Review of Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work

Review of Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Amy E. Dayton

Amy E. Dayton is Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Center at The University of

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Gaillet, Lynée Lewis and Helen Gaillet Bailey, editors. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. U of South Carolina P, 2019. 292 pages.

Within the rhetorical tradition, memory has a somewhat contradictory place; at various points it was eliminated from the canon entirely in favor of more highly valued dimensions of rhetoric, such as style and delivery (Pruchnic and Lacey). While memory is sometimes treated as a decontextualized skill by which individuals store and retrieve information, it is also a shared and communal phenomenon, an essential tool for understanding how we have arrived at a current cultural moment. As Hirsch and Smith put it, memory is “both public and private, both individual. . . and cultural” (2). In this framework, remembering the past becomes an act not just of retrieving facts or narrating events, but rather, negotiating meanings and representations (5). 

In their new collection, Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey bring together these two conceptions of memory—the individual and the communal—presenting a series of essays that tell individual stories about significant women from the past, while collectively making an argument about how and why we should remember their contributions to intellectual and rhetorical history. The book invites us to rediscover women’s contributions to a range of disciplines through a rhetorical lens.

In the introduction, Letizia Guglielmo notes that remembering the past is a feminist act insofar as it “highlights the agency of both the recollector and the subject whose story is recovered or retold” (2). When we write women into rhetorical history, we typically do one of two things, either expanding our list of figures to be remembered, or broadening our definition of what counts as rhetoric. But a third kind of remembering is to offer alternative accounts that help us better understand existing narratives. The essays in this book perform all three functions, but the third, offering alternative accounts of how women have contributed to public discourse, is perhaps the most important contribution of this volume, which seeks to “[disrupt] seemingly stable, ‘disciplined’ memories of women’s lives and of cultural truths” (3). 

The book is divided into four parts. The first section, “Theoretical Frameworks,” offers new perspectives on recovery work, drawing from topics as wide-ranging as nineteenth and twentieth-century women in STEM, colonial and postcolonial feminism in Nigeria, and modern conceptions of Byzantine rhetoric. In their chapter, “Social Networks as a Powerful Force for Change: Women in the History of Medicine and Computing,” Gesa E. Kirsch and Patricia Fancher present case studies of “social circulation” by studying how women physicians and mathematicians/computer scientists used professional networks to share knowledge and resources. These case studies can not only help us understand women’s specific accomplishments but also help us to understand them “as actors in larger social circles whose ideas and actions shaped developments . . . that circulated across time, locations, and generations” (21). Kirsch and Fancher remind us that “social circulation is an analytical concept” (22) requiring that we ask “how [do] women collaborate, mentor one another, and share resources, knowledge, and everyday practices? What [is] the role of social and professional networks in allowing women to enter the workplace, navigate the public sphere, and advocate social change?” (22). 

Building on Kirsch and Fancher, subsequent essays in this section point to the need for non-western frameworks and for increased attention to the rhetorical work performed by texts such as biographies. In “From Erasure to Restoration: Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure,” Alice Johnston Myatt uses Franklin, a biologist, as a “case study for understanding [the] processes involved in restoration projects” (41). Franklin was written out of early accounts of the discovery of DNA but reclaimed in subsequent histories due to the rhetorical work of her biographers. A third essay in this section, “Taming Cerberus: Against Racism, Sexism, and Oppression in Colonial and Postcolonial Nigeria,” by Maria Martin, argues that we need non-western theories and approaches to understand global rhetorical movements such as that of the Nigerian women activists of her study. Martin advocates for “a more Africa-centered approach” to naming and defining women’s motives and movements”—one that “[comes] from the perspective of African women themselves” (58). Finally, “Afterlives of Anna Komnene: Moments in the History of History of Byzantium,” by Ellen Quandahl, looks at how modern writers have grappled with the legacy of Komnene, a Byzantine writer whose work is a primary historical text for the period of the first Crusade. Quandahl looks at how Komnene has been represented by three modern writers, whose “texts complicate the notion that writing women into our histories sufficiently challenges modes of interpretation that keep women apart from political and rhetorical history” (75). This chapter looks at the relationship between “individual remembering” and “broader practices by which people construct a past” (75). 

The book’s second section, “Erased Collaborators,” explores case studies of women whose partnerships with more prominent or powerful male figures have contributed to their being forgotten or silenced. In their essay, “Not Simply ‘Freeing the Men to Fight’: Rewriting the Reductive History of U.S. Military Women’s Achievements on and off the Battlefield,” Mariana Grohowski and Alexis Hart look at how women’s military history has been rhetorically constructed in such a way to frame women as serving a supporting role in relationship to men, rather than being important figures in their own right. They cite Kenneth Burke’s observation that “a way of seeing is a way of not seeing,” pointing out that previous ways of “seeing” women’s military history tended to make this history less visible and less important (99). They note that with changes in women’s military roles, and new, digital communities for women, there are now more avenues for women to share their stories and document their contributions. 

While Grohowski and Hart examine collective understandings of women’s military history, the next two essays focus on particular women at specific historical moments. An essay by Henrietta Nickels Shirk, “The Audubon-Martin Collaboration: An Exploration of Rhetorical Foreground and Background,” examines the contributions of Maria Martin, who was the background illustrator for Audubon’s famous photographs as well as an artist in her own right. The author places her within the Victorian “cult of true womanhood,” which encouraged women to embrace private and domestic roles. Shirk notes that while women are often rhetorically constructed as occupying a “background” position “where [they] use specific rhetorical techniques to free themselves from . . . oppression,” in Martin’s case, she served both metaphorically and literally in the background of Audubon’s work. 

