From Commemoration to Co-Memoration as Feminist Practice

From Commemoration to Co-Memoration as Feminist Practice

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Nancy Small

Nancy Small is an Assistant Professor and Director of First Year Writing at the University of Wyoming. Her research revolves around everyday storytelling and the rhetorical lifeworlds it generates. She has two current projects, one centered on expatriate women’s lives in transnational spaces and one on rhetorics of public memory.

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From national museum displays in Washington, D.C. to classroom-specific projects, the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification will generate many re-tellings of events and people that brought national women’s suffrage to fruition. As a practice of collective memory, commemoration is a “calling to remembrance, or preserving in memory, by some solemn observation, public celebration, etc.” (“Commemoration”). Traditional public commemoration is a structured ritual, what I assert below as being masculinist in nature. Particularly as we observe the anniversary of women’s suffrage, I argue that we, as rhetoricians, should be part of re-envisioning such public memory efforts—including suffrage centennial projects—as sites of “feminist co-memoration.” By this I mean promoting the design of sites and activities that take up feminist rhetorical practices such as Gesa Kirsch and Jaqueline Jones Royster’s critical imagination and strategic contemplation as well as Cheryl Glenn’s rhetorical feminist tactics, including resistance to hegemonic narratives, re-centering of dialogue over monologue, and reaffirming the value of experience and emotion (4). Through shifting our shared memory rituals, we can make them more dynamic and hopeful opportunities for growth, reassessment, and resistance. Co-memoration grounded in feminist rhetorical principles can disrupt the national master narrative of suffrage as centered in the efforts and agency of an elite group of white women and might guide us toward building coalitional intersubjectivity.

To begin, my essay contrasts masculinist commemoration with my proposed framework of feminist co-memoration, using principles from scholars in feminist rhetorics and illustrated via example suffrage centennial celebrations. The last sections of this piece then turn to broader comments regarding memory and belonging, as well as the generative but meaningful challenges feminist co-memoration presents especially at this moment of the suffrage centennial.

Commemoration as Traditional Masculinist Practice

Individual, social, and collective memories intertwine in the construction of public memory or our shared “vernacular presentation of the past composed specifically for the purposes of the present” (Enoch 62). Traditional commemorative practices vary, but in naming them as masculinist, I mean they tend to be public displays that are univocal, in control of a passive audience, and reaffirming of a standard—typically white, colonialist, and/or conquering—narrative. Paralleling conceptions of masculinist rhetoric as public, competitive, and agonistic (Enoch 58, Glenn 1), such memorial practices implicitly and explicitly establish an authoritative history to which our memories should conform. Yael Zerubavel refers to the singular story of traditional commemoration as a “master commemorative narrative” (237) undergirding collective memory and reinforcing those in power. The master narrative is constructed via commemorative materials and affirmed through memorial activities. For example, the master narrative of U.S. national women’s suffrage begins in Seneca Falls, New York, proceeds to be headquartered in New York City and Boston, and concludes as a grand victory in Nashville and Washington, D.C. 1920. This singular telling of our national history and public memory minimizes or erases, for example, progress located in the western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, all of which granted women’s suffrage prior to 1900. Similarly, our master narrative focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of elite white women, minimizing the contributions of African American abolitionists and suffragists among other marginalized voices.

Specific sites (e.g., locations, museums, battlefields), statuary, artifacts, photographs and paintings, and other audio and visual materials serve as our common public commemorabilia (Casey 184). These bits and pieces of history become public memory through traditional commemorative activities performed by the collective communitas or community of commemorators (184). Examples include visiting a site to view artifacts and review the associated signage and/or audio, attending an event with a speaker, watching a parade, following a guided tour, watching a re-enactment, or attending a memorial ceremony (typically led by one or a small number of speakers). In these traditional practices, attendees are expected to participate through passive listening, taking in the narrative without overtly questioning it. Although time may be allotted for a question-and-answer session run by a lead speaker or organizer, exchanges are controlled as social norms dissuade questions that may be judged off-topic or confrontational. Such practices preserve or stabilize memory via the authority of a singular and presumed shared perspective. Masculinist commemoration does not invite complexity; instead, we are consciously and unconsciously “incorporated” into the narrative via our passive embodied practices (Connerton 338). Performing our roles as recipients in traditional commemorative activities works in service of the master narrative because our limited bodily participation keeps the audience in our “place” and thereby serves as “a measure of insurance against the process of cumulative questioning entailed in all discursive practices” (342). Masculinist commemorative activities habituate us into submission.

