Review of Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place
Author(s): Caitlin Burns
Caitlin Burns is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville, where she serves as an assistant director of the Thomas R. Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition. She received her M.A. in Composition, Rhetoric, and English Studies from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she was also a first-year writing instructor and an assistant director of the University Writing Center. Burns’ research and teaching interests include archival research, feminist methodologies, the rhetoric of health and medicine, and digital rhetorics. She is currently guest-editing a special issue of Across the Disciplines (with Gesa E. Kirsch, Romeo García, and Walker P. Smith). Her essay “Ethics and Access in Mental Health Archives” will appear in the edited collection, Ethics and Representation in Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming).Tags: activism, book review, feminism, feminist theory, rhetoric, women’s studies
Fredlund, Katherine, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette. Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place. University of Alabama Press, 2020. 290 page.
In feminist rhetorical studies, there is a long history of interest in both historical rhetoric and digital rhetoric. However, as Katherine Fredlund, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette demonstrate in their edited collection Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place, these two subfields have had limited overlap in recent years. The editors introduce a new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, to provide a mechanism for identifying and investigating the shared rhetorical practices that emerge across historical and digital work. The collection, which features essays that span a wide range of eras, locations, media, and contexts, invites us to find compelling parallels between current feminist activism and antecedent feminist rhetorical work. This collection is an invaluable contribution to the field of feminist rhetorical studies (FRS), and builds successfully on previous works, such as Royster and Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices.
Feminist Connections is made up of thirteen essays that explore feminist rhetorics from a wide range of locations, time periods, and modes. Tarez Samra Graban, in the foreword “Writing Against Reactionary Logics,” frames Feminist Connections, noting that the contributors’ cross-historical approach allows us to reframe our understandings of both feminist and digital rhetorics; Graban writes that, through this collection, “readers can gain insight into how historical conversations about the feminist and the digital came to be subsumed under nonfield paradigms” (xv). Graban also introduces the importance of including interstitiality in feminist research, explaining that interstitiality provides a frame to “recognize what occurs between organizations, their archives, their practices, and their beliefs that cause some figures to come perpetually under erasure due to systemic ways of looking” (xii). Like Royster and Williams, Feminist Connections pushes us to consider and attend to the “spaces left” in both the historical record and our contemporary work.
In their introduction, “Exposing Feminist Connections,” the editors present the collection’s central intervention, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology (RTM), and explain how this methodology provides a way to draw connections between digital and historical feminist work in rhetoric and composition. Using RTM, researchers can find pathways and common ground between rhetors that might not share time, space, or place. This methodology emerged out of the editors’ realizations that despite the disconnections between these two subfields, “the same rhetorical practices” have been discussed in both of these subfields (3). RTM works to illuminate the rhetorical strategies and practices that connect digital and historical work, with the goal of “allowing researchers to uncover rhetorical practices that are used repeatedly by specific groups with specific goals (across time, space, social identity markers, technology, etc.)” (4). This methodology aims to decenter “linear conceptions of time, fixed ideas about space, and a privileging of content and media,” and has uses both in and outside of feminist rhetorical studies (5-6). Each chapter in Feminist Connections takes up this methodology, finding shared threads through time and space. In the nonlinear spirit of RTM, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette have chosen to organize the collection according to “three feminist rhetorical frameworks: revisionary rhetorics, circulatory rhetorics, and response rhetorics,” rather than by time period, or “by rhetor or purpose” (12-13). This organization of the collection clearly expresses the editors’ intervention, and the essays that make up Feminist Connections work together to demonstrate the efficacy of finding parallels across feminist rhetorical strategies throughout history.
