Swans Commentary » swans.com February 11, 2008  



The Unfinished Business Of Simone de Beauvoir


by Marie Rennard



Pic: "We Can Do It!" - J. Howard Miller, 1942 - Size: 8k
We Can Do It!
J. Howard Miller, 1942



One million women get an abortion in France every year.
They're doing it in dangerous conditions because they're condemned to clandestineness, although medically controlled abortion is a simple thing.
Everyone keeps silent about those million women.
I declare I am one of them. I had an abortion.
As well as demanding free access to contraceptive means, we are demanding free abortion.

—Manifesto of the 343, Le Nouvel Observateur, #334, April 5, 1971 (1)


(Swans - February 11, 2008)   This petition, le manifeste des 343, written by Simone de Beauvoir and followed by the names of 342 women, among whom were Catherine Deneuve, Marguerite Duras, Gisèle Halimi, Bernadette Lafont, Françoise Sagan, Agnès Varda and -- funny detail -- both of writer Boris Vian's wives -- his first (2) and his widow (3) -- and all of Sartre's lovers, appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur in April 1971 and was soon known everywhere in France as the "Manifesto of the 343 Sluts" (le manifeste des 343 salopes).

Read whatever Simone de Beauvoir has written, you won't find more.

Nineteen seventy-one, that's not so far away. We were, in France, going out of one of those popular rebellions we fortunately are accustomed to. Since 1968, women had begun asking loud and clear for the respect of their rights, or maybe just for respect. A single mother was at that time condemned to public despise and poverty, banished by her parents, left homeless and hopeless. One of our most famous writers, Marcel Pagnol, had brought the theme to light in some of his work (La Fille du Puisatier), and women were quitting this suit of humbleness and guilt they had so conveniently worn for so long. Sex was no longer a fault, nor pregnancy a deserved punishment.

I was nine years old at that time, and unable to understand how one could kill a baby. And like most people, I easily took for granted this term of sluts (or bitches) cast on those women by the satiric journal Charlie Hebdo, whose journalists had republished the text of the manifesto with this question: Who made those bitches pregnant?

That was the right question. Men, of course, was the right answer. Men who were sitting in the parliament and making both contraception and abortion a crime. Men who were judges in courts, and who condemned to death the angel makers.

Four years later, another woman, Simone Veil, would confront her own right-wing majority in the French parliament and submitted a law legalizing abortion. In her exceptional speech, (4) Simone Veil pointed out the inequality that forced the poorest women to risk mutilation or assume a child whereas the richest ones still had the opportunity to pay for a doctor abroad. Abortion had to be a choice for all women. The law (5) was adopted in January 1975, thanks to the vote of left-wing parties and in spite of the insults and threats Simone Veil faced.

I was thirteen by then, and old enough to discuss the matter with the women who defended this law, among them my own grandmother. She was the one who made me understand, by telling me things of her life, how important and necessary it was. She told me:

I had an abortion half a dozen times, alone in my kitchen, my girl. And each time, I risked my life and broke my soul. But I also had five children. How would I have managed to feed and raise eleven? I hardly ever had food enough for the ones I gave birth to. Your mother's father, to whom I was married, had left home after her birth, and never came back. I already had two girls. Of my three boys, one was born during the war from an American soldier, and the last two in the year following the end of the war, from the man you're calling grandpa. God only can judge; priests, politicians, do not have a right to substitute their comfortable convictions to my conscience. I'll tell you one thing. Abortion is always a nightmare. No need to make it a danger. Maybe you'll understand better the day you fall in love, and can live this love with no fear thanks to this law.

She was right.

This law makes abortion a free act. Moreover, doctors have to inform women about the medical risks, and the possible social help in case they decide not to abort. No doctor is compelled to practice abortion, but a refusal must be formally and immediately expressed to the woman who's asking for it. Last, minors need parental approval.

Merely writing things about The Second Sex does no harm. Neither does calling women to independence and equal rights, having a liaison with self-important Sartre, or being photographed naked by Art Shay, a friend of Beauvoir's second-tier lover. Nobody cares about that 1952 photo. (6) It only teaches us that Simone de Beauvoir had a backside as lovely as her face. God forgives those who're talking of sacrilege; they do not know what they're doing. One of them recently wrote in the French daily Libération: "This publication [of the photo] was a lack of respect for Simone de Beauvoir and for all women. It only aimed at selling the paper. Why then not publish a photo of Sartre's ass?"

Lord, doesn't he have enough with Sartre's face?

Writing books about the feminine condition does no harm, I was arguing before I got lost in digression, but acting can make a lot of good.

For this declaration, Simone de Beauvoir and the 342 other women who signed the manifesto deserve our gratitude.

Most young French women in fact do not know this text was written by Madame de Beauvoir. They do not even know who she was. When they evoke feminism, it is most often through Les chiennes de garde. (7) Feminist activism has a poor image in the mind of young women nowadays. Perhaps because they now just have to see the nurse of the college to get emergency contraception, and never have to worry about unwanted pregnancy. If our girls feel so unconcerned with their rights, or the history of their rights, it's because their grandmothers won the fight for them. But these young girls make a mistake if they think there's nothing left to fight for: as long as there is someone to introduce Simone de Beauvoir as la femme de Sartre or la scandaleuse, (8) there will be a need to watch out, raise our consciousness, and assume our intellectual, moral, and financial independence, because they're our guarantee for happiness.




1.  See http://archquo.nouvelobs.com/cgi/articles?ad=culture/20041126.OBS2461.html for the original text. See also http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifeste_des_343  (back)

2.  Michelle Léglise. She left Boris Vian to join the ranks of Sartre's lovers.  (back)

3.  Ursula Kubbler  (back)

4.  Listen to the full speech on the Web site of the French National Parliament. (Superior oratory in French.)
http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/histoire/interruption/simone_veil_tribune.asp  (back)

5.  See http://www.assembleenationale.fr/histoire/interruption/sommaire.asp  (back)

6.  Le Nouvel Observateur, January 3, 2008. See Gilles d'Aymery's essay and Peter Byrne's article.  (back)

7.  Les chiennes de garde, or guard dogs: French organization of women who bark every time Simone de Beauvoir appears naked. In fact they officially protested, asking for apologies from the Nouvel Observateur's Editor, Jean Daniel, or for a photo of his august ass on the front page of the magazine. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism_in_France  (back)

8.  The cover page of the Nouvel Observateur that showed her naked picture had a caption calling Beauvoir la scandaleuse ("the scandalous one.")  (back)


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This Edition's Internal Links

Simone de Beauvoir One Hundred Years After Her Birth - Karen Moller

The Mother Of Us All - Gilles d'Aymery

Not Shutting Up For A Second: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) - Peter Byrne

Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age - Book Review by Louis Proyect

Snared In The Devil's Stocking - Book Review by Peter Byrne

The Other Light - Carol Warner Christen

Pristine - Martin Murie

Obamania: Curb Your Enthusiasm - Charles Marowitz

Journey To The Sleep Doors n. 4: Foglie - Poem by Guido Monte & Francesca Saieva

Blips #65 - From the Martian Desk - Gilles d'Aymery

Letters to the Editor

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 11, 2008