Dr CLAUDINE MONTEIL
French specialist of women’s rights, specialist in Feminist Theory, writer and lecturer
Dr Monteil is a French feminist and a writer. She received her PhD from Nice university in 1984 and wrote her dissertation on the work of Simone de Beauvoir entitled L’Engagement féministe de Simone de Beauvoir dans son oeuvre et dans sa vie (“The Feminist Engagement of Simone de Beauvoir in her life and her writings”) which includes interviews with Simone de Beauvoir and her sister Hélène de Beauvoir.
During the student uprising of 1968, Monteil met the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (see links) and remained in contact with him until his death in 1980. In 1970 she was one of the first members of the French feminist movement and through her work in the Women’s movement she met Simone de Beauvoir. This was the beginning of a close friendship which lasted until her death in 1986. At 20 Monteil was the youngest member of the Movement and Beauvoir was 62 – a 42 year age difference- but they became friends immediately and together took part in many actions which played a role in changing the attitudes and laws of French society towards women and led to the repeal of repressive laws and to the passage of legislation regarding women’s right to abortion, equal employment opportunity, reform on laws on rape, incest and domestic violence, the recognition of the rights of unwed mothers and battered women, among many others.
Details of these events are included in Monteil’s biography of Sartre and Beauvoir, Les Amants de la Liberté, l’aventure de Jean-Paul Sartre et de Simone de Beauvoir dans le siècle (« Lovers of Liberty: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a Twentieth-Century Adventure ») Editions 1, 1999. (This book has been translated into numerous languages and is also available in French in paperback).
An international youth
Dr Monteil was born to a family of scientists. Her mother, Dr Josiane Serre, faced severe difficulties in becoming a chemist after World War II, because the scientific world was reluctant to accept women in research positions and academia. She persevered however and because of her determination, was a great inspiration to her daughter. When she was pregnant with her daughter, Dr Serre read Simone de Beauvoir’s germinal feminist text The Second Sex, which had just came out in France and created a huge scandal because of Beauvoir’s fierce denunciation of sexism and of the second class status of women. This book provided the foundation of modern feminism.
Dr Serre pursued a career as an academic and eventually became director of the Ecole Normale Superieure de Jeunes Filles de Sèvres in France (a position equivalent to the presidency of Radcliffe or another of the Seven Sisters colleges in the United States). Monteil’s mother used this opportunity to encourage the French government to open some high positions typically reserved to men to women. During the course of her career some of her students managed to get very good jobs in both the corporate and political worlds.
Monteil had the opportunity to travel a lot with her parents in her youth and to learn English when she was very young. When her family was not in Paris, they lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where her father, the French mathematician Dr Jean-Pierre Serre, Fields medal and Abel prize, visited the Institute for Advanced Study. At school in Princeton in the nineteen-sixties, one of Monteil’s most indelible memories of those years was her friendship with an African-American girl. She was her only friend and they both had to face racist harassment from other children for this friendship ( This story is related in her first memoir, Simone de Beauvoir, le Mouvement des Femmes, Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rebelle (“Simone de Beauvoir and the Feminist Movement, Memoirs of a Rebellious Daughter”) Montréal, Editions Alain StankéParis, Editions du Rocher. Monteil learned first-hand what prejudice and racism meant and this personal experience prompted her to work against racism and prejudice ever since. Monteil later enjoyed a junior year abroad at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the first year it was open to women.
Because of her family’s numerous trips and meetings with scientists from around the world at home, she became interested in life and politics in other countries at a very young age. She took Russian classes in high school and attended summer schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Kiev and Sotchi. She then became fluent in Russian. It was quite an experience as a teenager to live in three different countries at a time of high tension during the Cold War. This allowed her to personally compare these very different cultures, and observe their strengths and weaknesses. She learned, for instance, that Simone de Beauvoir’s books, especially The Second Sex, which made her so famous, were forbidden in the Soviet Union, since the Communist regime considered it as a book for upper class women. The Russian leaders believed that lower class women were already liberated by Communism and did not need to read it.