In their evocations, commemorations bring the past into the present and project it to the future. Such circling through time is what Krista Ratcliffe describes as “the presence of the past in the present, that is, the then-that-is-now” (107). In the process of acknowledging, embodying, and enacting the past, we reify the (often marginalizing, destructive) tropes of the past without, as Ratcliffe reminds us, assessing our accountability for that past. In other words, even as we commemorate the past, we damn ourselves to repeat it. The centennial suffrage celebration will evoke images, symbols, and affiliations that will consciously and unconsciously reinforce a singular timeline and locations of activity. And despite recent increased hauntings by and even open display of the skeleton of white supremacy in our collective national memory closet (Vinitzky-Seroussi 375), the designated white heroines of the master narrative—Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt—will remain at the forefront, reinforcing a history that simultaneously denies a multiplicity of memories. Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and other less recognized women of color may have some limited presence, such as in the 2019-2020 display at the National Portrait Gallery, “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” but outside of a small representative group (Wells, Truth, Harriet Tubman), African American women’s work is still being recuperated after decades of neglect. Their stories are still counter to the master narrative. As further illustration, I am not optimistic that traditional suffrage celebrations will acknowledge the limits on which women counted as “citizens” in 1920. I am not optimistic we will see similar celebration in 2024 honoring the centennial of the 1924 Snyder Act that made Native Americans citizens (and thus enfranchised).

Co-Memoration as Rhetorical Feminist Tactic and Feminist Rhetorical Practice

To release ourselves from the entrenched narratives and practices that traditional commemorations reinforce, we should recast public memory activities—including but extending beyond centennial celebrations—as feminist co-memorations. Whereas commemoration is univocal, controlling, and narrative-affirming, feminist co-memoration has the potential to be a re-membering together. By “re-membering,” I mean a collaborative reassessment and reassembly of our memories and of our commemorative practices as inspired by rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices. In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Glenn grounds rhetorical feminism in the “foundational feminist concepts [of] openness, authentic dialogue and deliberation, interrogation of the status quo, collaboration, respect, and progress” (4). Rhetorical feminism then is a set of tactics for rejecting dominant agonistic rhetorical practices in favor of feminist principles. Rhetorical feminism is “dialogic and transactional . . . attends to (provisionally) marginalized audiences . . . and employs and respects vernaculars and experiences . . . as sources of knowledge” (4). Rather than fall prey to the rules of hegemonic discourses, rhetorical feminism is grounded in local and varied experiences, and it respects the power of emotion (2-4). Complementing feminist rhetorical tactics are broader feminist rhetorical practices informing the boundaries (or expansions) of our knowledge-making. In the sections that follow, I develop my framework for feminist co-memoration out of its roots in rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices as well as apply it to examples of suffrage centennial celebration.

Co-Memoration as Active Engagement through Multivocality and Countermemory

To resist habituating participants into a singular accounting of history, co-memoration makes space for many voices. In other words, co-memoration invites talking back. Such dialogue can take place in different and multiple spaces. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi divides contested public memory into two categories: “multivocal commemoration” in contrast to “fragmented commemoration.” Both should be of interest to feminist co-memoration. Multivocal commemoration occurs in a common space and time when an audience shares different interpretations of the person(s) and/or event(s) being remembered. Multivocality responds to disagreement by working towards solidarity. By comparison, in “fragmented commemoration,” people gather in segregated spaces according to competing interpretations of the people/events being remembered. In fragmented commemoration, conflict is sharpened through the re-membering process, making solidarity more difficult or impossible (375-377). Protests are one form of fragmented commemorative activity. For example, Columbus Day, which traditionally memorializes the Italian colonizer’s arrival in the Americas, has inspired fragmented commemoration via street protests. Such protests began in purposefully separated spaces such as public demonstrations in which like-minded folks gathered to reject the Columbus-as-Heroic-Discoverer narrative and sought to distance themselves from those who accepted it. Such divided or fragmented protests, however, have potential to grow and create alliances for larger change. As of late 2019, many cities and five states have formally re-centered Native American perspectives by establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of and as a rejection of Columbus Day (see Murphy and Ortiz). A potential move of relational accountability for feminist co-memoration would be to make room for both fragmented and multivocal commemoration styles, perhaps in hopes of transforming fragmentation into multivocality through coalition building. In other words, multivocality (and listening to fragmented commemoration) should challenge audiences and participants to engage discomfort as potentially productive.

