Memorials in Action: Building Intersectional Futures

1. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2017.

It’s a warm Saturday in late October, and my canvassing partner and I are walking over cracked sidewalks and around parked cars in the late morning, before the football game starts. I knock on the painted front door of the next house. A young African-American girl greets us and then runs to get her mother. Soon a woman comes to the door, blinking into the sunlight.

“Sorry,” she says. “I just got off of work. How can I help you?”

I introduce myself and my partner, verify her name, and then launch into my prepared script, loaded into the app on my phone where I found her name and address: “I’m here with the Doug Jones campaign, and we’d like to ask if you will be supporting him in the special election in December?”

“I sure will,” she smiles. “And I’m telling all my friends and neighbors to vote too.” We talk for a few more minutes about the election, whether she wants a yard sign, and if she might be able to volunteer with the campaign. While I live just a few blocks away, I have never met my neighbor before, and this is a transactional relationship. I wish her a good day and turn away from the house, marking her off as “Strong Support.” I walk to the next house on my list, feeling like I’ve done something productive.

This neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is only 80 miles from Selma and the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965, organized by James Bevel and Amelia Boynton and led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, who, along with approximately 550 people of all ages, were attacked by Alabama state troopers. The demonstrators were attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights and in protest of the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, an activist and preacher from nearby Marion, who was shot and killed by an Alabama state police officer the previous week (Lewis & Aydin, 2016).

I am constantly reminded, and I actively remind myself, of how close I am to this history, as I walk through the old, historically African American neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa on my weekly canvassing routes throughout the fall of 2017. As soon as I discover the Details feature in the MiniVAN voter engagement app I have loaded into my iPhone, I become obsessed with it as I knock on door after door–first registered: 1965, first registered: 1965, first registered: 1966, first registered: 1968. I’m speaking to people who registered to vote for the first time as a direct result of the Bloody Sunday bridge crossing, the eventual march to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the securing of women’s suffrage, I am thinking less about the grainy photos of suffragists from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt, and more about the marchers in Selma: Amelia Boynton-Robinson, Annie Lee Cooper, and Marie Foster. Women’s suffragists came chronologically before the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, yet the limits of their tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary. More than 50 years later, that work feels both more relevant than ever, and also continually needed. At the centennial, then, we should be considering movements for racial as well as gender equality and how we can continue their work in 2020.

2. Selma, AL, March 2018.

Just five months after my canvassing day in October 2017, I am in Selma to participate in the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, an annual week-long celebration in the city commemorating the Bloody Sunday March, complete with speeches and a march through town and over that same Edmund Pettis Bridge. I walk as part of a multiracial group of people, behind now-Senator Doug Jones and Congressman John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Senator Kamala Harris, and a broad U.S. Congressional delegation.

The Bridge Crossing Jubilee is a practice of remembering and memorializing. Rather than just planning events around specific milestones and anniversaries, every single year people travel to Selma to participate in the commemorations and walk across that bridge, led by those who participated in the 1965 demonstration. This practice is living history in action. In holding the march each year, the Bridge Jubilee organizers not only keep the memory of the event alive, but they demonstrate that honoring the legacy of the original marchers means a constant reenactment of their work. That Sunday in Selma, I can see the top of John Lewis’ head as we cross the bridge, I feel both the solemnity of the event and the hope of some forward progress, and I know I’m witnessing something important.

But as a white woman who grew up in the Midwest, this is not my history, and I am not sure of my place here. I am not entitled to claim any part of the feelings of this day, and while I had no family on that bridge in 1965, I have benefited from a lifetime of white privilege that allowed me to take voting rights for granted. Before I moved to Alabama, I had only vague notions of the bravery and radical resistance of activists fighting for voting rights in the face of very real violence. These events felt like something from the distant past, something over and settled. It doesn’t feel that way on this day in Selma.

The movement that secured voting rights for women also does not feel like something I can claim or identify with. The history of the women’s suffrage movement feels more distant, and more problematic.

Just on the other side of that infamous bridge in Selma is a small, low building of corrugated steel with a flat roof, which is the home of the National Voting Rights Museum, an unassuming and easily overlooked building on the way out of town. For a $6.50 entrance fee, you can view personal artifacts from the Bloody Sunday marchers, written and oral first-hand accounts of the event, and other artifacts from the Selma to Montgomery marches and the subsequent Bridge Jubilees. Like the bridge crossing event itself, the museum also feels like living history, as people have contributed their and their families’ stories through artifacts, oral histories, and continued reflections on the event’s legacy in Selma.

The museum, founded in 1990 by Dr. C.T. Vivian, Albert Turner, Amelia Boynton-Robinson, and Marie Foster, among others (National Voting Rights Museum), also places the events in Selma within a larger context of voting rights movements. In the largest front room of the museum is a timeline of “Voting Rights Milestones,” which begins with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “signed by wealthy white men.” An entry from 1916 references Jeannette Rankin as the first woman elected to Congress. The next entry from 1917 is a photo of Alice Paul and the Silent Sentinels in front of the White House, and the third date, 1920, accompanies a photo of white women dressed in black, holding banners with the words VOTES FOR WOMEN on the front. The timeline entry for 1920 reads, “The 19th Amendment enacted guaranteeing black and white women the right to vote.” Less of a living history than the other exhibits in the museum, this timeline and the moments of the women’s suffrage movement are presented without additional commentary, tracing a history that created both the space for and the necessity of the events in Selma in 1965.

Further along a museum hallway sits a smaller room dedicated to women’s contributions to the voting rights movement and to politics in general, with silhouettes of Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells painted onto the back wall. The display notes how the women’s rights movement of the 1970s owed a great deal to the Civil Rights Movement that came before it, but there is little other commentary to this curation. The exhibit mainly features pictures of women roughly organized by era. Portraits of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony hang next to Harriet Tubman and Charlotte E. Ray. “Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing harsh criticism of the Republican Party, who were pushing for African American male suffrage, published the Revolution,” the curatorstates frankly. While Anthony and Stanton are recognized in this museum for their contributions to women’s suffrage, the curators also emphasize the racist arguments made by these women in direct opposition to voting rights for African-American men. While the timeline in the front room of the museum notes the importance of the Nineteenth Amendment in securing the right to vote for “black and white women,” the caption connected to the portraits of Anthony and Cady Stanton draws attention to a woman’s suffrage movement led by white women that had competing aims with movements for racial equality and often worked in opposition to them. In failing not only to truly secure the vote for all women but also work against racial equality, the portraits of the white women in this room hang in tension, their place in the museum more of a question than a part of the narrative.

3. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2018.

In October, I’m back to canvassing in different neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, cul de sacs this time on the edge of town, places with no sidewalks and long driveways. Fueled by enthusiasm from the Doug Jones win and perhaps over-confidence that we can do it again, I’m working with the county party to get more Democrats elected and to break the Republican super-majority in the state legislature. But these are gerrymandered Republican districts, and we’re having much less success this time, as well as a precipitous drop in volunteer numbers.

We knock on a wooden door with decorative glass panes, and an older white woman answers. My frequent and dedicated canvassing partner, also an older white woman, has decided that she can appeal to Republicans on the angle of fiscal responsibility. I let her do the talking as she moves from a reference to the recently impeached Republican governor Robert Bentley to the accusations against former Senate candidate Roy Moore.

“Those accusations bothered me,” my canvassing partner says, “and I think it’s time for some women to run things.”

The woman at the door nods. My partner hands her a postcard for Miranda Joseph, a young African-American woman running for State Auditor. “Miranda Joseph is a professional, certified auditor who has real exciting ideas about how to make this state work better for Alabama taxpayers, and how to keep state property from growing legs and walking away. This is a non-policy position, and you really should consider voting for her.”

The woman nods without saying anything, thanks us, and wishes us a good day despite the hot weather. She keeps the postcard.

Three weeks later, on Election Day 2018, I’m poll watching all day at an elementary school in a split party precinct where we’re hoping to have some success for our candidates. I watch hundreds of people come into the polling place over the course of the day, quickly mark one circle on the front of their ballot and vote on the four amendments on the back, one of which enshrines “the sanctity of unborn life” into the Alabama State Constitution.

