Kathleen Ethel Welch Article Award Winners

The Kathleen Ethel Welch Outstanding Article Award was created in honor of the Coalition’s first president and co-founder, Kathleen E. Welch, whose immeasurable impact on the organization continues today. The award is presented biennially in odd years for refereed work published in Peitho journal to recognize outstanding scholarship and research in the areas of feminist pedagogy, practice, history, and theory. This year’s judges had the honor of reading and rating excellent articles from seven issues of the journal—volumes 21.2 through 23.1. These articles presented diverse approaches to feminist and historical scholarship, pushing the boundaries of both field and discipline, and many of them reflected collaborative authorship.

While we would normally confer awards at our Action Hour event on the Wednesday evening prior to CCCC, this year we rely on virtual conferral and social media. Thus, on behalf of the 2021 Kathleen Ethel Welch Outstanding Article Award Committee, I am pleased to announce this year’s award recipients and honorable mentions: Ana Milena Ribero and Sonia C. Arellano (award recipients); Patricia Fancher, Gesa Kirsch, and Alison Williams (honorable mention); and GPat Patterson and Leland Spencer (honorable mention).

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Ana Milena Ribero, recipient of the 2021 Kathleen Ethel Welch Outstanding Article Award for “Advocating Comadrismo: A Feminist Mentoring Approach for Latinas in Rhetoric and Composition,” Volume 21.2. Dr. Ribero is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Oregon State University.

Sonia C. Arellano, recipient of the 2021 Kathleen Ethel Welch Outstanding Article Award for “Advocating Comadrismo: A Feminist Mentoring Approach for Latinas in Rhetoric and Composition,” Volume 21.2. Dr. Arellano is Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.

This year’s Article Award committee felt that Ribero and Arellano’s call to rethink the whole discourse around mentoring is salient. Their article absolutely fulfills one of the Coalition’s principal missions: to attend to the education and mentoring of feminist faculty and graduate students in scholarship, research methods, praxis, and the politics of the profession. One judge wrote the following of this winning piece:

This article gives timely attention to the discipline and to the important, understudied area of feminist Latina rhetorical strategies of mentorship.

Another judge concurred:

In offering comadrismo as a mentoring model, Ribero and Arellano successfully elide the dichotomy between assimilationist and resistant approaches to professionalization. They elegantly describe how comadrismo can speak back to the white hegemonic norms that have underscored many mentoring practices while also transforming the structured mentoring relationship into a site for institutional critique. Furthermore, the dialogic nature of their article demonstrates comadrismo as an embodied practice.

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Patricia Fancher, honorable mention for “Feminist Practices in Digital Humanities Research: Visualizing Women Physician’s Networks of Solidarity, Struggle, and Exclusion,” Volume 22.2. Dr. Fancher is Faculty in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Gesa Kirsch, honorable mention for “Feminist Practices in Digital Humanities Research: Visualizing Women Physician’s Networks of Solidarity, Struggle, and Exclusion,” Volume 22.2. Dr. Kirsch is Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at Soka University.

Alison Williams, honorable mention for “Feminist Practices in Digital Humanities Research: Visualizing Women Physician’s Networks of Solidarity, Struggle, and Exclusion,” Volume 22.2. Professor Williams is Faculty in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While this article did not win the 2021 award, this year’s judges appreciated the authors’ creative approach to historiographic recovery of women physicians through the visualization of solidarity networks and citational politics. Judges particularly admired the care with which the authors demonstrate “naming” as a simultaneous inclusive and exclusive practice. Their article absolutely fulfills one of the Coalition’s principal missions: the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media. One judge wrote the following:

This article demonstrates an excellent research design and thoughtful consideration of the idea of feminist community. Furthermore, it has broad implications for future research.

Another judge concurred:

Not only is this article sophisticated in argument and clear in scope, it also reflects several approaches to feminist scholarship that readers of Peitho have come to value: it reflects the historical, the digital, and the critical—particularly in revealing with honest sensitivity the egregious limits of certain kinds of feminist solidarity movements.

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GPat Patterson, honorable mention for “Toward Trans Rhetorical Agency: A Critical Analysis of Trans Topics in Rhetoric and Composition and Communication Scholarship,” Volume 22.4. Dr. Patterson is Assistant Professor of English and LGBT Studies Coordinator at Kent State University Tuscarawas.

Leland G. Spencer, honorable mention for “Toward Trans Rhetorical Agency: A Critical Analysis of Trans Topics in Rhetoric and Composition and Communication Scholarship,” Volume 22.4. Dr. Spencer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary and Communication Studies, and affiliate faculty in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University.

While this article did not win the 2021 award, this year’s judges felt that Patterson and Spencer made several critical pathways more visible for conducting research on trans subjects and/or into trans topics. One judge wrote the following:

This extensively well-researched article prompted generative discussion and prompted considerations of how the literature review is in itself a feminist genre, one that demonstrates tireless labor and acts as a welcome to future scholars and a gift to current researchers. This article will no doubt chart the course of future research in Trans Rhetorical work and in the field, broadly construed.

Another judge concurred:

Patterson and Spencer actively reconsider how different forms of materiality—literature, visual media, genre, reviews (like itself), etc., as well as pedagogy—can help contribute to a reconfiguring of trans* agency beyond simply undoing and replacing. They propose methods that can help us regenerate conversations around representations rooted in time—contemporary and not—and explain why/how these require evaluations that do more than switching out paradigms. Ultimately, they help us question how to reconfigure the way we understand and support spaces for trans* realities, voices, and representation that are relevant in shaping current and future scholarship.

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Please join us in congratulating these scholars and teachers on their work. We look forward to your nominations and applications for the several awards still upcoming this year!

Tarez Samra Graban
Immediate Past-President
Awards Chair 2020–2022

and members of the 2021 Kathleen Ethel Welch Outstanding Article Award Committee
Rachel Jurasevich
Kimberly R. Lacey
Jolivette Mecenas
Nancy Myers
Kate Pantelides

“There’s Just Something About Her”: The Lasting Influence of Anti-Suffrage Rhetoric on American Voter Attitudes

In November 2018, Sarah Elfreth made Maryland history as the youngest woman to win an election to the Maryland State Senate at age 30. But like so many other women who work to shatter the glass ceiling, Senator Elfreth ran into her fair share of sexist criticism. “[I was] incessantly criticized for being too young, being unmarried, and being childless. Apparently that combination made me wholly unqualified to serve in the Senate,” she shared during a June 2020 personal interview. “That was the most misogyny I faced in the entire campaign. When women say things like that, it gives men credence to say it” (Elfreth).

Erin Lorenz, a candidate for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in 2020, shared a similar experience of voters needing to see her as a “traditional” woman. According to Lorenz, voters would ask “But what will you do?” upon learning that she would have to resign from her teaching job if she won. Because many of them looked visibly uncomfortable when she said that she would have to get another job, adding, “I’m getting married in April,” seemed to go over much more smoothly. “They definitely felt more relieved when they knew that,” Lorenz said. Unfortunately, after one hundred years of national suffrage, women like Sarah Elfreth and Erin Lorenz still encounter tired tropes of how women are regarded in the political arena. Women may have the vote, but their fight to be recognized as full political participants is far from over.

The centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020 gives us many opportunities to celebrate social progress. The new Turning Point Suffrage Memorial in Fairfax County, Virginia is a space for visitors to learn more about the Silent Sentinels, while the Library of Congress crowdfunded archival project, “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote,” has provided the public with ways to engage remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while enjoying these commemorations, we must be careful not to succumb to what University of Wisconsin sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer deem the ahistorical fallacy: the belief that past events like the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment “are too far removed to matter to those living in the here-and-now” (Desmond and Emirbayer 344). History is a continuum of connections, and individual instances of progress do not eradicate institutional sexism. There is still so much to learn, and so much to fight for.

My article argues that despite the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, the rhetoric that charged its opposition still persists when it comes to female voters and female political candidates. To reach this conclusion, I analyze the continuation of anti-suffrage rhetoric over the last century according to the colonial “Republican Mother” archetype, as well as Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s ambivalent sexism inventory, to establish six appeals of anti-suffrage rhetoric: appeal to respectability politics, appeal to spite, appeal to family, appeal to male structural power, appeal to women as overly emotional, and appeal to unique gender roles.  Finally, I share my own recent data from political canvassers on the negative rhetoric surrounding female voters and female candidates, examine the ways in which voters’ comments both echo and diverge from sentiments made one hundred years ago, and establish a seventh rhetorical appeal for the twenty-first century.

Citizenship by Proxy: The Republican Mother

As was the case when black men were legally denied the vote before the passing of the 15th Amendment, definitions of citizenship lay at the heart of the women’s suffrage question. If women did not have the vote, were they full citizens of the United States? And if they were not full citizens, was the goal of the anti-suffrage movement to reserve citizenship, as Elaine Weiss sardonically observes in The Woman’s Hour, “by right of a certain shape of genitalia”? (40)

Rosemarie Zagarri describes the notion of a separate brand of citizenship for women, to be practiced within the boundaries of what is “natural” and therefore appropriate for their sex, as a “broad, long-term, transatlantic reformulation of the role and status of women” in her essay, “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother” (Zagarri 193). European philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Lord Kames lay the groundwork for how Americans eventually conceived of women’s relationship to the family unit and to society more generally. The latter’s assertion that women’s “relationship to their country is secondhand, experienced through husbands and sons,” was particularly influential in the formation of the “Republican Mother” archetype, as it carved out a specific path of political influence that American women could exercise in lieu of suffrage (Kerber 196). In his 1806 essay, “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” Benjamin Rush insisted that “[women] should not only be instructed in the usual branches of female education, but they should be taught the principles of liberty and government; the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them” (qtd. in Zagarri 206). By learning about politics in America without any first-hand involvement, women would be able to perform a kind of citizenship by proxy. They could shape the character of men and boys, and by extension, contribute to a more moral society.

Relatedly, the Republican Motherhood ideal is also an illustration of benevolent sexism. Defined by Peter Glick (Lawrence University) and Susan T. Fiske (now Princeton University) in 1996 as one of the two “prongs” of the researchers’ ambivalent sexism inventory, benevolent sexism is the lesser-known cousin of hostile sexism that masquerades as kind and complementary. According to Glick and Fiske, this kind of sexism is comprised of attitudes “[that view] women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g. helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure)” (Glick and Fiske 492). A contemporary example of benevolently sexist behavior would be a man telling a woman that the catcalls she gets while walking to work are “just compliments,” and that she should “smile more” so as to appear inviting and amicable. Such comments focus on praise while undermining female agency. The woman is harassed, her male friend assures her, because she is just so beautiful, and urges her to sacrifice her comfort to maintain the social order.

For its time, the argument that women should exercise influence over their husbands and sons could be read as progressive and even feminist. But the resulting Republican Mother archetype shaped American conventional wisdom in benevolently sexist ways, and defining women by their sexual and moral purity became grounds for anti-suffrage activists to keep them out of political life. “It was, suffrage opponents explained, because they held women in such high esteem that they denied them the vote,” Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder write in A Century of Votes for Women. The authors additionally note that such rhetoric often turned from flattering to frightening once women disobeyed the rules: “An anti-suffrage cartoon presented women with a choice: Reject the right to vote and retain the safety and happiness of the home, or obtain the vote and accept the degradation of the ‘street corner’” (Wolbrecht and Corder 33-34). Left with no middle ground between the home and the street corner, a space that implies poverty, prostitution, and general debasement, women would surely be scared into silence.

The Rhetoric of the Antis: Benevolent Sexism Turns Hostile

The benevolent sexism inherent in the Republican Mother archetype is an example of what Glick and Fiske deem “protective paternalism,” a method of preserving women “as wives, mothers, and romantic objects…to be loved, cherished, and protected” (493). As in the previously mentioned anti-suffrage cartoon, benevolent sexism is often exposed as a cover for hostile sexism once women respond in a way that rebukes the existing social order. The real threat of physical violence that women face while being harassed on the street, for instance, exemplifies how quickly a flatterer can pivot and become an attacker.

It is worth noting that some anti-suffrage rhetoric, usually from individual speakers, did remain benevolently sexist without turning hostile. Many female anti-suffrage activists of the early 20th century revised their former position that women should keep exclusively to the home as more women became active in social clubs and other community organizations. Mrs. J.B. Gilfillan, president of the Minnesota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, clarified her evolving stance in 1915:

Anti-Suffragists are opposed to women in political life, opposed to women in politics…We believe in women in all the usual phases of public life, except political life. Wherever women’s influence, counsel, or work is needed by the community, there you will find her, so far with little thought of political beliefs…The pedestals they are said to stand upon move them into all the demands of the community. (qtd. in Thurner 40)

Gilfillan subtly frames her position as one that allows women more freedom than they had previously been accustomed to. “We believe in women in all the usual phases of public life” suggests variety of choice as well as eased restrictions, and the words “except political life” may resonate as a fair compromise. Gilfillan’s use of the word “pedestal” is also apt, as pedestals are symbolic of benevolent sexism. Putting women on a metaphorical pedestal first for their “natural” roles as wife and mother, then as a beacon of “political neutrality and nonpartisanship,” is a way of praising them for adhering to boundaries (Thurner 41). To sell the idea further, President Josephine Dodge, the founder and first president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, argued that women actually held more power by not being able to vote. She employed respectability politics by urging women to get “the best results from lawmakers by working with them for the common good, not dividing along party lines” (Miller 453). Catharine Beecher pushed women to use “moral persuasion” on male voters instead of voting themselves, another proper way to “create less conflict” (Miller 451). Gilfillan, Dodge and Beecher all used benevolent sexism to persuade by framing less power as more power. By spinning legal limitations as an opportunity for women to realize their unique gifts of “moral persuasion” and “working for the common good,” anti-suffragists were able to frame the absence of the vote as necessary.

The anti-suffrage advertisements found in newspapers and magazines were not so benevolent; in fact, they were quite hostile. Women were forced to choose whether they wanted to be virtuous housewives who left the voting to their husbands or greedy, unsexed barbarians who failed to know their place. The rhetoric in these advertisements performs the dual functions of threatening women who step outside of their proper sphere of influence while playing on men’s fears of losing structural power.

President John Adams’ notion of “petticoat government” influenced many anti-suffrage advertisements, which depicted women as nags, bullies, and literal hens corrupted by their newfound power at the polls (Weiss 29). One cartoon, titled “America When Feminized,” features a hen with a “Votes for Women” sash stepping out of her coop, directing the rooster to “Sit on [the eggs] yourself old man, my country calls ME!” The caption immediately below reads, “The more a politician allows himself to be henpecked the more henpecking we will have in politics,” followed by, “A vote for federal suffrage is a vote for organized female nagging forever” (Weiss). The postcard is certainly meant to horrify its male readers. But because it leans heavily on argumentum ad odium—an appeal to spite—female readers would also be justifiably repulsed at the thought of themselves as hen-like. 

Image is a postcard with the text "if you love your wife and much less your life get out and get under." Underneath the text is a living room with two signs on the wall: "Bless this house" and "votes for women." There is a woman holding a rolling pin menacingly while standing over a man lying on his back on the floor.

Fig. 1. “Get Out and Get Under.” Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive, Feminization of Men Collection.

An anti-suffrage postcard from the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive at the University of Northern Iowa depicts a woman physically dominating her husband and threatening to strike him with a rolling pin (Fig. 1). Here, a traditionally female domestic household item is weaponized to emasculate a man: what was previously a tool of service (providing meals) is now a symbol of tyranny and disorder. On another postcard from the same collection, a woman yells at her husband to clean while pointing urgently to a newspaper with the headline, “Votes for Women” (Figure 2). The husband cowers sheepishly in the corner, and neglected teapots appear to boil over behind him while the caption reads: “Puzzle—Find the Head of the House.” A puzzle, indeed, and a clear appeal to prescribed gender roles. The postcard insists that reversed roles for men and women would be a disaster for the entire household, as the man appears frightened and unable to carry the burden of domestic labor that is, oddly enough, supposed to be enjoyable and fulfilling for his wife. 

Image is a postcard that shows a woman bending down to pick up a paper that reads "votes for women." Behind the woman is a table, and there's a man, presumably her husband, crouched behind it looking at the woman with a scared facial expression.

Fig. 2. “Puzzle – Find the Head of the House.” Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive, Feminization of Men Collection.

Hostile sexism in anti-suffrage rhetoric also characterized women as too fragile and unstable to be entrusted with the vote. “Innate physical weakness made white women unfit for the rigors of the electoral competition,” Wolbrecht and Corder explain, “and unable to defend the republic against threats” (34). John Jacob Vertrees, who mentored anti-suffrage activist Josephine Pearson in her fight against Tennessee’s ratification, played on the related stereotype women as innately emotional in his 1916 pamphlet, To the Men of Tennessee on Female Suffrage. He argues in the pamphlet that “a woman’s life is one of frequent and regular periods marked by mental and nervous irritability, when sometimes even her mental equilibrium is disturbed” (qtd. in Weiss 39). Vertrees directly appeals to the idea that women are “too emotional” by citing women’s character flaws, not their positive attributes, as just cause for keeping them out of the voting booth. Anti-suffrage activists also used women’s anger to deem them “too emotional”; in other words, women’s aggressive pursuit of the vote caused their worth to diminish. “When you hand her the ballot, you simply give her a club to knock her brains out,” one Nashville reverend preached. “When she takes the ballot box, you’ve given her a coffin in which to bury the dignities of womanhood” (Weiss 32). The metaphors of violence and death are no accident here. They are a veiled threat, and an eerie foreshadowing of the jailing and torture of suffragist protesters. 

By the time the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916—four years before national suffrage—the sexist rhetoric surrounding women in politics was overtly hostile. When Jeannette Rankin of Montana won her seat in the House of Representatives, reporters painted her as “a cheap little actress” prone to “sobbing,” who needed to be “forgive[n] for her election” (Walbert). Rankin’s challenger, Jacob Crull, was so distraught over his loss that he downed a bottle of muriatic acid. But rather than characterize Crull’s action as hysterical, the newspapers published ledes like, “The sting of defeat—administered by a woman.” The message was clear: Jeanette Rankin was responsible because she dared to take a male politician’s place (Walbert). America’s first female representative needed to be punished for stepping out of her natural role, just like the women clamoring for suffrage.