Opening our co-memorative practices to multiple voices invites countermemory, which runs against the grain of the master narrative. Countermemory, like feminism, is “highly subversive” as it “challenges the hegemony” of history and our shared understanding of the past (Zerubavel 241). A primary way that competing countermemories emerge is when diverse experiences are laid alongside each other via storytelling or counterstory. Building off of Latinx and Chican@ scholarship in critical race theory, education, and law, Aja Martinez demonstrates the power of counterstory in her analysis of race and gender in academia. The institutional (public) memory of graduate student Alejandra’s experience in a graduate program serves as the “stock story” or master narrative (40-45). Martinez then constructs a counterstory from Alejandra’s perspective revealing a very different set of memories regarding her experience (45-50). Martinez’s counterstory is a composite of historical “facts” (data and scholarly work) told through a contextualized conversation. In addition to elevating personal experience and renewing our value of pathos—both rhetorical feminist moves—Martinez’s work illustrates that viewing stories alongside one another reveals complexities in how memory is (re)negotiated and how (counter)memory informs our sense of “reality.”

Countermemory and counterstory resist simplicity and purposefully ground co-memoration in complexity. For the national suffrage celebration, such complexity can be explored through differences in regional location (e.g., the northeastern and the western U.S.) or through intersectional lenses amplifying suffrage as not simply a gendered but as enmeshed in class, race, and other systems of interlocking oppression (Collins and Bilge). An intersectional (re)evaluation, for example, might offer a countermemory of the Nineteenth Amendment not as an end unto itself but as a point along a greater plot of white control over who “counts” as “Americans” (and as humans) and over civic processes and civil rights—a plot that continues today through gerrymandering, policies to intimidate and/or suppress minority voters, and other efforts. Who do our memories celebrate, and who/what is forgotten? And what do we gain and risk by revising our shared public memories based on counterstories? Multivocality and countermemory/counterstory necessarily threaten the stabilizing and unifying ceremonial nature of commemorative activities. Rather than assuming our experiences align with a master narrative (as occurs in masculinist commemorative practice), co-memorative activities should court disruption of narrative comfort by seeking out new viewpoints and assessments. 

To consider sample suffrage centennial celebrations going on in the U.S. through a framework of feminist co-memoration, I searched online for a calendar of national events. Several were available, but I chose a calendar hosted by the “2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative” (WVCI) because of the group’s stated purpose to advertise centennial celebration events that go beyond historical accuracy to engage diverse organizations and audiences in sustained critical thinking about the amendment and equal rights (“About Us”). At the time of this writing, thirty events were posted on the calendar between September 2019 and May 2020. Offerings included a mixture of panels and presentations, visual and performing arts, tours and re-enactments, a statue unveiling, a quilting bee, and two fundraisers (a golf tournament and a wine/food tasting). From the brief event descriptions, I sought evidence of that which could potentially illustrate features of co-memorative activities. 

