Review of Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor

Review of Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020

Author(s): Jessica McCrary

Jessica McCrary is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at Georgia State University. With a disciplinary background in history, she is interested in archival research, feminist rhetorics, and engaging the complexities of women in across time, space, and work. She is also deeply engaged in undergraduate development and research and Writing Across the Curriculum. She is currently collaborating on several long-term studies of WAC at GSU. She is the Coordinator in the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, where she works daily with students’ Honors Theses projects as well as high stakes writing for national awards. Her previous scholarship has appeared in the Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians.

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Gold, David and Jessica Enoch. Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019. 293 pages.

In a 2015 issue of Peitho, Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith challenged feminist rhetoricians to take on studies that see the gendering of work—workplaces, tasks, arrangements—as productive areas of inquiry. Jessica Enoch and David Gold’s 2019 edited collection Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor looks at work as “a historically situated, rhetorically constructed, materially contingent concept” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201). Across fifteen chapters, a diverse cast of women living in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America create and react to challenges and opportunities within their working lives. Contributors describe the rhetorical strategies women used, faced or engaged, and build on previous chapters in a way that develops urgency across contexts. Unlike some edited collections, this work is perhaps most effective when read in order, as each setting and theory enriches the last, putting these women’s lives in conversation with one another across time, space, and intent.

Every chapter illustrates the powerful arena of “work” as a place for examining the rhetorical lives of women. Work-related rhetorics—from reframing business failure to challenging the leadership of educators—are the methodological self-corrective analyses feminist scholars seek (3-5). Female bodies engaged in labor introduce more spaces for women’s rights and rhetoric to be examined both historically and contemporarily. How were women challenging (or not) traditional gender roles or expectations? How are domestic spaces defined, and how are women complicating the relationship between “domestic space” and labor? What are entrepreneurs, labor activists, domestic laborers, inventors, seamstresses, factory workers, educators, and athletes doing rhetorically to challenge and complicate the “work” spaces they inhabit, despite expectations for female beauty and good-naturedness in spaces previously privileged to men? Stepping beyond political citizenship as the primary lens for female rhetorical voice, the contributors to this collection prove the fruitfulness of these questions. As the stories included illustrate, political and civic work hardly defines the whole of women’s participation in public spaces. Women at Work operates in tandem with Jessica Enoch’s other 2019 single-authored Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work in shared examination of the complex and changing relationship of women to domestic spaces in the last two centuries. While Work focuses on spaces beyond the domestic, we will see that they are unavoidably interconnected—especially for women of color. Both books are an impetus for more scholarship; we can see the myriad questions not yet asked of women’s presence in work. Women At Work contains valuable conversations for both seasoned feminist rhetors and those newer to the field or beginning their own research foci. Its editors and contributors challenge us to further the important scholarship they have advanced.

Complicating the Woman at Work

As my review of the collection’s chapters will show, a victory of Women at Work is that it further complicates the work and character of each woman featured in its pages, presenting the messy, imperfect, and sometimes far from progressive figure we imagine. Michelle Smith’s chapter examines the rhetoric of the Office of War Information’s actual recruitment posters, which did not include the “We Can Do It!” poster that made “Rosie the Riveter” famous (and which is properly contextualized in scholarship by Kimble and Olson). Smith examines nine posters produced between 1942 and 1945 promoting women in “war work” as temporary, heteronormative, and composed of predominantly white, middle-class women “whose conventional femininity remained intact” (187). Smith engages visual rhetoric to study the nine posters and recruitment messaging, contextualizing WWII labor beyond the skewed feminist empowerment interpretation frequently referenced in public memory. Her conclusions are a useful starting point for more work in visual rhetoric related to wartime work and depictions of women in recruitment advertising over time.

Risa Applegarth’s chapter “Bodies of Praise,” uses epideictic theory to examine how women’s embodiment in professional spaces may affirm or confront the values held by the community—both the professional community and larger society. By studying Independent Woman, a periodical published by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club, Applegarth uncovers how women in the 1920s and ‘30s workforce approached beauty and appearance in the workplace. Written and read by women, the publication was a source for navigating the way their bodies ought to be presented in work settings, with specific directive to limit the “disruptive” potential of female bodies in traditionally male spaces (135). Her scholarship reinforces a key theme of this collection—subtle but conscious disruption, of work environments and who may gain entry.