Repurposing Anti-Suffrage Rhetoric for the 20th Century

After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, the general expectation in America was for women to show up to the polls in droves. This was not the case. Roughly one third of eligible female voters turned out for the 1920 election compared to almost 70% of their male counterparts. The gender gap continued for some time: although women’s participation surpassed 50% in the 1936 election, men’s participation rose to a record high at about 75% (Wolbrecht and Corder 70-71).

Why the low turnout? Voting was entirely new to women and as a historically oppressed group, they were vulnerable to voter suppression efforts. “Voting is habit forming; turnout in the past increases the probability of turnout in the future,” Wolbrecht and Corder maintain. “Those who have been systemically denied the opportunity to develop the habit due to disenfranchisement are disadvantaged in the future.” Data showing that significantly more women turned out to vote in states without restrictive election laws supports this theory (76-77). For women of color, the road to enfranchisement has been even more fraught. Native American women could not vote until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, and Chinese-American women were barred from the vote until 1943, when the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act lifted the ban on Chinese immigration to the United States that had been in effect since 1882. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 deemed racial discrimination unconstitutional after decades of Jim Crow laws that explicitly targeted black voters, though the fight for free and fair elections continues today as gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, and overt conflicts of interest suppress racial minorities. Women as a demographic continue to be targeted in voter suppression efforts today (“Voter Suppression”). Exact match requirements across multiple documents mean that married, divorced, and transgender women are at risk for being turned away because of name changes. Women in states without early voting will also have less of an opportunity to get to the polls on Election Day, as women still carry the bulk of household labor and childcare (Germano). 

Voter attitudes about what was and was not appropriate for women in public life also remained deeply internalized after suffrage. In 1920, 9% of women who participated in a Chicago survey on non-voter behavior stated that they did not “believe” women should vote and/or stated that their husband objected to women voting (Wolbrecht and Corder 78). Little had changed by the time Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet conducted their research on Eric County, New York voters during the 1940 election. The trio analyzes voting behavior in their 1944 book The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign and note that responses from women that trivialized suffrage were not uncommon. Some of these responses included “Voting is for the men,” “I think men should do the voting and the women should stay home and take care of their work,” and “I never will [vote]…a woman’s place is in the home…Leave politics to the men,” signaling a strong adherence to appeals to family and to unique gender roles (Lazarsfeld et al 49). The rhetoric here echoes anti-suffrage sentiment and Republican Motherhood concepts of citizenship. Women who were dismissive of their right to vote held to hard and fast rules about the appropriateness of women in political life. Voting was not only “for” men exclusively; it was unbecoming for a woman who had other “work” to take care of. Though the hostile sexism is apparent here—Keep Out!it is warranted by benevolently sexist ideas about what a woman is and is not “naturally” suited for. And notably, even though female anti-suffragists in the 1910s advocated for women’s participation in the public sphere so long as this participation was not political, the women quoted in The People’s Choice specifically called for women to remain “in the home” where “their work” was. 

Republican Motherhood ideas persisted mid-century, enjoying a revival as what Betty Friedan now famously termed “the problem that has no name” in The Feminine Mystique. However, because women were attending colleges and universities in greater numbers, repurposed anti-suffrage rhetoric found a new audience among graduates. During his 1955 commencement address at Smith College, Adlai Stevenson II urged each woman to “inspire in her home a vision of the meaning of life and freedom,” echoing the citizenship by proxy ideas of the Republican Mother archetype. He also stressed the importance of never letting educational or professional pursuits overshadow domestic duties in an appeal to family. “This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap,” he explained. “I think there is much you can do…in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation than that” (qtd. in Friedan 57). In a culture obsessed with adherence to gender roles, where male columnists joked freely that problems could be solved “by taking away women’s right to vote,” Betty Friedan worried that speakers like Adlai Stevenson II would persuade women to normalize the extinguishing of their own voices (11).

Unfortunately, Friedan was more correct than she may have known at the time. During the 1960s and 1970s, women were having less children and becoming parents later in life, pursuing more college degrees, and holding more jobs outside the home. They were also making progress through legislation like the Title IX Education Amendment in 1972 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 (Wolbrecht and Corder 131, 135). Enter Phyllis Schlafly, who held that “feminism has been a catastrophe for the people it was meant to help,” (qtd. in Storrs 144). A fierce opponent of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly spent much of her recruitment efforts on housewives. Suddenly, an antifeminist activist was encouraging women to use their vote as well as their voice—but only as long as they pledged to undermine women’s equality.

Schlafly frequently appealed to housewives by injecting benevolent sexism into her rhetoric: for instance, by framing opposition to the ERA as a defense of women’s rights rather than an impediment to progress. “The ERA takes away the right of the wife to be supported by her husband,” Schlafly argued on a Good Morning America segment in 1976 where she debated Friedan. She considered her position to be defending “the real rights of women…the right to be in the home as a wife and mother” in the same way that anti-suffrage advocates Gilfillan, Dodge, and Beecher persuaded women that they actually had more power without the vote (“Phyllis Schlafly debates”; Gregorian). She also invoked the hostile sexism of anti-suffrage advertisements by characterizing feminist women as unattractive, hostile, and mannish. “Men should stop treating feminists like ladies,” Schlafly argues in a column entitled “Feminists on the Warpath Get Their Men,” “and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be” (Schlafly). 

Photo of Barbara Mikulski and Linda Chavez at the 1986 Maryland Senate Race debate. Both women are smiling and appear to by laughing as the clasp each other's hands in a gesture of support and triumph.

Fig. 3. Barbara Mikulski and Linda Chavez at the 1986 Maryland Senate Race debate.
Reproduced from J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press.

This hostile rhetoric was weaponized as female candidates for office became increasingly common in the latter part of the twentieth century. The race in Maryland to fill Charles Mathias’ Senate seat in 1986, for example, came down between Reagan staffer Linda Chavez and Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski (Fig. 3). The former quickly advertised herself to Maryland voters as the right kind of woman for the job: conventionally attractive, calm under all circumstances, and a devoted wife and mother. In short, Chavez performed gender in a “ladylike” way that did not come across as threatening to a male political establishment. Mikulski’s primary campaign had certainly prepared her for sexist attacks from Chavez—both of her Democratic challengers were male and frequently painted themselves as “less dogmatically liberal and less aggressive” than their female counterpart (Sheckels 79). Chavez’s attacks went deeper, focusing on Mikulski’s hiring of a publicly Marxist feminist aide named Teresa Brennan. This “embracing of [a] radical anti-male Marxist feminist such as Brennan,” Chavez claimed at an October 1986 press conference, “was a symbol of what Mikulski had done and would do on Capitol Hill.” Chavez’s mailers, which featured “a grotesquely over-painted pair of very red lips” and read, “Kiss Your Traditional Values Goodbye,” implied that Mikulski’s radical feminist ideas and suspected homosexuality would dismantle traditional notions of male structural power in politics and, by extension, the family (84-85). Furthermore, it echoed the anti-suffrage advertisement idea that feminist women are angling to become men. As Theodore Sheckels writes, Mikulski had to reframe her liberal views and single status in a nurturing way in order to appeal to family and tradition:

In response to the accusation that she was anti-male, Mikulski quipped that her father and nephews and uncles and “the guys down at Bethlehem Steel” would be surprised to hear that. In response to the unvoiced accusation that she was a lesbian, Mikulski jokingly referred to herself as “Aunt Barb” and talked about how, in many families, one daughter became the maiden aunt who took care of the aging parents. She was that maiden aunt, but now she was taking care of not her mom and pop but the voters of the state of Maryland. They were her family; she was their “Aunt Barb.” (Sheckels 85)

Barbara Mikulski’s “Aunt Barb” alter ego successfully refashioned the Republican Mother trope for the late 20th century, appealing to voters with a deeply maternal role meant to overshadow any gossip about sexual orientation. Mikulski could lead the state of Maryland in the Senate while looking after her parents and her surrogate children—Maryland voters—thereby utilizing all of her talents. She smartly leveraged voters’ traditional desire for a nurturing woman in order to make history in a male-dominated arena.  

Chavez’s strategy to paint Mikulski as dangerously “anti-male” was effective in more conservative parts of the state like the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland, but ultimately, “Aunt Barb” handily won her election and went on to serve in the United States Senate for thirty years. The combative rhetoric surrounding (and sometimes wielded by) women in politics, however, did not disappear. 

How Do Contemporary Voters Feel About Women in Politics?

I spent several months canvassing door-to-door for Senator Elizabeth Warren during her 2020 presidential campaign. The responses from voters were generally positive: male and female voters alike expressed enthusiasm for Warren’s dedication to rebuilding the middle class and fearlessness in spite of Donald Trump’s efforts to bully her. However, enough voters reacted negatively to Warren’s gender that I occasionally felt discouraged. Some voters scoffed at the idea of a female president or suggested that Warren would be better suited “in a supporting role.” Others hovered tentatively, fearing that our country is not ready for this kind of progress.

Reviewing the tenets of Republican Motherhood and past examples of anti-suffrage rhetoric, I wondered about contemporary echoes like those I had encountered in my own travels. I considered that women who ran for office during the 2018 midterm elections had won a record number of congressional seats and that Congress has become substantially more diverse during the tenure of Donald Trump, a president known for his litany of crude and offensive comments about women and people of color (Bialik). The contrast could not be starker. What kinds of rhetoric were canvassers hearing from voters in this environment? And were the women they spoke with emboldened to vote?

First, I sorted the anti-suffrage rhetoric discussed in this paper into six categories that utilized both hostile and benevolent sexism. These categories are as follows:

  1. Appeal to respectability politics: the notion that women should “go along to get along” as expressed by Josephine Dodge.
  2. Appeal to family: the notion that a woman’s family must come before any career or political aspirations, as expressed in criticisms of Sarah Elfreth.
  3. Appeal to women as overly emotional: the notion that men act on rationality while women act on emotion, as expressed in criticisms of Jeannette Rankin.
  4. Appeal to male structural power: the notion that women in power will emasculate men, as expressed in anti-suffrage postcards where men cower to women.
  5. Appeal to traditional gender roles: the notion that women have “unique gifts” that justify their belonging to the domestic sphere, as expressed by Catharine Beecher.
  6. Appeal to spite: the notion that feminist women are “hens,” “angry and mannish,” and other undesirable associations, as expressed in Linda Chavez’s criticism of Barbara Mikulski.

Then, in February 2020, I sent out a brief online survey to eleven female and four male canvassers who had volunteered to share their experiences for the purposes of my research. Every respondent indicated that they have canvassed for female candidates, and the vast majority have canvassed for candidates at multiple levels of government. The female candidates most respondents reported canvassing for were Hillary Clinton for President (8), Elizabeth Warren for President (5), and Sarah Elfreth for Maryland State Senate (8). Others included Barbara Mikulski for Senate and various female candidates for state delegate, mayoral, and county council positions. Though the respondents have mostly covered ground in Maryland, some noted that they have gone door-to-door in other states to include Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Alabama, Louisiana, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, and California. 

It is important to note that the sample of this survey is small and in no way speaks for larger patterns. I was most interested in not the size of the sample, but in evaluating the fifteen respondents’ qualitative, anecdotal data on the rhetoric that voters currently use when engaged by canvassers. My questions focused on two kinds of rhetoric: voters’ thoughts on the role of women in the electoral process, and voters’ thoughts on women as political candidates.

When canvassers were asked if a male household member ever tried to prevent them from speaking with a female household member while she was home and available, ten out of fifteen answered, “Yes.” The most common behavior from male voters that respondents mentioned was refusing to call a particular female voter to the door even though she was home and on the canvasser’s list. Other behaviors listed included speaking on a female voter’s behalf, preventing an interested female voter from coming to the door, lying about a female voter’s party affiliation (canvassers are equipped with partisan voter registration information), and abruptly interrupting an ongoing conversation between the canvasser and a female voter. “I remember one guy who walked over while I was pleasantly speaking to his wife,” Claire*1 wrote. “[He] gave me the finger and kicked the door shut with his foot.” Respondents noted hearing phrases from hostile male household members that included, “You don’t need to talk to her,” and “Don’t you worry about who she’s voting for.”

Additionally, when the canvassers were asked if “a female voter ever deferred to a male household member in a way that suggests he speaks for her,” eight out of fifteen questionnaire respondents answered, “Yes,” that they picked up on sexist power dynamics while talking to voters. “A woman stated that she wasn’t sure who she was voting for because her husband hadn’t told her yet,” wrote John*. Other explicit comments that respondents noted from female voters included: “I have to consult my husband,” “I vote the way my husband votes,” “It’s a family decision,” and “I’ll have to ask my husband who we’re voting for.” These responses bear an eerie resemblance to the previous selections from Lazarfeld et al’.s The People’s Choice. Though some of the women interviewed for Lazarfeld’s 1940 research advocated for women to abstain from voting altogether, the women quoted here advocated for their own political participation so long as it reinforced their husbands’ views. In both instances women appear to be abiding by respectability politics, playing a supporting role while leaving the ultimate political decisions to men.

Nine out of fifteen survey respondents indicated that they heard overtly sexist rhetoric from male voters while discussing female candidates. The criticisms that respondents shared included: “Women are too emotional,” “She’s just not likable,” “There’s just something about her,” “America isn’t ready for a woman,” “What happens if she’s on her period?” “She’s too inexperienced” (often said about female candidates who had objectively more experience than their male counterparts), “She’s not attractive,” “Other countries won’t respect us if we have a female leader,” and “Women are caring by nature—could a woman really command the armed forces?”—the latter two comments being direct appeals to women as “too emotional” and better suited for more nurturing environments. Respondents cited electability as a common concern among voters, e.g. “I don’t think a woman can win.” One of the respondents, Nathan*, campaigned all over the country for Kamala Harris during her presidential candidacy. “Men seem to be more cagey about copping to sexist attitudes when approached on the doors,” he said. “I approached a voter about Kamala Harris who explicitly said that the senator wouldn’t be ready to lead the armed forces because of her gender. I pointed out that Harris had previously run California’s Department of Justice—a police force larger than most nations’ military forces—and although he didn’t have a counter-argument, he held to his views that a woman just wouldn’t be capable.” 

The argument that a woman cannot handle being in charge of the United States military was notably reported by multiple canvassers. This comment is a clear appeal to male structural power, as the military has strong masculine connotations. Most of the overtly sexist comments (such as regarding women not being able to command the military and women getting “irrational” because of their periods) were reported by male canvassers, which could suggest that men with sexist attitudes feel more comfortable relaying such comments to other men.

While nine survey respondents shared that they had heard sexist rhetoric from male voters, eleven stated that they had heard sexist rhetoric from female voters. Deborah* shared that in her personal experience, “This seems to happen more frequently than men, to be frank.” Some of the comments from female voters mirrored those of male voters, namely, “America isn’t ready,” “She’s inexperienced,” and “A woman can’t win.” Rachel* observed that among female voters there were “still worries that a woman couldn’t win the seat, but from a place of worry more than a place of defensiveness as men usually do.” But many other remarks from women were overtly hostile. According to the canvassers, several female voters stated explicitly that they “just don’t like female candidates.” Paula* shared that female voters often criticized a particular female candidate’s “attractiveness, voice, friendliness, attitude” and that some went so far as to call the candidate a “bitch” in an appeal to spite. Nathan called instances of internalized sexism at the doors “beyond depressing,” writing, “statements like, ‘A woman just shouldn’t be president’ have come up from women several times.”

A New Kind of Sexist Rhetoric in Politics

Even though their stories of sexism were thankfully not representative of the majority of doors they knocked, the small pool of canvassers surveyed shared enough rhetoric to indicate that gender-based discrimination and internalized sexism are still prominent issues. Furthermore, the appeals of this rhetoric aligned strongly with the tenets of anti-suffrage rhetoric. “I’ve had men and women ask how my husband and children felt about me running for office,” Paula wrote on what it was like to canvass for her own campaign. “I found most men MORE supportive than other women…one woman even asked if it was fair to my pets.” Like Barbara Mikulski, Sarah Elfreth, and Erin Lorenz, Paula was criticized by voters for not seeming “family-oriented” enough, or for not appearing to prioritize her family over her political aims.

Much of the rhetoric that respondents shared was a modern reworking of anti-suffrage or post-World War II ideas about women’s roles. The criticisms directed at Paula for campaigning while female echo Landon R.Y. Storrs’ analysis of sexist rhetoric during the second red scare, when married mothers who pursued careers and other passions were accused of “selfishly indulging material desires or unwomanly ambitions”—a direct appeal to tradition and family (Storrs 135). “I’ll have to ask my husband who we’re voting for,” is a startling example of women erasing their own voices in the political sphere and similarly, “I vote the way my husband votes,” gestures at an effort to maintain a gendered status quo. This rhetoric also suggests a household sexism that makes its way into the polls. If the husband controls the “family vote,” the family vote will probably not be going to female candidates. 