A few of the calendar entries did seem to be planned as projects of feminist co-memoration. For example, “Feminist Youth Voices” demonstrated potential for multivocality and space for countermemories. Hosted by the Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, the event description promised a “diverse group of young female identifying speakers will explore their relationships to the past, present, and future of feminist ideals and their visions for what it means to them in 2019” (“Cocktails & Conversations”). The event’s link to the suffrage centennial is clear but is not the controlling theme. Instead, the speakers’ relationships to the topics are foregrounded. The event description anticipates multivocality in its common location and potential for solidarity-building among varied perspectives. Any panel participant’s reflections might confront the other speakers, host, and audience with potentially uncomfortable realities of, for example, then-that-is-now discrimination and/or outmoded notions of gender and sexuality. Such openings invite rhetorical feminist reassessment, challenging commemorators to deeply reflect and perhaps to participate in the conversation. As feminist co-memorative activities, this panel seems designed to avoid re-calcifying the suffrage master narrative by eliciting new stories about the complexities of belonging.

WVCI calendar entries promote festive commemorative events, but details about opportunities for active engagement remain vague. At the “Tea and Tour” in honor of “Susan B. Anthony and Catherine McAuley: Voices for Others,” participants are invited to “[c]elebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with a tour of our historic home steeped in the spirit of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and frequent meeting place for Susan B. Anthony and the Suffragettes. Enjoy an elegant tea in recognition of these two women who were a voice for others” (“Tea and Tour”). Being in an extraordinary historic place may indeed inspire feelings of bodily incorporation—of existing in the layers of history and memory—but beyond just the sense of “being there,” the tour might be further designed to inspire active participatory co-memoration. For instance, a rhetorical feminist co-memoration could start with a tour but proceed to dialogue among attendees regarding their own memories of women’s struggles for equality and their own (dis)connections to the master narrative of suffrage. Forms of active engagement can and should vary, however, as not all participants want to engage in the same ways, particularly if their perspectives might not seem welcomed. Organizers of co-memorative events must be open to and create spaces for potential discomfort from participants who do not share—or who even actively resist—the master narrative. Feminist rhetorical co-memoration should seed spaces for radical rhetorical listening but should allow for silences, too, and examine those silences for their implications (see Carrillo Rowe 180).

Co-memoration as Critical Imagination and Strategic Contemplation

While traditional commemorative practices shut down inquiry, feminist co-memoration must encourage an opening up via learning, reflecting, and reassessing. Because of limited space, I focus here on two facets feminist co-memoration growing out of Kirsch and Royster’s “feminist rhetorical practices”: critical imagination and strategic contemplation. Critical imagination is a form of re-membering. It is an “account[ing] for what we ‘know’” through history and a (re)thinking “between, above, around, and beyond this evidence to speculate methodically about probabilities” (650). Developing a framework for co-memoration is, in itself, an act of critical imagination as it is an envisioning how we might depart from masculinist practices and master narratives to be more inclusive and complex in our re-membering. In the shared memorial process, feminist “imagination” means we are not required to limit ourselves to only “objective” evidence in what and how we re-member. Memories passed down through family and community stories (i.e., social memory and individual memories), evidence that “disrupt[s] public/private divides” (660), and other ephemera traditionally deemed unfit as historical artifacts, therefore, are revived as valuable co-memorative materials. The Monumental Women project, which successfully lobbied for the first public memorial to real-life women in New York City’s Central Park, is an example of critical imagination at work in feminist co-memoration. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann imagined a meeting among Stanton, Truth, and Anthony, a congregation that could have happened but which is not documented in history. Bergmann purposefully devised the statue to emphasize feminist collaboration (and coalition building) as a source of power (see Haigh and Frederick).1  

Additionally, the “critical” in critical imagination makes room for critique as part of co-memoration. Critique is not meant to dishonor the people, places, and events of the dominant narrative but instead should broaden that honoring through questioning who gets space in the narrative and by inclining our public remembrances towards better inclusivity. Critical imagination “actually use[s] tension, conflicts, balances, and counterbalances more overtly as critical opportunities for inquiry in order to enable a conversation, even if only imaginatively” (Kirsch and Royster 652). Making space for generative critique and dialogue is a rhetorical feminist tactic, a feminist rhetorical practice, and a means of building differential belonging. Where traditional commemoration asks participants to solemnly submit themselves and their memories to the singular historical narrative and to limit their future ponderings to what that narrative makes possible, feminist co-memoration invites critical re-examination and expansion as a means of honoring the people and events being recalled.

