Simone de Beauvoir, the women’s movement: a testimony
In 1948, when France was recovering from World War II, my mother decided to work on toward a Ph.D. in qantum chemistry with the intention of becoming a chemistry professor at the Sorbonne. That same year she married a young mathematician.
As a wedding present, an older mathematician invited her for a cup of coffee in the Latin Quarter, and strongly advised her to abandon her career and devote her life to “the man who had the potential to become the well-known mathematician in the family”. She drank the cup of coffee and then answered: “thank you for the advice I shall not follow”. She went on with her research.
In 1949, she noticed in a bookstore window a publication that had created great scandal. She went in and bought The Second Sex. Pregnant with me, she settled down to read it. It startled her. Suddenly she was no longer alone. From that moment on she knew that her intuition had been right, and she resolved to find the energy to become a chemistry professor, and eventually president of one of Paris universities.
Twenty years later, I found myself at 11 bis, rue Schoelcher, near the Montparnasse cemetery, about to ring Simone de Beauvoir’s doorbell. When she opened the door, I had no idea that I would be coming back to that doorstep again and again and would remain her friend until the last days of her life.
The Women’s Movement started in 1969, a year after the events of the Mai 1968 revolution. On August 28th 1969, eight women went to the Arc de Triomphe to put flowers on “the tomb of the widow of he unknown soldier”. This created an uproar among verterans and among the French media. The French Women’s Movement was born.
A few months later, I joined the Women’s Movement. We were meeting in a joyful and relaxed atmosphere. One evening, Ann, who was eventually going to found the Ligue of Women’s Right with the author of The Second Sex, offered me to come to a meeting which was taking place the following sunday at Simone de Beauvoir’s place. “Be on time!” Ann warned me. “Simone does not like people to be late”.
The following sunday, I arrived at her appartment at 5:00pm sharp. I had just celebrated my twenty years birthday, and Simone was in her sixties. She opened the door, smiled at me, and said: “You are late!” As a matter of fact, I was not. But I quickly understood why she had challenged me. Right in front of her sofa, she had an ugly little clock which was always ten minutes ahead of time.
Nothing was making Simone feel nervous than the notion of time, since she wanted to be sure she would always have time for writing and for meeting Sartre.
The few women who participated in these meetings were already there. In the large painter studio, which included one big room with huge windows overlooking the rue Schoelscher and the Montparnasse cemetary. There were two yellow sofas and armchairs on a purple wall to wall carpet. You had to be careful when you wanted to seat, since on one of them was standing an egyptian mask, offered by Nasser.
Simone was wearing one of the usual silk shirts and had a headband of the same colour. Next to her, were sitting the layer Gisèle Halimi, Christine Delphy, an academic, director of Les Nouvelles Questions Féministes, who is currently preparing an international conference on the fiftieth anniversary of The Second Sex ( Paris, January 19th-23rd 1999) , Monique Wittig, a writer, author of the beautiful book called Le Corps Lesbien , the movie actress Delphine Seyrig, Maryse L., very active in the ecology groups, Claude, a French journalist, Annie S., a senior officer in the French civil service, Annie C., a writer, Cathy, a poet, and Liliane Kandel, an academic today member of the board of Les Temps Modernes.
Simone was of course the center of all the attention.
There was a surprise. I had come with the idea that I would be listening to her throughout most of the meeting, but this was not at all the case. Simone was asking one woman after the other about the best way to start a campaign to liberalize abortion in France. At 20 old, I had come to listen to a 62 years old lady. And here she was also listening to my comments.
After we had all spoken, it was her turn to give her opinion, always with respect. In the same way, she never ever mentioned any of her books. We had the feeling we were treated as equals. But we had to react and speak as quickly as she did.
A little before 7:00pm, Simone de Beauvoir was becoming nervous. It was time for her to get together with Sartre. It was time for us to leave her. We were exhausted. She was still so lively and full of energy.
This is how, sunday after sunday, we have, as a small group, prepared the different actions and demonstrations which where going to permit France to change its abortion law and to improve, in every sector, women’s condition in our country.
In 1970, the word “abortion” was taboo. Even though I came from an educated, liberal family, I had almost never seen the word used in the media or heard anyone around me even mention it. France was still a very Catholic country in the seventies, so no one dared speak of abortion. In 1943, the Vichy government had even inflicted the death penalty on a woman who had performed an illegal abortion. Nonetheless, thousands of abortions had been performed in France in the 1960s and 1970s, maiming many women and killing others.
To beak up this silence, we decided to create an event that would force the media to use the word “abortion”. We wrote a manifesto in which we declared we all had had an abortion. It became the “Manifesto of the 343″. Apart from Simone and her sister, the painter Hélène de Beauvoir, many famous women, like the actresses Catherine Deneuve and Delphine Seyrig, agreed to sign. Like many women,as a gesture of solidarity and support, I signed it also, though I had never actually had had an abortion.
On April 4th 1971, the publication of the Manifesto in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, created a scandal. Radios, televisions, and newspapers were using the word “abortion” over and over again for the first time in French history. Our initiative was already a success, even though some women who had signed it encountered problems at their office. Simone accepted to give an interview in the same issue of the magazine to explain our gesture.
It was the beginning of a series of actions which took years and permitted us eventually to obtail a modification of the abortion law. French society became at last concerned by this middle-aged type law.
At the same time, we focused on other matters: rape, battered women, young unwed mothers, inequality in salaries, jobs reserved to men. Women at last could get jobs where they were not previously accepted: ingineers, scientifics researchers, governors, judges, doctors, airline pilots, and so on…
Simone de Beauvoir, who every day was active in our movement, gave us a unique youth. Did we contribute, through our battles, to give her a second youth? I certainly hope so.