In a similar exploration of work environments and who may gain entry, Lisa J. Shaver’s scholarship on athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharia’s public image and branding provides further evidence of female entry without disruption of the normative, gendered professional environment. Using sports as the professional space, Shaver’s example makes clear that when women enter a space they have not previously been permitted, it is not on equal footing. “Women must not only give evidence that they are supremely qualified, they must also affirm that they are still appropriately feminine” (181). It is not enough to be “qualified,” women must be better, far above the expectations set for male peers. In the gender-biased athletic world Zaharia inhabited, her appearance and persona had to be strategically presented so as not to appear too threatening to femininity norms.

Rhetorics of Success and Failure

Nineteenth century metallurgist and inventor Carrie Everson faced similar discrimination and biases, as Sarah Hallenbeck illustrates. Hallenbeck’s chapter is a reticent examination of the rhetoric of failure, and how we might complicate the concept by challenging the “exceptional woman” narrative (71). Everson faced several barriers that rendered her mining invention and business a “failure,” but uncovering the factors influencing that “failure” challenges the usefulness of such a label at all. It is valuable to engage what it means to succeed and fail, now and historically for women in work, and to expose the complexities therein. In Everson’s case, many contributing factors were larger than her individual efforts, and these are often not considered in a businessperson’s larger narrative. Studying women in athletics, metallurgy, and invention advances and complicates our understanding of where and how women engage in work-place rhetoric.

The chapters are arranged chronologically and echo the recurring themes across the time covered—roughly 1830 to 1950. The collection’s first and last chapters bookend in theme despite occurring furthest from one another in time: both examine rhetorical strategies used by women workers in mill and factory labor reform. Amy J. Wan’s chapter takes a critical look at the well-studied mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, specifically the unstudied rhetorical strategies used by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Rather than further the popular depictions of the good mill girl, women workers co-opted language used publicly to praise them, and characteristics like piety and republican womanhood, to argue for labor reform (22-8). Wan argues that labor rhetoric utilized by LFLRA functioned with conscious and careful acknowledgement of expectations for white women workers and engaged with public fear of the effect industrialization might have on femininity. To bridge the contradictions facing women in an industrializing United States, they took advantage of the rhetoric of “women as the moral conscience of society” to demonstrate that factory owners were obligated to reform on behalf of their employees (29).

Carly S. Woods and Kristen Lucas’s chapter on labor activism in a 1949 strike at the H.W. Gossard factory, more than a century later, echoes those strategies. Gossard Girls, as they called themselves, fought for the labor reform men had earned in the region several years before. Their efforts, often critiqued in local newspapers, engaged playful representations of gender that maintained their image as “good girls,” nonthreatening to normative expectations (235). They did this by picketing in gender-challenging outfits, using effigies and signs intended as visual rhetorical representations that gave them permission for subtle subversive activism. These chapters couch the themes of this collection and show us that across history women have had to be cunning regarding how they represent their bodies and justify their presence in work environments.

Female worker as labor reformer is an unsurprising theme, advanced in Marybeth Poder’s chapter on the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). The WTUL created space for women to voice concerns over the struggles they faced at work regarding gender and class, a space where they could support one another before turning to men. Examining “mundane” texts like meeting minutes, annual bulletins, and officer’s reports, Poder shows the discursive strategies used to give working women a platform for their voice and leadership in labor reform (103). Similar to the Gossard Girls’ efforts, labor reform for women was not considered of equal importance to men’s. Poder’s work advances the rhetorical study of organizational archival materials we might have overlooked as inconsequential.

Recognizing Black Labor

Coretta M. Pittman’s chapter explores resistance rhetoric of a different fashion, that of musician and writer Alberta Hunter. Hunter’s columns for three Black-owned newspapers continued in the long presence of Black women writing about the role of work in their lives, and the intersection of race, work, and fair pay. Hunter relied on her status in the music industry to voice discriminations, engage racial politics, and advocate on behalf of Black workers (145). Using resistance rhetoric in her writing, she called out hypocrisy and racist violations by white venue owners discriminating against their Black employees while profiting on Black entertainment labor (147). Hunter’s work is reminiscent of modern social justice conversations working for recognition of Black labor and deepens how we engage labor activism in history.

