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October 26, 2000 Simone de Beauvoir still a heroine to many



by Alexandra Schaffhauser

Les Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir’s novel about post-war France, changed Yolanda Patterson’s life when she was a student. “After that, I read everything that she had ever written that I could get my hands on.”

Patterson teaches French and women’s studies at California State University, Hayward. She is president of the International Simone de Beauvoir Society, and wrote a book called Simone de Beauvoir and the Demystification of Motherhood. She talked about the impact the French feminist has had on her life in a lecture at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute on October 16.

In 1965, when the feminist movement swept across North America, Patterson designed a full course on Simone de Beauvoir at her university.

“I got some raised eyebrows from my colleagues — if I had proposed to teach a class on Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir, it would have been fine.” Patterson’s course on Beauvoir is still offered, and still popular.

Simone de Beauvoir was a novelist and advocate of existentialism, and the companion of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. With time, and her growing popularity in North America, she would earn the title of feminist, largely through the success of her non-fiction book The Second Sex. Her contention that “women are made, not born” made her a heroine of the feminist movement.

At the suggestion of a friend, Patterson wrote Beauvoir a letter, asking to see her. To her surprise, Beauvoir wrote her back, and gave her home phone number. They met at her Paris apartment, on the rue de Rennes. “I pictured her being taller,” Patterson remembered. “She was most gracious . . . a fast talker. She gave me one hour of her time and thanked me for being interested in her work.”

They kept in touch. When Patterson had to get a breast biopsy done years later, Beauvoir called to ask how it had turned out. When Beauvoir died on April 21, 1986, Patterson went to Paris for the funeral.

Patterson explained Beauvoir’s enormous continuing popularity in North America. “In France, culture belongs to men, and she was interfering in a male domain. In North America, men were outside pioneering, and so the women were inside, doing the writing. In France, they are still struggling.”