Cornell University Press

An Intimate History of the Twentieth Century

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Simone de Beauvoir would not be surprised by #metoo. She understood just how profoundly sexuality, gender relations, and even love are warped by inequality and the depth of anger that would ensue. Beauvoir didn’t mince words on what Kate Manne in Down Girl calls the “gory details” of the subordination of women. Nor did Beauvoir underestimate how difficult it would be to untangle the knots of misunderstanding, incomprehension, complicity, and denial—let alone to dismantle deep structures of power.

In 1949, when The Second Sex was published, critics pilloried her for “obscenity” and sneered that ordinary women would never recognize themselves in her bleak portrait. But they did. For decades, readers—thousands of them—wrote to her about their experiences. They reported on difficult, sometimes violent, marriages and families, confusing sexual desires, unwanted pregnancies, illegal abortions, and domestic violence in gory— and moving—detail. They wrote of their complicity in their situation, and their far from successful revolts against it.

I stumbled upon an archive of thousands of these letters to Beauvoir at a moment when the collection was still being cataloged. They astonished me. I expected discussions of existentialism and feminism. I found those discussions, to be sure, and they crackled with the freshness of discovery and the excitement of experimenting, uncertainly, with new ideas. I also found an outpouring of projection, identification, expectation, disappointment, and passion.

Men as well as women wrote to Beauvoir for they, too, felt implicated in the issues Beauvoir raised.

Beauvoir’s autobiography brought in even more correspondence than The Second Sex. As she unspooled her life story in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), The Prime of Life (1960), The Force of Circumstance (1963), and the retrospective All Said and Done (1972), she seemed to invite readers to tell their own stories, share dilemmas or memories, ask questions, and reinterpret their lives. Sharing was not necessarily easy or happy. Readers’ letters testify to the power of books and the deep, often tangled intimacy between readers and authors, especially the authors of memoir.

Readers came from many different walks of life. Their missives arrived from across the world. Men as well as women wrote to Beauvoir for they, too, felt implicated in the issues Beauvoir raised. In telling their stories, the letter writers recounted what we now see as decisive episodes of the history of the twentieth century—from the Occupation, the Shoah, and the Algerian war to the exhilarations of 1968 and the explosion of women’s liberation—in idiosyncratic and personal voices. They give us an intimate history of the twentieth century.

Beauvoir remains a polarizing figure. Were her memoirs as sincere as she claimed? Was she a “good” feminist, and what does that mean?

Beauvoir remains a polarizing figure. Were her memoirs as sincere as she claimed? Was she a “good” feminist, and what does that mean? Was she blind to the distortions of looking at the world from a position of white Europeanness and intellectual privilege? Does she represent the radicalism of women’s liberation or its limits?

Like any person, Beauvoir embodied a world of contradictions. Like any prominent woman, she attracted and continues to attract a combustible mix of desire, resentment, and admiration. The letters at the center of Sex, Love, and Letters: Writing Simone de Beauvoir capture all these dimensions of her extraordinary presence and legacy.

*Featured photo by Mihai Surdu.


Judith Coffin is Associate Professor of History at UT Austin. She has written about gender, labor, sexuality, advertising, radio. You can find her work, here, or follow her on Twitter @judygcoffin.

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