Simone de Beauvoir in Relation to Howard Gardner's Model of Creativity
EDP 380, FALL, 1996
Molly Beverstein

When Simone de Beauvoir died in Paris in 1986, the wreath of obituaries almost universally spoke of her as the 'mother' of contemporary feminism and its major twentieth century theoretician. De Beauvoir, it was implied as much as stated, was the mother-figure to generations of women, a symbol of all that they could be, and a powerful demonstration of a life of freedom and autonomy (Evans 1).

This quotation by author Mary Evans effectively summarizes the powerful impact that Simone de Beauvoir had on both the evolution of feminism, and the literary world. For her efforts to heighten sexual equality through writing she was awarded the celebrated French prize "the Prix Goncourt" in 1954, and in 1974 she was given the Jerusalem Prize for leaders who have promoted the freedom of the individual. Her devotion to the rights of women and the principles of existentialism are materialized in her written works, political actions, and personal lifestyle, leaving behind a fascinating legacy in regard to the notion of creativity.

Simone de Beauvoir was born January 9, 1908. She was the first child of a white middle class Catholic family living in Paris; and her birth order was one of the key facilitator s of her early intellectual growth. She was followed by one sister; and given this position in the family, de Beauvoir was treated as a honorary son. Thus, during her early childhood she received much of the privileged attention normally reserved for males, which led to the keen development of de Beauvoir's intellectual capabilities. She once wrote, "Papa used to say with pride: Simone has a man's brain; she thinks like a man: she is man" (Okely 23). Hence, the absence of a brother in her life provided the foundation for the nourishing of her creative talents.

Additionally, three major aspects of de Beauvoir's childhood and young adult years can be discerned as undeniably influential forces in shaping and developing her innate abilities: her relationship with her father, her relationship with her mother, and her experience with space and nature.

Her Father

True to the bourgeois French tradition, de Beauvoir's father was widely read in the arts and cultivated similar tastes in his daughter. He directed de Beauvoir's education by correcting her writing, forming her taste in literature, and providing constant support. In return, de Beauvoir emulated her father, and saw him as the image of the intellectual with whom she sought to identify. However, this emulation caused de Beauvoir to suffer an identity crisis as she approached young adulthood. She was encouraged by her father to imitate his intellectual interests but could not progress as a male to become like him because this would have entailed rejecting her female identity. She later recalls in her work Memoirs that her image of the male world verged on fantasy. When she walked past her cousin Jauqes' college, she:

conjured up the mystery which was being celebrated behind those walls; a classroom of boys, and I felt myself in exile. They had as teachers, brilliant, intelligent men who conveyed to them knowledge in its full splendor. My old schoolmistresses only communicated it to me in expurgated, insipid and faded form They nourished me with ersatz and I was kept in a cage (Okely 42)

This is not to say that de Beauvoir wished to be male. In her games, plans, and daydreams she never changed into a man, but imagined herself fulfilling all of her bold aspirations as a woman. As puberty approached de Beauvoir grew isolated from her father. He was confronted with her as a feminine offspring, not as an honorary son. His expectations became too high for her; and she felt that the only way to please him would be by accumulating diplomas in superhuman quantity. She writes:

His insistence on this point convinced me that he was proud to have a brainy woman for a daughter; but the contrary was true; only the most extraordinary successes could have countered the dissatisfaction with me (Evans, 36).

Thus, the stimulating childhood relationship that de Beauvoir had with her father continued to impact her through her teenage years, but in an obviously less positive way. The emotional trauma of her identity crisis and separation from her father at adolescence later became a major source of inspiration for the philosophies and personal morals that she espoused.

Her Mother

The second shaping relationship in de Beauvoir's childhood was with her mother. During her pre-adolescent years, de Beauvoir had a loving relationship with her mother; and like her father, her mother supported the development of her intellectual talents. However, by the time de Beauvoir reached puberty, her mother's unbending doctrines regarding duty, merit, morality, and sexual growth served as the springboard for great conflict between the two women. De Beauvoir has written, "I learnt from Mama to efface myself, to censor my desires, to say and do exactly what ought to be said and done" (Evans 39). When de Beauvoir decided in her early teens that she no longer believed in God, the lines of communication between the two women were broken.

Additionally, unlike the adoration that she harbored for her father, de Beauvoir never strove to imitate her mother. From early on she rejected the idea of having children or subjecting herself to the burdens of domestic labor. Hence, although her relationship with her mother exemplified many differences from that with her father, both relationships took a drastic turn during her early adolescence, causing her to develop her ability to be independent. Additionally, the differences between the beliefs of her father and mother further developed her independent nature. She writes

My father's individual and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother's teaching. This imbalance, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellect (Okely, 32).