“Remember,” one person says to another as they hunch over a table meant for small children. “It’s straight Republican ticket, and yes on all four amendments.”

As they slide their ballots into the optical scan tallying machine, I feel our weeks of work and arguments for the policies of specific down-ballot candidates evaporating into the air. An older, white male poll worker asks me with an air of curiosity and disdain, “how does it feel to work here all day with the enemy?”

I laugh him off while readjusting the orange Poll Watcher badge on my shirt, all while repeating this stark fact over and over, more despairingly throughout the day: White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump. White women voted for Trump.

This reminder crystalizes into a hard truth by the time the polls close: white women will support systems of gender inequality in order to maintain white political power. Miranda Joseph would go on to lose the State Auditor race to an older white man who not only had given a speech to the League of the South in 2015, an organization described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but also had recently surrendered his law license to the State Bar’s Disciplinary Commission (Cason, 2018). Joseph lost by 20 points, roughly the same as the rest of the statewide Democratic Party slate. The abortion policy amendment passed, 59.01% to 40.99%.

4. Montgomery, AL, March 2019.

“In its history, Alabama has never had a free and fair election,” Stacie Propst announces to a crowded seminar room. I’m in Montgomery for the Organize Alabama conference that emphasizes training and strategies for get out the vote efforts. Organize Alabama is one of many progressive groups trying to fill the gaps left by the divided and ineffective state Democratic Party, and Stacie Propst is the Director of Emerge Alabama, the state arm of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office. In its first year in operation in 2018, Emerge Alabama trained 36 women to run for office or manage political campaigns throughout the state. One alumna was successful: Marshell Jackson Hatcher, Circuit Court Judge for the 10th Circuit in Birmingham.

Stacie Propst has an argument. Keri Leigh Merritt has written about the ways that many Southern states like Alabama established an “intricate system of voter suppression, intimidation, and outright election fraud” in the mid-nineteenth century to keep anyone but wealthy slaveholders from voting, a system that she argues still functions effectively today (Merritt).

Sitting in a classroom at Troy University’s downtown Montgomery campus, I am at the epicenter for the struggle for voting rights in America, steps from the state capital, just 50 miles from Selma and 70 miles from Shelby County, plaintiff in the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) Supreme Court case that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

More recent voting rights restrictions allowed after the Shelby decision sound similar to the judicial and extrajudicial restrictions to African American voting described in detail at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. In 2014, Governor Robert Bentley, as a result of that very Supreme Court decision, implemented a strict voter ID law in Alabama. In 2015, citing budget concerns, he closed a number of driver’s license offices, leaving almost a third of counties with no open locations, including 8 of 11 counties with a majority African-American population. The Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation forced the state to reopen some of them at the end of 2016, shortly before Bentley was removed from office, but damage was done, and this was yet another incidence in a long series of overt and covert political actions to deny African Americans the right to vote in Alabama.

In 2017, the state legislature passed HB282 that revised Alabama’s constitution to more narrowly define crimes of “moral turpitude,” allowing thousands of people formerly convicted of felonies in Alabama to restore their voting rights through an application process. Secretary of State John Merrill, however, deemed education about this new law unnecessary and a federal judge agreed. This decision has left the responsibility of communicating with individual voters about their new eligibility and assisting with the opaque application process to outside groups, led mostly by the ACLU, the SPLC, and the Equal Justice Initiative, among others.

These organizations have done extraordinary work, though they are just getting started. The Alabama Voting Rights Project, a division of the SPLC, estimates that over 200,000 people are now eligible for voting rights restoration (Sheets), but most of those newly eligible individuals have not yet had their voting rights restored. Applicants are also required to pay all outstanding fines and fees before they can register to vote, adding a poll tax to an already draconian process.

5. Tuscaloosa, AL, May 2019.

I write this just two weeks after the passage of HB314, which makes abortion a Class A felony in Alabama with no exceptions for rape or incest. While much media attention has been given to the twenty-five white, male Senators who passed the legislation through the upper chamber and sent it to the Governor’s desk, this bill was written and sponsored by Representative Terri Collins, a white woman, and signed by Governor Kay Ivy, another white woman, who cited her commitment to “the sanctity of life” while signing away the rights to bodily autonomy of roughly half of the state’s citizens. That day I thought again about the pictures of the suffragists in that museum in Selma and the calculation they made to secure their own voting rights while leaving others behind.

I wanted to share this more reflective narrative of my experiences participating in voter engagement in Alabama because I believe the best way to commemorate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment is to reflect on the continued existence of barriers to voter enfranchisement and to act to dismantle them. To truly consider the state of voting rights at the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, one must consider Alabama, where these rights are tenuous and seemingly always under attack, where white women will sell out other women to maintain their position adjacent to white male political power and to uphold systems of white supremacy, systems that white women, myself  included, are complicit in. But the problems of Alabama, while they may sometimes appear to be extreme, are not unique to Alabama. They are America’s problems too.

Commemorating the passage of the nineteenth amendment means acknowledging and rectifying the truths of the Voting Rights Museum in Selma: securing the right to vote for women was only securing the right to vote for some women. For Black, indigenous, and Latinx women- identifying people, those rights would only come after additional activism and struggle. We need to include those movements in our conversations about the Nineteenth Amendment as well, as the failures of the women’s suffrage movement made them necessary. In other words, we can’t celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment without Selma, and Selma should be part of our discussion about the Nineteenth Amendment.

The Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds us that honoring the memory of those who fought for voting rights means continuing that work, which never went away but has become more urgent after the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) decision. There have been several new groups and initiatives created in the South to combat continued and renewed problems of voter disenfranchisement. Stacey Abrams’ organization Fair Fight aims to combat voter suppression in its many current forms. Black Voters Matter, founded by activist LaTosha Brown, works on voter engagement and fights voter suppression across the country, though much of its work is concentrated in the South. Former Obama staffer DeJuana Thompson also created Woke Vote in Birmingham, AL before the Senate special election in 2017, which encourages younger African-American voters to participate in politics. These organizations, all founded by Black women, are carrying on the legacy of the activists in Selma, working to expand access to the ballot and to combat voter disenfranchisement everywhere. I believe white women especially have a responsibility to join in these efforts, work for woman-identifying candidates of color, and fight against voter disenfranchisement. As the Voting Rights Museum in Selma reminds its visitors, the white suffragists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often pursued access to the ballot at the expense of other groups, and the victories of the Nineteenth Amendment left many people of all genders behind. White women in particular have some things to make up for.

There is another way to see the room emphasizing women’s contributions to voting rights at the Voting Rights Museum. Facing the wall of pre-Reconstruction era activists I mentioned earlier in this essay (including Cady Stanton, Anthony, Tubman, and Ray) is another wall, a collection of more contemporary activists and politicians, displayed with little commentary. Most of the portraits are of African-American women, but not entirely. Ella Baker’s photo hangs near Septima Poinsette Clark, Cynthia McKinney, Joan Baez, and Hillary Clinton. The text of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” is displayed in the middle, inviting interpretation from the museum’s visitors. Does the presence of this text imply a commonality among the figures on the wall? Is it instead reminding us that African-American women like Sojourner Truth  had to fight for their own inclusion in the women’s suffrage movement? How might we build coalitions instead?

Today I can only state this as a question, but I wonder if we might, 100 years after the Nineteenth Amendment, stand in greater solidarity across race and gender binaries as well, to work for true ballot access. This work isn’t something white women should pursue for women of color; we need to work alongside and to support women of color who are already fighting for voting rights for all.

So in 2020, at the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, I pose a challenge and a call to action. Voting rights are under attack all over the United States. Identify barriers to voting rights and political participation in your own state and your community and work to change them. Work to move past the fraught history of early women’s rights leaders to build intersectional coalitions for change. The best way to honor the work of the activists that came before is to follow in their footsteps. And we have work to do.

