Imagine What It Was Like To Sit Down At Simone De Beauvoir's Desk "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," wrote the pioneering French feminist. The National Museum of Women in the Arts invites visitors to explore a replica of her cozy, cluttered workspace.
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Imagine What It Was Like To Sit Down At Simone De Beauvoir's Desk

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Imagine What It Was Like To Sit Down At Simone De Beauvoir's Desk

Imagine What It Was Like To Sit Down At Simone De Beauvoir's Desk

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to tell you about someone who had a remarkable life. Simone de Beauvoir was a bisexual French atheist who wanted to be a nun when she was little, a pioneer feminist and prolific author who moved in elite philosophical circles. Her longtime lover wrote the book on existentialism. When she died in 1986, she was famous across the globe. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us how Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts is saluting her again.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Intellectual, philosophical, literary, rebellious - Simone de Beauvoir spoke like a machine gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: (Speaking French).

STAMBERG: She wrote quickly, too - novels, essays, a play, four memoirs. At 15, a friend asked what she wanted to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE BEAUVOIR: And I said I wanted to be a well-known writer when I am a woman, and that was true.

STAMBERG: It was what she wanted most in the world, she said.

SARAH OSBORNE BENDER: She writes like a scribe, it just comes out of her.

STAMBERG: Sarah Osborne Bender runs the library and research center at the Women in the Arts museum. She's showing two small piles of graph paper, the kind French students use to discipline their handwriting. On the pages, an early draft of de Beauvoir's best known book, "The Second Sex," her 1949 feminist treatise on what it means to be a woman.

OSBORNE BENDER: When she finally decided that she was going to write this, the ideas just poured from her.

STAMBERG: You can see it on these pages, words marched steadily across the paper, only two small cross-outs.

OSBORNE BENDER: She wrote longhand.

STAMBERG: And nice penmanship, or penwomanship (ph), whatever she would have said then.

This manuscript is the only original object in the exhibit. "From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir" is a cosy corner assemblage of objects that could have been in her Paris apartment - desk, lamp, bookcases.

OSBORNE BENDER: Her apartment was cluttered. Her desk was covered. Her bookshelves were packed.

STAMBERG: Osborne Bender knows this from photographs, the philosopher in her element. Those black and white pictures are in the show, plus lots of other snapshots de Beauvoir tacked to her walls.

OSBORNE BENDER: Herself in travels, her loved ones, friends referred to as the family. Occasionally there's a movie star.

STAMBERG: It's a real intellectual's apartment, the digs of someone who spends time reading, writing and thinking. On an end table...

OSBORNE BENDER: Her travel tchotchkes. And these hands here are casts of Sartre's hands.

STAMBERG: De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, philosopher and existentialist, had a lifelong virtual marriage of intellect, opinions, ambitions, intense conversation and Deux Magots coffee. It was an open relationship - no wedding license, no children, various lovers on the side. Her deepest involvement, though, may have been with the notion of feminism, of being female in a man's world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE BEAUVOIR: Being a woman was not a problem for me.

STAMBERG: Sure, she was brilliant, confident, outspoken, but she interviewed dozens of women about their problems and analyzed them in "The Second Sex." Decades before Friedan, Steinem and Ms. magazine, de Beauvoir declared one is not born a woman, one becomes one. It's society that makes women second rate, acquiescent, oppressed. In the late 1960s, when women in France and the U.S. became activists for equality, de Beauvoir agreed with their goals.

OSBORNE BENDER: They needed to take their issues into their own hands. They couldn't wait for men to invite them into the fold. If they wanted change and that if they wanted their own place, they needed to make it.

STAMBERG: These days, women are in charge of nations and direct companies. They're organizing protests and raising daughters to be fearless. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Sarah Osborne Bender says in putting together her small exhibition, she saw 21st century women turning to de Beauvoir for inspiration.

OSBORNE BENDER: I was amazed at the presence she has in popular culture. If you search Simone de Beauvoir on Twitter or on Instagram, the daily volume of content - her quotes, pictures of her, people saying they're reading her for a university class. Every day there's content about her. She really holds a place. She's a very modern woman.

STAMBERG: In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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