Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second-Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger

Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second-Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger

Peitho Volume 24, Issue 24 Fall

Author(s): Megan J. Busch

Megan J. Busch is an assistant professor of English at Charleston Southern University. She earned her PhD from the University of South Carolina’s English Composition and Rhetoric program. Her research interests include rhetorical stylistics, rhetoric of the American South, and digital composition pedagogies. She is currently the Managing Editor of Composition Studies 

Abstract: The archived materials of Zelda Nordlinger offer a glimpse into this emerging intersectionality in the second wave of feminism through the ethe Nordlinger develops in her writing. Her archived letters, speeches, and essays lean heavily on typical second-wave rhetoric, and much of her language demonstrates a disregard for racial and socioeconomic difference. Yet, there are slivers of emerging intersectionality seemingly at odds with her second-wave ethos, and it is in Nordlinger’s consideration of this intersectionality and her steps towards revision that researchers may better understand the historical shifts in second-wave rhetoric.

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Feminist scholars often characterize the second wave [2] as a movement disproportionately focused on white middle-class issues, led by activists who were unconcerned with the lived experiences, goals, and desires of marginalized women. The movement in the 1960s and 1970s has become known for its ignorance of intersectionality, seeking instead to group all women—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status—into one movement with the same agenda for feminist equality [3]In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, for instance, bell hooks argues that although second-wave feminists urged “unity” among all women, this quest for female solidarity and sisterhood—championed primarily by white, middle-class women—ultimately “ignore[d] the differences between their social status and the status of masses of women” (25). Following hooks in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn embeds this depiction into the field of feminist rhetorical studies, adding that the second-wave movement neglected to address the “range of needs experienced by so-called Others—nonwhite, working poor, lesbian, bisexual, and non-Western women (and men)” (31). Though second-wave feminism did focus on the issues of middle-class white women, Glenn contends that it is this discrimination by the era’s activists that paved the way for intersectionality and hope. She writes, “The fissures within the second-wave feminist movement offered perfect opportunities for rhetorical feminists to disidentify with hegemonic feminist rhetoric…The time was ripe for feminism—and feminist rhetoric—to leave its homogenizing tendencies behind” (31).  But how did this unfold, and how did change occur within the second-wave movement? The archived papers of second-wave feminist activist Zelda Nordlinger prove to be a rich resource for examining intersectionality as it was emerging within and in conflict with second-wave ideologies.  

In this article, I argue that the archived materials of a local activist in Richmond, Virginia offer a glimpse into this emerging intersectionality in the second wave through the ethe Nordlinger develops in her writing. Nordlinger was, in many ways, the most typical of second-wave feminists: white, middle-class, well educated. She organized sit-ins, protests, and meetings, and she was integral in establishing the Richmond chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her archived letters, speeches, and essays lean heavily on typical second-wave rhetoric, and much of her language demonstrates a disregard for racial and socioeconomic difference. Yet, there are slivers of emerging intersectionality seemingly at odds with her second-wave ethos, and it is in Nordlinger’s consideration of this intersectionality that researchers may peek at the shift toward leaving “hegemonizing tendencies behind” in the historical moment of the second wave (Glenn 30).   

Using Nordlinger’s archived papers, I demonstrate first how Nordlinger’s comparisons—metaphors, analogies, and similes—function to build an ethos rooted in the “problematic practices” of second-wave feminism (Brown 255). Her documents feature comparisons that are troubling, such as comparing the feminist movement to the civil rights movement and middle-class women to those enslaved in the Antebellum South. By contemporary understandings of intersectionality, these comparisons, and the ethos Nordlinger constructs through them, “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Yet, her rhetoric is more complex than that, and her papers reveal a competing ethos sympathetic to emerging intersectionality, as she learned to be an ally of women across the boundaries of race and socioeconomic status. Specifically, Nordlinger demonstrates a humble embrace of revision to her practices and ideas to become more attuned to the needs of varying communities of women. With these opposing ethe—a typical second-wave ethos and a revisionist ethos—Nordlinger stands as an example of the growth and the complexity of crafting a feminist ethos before the term intersectionality had a pervasive impact on feminist thought. Through an examination of her ethe, I offer Nordlinger’s writing as an archival case study that captures a brief moment in the emergence of intersectionality and carves a trajectory for continued revision of the practice of rhetorical feminism.  