Works Cited

From Commemoration to Co-Memoration as Feminist Practice

From national museum displays in Washington, D.C. to classroom-specific projects, the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification will generate many re-tellings of events and people that brought national women’s suffrage to fruition. As a practice of collective memory, commemoration is a “calling to remembrance, or preserving in memory, by some solemn observation, public celebration, etc.” (“Commemoration”). Traditional public commemoration is a structured ritual, what I assert below as being masculinist in nature. Particularly as we observe the anniversary of women’s suffrage, I argue that we, as rhetoricians, should be part of re-envisioning such public memory efforts—including suffrage centennial projects—as sites of “feminist co-memoration.” By this I mean promoting the design of sites and activities that take up feminist rhetorical practices such as Gesa Kirsch and Jaqueline Jones Royster’s critical imagination and strategic contemplation as well as Cheryl Glenn’s rhetorical feminist tactics, including resistance to hegemonic narratives, re-centering of dialogue over monologue, and reaffirming the value of experience and emotion (4). Through shifting our shared memory rituals, we can make them more dynamic and hopeful opportunities for growth, reassessment, and resistance. Co-memoration grounded in feminist rhetorical principles can disrupt the national master narrative of suffrage as centered in the efforts and agency of an elite group of white women and might guide us toward building coalitional intersubjectivity.

To begin, my essay contrasts masculinist commemoration with my proposed framework of feminist co-memoration, using principles from scholars in feminist rhetorics and illustrated via example suffrage centennial celebrations. The last sections of this piece then turn to broader comments regarding memory and belonging, as well as the generative but meaningful challenges feminist co-memoration presents especially at this moment of the suffrage centennial.

Commemoration as Traditional Masculinist Practice

Individual, social, and collective memories intertwine in the construction of public memory or our shared “vernacular presentation of the past composed specifically for the purposes of the present” (Enoch 62). Traditional commemorative practices vary, but in naming them as masculinist, I mean they tend to be public displays that are univocal, in control of a passive audience, and reaffirming of a standard—typically white, colonialist, and/or conquering—narrative. Paralleling conceptions of masculinist rhetoric as public, competitive, and agonistic (Enoch 58, Glenn 1), such memorial practices implicitly and explicitly establish an authoritative history to which our memories should conform. Yael Zerubavel refers to the singular story of traditional commemoration as a “master commemorative narrative” (237) undergirding collective memory and reinforcing those in power. The master narrative is constructed via commemorative materials and affirmed through memorial activities. For example, the master narrative of U.S. national women’s suffrage begins in Seneca Falls, New York, proceeds to be headquartered in New York City and Boston, and concludes as a grand victory in Nashville and Washington, D.C. 1920. This singular telling of our national history and public memory minimizes or erases, for example, progress located in the western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, all of which granted women’s suffrage prior to 1900. Similarly, our master narrative focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of elite white women, minimizing the contributions of African American abolitionists and suffragists among other marginalized voices.

Specific sites (e.g., locations, museums, battlefields), statuary, artifacts, photographs and paintings, and other audio and visual materials serve as our common public commemorabilia (Casey 184). These bits and pieces of history become public memory through traditional commemorative activities performed by the collective communitas or community of commemorators (184). Examples include visiting a site to view artifacts and review the associated signage and/or audio, attending an event with a speaker, watching a parade, following a guided tour, watching a re-enactment, or attending a memorial ceremony (typically led by one or a small number of speakers). In these traditional practices, attendees are expected to participate through passive listening, taking in the narrative without overtly questioning it. Although time may be allotted for a question-and-answer session run by a lead speaker or organizer, exchanges are controlled as social norms dissuade questions that may be judged off-topic or confrontational. Such practices preserve or stabilize memory via the authority of a singular and presumed shared perspective. Masculinist commemoration does not invite complexity; instead, we are consciously and unconsciously “incorporated” into the narrative via our passive embodied practices (Connerton 338). Performing our roles as recipients in traditional commemorative activities works in service of the master narrative because our limited bodily participation keeps the audience in our “place” and thereby serves as “a measure of insurance against the process of cumulative questioning entailed in all discursive practices” (342). Masculinist commemorative activities habituate us into submission.

In their evocations, commemorations bring the past into the present and project it to the future. Such circling through time is what Krista Ratcliffe describes as “the presence of the past in the present, that is, the then-that-is-now” (107). In the process of acknowledging, embodying, and enacting the past, we reify the (often marginalizing, destructive) tropes of the past without, as Ratcliffe reminds us, assessing our accountability for that past. In other words, even as we commemorate the past, we damn ourselves to repeat it. The centennial suffrage celebration will evoke images, symbols, and affiliations that will consciously and unconsciously reinforce a singular timeline and locations of activity. And despite recent increased hauntings by and even open display of the skeleton of white supremacy in our collective national memory closet (Vinitzky-Seroussi 375), the designated white heroines of the master narrative—Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt—will remain at the forefront, reinforcing a history that simultaneously denies a multiplicity of memories. Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and other less recognized women of color may have some limited presence, such as in the 2019-2020 display at the National Portrait Gallery, “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” but outside of a small representative group (Wells, Truth, Harriet Tubman), African American women’s work is still being recuperated after decades of neglect. Their stories are still counter to the master narrative. As further illustration, I am not optimistic that traditional suffrage celebrations will acknowledge the limits on which women counted as “citizens” in 1920. I am not optimistic we will see similar celebration in 2024 honoring the centennial of the 1924 Snyder Act that made Native Americans citizens (and thus enfranchised).

Co-Memoration as Rhetorical Feminist Tactic and Feminist Rhetorical Practice

To release ourselves from the entrenched narratives and practices that traditional commemorations reinforce, we should recast public memory activities—including but extending beyond centennial celebrations—as feminist co-memorations. Whereas commemoration is univocal, controlling, and narrative-affirming, feminist co-memoration has the potential to be a re-membering together. By “re-membering,” I mean a collaborative reassessment and reassembly of our memories and of our commemorative practices as inspired by rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices. In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Glenn grounds rhetorical feminism in the “foundational feminist concepts [of] openness, authentic dialogue and deliberation, interrogation of the status quo, collaboration, respect, and progress” (4). Rhetorical feminism then is a set of tactics for rejecting dominant agonistic rhetorical practices in favor of feminist principles. Rhetorical feminism is “dialogic and transactional . . . attends to (provisionally) marginalized audiences . . . and employs and respects vernaculars and experiences . . . as sources of knowledge” (4). Rather than fall prey to the rules of hegemonic discourses, rhetorical feminism is grounded in local and varied experiences, and it respects the power of emotion (2-4). Complementing feminist rhetorical tactics are broader feminist rhetorical practices informing the boundaries (or expansions) of our knowledge-making. In the sections that follow, I develop my framework for feminist co-memoration out of its roots in rhetorical feminist tactics and feminist rhetorical practices as well as apply it to examples of suffrage centennial celebration.

Co-Memoration as Active Engagement through Multivocality and Countermemory

To resist habituating participants into a singular accounting of history, co-memoration makes space for many voices. In other words, co-memoration invites talking back. Such dialogue can take place in different and multiple spaces. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi divides contested public memory into two categories: “multivocal commemoration” in contrast to “fragmented commemoration.” Both should be of interest to feminist co-memoration. Multivocal commemoration occurs in a common space and time when an audience shares different interpretations of the person(s) and/or event(s) being remembered. Multivocality responds to disagreement by working towards solidarity. By comparison, in “fragmented commemoration,” people gather in segregated spaces according to competing interpretations of the people/events being remembered. In fragmented commemoration, conflict is sharpened through the re-membering process, making solidarity more difficult or impossible (375-377). Protests are one form of fragmented commemorative activity. For example, Columbus Day, which traditionally memorializes the Italian colonizer’s arrival in the Americas, has inspired fragmented commemoration via street protests. Such protests began in purposefully separated spaces such as public demonstrations in which like-minded folks gathered to reject the Columbus-as-Heroic-Discoverer narrative and sought to distance themselves from those who accepted it. Such divided or fragmented protests, however, have potential to grow and create alliances for larger change. As of late 2019, many cities and five states have formally re-centered Native American perspectives by establishing Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of and as a rejection of Columbus Day (see Murphy and Ortiz). A potential move of relational accountability for feminist co-memoration would be to make room for both fragmented and multivocal commemoration styles, perhaps in hopes of transforming fragmentation into multivocality through coalition building. In other words, multivocality (and listening to fragmented commemoration) should challenge audiences and participants to engage discomfort as potentially productive.