Instances of benevolent and hostile sexism reported by the canvassers were not associated with one gender or another. Men and women are capable of being benevolent and hostile, albeit in their own ways: while men were more likely to project their hostility onto the canvasser (slamming the door; giving the finger), women called female candidates derogatory names, criticized their superficial elements like attractiveness and voice, and made blanket statements about “not liking” female candidates in general. These instances of women tearing each other down, difficult as they are to read, are part of a longstanding tradition in America to drive women away from positions of power. “Female officials faced a nearly irresoluble double bind,” Storrs writes about sexist attitudes in the middle of the 20th century, “because normative constructions of femininity were incompatible with the wielding of power and expertise” (Storrs 142). Glick and Fiske’s 2011 update to their original work, entitled “Ambivalent Sexism Revisited,” similarly enforces the idea that benevolent sexism (abbreviated below as “BS”) and hostile sexism (abbreviated below as “HS”) are two sides of the same coin, upholding a system of reward and punishment for women:

Ambivalent sexists were not “mentally conflicted,” rather, their subjectively positive and negative attitudes reflected complementary and mutually reinforcing ideologies…at least as ancient as polarized stereotypes of the Madonna and Mary Magdalene. BS was the carrot aimed at enticing women to enact traditional roles and HS was the stick used to punish them when they resisted. One emphasizes reward and the other emphasizes punishment (hence their differing valences) but both work toward a common aim: maintaining a gender-traditional status quo. (532)

If the hostile sexism of today looks relatively similar to that of the past, what about benevolent sexism? It persists, certainly. But it looks quite different from the way anti-suffrage activists appeared to glorify women, urging them to use their unique and special talents to explore avenues other than politics. Now, benevolent sexism looks a lot like fear and deflection. “America isn’t ready,” voters say. “What if a woman can’t win?” Rhetoric like this suggests that even though voters would be personally comfortable with a female president, they hesitate because the rest of the country may not feel the same way. The Atlantic’s Moira Donegan calls these attitudes “sexism by proxy,” or “voter masochism disguised as pragmatism” (Donegan). By basing their decisions on what they suspect others will do, voters create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anti-suffrage rhetoric has certainly found new life in the one hundred years since national suffrage became the law of the land, and is enjoying a revival during the Trump presidency. The 2020 Republican National Convention featured speaker Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned pro-life activist who tweeted in May 2020 that she “would support bringing back household voting.” When asked to clarify, Johnson responded that “[i]n a Godly household, the husband would have the final say” (@AbbyJohnson). Just as Phyllis Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, women like Abby Johnson continue to uphold the patriarchal status quo in the interest of “Making America Great Again.” But while appeals to male structural power are continually reintroduced to mainstream America, a new appeal has emerged that could be called an “appeal to pragmatism.” When voters declare that “a woman can’t win” the presidency or that “America isn’t ready” for female leadership, they are doing their best to sound rational and impartial. “I’m not sexist,” they argue, “but my neighbor is.” Or more broadly and abstractly: “America is sexist.” The appeal to pragmatism continues in the tradition of undermining women, but unlike other more brash appeals, it is insidiously self-defeating. The only way to curb it, along with other sexist fallacies, is to identify them as such and work toward citizenship for women in the fullest sense of the word.

Endnote

  1. * indicates a pseudonym.

Appendix A: Survey Protocol

February 2020 via Typeform.com

  • Question 1: What kinds of political campaigns have you canvassed for? (Check all that apply.)
    • Federal
    • State
    • County
    • Municipal
  • Question 2: In what areas have you canvassed? (List as many states, counties, and municipalities as apply.)
  • Question 3: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a male member of the household ever tried to prevent you from speaking with a female member of the household while she is home/available?
  • Question 4: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a female household member ever stated that a male household member does not want her to vote or has tried to prevent her from getting to the polls?
  • Question 5: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a female voter ever deferred to a male household member in a way that suggests he speaks for her? (e.g. “My husband makes those decisions,” “I’ll have to ask my husband,” etc.)
  • Question 6: Have you ever canvassed for any female candidates?
  • Question 7: Have you had any experiences with male voters expressing overtly sexist feelings about a particular female candidate or female candidates in general?
  • Question 8: Have you had any experiences with female voters expressing overtly sexist feelings about a particular female candidate or female candidates in general?
  • Question 9: Have you had any experiences with male voters reacting POSITIVELY to female candidates in general/more female representation in government?

Works Cited

“An American Orphan”: Amelia Simmons, Cookbook Authorship, and the Feminist Ethē

Food Network host Ree Drummond, in the introductory section of her cooking blog The Pioneer Woman, welcomes readers saying “My name is Ree. Howdy! I’m a desperate housewife. I live in the country. I’m obsessed with butter, Basset Hounds, and Ethel Merman. Welcome to my frontier!” Cheerful and friendly, she writes in a conversational style that invites readers into her kitchen and her life as a wife and mother of four children. Simultaneously, Drummond is a television personality, businesswoman, wife, mother, cook, blogger, rancher, as well as former big-city girl. In short, she is relatable and trustworthy to a wide variety of audiences. Her various identities all play a role in her ethos construction as that chatty friend anyone would love to have. After all, who better to rely on for good recipes than a rancher’s wife?

While the popularity of Food Network and cooking blogs continues to hold strong, it is important to note that this focus on ethos construction in the authorship of cookery texts is not new. Authors have been writing their expertise into their recipes for centuries. Women authors, in particular, have found creative ways to establish their trustworthiness and claim a voice in a public space that would otherwise be unfriendly to their sex. Writing two centuries earlier, Amelia Simmons performs a similar type of rhetorical move in developing her ethos as an author. Simmons, author of the bestselling 18th-century cookbook American Cookery, offers the earliest example of American ethos construction by a cookbook author. I argue that Amelia Simmons uses what might be interpreted now as a feminist ethē (as defined by Ryan, Myers, and Jones in their 2016 collection Rethinking Ethos), as she, by speaking from her marginalized position, disrupts assumptions regarding who can be an expert. Studying Simmons’ use of identity statements, orphan trope, morality statements, and sentimental narrative style, she uses her writing to craft her expertise and claim a space for herself in the culinary tradition. This article works to uncover Simmons’ rhetorical moves and argue for their value in a feminist context. After detailing the publishing history of American Cookery, reviewing relevant scholarship on cookbooks, and providing historical background about what little is known of Amelia Simmons, I analyze how Simmons uses what would today be considered a feminist ethē to establish the trustworthiness of her cookbook.

A Revolutionary Text

Published in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut, American Cookery’s claim to history is that it is the first cookbook purported to be American, illustrating a thoroughly American way of cooking as separate from British traditions. Only 47 pages long, cheaply bound and without a cover, this little book went on to have over a dozen printings between 1796 and 1831, with many more pirated versions (Lowenstein). It was the best-selling cookbook in the new Republic until Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife of 1824 claimed the title (Hess ix). The fact that it was the first to claim a unique American identity makes American Cookery a valuable part of American history and American culinary history. The Library of Congress recognized it as one of the 88 “books that shaped America.” Cookbook scholar Janice Longone calls its publication “a second revolution–a culinary revolution.” But what was so revolutionary about it?

Only two decades after the Republic’s founding, America was still finding its way as a culture. Up until American Cookery’s publication, the only cookbooks available in the new world were republished versions of British bestsellers. This remained true even during and after the American Revolution; even though colonists railed against being ruled by the British, they still wanted to eat like them. Some of the most popular were Markham’s The English Hus-wife of 1615 and Glasse’s The Art of Cookery of 1747. The closest any cookbook had come to creating an American food culture was Eliza Smith’s 1727 volume The Compleat Housewife, republished in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1742. This book attempted to adapt its recipes to an American audience by merely deleting the British recipes that could not be replicated in America due to ingredient availability. While moderately helpful, American cuisine still had a long way to go.

In many ways, Simmons’ American Cookery is revolutionary, more than just its claim as the first American cookbook. It did more than merely delete British ingredients or plagiarize British recipes (though it did that too, which was a common practice at the time and not one that held a negative connotation like today).1 Simmons took ingredients native to the Americas and explained how to use them. She shared practices that were common to home cooks and domestic workers at the time, formalizing the practice in print. One notable first was the substitution of cornmeal (in the text called “Indian corn” or “Indian”) for English oatmeal in several recipes, such as johnnycake (see Fig. 1).

Image is recipe for Johny Cake or Hoe Cake and reads: "Scale 1 pint of milk and put 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint of flower—bake before the fire. Or fcald [sic] with milk two thirds of the Indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add falt [sic], molaffes [sic] and fhortening [sic], work up with cold water pretty ftiff [sic], and bake as above."

Fig. 1. Recipe for “Johny Cake” from American Cookery (1796, Albany printing).

While johnnycake had already existed in England, this was a new variation on the recipe. Turkey and cranberries, both native to the Americas, were included for the first time in a recipe. Other native produce, such as the frost grape, a Native American introduction, and the long pepper (today called the cayenne pepper), appeared in recipes. The American Citron, a smaller, bland precursor to the watermelon, brought to North America from Africa through the slave trade, has a recipe (see Fig. 2). 

Image is a recipe for The American Citron and reads: "Take the whole of a large watermellon (feeds excepted) not too ripe, cut it into fmall [sic] pieces, take two pound of loaf fugar [sic], one pint of water, put it all into a kettle, let it boil gently for two hours, then put it into pots for ufe [sic."

Fig. 2. Recipe for preserving “American Citron” (watermelon) from American Cookery (1796, Albany printing).

For food historians, possibly the most significant part of the cookbook is the use of pearl ash (elsewhere called pot ash) as an easier, time-saving chemical leavening agent in quickbreads, as baking powder was not invented until 1843 (LaRue). This use of pearl ash helped to popularize the ingredient in the new world for several decades, despite its reported metallic aftertaste (Walden 40). Simmons’ cookbook also introduced new words into the American lexicon: “slaw,” taken from the Dutch word “sla”), as well as “cookie,” adapted from the Dutch “koekje” (Hess xi).

Image is the cover of "American Cookery." It is yellowed and weathered looking, with only traditional typewriter text.

Fig. 3. Cover page of American Cookery (1796, Hartford printing).

Beyond the text’s revolutionary firsts in ingredients and language, it is, more importantly, rhetorically revolutionary. Simmons, adapting models of ethos to fit her own needs, uses a variety of strategies to become a trustworthy author. Her most curious ethos construction is on the title page (see Fig. 3), where she identifies herself, the only place in which Amelia Simmons is named in the text. She calls herself “Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan.”2 It is a simple appositive phrase, yet so curious in terms of a rhetorical move. On first analysis, it is not immediately clear what her upbringing has to do with cooking. However, it was clearly a calculated move, as Mecklenburg-Faenger argues in her study of the Charleston Receipts Junior League cookbook, “cookbooks encode information about how their compilers see the world and their places in it” (213). In narrative elements like these, Tippen notes that cookbooks demonstrate their authors’ rhetorical moves (17). Simmons’ use of the “American Orphan” identifier was just one of her choices that she hoped would lead to audiences trusting her and her expertise. Additionally, orphan status enables her to distance herself from any non-American heritage, making it easier for Simmons to claim an all-American identity, just like her cookbook. Further, orphans were often domestic servants at this time; thus, the position lent itself to a certain level of credibility in the kitchen. Through her narrative elements, Simmons constructs ethos that I claim could be identified today as feminist, even while writing in the early days of the Republic.

Cookbook Authorship and Ethos

Writing the first American cookbook, Simmons begins composing the history of American cookbooks, which can offer insight on American culture at the time. Laura Schenone, in her 2004 book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, notes, “food opens a window that we can look through” (xv). This is a useful metaphor to consider the value of food. Certainly, it is much more than sustenance. Food helps us identify our culture, our community and ourselves. Scholars can study foodways—habits of others—to gain insight on cultures outside of their own. As a digest—pun intended—of food culture, the cookbook is an excellent primary resource through which to view one’s own culture and others. Karen Hess uses Janus as a metaphor to describe the cookbook’s rhetorical value, as the text looks both back and forward at once: a cookbook records culinary practice at the time of its writing, and it also influences cooking to come (xii). As a set of instructions, cookbooks are, at their most simplistic, a practical text (Collings Eves 280). But if we look further, we can see a story (Bower 2). Writing in PMLA, Susan J. Leonardi explains that a cookbook’s stories are more complex than the average linear narrative: they are embedded, layered discourses (340). While they are “gap-ridden” (Bower 2), asking the reader to fill in the gaps with her own knowledge, they are also “a narrative which can engage the reader or cook in a ‘conversation’ about culture and history in which the recipe and its context provide part of the text and the reader imagines (or even eats) the rest” (Floyd and Forster 2). Indeed, recipes demand exchange, and even “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (Floyd and Forster 6). Leonardi notes that “Even the root of recipe—the latin recipere—implies an exchange, a giver and receiver. Like a story, a recipe needs a recommendation, a context, a point, a reason to be” (340). The ability of this genre to be a window on culture as well as a conversation about culture lends the text a space in which the author can establish her own voice, expertise, and ethos, even while remaining inside a patriarchal paradigm. In her book Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano asserts that cookbooks are “opportunities for women to write themselves into being” (9). Cookbooks, as well, are sites where women and minority writers can dispel stereotypes and establish their own voice. As a window on culture, cookbooks allow a space for marginalized voices to be heard, listened to, and above all, trusted as a knowledgeable source for cooking. The cookbook, as a cultural text, is ripe for analysis as a space for ethos construction.

There is a growing body of scholarship surrounding rhetorical analyses of cookbooks, particularly feminist rhetorical analyses, which add further credibility to the value of this subject as an area of study. Lisa Mastrangelo, writing about community cookbooks, describes them “as rhetorical artifacts that reveal much about their communities” (73), as a lens that readers can look through to understand more about the author and her context. Reading Simmons’ text, we can gain insight on her values and the values of the community around her. Even years before feminism, cookbooks illustrate how women used rhetoric to advance their message. As Mecklenburg-Faenger explains, studying cookbooks can provide scholars of women’s rhetoric “opportunities to reaffirm the presence of women’s rhetorical activities even in historical periods when women’s rhetorical performances in the public sphere were discouraged, devalued, or diminished” (213). Abby Dubisar, in her study of peace activism cookbooks, argues that these texts can “teach feminist rhetoricians the potential of domestic genres to promote activist causes and frame political identities” (61)—thus, cookbooks can do much more than simply tell us how to cook a meal.

The trustworthiness of an author is a major factor on the success or failure of a cookbook. When choosing a recipe, the reader wants reassurance up-front that the person writing it knows that the recipe will work, and that it will be worth the effort. Ever since its origins as an oral culture, the act of recipe sharing has centered around trust. Originally, recipes were asked for from women who were trusted to be good cooks, who could be guaranteed to provide a quality recipe. They were women known personally to the receiver, whether a family member, neighbor, or friend. This role of ethos is more important now that recipes have moved from an exclusively oral, shared culture between friends and family members, to a public forum where most recipes are written by people the reader will never meet, in mass-produced cookbooks or online. The cookbook constructs the writer’s ethos for the audience. One would be unlikely to choose a cookbook if the author were perceived untrustworthy. If the audience can trust the speaker, then her argument is that much more powerful. Now that the personal connection of recipe sharing is removed for modern cookbooks, today ethos is even more of a factor when determining whom to trust. As such, the cookbook is a useful text to analyze an author’s rhetorical moves regarding their credibility.

In 1796, when American Cookery was published, the rhetorical space of the American cookbook was fraught with difficulty—not only did the author need to assure readers of the text’s quality, but she also needed to claim an American ethos—one that did not yet exist, at least not in printed form. While the new Republic had existed for two decades by this point, there was no formal recognition of a distinctly American food culture. Colonists quickly learned the art of adaptation, as many English ingredients were not available in the Americas, while other, unfamiliar ingredients were plentiful. They also benefited from the Native American’s knowledge of the land, adapting their knowledge to the colonists’ tastes. Still, American food culture was nonexistent, but there was finally an author ready to take on this challenge: Amelia Simmons.

Amelia Simmons: Claiming Feminist Ethē

Simmons, as an American and as a woman, is in a challenging position. Writing the first book of truly American recipes is difficult enough, but to claim that expertise in a public forum as a woman is more difficult, as she is already in a marginalized position. Oddly enough, to address this challenge, she mentions her upbringing as an orphan (and an American one). Wilson notes that Simmons seems to have a “preoccupation” with her orphan status, bringing it up more than once in the text (20). Simmons doubles down on her marginalized status, marking herself as an orphan on the front page and reminding us of her status. She names herself in the preface as “a poor, solitary orphan.” Usually, highlighting one’s marginalization, especially as it has no obvious link to the book’s content, would not seem to be an effective use of ethos. However, there is more to this ethos construction than appears at first glance.

Feminist rhetors have developed an alternative model of ethos to describe how women and other marginalized groups gain the goodwill of their audience. Coretta Pittman, observing that Aristotle’s model of ethos is caused by deliberate choice, points out that black female rhetors are not positioned to freely make their own choices, or to engage in speaking in a public forum, as an Aristotelian model assumes (49). As Pittman argues, “Western culture has appropriated a classical model of ethos to judge the behavior of all of its citizens. However, not all of its citizens can be judged by the same standards. The legacy of racism, classicism, and sexism in American society marked individuals associated with undesirable groups” (45). For instance, a woman writer in 18th century America can exhibit as much “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill” (Kinneavy and Warshauer 179) as she would like, but she cannot do anything to control her gender, skin color, or economic status, all of which play a large role in who listens to her and how seriously she is taken. These bodily and cultural constraints also play just as large, if not larger, a role than her own speech.

Nedra Reynolds describes how feminists like Adrienne Rich, bell hooks and others explicitly locate themselves in space to establish ethos. Their identity, and character, is developed through their body’s location in space, both literal (placement of body) and figurative (position in social realm) (326). It is useful, then, to consider the marginality of an orphan in tandem with the marginality of a woman writing in 1796. In identifying herself as an orphan, she claims the margin as her location to establish ethos. While Simmons did not use the term “feminist” to describe herself, as it did not exist in the 18th century, her action of claiming the margins as part of her identity could today be interpreted as feminist. No matter their origin, feminist rhetors exist in the margins, and as such take the margin as an advantage, with bell hooks naming the margins as a “location of radical openness and possibility” (209). Instead of a traditional Aristotelian framework, feminist rhetors have shifted to one that can account for interrelationality, materiality, and agency: a model that, in their eyes, is more accurate. Similarly, Reynolds notes that “ethos […] shifts and changes over time, across texts, and around competing spaces” (326). According to Johanna Schmertz, ethos, for feminism, is not fixed or determined, but instead is a series of “stopping points at which the subject (re)negotiates her own essence to call upon whatever agency that essence enables” (86). 

In a 2016 collection titled Rethinking Ethos, editors Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones argue for a feminist ecological approach to ethos formation–one which considers the entire ecology of a given rhetorical situation. As they claim, there is no singular women’s ethos; thus, they use the plural term ethē. They study ethos “with the acknowledgment that it is culturally and socially restrictive for women to develop authoritative ethē, yet acknowledg[e] that space can be made for new ways of thinking and artful maneuvering” (2). This model, a model of feminist ecological ethē that Ryan, Myers, and Jones promote, helps to describe the complexity of multiple relations operating and changing in response to others (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 3). Ryan, Myers, and Jones claim that their work “reconsiders ethos to offer a feminist ecological imaginary that better accounts for the diverse concerns and experiences of women rhetors and feminist rhetoricians” (5). The authors observe that “[W]omen can seek agency individually and collectively to interrupt dominant representations of women’s ethos, to advocate for themselves and others in transformative ways, and to relate to others, both powerful and powerless” (3, emphasis in original). Simmons’ rhetorical moves can be interpreted as a feminist ethē in this same way, as she, by claiming and speaking from her marginalized position, interrupts dominant impressions of how women can be considered experts. By sharing her story, Simmons advocates for herself as a successful woman and encourages other women, particularly those who are in her same economic and/or familial situation. Furthermore, Simmons frequently uses narrative elements to relate to other women, not only as a way to build herself up as an expert but to use herself as a case study: if she could do it, you can too. Simmons uses several rhetorical moves to adapt to the multiple interrelations of her rhetorical situation, considering her position as orphan, as uneducated, as a domestic servant, as an American, and as a woman. All of these are positions which, particularly in the nascent years of the Republic, are all marginal. Simmons claims the margins, not only speaking from there but also emphasizing her location there as a way to connect to readers.

