Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Erik Doxtader


Simone de Beauvoir's 1952 English rendering of The Second Sex translated into instant U.S. feminist acceptance, but by 1981 Julia Kristeva's call for "Women's Time" coupled with the rise of poststructuralism in the academy essentially sounded the death knell for Beauvoir in the world of feminist language theories. Where the new French feminists explored experimental ecriture feminine, Beauvoir's language appeared unsophisticated and outdated. In the past twenty years a handful of feminists have slowly and intermittently begun to reconsider Beauvoir's language from a variety of post-poststructuralist perspectives. My dissertation adds to this growing scholarship by exploring the rhetorical workings of five key language problems in Beauvoir's feminist texts. Instead of accepting what Beauvoir and feminists in her lineage say about her language, I derive her language assumptions from how it works. First, I look at the contradictions in The Second Sex not as problems to be overcome but as opportunities for Beauvoir to explain her philosophy. If, as Beauvoir argues, woman is an ambiguous category not grounded in biology but in ever-changing existential situations, then the interpretative plurality of the text enacts the same process. Next, I explore Beauvoir's use of masculine language in The Second Sex as a reiteration with possibilities for feminists. After that, I examine Beauvoir's non-representational language and the possibilities it allows for variety of ambiguously ethical relations--both mutually and agonistically rendered. Then, I read "Merleau-Ponty and Pseudo-Sartreanism" from the vantage of longstanding stylistic debate in rhetoric and feminism over the merits of clear versus opaque language and what those stylistic choices mean in terms of social change. Finally, I argue that even though Privileges, the work that Beauvoir points readers to first to understand her feminist philosophy and politics, seems to work toward different ends than The Second Sex or The Ethics of Ambiguity, the place where most feminists begin to understand Beauvoir's feminist philosophy and politics, these texts enact the very same critique of her "serious man" whose principle ethical problem is consistently applying abstract ethical principles in the face of changing situations. Ultimately, I argue that Beauvoir's language, rhetorically conceived, imbues her feminism with an ambiguity that encourages an openness to the variety of feminist political and ethical possibilities.