Opening our co-memorative practices to multiple voices invites countermemory, which runs against the grain of the master narrative. Countermemory, like feminism, is “highly subversive” as it “challenges the hegemony” of history and our shared understanding of the past (Zerubavel 241). A primary way that competing countermemories emerge is when diverse experiences are laid alongside each other via storytelling or counterstory. Building off of Latinx and Chican@ scholarship in critical race theory, education, and law, Aja Martinez demonstrates the power of counterstory in her analysis of race and gender in academia. The institutional (public) memory of graduate student Alejandra’s experience in a graduate program serves as the “stock story” or master narrative (40-45). Martinez then constructs a counterstory from Alejandra’s perspective revealing a very different set of memories regarding her experience (45-50). Martinez’s counterstory is a composite of historical “facts” (data and scholarly work) told through a contextualized conversation. In addition to elevating personal experience and renewing our value of pathos—both rhetorical feminist moves—Martinez’s work illustrates that viewing stories alongside one another reveals complexities in how memory is (re)negotiated and how (counter)memory informs our sense of “reality.”

Countermemory and counterstory resist simplicity and purposefully ground co-memoration in complexity. For the national suffrage celebration, such complexity can be explored through differences in regional location (e.g., the northeastern and the western U.S.) or through intersectional lenses amplifying suffrage as not simply a gendered but as enmeshed in class, race, and other systems of interlocking oppression (Collins and Bilge). An intersectional (re)evaluation, for example, might offer a countermemory of the Nineteenth Amendment not as an end unto itself but as a point along a greater plot of white control over who “counts” as “Americans” (and as humans) and over civic processes and civil rights—a plot that continues today through gerrymandering, policies to intimidate and/or suppress minority voters, and other efforts. Who do our memories celebrate, and who/what is forgotten? And what do we gain and risk by revising our shared public memories based on counterstories? Multivocality and countermemory/counterstory necessarily threaten the stabilizing and unifying ceremonial nature of commemorative activities. Rather than assuming our experiences align with a master narrative (as occurs in masculinist commemorative practice), co-memorative activities should court disruption of narrative comfort by seeking out new viewpoints and assessments. 

To consider sample suffrage centennial celebrations going on in the U.S. through a framework of feminist co-memoration, I searched online for a calendar of national events. Several were available, but I chose a calendar hosted by the “2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative” (WVCI) because of the group’s stated purpose to advertise centennial celebration events that go beyond historical accuracy to engage diverse organizations and audiences in sustained critical thinking about the amendment and equal rights (“About Us”). At the time of this writing, thirty events were posted on the calendar between September 2019 and May 2020. Offerings included a mixture of panels and presentations, visual and performing arts, tours and re-enactments, a statue unveiling, a quilting bee, and two fundraisers (a golf tournament and a wine/food tasting). From the brief event descriptions, I sought evidence of that which could potentially illustrate features of co-memorative activities. 

A few of the calendar entries did seem to be planned as projects of feminist co-memoration. For example, “Feminist Youth Voices” demonstrated potential for multivocality and space for countermemories. Hosted by the Lincoln School in Providence, Rhode Island, the event description promised a “diverse group of young female identifying speakers will explore their relationships to the past, present, and future of feminist ideals and their visions for what it means to them in 2019” (“Cocktails & Conversations”). The event’s link to the suffrage centennial is clear but is not the controlling theme. Instead, the speakers’ relationships to the topics are foregrounded. The event description anticipates multivocality in its common location and potential for solidarity-building among varied perspectives. Any panel participant’s reflections might confront the other speakers, host, and audience with potentially uncomfortable realities of, for example, then-that-is-now discrimination and/or outmoded notions of gender and sexuality. Such openings invite rhetorical feminist reassessment, challenging commemorators to deeply reflect and perhaps to participate in the conversation. As feminist co-memorative activities, this panel seems designed to avoid re-calcifying the suffrage master narrative by eliciting new stories about the complexities of belonging.

WVCI calendar entries promote festive commemorative events, but details about opportunities for active engagement remain vague. At the “Tea and Tour” in honor of “Susan B. Anthony and Catherine McAuley: Voices for Others,” participants are invited to “[c]elebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with a tour of our historic home steeped in the spirit of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and frequent meeting place for Susan B. Anthony and the Suffragettes. Enjoy an elegant tea in recognition of these two women who were a voice for others” (“Tea and Tour”). Being in an extraordinary historic place may indeed inspire feelings of bodily incorporation—of existing in the layers of history and memory—but beyond just the sense of “being there,” the tour might be further designed to inspire active participatory co-memoration. For instance, a rhetorical feminist co-memoration could start with a tour but proceed to dialogue among attendees regarding their own memories of women’s struggles for equality and their own (dis)connections to the master narrative of suffrage. Forms of active engagement can and should vary, however, as not all participants want to engage in the same ways, particularly if their perspectives might not seem welcomed. Organizers of co-memorative events must be open to and create spaces for potential discomfort from participants who do not share—or who even actively resist—the master narrative. Feminist rhetorical co-memoration should seed spaces for radical rhetorical listening but should allow for silences, too, and examine those silences for their implications (see Carrillo Rowe 180).

Co-memoration as Critical Imagination and Strategic Contemplation

While traditional commemorative practices shut down inquiry, feminist co-memoration must encourage an opening up via learning, reflecting, and reassessing. Because of limited space, I focus here on two facets feminist co-memoration growing out of Kirsch and Royster’s “feminist rhetorical practices”: critical imagination and strategic contemplation. Critical imagination is a form of re-membering. It is an “account[ing] for what we ‘know’” through history and a (re)thinking “between, above, around, and beyond this evidence to speculate methodically about probabilities” (650). Developing a framework for co-memoration is, in itself, an act of critical imagination as it is an envisioning how we might depart from masculinist practices and master narratives to be more inclusive and complex in our re-membering. In the shared memorial process, feminist “imagination” means we are not required to limit ourselves to only “objective” evidence in what and how we re-member. Memories passed down through family and community stories (i.e., social memory and individual memories), evidence that “disrupt[s] public/private divides” (660), and other ephemera traditionally deemed unfit as historical artifacts, therefore, are revived as valuable co-memorative materials. The Monumental Women project, which successfully lobbied for the first public memorial to real-life women in New York City’s Central Park, is an example of critical imagination at work in feminist co-memoration. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann imagined a meeting among Stanton, Truth, and Anthony, a congregation that could have happened but which is not documented in history. Bergmann purposefully devised the statue to emphasize feminist collaboration (and coalition building) as a source of power (see Haigh and Frederick).1  

Additionally, the “critical” in critical imagination makes room for critique as part of co-memoration. Critique is not meant to dishonor the people, places, and events of the dominant narrative but instead should broaden that honoring through questioning who gets space in the narrative and by inclining our public remembrances towards better inclusivity. Critical imagination “actually use[s] tension, conflicts, balances, and counterbalances more overtly as critical opportunities for inquiry in order to enable a conversation, even if only imaginatively” (Kirsch and Royster 652). Making space for generative critique and dialogue is a rhetorical feminist tactic, a feminist rhetorical practice, and a means of building differential belonging. Where traditional commemoration asks participants to solemnly submit themselves and their memories to the singular historical narrative and to limit their future ponderings to what that narrative makes possible, feminist co-memoration invites critical re-examination and expansion as a means of honoring the people and events being recalled.

