Born in 1908, Simone de Beauvoir was an influential writer, feminist, social theorist, and philosopher. She is best known for her 1949 book, The Second Sex, which upended traditional notions of the role of women in society. Beauvoir made the case that women have always been treated as an “other” and advocated for women’s liberation.
Beauvoir also authored the Manifesto of the 343, which set the stage for legalizing birth control and abortion in France. The demands came from a gathering of 343 women that she organized to share their experiences with reproduction rights in the country.
Beauvoir was also deeply engaged in politics and was one of the original editors of the left-wing French publication Les Temps Modernes, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lazzman. There are many strategies we can learn from the mind of this revolutionary figure.
This article is part of the Brilliant Thinkers series, which explores the thought processes, working habits, and decision-making principles applied by intellectuals who profoundly impacted the world with their discoveries and the way they challenged the status quo.
Simone de Beauvoir’s thinking strategies
Simone de Beauvoir was known to always challenge expectations, to be comfortable with dealing with ambiguous situations and addressing conflicting ideas simultaneously, and to embrace the “intellectual” label associated with her work.
1. Challenging the status quo. Beauvoir challenged societal expectations of women from the beginning. As a secondary school teacher, she was fired from multiple jobs for teaching about feminism. Schools accused her of “morally corrupting” the youth in the community.
When The Second Sex was published, Beauvoir presented a series of novel arguments to prove the existence of women’s oppression. She tied together creation myths, which suggested women were sinful and weak, with men’s treatment of women based on those myths.
She also suggested that the idea of what makes a woman is a social construct, saying that “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” These claims which challenged the status quo have become extremely influential.
2. Embracing ambiguity. When discussing social ills, some people exclusively blame individual behavior, while others focus only on systemic problems. Beauvoir, who published a book called Ethics of Ambiguity, was known for keeping individual and systemic issues in balance in her work. She recognized that social problems result from systemic oppression and individual actions.
Instead of focusing one one perspective only and ignoring seemingly contradictory ideas, she was comfortable addressing conflicting viewpoints simultaneously when dealing with ambiguous situations.
3. Celebrating intellectualism. While some people may associate intellectualism with the negative connotation of a single-minded focus on thinking, Simone de Beauvoir embraced the intellectual quest of deriving knowledge from reason.
She was an extremely active presence in the French intellectual community. In addition to her books, she wrote novels, essays, plays, and memoirs, and believed in the power of intellectualism to contribute to societal reform.
How to think like Simone de Beauvoir
A principle visible throughout Simone de Beauvoir’s work is that great thinking does not need to be neutral thinking. Beauvoir’s activism in the form of her writings brought awareness to the struggles facing women all over the globe. Her ideas paved the way for reproductive rights in France and the second wave of the feminist movement.
Ask yourself: what are topics you are passionate about? What are areas where you would like to contribute to changing minds and fostering innovation? Next, write down public engagement skills that you are comfortable with – writing, speaking, teaching, organizing – and consider how you might use them to support causes that are important to you.
Maybe you can launch a newsletter about climate change, start teaching decision-makers at your company about mental health in the workplace, or give a talk about the importance of inclusive design. Simone de Beauvoir is a great example of how rigorous thinking is compatible with advocacy.
Another way to think like Simone de Beauvoir is to get more comfortable with ambiguity. Beauvoir wrote extensively about ethics in ambiguous situations and took great care to balance arguments in her work. Recognize the role of ambiguity in your life and increase your tolerance to ambiguity tolerance by studying the ambiguity effect.
Finally, practice inclusive thinking. In her work, Beauvoir always made sure to include the voices of people who were often excluded from intellectual conversations. Whenever you are working on a project, consider how you will practice inclusion. Whose voices are being overlooked in decision-making processes? What steps can you take to make the project more inclusive?
Simone de Beauvoir was an intellectual powerhouse whose stance against oppression sparked a movement. She challenged the status quo with the stroke of her pen and the power of her ideas. We can take inspiration from her by finding ways to use our talents to advocate for causes we care about, to think about our relationship with ambiguity, and to build more inclusive environments.