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


Before Ira Glass, before Ter­ry Gross, before any num­ber of NPR per­son­al­i­ties and inter­net pod­cast­ers who these days bring us inter­view after fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view with the great minds of our time, there was Studs Terkel. In addi­tion to his almost super­hu­man achieve­ments as an oral his­to­ri­an, film and TV actor, and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning author, Terkel pio­neered the radio inter­view with his Chica­go radio show, which ran for over four decades. “With no writ­ten ques­tions,” an NPR eulo­gy tells us, Terkel would “pick up a riff and impro­vise.” In 1960, he brought his jazz-like impro­vi­sa­tion­al style to Paris, to the apart­ment of exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher and nov­el­ist Simone de Beau­voir.

You can hear their con­ver­sa­tion, which spans near­ly half-an-hour, just below. De Beau­voir talks about her mid­dle-class upbring­ing, stu­dent days at the Sor­bonne, and devel­op­ment as a teacher and writer. She nar­rates her life his­to­ry in part because the first book of her three-vol­ume auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Mem­oirs of a Duti­ful Daugh­ter, had just been pub­lished, and the sec­ond, The Prime of Life, was near com­ple­tion. Already well-known for her philo­soph­i­cal and polit­i­cal work with her part­ner Jean-Paul Sartre and fel­low exis­ten­tial­ists Mau­rice Mer­leau-Pon­ty and Albert Camus, and her ground­break­ing fem­i­nist study The Sec­ond Sex, de Beau­voir was enter­ing a lat­er phase in her career, a very reflec­tive one. Suit­ably, Terkel opens the inter­view by observ­ing that “lis­ten­ers would very much like to know how you got this way.”

“This way” refers to de Beauvoir’s fierce com­mit­ments to phi­los­o­phy, and to fem­i­nism. Terkel com­pares her to tran­scen­den­tal­ist and fem­i­nist pio­neer Mar­garet Fuller, “of Boston, a cen­tu­ry ago,” who “too trav­eled to var­i­ous parts of the world and saw what she want­ed to see, what she intend­ed to see, the truth.” Accord­ing­ly, their con­ver­sa­tion turns from per­son­al rem­i­nisces to de Beauvoir’s belief that the writer must be “involved,” or—as she clar­i­fies, “committed”—ethically, philo­soph­i­cal­ly, and polit­i­cal­ly. What this means for her is “not ignor­ing the rest of the world.” As she puts it, “there is no pos­si­ble neu­tral­i­ty… you have to com­mit your­self… and not to just be picked by peo­ple, pre­tend­ing you are picked by nobody.” She goes on, in a vein rem­i­nis­cent of Howard Zinn’s remark that one “can’t be neu­tral on a mov­ing train”:

You are always picked one way or anoth­er way. You always help this one or this oth­er: the poor against the wealthy or the wealthy against the poor—you have no choice. And if you pre­tend just to stay and do noth­ing, even stay­ing and doing noth­ing means some­thing and it goes to one of the camp or the oth­er.

Intrigued, Terkel asks “I’m doing noth­ing, this too is a mat­ter of choice, you say?” De Beau­voir explains: “there is only one thing: is to begin to speak your­self, your own way. You have to say ‘I am against it,’ ‘I am for it’ because if you say noth­ing, your silence is used by the one you are for or against.” It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing inter­view first because de Beau­voir is such an engag­ing speak­er and sec­ond­ly because Terkel is such an excel­lent lis­ten­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Philosophy’s Pow­er Cou­ple, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beau­voir, Fea­tured in 1967 TV Inter­view

Pho­tos of Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beau­voir Hang­ing with Che Gue­vara in Cuba (1960)

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

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Comments (3)
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  • Maan Toor says:

    First things first, this is a great arti­cle. So thank you very much Josh.

    I am not much famil­iar with Simone De Beau­voir but through read­ing about Sartre, i real­ly see how she was a com­plete woman and intel­lec­tu­al fem­i­nist. The great thing i learned from this arti­cle is when she said,“there is only one thing: is to begin to speak your­self, your own way. You have to say ‘I am against it,’ ‘I am for it’ because if you say noth­ing, your silence is used by the one you are for or against.”

    We do not speak on some moments where we must. So when we deliv­er noth­ing but silence than we kind of get agreed to dis­agree which is not a good point. We should say what we real­ly feel about our opin­ions. Mat­ter of fact, HISTORY is the evi­dence that nobody achieved any­thing good or bad by not speak­ing any­thing. Excuse, my Eng­lish as i am from a vil­lage of India. I’m still learn­ing things.

    I’ll be look­ing for­ward to more of Josh posts.

  • Mike says:

    What a time cap­sule!

    “Madame de Beau­v­ior, you are an artist who calls her shots.”

    Thank you. Won­der­ful to hear this voice!

  • Tish says:

    The tran­script for this piece is only accu­rate for the first three min­utes.… after that kind of rude dri­v­el. Very dis­ap­point­ing as the inter­view is so the oppo­site.

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