Strategic contemplation re-affirms feminist co-memoration as an embodied practice. In the face of our many competing work and personal demands, strategic contemplation is Kirsch and Royster’s way of telling us we must devote time and space to meditate over our questioning and re-membering (656). Strategic contemplation creates spaces for transformation, moments during which new ideas, perspectives, or experiences can change our outlooks and modify our allegiances. Through co-memoration and strategic contemplation, we can choose to move “back and forth between past and present, between visiting history [or memory] and bringing them into the present, between searching archives and walking the land” (657). Kirsch and Royster are describing historical research in the archives; our memories are our own personal, social, collective, and public archives. When we move between those memories and lived experiences of what Kirsch and Royster call “walking the land,” we ponder how Ratcliffe’s then-that-is-now affects us, as individuals and collectives. 

A memorial event on the WVCI calendar illustrates the potential of critical imagination and strategic contemplation for co-memorative practices. “Ida B. Wells: Warrior for Justice” is a re-enactment in which writer and actress Safiya Bandele speaks from the perspective of the famous African American writer and civil rights leader. Bandele’s performance invokes critical imagination by re-presenting Wells via a living actress for contemporary audiences. Such re-enactments may be based on a set of historical artifacts, but weaving together (re-membering) those incomplete threads to re-create a living persona is an act of critical imagination. Audience members have an occasion to move between the memories presented on the stage and their own lived experiences in relation to race, to the power of participating in the public sphere, to history, to memory (e.g., genealogies, legacies), and more. In other words, audience members can compare the re-constructed world of Wells with their own. The very spaces—locations and times—created by immersion in the performance invites strategic contemplation. Although the event description does not include mention of post-performance discussion with the writers/actors, such dialogue would present potentially rich opportunity to explore how the performance inspires the audience to think (or potentially re-think) the suffrage movement as perpetually centered in a white narrative. The radical goal of feminist co-memoration is bigger than critically transforming spaces and practices; however, the real feminist opportunity of co-memoration is for developing differential belonging and coalitional (inter)subjectivities.

Coalition Building as Co-Memoration Goal

Commemorative spaces hail us to a common belonging; the question is this: in what kinds of spaces do we long to be? As Aimee Carrillo Rowe writes in Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances, “where we place our bodies, how we spend time, the mundane and significant events that give texture to our lives all give rise to our becoming” (34). Such “mundane and significant events” are the materials of our memory work. As a calling to remembrance, the women’s suffrage centennial can motivate us to consider “be longing” or how “being is formed through our longings” (26). What are we longing for during our co-memorating of women’s suffrage? Our current political situation presents big—and often terrifying, frustrating, and enraging—issues concerning women and other marginalized groups. Threats to reproductive rights, gender-based pay inequities, overt display of white supremacy, backsliding on LBGTQIA+ rights, violence towards refugee and immigrant families, and global warming, as well as a political system that seems dysfunctional at best: these issues dominate the news and can be overwhelming. If commemorative acts are moments of reflection intended to bring us together, then feminist co-memorative acts can motivate not only resistance, but also differential belonging that might lead to coalitional (inter)subjectivity in the face of these wide-reaching crises.

Carrillo Rowe’s theory of “differential belonging” challenges us to mindfully seek out relationships with those who are not like us. With whom do we choose to co-memorate? Memories are how “we vibrate in unison” (Halbwachs 140). Purposeful shifting among different groups—and therefore, a range of memories and countermemories—provides a more panoramic view of hegemonic systems and their effects on others who are similar and/or different than ourselves. In becoming aware of the “conditions and effects” of our belongings, we must “consider the political, social, and spiritual effects of our choices and practices” (Carrillo Rowe 43). The goal of Carrillo Rowe’s differential belonging—moving among different discourses—is the building of coalitional (inter)subjectivities2 for feminist ends: promoting openness and inclusion, resisting and overturning oppressive systems, and working collaboratively towards a more just world. Therefore, in co-memorative practice—catalyzed by this centennial year—we should consider the activities we choose to attend, where we place our bodies and what opportunities we create for ourselves to witness and engage through listening, participating, and/or dialoging across difference. The “Feminist Youth Voices” and other potentially transformative events described above are not useful if we stay home or choose other options. We must be frank with ourselves about where our longings motivate us to be.

The suffrage centennial may inspire practices and/or analyses of feminist co-memoration; however, special anniversaries are not required to engage this framework. Co-memorative practices can be applied to the (re)design of classroom activities promoting a revivification, re-engagement, and reassessment of history through reflective and inclusive practices that amplify counterstories, and therefore, engage critical imagination, and strategic contemplation. Even more broadly, co-memoration continues in our lives via everyday storytelling. Although seemingly mundane, sharing stories in random conversations is a powerful everyday means of remembering together. Listeners authentically engaged by “standing under” each others’ stories develop better relations through empathy (Ratcliffe 28). Tacking out to reflect over whose stories we hear can be useful for thinking about our perpetual re-membering or ongoing construction of our personal and shared narratives. What master narratives have seduced or ensnared us? And how can cultivation of differential belonging and better coalitional (inter)subjectivities disrupt those? Our daily worlds include echo chambers and we should be willing to step outside of them. Dialogue inspired by story-sharing can establish relationships across difference, new belongings that motivate us “to imagine life beyond our own skin” (Carrillo Rowe 35) and to “surrender ourselves to interstitial spaces” (197) between commonality and difference.

Co-Memoration as Hope-Fueled Struggle

This kairos of the centennial celebration of U.S. national women’s suffrage offers rich opportunities to re-examine how we remember, embody, and enact our public memories of the (ongoing) struggle for equality and justice. Through feminist co-memorative practices, spaces can be opened to radically transform ourselves through our memory-based communitas. And the critical imagination of “what might be” does not stop with questions about our narrative of gender equality. Members of co-memorative communities also should ask about biases towards whiteness, cis-gender identity, generational perspectives, able-bodiedness, and neurotypicality. Co-memorative events can be more inclusive through seeking out counterstories and by asking how divisions that create fragmentation can be respected and perhaps bridged. Further development of this co-memorative framework should consider additional ways it can be extended through Kirsch and Royster’s feminist rhetorical practices, including notions of social circulation and a “globalizing point of view” (Royster and Kirsch, Feminist). Memory is not constrained by national borders, and as communication technologies have made our daily interactions borderless, we must (re)consider how other national commemorative master narratives (e.g., “the War on Terror”) affect our intercultural and transnational relations.

None of this is going to be simple. If co-memorating seems easy, then surely we’re not doing it right because it is neither challenging our master narratives nor motivating us to reassess our (be)longings. Feminist co-memoration such as our suffrage celebrations should contribute to the broader project of what Sara Ahmed describes as Living a Feminist Life by making “everything into something that is questionable” (2). Reframing our commemorative practices—many of which are indeed sacred to our identity as “Americans”—is risky and demanding. It should be what Ahmed calls “sweaty work” (2), leaving us vulnerable and exposed (22), and clumsily “bumping into things” (166-167), including each other. Feminist co-memoration should require patience for not feeling “correct, consistent, or comfortable” (Carrillo Rowe 41). Glenn reminds us that “[f]eminist rhetorical studies create possibilities, not blueprints for an imagined utopian future” (193), so if the potential disruption of co-memoration seems daunting, then we can at least remember that we cannot expect to get it perfectly right. Our public memories, like ourselves, are a forever-ongoing and shared work-in-progress.


  1. The Central Park monument project caused justified controversy when its proposed design was revealed to include only Anthony and Stanton. Critics addressed how focusing only on those two suffrage leaders further reified the racist mythos of the movement’s history. In response to this outcry, Truth was added and the imagined meeting was conceived. Editorials from Martha S. Jones and from Ginia Bellafante elaborate on the problematic erasures of the monument’s original design.
  2. Carrillo Rowe uses the term “coalitional subject” or “coalitional subjectivity.” I amend it here to emphasize the dialectic inter-relationship between the individual subject and the group, yet maintain the parenthetical spelling both out of respect to Carrillo Rowe (not wanting to speak for her) and to indicate how I’m applying her concept in this essay.