Many people outside of Virginia are unfamiliar with Nordlinger. She was not a national leader for the second-wave movement, but a mother who, like countless others, read The Feminine Mystique and became enlightened and enthralled with seeking equality for women. In a 2007 interview, Nordlinger reflects on that transformative moment in which she became a feminist. She said: 

Well, after about a week of simmering [on Friedan’s work], I called the YWCA and asked them if they knew of anybody that was interested in the women’s movement or the feminist movement. “No,” they said, “no.” I said, “Well, I wonder if you all down there would agree to let me have a meeting room and let me host a meeting of the people who might be interested in forming a feminist group?” And they said it would be alright. So, I posted the notice, and a week later five of us got together at the YWCA. And that was the beginning of the feminist group here in Richmond. (Nordlinger “Interview” 14-15)  

After Nordlinger’s introduction to Friedan, she adopted the tenets of mainstream second-wave feminism with moxie and organized a founding group of feminists in Richmond. Although the locus of her influence was Virginia, Nordlinger stands as an example of the many women around the nation who were championing a localized feminist movement. Her position as relatively typical of a second-wave feminist allows for her to serve as a case-study example of the ideologies that influenced the movement on a local-activist level.   

Considering that Nordlinger’s influence was confined primarily to Richmond, the status of the city in the 1970s is key to understanding her activist movements because “location” and place “matter when we talk about feminist activism” (Gilmore 113). The challenges of Richmond were unique because the city is situated in the American South, where segregation existed in full force, and the practice of slavery and process of emancipation were influential memories for Richmonders. Furthermore, the city in the 1970s was not particularly amicable to the women’s rights movement: the state had rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the traditions of the deep South and “southern belle” mentalities were prominent, and the city’s newspapers were overtly skewed conservative (VanValkenberg 17). These factors led to a general opposition to a progressive women’s movement that caused Nordlinger to reflect years later (in 1983) that “being a feminist in Richmond can be compared to being an evangelist missionary in a house of ill-repute . . . it’s been damned hard” (Nordlinger “Tenth Anniversary” 1). Despite the struggle, she continued to lobby for her convictions. Most notably, Nordlinger was instrumental in beginning the Richmond chapter of the NOW and for leading a sit-in at an all-male restaurant attached to a department store, Thalhimers. Although the ERA was never ratified in Virginia in her lifetime[4] and progress was excruciatingly slow, Nordlinger and her colleagues remained active in organizing peaceful protests, lobbying, giving speeches, and writing letters to newspapers, magazines, and politicians seeking equal rights for women through the early 1990s.  


Upon her death in 2008, Nordlinger donated all her personal papers to three libraries in Virginia—the Library of Virginia, James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Earl Gregg Swem Library at William and Mary. Her collections include stacks of newspaper clippings and notes relating to women’s rights, along with letters, speeches, and essays penned by Nordlinger.[5] I approached the archives knowing that Nordlinger’s words would be embedded in a movement marked by heightened racial tension, so I sought to heed Tessa Brown’s directive:

White women scholars can contribute to this tradition [of critiquing oversight of black influence in white women’s rhetoric] by practicing reflexivity as a reflex, persistently centering racial analysis to any study of white rhetors and interrogating how our own rhetoric as white women resurfaces problematic practices. (Brown 255)

Nordlinger’s writing certainly includes “problematic practices,” and by centering this study in a racial context, I could examine the tensions between Nordlinger’s oversight of African American influence in her ethos development and her “reflexivity” as she reflects upon and revises those “problematic practices” while grappling with questions of emerging intersectionality (Brown 255). With each archival document I reviewed, I sought to answer the question, “Is Nordlinger saying anything about intersectionality here?” Ultimately, I discovered a more nuanced picture of intersectionality in the second-wave feminist movement than I originally imagined.  

Rhetorical Failures 

Feminist rhetorical scholars could deem much of the problematic rhetoric of the second wave to be rhetorical failures, and Nordlinger was certainly not immune to these missteps. Glenn explains: 

Despite their best intentions, middle-class white heterosexual feminists failed rhetorically, as they did not consistently attend to the petitions of feminist activists not working in and for mainstream feminist issues, those women who acknowledged what would come to be called “intersectionality” … Instead, these second-wave feminists used their rhetoric (without giving much thought to their “identities”) to speak and write publicly on behalf of “the” feminist movement (as they so often did and were expected to do). (30-31).  

 Despite her own best intentions, Nordlinger, as a “middle-class white heterosexual feminist,” often “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Beyond “speaking and writing publicly on behalf of ‘the’ feminist movement” (Glenn 31), Nordlinger, in her writing, strives to craft a second-wave feminist ethos by comparing her own struggles as a woman to the struggles of the civil rights movement and those enslaved in the Antebellum South, disregarding the stark differences between her own plight and those of marginalized groups, specifically African Americans.  

