Review of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

Review of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020

Author(s): Stacie Klinowski

Stacie Klinowski is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focuses on archival history, histories of composition, literacy studies, and language ideologies.

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Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018. 296 pages.

I began work on this review of Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope in the summer of 2020 feeling distinctly devoid of hope. Outside of the academy, people were dying—from illness, from state-sanctioned violence. They still are. I felt cynical: What was I doing studying rhetoric? Why did it matter at a time like this? I had a hard time answering these questions while isolated during quarantine. I was suffering from the misconception that the subjects we treat as academic inquiries are somehow separate from the activist commitments that drive us. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope points out that these divisions are artificial by providing necessary insight into how the field of feminist rhetoric emerged and, more importantly, how it can be used right now to advocate for social justice projects.

Cheryl Glenn leverages her experience with research, teaching, and administrative work to give her readers a look into what it means to live a feminist life as a rhetorical scholar. Her concept of rhetorical feminism serves as the connective tissue for this book. In her introduction, she identifies rhetorical feminism instead as “a theoretical stance—that is responsive to the ideology that is feminism and to the key strategy that is feminist rhetoric” and is “[a]nchored in hope,” a critical touchstone for the book—and for those of us living through crisis (4). She differentiates rhetorical feminism from feminist rhetoric, which she instead defines as “a set of long established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (3). While these two terms may initially seem interchangeable, they are symbiotic; rhetorical feminism is the principle that guides the use of feminist rhetoric that creates material change. Glenn reminds readers that rhetoric ought to “do something,” and she shows how feminist rhetoric can carry out rhetorical feminism’s vision of the hope for a more equitable future that recognizes the value of all voices, especially the ones that have been most marginalized in the past (4, emphasis in orig.). This reminder is what makes the text stand out amongst other works in the field. Glenn’s articulation of rhetorical feminism offers us a cogent way of making the discipline of rhetoric more inclusive and is a crucial read for anyone wondering what rhetoric should do in our everyday practices. In the spirit of rhetorical feminism, this book is not argumentative. Instead, Glenn asks us to listen as she presents her decades of experience and shows readers how rhetorical feminism should exist in all facets of academia. As such, Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope is an essential read for anyone new to the field and an important reminder to veteran scholars. Glenn’s book reviews the work we have done as feminist rhetorical scholars and points out the work we must continue to do to enact our commitments to inclusivity and justice.

Chapter one, “Activism,” reveals how rhetorical feminism has guided activists historically. Glenn begins her analysis with the U.S. suffrage movement and ends with Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Highlighting exemplars, or “Sister Rhetors,” who used feminist rhetoric in service of their activism, Glenn calls attention to rhetorical feminism’s long-standing advocacy in pursuit of the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, “the greatest good for all human beings” (5). She analyzes the speeches of Black and white suffragists, such as Maria W. Stewart, Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth, to show how they disidentified with hegemonic prescriptions of womanhood to argue for their enfranchisement. While this chapter touches on the racial schisms in the suffrage movement, further exploration of the political fissures that historically dissolved the alliance between African American suffragists and white women may be useful for clarifying current challenges around how rhetorical feminists can make differences a point of understanding, not contention. Nevertheless, by looking to the present moment at the end of this chapter, Glenn reminds us that it is imperative to build on activist legacies to secure real democratic equality in the U.S. With the November election looming and with the ongoing uprisings in pursuit of racial justice, this reminder of how rhetoric can serve activist goals feels especially urgent.

The second chapter, “Identities,” focuses on rhetorical feminism’s grounding in experience and, consequently, the obstacles to and possibilities for coalition-building across difference. The underlying question of “Identities” is not just who speaks but who they speak for and who is listened to. Glenn highlights the role of agency and audience as they relate to identity in different rhetorical strategies for coalition-building, She demonstrates the important challenges in actualizing these theories with historical examples of how feminists disidentify with each other, most notably Audre Lorde’s public critique of Mary Daly. Glenn points out that white feminists must prioritize “the rhetorical feminist precepts of silence and listening to Others” and acknowledge the limits of their experience without erasing different identities (42). Only with this mutual communication can rhetorical feminists form coalition around what they have in common while accepting the gravity of their experiential differences and “come together in their advocacy of human rights and social justice” (46). This is an especially timely reminder to white feminist rhetoricians, myself included, who must prioritize being effective allies to our BIPOC peers. Glenn’s acknowledgment of the epistemic potential of identity grounds the rest of the book’s exploration of rhetorical feminism as she repeatedly returns to the role that identity plays in determining the efficacy of one’s rhetorical actions. This insight urges rhetorical scholars to remain attentive to how the experience that underlies all rhetorical action is always informed by an embodied sense of identity. This principle can act as guiding force for our field, both professionally and in our activism.

