Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (HarperCollins, 1958) chronicles the early years of de Beauvoir’s development as the dutiful daughter of a bourgeois family circa 1900’s, with an atheist father and a stifling and devout Catholic mother. Like most women, Beauvoir attempts to forge a path for herself that is independent of her parents without disrespecting them. This is a beautifully moving memoir of one of the most important women of the feminist movement in the United States, for although Paris was scandalized by the publishing of her landmark work The Second Sex, the feminists in the United States were more than ready to apply her theories on female sexuality and patriarchy to their personal lives.
As it applies to women, de Beauvoir focuses her memoir on the relationships she forged with family and friends and traces how each of them influenced in her the intelligent and existential thinker that she became. It is the story of a courageous life, a woman whose childhood and oppressive mother made her feel “engulfed in the rising dark of [her] own helplessness” (12). A young girl who realized that she had grown up in “a masculine world, [her] childhood had been nourished by myths forged by men, and [she] hadn’t reacted to them in at all the same way [she] should have done if [she] had been a boy” (“Force of Circumstance”, 103).
Having grown up during a time when there were extreme differences between what was allowed for men and what was allowed for women, Beauvoir learned to navigate a singular path that pleased only her. Living in a time wherein women could not vote, could not have lovers, had to abide by the strict moral code of Catholicism, and was bred to be married to the highest bidder, her only gift in life stemming from the birth of her children, Beauvoir rejected everything she was born into. She lost faith in God and her mother by the age of fifteen, and identifying with men and her father, she pursued an intellectual life at the age of fifteen, knowing that she wanted to be independent, make money, and write from an existential perspective. She fell in love and had a long and open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was her lover, friend, and companion for years, even though they never married, had children, of even lived together.
At an early age, de Beauvoir “insisted that men should be subject to the same laws as women…[and that] both sexes should observe the same rules of chastity and continence” ( 167).
A woman who “flattered myself that I combined a woman’s heart and a man’s brain,” de Beauvoir didn’t feel the need to compete with men, especially the men with whom she went to college. The only girl in a classroom full of boys, she felt that even though she was unique in pursuing a career only men pursued, they did not compete with her or condescend to her because she was a woman. She didn’t feel inferior to them and they didn’t make her feel inferior or lacking, but this is simply because she was a girl and “there was no struggle for the first places between the sexes” (295). Men only competed with men. Her handicap in being a woman only afforded her success as a woman, and the men in her academic circles enjoyed her success without feeling threatened by it – because she was a woman.
A woman in her own right, in this memoir, de Beauvoir shows her readers that if a woman has courage, she can and will fulfill her dreams, even if they are dreams that society tells her are unpopular, unconventional, and unwomanly. Pursuing an intellectually masculine field of study in philosophy, she is stubborn in holding on to her femininity while achieving the dreams that preserved the best in her character: “my love of personal freedom, my passion for life, my curiosity, my determination to be a writer” (340). She teaches all of us that we can dream and live according to our own desires as women. We can all use a good dose of courage as we pursue our own paths in life.