Exemplifying this rhetorical failure, Nordlinger relies on two problematic comparisons consistently through her writings that she implements to build her second-wave feminist ethos: (1) being a woman in the United States in the 1970s is a form of slavery and (2) the women’s rights movement is an extension of the civil rights movement. Sometimes, she states these comparisons as metaphors, and other times, she hedges them in similes and expands them as extended metaphors. Fahnestock offers definitions of metaphor, extended metaphorsimile, and analogy that link all four types of comparisons together in their rhetorical function. For Fahnestock, metaphor occurs when a rhetor brings “over a term from an ‘alien’ lexical/semantic field to create a novel pairing that expresses a point trenchantly” (104). The extended metaphor continues to “draw terms from the same newly introduced lexical/semantic field” (107). Similes are like metaphors because the simile “expresses an explicit comparison,” while the metaphor expresses an “implicit” comparison (110). The comparison is the same, but simile executes it in a less powerful way, deeming on entity to be like or similar to the other instead of a substitution for the other (as a metaphor does). Both forms of comparison—metaphor and simile—are “truncated” arguments based on underlying, ideological analogies (110). Put simply, the ideological analogy is the foundation upon which rhetors build a metaphor; an extended metaphor and a simile are alternate expressions of that metaphor. Whatever form the comparison takes, it is the manifestation of an underlying, ideological analogy. For Nordlinger, that analogy is one fairly common among women’s rights activists of the time: 

Womanhood : Modern Slavery :: African-American : Historical Slavery 

Feminist Movement : Gender Liberation :: Civil Rights Movement : Racial Liberation 

The metaphors, extended metaphors, and similes that Nordlinger employs are truncated versions of the analogies above, and they function as ethos-building mechanisms in her writing that assist Nordlinger in forming connections with her audience.  

Comparisons such as those used by Nordlinger are key in ethos-building because they “typically draw on the more familiar…to explain the less apparent” (Fahnestock 106). The realm of familiarity offers a connection point between the reader and the writer so that the writer may then “create new links” upon which to build her argument (Fahnestock 105). These “new links” function to craft an ethos that the audience identifies with and understands (105). Jonathan Charteris-Black situates metaphors in political contexts to demonstrate the ethos-building that occurs through the use of such comparisons. He explains that the metaphor creates a connection with the reader (often through an affective response) that allows the reader to form an impression of the writer’s character based on the writer’s revelation of shared familiar ideologies (Charteris-Black 20). That is, the connection forms at the familiar ideological meeting point between audience and rhetor. Such a practice of finding a mutual familiarity offers a platform upon which a rhetor can build ethos with her audience. Nordlinger relies on familiar ideas to introduce something new, and in the process, she crafts an ethos for herself that aligns with the causes and practices of the second wave, situates her as a member of a larger and more established movement, and connects her own views to the “ethical ideals” of her reader (Charteris-Black 203). There are numerous examples of Nordlinger comparing the women’s rights movement and middle-class white women to the civil rights movement and enslaved African Americans (respectively) as she leans on shared familiar ideologies to develop her second-wave feminist ethos. In three documents—an untitled early 1970s speech, a letter to Senator Douglas Wilder, and a letter to Jacqui Ceballos—she compares womanhood to slavery. Four documents exemplify her comparison of the women’s rights movement to the civil rights movement: a speech to the Jewish Women’s Club, an untitled early 1970s speech, a speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club, and a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  

Nordlinger first introduces this comparison that connects womanhood to enslaved African Americans in an untitled speech from the early 1970s.[6] She writes, “Both blacks and females have played distinctive roles in western culture—they serve their white male masters.” (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1). The key embedded metaphor here is that man is a master (a term directly associated with slaveholders in the Antebellum South) and, in an extension of the metaphor, women, like African Americans, are servants to those masters. In this speech, Nordlinger forms a link between slavery (with which her audience of Richmonders was likely familiar) and feminine oppression, and this comparative move functions to build ethos because she relies on a shared familiar ideology (slavery) to introduce a new ideology (the oppression of females). Leaning on that shared familiar ideology, she introduces a less familiar concept: the plight of women. The shared familiar ideology of slavery acts as a meeting point for audience and rhetor; if Nordlinger and her audience both hold a similar ethical relationship with slavery, they can find commonality at that point to examine new, similar concepts. That space of commonality establishes an ethos for Nordlinger with her audience and grants her a form of credibility to build her argument for the women’s rights movement.   

Additionally, in a 1972 letter to Senator Douglas Wilder as part of a plea for the senator to ratify the 19th Amendment (ERA), she writes, “Take courage, sir; Frederick Douglas [sic] understood the relationship between slavery and the plight of the female. We are both victims of WASPS!” (Nordlinger “Letter to Senator Douglas Wilder” 1). Leaning on Frederick Douglass to support her own argument, Nordlinger uses the term “relationship” to create a simile, or “an explicit comparison” between slavery and womanhood (Fahnestock 109). Her ethos-building move in this letter is like the comparison she makes in her early 1970s speech as she relies on the shared familiar ideology of slavery as a common foundation for introducing second-wave feminism. Nordlinger’s audience in this letter would have been familiar with the work of Frederick Douglass and the horrors of slavery and sympathetic to emancipation and desegregation—Senator Douglas Wilder was the “first African American state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction,” his grandparents were enslaved, he attended school during segregation, and Frederick Douglass was his namesake (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “L. Douglas Wilder”). In hopes of building ethos based on a connection to a shared familiar ideology, Nordlinger forms her argument to Senator Wilder for feminism through a comparison to slavery, a problematic simile she uses to build ethos as a new feminist in the second wave.      

