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

Simone de Beauvoir in her studio, rue Schoelcher 12 bis, Montparnasse, Paris, March 1986.
Bettina Flitner
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Simone de Beauvoir in her studio, rue Schoelcher 12 bis, Montparnasse, Paris, March 1986.

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.

An early longhand manuscript of de Beauvoir's <em>The Second Sex.</em>
Emily Haight / National Museum of Women in the Arts
National Museum of Women in the Arts
An early longhand manuscript of de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

"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 and Jean-Paul Sartre are shown above at Copacabana Beach, circa 1960.
STF / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre are shown above at Copacabana Beach, circa 1960.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.