Works Cited

  • About Us.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances. Duke UP, 2008.
  • Casey, Edward. “From Remembering: A Phenomenological Study.The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffery Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 184-187.
  • Cocktails & Conversations: Feminist Youth Voices.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
  • Commemoration.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP. Accessed 14 July 2019.
  • Connerton, Paul. “From How Societies Remember.The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffery Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 338-342.
  • Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography Without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif. Southern Illinois UP, 2013, pp. 58-73.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Haigh, Susan and Joseph Frederick. “Real Women Making Their Central Park Debut, Thanks to Connecticut, Boston Globe Media Partners, 21 Nov. 2019. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.
  • Halbwachs, Maurice. “From The Collective Memory.The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffery Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 140-149.
  • Ida B. Wells: Warrior for Justice at the International Black Women’s Congress.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  • Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline Jones Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 640–672.
  • Martinez, Aja. “A Please for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 33-55.
  • Murphy, Heather and Aimee Ortiz. “Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day? Depends Where You Are.New York Times, 13 Oct. 2019. Accessed 23 Nov. 2019.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Tea and Tour Susan B. Anthony and Catherine McAuley: Voices for Others.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept 2019.
  • Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered. “From ‘Commemorating a Difficult Past: Yitzhak Rabin’s Memorials.’” The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffery Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 375-377.
  • Zerubavel, Yael. “From Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition.The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffery Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, Oxford UP, 2011, pp. 237-241.

Mother-Scholars Doing Their Homework: The Limits of Domestic Enargeia

Nearly a decade ago, at the 2010 CCCC in Louisville, Kentucky, I attended a session on “Women’s Ways of Making It—or Making Do?: Off and On the Tenure Track with Children.” The roundtable included six mother-scholars: Lee Nickoson-Massey, Kim Hensley Owens, Christine Peters Cucciarre, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Deborah Morris, and Christa Albrecht-Crane. They shared narratives that presented family-friendly alternatives to the R1 careers emphasized in Michelle Ballif, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford’s 2008 book Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition. The conversation hit close to home. I was thirty-six, tenured for three years, married for three years, actively trying to conceive, and experiencing a longing for parenthood that surprised even me. My circumstances are hardly unique. I had been reminded, as have so many others, that babies should come before age thirty-five and ideally after tenure. The clock was ticking. Just thinking about Lee Nickoson-Massey’s description of getting a job offer the same day she received word that she’d be adopting a baby girl made me tear up. My hopes, my dreams, my anxieties, my sense of “what now?” after the long road of tenure—they all coalesced around the stories I heard at this panel. I wanted to deliver a conference paper with a baby in my arms, as Kim Hensley Owens described, or write while my children played in the background. I could live without the experience of pumping milk on the job market, a topic mentioned by at least two presenters. But I wanted the rest—the chaos, the sleeplessness, the playpen in my study—so badly it hurt.

The stories I heard that afternoon went on to become the impetus for Composition Studies’ 2011 special issue on “Wo/men’s Ways of Making It in Writing Studies.” I didn’t read it at the time, or anything else that wasn’t a board book. Two pregnancies and one baby later, I was at last a mother. The mother-scholar narratives would have been more resonant then, but mainly in terms of how I wasn’t measuring up. I found it impossible to do any work with my baby around. Even when I hired sitters, I heard him screaming, and I didn’t trust in their ability to comfort him. I didn’t sleep for months because of a round-the-clock nursing schedule from a child who wouldn’t take a bottle. I remember myself filmy from spit up and a lack of showering, and I wore the same three sweatsuits every day for almost a year. I was lucky enough to have a semester-long stay of teaching thanks to a parental leave policy that reallocated teaching duties to scholarship and service, but I got little done. On the rare occasions that I was cogent enough to think about how it was supposed to be, me working, my baby self-entertaining, I felt a profound sense of failure. Had I read the Composition Studies essays as a new mother, they would have struck a similar chord as Women’s Ways, which I had read shortly after its publication; while the latter left me feeling like an inept scholar, the Composition Studies pieces would have exacerbated my post-partum awareness of my inadequacies as a mother-scholar. I’m certainly not blaming these narratives for my response to them, nor for my own anxiety and paralysis. But I do think feminist scholars in our field would be well-served by considering the stories mother.1

Mother-scholars’ stories join a rich tradition of storytelling within writing studies. Diana George insists “storytelling is necessary if we are to pass on more than theory and pedagogical or administrative tactics to those who come after us” (xii). My own career has been guided by such stories. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I learned about women’s professional inequities through personal narratives like those collected by Theresa Enos and Sheryl Fontaine and Susan Hunter. While working on my dissertation, I read biographical sketches that equate contingent labor with the discipline’s classification as “feminine” or “feminized” (Schell; Schell and Stock). When I began a tenure-track position, I looked to the scholarship on writing program administration (WPA) for insights about administrative work as an assistant professor (George; Goodburn and Leverenz; Mirtz et al.). Taken together, works like these point to the significance of experiential narratives for rhetoric and composition professionals, even while, as Amy Ferdinandt Stolley has discussed, such accounts also universalize experience and inhibit alternative professional identities (19).

Indeed, the publication of Women’s Ways marked a shift in the field’s relationship to professional narratives. The volume’s narrow representation of success inspired a new generation of storytelling, more divisive than its predecessors. In addition to the 2011 special issue of Composition Studies, multiple counter-narratives emerged. Amy Goodburn, Donna LeCourt, and Carrie Leverenz’s book collection Rewriting Success in Rhetoric and Composition Careers, for example, took issue with Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s equation of success with “an academic culture that requires an undivided devotion to work” (176). Published in 2012, Rewriting Success showcases teachers and scholars who have found—and, moreover, defined—success through alternative career paths, including various roles within and beyond the academy. Kristin Bivens et al.’s Harlot piece “Sisyphus Rolls On” also confronts Women’s Ways’ definition of success, sharing mixed-media narratives of women working in a range of positions and institutions. With reference to contingent labor, the authors assert “most of the people who work in the field, according to the definition proposed by Ballif, Davis, and Mountford, have not made it, nor can they.” Others have challenged Women’s Ways’ hierarchical constructions of academic mentoring (Gindlesparger and Ryan; VanHaitsma and Ceraso).

The Composition Studies narratives about mothers “making it”—or, to borrow their term, “making do” (Cucciarre et al. 54)—were especially haunting when I eventually read them. Discussions of motherhood had, at the time, rarely entered the professional conversation, much less as a concentrated collection in one of the field’s prominent journals.2 I recently began to wonder why these stories remain so gripping several years after their publication. Part of the explanation lies in Dara Rossman Regaignon’s observation that genres are not only “social and rhetorical,” but “affective as well”; they encode “particular subject positions and modes of interaction” (157). Composition Studies’ mother-scholar narratives spur a set of affective associations through vivid verbal descriptions of academic mothers doing professional work while simultaneously tending to children. A detailed rendering of a new mother typing her dissertation while nursing an infant, for example, evokes an emotional response through its visualization of high-stakes personal and professional activities. Often set in the home, portrayals like these sometimes extend to spaces where academic responsibilities coincide with the work of home and family. Through compelling illustrations of working and parenting, the Composition Studies articles pull readers into the scene. They suggest an alternative not only to Women’s Ways, but also to the broader “Mommy Wars” asking professional women to choose between children and a career (Douglas and Michaels 204-05).

If pieces like the Composition Studies essays reassure women that they can integrate their personal and professional aspirations, they carry detrimental impacts as well. Portraits of mothers working alongside their children, at kitchen tables and living rooms, in classrooms and on campuses, and even at conferences, imply that work in writing and rhetoric can be done as needed, while multitasking parenting and domestic chores. By figuring women’s workspaces as simultaneously home and office, the narratives’ images reinscribe the symbolic functions Susan Miller attributed to her “sad women in the basement”: nurse, maid, and mother (137). Given our field’s reliance on flexible labor, its gendered labor inequities, and its fight for academic status, there’s an inherent risk in circulating tropes from which we have worked to distance ourselves. In making parenting visible, meanwhile, mother-scholar narratives render multiple constituencies invisible. Their stories homogenize domestic spaces, minimizing the relationship between socio-economic privilege and mothering in the profession.3 They exclude parents whose gender identities, sexualities, and domestic partnerships don’t align with the authors’ heteronormative families. They overlook the mothers and children who are ill-equipped to function in combined domestic and professional spaces. With these concerns in mind, this essay charts the narratives’ reliance on visual depictions of academic motherhood. Adapting classical enargeia, loosely understood as a verbal picture designed to evoke an emotional response, I focus on the potential for mother-scholars’ domestic enargeia to cultivate desire for immersive parenting experiences while also addressing the liabilities of such representations for the profession and its members.

