The Ageing of Simone de Beauvoir

Posted on: 8 January 2024 by Professor Susan Pickard in Blog

Simone de Beauvoir - Old Age - Book Cover.

For most of her life, Simone de Beauvoir feared and loathed the idea of ageing so much that she could see no good in it at all.

It was only when her own mother, Françoise, died that she reconciled herself finally to ageing and also to the possibilities for growth and freedom that ageing can bring. This was also the time when she came to terms with the threat that her femininity – epitomised by her mother – had always held for her and indeed Beauvoir’s attitude to femininity lies at the heart of this transformation.

She deconstructed the reasons for this in her magnum opus, The Second Sex in which she explained that women are condemned to be the ‘Other’, consigned to immanence in patriarchal society in contrast with the transcendent masculine who is engaged in the world of activity, of projects, and freedom. Beauvoir is here writing about the ‘myth’ of femininity, not the full potential of what women can be; nevertheless this myth had Beauvoir in its grip like any other member of society, and through much of her life the fear of her own feminine impulses was epitomised by her mother, a woman who played (at least until she became widowed) a traditional female role as wife, mother, and housekeeper. However, this rejection and fear was both countered and intensified by Simone’s attachment to her mother which she could never fully overcome.

Beauvoir was appalled by her own ageing. Since her youth, Beauvoir had found ageing, finitude, impermanence, the constant forward rush of time bringing with it loss and gain, infinitely moving and melancholy. She was prone to dark moods and crying jags when the prospect of old age seemed to snatch away all her hopes and triumphs. However, she was also keenly aware that there is nothing inherent in ageing that made this inevitable; indeed, that finitude is necessary for life to have any meaning. In her undeservedly lesser-known novel All men are mortal she showed, through her character the immortal Count Fosca, how life without end leaches meaning from everything and only the awareness of transience, the horizon of beginnings and endings that frame individual existence, gives us the ability to appreciate love and beauty. Rather it is society’s view, along with deep-seated social inequalities, that deprives old age of meaning and value, devaluing older women more than older men.

In The Second Sex, she described how the myths surrounding ageing femininity means it is considered an even greater threat and horror by men. She wrote, of such myths: “Mother Earth has a face of darkness. […] Man is threatened with being engulfed in this night, the reverse of fertility, and it horrifies him.” If Woman is the Other, the ageing woman is the abject, terrifying Other. Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique was one of the foundational texts of second-wave feminism, had similar insights later in her own life, describing another kind of mystique affecting ageing: ‘The image of age as inevitable decline and deterioration’ she wrote, ‘… was also a mystique of sorts, but one emanating not an aura of desirability but a miasma of dread’.  Beauvoir described how Otherness operates for women in general and older women in particular through embodied shame. Her point is that whilst being constituted the object of the male gaze brings shame with it, the necessity to measure up, being assessed by the male gaze as sexually ineligible in old age is even more shameful.

Beauvoir’s novels and memoir are scattered with ageing women’s confrontations with the mirror where women are shocked and horrified at the almost unrecognisable images of themselves. Beauvoir herself was no exception. In one volume of her memoir written in mid-life, she writes, ‘when I look, I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure’. 

In my latest article, I explore how Beauvoir overcame her personal fear of ageing and I trace this in the evolution of her relationship with her mother, Françoise de Beauvoir. In A Very Easy Death, Beauvoir reflects on the dynamic between attraction and repulsion, closeness and distance, that configured her relationship with her mother for the duration of her life to that point and how she finally succeeded in integrating these contradictory themes. Just as Françoise was dying, over the space of a month in her private nursing home in Paris, Simone embraced her physical abjection as something holy in what it said about human life and its essential vulnerability and finitude. But as well as seeing the universal in this woman, she was also able to see this dying woman as Françoise not just as Mother. Now, for the first time, at her bedside, she makes common cause with Françoise, acknowledging the ways in which they are similar where before she could only assert their difference. For example, she praises her mother for training to become a librarian and travelling alone following the death of Georges, her husband; in the present, she makes common cause with her against the patriarchy of the doctors condescending to her dying mother, calling them bigwigs of "piddling self-importance". At the same time, Simone gives her feminine, caring side free reign as it is evoked in her response to both her mother’s suffering and her bravery.

Once this was accomplished, Simone was able to reconcile herself to ageing, making it possible a few years later for her to write - in her book Old Age - that in a just society, without ageism and without the destruction of human beings throughout the life course by degrading, damaging work, old age: ‘would be a period of life different from youth and maturity, but possessing its own balance and leaving a wide range of possibilities open to the individual.’ She had broken the age mystique. Not only that, as Bethany Ladimer suggests, ageing was very positive for Beauvoir, allowing a sense of wholeness in integrating both her feminine needs for interdependence and attachment together with the autonomy and agency that she had previously associated with masculinity.

In the decades that have passed since Beauvoir wrote, what has happened to the Otherness attached to women and especially older women? Something that may shed light on this concerns shame and specifically whether women still feel shame about ageing. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that we very much do and if anything this shame has intensified. For example, the new procedure for menopause reversal has been described as a ‘miracle cure not just for night sweats, but for the shame of ageing in public.’ Ageism and age shaming against women in the workplace is more prevalent than ever and has a real material consequence where older women are least likely to be given training or offered promotion and, where unemployed, a job. When the 1980s ‘supermodel’ Linda Evangelista took Zeltiq Aesthetics to court for an aesthetic procedure that went horribly wrong, she talked in an interview about the various kinds of shame and humiliation she had experienced during her life: shame at being successful when young, shame at ageing and then the extreme shame and self-loathing at having the anti-ageing cosmetic procedure go horribly wrong. Older women who are celebrated are those who do not appear to be ageing at all. Today, ageing is an affront to our dreams of mastery of self and universe, the rocket trips to Mars paralleled by attempts to overcome and resist ageing. It is this shame, and the desire to avoid it or keep it at arms’ length, that also underpins intergenerational friction particularly between women who might otherwise make common cause in fighting patriarchal institutions and mind sets.

The answer to this lies in one big thing and several smaller actions. The big thing is for society to approach women differently, cease setting us up as the Other and overcome the mindset that projects all our fears and weaknesses onto women, particularly older women. This becomes more possible if older and younger women can make common cause. We can, for instance, write about our experiences of shame as women through the life course and, by sharing them, both raise our own consciousness as women in resisting this and eventually change the message that society gives us as women. This is the political project of shame, as J Brooks Bouson calls it. We can also assert both the value of ageing and the beauty of the older female face along the lines of ‘Old is Beautiful’ and a Pride movement for older women, reclaiming ageist slurs like crone and hag. But for that to be possible, older women also need to play a part in owning their age and resisting the temptation to pretend they are younger than they are. As Gaby Hinsliff writes, ‘we are all so tangled up in small hypocrisies, talking a brave game about ageing gracefully but secretly panicked into doing the opposite’. It is not easy to resist shaving a few years off your age when asked, dying your grey hairs, and going for secret 'tweakments' but, the message of many older women, including feminist pioneers Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, is that, once done, it is hugely liberating.   



About Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, feminist, social theorist, and existential philosopher. She is best known for her groundbreaking ideas surrounding feminism; her book, The Second Sex, is said to mark the beginning of second wave feminism across the globe.


Further reading

Bouson, J. B. (2016). Shame and the aging woman: Confronting and resisting ageism in contemporary women's writings. Springer.

Friedan, B. (1993) The Fountain of Age, New York: Vintage.

Ladimer, B. (1999). Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras: age and women writers, University of Florida Press.


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