However, outside of her one cookbook and its revisions, there is little else to establish Simmons’ existence, making scholars and critics question her identity, and even the ethos of the text itself. Cookbook author and editor Andrew Smith claims that it is a pseudonym, based on the lack of evidence that Simmons ever existed (Bramley). However, considering her status as an orphan, uneducated, domestic servant, the fact that Simmons is not mentioned elsewhere is not surprising. If she had not had this incredibly lucky break to publish her work, she would not have been remembered for posterity at all, alongside millions of other working-class women. Food historian Karen Hess argues that Simmons is from a Dutch heritage, considering the Dutch-language influence on her recipes and language use, described earlier (xi). Hess places Simmons in the Hudson River Valley, a logical assumption: while her book was published first in Hartford, it was then published exclusively through presses in New York state, such as Albany, Troy, and Poughkeepsie (xi). In any case, the only mention of Simmons is within this text. Other than what she tells us, that she is a working-class American orphan, the reader must infer anything else. This act of invoking meaning on historical rhetors is inherently problematic, in particular with modern terms such as “feminist,” as discussed in Michelle Smith’s review essay on feminist rhetorical historiography. Any claim made about the author’s intentions, feminist or otherwise, is complex. While Simmons didn’t use the term herself, there is insight to be gained from viewing her rhetorical moves through a feminist lens. Simmons presents a layered rhetorical approach to presenting her authority in this text in multiple ways: through identity statements, the orphan trope, morality declarations, and a sentimental narrative style to establish this feminist ecological ethē.

Ethos Construction: Identity Statements

Julie Nelson Christoph, writing about ethos as constructed by pioneer women diarists, observes how statements of identity are used frequently in women’s writing (670). Establishing and re-establishing who a woman is allows her to claim expertise, by placing herself in the context of an identity marker. Simmons, taking the “orphan” moniker, isn’t alone in her use of these descriptors: studying title pages of the female-authored cookbooks between 1796-1860 listed in Eleanor Lowenstein’s 1972 bibliography, these identity statements are used frequently.3 The nonstandard style of writing titles and naming authors that was used during this period is informative about the ways in which these women authors went about claiming expertise in a public forum. In fact, many women authors chose not to identify themselves at all. Even though women authors accounted for about 70% of cookbooks at this time (not counting new editions or reissues),4 the most common identity statement (at 33%) was by an anonymous identifier, such as using a gendered prepositional phrase to identify the author, without using her name. Some examples of this are “by an experienced housekeeper,” “by a lady of Philadelphia,” “by a Boston housekeeper,” or “by an experienced lady.” These authors prefer to establish their credibility through relatable identifiers—the assumption is that the reader would be more likely to trust a “housekeeper,” who would have the expertise of daily work, or a “lady,” who would have the authority of class to support her. Locating the author in the new world also lent credibility of being American and using a city name would afford the status marker of being in a large metropolitan area.

The next most frequent identifier for women (at 23%) was using their full name only, such as “Mrs. Mary Randolph,” “Caroline Gilman,” “Mrs. Lettice Bryan,” “Elizabeth F. Lea,” among others. The lady’s formal title was most often used as a marker of class, though occasionally it would be left off, particularly if the author was well-known. However, some of these full names may have still been pen names, as the likely fake name “Priscilla Homespun” indicates. Sometimes the full names would also include other information, such as “Susannah Carter, of Clerkenwell,” another attempt to lend credibility through location. Minimizing the author’s originality or role in the creation of the text was occasionally used, such as the participle phrase “compiled by,” as in “compiled by Lucy Emerson.”5

Used less frequently at 16% was the use of titles, not first names, for women authors, such as “Mrs. [Lydia Maria] Child,” “Miss Leslie” (referring to fiction writer Eliza Leslie), or “Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse.” Other times, the author’s title and last name was used in the title of the cookbook itself, such as “Miss Beecker’s domestic receipt book.” This was another way class markers were used to build the ethos of the author.

Below this at 15% was using job descriptions alongside the author’s name for women authors. Some examples were “Mrs. Mary Holland, author,” “Miss Leslie, author of Seventy-Five Receipts,” “Mrs. Child, author of the Frugal Housewife,” and “Eleanor Parkinson, practical confectioner, Chestnut Street.” This use of job title is a departure from how women authors were normally represented, as these titles are a marker of economic power, even from a marginalized class position.6

Without a doubt, the most curious of all these identity statements is Amelia Simmons’ “an American orphan.” Her confidence in claiming on the title page, and then reasserting in the preface and conclusion, this marginalized identity—even as it has no link to cooking expertise—is initially confusing. Why would someone want to doubly marginalize themselves, particularly in a situation where she wants to be seen as an expert? Her confidence appears to rewrite the script on assumptions about marginalized groups—one can be a woman, a domestic worker, and an orphan—and still be a published expert. Walden interprets Simmons’ orphan identity statement as her ability to turn a perceived weakness into a strength, relying on the readers’ lack of knowledge (and therefore assumptions) about her and her lineage:

She is unknown as an author, and, as a servant, she has no particular authority—or even autonomy—to claim her work as her own. Yet she turns this lack into a source of power in its own right by suggesting that her unknown origins and lineage represent the new republic she seeks to construct, both physically and ideologically, through her recipes. (37)

Even if the reader cannot relate to Simmons’ childhood, she can respect her for demonstrating such a quintessentially American value of pulling herself up by her bootstraps, coming from nothing and turning into a success, solely through hard work.

Ethos Construction: The Orphan as Literary Trope and Rhetorical Move

The orphaned child protagonist has been a frequent literary trope for centuries, and Simmons takes advantage of this familiarity in her text as another way she establishes ethos with the reader. The vision of an abandoned, desperate child pulls the reader into the story through sentimentality. Notably, Henry Fielding’s 1749 bildungsroman The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling traces the rise of the titular character, an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother, who is raised by a kind, wealthy pair of siblings. In the novel, Tom’s illegitimacy is a permanent mark on his identity, closing many doors along the way. His orphan status is the major complication of the novel, and it turns out to be something he can never overcome. Tom’s concluding happiness is due more to luck than rising status—indeed, it is his lack of any known lineage that motivates much of the book’s conflict, proving that the orphan trope is ripe for dramatic exploitation.

Similarly, many young protagonists begin their stories as an orphan, or are orphaned early on. From Bronte’s Jane Eyre, to Jane Fairfax in Austen’s Emma, to Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations, orphans are a frequent character type, used for dramatic or sentimental effect. Writer Liz Moore explains the usefulness of orphan characters in this way: “The orphan character—especially one who is an orphan before the novel begins—comes with a built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict” (para. 8). The lack of a stable family has often been a source of conflict in storytelling, even today. One cannot discuss orphans in contemporary literature without mentioning Harry Potter, for instance. To be an orphan means to go against the most commonly-held values of society: the strength of the family unit. Orphans lack stable role models; indeed, most fictional orphans are quickly taken in by others and struggle to find their way in society without guidance. Thus, the dramatic impact of an orphan’s rise to success is greater, as it is hard-fought (and, to the writer, “fictionally useful” (para. 11) as a story arc, according to scholar John Mullan). Moore notes of her own choice in writing orphan characters, “For me, at least, writing about orphans is a way to write through the terror of being alone in the world,” thus making the orphan’s struggle a universal one. In an orphan’s story, the reader experiences more highs and lows as the character starts from nothing and struggles to achieve greater. The orphan’s journey from outsider to accepted makes their character type a “useful trope for novelists to think about what it means to become a subject” (König 242).

Similarly, Amelia Simmons plays up her orphan status as a way to engage the reader, impressing upon them her lifelong struggle to overcome her low birth. Simmons portrays herself as a success story. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps despite the odds and intends to serve as an inspiration for others to work hard. In her preface to American Cookery, Simmons writes that it is exactly her character, her ability to develop an appropriate ethos, that is a large part of her success:

It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary orphan, that while those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely upon character. How immensely important, therefore, that every action every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity, and that every movement meet the approbation of the good and wise. (5)

Simmons knows the importance of constructing an effective ethos to achieve her goals. While the “regulation” she writes of in the above excerpt implies a belief in the fixed, Aristotelian model of ethos that she must live up to, her openness in writing about such marginal subjects as her low status, orphan identity, and struggles as an independent woman demonstrates a use of ethē. Simmons claims these marginal identities as her own, disrupting the usual representation of women in this time period and instead embraces a more complex approach to her character development that allows her to advocate for and relate to other women, whom she hopes will achieve as much as, or even more than, she did.

By sharing her story, Simmons portrays herself as a symbol of inspiration to other women. She does not get into details about her own origins, only referring in general terms to her tragic, low origin. It is worth noting, however, that she may be using the orphan trope to distance her identity from any non-American heritage. If she does not know her origins, it is much easier to claim an all-American identity, further impressing on her readers the authentic American-ness of her text. Simmons only makes vague reference to her origins in her preface, mentioning how she was forced into domestic work due to her low status. In fact, low-status women seem to be her target audience, as indicated by this disclaimer: “The Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics” (3). Simmons expects that other domestics like her, or those who expect to become a domestic servant, will be the most likely to use this cookbook. She sees it as a women’s survival manual. This text is not one that, like many of today’s cookbooks, can be leisurely browsed, while enjoying the descriptions and illustrations of food, fantasizing about one’s ability to recreate these meals at home. It is a workbook, meant to help women get on their feet and become a success—like this American orphan.

Ethos Construction: Morality Statements

Simmons additionally develops her ethos through her use of morality statements. Her references to morality imply her own values, which line up with common beliefs of the time. If nothing else, these morality statements are Simmons’ most successful attempt to relate to her reader and show how much she is like them, no matter her childhood experiences. As Simmons explains in the preface, the purpose of this text is to prepare women for “doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society,” aligning domestic work with virtue and reasserting the value of hard work. She also criticizes women who ignore tradition and only pay attention to fads, saying “I would not be understood to mean an obstinate preference in trifles, which borders on obstinacy,” and argues the value of “those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character.” Her statements connecting female virtue with domestic work anticipate the later Victorian era “cult of domesticity” that privileged women as the moral center of the home. Skill in the kitchen was often a measure of women’s moral worth—which complicated the argument that cooking was a skill to be learned, since morality was believed to be inherent (McWilliams 393). That issue would be handled later in the Victorian era, during the cooking reform movement, that encouraged formal training in cooking and standardized and simplified the cooking process, taming the kitchen for young women who had never learned how to cook but were expected to do so.

In these value statements, Simmons implies her belief that expertise in cooking is a virtue, and as such essential to becoming a good woman. She also conflates the female character with tradition. For instance, only a good woman would know to use the already-established cooking methods rather than experimenting with fads. Through both her identity statements and her morality statements, Simmons negotiates her ethos with her readers, proving that while she may have come from a marginal upbringing, she still holds claim to mainstream values. Her marginalization of herself works to make a point about the complexity of identity. Simmons upends readers’ assumptions about her, demonstrating how much she and the reader have in common, even though the reader may not think so at first glance.

Ethos Construction: Sentimentality

Finally, Simmons builds her ethos within a sentimental narrative style. Even though it might initially seem curious that she mentions her upbringing as an “American orphan,” she can get away with it because she uses it to seek pity from the audience and thus garner more attention than the average, more relatable identity statement would. While sentimental narrative did not reach its peak in popularity until novels of the mid-19th century (Uncle Tom’s Cabin being a famous text in this style), Simmons again anticipates this style, using it to her advantage and setting herself up to be pitied.7 She emphasizes the tragedy of her orphaned experience in the preface, noting her lack of choice in her employment as domestic servant. While she is sharing her sad tale of growing up, Simmons still comes back to her expertise–implicitly claiming her expertise was gained through her struggle. She positions herself as wise primarily because she lived through this lonely existence, and praises independence as key to her salvation: “the orphan […] will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own” (3). Simmons notes that this independence is essential, as an orphan has no one else to guide her. Simmons presents herself as unfailingly honest, even within this sentimental style. For all the praise she gives herself for her bootstraps mentality, she also recognizes her limitations. In the preface, she reminds the reader that “she is circumscribed in her knowledge,” implying a lack of education, not surprising for a working-class woman of the time (5). She again reminds readers of her deficit in an extra preface added to the revised and corrected second edition, asking the reader who finds fault with her recipes to remember “that it is the performance of, and effected under all those disadvantages, which usually attend, an Orphan” (7). In her discussion of the rhetorical power of sentimentality, Coretta Pittman uses author Harriet Jacobs as an example of the rhetorical impact of sentimental narrative; Pittman describes how Jacobs defines her authority through exposing her marginality by narrating in sentimental form, proving that sentimental style is rhetorically useful to gain credibility with the reader (55). Through this sentimentality, Simmons succeeds in gaining the goodwill of her readers. Her style heightens the pathos of her situation, encouraging the reader to first pity her, then be in awe of her strength. Even if the reader had never experienced domestic work or was never orphaned, she understands universal human experiences of being alone or having one’s reputation be questioned. This is exactly what Jane Tompkins in her book Sensational Designs claims is the usefulness of sentimental narrative—that it helped women claim power; it helped them define themselves and claim status in a public forum (160). Though the reader may view this narrative as over-the-top today, Simmons is able to relate to the reader of her text on a personal level. Simmons uses this style to claim her identity and her values, knowing it will speak directly to other women and help them relate to her, trusting her expertise in the process.

Conclusion: American Cookery as Melting Pot

When asked why American Cookery is still considered a major American cookbook, scholars argue that this text was the first to blend British and American cultures together (Hess xv). It brought native American ingredients together with British methods to create a new melting pot of a food culture. This “melting-pot” metaphor is timely; while the metaphor is normally associated with the early 20th century, it was used much earlier, appearing in print as early as 1782,8 making it entirely possible that Simmons was aware of the idealistic assimilation of cultures as a benefit to the new world. This synthesis of cultures mirrors Simmons’ ethos construction as well; negotiating her location as American, as an orphan, as uneducated, as working-class, and as a woman, with her position as author of this text, a nationwide bestselling cookbook. Through her use of identity statements, the orphan trope, morality statements, and sentimental narrative style, Simmons effectively develops what might be termed today as a feminist ethos—or, more accurately, ethē, to identify for the first time in print as both an American and as a trustworthy cook. Even as Simmons blends together her various identities, she resists assimilation. Instead, her use of ethē in this context operates as an interruption, as someone with multiple marginal identity markers gains enough of a voice in American print culture to become a bestselling author. Similar to Food Network star Ree Drummond navigating her varied identities through her blogging, Simmons is able to negotiate multiple relations existing in this rhetorical situation, as she simultaneously presents herself as having multiple identity markers of woman, orphan, working class, and uneducated. For the first time, Simmons establishes an ethos that is recognizable to modern audiences, one that accounts for multiple identities and negotiates all of them with the audience: ethē. She composes an American ethos, demonstrating through her narrative that one can come from a poor childhood, grow up doing manual labor, and still become a bestselling author, all through hard work and the right attitude. This is the quintessential “American Dream,” demonstrating the potential for success in the new Republic. This myth that American Cookery perpetuates feeds Simmons’ own ethos, as well as the ethos of her new nation. The text, to use Hess’s Janus metaphor, looks back and forward at once, looking back to record and claim a narrow (white, upper-middle-class) definition of American foodways, and looking forward to influence that narrow cultural definition for years to come. Thus, through this ethos construction, Simmons is able to claim a space for herself to speak within the public sphere and lay the groundwork for generations of female cookbook authors to come.

Endnotes

  1. Despite her efforts to build ethos with her readers, it is important to acknowledge that Simmons herself engaged in questionable authoring practices. Simmons plagiarized individual recipes and entire sections (the Syllabubs and Creams section in particular) from Susannah Carter’s 1772 bestseller The Frugal Housewife (Beahrs). While this practice of copying recipes was common, every copied British recipe Simmons uses undercuts her claim to be an “American” cook. In fact, a close look at the recipes of American Cookery shows that for the most part, English methods and trends are used to such an extent that it is still more English than it is really American (Hess xv). For instance, her patriotic “Election Cake” and “Independence Cake” in the second edition is a play on British baking trends, re-named for an American audience (Hess xiv). For all its claim to originality, American Cookery is still English at its heart, with only a veneer of American. This use of English foodways traditions still helps Simmons claim her expertise, though, as readers can more readily identify with those familiar recipes and have a touch of nationalistic pride for the American spin she puts on them.
  2. Across the thirteen reprints of American Cookery, the title page identity statement changes a few times. In 1808, 1814, 1819, and 1822, the edition lists the author as “an American orphan,” or just (in the case of the 1831 edition) “an orphan,” without her full name (Lowenstein).
  3. Using Eleanor Lowenstein’s 1972 bibliography, between the years 1796—1860, each entry was coded for gender and for identity statements. Coding for gender involved either identifiable gender (whether by first name, title, or personal pronoun) or implied or likely gender (such as reference to “housekeeper” being likely female). For the small percentage of texts (less than 1%) where gender was unidentifiable, those were left out of the results. Only female gendered entries were considered in this analysis. Coding for identity statements involved any descriptors regarding the author’s knowledge, expertise, work history, publication history, or personal or professional life. So as to not skew the results, only the first publication of each cookbook was considered; repeat entries and new editions were ignored.
  4. Out of 103 total cookbook entries surveyed between 17961860, 72 were written by women and 41 by men. Only women authors were analyzed in this study.
  5. In the case of Lucy Emerson, the phrase “compiled by” is also honest: Emerson’s 1808 New-England Cookery plagiarized everything but the title from American Cookery.
  6.  Not surprisingly, they are also most similar to male cookbook authors’ identity statements. The majority of male cookbook authors’ identity statements (58%) were the use of job descriptions alongside a full name, such as “Thomas Chapman, wine-cooper” and “Samuel Child, porterbrewer, London.”
  7. The orphan-made-good trope was a familiar one in sentimental fiction, banking on the pathos of the marginalized, abandoned child to tell a coming of age story where the orphan, left to his or her own devices outside of the familial system, is allowed to be upwardly mobile due to the lack of family connection (Walden 37-8).
  8. The melting-pot metaphor was first used in 1782, in Letters from an American Farmer by French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in his description of American identity: “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of man” (Crèvecoeur).