Domestic spaces and frameworks form another key theme across this collection, working strongest in the chapters interrogating the lives of Black female laborers. Patty Wilde recognizes the affective, emotional labor Elizabeth Keckley carried out for years as an enslaved woman and later for Mary Todd Lincoln, both in the White House and after (32). Wilde does a critical reading of Keckley’s memoir with an eye on the unrecognized emotional labor documented therein, to highlight the lack of reciprocity or acknowledgement of domestic work as such.

Jennifer Keohane’s chapter on labor activist Claudia Jones and her published writing continues this important work in domestic rhetorics (209-23). Claudia Jones published to her audience, the U.S. Communist Party of the 1950s, to argue that though white women had argued for the critique of capitalism to include gender, the white perspective completely ignored the experience of black women and their invisible labor in white homes. Jones is a rhetorical powerhouse, navigating a complex political environment using militant tone and downplaying her positionality to great effect. Consciously using Cold War language, Jones shows how domestic spaces are different things to white women than they are to black women in the United States. Jones also calls up the affective labor black women perform off the clock, facing Jim Crow discrimination and state-sanctioned racial violence that made their homes far from domestic “haven.” Jones demonstrates through strong, intentional language that at least if oppressive to women, the white family home was understood as a sanctuary; the same could not be said of the black home (218). Scholars of feminist rhetoric should recognize Jones as a “proto-intersectional” theorist, for her framing of the “triple oppression” (race, class, gender) that combined to reinforce disestablishment of the black female domestic laborer. Keohane’s effective chapter on Jones’s rhetorical labor is a model for future work on other proto-intersectional women, especially those in minority and marginalized groups. Combined, the scholarship in this book on Keckley, Hunter, and Jones is foundational for our continued work in the archives, critically historicizing and recognizing women of color in spaces of work, and the frequently unrecognized labor in and beyond those spaces.

Work Place and Women in it

When entering work dominated by men, women engaged deliberately with the “domestic” as female domain for their rhetorical strategies to succeed. Jane Greer interrogates the management of Donnelly Garment Company, specifically owner Nell Donnelly Reed’s use of domestic discourses to construct and condone her presence in the garment industry, and for the homelike spaces she curated for employees. She used generous compensation packages, homey and clean factory spaces, and family-like messaging to ensure her employees remained loyal and delay efforts to unionize. Casting her relationship with her employees in this way “reinforced her own femininity as a caretaker and avoided association with the stereotypically masculine factory owners concerned only with the bottom line” (164). When outside efforts to unionize became overpowering, her rhetorical domesticity reached its limit, and in fact this is where Greer’s scholarship carves new spaces for inquiry. Reed is a complicated entrepreneur who used domestic rhetoric to her advantage only until it no longer worked. It is useful for feminist scholars to question the powers and limitations of domestic rhetorics. As Greer and other contributors show, it is not useful to approach historical analysis using momentary snapshots of women in only narrow or ideal light, in work or any other context.

Nancy Myer’s examination of rhetorical invention in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience introduces what Myers calls the “New True Woman,” someone seeking not only domestic satisfaction but financial and vocational self-fulfillment at the end of the nineteenth century (53). An analysis of this Alcott text looks at which virtues were downplayed, and which were redirected, to refashion the ideal of a woman in modern work. Myers argues this text illustrated to a large readership female agency while meeting the implicit social criteria of her era.

Pamela VanHaitsma, in a chapter that also examines female expression and gender roles within work, engages scholarship she started in Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education (2019), examines the professional relationship of educators Irene Kirke Leache and Anna Cogswell Wood. VanHaistsma considers how the erotic may function rhetorically and pedagogically towards power and information in Leache and Wood’s relationship as educators. Defining erotic as a “passionate emotional and intellectual sharing,” VanHaistma argues that Leache and Wood were aware of eroticized same-sex love within Western cultural history and used this knowledge for as model for their “opulent friendship” as they coined it, and their belletristic pedagogical work (57). Her examination advances important questions in the history of relationships that presented threats to heteronormativity, and the caution we must use in applying contemporary modes of expression to previous eras. Both Myer’s and VanHaitsma’s theories reiterate an embodiment of female expression and gender roles, alongside a conscious and subtle disruption of work and how society viewed women doing it.