Hence, the juxtaposing beliefs of her parents challenged her to formulate her own moral code and identity.

Space and Nature

De Beauvoir's experience with space and nature is the final key relationship that was instrumental in shaping her ideas and convictions as an adult. De Beauvoir's young adult years exhibit several confining characteristics. She was inhibited from obtaining academic and social privileges reserved for males, her mother curbed her spontaneity, and the dangers that Paris posed to women denied her the freedom to venture out unescorted. However, several potent venues for escape emerged from the deficiency of space in her life.

An escape that she capitalized upon as a child was her experience in nature while vacationing at her grandparents' home. The countryside offered both a freedom in space and a sensual awakening. Her most treasured escape, however, was the liberation provided through books. She used the word depayer (to change scenery or disorientate) to describe what books did for her: they displaced her from her known territory. As a result, by age eight, she realized that she wanted to be a writer, and was amusing her family with stories of her own.

Higher Education

As de Beauvoir grew older, her father's downward mobility on the social ladder meant that he could not provide the necessary dowry for his daughters. Thus de Beauvoir was compelled to train for her livelihood. She studied philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne, and in 1929 at the age of 21, she passed the philosophy aggregation examination, making her the youngest in France to ever do so. It was here, at the Sorbonne, that de Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Feminist Alice Schwarzer wrote, "This relationship...was and may still be-the model relationship based on love and freedom" (Okely 11). From the time this couple fell in love at the Sorbonne until Sartre's death in April of 1980, they played a permanent role in each others life, with their intellectual activities constituting the essential bond. Author Terry Keefe writes

She was immensely impressed by the way in which he was interested in everything and took nothing for granted; by his capacity to see her life in the light of her own values; and, above all, by his absolute confidence in his future as a writer. Unlike Beauvoir, he had already thought out an original philosophy of his own and for the first time in her life she felt intellectually dominated by someone, as Sartre exposed the weakness in her cherished views. She now saw that others had pursued the implications of the absence of God more systematically than she, had understood the technical difficulties of writing a novel better, and had a clearer idea of what they wanted to say. The future suddenly seemed much more difficult to her, but also more real (13).

De Beauvoir writes, "Sartre conformed exactly to the wishes I had entertained from the age of fifteen, he was the double in whom I found all my maniac enthusiasms" (Evans 37). However, although they pledged absolute commitment at the onset of their relationship, they did not pledge absolute fidelity. De Beauvoir's sexual relationship with Sartre was defined and defended in light of the existential emphasis on the invaluable importance of freedom as an individual. Hence, they never shared permanent domestic space, owned common property, or had any children; and both had many separate affairs and relationships. For the majority of their lives, they did not even live and work (as professors) in the same city. Yet, he undeniably occupied the most influential role in de Beauvoir's life on intellectual, emotional, and spiritual levels.

At the end of the second world war, de Beauvoir and Sartre emerged as nationally and subsequently internationally known figures in French culture. Initially famous as the founders of French existentialism, their fame was to involve the authorship of numerous novels and philosophical works. Later they became known not just for their individual work, but as a legendary couple, and one which represented "intellectual life."


De Beauvoir and Sartre were also in the public eye because of their joint political activism, which took the form of the radical left wing. The first most furious political struggle they participated in was the decolonization of Algeria. They were fervently opposed to the French government's attempts to maintain French authority over Algeria. Later political campaigns involved opposition to US policy in Vietnam and support to Israel in the politics of the Middle East. In doing so they became the targets of those extreme right wing elements who wished to continue direct French rule. She and Sartre also united to play a visible role in La Movement de la Liberation des Femmes.


De Beauvoir's early works were mainly novels and essays. In 1958, however, her first autobiographical work was published, and her concentration switched to writing memoirs. "Her repertoire straddled biology, history, literature, psychoanalysis, political economy, anthropology, and philosophy...Few would dare to be so ambitious today," (Okely 5). Her central concern throughout her literary career was to communicate and share those aspects of her life that may be of interest and value to others. "She wrote only when she had something to say, and never just for the sake of writing; and she has always written with living readers rather than posterity in mind," (Keefe 22). The powerful influence that she was able to create on her female readers is partly explained by her exceptional position in a male-dominated, intellectual elite. She found the means and voice to make a critique of the system from which she came. Her early essays contain extremely valuable insights into the moral dimension of human existence, and are significant in the development of French existentialism. Her fiction encompasses the power to penetrate the mysteries of human nature, illuminate the burdens created by society, and underline the obstacles facing modern women. De Beauvoir articulates her faith in the power of literature by saying:

