Dr CLAUDINE MONTEIL
French specialist of women’s rights, specialist in Feminist Theory, writer and lecturer.
Dr Monteil is a French feminist and a writer. She received her PhD from Nice university in 1984 and wrote her dissertation on the work of Simone de Beauvoir entitled L’Engagement féministe de Simone de Beauvoir dans son oeuvre et dans sa vie (“The Feminist Engagement of Simone de Beauvoir in her life and her writings”) which includes interviews with Simone de Beauvoir and her sister Hélène de Beauvoir.
During the student uprising of 1968, Monteil met the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (see links) and remained in contact with him until his death in 1980. In 1970 she was one of the first members of the French feminist movement and through her work in the Women’s movement she met Simone de Beauvoir. This was the beginning of a close friendship which lasted until her death in 1986. At 20 Monteil was the youngest member of the Movement and Beauvoir was 62 – a 42 year age difference- but they became friends immediately and together took part in many actions which played a role in changing the attitudes and laws of French society towards women and led to the repeal of repressive laws and to the passage of legislation regarding women’s right to abortion, equal employment opportunity, reform on laws on rape, incest and domestic violence, the recognition of the rights of unwed mothers and battered women, among many others.
Details of these events are included in Monteil’s biography of Sartre and Beauvoir, Les Amants de la Liberté, l’aventure de Jean-Paul Sartre et de Simone de Beauvoir dans le siècle (« Lovers of Liberty: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, a Twentieth-Century Adventure ») Editions 1, 1999. (This book has been translated into numerous languages and is also available in French in paperback).
An international youth
Dr Monteil was born to a family of scientists. Her mother, Dr Josiane Serre, faced severe difficulties in becoming a chemist after World War II, because the scientific world was reluctant to accept women in research positions and academia. She persevered however and because of her determination, was a great inspiration to her daughter.
Claudine Monteil’s mother, Dr Josiane SerreWhen she was pregnant with her daughter, Dr Serre read Simone de Beauvoir’s germinal feminist text The Second Sex, which had just came out in France and created a huge scandal because of Beauvoir’s fierce denunciation of sexism and of the second class status of women. This book provided the foundation of modern feminism.
Dr Serre pursued a career as an academic and eventually became director of the Ecole Normale Superieure de Jeunes Filles de Sèvres in France (a position equivalent to the presidency of Radcliffe or another of the Seven Sisters colleges in the United States).
Monteil’s mother used this opportunity to encourage the French government to open some high positions typically reserved to men to women. During the course of her career some of her students managed to get very good jobs in both the corporate and political worlds.
Monteil had the opportunity to travel a lot with her parents in her youth and to learn English when she was very young. When her family was not in Paris, they lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where her father, the French mathematician Dr Jean-Pierre Serre, Fields medal and Abel prize, visited the Institute for Advanced Study. At school in Princeton in the nineteen-sixties, one of Monteil’s most indelible memories of those years was her friendship with an African-American girl. She was her only friend and they both had to face racist harassment from other children for this friendship ( This story is related in her first memoir, Simone de Beauvoir, le Mouvement des Femmes, Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rebelle (“Simone de Beauvoir and the Feminist Movement, Memoirs of a Rebellious Daughter”) Montréal, Editions Alain StankéParis, Editions du Rocher. Monteil learned first-hand what prejudice and racism meant and this personal experience prompted her to work against racism and prejudice ever since. Monteil later enjoyed a junior year abroad at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the first year it was open to women.
Because of her family’s numerous trips and meetings with scientists from around the world at home, she became interested in life and politics in other countries at a very young age. She took Russian classes in high school and attended summer schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Kiev and Sotchi. She then became fluent in Russian. It was quite an experience as a teenager to live in three different countries at a time of high tension during the Cold War. This allowed her to personally compare these very different cultures, and observe their strengths and weaknesses. She learned, for instance, that Simone de Beauvoir’s books, especially The Second Sex, which made her so famous, were forbidden in the Soviet Union, since the Communist regime considered it as a book for upper class women. The Russian leaders believed that lower class women were already liberated by Communism and did not need to read it.