Kerri Hauman introduces the first section, “Revisionary Rhetorics,” writing that this group of essays “acknowledges and builds on the fact that revision is something FRS scholars have been doing for decades in order to expand the definitional and location scopes of rhetorical action” (17). The four essays in this section attend to complexities of temporality; Hauman writes that these chapters “provide FRS scholars with additional models of revisioning intended to build on and reckon with past feminist rhetorical action as well as cautionary tales intended to benefit future feminist rhetorical actions” (21). The section begins with Jill Swiencicki, Maria Brandt, Barbara LeSavoy, and Deborah Uman’s “Seneca Falls, Strategic Mythmaking, and a Feminist Politics of Relation,” which interrogates the importance of Seneca Falls as a feminist “origin myth” through a description of the Seneca Falls Dialogues, a two-day event that aims to make “feminist connections…that account for and acknowledge past injustices and engage in activities that create different, more just relations” (23, 25). The authors examine their practice of “strategic mythmaking” that both acknowledges the symbolic power of Seneca Falls and simultaneously “transforms the epistemic privilege of that place, valuing the interstitial spaces that contemporary, intersectional feminist connections require” (36). Next, Tara Propper’s “Epideictic Rhetoric and Emergent Media: From CAM to BLM,” examines both the activism of the Say Her Name movement as part of “a much longer history of black women’s use of emergent media and public memorialization as a means of interrogating and participating in in the public spaces, resources, or spheres of representation that were historically denied to black citizens,” including Pauline Hopkins’s Famous Women of the Negro Race column, which appeared in the turn-of-the-century periodical Colored American Magazine (41). More specifically, Propper highlights the epideictic nature of both of these forms of public memorialization, and argues that “feminist media activists then and now have been able to navigate such hurdles by appropriating technologies of literacy, including mass media and social media outlets, to recuperate a history of black stories, experiences, and activism, allowing readers to see themselves as part of a larger public sphere of actors” (57). In “Recruitment Tropes: Historicizing the Spaces and Bodies of Women Technical Workers,” Risa Applegarth, Sarah Hallenbeck, and Chelsea Redeker Milbourne analyze recruitment rhetoric that encouraged women to take up jobs as telegraphers, stenographers, and coders at various points in history and argue that “recruitment discourse…contributes to gendered divisions within emerging proessional fields” (60). The authors use RTM to highlight patterns in recruitment discourse through time and caution that “we must be wary of how recruitment tropes sometimes draw loosely from feminist discourses of empowerment but produce long-term effects that are disempowering” (71). The section concludes with Kellie Jean Sharp’s essay “Take Once Daily: Queer Theory, Biopolitics, and the Rhetoric of Personal Responsibility,” which studies how the birth control pill “has mediated current understandings of gender of sexuality” to better understand how medications such as the HIV preventative Truvada may “influence bodies, identities, and sexualities now and in the future” (76). Sharp argues that while these medications have had positive effects for many individuals, the author’s analysis is also “a caution against relying on one resource or tactic in the fight for sexual liberation” (86). Collectively, these essays explore ways scholars in FRS can expand our understanding of revisionary histories and rhetorics, in order to better connect historical and digital work.
Section two, “Circulatory Rhetorics,” features another four essays that employ a framework of circulatory rhetorics that Ouellette describes as a framework that “speaks to the evolving nature of rhetorical encounters and interactions” and “investigate[s] those interactions and intentions through analyses of the rhetorical practices and strategies employed by and between feminists of different spaces, places, and eras” (90). Essays in this section engage with the participatory nature of digital media, while also “reflecting on, remediating, and revisiting feminist strategies of the past” (90). First, Kristin Winet’s chapter, “She’s Everywhere, All the Time: How the #Dispatch Interviews Created a Sisterhood of Feminist Travelers” argues that in addition to viewing interviews as a method, feminist rhetorical studies should consider “the interview as genre…that can foster a space for coalition building” (96). Using both historical and contemporary digital travel media interview series as a lens through which to view interviews as a feminist practice, Winet concludes that “the interview series is a tale of circulation, of solidarity, and of community building” and that “we must critically examine the ways in which our everyday communities use interview series to ideologically shape, constrain, and ignite social relations in digital spaces” (105). Building on Winet’s description of feminist rhetorical practices in digital spaces, Kristin E. Kondrlik’s essay “From Victorian Noves to #LikeALadyDoc: Women Physicians Strengthening Professional Ethos in the Public Sphere” draws parallels nineteenth-century writing about female physicians’ ethos and the 2016 #LikeALadyDoc conversation on Twitter. Through analysis of both popular fiction and digital media, Winet demonstrates that “both nineteenth-century and contemporary women physicians engaged popular media to circulate re-articulations of what it means to be a physician and a woman in a time of shifting gender norms” (123). In “Feminist Rhetoric Strategies and Networked Activist Movements: #SayHerName as Circulatory Activist Discourse,” Liz Lane explores the Say Her Name movement’s blending of social media discourse with “traditional black rhetorical strategies such as the African tradition of nommo (a performative naming tactic), the discursive practice of call-and-response (a circulatory tool), and the Greek storytelling practice muthos (a narrative mechanism)” (127). In combining these rhetorical strategies in a digital space, Lane argues that “networked hashtags create kairotic, decentralized social movements that circulate feminist identities” (139). To round out the section, Lisa Blankenship’s “From US Progressive Era Speeches to Transnational Social Media Activism: Rhetorical Empathy in Jane Addams’s Labor Rhetoric and Joyce Fernandes’s #EuEmpregadaDoméstica (I, Housemaid)” works to connect two women dedicated to labor rights, turn-of-the-century American reformer Jane Addams and contemporary Brazilian labor and women’s rights activist Joyce Fernandes, and “explores how rhetorical empathy functions in the labor rights rhetoric of these two complex, compelling women, one hundred years00and in terms of digital technology—light years removed from one another” (146). Using both Addams’s Columbian Exposition speech and the stories Fernandes has shared on social media from domestic workers, Blankenship shows that while “both Fernandes and Addams compel their audiences to view domestic workers as individuals with lives and histories of their own,” juxtaposing these two figures reveals “a significant shift within intersectional, transnational women’s rhetorical practices” (156-157). The essays in this section of Feminist Connections highlight the ecological nature of feminist rhetoric—the complex networks inherent to all communication and rhetorical engagement.