Even into the 1990s, Nordlinger continues to rely upon a comparison between women and slavery. Nordlinger’s archives contain a letter composed in 1998 to Jacqui Ceballos[7] of the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA). In this letter, Nordlinger seeks to be included among the members of that society, so she makes a short case for admission in the group to Ceballos. Looking back on her heyday during the second wave, Nordlinger recounts some of her notable achievements in an ethos-building move to gain credibility with Ceballos: “marches, speech-making, and integrating an all-male soup bar, just to name only a few things I’ve done” (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1). Then, in the next paragraph, she writes: 

Living in the Capitol of the Confederacy presents unique problems…Southern ‘gentlemen’ are trying to hang on to the last vestage [sic] of the slavocracy, and their women, though reasoned, are keeping themselves in the traditional chains. The young women, thankfully, are emerging from sexual slavery. (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1) 

In this reflective letter, Nordlinger makes an even more direct connection between slavery and the plight of women through this extended metaphor. She first demonstrates that the issues she references are specifically issues of the middle- to upper-class, stating that it is the women of “gentlemen” who are holding on to traditional gender roles. Those roles, she considers to be “slavocracy,” and she invokes the image of chains in reference to the women of the middle- and upper-class and notes that a new generation is “emerging from sexual slavery.” This passage, again, assists Nordlinger in crafting an ethos, but given its timeframe and its audience, the move is slightly different than in the previous two examples. In the first two passages above, Nordlinger’s audiences were being introduced to the budding idea of women’s rights. Ceballos, on the other hand, had been lobbying for the same equality as Nordlinger for more than 25 years in New York City. In this letter, Nordlinger uses the slavery comparison to demonstrate an unfamiliar iteration of feminine oppression—one specifically located in the American South. By leaning on the shared familiar concept of slavery, Nordlinger can present a localized picture of the second-wave feminist fight to her audience and build ethos with Ceballos as an activist with a shared sense of necessary liberation. Her repeated, problematic comparisons of white women’s struggles with slavery demonstrate the second-wave’s lack of understanding of intersectionality. 

Nordlinger makes similarly problematic comparisons between the second-wave movement and the civil rights movement. Historically, the civil rights movement was a foundation for the women’s rights movement, so this comparison that Nordlinger makes is not uncommon (Key 104). Nordlinger’s second-wave feminist movement in Richmond ignited in the years closely following the civil rights movement and the abolition of Jim Crow Laws (which occurred in 1965). Similarities between the two movements are not to be overlooked. Key explains: 

As black women in Richmond reinforced progress for the black race, white women piggybacked this approach ten years later as one strategy in the continuing resistance against gender bias… The civil rights movement was in essence a launching pad for feminism in Richmond and elsewhere. (14, 104) 

Nordlinger and the feminists of the second-wave owed many of their tactics to the example and effectiveness of the civil rights movement, and many feminists of the time counted the radical women of the civil rights movement to be role models (Roth 8). However, race relations in America in the 1970s and socioeconomic gaps between women made this relationship between the two movements knotty at best. Nordlinger, a white, middle-class woman, along with her fellow feminists in Richmond, sought to transform the fight from desegregation to “desexigration” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sylvia Roberts” 1), but this was not a smooth transition because differences in race and class complicated the feminists’ desire for all women to become part of a “sisterhood” (Nordlinger “Letter to Chris” 5) fighting for equality for their gender. Nevertheless, Nordlinger makes clear connections between the second wave and the civil rights movement, and rhetorically, these comparisons function in a similar way to her comparisons to slavery. By aligning the second-wave movement to a successful civil rights movement in the recent past, Nordlinger links the ideologies of the civil rights movement with her own to establish credibility with her audiences.   

For example, in a speech given to the Jewish Women’s Club in 1976 [8], Nordlinger said, “The civil rights movement was a training ground for the feminist rebellion” (Nordlinger “Speech to Jewish Women’s Club” 2). A Jewish woman herself, Nordlinger was adamant about enacting change within her own religion, but the Jewish women in Richmond were slow to adopt radical feminism. She reflects, “The Jewish women here in Richmond are not at all receptive to the feminist movement…they’re extremely conservative here in Richmond” (Nordlinger “Second Interview” 2). To build ethos with a group of Jewish women, she relied on a common comparison—the feminist rebellion to the civil rights movement. The women in her audience would have experienced the numerous protests of African Americans in Richmond and witnessed the abolition of Jim Crow Laws in their lifetime. The shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement acts as a familiar meeting point for her to build an ethos with her audience and present a new concept for similar freedom for women.  

