type of existence 'being for itself'. It is characterized as possessing freedom; the freedom to choose and freedom to change. A person is not determined to be, or do, anything in the way a chair, tree or river is.
According to Sartre we have no essential nature which makes us behave a particular way or do certain things. We have the ability to choose to live however we wish and to adopt whatever values we see fit.
Thirdly, there is a 'being for others' which suggests that a person is not only a being for themselves, but also a ‘being for others’ - a being for others who may be viewed and defined by others in different ways.
When de Beauvoir talks about women as 'other', she adopts Sartre's notion of 'being for others'. She suggests that women are defined by men as 'other' and typically viewed as inferior or secondary to how a man sees himself. For example, men tend to see themselves as rational and intellectual, while they view women as emotional and reactive. In fact, historically men have often viewed a woman's role as both inherent and unalterable.
Of course, de Beauvoir understood that many women saw
themselves as men saw them and had no desire to 'liberate' themselves
from such a role. She did insist, however, that women have no essential
nature which determines how they must behave any more than men do and
are not 'born' women, but are made women - "One is not born a woman,
one becomes one." As Sartre pointed out, however, even for women, "with
existential freedom also comes great anguish".
Simone de Beauvoir herself always wanted to be a writer and a teacher rather than a mother and wife. She and Jean-Paul Sartre had an 'open' relationship whereupon they were each free to pursue other liaisons, and they did. However, contrary to what some of her critics suggested about her views, she never recommended that women should become more like men, that is, childless, independent and professional. She never claimed that these 'male' qualities are better; she merely believed that only by becoming independent and professional would women become liberated.
While she has only belatedly been acknowledged as the significant philosopher that she was, Simone de Beauvoir indisputably produced a rich body of writings in the fields of ethics, feminism, and politics.