Validating Vocations for Women

Finally, the collected scholarship in this book resituates work, and what it means to be a women at work. Kristie S. Fleckenstein and Heather Brook Adams and Jason Barrett-Fox, respectively, make significant contributions to the collection by defining photography and sex work as valid vocations for women. Fleckenstein’s chapter focuses on Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose rhetorical work demonstrated photography was a profession, more than mere hobby, and that women could go far beyond rote work in the field (85). Women could be professional artists. These remain significant questions: work versus art, when and where art is considered a vocation, and how women justify their place in those realms.

Progressive for her time (perhaps even for 2020), Kate Waller Barrett worked in the 1920s for the recognition of sex work and sex workers as part of the economy men built. This chapter is a refreshing revelation complicating who is included and how they are perceived in their space of work. Barrett advocated on behalf of prostitutes and faced a “formidable rhetorical challenge: to genuinely advocate on behalf of women working as prostitutes in an effort to raise a wider set of concerns about the gendered implications of growing urban centers” (118). Across nineteen articles published in the Washington Times, Barrett pushed past sensationalism, misconceptions, and an archetype of the fallen woman to humanize the contemporary female worker. What lawmakers writing the Kenyon Act failed to see, she argued, was that prostitution was a vocation and the women employed therein are products of economy and the changing structure of society based on urban living. Barrett sought to place vice as part of economy and network, rather than in moral or individual failings by women employed as prostitutes (124). One cannot help but consider this rhetorical work as it relates to this same economic and moral debate one hundred year after her public writings. There is important work begun here that can be extended, in both historical and contemporary study, on the vulnerability of women as wage earners and the moral versus economic factors influencing decisions about work.

Opportunities for Further Scholarship

How does work create rhetorical challenges and opportunities for women? This question is as important today as it is historically. Women at Work asks, answers, and advances that question. The critical usefulness of this collection lies in the theories the contributors adopt, that other scholars can rely on to ask and respond to their own questions related to the interactions among gender, rhetoric, and work. Each contributor employs helpful terms and methodologies, especially for those who have engaged with rhetoric or feminist theory but perhaps have not yet combined the two. The methodologies in this collection reveal the “contingency and artificiality” covering up some significant historical and rhetorical realities about how work “ought to be structured, valued, and compensated” and by whom it was performed (Hallenbeck and Smith 204). Women at Work will be useful to any scholar interested in the rhetoric of workspaces, feminist rhetorics, or any of the specific companies, fields, or time periods included.

As Enoch and Gold acknowledge, many voices are missing from this conversation. The editors recognize the absence of “experiences of Latina, Chicana, Asian, LGBTQ, rural, and religious workers; the lives of working mothers, workers with disabilities and other understudied workers” (15). This lacuna is posed as a call for more work of this nature, a call to which Peitho readers will respond. As noted, the rhetorical tools presented give us numerous productive starting points as we return to the historical records in our own research areas. The work reviewed here advances the call put forth to not only “uncove[r] the particularities in each case but also to identif[y] common threads and strategies in the ongoing rhetorical co-construction of gender and work (Hallenbeck and Smith 202). These questions and theories are equally significant for scholars of historical and contemporary rhetorics.

I read this book because of an interest in how we define work both in scholarship and in our everyday lives. As a former career and internship advisor to college students and someone who began her professional career during The Great Recession, this question has remained through much of the work that I do with students and in my developing scholarship in feminist rhetorics. This text demonstrated to me the ways in which I can engage with the women who came before me and the ways they engaged with work and how they articulated it in their own lives. The women featured in the chapters of this book rhetorically place their bodies and voices in their respective workspaces—whether through activism, labor rights, acknowledging Black women, or reimagining what success and failure look like in work. Coming from a disciplinary background in history, reading Women At Work validated my asking the kind of questions I hope to ask and answer in my own academic work. And as I have noted across this review, the contributors and editors have given scholars like me a toolset from which to productively ask and answer questions about work using feminist rhetorics.

Works Cited

  • Enoch, Jessica. Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Hallenbeck, Sarah and Michelle Smith. “Mapping Topoi in the Rhetorical Gendering of Work.” Peitho, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015.  
  • Olson, Lester C. and James J. Kimble. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006.
  • VanHaistma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019.