Nordlinger replicates this comparison of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement throughout several of her archived documents. In an undated and untitled speech [9] likely from the early 1970s, Nordlinger compares the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement. She opens with:  

I would like to draw an analogy between the Black civil rights movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement: Black is ugly, Female is inferior…Blacks have been awarded low-paying menial labor, females have been kept as household serfs. White males have perpetuated a Capitalistic system through the cheap labor of Blacks and Females. (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1)  

Nordlinger relies again on the civil rights movement in her controversial speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club at For Pickett in 1971  [10] . She states, “The corollary between the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement cannot be ignored…there is a definite parallel between the two” (Nordlinger “Speech to Officer’s Wives Club” 6). And in 1975, in a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,[11] Nordlinger solidifies this connection. She writes, “The changes [for women’s rights] now taking place in southern politics are the most significant since Reconstruction with credit going to activists in the civil rights movement” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1). In each comparison above, Nordlinger relies on the underlying analogy that the feminist movement vies for gender liberation as the civil rights movement sought racial liberation. Her audiences in Richmond would have been incredibly familiar with the civil rights movement and the liberation it brought to African Americans. According to the Virginia Historical Society, “…many of the most important legal landmarks of the civil rights movement originated in Virginia,” and the city of Richmond (as the capital) was the center of much activity during the movement (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “Civil Rights”). For building ethos, Nordlinger uses this shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement to establish connection with her audience; this shared familiar ideology offers a foundation upon which she argues for women’s rights.

While each of these instances of comparison strives for ethos building with the best intentions for equality and were often rhetorically successful with her audiences, they are deeply problematic and indicative of Glenn’s depiction of failed rhetoric of second-wave feminists. Viewing these comparisons from the 21st century, the analogy of the plight of white, middle-class housewives to the plight of the African Americans in slavery or under Jim Crow Laws is incredibly off-putting, as there is no just comparison between the suffering of those enslaved and the inconveniences of the comfortable middle class. The metaphors and similes are inappropriate and built upon faulty analogies. Yet, Nordlinger maintained a local reputation as a relatively successful activist for Virginia’s women’s rights movement. Despite the insensitivity obvious to contemporary rhetors and feminist scholars, Roth sympathetically explains that such comparisons were perhaps an indicator of “just how seriously emerging white feminists took the struggle” for equality (188-9). Nordlinger’s comparisons to slavery and the civil rights movement in her writings work to amplify the significance of her subject matter, link her to the larger second-wave feminist movement, and develop an ethos rooted in a connection to her audience and readership through the use of familiar shared ideologies. Because leaning on the oppressive social structures of African Americans is a wholly unethical way to build ethos and craft socially just arguments for equality, though, modern feminists rhetors could view Nordlinger’s rhetoric as failing because of her lack of attention to intersectionality.    


If Nordlinger offers examples of the rhetorical failures of the second wave to recognize the intersectional issues of the era, what might feminist rhetorical researchers learn from her that both recognizes these rhetorical shortcomings and realizes that her work in the second wave paved the way for a shift towards intersectionality in later waves of feminism? The prime takeaway from Nordlinger’s archived collection is her desire to revise her ideas and her actions to be more attuned to the needs of women in marginalized communities. While she was building the ethos of a second-wave feminist, relying on problematic comparisons, Nordlinger was also building an ethos reflective of emerging intersectionality through a willingness to embrace revision in her thoughts and practices: a revisionist ethos.  

In “Constructing Essences: Ethos and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism,” Johanna Schmertz argues that feminism should take a up a new definition of ethos that allows for change in various moments. She writes, “I ultimately want to define ethos for feminism as neither manufactured nor fixed, neither tool nor character, but rather the stopping points at which the subject (re)negotiates her own essence to call upon whatever agency that essence enables” (Schmertz 86). For Schmertz, ethos is not a static entity that remains the same over time or something that a rhetor can pull out of her pocket to engage at a moment’s notice. It is in flux. This definition of ethos brings some clarity to Nordlinger’s shifting ethos—from one that uses racialized metaphors to one that welcomes revision toward intersectionality (and then at times, returns to those problematical racialized comparisons). This inconsistency is indicative of lived experience, as few rhetors present a consistent ethos through life. Nordlinger, while constructing an ethos that disregards difference in one scenario, was simultaneously, in other instances, building an ethos that accounts for the varying struggles across race and class lines as she acknowledged her shortcomings. It is in those moments of acknowledgement and revision that modern feminist researchers may see an intersectional feminist ideology as it is unfolding and developing, and Nordlinger’s papers offer a mere glimpse of this gradual (and eventually widespread) shift in feminist thought. Alongside Nordlinger’s contentious metaphors, similes, and analogies are revisions towards greater inclusivity and acknowledgement of difference among women across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. There are three specific instances in which Nordlinger revises her practices toward greater inclusivity—through critique in the planning of the Women’s Political Caucus, through listening to the voices of African American women at a 1971 Women’s Policy Council meeting, and through confronting her own privilege and position through reflection.  

