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?

May

06

Few have done more to make women feel visible, heard, and included than Mary Thom (June 3, 1944 – April 26, 2013), founding editor of legendary feminist magazine Ms. and editor-in-chief of the Women’s Media Center, the think-tank co-founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and reconstructionist Gloria Steinem.

In her role as editor extraordinaire, Thom deliberately avoided the limelight herself while selflessly amplifying women’s voices and championing equal rights in all aspects of life, from career to sexuality. In the very first issue of Ms., “in a campaign for honesty and freedom,” fifty-three women signed a petition stating that they had had an abortion or standing in solidarity with others who had. Long before the era of digitally-driven political transparency, Thom created a system of grading politicians and their position on reproductive rights, which went on to become one of Ms. magazine’s most popular features. What reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom did for the voice of children’s literature, Thom did for the voice of feminism.

To honor Thom’s legacy, the Women’s Media Center has announced a Mary Thom Art of Editing Award. Steinem, Morgan, and Fonda reflected on the award and its inspiration:

A first-rate editor practices a craft demanding great skill, one that doesn’t impose external meaning or agendas on a work but elicits the content and the creator’s voice all the more clearly. Mary Thom did this and more.

For that and so much more, thank you, Mary.

Mar

25

Celebrated as one of the godmothers of the modern women’s liberation movement alongside reconstructionist Betty Friedan, feminist, journalist, political activist, and equality exponent Gloria Steinem (born March 25, 1934) has spent more than half a century campaigning tenaciously against a range of gender discrimination laws, championing equal treatment for men and women, and advocating for women’s reproductive rights.

A co-founder of iconic feminist magazine Ms., the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Steinem has been actively involved in a number of organizations promoting social reform that levels opportunities for the sexes, most recently co-founding the Women’s Media Center alongside Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan with the aim of amplifying women’s voices in a severely skewed media landscape.

With her lectures and magazine articles, Steinem has been tirelessly claiming feminism back from the grip of pontifical academic “discourse” — a word she came to particularly detest for its pedantic pretense — consistently reeling the conversation back into the real, living, public dream of a common language (to borrow from Adrienne Rich’s eloquence) where it belongs.

"The meaning of feminism hasn’t changed, but it’s deepened," Steinem poignantly observed— a remark at once timeless and timelier than ever.

March 25, 2013

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Feb

18

In 1957, as her 15th college reunion was approaching, writer Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921 — February 4, 2006) set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and their present life-satisfaction. In a series of articles, Friedan noted a recurring pattern — the quiet, recondite, yet intense unhappiness of women in the golden age of the housewife. Termed “the problem that has no name,” it spurred an outpour of passionate responses from women for whom it resonated deeply. Friedan wrote:

The shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique. They did give up their own education to put their husbands through college, and then, maybe against their own wishes, ten or fifteen years later, they were left in the lurch by divorce. The strongest were able to cope more or less well, but it wasn’t that easy for a woman of forty-five or fifty to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children or herself alone.

In 1963, after witnessing the profound cultural resonance of the topic, Friedan reworked the articles into The Feminine Mystique, which went on to ignite the second wave of modern feminism and to become the most influential book on gender politics in contemporary history. It championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life.

She wrote:

Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’

In 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, Friedan organized the nation-wide Women’s Strike for Equality. It culminated with a New York City march led by Friedan herself, which drew 50,000 women and men and became one of the largest marches in history. The following year, she and other front-line feminists founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and continued to work tirelessly for the full inclusion of women in mainstream society.

Friedan passed away on her 85th birthday, bequeathing a powerful legacy that shaped the feminist movement not merely as relentless advocacy for women’s equality but as enduring protection and celebration of the human spirit.