Works Cited

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The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: An Embodiment of Postracial Rhetoric

In response to women’s growing dissatisfaction with the representation of the female body within media and advertising, Dove commissioned a global study in 2004 to get a better understanding of the relationship between beauty and self-esteem. The study concluded that 57% of the 3,200 women across 10 countries surveyed believed that “‘the attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world’” (Etcoff et al. 27) and 75% indicated that they “wish the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape and size” (43). Based on these survey results, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty (CFRB) in 2004 to “widen” the definition of beauty from the perception of physical attractiveness to confidence, acceptance, and pride, among other qualities (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In 2005, Dove initiated its “most iconic” phase of the CFRB with a series of ads featuring the “real bodies and real curves” of six, non-professional models (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”)—in other words, no digital re-touching of their photographs was allowed.1

Through these ads, the company lauded itself on initiating a “global conversation” revolving around beauty stereotypes and bodily perceptions (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In its 16-year history, the CFRB has published a number of viral ads and videos in TV spots, on YouTube, and on its social media pages with body-positive messaging featuring young girls and women of all ages. This decade-plus long campaign has largely been met with overwhelming success. It has been credited with being “on the natural beauty train long before many brands were even thinking about it” (Brown) and (in)directly influencing other brands such as Nike’s “Big Butts” and “Thunder Thighs” ads (Associated Press) and Victoria Secret’s “Love My Body” campaign (SheSpeaksTeam). The CFRB won PRWeeks “Best U.S. Campaign of the Past 20 Years” award (PRWeek Staff) and Ad Age’s top spot in the 15 best ad campaigns of the 21st century (Neff). Unsurprisingly, it has been profitable, too, increasing Dove’s sales from $2.5 to $4 billion within its first ten years (Dasher and Zed). 

However, some scholars analyzing the campaign are hesitant to extend praise just yet. Some point to the irony of a campaign celebrating women “just as they are” while using its models to promote a firming cream (Brodbeck and Evans; Howard; Stevenson). Others critically evaluate the relationship between feminism and corporate culture (Murray), arguing that the campaign is an example of “feminist consumerism” or a “corporate strategy that employs feminist themes of empowerment to market products to women” (Taylor et al. 124; Johnston and Taylor). Consumer responses echo this skepticism, contending that “Dove’s version of feminism lacked transformational potential because it encouraged a solipsistic focus on the self, rather than making connections between personal problems and the social organization of society” (Taylor et al. 135). Many female consumers also believe that the Dove models’ “deviant” bodies are still significantly fitter than the average American female body (Scott and Cloud; Postrel). These “deviant” bodies are also able-bodied ones (Heiss). 

Despite this range of scholarship, little work has thoroughly analyzed the relationship between race and gender with the CFRB. Thus, I argue that without fully considering the intersectionality of gender, race, and weight stigma, Dove’s feminist consumerist message does little to challenge Western, White beauty norms.2 I use postracial rhetoric to examine how the text and visuals of the CFRB gloss over and homogenize the racial and ethnic differences of the models in an essentializing discourse that reflects a universal approach to “beauty” without thoroughly considering how cultural differences affect various notions of beauty (Johnston and Taylor; see also Bordo, xxii). Postracial rhetoric stems from postracialism, or the “claim that we are, or are close to, or ought to be living outside of debilitating racial reference” (Goldberg 15),” whose origins are frequently attributed to Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency (Adjei and Gill; Teasley and Ikard; Paul; Temple). By focusing on Dove’s use of a postracial rhetoric, my analysis accomplishes two goals. First, it develops current critiques of the campaign that do not thoroughly address its relationship with race and gender. Second, it takes up discussions of postracial rhetoric that largely circulate outside of rhetorical studies and situates them in a feminist, embodied, rhetorical context by articulating major components of this rhetoric and explaining how they apply to the depictions of Black, female bodies in the CFRB.3 While my analysis primarily focuses on how Black women’s bodies in the campaign are read, I also discuss how the bodies of other women of color are largely absent from the advertisements as well. 

I begin by reviewing scholarship about postracialism from ethnic and racial studies, Black studies, communication, and rhetorical studies. Given this range of interdisciplinary research, I define what I mean by a “postracial rhetoric” and synthesize prior discussions about postracialism into its four key components: A postracial rhetoric normalizes Whiteness, disregards the material realities of race(ism), eschews diversity, and is performative and embodied. This last point positions this analysis of Dove’s postracial rhetoric within embodied, feminist rhetorics that advocate for “an ethical reading of bodies and recognition of bodies as people—not objects” (Johnson et al. 40). Through examining the CFRB advertisements, viewers’ responses to them, and the models’ statements about their participation in the campaign, I describe how Dove enacts a postracial rhetoric that allows the company to both foreground White bodies and reproduce historical, stereotypical imagery of Black bodies across its ads. By claiming diversity without also acknowledging the history of racialized depictions of (female) bodies of color, Dove does not engage in anti-racist efforts but instead “asks us to focus our views on visible triumphs associated with racial difference” and ignore “obvious instances of discrimination” (Cobb 413). Considering Dove’s reputation as being at the forefront of shaping beauty advertising, this oversight is troubling indeed. 

Defining Postracial Rhetoric

I begin this section by outlining my use of a “postracial rhetoric” to situate this term within the scope of embodied, feminist rhetorics. I do so because references to postracial rhetoric outside of rhetorical studies often either do not clarify their understanding of rhetoric or carry connotations of rhetoric as “‘empty talk,’ or even ‘deception’” (Herrick 1).4 Although approaches to rhetoric within the discipline can vary, I adopt Dolmage’s definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3). I have selected this definition for several reasons. First, it includes a focus on the body as Dolmage adds that “we should recognize rhetoric as the circulation of discourse through the body” (5). His emphasis on the body corresponds to how embodiment informs rhetoric given that “the physical body carries meaning through discourse about or by a body” and that such meaning “can be articulated beyond language” (Johnson et al. 39). Second, Dolmage’s definition is grounded in disability studies, which is complementary to feminist theory considering shared concerns about “the politics of appearance,” “the relation between femininity and embodiment,” “the commercialization of health and fitness” and “the ideology of normalcy,” among others (Garland-Thomson 1559). And third, the definition’s attention to power and the body aligns with feminist rhetoric, “a set of long-established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (Glenn 3),5 and one of its goals to “make all bodies and the power dynamics invested in their (in)visibility visible” (Johnson et al. 39). 

With this rhetorical framework in mind, I understand postracial rhetoric to mean the circulation of textual, visual, and bodily discourses that (in)directly suggest the eradication of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. I do not posit this understanding as postracial rhetoric’s “true” definition as it, much like rhetoric itself, can have multiple interpretations. I am also by no means coining the term, but I do outline what I have gathered to be its main components from prior scholarly discussions about postracialism that are largely outside of rhetorical studies and do not always explicitly define their approach to a postracial rhetoric.

Postracial Rhetoric Normalizes Whiteness

On the premise that racial preference is on the decline, postracial rhetoric promotes a universal message of equality and, consequently, an idealized version of society in which Whiteness is unraced and therefore the default (Temple; Klinenberg; Teasley and Ikard). Various iterations of this rhetoric “‘in effect proclaim that whiteness is normative’” (Walker and Smithers qtd. in Gunn and McPhail 20). In the context of media and advertising, a postracial rhetoric can homogenize (i.e., “smooth out all racial, ethnic, and sexual ‘differences’” (Bordo 24)) and normalize (i.e., create “models against which the self continually measures, judges, ‘disciplines’, and ‘corrects’ itself” (Bordo 25)) Western, White representations of beauty. It is critical, then, to acknowledge that these representations “have dominance, and not to efface such recognition through a facile and abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity,’ ‘difference,’ ‘subversive reading,’ and so forth” (Bordo 29-30). By advancing a racially unmarked, “normal” culture at the expense of others, postracial rhetoric is an “an outsider-imposed identity discourse” (Temple 51).

Postracial Rhetoric Disregards the Material Realities of Race(ism)

The assumption that the United States has “overcome” race with the election of its first Black president “renders invisible the material realities of ‘race’” (Teasley and Ikard 412). This assumption is quickly proven false by the very same “daily realities of racialized bodies [that] suggest that racism is still pervasive in the United States” (Adjei and Gill 142). By “material,” I refer to Bordo’s definition (which itself is influenced by Marxian and Foucauldian perspectives), which is “the ‘direct grip’ (as opposed to representational influence) that culture has on our bodies, through the practices and bodily habits of everyday life” (16). Collins likewise emphasizes the contributions of material, lived experiences towards Black feminist thought, which is “situated in a context of domination and not as a system of ideas divorced from political and economical reality” (288). Not only does postracial rhetoric gloss over the present-day, material impacts of race(ism), it conveniently forgets or ignores the history of racial inequalities that is embedded within current race relations in the United States. 

Postracial Rhetoric Eschews Diversity

In believing that “African-Americans have finally achieved racial equality,” postracialism is an “assimilationist term” that downplays Black cultures in favor of “mainstream White behaviors and orientations” (Temple 46). As such, its rhetoric “expresses a desire that African-American identity and heritage practices decrease, rather than increase” (46). Postracial rhetoric also goes hand in hand with a color-blind rhetoric that uses terms like “fairness, open access, and equal opportunity” (Holmes 26) and in so doing causes “social inequalities [to become] invisible” (Collins 26). What is ultimately valued is a homogenous (i.e., White, heteronormative) culture.

Postracial Rhetoric is Performative and Embodied

Understandings of race(ism) do not occur in a vacuum, but are bound up in cultural symbols: “the language of racism is masked within the language of culture” (Adjei and Gill 144). These symbols are not only linguistic ones, but visual as well. Considering how bodily features (e.g., skin tone, hair, body shape, etc.) and gestures all carry cultural weight, Cobb notes that “postracial imagery unevenly assigns concepts of visibility to performances of racial identity” and that “postracialism [can be] treated as performative and as a thing to be embodied” (412). Put another way, bodily features and gestures are not race-neutral. Sherrell describes how the need to keep Whiteness unraced and therefore “invisible” (148) appropriates embodiment by requiring Black bodies to “simulate whiteness and white embodiment in white institutions and spaces” (142). Modifying one’s behavior, mannerisms, and features becomes a survival tactic with the knowledge that “merely being noticed by whiteness has led to violence against, and death of, Black bodies” (150). In response, Sherrell proposes “embodied filtering,” a “means of titration of experience,” that counteracts encounters with racism with bodily rituals (e.g., restorative actions such as applying lotion, massaging one’s skin, and making selective clothing choices) that promote connections to one’s Black community and ancestry (151-152).  

With the exception of the last one, most of these components of postracial rhetoric operate primarily within the realm of textual language. Cobb, though, situates this rhetoric in a visual context through explaining the paradox of how “Blackness is rendered hypervisible as a symbol in a post-race United States; yet, it is also made invisible in terms of its own social and cultural relevance” (407). With its history of racial caricatures (that intermingle with discriminatory visual imagery of other racial identities), portrayals of Black bodies remind us that “there is never a culturally neutral ground for racial depiction—no place where our representational contexts have taken a reprieve from old ways of knowing race that create enough distance for the postracial to occur” (418). We cannot simply “forget” these historical caricatures when looking at images of Black people (and others of color) just as we cannot use an election of a Black, male president to treat the history of racial injustice in the United States as “one long, bad dream” (407). In the following sections, I use postracial rhetoric as an analytical lens to examine how Dove’s textual, visual, and paralingual discursive practices reveal the power dynamics embedded in its representations of race and reproductions of White beauty norms in the CFRB. My analysis takes up Cobb’s argument that we must be as critically conscious of “our approach to visuality” as we should be with “our idea of raciality” (419).

Postracial Undertones to Dove’s Definition of “Real Beauty”

In the now-iconic ads that the CFRB launched in 2005 (see Fig. 1), “real women with real bodies and real curves” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”) in white underwear strike confident poses daring to expose “curvy thighs, bigger bums, [and] rounder stomachs” (Fielding et al.). Clearly “real” in this context means bodies that are not “retouched, airbrushed or altered in any way” (Fielding et al). Both components—featuring “real women” in the ads and depicting them as they are in “real life”—make up two out of the three vows for “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”—the third being to “help girls build body confidence and self-esteem” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). The third vow also refers to the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which has “has educated over 20 million young people in body confidence and self-esteem” over the last 10 years (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). 

Image is an advertisement from The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge. Six racially diverse women are posing together and smiling. Large text to the right of the women reads: "curvy thighs, bigger bums, rounder stomachs. What better way to test our firming range?"

Fig. 1. Ad from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

The “real beauty” behind “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’” is an example of postracial rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the dominant ideology of Western female beauty rooted in histories of colonialism and enslavement. To achieve its “utopian” mission (Nayak 427) of eradicating racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice, postracialism supports eliminating race since “it is a false, dangerous and consequently indefensible category” (Paul 703). Race is absent from Dove’s vow to “never” use professional models since they “reflect a narrow view of beauty” and instead embrace the belief that “beauty is for everyone” by using “real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair color, type or style” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). While race (physical characteristics) and ethnicity (belonging to a social group with the same nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language) arguably overlap with one another, the two are not synonymous. “Hair color, type or style” might be a roundabout way of suggesting race, which reflects a lack of critical consciousness about the social construct at best and an active disengagement with it at worst. In any case, the explicit omission of race from Dove’s definition of beauty is significant since it allows the company to participate in the “abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity’” (Bordo 30) without recognizing, interrogating, and addressing the racial dynamics within Western beauty standards.

Although a “cultural creation” (Smedley 5), race still has (in)direct material impacts whether invoked or not. Put simply, abandoning race does not erase racism. Shying away from the concept risks promoting the belief that “racial invocation inherently produces racist inevitability” (Goldberg 114) despite the fact that “racisms establish, set in place, and extend races, not the reverse” (115). Anti-racist efforts can instead adopt a both/and approach—i.e., acknowledging a preference for Whiteness while still insisting on “equality for all in the face of ongoing racial reference” (121). In this section, I argue that Dove does the opposite by setting the tone for a postracial rhetoric through its early CFRB ads that center on White bodies and white imagery. The Black women in these ads are forgotten by Dove’s marketing team whose decision to have the models wear white underwear evokes conceptions of the “pure”, White, female body as contrasted to the body of the exotic Black Other. Such a choice reflects how “visibility is fundamental to race relations” (Cobb 418) and, when combined with the oversight of the few Black women chosen to be among the CFRB’s inaugural models, signals Dove’s lack of awareness of its own postracial rhetoric. 

A “Whiter” Approach to Beauty

Despite Dove’s claims of contributing to a “wider definition of beauty” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”), the advertisements themselves are still largely dominated by White, toned women. Results from focus groups of 40 female participants suggested that these women largely viewed the models as having “conventionally beautiful skin, hair, and eyes” (Taylor et al. 132). “Imperfections” such as “cellulite, rolls, body hair, dreadlocks, tattoos, bumps, scars, blemishes, prostheses, and stretch marks” were also mentioned as missing from the ads; the inclusion of dreadlocks in this list implies that physical features typically associated with Black bodies are excluded from implicit, White norms of “conventionally beautiful” standards. Some of the Black and Latina participants noted that “Most of the models are light skinned people, not really dark-skinned” and the Muslim participants commented that the absence of hijabs reflected little diversity in terms of religion (133). Most of the non-White women in the focus groups felt that “Dove’s version of diversity did not challenge hegemonic beauty norms based on white ideals, nor did it address the racism that underpins myriad beauty practices and expectations” (133). These sentiments highlight Dove’s superficial approach to diversity that implies postracial, homogenous assumptions of beauty. The company further compounds the danger of these assumptions by using a minimally diverse group of “real” non-professional models to uphold its claim of equalizing perceptions of beauty.

Any potential gains from the diversity present in the ads are undercut by the CFRB’s marketing team. During a roundtable discussion with the Ogilvy marketing team behind the campaign’s launch, Linda Scott gives this story:

One thing that was brought to my attention just last week that I had not noticed before—a friend and a colleague of mine, Jason Chambers who is a professor at the University of Illinois, was in town last week and he’s African American. I told him that I was having this meeting and he says, “Oh, you know, I would really like to know…That campaign didn’t have any Black women in it. Why is that?” And it was the first that I had ever—I’m embarrassed to say—the first time I had thought about it. (Fielding et al.)

Dennis Lewis, Creative Partner at the London branch of Ogilvy, responds that Dove has “always been multi-racial and multi-cultural,” but then must retrieve physical pictures from the campaign to confirm the existence of Black models. Alessandro Manfredi, the Global VP of Dove Masterbrand and Deodorants, begins to list different phases of the campaign that had “it” (i.e., Black models) while remaining uncertain about the promotional campaign video, “Little Girls.” Scott adds that she is “pretty sure” “Little Girls” has Black models and suggests that Chambers might have been thinking of the 2005 ads as the phase lacking diversity (Fielding et al.). 

And yet, the 2005 ads do have two Black models—Syleste Molyneaux and Jane Poku (see Figs. 1 and 2). What is especially concerning about these ads is not just that there are only two Black models within a campaign meant to “widen” the definition of beauty, but that the roundtable discussion demonstrates what hooks describes as “dehumanizing oppressive forces, forces that render us invisible and deny us recognition” (35). The admission of race as an afterthought plus the scramble to provide evidence of the presence of non-White bodies both convey how Whiteness is normalized within an ad series claiming diversity and highlight Dove’s unconsciousness of its own postracial rhetoric. 