Chapters three and four, “Theories” and “Methods and Methodologies,” focus on the disciplinary development of rhetorical feminism. “Theories” begins with the suggestion that “mainstream rhetorical theories remain mostly untouched by feminism,” leading Glenn to point out the main “conceptual actions” of rhetorical feminism in a loose taxonomy (50; 51). These conceptual actions include disidentification with hegemony, transformation of traditionally masculinist rhetorical tactics like argument and objectivity, reimagined uses of rhetorical appeals, and new methods of delivery. Glenn captures the breadth of these feminist rhetorical theories by drawing from a wide range of feminist scholars (Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Krista Ratcliffe to name just a few), highlighting the enormity of the work already done in this area. These theories each emphasize speaking from experience, emotion, silence, listening, and dialogue as core components of feminist rhetorical styles. This chapter’s identification of these theoretical movements can help us create a more expansive understanding of what rhetoric is and what it can do. “Methods and Methodologies” explores how rhetorical feminists carry these theories out in their work. This chapter focuses mostly on historical inquiry, drawing on Glenn’s background in feminist rhetorical history. She highlights Jacqueline Jones Royster’s and Gesa Kirsch’s ideas of critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization as the key practices that guide historical recovery while also pointing to the need for feminist historiography that questions accepted histories and reimagines the rhetorical tradition. Glenn also emphasizes the ethical imperative to listen to others involved in qualitative research, namely ethnography and interviews. Taken together, these chapters instruct researchers on how feminist precepts already are, and should continue to be, present in all facets of rhetorical scholarship.

In the second half of the book, Glenn switches from her examination of rhetorical feminism’s foundations to explore its guiding presence in other academic actions. In her meditations on rhetorical feminism’s place in our teaching, mentoring, and administrative work, Glenn reveals how we can use our rhetorical orientations to change the institutions we are a part of, a critical lesson for our current moment. Chapter five, “Teaching,” begins with a bleak, but honest, review of the state of education in the U.S. Perhaps because of this grim account of dwindling funding, program cuts, and the erasure of tenure, Glenn insists, “teaching is hope embodied. It is a forward-looking endeavor, one that has the power to change lives—our own, our students’” (125). Glenn suggests that rhetorical feminist teachers should acknowledge their own positionality, respect students’ experiences, and help students investigate patriarchy and other compounding injustices in the world. Equipped with this background, students are prepared “to develop rhetorical agency” and change the status quo, prompting us to see how our work matters and how our political commitments can guide our professional actions (148). Similarly, Glenn’s sixth chapter, “Mentoring,” calls attention to this essential component of academia and asks readers to practice alternatives to traditional, master-apprentice models of mentoring. She highlights how rhetorical feminist mentoring is non-hierarchical, mutual, and networked. It relies on real, supportive relationships built on honesty and shared trust. Glenn also points out that such mentoring is the way rhetorical feminists give each other hope and make space for each other in what has traditionally been a privileged and exclusionary white, male space. Chapter seven, “(Writing Program) Administration,” offers Glenn’s own experience securing new hiring lines and guiding curricular changes while directing the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University as an example for how rhetorical feminism can make real, material changes in higher education. She balances the “feminization” of composition that leads female scholars to languish in an overworked, undervalued position and the “demands of a masculinist academy” with the possibility that WPAs can leverage their rhetorical savvy and expertise for more resources and inclusive education (176; 179). The basis of this work is collaboration, communication using silence and listening, and “mutual understanding” (186).

The final chapter, “This Thing Called Hope,” resists arriving at a neat conclusion, which is one of its greatest strengths. Glenn spends much of this conclusion ruminating on the consequences of the Trump presidency. She asks readers to wonder with her about what hope might look like in this political moment. She points to disciplinary successes of rhetorical feminism but suggests that this work is not done. There are more possibilities for inclusive scholarship, intersectional coalitions, and better teaching and mentorship. That potential, she implies, is “this thing called hope” that we must all work towards together (212). While this book is a valuable read for anyone already invested in the overlap between feminism and rhetorical studies—indeed, for any feminist pursuing rhetorical studies and hoping to work in academia, as “Mentoring” aptly shows—it is also the summation of decades of work in rhetorical feminism, making it a worthwhile read for the field at large that may be less aware of these histories and ongoing work. Additionally, any student who is new to rhetorical studies can benefit from this thorough synthesis of the pitfalls and successes of our rhetorical feminist forerunners. When the constant motions of research, teaching, and service wears us down, Glenn’s book reminds us why we do this work. As such, it is an incredible resource for those of us who seek to use our rhetorical repertoires to make changes in the world, whether this is in the classroom, in our day-to-day interactions, or in our marches. 

In the two years since the publication of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, the future has become increasingly uncertain. Now, more than ever, hope is necessary. Glenn’s book urges us all to practice our rhetorical feminism: to listen, for example, when we hear people urge that Black Lives Matter, to be allies and amplify those voices, and to use all of the means available to us to make change in our world. Why study rhetoric? What can rhetoric do? It can help us enact ethical change if we use it well. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope encourages to shed our naivety about the past and the present and to build on the work of other rhetorical feminists to create a more just future. It dares us to hope.