Nordlinger revised her practices toward intersectionality when presented with critique. When organizing the conference for the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, Sarah Hughes wrote to Nordlinger[12] to criticize the $10 conference fee, explaining that it would exclude many members of lower socioeconomic status. Hughes wrote to Nordlinger:  

…the $10 registration fee is outrageous. This will certainly severely limit the constituency to affluent and sophisticated middle-class women…And I think the $10 fee puts the meeting beyond the means of even larger groups of women—for instance all those families who have children and whose paychecks barely stretch in which the woman is interested in women’s issues, but doesn’t have the kind of total commitment which will make spending $15 to go to Richmond for the day something other than an unthinkable extravagance” (Hughes 1). 

Hughes continues to express disapproval of the venue (the Richmond Holiday Inn) as “a place middle class women can afford and be comfortable in, but at a price which will exclude a number of Virginia Women” (Hughes 1). Between the choice of venue and the cost, for Hughes, the decisions about the conference were “unconsciously made” (Hughes 1). Hughes stood staunchly for intersectionality and criticized Nordlinger’s lack of consideration for women of lower socioeconomic status. However, her call for intersectionality was not just directed towards opening access for women based on monetary restraints, but she also recognized that the desires of African American feminists were often different than her own. She writes, “I don’t expect Black women to form a coalition with us on the basis of our feminist politics or really to be anything but quite wary of many of our ideas, if not hostile” (Hughes 2). Hughes rebukes Nordlinger’s focus on the white middle class and acknowledges difference in the aims of African Americans in the second-wave movement.  

Despite this sharp reproach, Nordlinger responds with humility and a desire for revision; she demonstrates appreciation toward Hughes for her critique, acknowledges it as necessary. Then, she moves to action. Showing appreciation, she writes, “Thank-you, Sarah, for your frank letter. I would hate to think that we allienated [sic] anyone for any reason whatsoever” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Nordlinger further acknowledges Hughes’s critique as “valid and most important,” agreeing that “the black women have their own problems, and they are indeed unique” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Finally, Nordlinger acts on this rebuke. Sending out a new message about the event through the YWCA and several press releases, she deems the conference fee “not mandatory” and emphasizes in her messaging that “the Caucus welcomes all women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). It is important to note that Nordlinger continues in this letter to express hope that she can locate a common ground with African American feminists, a sentiment reminiscent of the second-wave desire for universal womanhood and sisterhood.   

Upon further reflection about this specific event, Nordlinger writes to a friend and fellow activist in Mississippi, Llewellyn, stating, “You asked what we accomplished at the Caucus…. that’s a large order! First and most important, we brought women together from almost every level of society. We had business women [sic], mothers, social workers, teachers, older women, Black and White women, and young women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Llewellyn” 1). Nordlinger’s revisionist ethos in both her response to critique and her report to Llewellyn is different from the ethos she was building with her comparisons to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement; instead, she offers a move toward sensitivity of issues of those with lower socioeconomic status and begins to embrace the emerging intersectionality of the era. She revises through acknowledging her oversights and actively altering her practices. Nordlinger’s turn toward intersectionality in this instance is an imperfect step, but one that reveals both small revisionary progress and the friction between intersectionality and the guiding principles of the second-wave movement. 

Nordlinger also enacts a revisionist ethos upon listening to the needs of others, specifically an African American woman speaking at a Women’s Policy Council meeting in October 1971. In response, Nordlinger wrote to many of her news and press contacts to publicly plead for the inclusion of African American issues in the feminist fight, including Tom Belden (of United Press International), Mary Nell Duggan (of Women’s News), and Tony Radler (of WRVA Radio). To Radler, she writes:  

To quote a Black woman who was in the Va. W.P.C. as well as Women For Political Action: ‘Black women have problems that are different from yours; issues we (Va.W.P.C.) have adopted have been watered down as regards to Black Women. Be congnizant [sic] of the Black woman! You don’t want to undermine the movement.’ I believe, Tony, that the differences between White and Black women revolve mainly around birth-control and abortion repeal. For many years the Black women have been accused of being immoral as regards to illicit sex. They are having to live down that reputation. And here we are…middle-class White women talking about sexual freedom! … My dearest hope is that White women and Black women form a solid political block—both State-wide and Nationally! (Nordlinger “Letter to Tony Radler” 1)  

In a similar letter to Tom Belden, she invites him to attend a future meeting of African American activists and expresses a desire for understanding between the races and mutual inclusion (Nordlinger “Letter to Tom Belden” 1). At the Women’s Policy Council meeting she describes in these letters, Nordlinger was directly confronted with the difference in needs for African American women, and when she learned of these differences, she took action, revising the concept of the second wave that all women stood together on the same women’s issues. Here, Nordlinger holds on to the second-wave hope that women may bond together to create an effective “political block,” but she lets go of the notion that all within that force would have the same needs and agenda. To help others revise their thinking about homogeneity within the second-wave movement, she wrote to her news and press contacts to increase awareness of difference and incite action from her audience. As in her exchange with Sarah Hughes, Nordlinger takes on a revisionist ethos, revealing her subtle shift toward intersectionality.  