Conceptualizing Domestic Enargeia

Classical texts offer a wealth of terms associated with the visibility of language, which have been interpreted and applied in slightly different ways by literature scholars and rhetoricians. Literary critics Judith Anderson and Joan Pong Linton note that contemporary understandings of visual imagery often blend “enargia (Greek arges, ‘bright’; Latin evidentia inlustratio, repraesentatio), or vividness and distinctness in description (the practices of ekphrasis, effictio, and the like), and energia (Greek ergon, ‘work’; Latin, actio), or the liveliness and ‘point’ of style in appealing to the senses, moving the emotions, and effecting turns of thought” (6). Anderson and Linton attribute this convergence to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which stresses the appeal to an audience’s visual sense (enargia) as a means of enlivening listeners and moving them to action (energia) (6-7; see also Aristotle 3.11.2-4). Rhetoric scholar Ruth Webb favors the Greek ekphrasis as a term for language designed to “mak[e] the listener ‘see’ the subject in their mind’s eye” (2). She views enargeia (Latin evidentia), which she characterizes as the vividness that allows for transactionality, as the “defining quality” of ancient ekphrasis (5). Webb distinguishes rhetorical ekphrasis from literary examples based upon their relative engagement with audiences. Literary ekphrasis—which some critics choose to label enargeia or enargia—conjures a pictorial representation of an art object, a “referent” or “representation of reality,” such as Homer’s poetic rendering of Achilles’s shield; rhetorical ekphrasis, which applies to a range of topics, impacts audiences’ perception, “making the listener seem to see” in a manner that is experienced as if tangibly present (Webb 38).4 My discussion of mother-scholar narratives is concerned with this rhetorical understanding of ekphrasis and, especially, its attendant enargeia.5

Webb locates enargeia in Quintilian’s Institutes, which supplements the Greek handbooks for rhetorical instruction (Progymnasmata), with his courtroom experience: “[from Quintilian] there emerges a clear set of ideas about the word’s ability to summon up images in the listener’s mind and about the ways in which an orator might need to make use of this technique in very specific ways to bolster his case” (4). Peter O’Connell’s work on enargeia in Athenian courtrooms establishes guided visualization as a characteristic forensic technique, consistent with jurors’ preference for observed evidence. Even if Attic orators lacked a vocabulary for naming their practice enargeia, says O’Connell, their speeches readily conveyed it (225). Feeling as if they had first-hand knowledge of the events in question made jurors especially receptive to the affective dimension of a speaker’s testimony (O’Connell 230). Quintilian’s Institutes, which harkened to its Greek predecessors, suggests one route through which the Greeks’ courtroom enargeia came to Roman forensic rhetoric. Despite its courtroom association, however, enargeia “is part of [Quintilian’s] broader discussion of emotional appeals” and thus applies to his larger rhetorical curriculum, including deliberative and epideictic rhetoric (Webb 90).

Significantly, Quintilian’s notion of enargeia hinges upon its psychological work. Enargeia, says Quintilian, “forces itself on the [audience’s] notice,” “set[ting] forth the objects of which we speak in lively colors, and so that they may as it were be seen” (8.3.61-62). Quintilian calls upon rhetors “not so much to narrate as to exhibit [such that] our feelings will be moved not less strongly than if we were actually present at the affairs of which we are speaking” (6.2.32). The sense of firsthand observation, he insists, holds “the greatest power in moving the [audience’s] feelings” (6.2.30). This process represents an affective transfer between speaker and audience, with listeners supplying their own imaginative details to reinforce the exchange. Jens Kjeldsen makes the point that performed accompaniments, such as gestures and expressions, solidify listeners’ involvement in the scene at hand (134-35). Although Kjeldsen’s discussion highlights physical performance, his remarks undersc

Enargeia’s efficacy relies upon the activation of images that resonate with listeners’ existing values. Take for example, Quintilian’s illustration of this phenomenon via Cicero’s oration against Verres: 

[W]hen [Cicero] reads the description in the oration against Verres, ‘The praetor of the Roman people, with sandals, with a purple cloak after the Greek fashion, and a tunic reaching to his feet, stood upon the shore leaning on a courtesan,’ he does not seem to behold the very aspect and dress of the man, and even to imagine for himself many particulars that are not expressed. (8.3.64)

Quintilian goes on to indicate, “I, for my part, seem to myself to see [Verres’s] countenance, the look of his eyes, the repulsive dalliance of him and his mistress, and the tacit disgust, and shrinking modesty, of those who witnessed the scene” (8.3.65). Cicero’s selection of visual details reveals how enargeia might elicit responses like Quintilian’s, rooted in shared cultural assumptions: “a Greek style of dress coloured with oriental dye, would have had strong connotations of un-Roman luxury, not to mention his unmanly stance, as he leans (‘nixus’) on his mistress” (Webb 110). Tellingly, the resonance of particular details is more significant than the amount of description provided.

Enargeia has received only sporadic consideration in contemporary rhetorical studies. Its closest correlate, notes O’Connell, is “Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s concept of presence” (243; see also Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 115-20). Charles A. Hill, for example, invokes presence in his work on visual rhetoric, offering a definition that resonates with classical enargeia. Hill characterizes presence as “the extent to which an object or concept is foremost in the consciousness of the audience members”; as he explains, dominant rhetorical elements “can crowd out other considerations from the viewer’s mind” (28-29). He goes on to associate presence with vividness, the psychological concept that marks information as “emotionally interesting and concrete” (31).6 Film and photographs readily transmit vividness, Hill indicates (31). When “direct visual perception” is not possible (30), he suggests, descriptive language that “promotes the construction of mental images” holds the power to dominate one’s thoughts, catalyze an affective response, and steer attitudes and actions (36).

Motherhood is a particularly rich site for eliciting the “mental images” Hill describes. According to Lindal Buchanan, the construct of the Mother “invokes a shared cultural code and generates powerful persuasive resources” (Rhetorics xvii). It’s not surprising that Buchanan’s work on maternal rhetorics highlights their visual qualities. Buchanan’s study of Anne Hutchinson, a prominent figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reveals how imagistic discourses of monstrosity turned public opinion against her (“A Study”). According to her political opponent Thomas Weld, Hutchinson’s 1637 pregnancy resulted in “30 monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as farre as I could ever learne) of humane shape” (qtd. in Buchanan, “A Study” 252: 214-15). Through its appeal to cultural fears linking monstrosity to God’s wrath, this depiction effectively maligned Hutchinson and her followers (“A Study” 252). Buchanan’s subsequent work on birth control advocate Margaret Sanger describes how Sanger’s self-construction through a family photograph also steered public sentiment, albeit in a favorable direction (Rhetorics). The photograph circulated in newspapers in January 1916, shortly after the death of Sanger’s youngest child Peggy and shortly before Sanger’s obscenity trial (Rhetorics 37-39). The portrait depicts Sanger with her sons Stuart and Grant and gestures toward Peggy’s absence, “contributing to Sanger’s ethos as a grieving mother” and generating support for the dismissal of her charges (Rhetorics 40-44). While the Hutchinson example involves verbal demonstration and the Sanger discussion centers around an actual image, both showcase the process by which visualizations of motherhood evoke presence and approximate classical enargeia.7 

Buchanan’s examples also illustrate visual representations’ ability to advance received notions of maternity. They prescribe a vision of what motherhood “should look like” (or shouldn’t) in their respective contexts, much like Cicero’s enargeic description of Verres calls upon Roman assumptions about leadership. The profession’s portraits of parenting function similarly, signaling a set of assumed values regarding family, work, and gender. As noted, I use the term domestic enargeia to refer to depictions of women combining academic work with childcare. My terminology stems from Webb’s assertion that enargeia deploys visual description as a means of “inviting imaginative and emotional involvement” (195); this combination of visuality and affective participation, which Webb calls “imaginative response” (106), is key to our field’s representations of academic motherhood. I have added the descriptor domestic to reflect the narratives’ sustained attention to children and household responsibilities. Domestic enargeia speaks to a synthesis of visual and emotional appeals, conjuring relationships among mothers, caregiving, and home. My terminology encapsulates the vividness associated with enargeia’s etymology, particularly the psychological quality that renders an image resonant or memorable. In keeping with Quintilian’s belief that enargeia “forces itself on the [audience’s] notice” (8.3.61-62), domestic enargeia gestures toward the visibility that informs the profession’s discussions of motherhood, namely the impulse to make motherhood itself visible. Finally, my language harkens to the visualization associated with classical enargeia, including its courtroom use as a means of bringing listeners “to the scene.” 

