Simone de Beauvoir Explains “Why I’m a Feminist” in a Rare TV Interview (1975)

In Simone de Beauvoir’s 1945 nov­el The Blood of Oth­ers, the nar­ra­tor, Jean Blo­mart, reports on his child­hood friend Marcel’s reac­tion to the word “rev­o­lu­tion”:

It was sense­less to try to change any­thing in the world or in life; things were bad enough even if one did not med­dle with them. Every­thing that her heart and her mind con­demned she rabid­ly defended—my father, mar­riage, cap­i­tal­ism. Because the wrong lay not in the insti­tu­tions, but in the depths of our being. We must hud­dle in a cor­ner and make our­selves as small as pos­si­ble. Bet­ter to accept every­thing than to make an abortive effort, doomed in advance to fail­ure.

Marcel’s fear­ful fatal­ism rep­re­sents every­thing De Beau­voir con­demned in her writ­ing, most notably her ground­break­ing 1949 study, The Sec­ond Sex, often cred­it­ed as the foun­da­tion­al text of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism. De Beau­voir reject­ed the idea that women’s his­tor­i­cal sub­jec­tion was in any way natural—“in the depths of our being.” Instead, her analy­sis fault­ed the very insti­tu­tions Mar­cel defends: patri­archy, mar­riage, cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion.

In the 1975 inter­view above with French jour­nal­ist Jean-Louis Ser­van-Schreiber—“Why I’m a Feminist”—De Beau­voir picks up the ideas of The Sec­ond Sex, which Ser­van-Schreiber calls as impor­tant an “ide­o­log­i­cal ref­er­ence” for fem­i­nists as Marx’s Cap­i­tal is for com­mu­nists. He asks De Beau­v­ior about one of her most quot­ed lines: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” Her reply shows how far in advance she was of post-mod­ern anti-essen­tial­ism, and how much of a debt lat­er fem­i­nist thinkers owe to her ideas:

Yes, that for­mu­la is the basis of all my the­o­ries…. Its mean­ing is very sim­ple, that being a woman is not a nat­ur­al fact. It’s the result of a cer­tain his­to­ry. There is no bio­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal des­tiny that defines a woman as such…. Baby girls are man­u­fac­tured to become women.”

With­out deny­ing the fact of bio­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence, De Beau­voir debunks the notion that sex dif­fer­ences are suf­fi­cient to jus­ti­fy gen­der-based hier­ar­chies of sta­tus and social pow­er. Wom­en’s sec­ond-class sta­tus, she argues, results from a long his­tor­i­cal process; even if insti­tu­tions no longer inten­tion­al­ly deprive women of pow­er, they still intend to hold on to the pow­er men have his­tor­i­cal­ly accrued.

Almost forty years after this interview—over six­ty since The Sec­ond Sex—the debates De Beau­voir helped ini­ti­ate rage on, with no sign of abat­ing any­time soon. Although Ser­van-Schreiber calls fem­i­nism a “ris­ing force” that promis­es “pro­found changes,” one won­ders whether De Beau­voir, who died in 1986, would be dis­mayed by the plight of women in much of the world today. But then again, unlike her char­ac­ter Mar­cel, De Beau­voir was a fight­er, not like­ly to “hud­dle in a cor­ner” and give in. Ser­van-Schreiber states above that De Beau­voir “has always refused, until this year, to appear on TV,” but he is mis­tak­en. In 1967, she appeared with her part­ner Jean-Paul Sartre on a French-Cana­di­an pro­gram called Dossiers.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

Lovers and Philoso­phers — Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beau­voir Togeth­er in 1967

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Simone de Beau­voir Tells Studs Terkel How She Became an Intel­lec­tu­al and Fem­i­nist (1960)

The Paris Review Inter­views Now Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Hanoch says:

    Debate may still rage on but, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that is often due to mis­in­for­ma­tion. Cer­tain­ly in the U.S., at least, men and women enjoy equal rights and oppor­tu­ni­ties. Of course, with the likes of hon­or killings, gen­i­tal muti­la­tion, and polit­i­cal repres­sion still occur­ring in cer­tain cul­tures, De Beau­voir still would have much to be dis­mayed about.

    • SVI says:

      Espe­cial­ly since the age of con­sent she fought so hard against has been insti­tut­ed. She would­n’t be able to have sex with 14-year-old girls today.

  • Adrienne says:

    In response to your com­ment, Hanoch, I find it iron­ic that we felt the need to pass the Lily Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act of 2009 if men and women in fact do enjoy equal rights and oppor­tu­ni­ties. Usu­al­ly we are cul­tur­al­ly a bit off from our leg­is­la­tion (proac­tive­ly or retroac­tive­ly)…

  • Hanoch says:


    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, leg­is­la­tion is dri­ven by pol­i­tics, not nec­es­sar­i­ly by eco­nom­ic real­i­ty. The sta­tis­ti­cal dis­par­i­ty in pay between the gen­ders is dri­ven by fac­tors that are based on dif­fer­ing career choic­es (on a sta­tis­ti­cal basis) by men and women (e.g., dif­fer­ing fields of employ­ment, num­ber of work hours, etc.). When the dif­fer­ences in career choic­es are con­trolled for, how­ev­er, (e.g., an indi­vid­ual man and woman are in the same field, in the same region, work the same hours, main­tain the same years of unin­ter­rupt­ed employ­ment, etc.), there is no sta­tis­ti­cal dif­fer­ence between the gen­ders in pay. When you think about this from the per­spec­tive of sup­ply and demand, this is not sur­pris­ing. If it were oth­er­wise, busi­ness­es would have to make the con­scious deci­sion (on a large-scale basis) to forego prof­it by hir­ing more expen­sive labor. There are sev­er­al econ­o­mists who have writ­ten on this issue.

  • Kathryn says:

    QuERI — the Queer­ing Edu­ca­tion Research Insti­tute. I think they shared it first, but not absolute­ly cer­tain.

  • Andi Fastweg says:

    She was a com­mu­nist: Amer­i­cans should hate her.

  • zeynep ekmekci says:


    do you know where i can find rest of the inter­view?

  • Steve Corner says:

    and you’re a fas­cist, the entire world should hate you.

  • Steve Corner says:

    and you’re a fas­cist, the entire world should hate you.

  • C says:

    It’s aamaz­ing what you can learn from a web­site by the kinds of com­ments a post like this gen­er­ates on its audi­ence.
    So sad.

  • Namrata vyas says:

    how far Simone de beau­viour’s con­cept of fem­i­nism is rel­e­vant to south Asian Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture, South Asian women writers?like, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lan­ka. ?

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