Recently I was reading about the Ghislaine Maxwell court case. Maxwell is the former girlfriend of the late Jeffrey Epstein. She has been convicted of grooming young girls to be sexually abused by Epstein. It’s disgusting and shocking behaviour which quite rightly enrages all, most especially feminists.
However, I’m yet to hear anyone make any reference to – what I thought was an immediately obvious connection – two former lovers who did the same thing: Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Or in other words, to make a reference to the woman many claim as the mother of modern feminism: Beauvoir. She, yes she, did exactly the same. It’s just her ex-boyfriend wasn’t a financier, he was a philosopher. And the location was less ‘palatial home’ and more ‘French university’.
In Carole Seymour-Jones’ biography, A Dangerous Liaison (which I read some years ago; it is brilliant) she explores this very element of Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship. She notes in the preface how at a centenary exhibition on Sartre in Paris, one person remarked, “Not many people are going to the exposition…Sartre and Beauvoir did some bad things” (2008, p. xii). Seymour-Jones continues, telling how she was “astonished by the size of the gap between the public legend and the private lives of the couple” (p. xv).
As Seymour-Jones insightfully summarises (at some point in her book): if Sartre and Beauvoir had done what they did then, right now, they would have been put in jail. There were a number of very worried French mothers and they were right to be so! Some withdrew their daughters from their studies when they got wind of what was happening.
How shocking! The very woman who is so often associated with the promotion of women’s rights was actually an inhibitor of young girls receiving a higher education, because she was grooming them for her sex-obsessed, former lover!
Yet, I frequently hear Beauvoir praised to the skies for what she has written and supposedly done for women. For the record, I find that Le Deuxième Sexe contains brilliant and logical insights alongside utter nonsense and contradictions.
I don’t find Beauvoir a suitable role model at all though, when it all comes down. She comes across to me as a bit more Jezebel than Mother Mary, if I was to look for a Biblical comparison. With regards to role models for females, I think the Bible has far better ones on offer than Beauvoir (minus Jezebel, of course).
As Seymour-Jones writes: “the result of my research has been a reluctant, painful but inescapable erosion of the high regard in which I initially held them. The idols have fallen from their perch. And yet, paradoxically, the more I learnt about the couple’s childhood’s, the greater my sympathy has grown for their ‘bold attempt’ to live against bourgeois society” (p. xvi).
I do wonder what happened to Ghislaine Maxwell in her childhood. What makes a woman complicit to grooming young girls for their former lover? One of Maxwell’s lawyers is claiming that her client is being used as a scapegoat for Epstein’s abuse. Knowing the complexities of the Sartre and Beauvoir relationship, I’m sure there are elements of the Epstein and Maxwell relationship that are yet to be revealed. Both women have done wrong, but to what extent were they caught in a hideous cycle of powerplay and can this extent ever truly been known? These things are never clear-cut or simple. The battle of the sexes is still the battle of the sexes, after all. Yet, at the same time, women are just as sinful as men.
Having read Beauvoir’s first autobiographical offering, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, I can understand why she rejected her Catholic faith, but not why she ended up grooming young girls. It seems a bridge too far to me, but everyone is different.
Evangelical Christians are frequently mocked for their stance on complementarianism by those that would espouse a love for Beauvoir and her personal philosophies. Call me crazy, but I’d prefer Biblical complementarianism any day over Beauvoir or Maxwell grooming me for the likes of Sartre or Epstein.
It would be foolish to dismiss everything that Beauvoir wrote. It would also be heartless to not consider the harsh realities of her life that she triumphed over. Yet at the same time, I think we need to be a bit more realistic about her actual legacy and remember that sympathy does not automatically equate with agreement and approval. To have a fair and balanced judgment is best.
For the sake of all women. And all men.
Yours in considering where to draw the line,