Self-examination and reflection further prompted Nordlinger to adopt a revisionist ethos. In an unpublished autobiographical work,[13]  Nordlinger writes:  

I saw a mix of attitudes and opinions about Civil Rights. Some, like Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy spoke of basic justice for all citizens. Then there was George Wallace and Orvill [sic] Faubus who maintained separation of the races was right and proper. Martin Luther King led marches through the South, cities endured race riots, and angry white people pledged opposition. Friends and relatives deplored the situation, maintaining outward indifference and inner confusion. I found myself hard-pressed to explain to my school-age children that they must accept black children in their schools. I was forced to reach deep inside myself, sorting out feelings and attitudes and examining them against my insulated background…Spurning the indifference I saw around me, I chose to join local demonstrations favoring busing of school children. I provoked arguments among my relatives and friends, taking from the confrontations renewed and more vigorous determination to defend my convictions. (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5)  

Here, Nordlinger reflects on her position in the civil rights movement as a white woman, and her self-examination prompted revision toward an intersectional view of equality. Specifically, Nordlinger recognizes her own shortcomings and her reluctance to speak to her children about accepting school integration. To do this she was “forced to reach deep inside” herself to understand her own privilege and the injustice at hand (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). As in other instances of her revision, she took action—this time by joining demonstrations and challenging the views of her relatives and friends. This practice of self-reflection as a catalyst for revision influenced her stance as a second-wave feminist, during which she continually re-examined “social customs and designs that had shaped [her] life” in an “odyssey from childhood to adulthood” that was “painful” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). Identifying these instances of privilege through self-reflection and examination was not easy for Nordlinger, yet the difficult process led to much needed revision. In moments of critique, listening, and self-examination, Nordlinger reveals a revisionist ethos and a willingness to compassionately alter her second-wave understanding of equality.  


Even if it is understandable that Nordlinger could have differing ethe at different moments in her life (as Schmertz contends), how might feminist rhetoricians today reconcile a revisionist ethos with Nordlinger’s problematic second-wave ethos revealed in the comparisons she makes between her own struggles to those of African Americans? Perhaps the best way to understand these contradictions is to consider Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s concept of “strategic contemplation” in how feminist scholars approach the messy, oft-problematic historical contexts revealed in the archives (84). Royster and Kirsch seek a meditative, intentional, revisionist ideal for the consideration of past rhetorical contexts. They write that strategic contemplation requires: 

…linger[ing] deliberately inside their research tasks…imagining the contexts for practices; speculating about conversations with people whom they are studying…paying close attention to the spaces and places both they and the rhetorical subjects occupy…and taking into account the impacts and consequences of these embodiments in any interrogation of the rhetorical event” (84-5). 

Specifically, such an approach allows researchers to “withhold judgment” for a time as we “ground the analysis more specifically within the communities from which [the rhetorical subject] emanates” so that we may “enact the belief that rhetorical performances are deeply rooted in sociohistorical contexts and cultural traditions,” as problematic as they may be (as in Nordlinger’s case) (85-6). Research within archives requires a deliberate examination of our research subjects’ ideologies (and the “consequences” of those ideologies) and a contemplation of those subjects not only as whole, flawed individuals, but also as members of complex rhetorical “contexts,” “places,” and “spaces” (Royster and Kirsch 84-5). Nordlinger struggled with the complexity of her context—of wanting women’s freedom, of not quite understanding the goals and needs African American women, and of striving for equality within a stratified social structure. In her struggle, though, there is both a warning against repeating the rhetorical failures of the second wave (to remain acutely aware that the ethe feminist rhetors construct can carry with them assumptions about race, social status, and the past) and an optimism for a revisionist ethos to prevail. Through Nordlinger’s failures, she revised toward inclusivity and intersectionality, but her revisions were not whole (even through the 1990s, she still made comparisons between women and those enslaved).[14] So, too, modern feminists’ conceptions of equality and intersectionality are not whole, and there is still much work to do[15]  as we “struggle collectively” towards equity in places of power imbalance (Dziuba).  