Strategic contemplation re-affirms feminist co-memoration as an embodied practice. In the face of our many competing work and personal demands, strategic contemplation is Kirsch and Royster’s way of telling us we must devote time and space to meditate over our questioning and re-membering (656). Strategic contemplation creates spaces for transformation, moments during which new ideas, perspectives, or experiences can change our outlooks and modify our allegiances. Through co-memoration and strategic contemplation, we can choose to move “back and forth between past and present, between visiting history [or memory] and bringing them into the present, between searching archives and walking the land” (657). Kirsch and Royster are describing historical research in the archives; our memories are our own personal, social, collective, and public archives. When we move between those memories and lived experiences of what Kirsch and Royster call “walking the land,” we ponder how Ratcliffe’s then-that-is-now affects us, as individuals and collectives. 

A memorial event on the WVCI calendar illustrates the potential of critical imagination and strategic contemplation for co-memorative practices. “Ida B. Wells: Warrior for Justice” is a re-enactment in which writer and actress Safiya Bandele speaks from the perspective of the famous African American writer and civil rights leader. Bandele’s performance invokes critical imagination by re-presenting Wells via a living actress for contemporary audiences. Such re-enactments may be based on a set of historical artifacts, but weaving together (re-membering) those incomplete threads to re-create a living persona is an act of critical imagination. Audience members have an occasion to move between the memories presented on the stage and their own lived experiences in relation to race, to the power of participating in the public sphere, to history, to memory (e.g., genealogies, legacies), and more. In other words, audience members can compare the re-constructed world of Wells with their own. The very spaces—locations and times—created by immersion in the performance invites strategic contemplation. Although the event description does not include mention of post-performance discussion with the writers/actors, such dialogue would present potentially rich opportunity to explore how the performance inspires the audience to think (or potentially re-think) the suffrage movement as perpetually centered in a white narrative. The radical goal of feminist co-memoration is bigger than critically transforming spaces and practices; however, the real feminist opportunity of co-memoration is for developing differential belonging and coalitional (inter)subjectivities.

Coalition Building as Co-Memoration Goal

Commemorative spaces hail us to a common belonging; the question is this: in what kinds of spaces do we long to be? As Aimee Carrillo Rowe writes in Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances, “where we place our bodies, how we spend time, the mundane and significant events that give texture to our lives all give rise to our becoming” (34). Such “mundane and significant events” are the materials of our memory work. As a calling to remembrance, the women’s suffrage centennial can motivate us to consider “be longing” or how “being is formed through our longings” (26). What are we longing for during our co-memorating of women’s suffrage? Our current political situation presents big—and often terrifying, frustrating, and enraging—issues concerning women and other marginalized groups. Threats to reproductive rights, gender-based pay inequities, overt display of white supremacy, backsliding on LBGTQIA+ rights, violence towards refugee and immigrant families, and global warming, as well as a political system that seems dysfunctional at best: these issues dominate the news and can be overwhelming. If commemorative acts are moments of reflection intended to bring us together, then feminist co-memorative acts can motivate not only resistance, but also differential belonging that might lead to coalitional (inter)subjectivity in the face of these wide-reaching crises.

Carrillo Rowe’s theory of “differential belonging” challenges us to mindfully seek out relationships with those who are not like us. With whom do we choose to co-memorate? Memories are how “we vibrate in unison” (Halbwachs 140). Purposeful shifting among different groups—and therefore, a range of memories and countermemories—provides a more panoramic view of hegemonic systems and their effects on others who are similar and/or different than ourselves. In becoming aware of the “conditions and effects” of our belongings, we must “consider the political, social, and spiritual effects of our choices and practices” (Carrillo Rowe 43). The goal of Carrillo Rowe’s differential belonging—moving among different discourses—is the building of coalitional (inter)subjectivities2 for feminist ends: promoting openness and inclusion, resisting and overturning oppressive systems, and working collaboratively towards a more just world. Therefore, in co-memorative practice—catalyzed by this centennial year—we should consider the activities we choose to attend, where we place our bodies and what opportunities we create for ourselves to witness and engage through listening, participating, and/or dialoging across difference. The “Feminist Youth Voices” and other potentially transformative events described above are not useful if we stay home or choose other options. We must be frank with ourselves about where our longings motivate us to be.