These actions also undercut the appearance of agency in Molyneaux and Poku’s individual advertisements that include their names and statements about the campaign. On the one hand, these women’s participation in the CFRB is an opportunity for them to advocate their own narratives about their bodies, diversify the representation of women in the media, and be positive role models for Black girls who often do not see versions of themselves in beauty ads. On the other hand, Molyneaux and Poku’s body-positive narratives are not their own while being open to editing by Dove and its marketing team. Black women’s empowerment (and, in this case, individual views and collective consensus on what “beauty” is) strives to be autonomous: “When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so” (Collins 125). Because this empowerment must resist knowledge production tied to objectification, commodification, and exploitation (Collins 308), Black women’s agency becomes constrained in a beauty campaign claiming good intentions but still profiting from their bodies.

Material Constructions of Racialized Beauty Norms

One consequence to Dove’s exclusion of race from its definition of “real beauty” is the failure to identify and respond to racialized conceptions of beauty and their material impacts and, in so doing, renew them. Historically, Black women’s bodies have been objectified to facilitate and justify their economic, political, and sexual exploitation, which is reflected in the “controlling images of Black womanhood” (Collins 111) such as the mammy, “the faithful, obedient domestic servant” (80), and the jezebel or “whore, or ‘hoochie’” (89). This objectification also reinforces “long-standing notions of Black women’s sexuality” (238) and acts as a ballast against which the ideals of White beauty are defined. One example of this objectification in the CFRB is the white underwear that the models are consistently photographed in. The Ogilvy team made the decision for the models to wear white underwear during the shoot since they wanted the women “to look confident and feel sexy,” instead of being cast as “sex icons” (Fielding et al.). “Plain” white underwear, instead of lingerie, would draw the audience’s attention to the women’s skin and “loveliness” (Fielding et al.). The choice of white underwear to convey these impressions ultimately relies on implicit, historical associations with lingerie, which have connections to the exotic Other of the Black body. 

Image is an ad from Dove's Campaign for Real Bodies. A Black women wearing a white tank top and underwear stands to the side, with her head turned toward the camera, smiling. Text to the side of her reads: "I like to wear clothes that are, I would say, figure hugging."

Fig. 2. Ad from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

A notable instance of a Black woman’s body being used to constitute notions of Black female sexuality and White femininity was the exhibition of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”), a South African Khoikhoi woman, in England in the early 19th century. Enslaved by a Dutch farmer after her family was killed in a commando raid, Baartman (although illiterate) allegedly signed a “contract” to work as a domestic servant for William Dunlop, an English ship surgeon (Parkinson). Dunlop instead put Baartman on display across England to present her large buttocks (steatopygia) and elongated labia (known popularly as the “Hottentot apron”) as a “‘scientific curiosity’” (Davie). The speculations from Europeans about these features serve as one example of the association of Black women’s sexuality as “animalistic, lustful, and deviant” (Fields 613) that was contrasted against White bodies, white lingerie, and sexual purity (612). Black lingerie functioned “as a racial masquerade akin to Blackface that allowed women, especially white women, to express, and their bodies to convey, the eroticism attributed to Black women via a safely contained and removable Black skin” (612). Conversely, covering Black women in white underwear against a white background—Poku’s clothing is so indistinguishable from the background that the two blend together, leaving only fragmented sections of her Black skin (see Fig. 2)—suggests a restriction and control of “unclean” Black female bodies in relation to the White ideal of “pure” beauty.

These historical constructions of White purity whose counterpoint is the Black Other are embodied and visually conveyed via the white undergarments the models wear against the white backdrop. As Johnson et al. note, “All bodies do rhetoric through texture, shape, color, consistency, movement, and function” (39). They assert that “the body also carries signifying power” (40), which connects to Collins’ point that the concept of White femininity needs an Other who is recognized as embodying the opposite of these values (77). As Collins puts it, “within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blonde, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other—Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair” (98). In this binary, Black women always remain outside of Western, White notions of beauty that also impact other non-White racial groups (98). Although this long-standing binary is embedded within the visual elements of the ads and the portrayals of the models’ bodies, viewers can nonetheless perceive how this visual rhetoric “confirm[s] an ideology of compulsory beauty for women”—i.e., the “idea that all women…should strive to be beautiful” (Taylor et al. 132, 128). The media, among other predominately White institutions such as government agencies and schools, have a role in perpetuating “controlling images” of Black women which retain their power so long as the stereotypes they rely on remain unnoticed (Collins 111, 125). As noted in the following section, Dove’s pattern of racial insensitivity only continues in later ads of the campaign.

“Tone Deaf” Ads and Racialized Soap Advertising

At first glance, the inclusion of non-supermodel bodies within Dove’s CFRB strikes a positive note. Research in fat studies6 posits that “there are very few opportunities for fat women (or, for that matter, any woman who is not exceedingly slender) to view favorable reflections of herself in mass media” (Fikkan and Rothblum 587). Fikkan and Rothblum argue that it is not enough for feminist scholars to explore how cultural expectations of svelte female figures can cause “every woman [to] feel badly about her body,” but that they must also acknowledge that “because of the pervasiveness and gendered nature of weight-based stigma, a majority of women stand to suffer significant discrimination because they do not conform to this ever-narrower standard” (588). Even if the campaign was to include more diverse body types, this representation would need to be more systemic across beauty advertising to effect social, transformative change about the perceptions of female bodies (Bissell and Rask 664).

Moreover, companies like Dove also need to be attuned to intersections of weight stigma, race, and gender within their advertising. Because of research showing Black women to be more likely than White women to perceive fat bodies positively (Hebl and Heatherton; Hebl et al.; Molloy and Herzberger), it has been speculated that most Black women reject the White ideal of beauty that by definition does not include them, which allows them some buffer from its effects (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Nevertheless, Williamson contends that it is erroneous to “suggest that all ‘non-Whites’ live sequestered in isolated communities, free from dominant cultural influence” (68). While Black women may dissociate themselves from White mainstream culture, this does not necessarily mean that they are “immune” to poor body image and eating disorders (Thompson 558).  Racial discrimination can also outweigh weight discrimination for Black women considering that White women still benefit from racial privilege despite their body type (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Factors such as poverty, violence, heterosexism, and mental health must also be taken into account when considering the relationship between Black women and their weight (Wilson).7

Merely adding non-White bodies to beauty ads without also critically considering the social, cultural, and political dimensions of weight stigma only demonstrates a half-hearted attempt at challenging established beauty norms. Such an attempt is further weakened by repeated visual gaffes that replicate historical, racial caricatures of Black bodies. In the rest of this section, I outline how more recent CFRB ads do not fare much better than the earlier, iconic phase in terms of successfully representing diversity. While the original firming cream ads from 2005 could have included more women of color, each one did have her own ad with her name and a statement about her body listed. This recognition is not present in the newer iterations of the campaign from the 2010s that minimize the presence of non-White bodies, give White women more of a platform to speak about their bodies, and evoke historical, racialized soap advertising. In so doing, these ads take up a postracial rhetoric that presents homogenous depictions of beauty and normalizes Whiteness. This rhetoric also forgets or ignores the material realities of race(ism) through visual, embodied performances that repeatedly carry the implicit message that White skin is “pure” and “clean” while Black skin is “dirty.”

Erasure of Non-White Voices

While the 2005 CFRB ads made a nod towards including the bodies and voices of women of color, even this minimal commitment to diversity diminished with the 2013 launch of Dove’s documentary-style YouTube video, “Real Beauty Sketches.” This video has two versions: One is six minutes and 36 seconds and has received over 10 million views and the shorter, three-minute video has received over 69 million views at this time of writing. The videos reflect the outcome of a “social experiment” (Dove, “Real Beauty Sketches”) in which several women spend time with a fellow participant before individually describing their facial features to an FBI forensic artist, Gil Zamora, who—separated from them by a curtain—sketches their responses. Next, they detail their partner’s appearance as Zamora—still unable to see them—illustrates their portrayal. Whereas many of the women describe themselves as having freckles, crow’s feet, or dark circles, they are considerably more flattering when detailing the features of their partners. The two sketches are then hung side-by-side and Zamora invites each woman to view them. All of the women agree that the stranger’s description is more “gentle” than their own and confess that they have “some work to do” in appreciating their own beauty.

Despite the viral success of the video, several critics mention that “Real Beauty Sketches” still does not challenge the fact that beauty—whether “ideal” or “real”—is still held as the standard that women are expected to measure themselves against and use as a benchmark for self-esteem (Rodriguez; Keane; Friedman). Although a full critique of this video extends beyond the scope of this article, the one major criticism of the video that I want to highlight is its lack of diversity. Watching the video, it is immediately clear that the participants are “lovely, thin, mostly white women” (Fridkis; Stampler). Of the group, the ones who get the most speaking time (and are named) are all White women. In fact, the individual stories of three of these women—Melinda, Florence, and Kela—are filmed in short, one-minute videos as part of the series. While these women openly share their insecurities about their physical appearance, Adamson argues that the video only targets “first world pain” and does not problematize the “‘narrow cultural perception of beauty’” it purports to be challenging.

Even though two Black women are shown being sketched by Zamora, they each only speak one line. The first (unnamed) woman describes herself as having a “fat, rounder face” while the second woman, Shelly, mentions that she gets more freckles as she ages. (Interestingly enough, while Shelly is named in the shorter version, she appears without a name tagline in the first, longer version of the campaign video). A Black man is briefly shown describing one of the participants as having “very nice blue eyes,” but he too is given no name. Towards the end of the video when the final sketches are revealed, the White women are often shown standing beside their portraits while explaining their reactions either to Zamora or to the viewers via narration. For a moment, the camera peeks over Shelly’s shoulder as she stares at her sketches and there are flashes of other women of color looking at their own. However, none of these women are shown giving commentary about their experiences. One of the final scenes shows the lights going out over Shelly’s sketches while she is not present. One blogger sums up the situation with: “Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds” (jazzylittledrops). Thus, it seems that as Dove’s CFRB evolves, even the minimal, though significant, active participation from women of color promoted in the original ads becomes further reduced.

Image in an ad for a Dove product, Dove VisibleCare. Three women stand in front of two large images of skin. On the left, "before," the skin looks dry; on the right, "after," the skin looks moisturized. The women are standing in order of skin color, with the darkest skin color to the left and lightest to the right.

Fig. 3. Ad for Dove VisibleCare product.

References to “impure” Black skin

In a campaign that omits race from its understanding of “real beauty,” it is perhaps unsurprising that its few models of color are forgotten and/or delegated to the background; in fact, Dove’s ability to authentically portray women of color, especially Black women, within the CFRB has consistently been fraught. In 2011, Dove was criticized for an ad that implied its soap could make dark skin lighter and cleaner (Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”) (see Fig. 3). In the ad, a Black model striking a “‘sassy’” pose (much like Poku in Fig. 2) is positioned in front of a “before” image while more “demure,” light-skinned models are standing closer to an “after” image (Edwards). With this positioning inferring that the body wash is “strong enough to turn a black woman white,” Dove’s PR firm, Edelman, released a statement claiming that “‘All three women are intended to demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit” and that “We believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages and are committed to featuring realistic and attainable images of beauty in all our advertising” (qtd. in Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”). 

Despite this statement, Dove faced yet more backlash in 2017 concerning a three-second video the company posted on its U.S. Facebook page in which a Black woman removed her dark brown top to reveal a White woman in a pale top underneath. Although the White model repeated the same action to be replaced by “a racially ambiguous woman,” this act did not undo the suggestion of “anti-Blackness of the first series of images” (The Race Card). For some critics, the Black woman to White woman transition evoked the Pears’ 1884 soap advertisement that depicted a Black child scrubbed white after washing (The Race Card; Conor). Others referenced the 1901 Nulla Nulla soap advertisement that featured an illustration of a Black woman with both stereotypically exaggerated features and a bib that said “dirt” being hit on the head by a spoon that was surrounded by the tagline: “Knocks Dirt on the Head” (Conor). Taken together, these critiques link the CFRB to the racialized history of soap advertising in the United States and across the world, which illustrated how “primitive, unclean, and ignorant” Black skin could be “corrected” after using soap that would turn the consumer into a “‘beauty,’ as opposed to the ‘beast’ she once was” (Rooks 29). Dua states that the proliferation of “tone deaf” ads and corresponding hashtag #boycottdove suggest that “Dove has lost control of its narrative.”

Amidst this response, Lola Ogunyemi, the Nigerian model in the video, published an editorial in The Guardian defending it. She asserts how she “jumped” at the opportunity to “be the face of a new body wash campaign” and in so doing, “represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand,” since this occasion “felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued.” Ogunyemi’s defense of Dove, along with the Ogilvy marketing team forgetting about Molyneaux and Poku’s involvement in the original CFRB ads, convey how “Black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of self as African-American women with our objectification as the Other” (Collins 110). With respect to embodiment, Sherrell describes the struggle to reconcile “stories [of] Black bodies as vile, dangerous, subhuman, and of no value except for consumption by whiteness” with “the narrative my body also knows—of brilliance and resistance and humanness and beauty and agency” (149). When applied to Molyneaux, Poku, and Ogunyemi, these negotiations suggest how Dove’s Black models must navigate the “dialectic of oppression and activism” (Collins 16) with respect to advocating positive messages about Black bodies while also participating in a campaign that profits from their bodies. They also illustrate how these models can be complicit in Dove’s postracial rhetoric while also trying to contribute to more heterogenous representations of beauty.

Conclusion

As this analysis has demonstrated, Dove’s 16-year message of “real beauty” is a postracial one that assimilates racial and ethnic differences to White beauty norms and reproduces and modernizes centuries-old racial caricatures through the claim of equalizing beauty standards. These caricatures have historically functioned to render “a notion of racial difference as visible, and thus, controllable” (Cobb 410) and their presence in the CFRB shows how adaptable a textual and visual postracial rhetoric can be in a digital age. This rhetoric is also an embodied one considering how a series of minimally diverse, racially insensitive ads asks its audience to “consume a number of postracial moments over the terrain of the Black body” (409). Although the focus here has largely been about the depiction of Black bodies, the impacts of a postracial rhetoric within beauty advertising can be extended to other races and ethnicities as well. With its failure to learn from past mistakes, Dove reinforces the “thoughtlessness” or “Arendtian sense of failing to exercise reflective (and by extension self-reflective) critical judgement” (Goldberg 111) of racisms present within postracial rhetoric. This lack of awareness is significant when Dove’s “real beauty” message is already suspect when tied to financial profit; it becomes more insidious with repeated inferences of White purity and “dirty and impure” Black skin (The Race Card).

By outlining the characteristics of a postracial rhetoric and applying them to the textual, visual, and paralingual elements of Dove’s CFRB ads, this analysis contributes to feminist rhetorics which, among other aims, uncovers and challenges White, male, and Western hegemonic discourses and promotes diverse and inclusive ones (Royster and Kirsch 44). Feminist rhetorics unpack the “the nature, scope, impacts, and consequences of rhetoric as a multidimensional human enterprise,” with multidimensionality referring to engagement across multiple boundaries (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, status, and geographic sites), genres, material conditions, and other means of producing rhetorical knowledge (42). Likewise, my reading of the Dove CFRB ads considers the dimensions of gender, race, and weight stigma embedded within discourses about beauty within the genre of beauty advertisements. These dimensions call attention to an often implicit, but still pervasive postracial rhetoric that is by no means an “empty” one; on the contrary, it supports and produces unconscious, uncritical understandings of race that perpetuate the simultaneous historical discrimination and erasure as well as the objectification, commodification, and exploitation of Black bodies. Furthermore, this intersectional perspective not only reveals both resistance to and complicity in the power dynamics of Western discourses about beauty, but also situates these discourses in a “broader transnational context” (Royster and Kirsch 54), especially when it comes to beauty advertisements aimed at international audiences.

On the one hand, Dove is not alone when it comes to doing damage control over racially insensitive ads. In 2017, Nivea pulled an ad for its “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant that featured a woman sitting on a bed, her back to the camera, and her long, dark brown hair cascading down a white outfit above the tagline, “WHITE IS PURITY.”  This ad, supported by White supremacist groups who stated, “‘Nivea has chosen our side’” (Tsang), followed the controversy of the company’s 2011 Nivea for Men ad showing a groomed, Black male model holding the head of his former self with an afro and beard with the tagline, “Re-civilize yourself,” across his body (Aronowitz). The 2017 ad, posted to Nivea’s Middle Eastern Facebook page, reflects how marketing language for skin-whitening beauty products varies globally, with ads across South, Southeast, and East Asia associating whiter skin with confidence, attractiveness, and marriageability whereas ads in North America promote similar products that “‘brighten’” skin and help it to become more “‘radiant’” (Koul). The difference is not that North American audiences are “less racist” or “less obsessed with whiteness as the highest form of beauty,” but that they are more concerned about “appear[ing] racist” (Koul).

On the other hand, the thoughtlessness of Dove’s postracial rhetoric is also evident in the company’s disengagement with its own relationship to a global skin lightening market. Koul’s claim about the desire not to “appear racist” might explain some consumer reactions to Dove’s muddled attempts at aligning itself with protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by White Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.8 The company participated in #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, 2020, which began in the music industry as a “proposed day of reflection” and rapidly evolved into a social media movement during which individuals and other brands posted black squares across Instagram and other platforms (Coscarelli). While some people posted messages of thanks for Dove’s support, others called attention to Dove’s affiliation with its parent company, Unilever, which sells skin-whitening products like Fair and Lovely in over 40 countries (Conor). When Dove tried to deflect the accusation by stating, “we do not sell skin lightening products” (Dove, “@roberta.camara”), one commenter responded with, “of course you can say you don’t make skin lightening products. Explain your relationship with Unilever” (cassilla927). What these consumer critiques allude to is that Dove’s “real beauty” message “seems skin-deep when it fails to penetrate into the pores of its parent company and its subsidiaries” (Conor).