Nordlinger offers an example of how to move forward: through revision. For her, critique was welcomed and needed, and it required new, revised practices. Learning of another’s needs prompted action and speaking up, and critical self-examination led to change. In her “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism,” Tracee L. Howell describes that this kind of revision is challenging: “Taking action that reveals one’s own vulnerability is often easier said than done within the patriarchy, no matter one’s power or privilege” (Howell). And with Nordlinger’s example of vulnerable action towards revision, I am left with what-ifs. While many feminist researchers already welcome opportunities to grow and revise toward more inclusive practices, what if that revision moved beyond feminist rhetoric and into the field at large? What if privileged rhetors (myself included) consistently responded to contemporary critiques against problematic or exclusionary practices with active revision? What if we humbly and repeatedly embraced opportunities to revise our ideologies when we learn new, more inclusive ways of acting and being? And what if feminist researchers return to the archives of second-wave activists to reexamine how they were—in small steps—revising their practices towards greater intersectionality? In pursuing these what ifs, I hope that we craft tangible “possibilities” for a more inclusive future (Glenn 193).  

End notes

[1]This archival research was made possible by the generous support of the Ellison Fellowship awarded by the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies and the contribution of the Rhetoric Society of America’s Graduate Student Development Award presented at the 2019 RSA Institute.

[2]There has been much debate by feminists and historians about whether or not to keep the wave metaphor in use when referencing feminist movements (See e.g. Bailey, Hewitt, and Reger). Despite this questioning of the metaphor, it is the most identifiable way to mark the period during which Nordlinger was a politically active feminist. I have adopted the term for this paper for that reason.

[3] See the work of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde for additional critiques of second-wave feminism.  

[4] Virginia did finally ratify the ERA in January 2020 (Williams). 

[5] This research focuses on those documents written by Nordlinger for outside audiences (not her notes-to-self), as with her compositions for other readers, she would likely have been more attuned to her ethos and rhetorical presentation.   

[6] The intended audience for this piece is unknown, as there is no indication in Nordlinger’s archives or news reports that reveal where she gave this speech. Based on context clues, such as Nordlinger’s citing statistics from 1968 and referencing Arthur Jensen’s research about IQ differences between race and gender published in 1968 and 1969 as a “recent study, this speech was likely delivered in the very early 1970s (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 2). Between 1970 and 1971, Nordlinger gave fifteen known speeches, and she sent copies of many of the manuscripts to Mereca Jane Pollack in June of 1972. In a cover letter accompanying those speeches that detail their context, Nordlinger indicates that this one could be one of several for which “she cannot recall the occasion” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). In all of these early speeches, Nordlinger’s audience was primarily Richmonders, as her influence had not yet spread beyond the city.  

[7] Ceballos is a feminist who was active during the secondwave movement in New York City. In 1992, Ceballos founded the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), a non-profit organization with goals to “honor, record and preserve the history of the accomplishments of women and men active in the feminist movement, to educate the public on the importance of the changes brought about by the women’s movement, and to preserve the movement’s history for future generations” (Veteran Feminists of America “Mission Statement”). Nordlinger is included in the VFA’s book Feminists Who Changed America.  

[8] There is a possible discrepancy in the date of this speech. There is a hand-written note on the top of the document in the archives that says, “Speech To The Jewish Women’s Club 1976.” However, in a 1972 letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains that with the letter she has included a speech “made to The Jewish Women’s Club of Richmond nearly two years ago,” meaning 1970 (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Either these are the same speeches and the document in the archives has been misdated or Nordlinger gave two speeches, the first of which (in 1970) is missing a transcript. Of the speech that occurred in 1970 (whether this one or another unknown speech), Nordlinger indicates, “The reception to this presentation was cool…. (but polite). Within a day after it was presented, a prominent rabbi contacted me to inquire what I had told his women to get them so disturbed” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1).  

[9] See note 6 about the date of this speech.  

[10] In her letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains the context of the speech. She writes in retrospect, “That one was a sensation…. not for its content, but because some of the officers wives organized a picket to protest my being invited to speak. The small group of women who had asked me to make the speech did not expect a boycott, and the press was thrilled over the ‘story’ (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Despite this uproar, her rhetoric seemed to be successful. In a letter of thanks after the event, TE Ross wrote to Nordlinger saying, “You woke many a stagnant mind and brought on a new surge of awareness to us” (Ross “Letter to Nordlinger” 1).   

[11] Nordlinger penned this letter to the Richmond Times in response to an editorial piece published on June 6, 1945 about gender-based equality in education. Her overall critique of the news piece was that it presented information with an “ideological bias” and “distorted images” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1).   

[12] Sarah Hughes was a white resident of Hampton, Virginia who was only marginally active in the feminist movement in the 1970s.  

[13] This piece was likely penned in the early 1980s. It is undated, but she opens the autobiography with “My life span of nearly fifty years…” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 1).  Nordlinger was born in 1932 

[14] See “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 

[15] To this point, Cheryl Glenn explains, “All of us—hegemonic and marginal rhetoricians alike—already know that existing rhetorical theories do not yet fully account for the experiences and perspectives of all the humans who embody rhetorical expertise” (203).  

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