Dec

30

French writer, philosopher, cultural critic, and public intellectual Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986) is celebrated as the mother of contemporary feminism. Her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a seminal account of woman’s role as an “other” in a world dominated and defined by male power, framed much of the dialogue on women’s rights and gender equality in the decades that followed, shaping the subsequent work of iconic reconstructionists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

An intellectually inclined child raised in a borderline bourgeois family, Beauvoir received early encouragement from her father and went on to pursue mathematics and philosophy after high school. In 1929, she met the odd-looking, spirited young man who would eventually become the iconic existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Beauvoir’s lifelong lover and intellectual companion. At the time of their first encounter, both were studying for the agrégation in philosophy — the high French graduate degree — and Beauvoir placed second in the entrance exam, behind Sartre, though the examination jury reportedly agreed that she was the better philosopher of the two. Only twenty-one, she became the youngest person in history to have passed the exam.

Despite — or perhaps because of — their intense love, as evidenced by their letters, Sartre and Beauvoir maintained an open relationship for the half-century that they were together. Each had multiple affairs, but in the context of a French bourgeois society, where the practice appeared to be a mundane male prerogative, their arrangement was much more radical and norm-defiant for Beauvoir, who had a number of both male and female lovers over the years, than it was for Sartre — it became her way of reclaiming the same equality and freedom in matters of the heart and body that society had afforded to men.

In 1949, Beauvoir published The Second Sex in French — her landmark conception of feminist existentialism, which not only outlined the systematic moral evolution necessary for true gender equality but also called, in unambiguous terms, for a fundamental moral revolution.

The book was quickly translated into English and published in America under the efforts of Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. But what may at first glance appear an admirable feat was in fact a lamentable and far-reaching cultural mistake: Howard Parshley, the translator Knopf had enlisted in the task, had only basic proficiency in French and hardly any grasp of philosophy, which rendered his translation a travesty of Beauvoir’s work — much was mistranslated, resulting in damaging distortion and loss of meaning, and entire parts were cut. To make matters worse, Knopf deliberately suppressed competing translations for more than a quarter century, which made Beauvoir’s seminal treatise largely misunderstood and underappreciated in America. It wasn’t until the book’s 60th anniversary in 2009 that a complete English translation finally saw light of day, thanks to the combined efforts of translators Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, who not only restored Beauvoir’s intended meaning but also salvaged a third of her original work that had been entirely cut.

Lisa Appignanesi writes in her biography of Beauvoir:

Beauvoir was a woman who was ardent for life in its full sensuous possibility. A highly trained intellectual, she was yet intensely aware of her body — which is what made her such a perceptive observer of women’s and her own condition… . If she felt her body had left her before the end, not even burial has been able to keep her indomitable spirit down.

Indeed, on April 19, 1986, more than 5,000 mourners of all ages followed Beauvoir’s funeral cortège as it traveled to her final resting place, the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. “Women, you owe her everything!” was the phrase that floated through the grieving crowd and echoed across the world.

Beauvoir’s legacy permeates the very fabric of modern society and has shaped our understanding of equality, but folded into it is also a subtle reminder that we, as a culture, still have a long way to go: It’s been argued — right here, right now, for instance — that Beauvoir deserves a Nobel Prize for her work, but, true to the Prize’s gender bias, she was never even nominated for one. And yet what greater contribution to global peace and justice than laying the foundation for a model of humanity in which one half is equal to, not lesser than, the other?

Dec

23

Celebrated as “the first lady of Civil Rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005) helped usher in a new era of equality with her iconic act of defiance against injustice: Her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, became one of the symbolic pillars of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Though Parks, raised by a strong mother and nursed on pride in her heritage, was not the first African American to risk arrest by standing up to segregationist laws — preceded, most notably, by Irene Morgan in 1944 and Sarah Keys, whose seminal legal battle stretched across nearly three years between early 1953 and the end of 1955, shortly before Parks’s arrest — Parks’s brave act of protest came at the right time, when the Civil Rights movement had reached a tipping point of nation-wide restlessness. Her arrest sparked a series of demonstrations and paved the way for court decisions and legislature that subverted and eventually overturned the historical embarrassment known as the Jim Crow system.

The circumstances of Parks’s historic protest made her act of defiance particularly poignant: That fateful evening, after a long day at work, she paid her fare and boarded the downtown bus, resting into a seat in the first row of the rear section of the bus, allotted to African Americans and marked “colored.” The seats in the front, reserved for white passengers, slowly began filling up, until the section was completely occupied. The bus driver proceeded to move the “colored” sign to the row behind Parks and demanded that she, as well as the other three black passengers, move back to make room for the whites.