The suffrage centennial may inspire practices and/or analyses of feminist co-memoration; however, special anniversaries are not required to engage this framework. Co-memorative practices can be applied to the (re)design of classroom activities promoting a revivification, re-engagement, and reassessment of history through reflective and inclusive practices that amplify counterstories, and therefore, engage critical imagination, and strategic contemplation. Even more broadly, co-memoration continues in our lives via everyday storytelling. Although seemingly mundane, sharing stories in random conversations is a powerful everyday means of remembering together. Listeners authentically engaged by “standing under” each others’ stories develop better relations through empathy (Ratcliffe 28). Tacking out to reflect over whose stories we hear can be useful for thinking about our perpetual re-membering or ongoing construction of our personal and shared narratives. What master narratives have seduced or ensnared us? And how can cultivation of differential belonging and better coalitional (inter)subjectivities disrupt those? Our daily worlds include echo chambers and we should be willing to step outside of them. Dialogue inspired by story-sharing can establish relationships across difference, new belongings that motivate us “to imagine life beyond our own skin” (Carrillo Rowe 35) and to “surrender ourselves to interstitial spaces” (197) between commonality and difference.

Co-Memoration as Hope-Fueled Struggle

This kairos of the centennial celebration of U.S. national women’s suffrage offers rich opportunities to re-examine how we remember, embody, and enact our public memories of the (ongoing) struggle for equality and justice. Through feminist co-memorative practices, spaces can be opened to radically transform ourselves through our memory-based communitas. And the critical imagination of “what might be” does not stop with questions about our narrative of gender equality. Members of co-memorative communities also should ask about biases towards whiteness, cis-gender identity, generational perspectives, able-bodiedness, and neurotypicality. Co-memorative events can be more inclusive through seeking out counterstories and by asking how divisions that create fragmentation can be respected and perhaps bridged. Further development of this co-memorative framework should consider additional ways it can be extended through Kirsch and Royster’s feminist rhetorical practices, including notions of social circulation and a “globalizing point of view” (Royster and Kirsch, Feminist). Memory is not constrained by national borders, and as communication technologies have made our daily interactions borderless, we must (re)consider how other national commemorative master narratives (e.g., “the War on Terror”) affect our intercultural and transnational relations.

None of this is going to be simple. If co-memorating seems easy, then surely we’re not doing it right because it is neither challenging our master narratives nor motivating us to reassess our (be)longings. Feminist co-memoration such as our suffrage celebrations should contribute to the broader project of what Sara Ahmed describes as Living a Feminist Life by making “everything into something that is questionable” (2). Reframing our commemorative practices—many of which are indeed sacred to our identity as “Americans”—is risky and demanding. It should be what Ahmed calls “sweaty work” (2), leaving us vulnerable and exposed (22), and clumsily “bumping into things” (166-167), including each other. Feminist co-memoration should require patience for not feeling “correct, consistent, or comfortable” (Carrillo Rowe 41). Glenn reminds us that “[f]eminist rhetorical studies create possibilities, not blueprints for an imagined utopian future” (193), so if the potential disruption of co-memoration seems daunting, then we can at least remember that we cannot expect to get it perfectly right. Our public memories, like ourselves, are a forever-ongoing and shared work-in-progress.


  1. The Central Park monument project caused justified controversy when its proposed design was revealed to include only Anthony and Stanton. Critics addressed how focusing only on those two suffrage leaders further reified the racist mythos of the movement’s history. In response to this outcry, Truth was added and the imagined meeting was conceived. Editorials from Martha S. Jones and from Ginia Bellafante elaborate on the problematic erasures of the monument’s original design.
  2. Carrillo Rowe uses the term “coalitional subject” or “coalitional subjectivity.” I amend it here to emphasize the dialectic inter-relationship between the individual subject and the group, yet maintain the parenthetical spelling both out of respect to Carrillo Rowe (not wanting to speak for her) and to indicate how I’m applying her concept in this essay.

Works Cited

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