Simone de Beauvoir Installation Reflects on Her Impact

by Rachel Withers

Simone de Beauvoir in her studio, Montparnasse, Paris, March 1986.

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Ever wanted to figure out how to get into Simone de Beauvoir’s head?

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC has put together an installation of the thinking space of one of feminism’s most influential women. “From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir” is an interpretation of her Paris studio that encourages visitors to reflect on her wide-reaching, patriarchy-smashing impact.

Let’s reflect on that impact for a moment


Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was a French intellectual, writer, activist, social theorist, and, most notably, feminist. In 1949, de Beauvoir gave us The Second Sex, her multi-genre (seriously; she included findings from biology, physiology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy and economics) feminist manifesto in which she laid out some of the ways in which woman has been subjugated to the “Other” to man’s default humanness, and her aspirations for women to someday attain “full membership in the human race.” We can only hope.

SdB was writing from a time and place in which women had only recently won the right to vote, and yet so much of what she wrote rings painfully true in today’s world. As she put it: “At the present time, while women are beginning to take part in the affairs of the world, it is still a world that belongs to men.” Watching Hillary Clinton- the first woman but also the most qualified person to be a major party candidate- lose her bid for POTUS to an unqualified man such as Donald Trump was a reminder that, 67 years on, this is still in many ways a man’s world.

She saw issues in womankind’s inability organize as one conscious mass, sadly prescient of the fact that a majority of white women this year would vote with the white men in their life for Trump, instead of with their fellow women, who chose Clinton.

“The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat … They live dispersed among the males…. Attached to certain men- fathers or husbands- more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their solidarity is to white men, not to Negro women.”

And her passages on reproductive biology, “the enslavement of the female to the species”, is particularly scary as preproductive rights come under renewed attacks.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” harks back to an earlier time. But de Beauvoir, looking forward, said that woman should not be reduced “to what she has been, to what she is today” in assessing her capabilities. No matter what period of history we find ourselves in, de Beauvoir’s rejection of limiting norms is a model to live by.


“From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir” opens January 6 and runs until June 2, 2017

(meaning you can visit if you’re in DC for the Women’s March on Washington in January)

Presented by the museum’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center.



Bettina Flitner, Simone de Beauvoir in her studio, Rue Schoelcher 12 bis, Montparnasse, Paris, March 1986. Copyright


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