Other replies to Dove’s black square post correspond to a larger criticism of #BlackoutTuesday, which was seen by some as a way for both individuals and brands to perform allyship without making consistent efforts towards addressing and reforming systemic, institutionalized racism. As Tariro Mzezewa, a Black travel reporter who participated in a discussion about #BlackoutTuesday for the Style section of The New York Times put it, “they post, but with no real intention of listening, learning, donating, protesting or helping beyond the post. The post makes them feel like they’ve done their part” (The New York Times). Some reactions to Dove’s black square reflect similar skepticism with one commenter remarking, “Nice post and all but are there any actions taking place towards the cause?” (x.vivii.xix, “Nice post and all…”) Dove’s answer to posts like these (including ones pointing to its relationship with Unilever) was to refer to its newest campaign, Project #ShowUs, which curates stock photos from women and non-binary individuals to “offer a more inclusive vision of beauty to all media & advertisers” (Dove, “Project #ShowUs”). Although well-intentioned, this campaign arguably boosts Dove’s profit margins more so than anti-racist efforts, as indicated by x.vivii.xix’s reply: “If you’re only mentioning those [initiatives] attached to the Dove name it’s more like a PR move with the benefactors being your stock holders and not actually the cause at hand” (“@dove that’s nice”). 

Ultimately, this exchange between Dove and its online audience reveals the limitations of advancing genuine, systemic change within the context of feminist consumerism. Consumer responses show how Dove’s “corporate cosmetic approach” fails to adopt an authentic feminist approach to disrupting White beauty ideals that would “challenge beauty norms, include women across the color spectrum, enable women to resist using skin lighteners, affirm diversity in skin tone, and honor the range of embodied existence” (Taylor et al. 133). Instead, its various ads hinge on the notion of “compulsory beauty” that centers more on individual improvements (through purchasing Dove’s beauty products) versus participating in collective social justice movements (Taylor et al. 128, 134). This understanding of beauty is also largely not self-generated by women, particularly Black women and others of color, considering the requests on Dove’s black square asking the company to provide numbers on how many Black women number among its executives. Still, women acknowledge that campaigns like Dove’s are “‘better than nothing’” and that “ethical consumption” or “making social and environmental change through targeted purchasing” is possible to some degree (Taylor et al. 140).

Dove’s feminist consumerist approach to tackling hegemonic beauty expectations also does not align with the goals of Black women’s empowerment, which include ensuring their autonomy, valuing their self-definitions, and “fostering social justice in a transnational context” (Collins 309). To truly challenge intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and weight stigma, empowerment must go hand-in-hand with self-definition that can be used to “replace controlling images” of Black women (111). As Collins states, “ceding the power of self-definition to others, no matter how well-meaning or supportive of Black women they may be, in essence replicates existing power hierarchies” (40). Littlefield agrees, arguing that a forum is needed in which to have conversations about Black female and male stereotypes in the media and that “an attention to community education that educates young Black women, Black men, and the overall community is the only context that will have any meaning for social justice” (683). Self-definition is a vital component in creating “alternative modes of ‘making it’” (Littlefield 683) for not just Black women, but for all marginalized groups. In identifying these alternative definitions to “beauty” beyond corporate ones, we as consumers can move beyond considerations of how companies like Dove are “losing control” of their postracial narratives towards recognizing and acting on the ways we respond, resist, and contribute to them.

Endnotes

  1. The truthfulness behind this statement has been contested. In the May 12, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, “premier retoucher of fashion photographs,” described “retouching” the photos of Dove’s ProAge campaign “‘to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive’” (qtd. in Collins, “Pixel Perfect”). He later clarified that his changes were “limited to color correction and dust removal” (Nolan, “Dove Denies New Yorker Hypocrisy Allegations”).
  2.  By intersectionality, I refer to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of the “intersecting patterns of racism and sexism” that Black women often experience (1243). Nash has argued that this concept lacks a clear definition and methodology, uses Black women as “prototypical intersectional subjects,” and obscures whether intersectional identities can be claimed by all or the “multiply marginalized” (4, 9). However, Collins’ articulation of a matrix domination that refers to “how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized” (21) and is connected to a Black feminist epistemology offers a wider applicability of intersectionality and a method of studying it.
  3. In this article, I capitalize “Black” to signify “not just a color” but also “a history and the racial identity of Black Americans.” I capitalize “White” because “to not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard” (Nguyễn and Pendleton). Because I am examining the involvement and representation of cisgender women in the CFRB, I acknowledge that this analysis does not include the full spectrum of gender identities. Non-binary and transgender people also experience erasure and discrimination in (beauty) advertising, but a full discussion of these particular experiences is beyond the scope of this article.
  4. For instance, Paul calls postracialism “an empty rhetoric” at best and at worst “the insidious denial of continued racism” (702).
  5. Similar to Glenn, I capitalize Other here and in the rest of the article to signify “an individual or group who has been or is being marginalized from another, that is being ‘othered’” (Jackson II and Hogg 527). Collins adds that Black women’s “objectification as the Other denies us the protections that White skin, maleness, and wealth confer” (276). Collins’ observation often applies to other non-White racial groups as well.
  6. Like Fikkan and Rothblum, I “use the term ‘fat,’ as it is descriptive, whereas the term ‘overweight’ implies unfavourable comparison to a normative standard and ‘obese’ is a medical term with its own negative connotations” (576).
  7.  Although further discussion of these intersecting factors is outside the scope of this article, more scholarship is needed about the relationship between Black women, their weight, and their mental health as weight stigma not only influences who is (and is not) included within definitions of “beauty,” but also who is (and is not) considered “at risk” for body disorders (Beauboeuf-Lafontant; Williamson; Ofosu et al.; Thompson; Root). 
  8. At the time of this writing, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter with respect to Floyd’s death (Associated Press). Nearly two weeks before Floyd’s death, Louisville police officers acting on a no-knock warrant forced their way into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, and shot her several times, killing her (Oppel Jr. & Taylor). Subsequently, calls have been made to include attention to Taylor’s death to raise more awareness about police violence against Black women (Ryan). 

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CFP: On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric

Overview

The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color. They have pushed feminism to be better and do better since the beginning. However, these feminists often are not afforded the credit they deserve for creating feminist spaces and demanding change within them. During the Suffrage Movement it was Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” at the Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio, in 1851 that demanded we recognize the voices and perspectives of all women. The work that Black women, lesbians and working class women did to push the mainstream white middle class feminism of the 1970s to speak across race, class, and sexuality made feminism stronger. Feminists of color in the 1970s writing in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, and But Some of Us Are Brave started building a third wave of feminism before the 1990s gave us the Third Wave. And it was a young Black woman named Rebecca Walker who first proclaimed “we are the third wave.” In short, it has always been the voices of feminists of color that pushed feminist movements to realize the radical notion that all womxn are people. In this issue, we are looking for scholarly complications to the discourse around white feminism that historically approach the idea: Feminism has never really been white.

This contemporary moment, perhaps more than any other has shown us the relevance and importance of race, feminism and rhetoric. The current global pandemic has put a spotlight on institutionalized inequities around race, class and gender. The on-going protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition in the struggle. Extreme nationalism has ripped children from the arms of their parents and placed them in cages going against every fiber of the founding lies of the United States. The recent election and the fact that yet again over 50% of the white women who voted cast their vote for Donald Trump has made clear that assumed alliances around gender are not to be taken for granted when we add race to the mix. Now more than ever we need to be in nuanced and critical conversations on race, feminism, and rhetoric.

From Fair Fight Now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women have been the driving force behind the change we need in America today. In the wake of the 2020 US elections, we need to have more conversations about how feminists of color combat the normalization of the refusal to transfer power, concede losses, and acknowledge the truth. Like we saw with the Women’s March controversy, we can not continue to tolerate feminists of color being pushed to the margins in the spaces we created. This bridge can no longer be our backs. As “The Squad” on Capitol Hill grows to include even more women of color voices, we need to make space for complex conversations around what diversity and equality really means while continuing to hold our leadership accountable to the progress we have made. Now is not the time for half-measures, talking points for views, and conservative approaches. We need to center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our feminist futures. We hope that the essays in this special issue will help shed light on all the important and nuanced ways that race, feminism and rhetoric intersect across time, in this moment, and around the world.

Invitation

The editors invite articles, manifestos, and alternative works that consider, but are not limited to, the following questions and topics:

  • Rethinking Intersectionality Rhetorically
  • Global Feminisms (Transnational Feminism, Afrodiasporic and African Feminisms, IndigenousFeminism, Latinx Feminisms, Arab Feminisms)
  • Histories of Women of Color Feminisms
  • Models of political activism, like “The Squad”
  • Allies, Coalitions, Solidarity in the Struggle
  • Interrogating whiteness through gender and class
  • Black Lives Matter/Say Her Name
  • Rhetorical histories and the legacies of raced and gendered rhetoric
  • Anti-Racist Feminisms
  • Complicating conversations around human rights (women’s rights, trans womxn’s rights, immigrant rights)
  • The Phyllis Schlafly Effect and Why We Never Expect that 50% of White Women Will Act Against Solidarity
  • Re-examinations of Civil Rights
  • Marches and Uprisings
  • Feminist Pasts/Feminist Futures
  • Racing Digital Feminisms
  • Race and Inequities in Medicine
  • Race, Ability, and Disability
  • Black women theorizing and giving us the language to name our oppression (from intersectionality to misogynoir and beyond)
  • Race and Transgender Rhetorics

Submission Details & Timeline

Please send completed articles, manifestos, and book reviews. We are also open to accepting alternative formats such as digital, audio, and visual compositions. All submissions should be emailed to both editors, Gwendolyn D. Pough <gdpough@syr.edu> and Stephanie Jones <svjones@syr.edu>, by January 30, 2021. Peer review will occur during the winter of 2021, Revisions will be due in the spring of 2021, and the anticipated publication date will be summer of 2021.

Review of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education

VanHaitsma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019. 162 pages.

We read Pamela VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education as two feminists, a student and a teacher, both queer women embarking on queer archival research projects. We studied VanHaitsma’s book in order to develop our own methods for queer archival research. VanHaitsma addresses many of the questions that we grapple with in our own work: How can we engage in archival research of queer lives when queerness has been systematically silenced? How can we interpret queerness in the past without projecting our contemporary standards? What interpretive practices can researchers adopt to attune to queer rhetorics in the archives? To answer these inquiries, VanHaitsma draws upon previous feminist and queer methodologies and, through her own research, demonstrates how to apply them.

VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education demonstrates that queer romantic letter writing builds upon heteronormative standards in ways that resist binaries between public and private, erotic and civic, to queer traditional genre expectations. VanHaitsma invites readers to consider queer romantic letters as rich sites of rhetorical education and civic participation. Further, she offers readers a methodology for queer archival research: “Methodologically queering binary distinctions between public and private life, my archival research turns historiographic attention to romantic engagement while exploring its civic implications within instruction and practice” (21). Her work of “methodologically queering binary distinctions” has a long precedent in both queer rhetorics and feminist research methods, upon which VanHaitsma builds her methodology.

Queering Romantic Engagement expands upon previous work in queer rhetorics and contributes to an emerging conversation on queer archival methodologies. Serving as an important grounding for queer rhetorics, Jean Bessette’s queer rhetoric in situ pairs queer theory and rhetorical analysis to effectively analyze queer rhetorical practices across historical contexts. In her article, Bessette defines queer rhetorics in historical and cultural contexts that identify both the dominant norms and what it means to queer those norms. Bessette’s approach to queer rhetoric has been important for queer scholars who need to define queer within historical contexts. Further, Bessette’s book, Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives, is important for understanding the constructed, curated nature of archives and for theorizing lesbian identity through archival materials.

One of the most important contributions to queer archival research can be found in KJ Rawson’s archival theories and archival work on the Digital Transgender Archive. Rawson identifies the rhetorical and political significance of archival infrastructure, metadata, and access. This is important because Rawson identifies how heteronormative logic erases queer experiences and at the same time reimagines and rebuilds archives to make queer lives and experiences accessible to scholars. Of course, VanHaitsma’s own previous work has already outlined a queer methodology that includes gossip, genre analysis, and storytelling. From this work, she demonstrates her deep commitment to methodologies that resist stable definition and encourage imaginative interpretation. Released in the same year as Queering Romantic Engagement, Ames Hawking’s These Are Love(d) Letters similarly offers a queer archival methodology that breaks distinctions between personal and public, past and present, text and author. In addition, Hawkings performs the queer genre-bending that VanHaitsma identifies a feature of queer rhetorics.

In this review, we first offer these key terms that are central to VanHaitsma’s queer archival methodology:

  • Queer Failure: By failing at heteronormative instructions and genres, writers make visible how literacy practices discipline hetero norms and how writers can recreate and invent new queer rhetorics. (pg. 45-48)
  • Queer Practices: Actions, relations, and practices themselves are defined as queer, which allows an archival researcher to identify queer rhetorics without imposing an identity category that a person did not chose for themselves. (pg. 10-14)
  • Queer in Context: Each genre, situation, and archive is placed in historical context, first outlining the hetero standard in order to feature queer failures and queer inventions.
  • Queer Intersectionality: Queer rhetorics are defined in relation to intersections of oppression that include race, class, and gender. (pg. 61-63)

Introduction

How does [instruction in language arts] enable nonnormative, or queer, rhetorical practices and romantic relations? (9)

As detailed among the key terms listed above, VanHaitsma’s preface and introduction emphasize the book’s interest in queer practices rather than identities. By studying more than forty 19th-century letter writing manuals, VanHaitsma considers how such sites of romantic epistolary education established the norms from which some writers queerly departed. As she notes, the queer writers she studies employed “rhetorical practices that were unconventional in their transgressions of generic boundaries while pursuing nonnormative romantic relations” (13). Additionally, she identifies queer writers as learners whose “romantic communication [is] a form of rhetoric, one with intimate as well as social dimensions” (15). VanHaitsma describes her own methodological practices as queer, noting her work’s insistence that the personal and romantic cannot be considered totally separate from the field of rhetoric’s emphasis on civic engagement as the primary purpose of rhetorical education. By turning to romantic engagement as a locus of rhetorical education, she “[queers] binary distinctions between public and private life” (21).

VanHaitsma stresses that queer archival methods must always work against both archival and historical erasure—take, for example, the tendency for historians to assume that erotic and romantic letter writing among same-sex couples was primarily a form of affectionate friendship. VanHaitsma names this erasure and dedicates her archival research to recovering the erotic and romantic.

Chapter 1: Norming and Failing

How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures? (47)

VanHaitsma’s first methodological move is to identify a normative frame against which she later contrasts the queer rhetorical practices of her historical subjects. Chapter One, “‘The Language of the heart’: Genre Instruction in Heteronormative Relations,” defines the norms of heteronormative romantic epistolary engagement. By analyzing manuals that taught 19th-century readers how to write letters for social and romantic purposes, VanHaitsma determines that these norms include heartfelt yet crafted expression, gendered address, restraint, and an explicit purpose of letter-writing towards marriage. The chapter follows Jean Bessette in placing queer rhetoric in situ, crucially emphasizing context and convention. By defining heteronormative conventions, VanHaitsma is able to then identify queer rhetorics specifically within this context and thereby avoid any overreach that may frame queerness as a stable or objective term.

VanHaitsma then identifies moments of queer rhetorical practice even within the letter-writing handbooks. She asks, “How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures within complete letter writers and across nineteenth-century manual culture?” (47) and “when desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). These questions guide her queer archival methodology in this chapter. In order to identify queer rhetorics within otherwise heteronormative letter-writing handbooks, VanHaitsma models methods of queer archival research by pairing critical imagination (Royster) and queer failure (Halbastram; Wait). She takes note of “hints,” suggestions, slippages, ellipses, and openings within the archives that could have been adopted for queer romantic engagement. VanHaitsma asks readers to “imagine this learner as a woman in a same-sex, cross-class relationship,” to think outside the literal text and towards what could have been (40). Later, she reads between the lines of model “skeleton” letters and speculates how writers could have reinvented this writing instruction towards queer ends.

Chapter 2: Rhetorical and Romantic

[H]ow we might complicate interpretations of romantic letters through greater attention to the ways they are evidence of rhetorical instruction and practice as much as they are of romantic feelings and relations[?] (72)

Turning towards archival examples that defy and queer the hetero norms espoused by letter-writing manuals, VanHaitsma’s second chapter focuses on the romantic epistolary exchange between “two freeborn African American women, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus” (49). The romantic undercurrent of Brown and Primus’ correspondence was not their only departure from the norms established by the manuals. The women engaged in queer practices, addressing one another with terms that denoted friendship, familial relations, and romantic affection. They also broke from the “straight time” practice of caution and moderation advocated by letter writing handbooks. Instead, their correspondence was urgent and intense and not oriented toward marriage. Perhaps most importantly, the women’s romantic epistolary rhetoric strayed, topically, from that which was acceptable in heteronormative romantic letters of the time—Brown’s letters to Primus were at times erotic, even describing flirtations with and attractions to other women, as well as political, with “information and commentary about racial politics” existing within and alongside expressions of “more conventional romantic longing” (61-62).

Central to VanHaitsma’s approach is her deliberate attention to “‘everyday’ people” (49), and, specifically, Black women, whose rhetorical contributions have historically been under-researched and erased. VanHaitsma quotes scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin in order to emphasize that Brown and Primus’ correspondence addressed both the personal and the civic and, crucially, was concerned with racial uplift: “Brown and Primus were ‘women who loved each other romantically’ but ‘who were no less committed (in fact, were more committed than most) to the struggle for black freedom and progress’ (7)” (51). Moreover, she keeps the fact that Brown and Primus’ relationship was one that crossed class lines at the forefront, and she pays particular attention to Brown’s exclusion from formal education, highlighting the ways in which Brown was self-educated.

Chapter 3: Queering Genres

How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres? (98)

In the following chapter, VanHaitsma turns her attention to a college-educated white male writer, who would have been a normative audience of the letter-writing manuals, but who nevertheless also engaged in nonnormative, queer rhetorical practices. Chapter Three studies the commonplace book-turned-diary of Albert Dodd, a document VanHaitsma considers “both multigene and epistolary: as taking the form of multiple genres other than the letter, yet functioning according to an epistolary logic of address to and exchange with readers” (75). This use of the diary was genre-queer, she argues, not only because of its switch from an academic genre into a personal genre, but because it functioned as “a site of rhetorical invention” (90) where Dodd developed and practiced romantic epistolary address to both men and women. The diary also demonstrates that Dodd drew upon his classical rhetorical education to inform his civic and romantic writing. In the diary, he introduces homoerotic ideas and writing from the classical era, concepts that Dodd used to understand and explore his own sexuality through self-rhetorical writing practices.