It was then that Parks recognized the driver: He was the same man who, twelve years earlier, had demanded that Parks disembark the bus after having paid her fare and boarded, instructing her to follow city rules and re-board from the rear door rather than the front; but when she exited to reenter through the “colored” door, the driver sped off and left Parks to walk home — at night, in the rain.

So on that December evening in 1955, Parks stood up for her nation, her community, and herself — despite the clear risk of arrest and the exhaustion of the grueling day at work. The remarks opening her autobiography resound with especial intensity of spirit:

The only tired I was, I was tired of giving in.

Above all, Parks was driven by the dream of equality in the most human of ways, recounting one of her earliest and fondest childhood memories: the “remarkable time” when a white man had treated her “like a regular little girl, not a black little girl.” That mindset remained with Parks as she refused to give up her seat nearly four decades later. She writes:

From the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespect treatment. But it was very hard to do anything about segregation and racism when white people had the power of the law behind them. Somehow we had to change the laws. And we had to get enough white people on our side to be able to succeed. I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to segregation laws in the south. I only knew that I was tired of being pushed around. I was a regular person, just as good as anybody else. There had been a few times in my life when I had been treated by the white people like a regular person, so I knew what that felt like. It was time that other white people started treating me that way.

In her lifetime, Parks witnessed the demise of the Jim Crow system and the blossoming of Civil Rights into the most important cultural movement since Women’s Suffrage. She received countless honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest accolade awarded by the U.S. legislative branch. Exactly three years and ten days after Parks’s death in 2005 at the age of 92, the nation elected its first African American president.

Dec

16

When she penned her 1962 book Silent Spring, marine biologist, conservationist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) loudly, if perhaps unwittingly at the time, announced what’s been termed ” The Age of Ecology” and became a key figure in pioneering the modern environmental movement.

Today, when sustainability is on every corporate and cultural agenda and the deluge of news of environmental collapse is never-ending, it’s hard to appreciate just how radical Carson’s tireless advocacy was at the time — and yet, more than half a century ago, she presaged one of today’s most pervasive, inescapable concerns:

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.

With Silent Spring, which not only was the Inconvenient Truth of its day but also paved the way for the very existence of such contemporary efforts, Carson made more people take environmental concerns to heart than anyone ever had before. Particularly opposed to the use of pesticides, she withstood unrelenting attacks by chemical companies and effected a landmark change in pesticide policy, resulting in a nationwide ban on chemical pesticides like DDT and spurring the grassroots environmental movement that eventually produced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental historian Linda Lear captures Carson’s legacy in all its tragedy and beauty in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, where she writes:

Rachel Carson was an unlikely person to start any sort of popular movement. She treasured her solitude, defended her privacy, rarely joined any organization; but she meant to bear witness. She wrote a revolutionary book in terms that were acceptable to a middle class emerging from the lethargy of postwar affluence and woke them to their neglected responsibilities. It was a book in which she shared her vision of life one last time. In the sea and the bird’s song she had discovered the wonder and mystery of life. Her witness for these, and the integrity of all life, would make a difference.

Sixteen years after Carson succumbed to breast cancer, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor, also bestowed upon reconstructionsts Margaret Mead and Georgia O’Keeffe — by Jimmy Carter. So enormous was Carson’s cultural impact and so far-reaching her legacy that her story was even adapted in a children’s book.

Dec

10

When she was nine years old, Hetty Bower (September 28, 1905–November 12, 2013) saw the wounded veterans returning from the battlefields of WWI and became an unflinching opponent of war. She spent the century that followed fighting for social justice as one of Britain’s most unrelenting political activists. Among her last words when she died at the age of 108 was the song she sang with her daughters during those final days, and the refrain to her entire life: “Ban the bomb, for ever more.”

Bower, born Esther Rimel, joined the very first women’s union, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, in her early twenties. Though she was highly politically engaged her whole life, running a hostel for Czech refugees during WWII, becoming a founding member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, and marching in every demonstration against the war in Iraq, Bower didn’t begin her public-speaking career until she was 102, when she addressed the crowds at London’s Hiroshima Day Commemoration with her articulate and purposeful message of peace.

After WWII, Bower spent her days working at a London high school, where she championed music education — she had developed a special love of music during WWI, when her family found comfort in playing piano and singing to override the noise of bomb raids. Her dying words — a lyric line that bespeaks her two great passions, music and peace — ring with the undying hope of one day drowning out the sound of war in the world.