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Simone de Beauvoir: From the Second World War to The Second Sex Elizabeth A. Houlding I N HER MEMOIRS, Simone de Beauvoir referred to the Second World War as a pivotal moment in her life, a time when her ways of interacting with the world underwent permanent transformations. Until 1939, Beauvoir had refused to believe that the trauma of war could come to interrupt the life she had so carefully constructed: “ Je refusai furieusement d’y croire; une catastrophe aussi imbécile ne pouvait pas fondre sur moi.” 1It was through the war that Beauvoir came to perceive her “ historicity,” that is, the force of history in the shaping of individual lives.2Years later, in a 1985 interview with her biographer Deirdre Bair, Beauvoir would criticize her pre-war attitude: “ À vrai dire, je ne suis pas fière de ce que j’étais alors—trente ans et toujours égocentrique. Je regrette qu’il ait fallu la guerre pour m’apprendre que je vivais dans le monde, pas en dehors.” 3 The Occupation and the Second World War precipitated a generation of French intellectuals toward political engagement. Le Deuxième sexe was published only four years after the war in 1949. Beauvoir undertook her study of the feminine ideal in the wake of the Occupation. In this paper, I will consider what led Beauvoir to incorporate questions of gender within the post-war project of engagement in the world. Commenting on the reception of Le Deuxième sexe, Toril Moi has remarked upon what she terms the “ political isolation” of the book in 1949, finding it curiously out of step with its own historical moment, written as it was at a time when West­ ern capitalism was kicking women out of the factories in order to hand their jobs over to the boys back from the war, and published just as the West was about to embark on that most antifeminist of decades, the 1950s.4 Within this global representation of Western capitalism, Moi’s transposi­ tion of Rosie the Riveter from the United States to France is misleading, since the particular conditions of occupied France had not transformed the traditionally agrarian French economy into the booming American model of industrialized military production.5 In addition, French women had not played as prominent a role in the Vol. XXXIII, No. 1 39 L ’E spr it C r éa teu r wartime workplace as their American counterparts.6In direct contrast to the American model, women in France were actively recruited as workers after the war in order to shore up the depleted national workforce and the desperate national economy.7 Among the political measures taken toward national recovery by liberated France, women “ were finally granted the right to vote and to run for public office, and the Constitu­ tion of the Fourth Republic enshrined the right to work in its articles.” 8 The Liberation was seen as “ the moment to bring women into full par­ ticipation in the polity and equality of the workplace” (Jenson 272). It must be said, though, that postwar social programs were implemented under the assumption that women’s true place was within the family, where wives remained subordinate to their husbands, the legal chefs de famille (Jenson 273). Moi’s second displacement, that in which she projects Le Deuxième sexe forward into the 1950s, is more central to my argument here, how­ ever. Because of the enormous impact of Le Deuxième sexe in its Ameri­ can incarnation as The Second Sex in 1953, there has been a tendency to date the work and its influence from that time. Yet, in observing that the text central to the elaboration of late twentieth-century feminism appears oddly out of step with the 1950s, we do not account for the fact that Le Deuxième sexe stepped into history directly out of World War II and the German Occupation of France. It is precisely the genesis of Le Deuxième sexe in occupied France, with its specific gender conditions and historical configurations, that we have overlooked. Rather than an eery prediction of the house-bound 50s, or a clarion call to the women’s movement of the...


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