Protecting what is human in men against technocracies and against bureaucracies presenting the world in its human dimension, that is as it reveals itself to individuals who are both bound to one another and separate--that, I think, is the task

Her works in general were concerned with several major themes. She asserted that love and sex should be enjoyed in free relationships of equality, and that romantic love and emotional dependence on a man were to be pitied, especially when combined with economic dependence. She also repeatedly stressed the importance of openly discussing the traumas surrounding menstruation and sexual awareness. These themes were especially deeply addressed in her work The Second Sex (La Deuxieum Sexe).

The Second Sex

The Second Sex, published in 1949, is arguably her most famous and most scandalous work. "In the decades since the 1949 publication of The Second Sex, there has been massive social and economic changes in the west and elsewhere" (Okely 51). It radically established prevalent perspectives of masculinity and femininity, and has been widely regarded as the most important book about women to have been written in the twentieth century. This massive work, which in two volumes, totals over 1000 pages and sold 22,000 copies in the first week of publication. De Beauvoir argued in a confident and defiant tone that woman's fate was invented, not inherited. She writes:

From humanity's beginnings, their biological advantage has enabled the males to affirm their status as sole sovereign subjects...condemned to play the past of the Other, woman was also condemned to hold only uncertain power: slave or idol, it was never she who chose her lot (Okely 53).

The concluding message is that individual women can liberate themselves-implicitly as de Beauvoir has done-by the efforts of the mind.


By the time she was 20, de Beauvoir set herself the task of a Renaissance woman, covering an enormous range of disciplines in order to present an overview of woman's condition and an explanation for their subordination. De Beauvoir first espoused the title of a feminist after the publication of The Second Sex. In 1972, she declared herself a militant feminist in an interview, extending her definition of feminism as a reformist and legalist to include the attributes of a radicalist. Her philosophies, actions and lifestyle forcefully contributed to the awareness of women's rights across the world.

Relation to Gardner's Model

Hence, Simone de Beauvoir's powerful influence as a philosopher, writer, and leader is undeniable. She most definitely earns the title of genius according to Gardner's model because she exemplifies phenomenal talent in several of the intelligences. The development of her deep awareness of her desires, convictions, and morals that began through the three key relationships of her childhood underlines her intrapersonal skills, which she used as a foundation to create her philosophical beliefs. Her linguistic skills are inarguably proven through her abilities to draw on her life experience and relationships to create a literary output that encompasses several genres and has impacted readers internationally. Finally, her interpersonal skills allowed her to understand the common frustrations of the female gender, and she used this ability to persuade women to refuse to tolerate the sexist injustices she observed. These talents enabled her to convey her opinions through words and action to catalyst the feminist movement on a global level.

Several other traits covered in Gardner's theory can also be applied to de Beauvoir's life and work. She had two intellectual mentors in her life; first her father, and most importantly Sartre. Without the inspiration of these two men, de Beauvoir might not have recognized the potential of her intellectual capabilities. The theory of the ten-year-cycle is visible in de Beauvoir's life. Keefe writes that in 1939, "a ten-year period since the attaining of her independence and her first meeting with Sartre in 1929 had come to a close and a new phase of her life was about to begin" (17). At this juncture in her life, de Beauvoir's public visibility and influence dramatically increased, as a result of a rise in her literary production and political involvement. The issue of a Faustian Bargain also can be related to her life. She gave up the typical female role in society, including the role of wife and mother. "Whereas she wanted to speak about the conditions of all women, she could only attempt this from a position which entailed solitude among men and an exile from the womankind" (Okely 162).

The impact that Simone de Beauvoir's ideals and actions had on societies across the world remains undeniably recognizable today. Perhaps the power of her life's work flows from the fact that she lived what she believed and proclaimed. As writer Alice Schwarzer wrote, "In the darkness of the Fifties and Sixties, before new women's movement dawned, The Second Sex was like a secret code that we emerging women used to send messages to each other. And Simone de Beauvoir herself, her life and her work, was and is a symbol" (Okely 29).


1. Evans, Mary: Simone de Beauvoir, Sage Publications, London, 1996.

2. Keefe, Terry: Simone de Beauvoir - A Study of Her Writing, Harrap Limited, 1983.

3. Okely, Judith: Simone de Beauvoir, Virago Press, Limited, London, 1986.

4. Simons, Margaret: Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1994.