VanHaitsma’s methodological attention to genre allows her to counter popular interpretations that deny any possibility of homosexual desire within Dodd’s only other extant writings, three familial letters from later in his life. VanHaitsma argues that previous scholars fail to take into account the clear differences in genre between the personal diary and the familial letter and their corresponding audiences. While she does not assign a sexual identity to Dodd, her interpretation of the genre differences opens possibilities of queer romantic and erotic practices in his post-college years—which is to say, the fact that Dodd does not mention any romantic attachments in his letters to family may indicate more about the letters’ audience than it does the realities of his romantic or sexual life. Accordingly, VanHaitsma calls for increased attention to genre on the part of scholars working with epistolary rhetoric, asking, “How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres?” (98).

Concluding Towards Failure

 When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail “exceptionally well” by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them? (102)

VanHaitsma concludes with the chapter that most explicitly addresses her methodological commitments to queer archival research. Again, she posits questions that can guide future researchers, including, “When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). With this question, VanHaitsma connects imagination and failure through the act of invention. She describes Brown, Primus, and Dodd as “learners who failed by the heteronormative standards within their given historical contexts and, in so doing, revealed the failures of heteronormative rhetorical education” (100). By extension, she suggests, queer failure also makes visible the failures of heteronormative archives and histories and creates space for novelty, surprise, and creativity. In this way, queer failure is also queer invention.

She ends by centering queer failure within queer methodologies. The goal is never to master queer theory, to apply it perfectly and perform it the same each time. Rather, she invites us to fail well and fail in interesting ways. And with each beautiful failure, she encourages us to be inventively queer.

To that end, this book could most immediately be included in graduate courses on queer theory and queer rhetorics. More broadly, any course that teaches or integrates archival research methods would benefit by including Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age in its curriculum. We believe that all scholars of rhetoric can benefit from VanHaitsma’s queer archival methods. She invites scholars to think capaciously and creatively about archival research and the interpretation of affect within archival materials. Importantly, her approach to queering archival methods can open up new lines of questioning, highlight new relationships, and enliven the research of any scholar whose research subject has been systematically erased from archival history.

Moving Forward | Queer Movement: The Next Steps

Our dear readers, we invite you to take up Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age as a model of queer archival research. Flirt with the texts. Look for the intimate and public touching and the erotic and political aligning. Remember that genres are ours for the taking, breaking, and remaking. We hope you fail queerly and with joy.  

Best, 

Amelia and Trish

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. “Queer rhetoric in situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives: Composing Pasts and Futures. SIU Press, 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hawkins, Ames. These are Love(d) Letters. Wayne State UP, 2019.
  • Morris, Charles E., and K. J. Rawson. “Queer archives/archival queers.” Theorizing histories of rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. pp. 74-89.
  • Rawson, K. J. “Rhetorical History 2.0: Toward a Digital Transgender Archive.” Enculturation, vol. 16., no. 9, 2013.
  • Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic letters, genre instruction, and rhetorical practice.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Gossip as rhetorical methodology for queer and feminist historiography.” Rhetoric Review, vol.  35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 135-147.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Stories of Straightening Up: Reading Femmes in the Archives of Romantic Friendship.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Digital LGBTQ Archives as Sites of Public Memory and Pedagogy.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 2, 2019 pp. 253-280.

Review of Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor

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.

Review of Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture

Edgar, Nell Amanda. Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture. Ohio State UP, 2019. 220 pages.

Amanda Nell Edgar’s Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture responds to the inquiry of how gender and race merits an audience as well as the media’s role in resisting and oppressing marginalized voices. The book delves deeper into how mediated and cinematic vocal performances reinforce cultural assumptions, representations, and perceptions about diverse voices, bodies, and gendered identities (2-3). By focusing on voices that are heard (culturally privileged ) and ignored (culturally marginalized), Edgar demonstrates through numerous case studies and rhetorical analyses of prominent voices in mainstream American society (Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Morgan Freeman, Adele, etc.) that “racial and gendered disciplinary mechanisms shape voice and vocal identity…and represent the complex interaction of bodies, the social forces that mold those bodies, and the media formats that circulate them” (4). The book, written in four chapters with extensive introductions and conclusions, accomplishes Edgar’s objective to draw from cultural theories of music, discourse, race, gender, vocal sound, and other areas to “poise rhetoric and media scholarship in a better position to communicate the value of sonic literacy to students and those outside academic spaces” (157). Overall, Edgar’s project contributes to the question that has been pursued by scholars of rhetoric and feminism, who has the power to speak and who has the power to create a listening audience? For Cheryl Glenn “identity and power determine who may speak, who merits an audience” (25), and what the results of the speech will be. Yet, Glenn argues the politics of vocal identity and circulation can be problematic in enabling the oppression, marginalization, and misrepresentation of “Others.” Simultaneously, Jacqueline Jones Royster’s famous essay “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” addresses the problematic ways in which dominant culture and identity perpetuate the displacement and rejection of the voices of the “Othered” (35). Like these scholars, Edgar’s book also offers a valuable investigation into how race, gender, status, religious affiliations, and space complicates the composition of voice as a normalized human entity. However, Edgar’s work focuses more on reconstructing voice as a political and cultural inscribed artifact used by the culturally privileged to (un)consciously reinforce racialized and gendered oppression.

Edgar’s introduction grounds her inquiry by building on a new theoretical framework and methodology that she terms, “critical cultural vocalics,” an interdisciplinary approach to studying vocal production in media studies and resisting “the idea that voices are biologically sexed or naturally racialized and that instead embraces vocal sound as a socially shaped material text” (4). This frame challenges readers to investigate voice intimacy (the familiarity of a speaker’s voice to an audience) and voice identity (what vocal sounds reveal about a speaker) as inseparable ideological mechanisms that reinforce how minority voices are misrepresented, disciplined, and even restricted by the media  (4). Also, the exploration of vocal identity and vocal intimacy in the introduction depicts how voice becomes culturally privileged—“voices that are widely familiar in mainstream media circulation” (5) and “allows audiences to maintain unchecked assumptions about race, gender…which consequently shapes and reshapes systems of discipline and oppression” (5). In sum, the detailed anchor of her methodology sets up the rest of the book by helping readers understand the “interaction of identity and mediated voices” (20) while examining voice as a hegemonic tool profitable to the culturally privileged.

In Chapter One, “Singing in the Key of Identity: Adele and the Vocal Intimacy of the Blues,” Edgar sets out three key concepts: “vocal racial passing/appropriation,” “difference/Identity,” and “authenticity” to inform her rhetorical analysis of voice. Starting with a series of flashbacks to the controversial media comparison of Adele’s vocals to prominent Black singers after Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance, Edgar establishes what she calls “vocal racial passing-vocal appropriation” (31) a concept which explores how voice is socially structured by “media industry practices” (24) or “how a singer identified with one race performs a vocal sound that is identified with another race” (26). Developing this idea, Edgar delves into the brief history of Black and immigrant voices in the entertainment industry by highlighting how racialized vocal differences (Blackvoice vs. whitevoice) were structured through exaggerated dialects coached to sound more “ethnic” than their white actors to white audiences (28). To further explore “Blackvoice”—the colonization and appropriation of Black vocal sound (36), Edgar examines Adele’s performance under the complex scope of  “authenticity” and “difference” to raise consciousness about “vocal identity as socially constructed” (48), which ultimately creates a powerful and profitable situation for the culturally privileged (49). Overall, this chapter draws attention to at least two critical ideas. First, it highlights the colorblindness and racism in the music industry that caused “rock and roll bands to harness vocal emotion born from the cultural diasporic pain in Black blue culture” (33), “allowed white women singers to inject their physical bodies into Black voice” (33), and rejuvenated white masculine domination in the music industry (34). Second, Edgar demonstrates through Adele’s performance that vocal identity and vocal intimacy are cyclically connected and can conjure deep connection between singers and listeners even if the singer demonstrates problematic appropriations (48).

The second chapter takes a different route by focusing on how culturally privileged voices owned by minority bodies can still be subjected to systemic oppression. Beginning with an analysis of the “white traits”—dialect, soft spokenness, and tone—of Black actor Morgan Freeman, Edgar explores how Freeman’s culturally privileged vocal performances and cinematic roles are embedded with racialized and gendered stereotypes (52). First, Edgar examines multiple movie roles played by Freeman to establish his vocal identity and vocal intimacy with his audience as powerful. Despite this, Edgar argues Freeman’s Black masculinity is contained and recouped under themes and roles that reinforce racial servitude and marginalization of people of color (81). For instance, Freeman’s role in early movies like Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and many others were usually designed to make him dependent upon the primary white character which reiterates his servile persona created to “soothe, rather than disrupt, white-supremacist representational systems” (80). This chapter, like the first, reveals how the vocal intimacy within the speaker-listener relationship and vocal identity give voice the ability to “replicate and strengthen cultural racial hierarchies” (82). Furthermore, the chapter exemplifies the kind of rigorous scholarship that can emerge from uncommon objects of study like TV shows and movies, setting up a valuable inquiry into racial subordination that remains stable beneath vocal identities and culturally privileged voices.

The first two chapters show the varying ways vocal identity shapes vocal intimacy between a speaker and listeners. Chapter three furthers this analysis of voice by teasing out how “the act of imitation in political satire layers culturally privileged voices and encourages marginalization based on race and gender despite its ostensibly progressive politics” (85). Through a rhetorical analysis of the bodily and vocal performance of actors Fred Armisen, Tina Fey, Jay Pharaoh, and Dwayne Johnson on the popular television show Saturday Night Live (SNL), Edgar explores the ways pitch patterns in the satirical impersonation of political figures (Barack Obama and Sarah Palin) reveal how some bodies are exaggeratedly gendered to “solidify racialized gendered stereotypes” (114). For instance, Fey’s impersonation of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s voice on SNL was explicitly high pitched, reinforcing the image of white women as “emotionally excessive and unstable” (93) and positioning Palin as a “less desirable political candidate” (113) in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s voice which was “pleasantly melodious” (103), and made him seem “stronger and as authoritative fit for Presidency, especially against his feminine competitors” (113). This chapter typifies mediated interactions between listeners and speakers by elaborating political impersonations as powerful production mechanisms and narratives that can “subtly shift identities based on ideological contexts” (114). It also delineates voice appropriation, especially based on race and gender, as harboring the potential to reinforce and naturalize the types of bodies and voices that are assumed suitable to be represented in powerful positions within society.

Chapter four, “Whitevoice 2.0: Online Speech and Comedians of Color,” provides perhaps the most intriguing case study, which explores how marginalized identities and voices come to matter through a contemporary form of storytelling and comedy (145). Edgar begins with a historical context and social media analysis of how Black and Latino comedians used comedy to draw attention to issues of race and discourse through the mimicry of whitevoice. This tactic according to Edgar, enabled comedians of color to expose the privileged identification of whiteness, to call into question the economic disparities between white and Black families (127), exploit differences in linguistic communication patterns (131), and to bring marginalized stories to the public eye (117). What makes this chapter especially interesting is that unlike the previous case studies, Edgar reconstructs vocal intimacy and vocal identity as listeners being aware of “the standard speech within a community and being able to differentiate their normal vocal rhetoric from whitevoice vocal rhetoric” (146). Thus, the vocal intimacy and identity circulating between a speaker and listeners in this context can only be established through a communal and political project aiming to challenge white normativity while creating shared and comfortable relationships with listeners through familiar comic experiences and stories.

In the concluding chapter, “A Call to Listen,” Edgar recapitulates the cultural and disciplinary mechanisms and codes that condition voice for speakers and listeners. She does so by readdressing the practical and reflexive procedures involved in studying voice as an artifact of oppression and privilege (153) while motivating rhetoric and cultural media scholars to “take up the study of voice from a variety of methods beyond traditional textual analysis” (156). However, Edgar concludes with a final reflection and twist on “hearing representation”—a concept that examines deeply entangled narratives and voices that promote inequality, marginalization, racism, and discrimination against Black folks and LGBTQ+ groups.” (158) This call for research is particularly valuable because it interrogates representation as “not only visual but…embedded in stereotypical and conventional depictions of marginalized groups” (158), which perpetuates the neglect of oppressed bodies and shapes the reception of media representation and discrimination.

As a graduate student, I find this book very useful because the methodology Edgar offers and case studies she provides can serve the current discourse on social media repetition and recirculation, media cancel culture and vocal appropriation, as well as the call for accountability for racialized actions by vocal media activists. While her work exposes the complex politics of voice in the United States, it is relevant to mention that the issues she examines in the book are rampant in many transnational locations, and her methodology which focuses on “understanding the role of voice as bodies travel or are restricted, heard or ignored” (160) can offer transnational feminist scholars an approach to reimagining the cultural, socio-political, and consumer discourses within these spaces. I hope that Edgar or rhetoric and media cultural scholars would follow up with research that considers her theoretical insights in light of digital and social media representational trends during current police brutality protests, celebrity vocal influence in the COVID-19 season, and the media’s role in the current political climate.

Works Cited

  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40.

Afterword to Queer Rhetorical Listening

For me, this special cluster conversation in Peitho invokes both gratitude and humility. I am grateful and humbled because the contributors have taken rhetorical listening so seriously and also because they have taken it far beyond its initial imaginings. For that I want to thank Timothy Oleksiak, the editor of this cluster, who set the tone of “generosity of spirit” as well as all the contributors—Michael J. Faris, Rachel Lewis, Violet Livingston, Storm Pilloff, and Jonathan Smilges—for attending to that spirit (p. 2). Indeed, these articles were a gift, at a time when I needed one.

As I write this “Afterword” in September of 2020, the world is suffering a Covid-19 pandemic, and the US is suffering a president who demonstrates no respect for the rule of law, the right to assemble for peaceful protests, or the protection of “minority” rights. Amidst this public health and social unrest, I am chairing a very large English Department, trying to juggle the needs of students, faculty, administrators, and education broadly construed. I am also teaching an undergraduate course called Introduction to Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies, which has two students in the classroom and 20 on Zoom. And I’m serving on a search committee for RSA’s next Executive Director who will need to help the society’s elected officers meet impending challenges and changes in higher education and its professional organizations. I list these factors not to complain (believe me, I understand how privileged I am, especially at this particular moment) but, rather, to acknowledge that these factors comingle in ways that have me wondering about the future.  

On my mind are life and death (never before have I begun a semester by updating my will and worrying if assigning people without accommodations to teach in classrooms would be fatal), the future of US democracy (especially for people who don’t look like, earn like, or act like our current chief executive), the future of higher education (particularly whether financial fall-outs from Covid-19 will trigger a massive restructuring of higher education and our economy more  generally) and the study of rhetoric (in light of our current cultural divisiveness). 

Of all these concerns, I am most optimistic about the study of rhetoric, thanks in part to this volume. Its articles either ask or imply generative questions that produce dynamic concepts and tactics that supplement and/or challenge not just rhetorical listening, but the map of rhetorical studies itself, by inviting the idea of queering listening into our conversations.1 

The articles are rich in ideas that readers may utilize for their teaching and future research projects as well as engaging the world. In particular, I can imagine employing in my own teaching, writing, and living the following concepts.

  • Queer rhetorical listening. This concept is generated by asking: “What can queer work and rhetorical listening do for each other?”
  • Bad listener. This concept is generated by asking, “Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist?” and by focusing on neurodiversity so as to “offer neuroqueers ways to stick around.” 
  • Coalitional identification. This concept is generated by asking, “How is it possible to communicate, organize, and build relationships when our very lives are in competition?” and by using coalitional queer politics to analyze power as it flows in, among, and beyond prison systems. 
  • Queer kinesthetic interlistening. This concept is generated by asking, What happens to listening when we turn from the discursive “to the material and embodied” and take seriously the idea that “rhetoric is often a nonrational, material, embodied, and sensorial practice,” and then analyzing “voguing and an art exhibit composed of candy” to exemplify this concept’s functions.
  • Métis. This concept is generated by asking, What happens if we attempt “to hear things, or rather, people we do see?” and then invoking #BlackLivesMatter as its focus.2
  • Failure of consent. This concept is generated by asking, What does consent signify when listening to the work of Mia Mingus about the “forced intimacy” encountered by a body that is “disabled.”
  • Emotional receptivity. This concept is generated by asking, “What would it look like if we focused more purposefully not only on desire but the theorizing of feeling that structures rhetorical listening?” with attention to queer cultural logics and to non-identification as “a state of emotional crisis that is necessary as we move toward more capacious cultural logics, logics that allow us to experience a fully felt sense of self.”

While these concepts emerge from the editor’s invitation for authors to engage with my work, the real importance of this volume is not simply its extension of, or challenge to rhetorical listening. This cluster conversation is important, it seems to me, because it offers a number of voices in concert with the question of queering listening; these voices, then, expand the repertoire of responses to the question and problem—indeed the call to action—posed by Jacqueline Jones Royster when she asked, “How do we translate listening into language and action? (“When the First Voice” 38). 

Having answered Royster’s call, the contributors to this volume have participated in the time-honored tradition of questioning existing theories within scholarly conversations. More importantly, the contributors have taken ownership of methods for queering existing theories, in this case rhetorical listening. In the process, they have modelled for students and other researchers how to queer questions and how to produce queer concepts/theories that may, in turn, undergird future rhetorical teaching and research. This modelling is important because this volume demonstrates not just the how but also the why as it insistently resists the normative functions of tradition, scholarly or otherwise. 

With that thought in mind, I will close as I began, by thanking the editor and the contributors to this volume. Such voices and ears, I believe, offer (to echo my friend Cheryl Glenn) a thing called hope.

Endnotes

  1. This volume is not the first conversation about queering listening. For example, John Landreau proposed queering listening in his chapter in the 2012 collection he co-edited with Nelson Rodriquez, and Timothy organized a CCCC’s panel in 2015 consisting of Timothy, Kendall Gerdes, and Devon Kehler—all of whom very smartly engaged the question of queering the ear.
  2. Karen Kopelson’s 2003 “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning” still engenders important conversations about métis.

Works Cited

  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. SIUP, 2018.
  • Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, the Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no. 1 (Sep., 2003), pp. 115-146.
  • Landreau, John. “Queer Listening as a Framework for Teaching Men and Masculinities” Queer Masculinities: A Critical Reader in Education. Edited by John Landreau and Nelson Rodriguez, Springer, 2012, pp.155-167.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 29-40.