Suzanne Bordelon’s chapter, “Please Cherish My Own Ideals and Dreams about the School of Expression”: The Erasure of Anna Baright Curry,” has a two-fold purpose: to draw attention to the nineteenth-century elocution school movement, an important site of rhetorical activity, and to understand how ethos is constructed—not just created by an author, but negotiated by an audience. Curry, the focus of the essay, collaborated with her husband to develop “a pedagogy that we would regard today as promoting reflection, critical thinking, [and] ‘deep’ reading. . . not simply artificial gestures and memorization” (119). Yet Curry’s contributions have largely been overlooked, as her husband received the primary credit for developing the institution and its pedagogical approach. One of Baright Curry’s important contributions to this approach was the emphasis placed on the reader’s role in responding to and interpreting texts. 

The third section of the book, “Overlooked Rhetors and Texts,” draws attention to women’s rhetorical practices that have been previously unnoticed or understudied. Kristie Fleckenstein’s engaging essay, “Remembering Women: Florence Smalley Babbit and the Victorian Family Photograph Album,” looks at family histories and albums as visual rhetoric. Fleckenstein notes that “previous attempts to write women into the history of rhetoric have focused on women as “wordsmiths” (139), but as curators of photographs, scrapbooks, and other visual texts, nineteenth-century women also practiced a form of vernacular and visual rhetoric (140). The mundane act of creating family albums relied on more than documents and artifacts alone; it involved creating a narrative and representing a “family ethos” (149). Fleckenstein cites Patricia Bizzell’s point that in order “to find women in the rhetorical tradition, we must look where those women were speaking and writing, even if those venues deviate from the traditional public sphere” (152). This search may take us into domestic spaces where women created public representations of their private lives. 

In their essay, “I Have Always Been Significant to Myself: Alice James’s Pragmatic Activism,” Hephzibah Roskelly and Kate Ronald examine the life and writing of Alice James, who was overshadowed by her male family members, Henry James Sr, a philosopher, William James, the founder of American psychology, and Henry James, the nineteenth-century American novelist. James was an intellectual woman silenced by the expectations of her time. The next chapter, Gail M. Presbey’s “Defying Stereotypes: An Indian Woman Freedom Fighter,” explores the contributions of Rukshmani Bhatia, an Indian freedom fighter and disciple of Ghandi. The chapter uses primary source interview material to understand “the concept of women’s power and the issue of the use of violence” for independence movements” (181). 

Finally, the fourth section of the book, “Disrupted Public Memory,” offers new or alternative accounts that build on existing narratives. Wendy Hayden’s work, “The Rhetorical Reputation of Forgotten Feminist Lois Waisbrooker,” treats Waisbrooker as a case study of activism outside the mainstream. Deviating from the nineteenth-century tradition in which women adopted the mantle of “respectability” to claim authority to speak, Waisbrooker delighted in shocking the public, cultivating an image that emphasized her working-class roots, lack of education, and status as a “fallen woman” (189). Her outsider identity allowed her to address topics, such as sexual freedom, that were considered radical in her day. Laurie A. Britt-Smith’s chapter, “Not So Easily Dismissed: The Intellectual Influences and Rhetorical Voice of Dorothy Day,” offers a valuable alternative narrative of a woman who is still well known today as a Catholic reformer and workers’ advocate. While Day has traditionally been understood in terms of how Catholicism influenced her, this essay offers a close analysis of her writing in order to understand what Day brought to Catholicism. Drawing from Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Britt-Smith places Day within a tradition of women’s protest rhetoric, a tradition that values the personal voice and the use of narrative, and one that “[invites] the audience to test its experiences against the experience of the speaker/author in order to achieve agreement through identification” (213). 

Similar to Wendy Hayden’s chapter, Amy Aronson’s piece, “Activist, Pacifist, Mother, Feminist, Wife: Private Interventions and the Public Memory of Crystal Eastman,” examines the erasure of a woman who was well-known during her lifetime. Eastman was active in the formation of the National Woman’s Party, the ERA, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the ACLU. However, over time she has been mostly forgotten. Aronson argues that this erasure occurred as a result of a complex “interplay between private life and public stature” (238). The reasons were partly methodological, having to do with how documents and records are preserved (or not). But they were also personal, suggesting the complex interactions between women’s private and public lives.  The final case study turns our attention back to rhetoric as a discipline, examining two rhetoric textbooks written by women. In “Turning Trends: Lockwood’s and Emerson’s Rhetoric Textbooks at the American Fin de Siecle,” Nancy Myers shows how these two writers established the importance of female teachers in a male-dominated publishing world, demonstrating that women teachers were at the forefront of pedagogical and curricular innovation. 

Taken one-by-one, the chapters in this volume contribute to intellectual histories across a range of disciplines, from science/STEM to rhetoric/education, history, religion, and more. They tell individual stories that are worth knowing and celebrating. Collectively, however, they invite us to think in new ways about how we remember women, and they point to the communal nature of women’s rhetorical history. They show us the means by which women have participated in public discourse, built and established ethos, and participated in intellectual and social movements. They invite us to consider why some women’s narratives have been preserved while others have been erased or only partially understood.  This collection raises questions about what counts as rhetoric and points to places where we might turn to continue expanding the body of scholarship on women’s public discourse. But it also presents a series of lively and engaging histories that are likely to be of interest to scholars across a range of fields, from rhetoric, to women’s studies, science, and history. 

Works Cited

  • Hirsch, Marianne, and Valerie Smith. “Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction.” Signs vol. 28, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1-19.
  • Pruchnic, Jeff, and Kim Lacey. “The Future of Forgetting: Rhetoric, Memory, Affect.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly vol. 41, no. 5, 2011, pp. 472-494.