Meeting Simone and Hélène de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir introduced Monteil to her sister, the painter Hélène de Beauvoir, who wanted to join the Women’s Liberation Movement. Dr Monteil and Hélène immediately became fast friends and their friendship lasted until Hélène’s death in 2001. Hélène de Beauvoir did over 3000 paintings and drawings among which moving paintings on women’s issues and struggles as well as on environmental matters. Years ahead of her time, she was deeply concerned by the future of our planet. Her paintings are also testimonies of the twentieth century and of the countries where she lived with her husband, a diplomat, former student of Jean-Paul Sartre: Portugal, Austria, Yugoslavia, Marocco and Italy. All are focused on the unique landscapes of these places, on people’s lives and on women’s status in these cultures. During her lifetime she had exhibits around the world, including the U.S.A, Japan, Germany, Italy and France (see the Hélène de Beauvoir website presented by the Hammer gallery in Regensburg, Germany).
In 2003, Claudine Monteil wrote a tribute to the two sisters called Les Soeurs Beauvoir, Editions 1, The Beauvoir Sisters, Seal Press 2004 (translated by Marjolijn de Jagger). When Hélène de Beauvoir, who was living near Strasbourg, France, came to Paris, she stayed at Monteil’s apartment, on the left Bank, near Montparnasse. Simone de Beauvoir, a neighbour, came many times to the apartment to discuss women’s issues and see her sister. Hélène was at Monteil’s home when Sartre died in 1980. She also tried to support Hélène as much as she could when her sister Simone de Beauvoir passed away in 1986. For Simone de Beauvoir funerals, Monteil wrote two detailed articles published the same day in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, one on Simone de Beauvoir’s life and work (titled “A duty for women: live”, see more in CV) and the other an interview with Hélène de Beauvoir about her sister.
With the encouragement of the Beauvoir sisters, Claudine Monteil became interested in women’s health issues. For several summers she stayed at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Los Angeles providing health education and clinic services along with the regular staff. In 1979 she came to the United States with Hélène de Beauvoir to support American feminists, especially the Feminist Women’s Health Centers which provided birth control, abortions, gynecological health care, donor insemination, and sexual education on both the west and east coasts. Because these centers provided abortions, they were targets of anti-abortion attacks, including clinic invasions, chemical attacks, and fire-bombing, (for more information please follow links to books and articles written by Rebecca Chalker and Carol Downer on women’s body, health and sexuality).
Celebrating Simone de Beauvoir’s legacy
In 2006, for the 20th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s death, Dr Monteil published an illustrated book called Simone de Beauvoir, côté femme, cinquante histoires (Simone de Beauvoir: Her Life as a Woman. Fifty Stories. [Illustrated]). Paris, Editions Timée, 2006. Her publications on the Beauvoirs, Sartre, French feminism and on global feminist geopolitics, have been translated into multiple languages, and have led to numerous interviews and articles on her life and work as an international activist and author (for more details please see CV).
Claudine Monteil regards the lectures that she gives in France and abroad (in French or in English) as her tribute to Simone and Helene de Beauvoir, to Jean-Paul Sartre and to the cause of women’s rights. An avid traveler, she has been an international speaker at many institutions, including Bryn Mawr College, Oxford University, the Universities of Stockholm, Göteborg, Paris, Lisbon, Ankara, Istanbul, Turin, Norman, Rutgers and Pittsburgh (see CV). She is also a member of the International Simone de Beauvoir Society. In March 2002, Monteil was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a Knight of the French Legion of Honor, one of the country’s highest Orders, for her contribution to women’s rights.
Monteil’s life has also been influenced by poetry and surrealism (she has published poems in literary reviews and is presently working on book of poetry). She is very fond of the cinema and has written critiques of various movies (see CV for these articles). Because she is such an admirer of Charlie Chaplin’s movies, she wrote a biography of him and his wife Oona Chaplin called Les Amants des Temps Modernes, Charles et Oona Chaplin ( “Lovers of Modern Times: Oona and Charles Chaplin”) Paris, Editions 1, 2002. For this book she had the assistance of some of their children, especially the actress Geraldine Chaplin, who provided her with unique testimonies and anecdotes. Monteil also gives lectures on the Chaplins based on her research and interviews.
Claudine Monteil has just published an essay Simone de Beauvoir, modernité et engagement (Simone de Beauvoir, modern and commited) Paris, éditions l’Harmattan 2009 for the 60th anniversary of the publication of “The Second Sex”.
On June 9, 2010 a tribute to the 100th anniversary celebration of her sister’s birth, the painter Hélène de Beauvoir, will also be celebrated with exhibits of her paintings and testimonies about her life and struggles for women’s rights and environmental issues.
You can send me a message using the contact form with questions or to arrange speaking engagements.