The collection’s third section, “Response Rhetorics,” contains the final five essays, which expand our understanding of response. Fredlund writes that “the chapters in this section use RTM to consider how those without power use rhetoric to respond to those with power—recognizing that our theories of rhetoric all too often fail to consider how hostile or unreceptive audiences impact rhetorical choices and effects” (161). The section starts with Skye Roberson’s chapter “‘Anonymous Was A Woman:’ Anonymous Authorships as Rhetorical Strategy,” which connects women’s anonymous writing in Victorian-era periodicals and on Reddit. Roberson asserts that this chapter “demonstrates how women resist the traditional boundaries of authorship by subverting our ideas about authorial identities, agency, and silence” (169). In “Tracing the Conversation: Legitimizing Mormon Feminism,” Tiffany Kinney examines similar rhetorical strategies employed by Mormon feminists in both the 1970s and 2010s to “forge connections among women and establish Mormon women’s legitimacy” (182). Kinney asserts that these women’s rhetorical invention processes and delivery strategies work to create legitimacy both for “long-term change” and to “forge pathways to immediate incremental changes” (194). Next, Clancy Ratliff examines commonplaces in the images of the suffragist movement and in early feminist blogging in “The Suffragist Movement and the Early Feminist Blogosphere: Feminism and Recent History of Rhetoric.” Ratliff argues that RTM should be applied to “work in the recent history of rhetoric,” and that “we can also study online discourse as feminist histories of rhetoric, not only as digital media artifacts or pedagogical strategies” (197). In “Mikki Kendall, Ida B. Wells, and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: Women of Color Calling Out White Feminism in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age,” Paige V. Banaji highlights Mikki Kendall’s creation of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag and Ida B. Wells’s critique of Frances Willard’s lack of support for the antilynching movement, demonstrating that “in these two stories, two women of color, separated by over a century, engage in the feminist response rhetoric of calling out” (215). Banaji argues that “calling out and listening are necessary rhetorics of response to white feminism” and that these strategies are also important for the “health” and “growth” of feminism overall (224-226). Bethany Mannon’s “The Persuasive Power of Individual Stories: The Rhetoric in Narrative Archives” examines three collections of personal narratives—letters that appeared in Ms. magazine, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back, and the digital storytelling project My Duty to Speak—to explore how personal narratives “connect generations of feminist activism” (232). Mannon writes that “personal narratives have been a productive way to bring dissension and conflict to the activist table” and that these narratives “respond to existing power structures” (242). Taken together, the five essays in this section show the wide range of strategies employed by feminist rhetors to respond to challenging audiences or exigencies.
Conclusion: Looking Across Time, Space, and Place
To conclude the collection, Kristine L. Blair’s afterword, “(Techno)Feminist Rhetorical Action: Coming Full Circle,” reflects on the collection, noting that Feminist Connections works to “triangulate three diverse modes of inquiry, the historical, the feminist, and the technological, simultaneously deploying concepts of interstitiality and intersectionality to avoid essentializing both women and feminists as universal groups” (246). Blair also highlights how successfully this collection allows the past and present to “speak to each other…grounded in an emphasis on revisionist, circulatory, and responsive rhetorics that call readers to action” (250). This interconnectedness sets Feminist Connections apart and demonstrates the value of RTM to scholars in FRS and other disciplines. In my own work, I anticipate using RTM to connect my interests in both digital rhetoric and in archival research. As a graduate student, I have “tried on” both of these subfields as I begin to narrow my research interests and identify long-term projects. For example, though my interest and research regarding ethics and representation has primarily been focused on archives up until now, these same concerns are replicated in the rhetoric of social media and digital media. While these threads have previously felt disparate, Feminist Connections and Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s methodological intervention provides a way to take these projects on together and find pathways between historical and digital rhetorics.
Other readers of Feminist Connections might take up this new methodology and incorporate it into new and emerging research projects, as RTM provides an opportunity to frame projects in both historical and digital rhetorical research, especially those related to activism and social movements. Moreover, readers can enact RTM in ongoing research projects; the methodology might uncover novel ways of approaching an existing research site or present a fresh approach to research questions. This collection will be valuable to scholars in FRS and beyond—perhaps even in fields such as women’s studies or history. In addition, Feminist Connections would fit well in any number of graduate-level classes, especially those focused in the history of rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, or research methods.
Feminist Connections is a timely collection of important work in feminist rhetorical studies. The editors’ new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, provides an excellent framework for rhetorical research both in FRS and in the wider field of rhetoric and composition. Rather than remaining tied to chronologically- or geographically-bound strategies of organization, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s RTM offers a new way to approach research in rhetoric and composition, and allows us to locate “transversals” between historical and contemporary rhetors. RTM makes room for broadening our research beyond traditional boundaries of time, space, and place.
- Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. -return to text
- Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Jean C. Williams. “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 4, 1999, pp. 563–584. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/358481. -return to text