The following sections explore how mother-scholar narratives promote normative understandings of mothering in the profession. I aim to critique domestic enargeia’s socializing function by addressing the working conditions the narratives depict and elide, as well as their constructions of family and parenthood. I consider these depictions through the lens of my necessarily partial response as a white middle-class woman in a heterosexual marriage. To set the scene, I ground my analysis in an assessment of the relative absence of parenting in Women’s Ways. I then demonstrate how the Composition Studies essays frame the domestic sphere as a congenial site for mothers’ scholarly work, forging a problematic convergence between women’s work and childcare. To further my critique, I reference progressive portrayals of motherhood in the profession, focusing on a video essay that meditates on a filmmaker-rhetorician’s challenges raising bilingual sons. A pattern of domestic enargeia emerges across this representational range, pointing to its normativity despite the field’s diversity. I thus conclude by underscoring the need for mother-scholars to cede their reliance on domestic enargeia, and I urge feminist rhetoricians to circulate stories that reimagine what it means to work and parent in the profession.

Not Seen and Not Heard

Charting the limited depictions of home and family in Women’s Ways helps to explain why mother-scholars writing after its publication choose domestic enargeia as a storytelling device. The chapter on “Family and Academic Culture” (174-94)—particularly its section on “Combining Family and Career” (175-83)—is relatively brief. And, as the authors remark in that chapter, “many of the women scholars in our study do not have children. And neither do we” (175). They observe that, of the nine women profiled, only Jacqueline Jones Royster had a child while on the tenure track, and she entered her tenure-line position as an associate professor with an established publication record (177). The habits the book associates with scholarly achievement, such as working into the evening and traveling to multiple national conferences each year, do not lend themselves to active parenting. Home figures prominently as a writing space, but it is portrayed as a quiet alternative to a campus office (167). Success, as defined by the authors of Women’s Ways, is not compatible with childcare responsibilities. While five profile subjects have children (two with one child each), readers are meeting these women after they have “made it.” They are senior faculty and, in some cases, now emerita, and those who are mothers have grown children. Their formative professional years coincided with heightened, more explicit, gender discrimination in the academy that may have served as a tacit prohibition against seeking both a career and a family.8 On the whole, we encounter women defined by their passion for scholarship.

The profiles in Women’s Ways run about ten to 15 pages, beginning with a “Background” section, then shifting to a “Strategies for Success” section with a menu of subsections, including “Graduate School,” “Promotion and Tenure,” “Time Management,” and “Having a Life.” The only profile to include a subsection on “Children” is Patricia Bizzell’s. Her portrait recounts her adoption of two “biological sisters from Korea” during the 1980s (207). The mood here is cautionary—Bizzell describes how the life she had before having children was “reduced to rubble [. . . .] absolutely leveled to the ground” (208). The authors foreground Bizzell’s sense of frustration with her parenting options. She describes working full time and having children as “a real source of stress and pain,” referring to the “psychic tax” of being a working mother (210). This theme also surfaces in Cheryl Glenn’s and Susan Jarratt’s profiles. Glenn describes herself as “a pretty good mother, but [. . .] only pretty good” (238), while Jarratt reports, “parenting was a source of guilt for me” (253). Even the conversations with women who are “childless by choice” associate scholarly careers with parental inadequacy (167). Asked “if the decision not to have kids had anything to do with her professional life,” Cynthia Selfe echoes the uncertainty expressed by the women who are mothers: “I suppose it did. I just had never thought I’d make a particularly good parent” (304). Optimistic portraits of family and children receive comparatively less attention. Shirley Wilson Logan and Jacqueline Jones Royster note the centrality of family to their identities, yet their positive parenting experiences are minimized. Logan’s children are neither named nor enumerated, and Royster’s children are mentioned in a parenthetical (293).9 It’s hard not to see these portraits as part of an agenda that separates career success from engaged parenting.

Women’s Ways’ treatment of motherhood is largely pragmatic; motherhood is most directly associated with time management. Describing her return to work after her maternity leave, Bizzell refers to her watch as “a manacle . . . chaining me to the schedule” (208). She goes on to express the negative impact of parenting on her writing, especially the loss of the freedom to “let an idea gestate” (209). Glenn, whose remarks about being a single parent fall under her profile’s “Time Management” subsection, shares her intense daily schedule during her early years as an assistant professor, which coincided with her ninth-grade daughter Anna’s “acting out” after moving “two thousand miles from home” (241). The authors present Anna as an added challenge for Glenn, a source of “trips to the principal’s office and ad hoc parent-teacher conferences” (241). The sentence following these remarks reads, “So how did she manage her time?” (241), equating a needy child with lost productivity. Jarratt, also a single parent, was raising her daughter while a graduate student, living and teaching in San Antonio, commuting to University of Texas at Austin, and playing in a band. “It was too much,” she reports (254). “My daughter was protesting. And I could see that it was just too crazy” (254). The book describes Jarratt’s inclination to leave her PhD program, along with her eventual decision to relocate to Austin to complete her degree. Although the move benefitted her professionally and personally, Jarratt’s portrait further showcases the career and lifestyle accommodations that accompany parenting. Together, the three profiles that most explicitly include children depict them as “troubled,” in Bizzell’s words (209), “acting out” in Glenn’s case (241), and “protesting” in Jarratt’s (254). In this way, Women’s Ways foregrounds the demands and inconveniences of motherhood, with little attention to the rewards.

Even as Women’s Ways sounds a cautionary note about motherhood, its presentation of working mothers establishes a convention for the mother-scholar genre. Consider, for example, Jarratt’s reflection on the incident that made her rethink her 75-mile commute to graduate school: “One night I came home and [my daughter] had been sick—this was before cell phones. That scared me” (254). Although Jarratt is pointing to a moment when she failed to integrate work and childcare, her description calls upon domestic enargeia for its emotional appeal. The urgency surrounding a sick child—especially one who is 75 miles away with no means of contact—thrusts readers into Jarratt’s position. The selection of detail, such as arriving home “at night,” presumably too late to comfort her child, does salient rhetorical work. We, as readers, are invited to imagine ourselves in an analogous situation, failing to provide the nurturing perceived as fundamental to mothering. We might even visualize a fearful, feverish child, crying for her mommy. Learning “this was before cell phones” makes the situation all the more alarming: today’s working mothers rely on their mobile phones as a promise of connection in case of emergency. The sense of disconnect is palpable, and Jarratt’s uneasiness resonates with assumptions about care and neglect, availability and absence, and mother-scholars’ closeness to home. Bizzell’s and Glenn’s accounts make analogous appeals. Thus, despite its brief and largely negative attention to motherhood, Women’s Ways’ domestic enargeia sets a precedent for subsequent mother-scholar narratives: to mother is to nurture, the logic goes, and the happiest mothers find a way to grow their children alongside their scholarship.

Seeing is Believing

A corrective to Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s book, Composition Studies’ “Wo/men’s Ways of Making It in Writing Studies” sought to confront the field’s “minimalization of family commitments to construct a persona of professional success” (Clary-Lemon 10). Its reliance on domestic enargeia, in turn, represents both a departure from and a continuation of the rhetorical pattern established in Women’s Ways. The lead essay, “Mothers’ Ways of Making It—or Making Do?: Making (Over) Academic Lives in Rhetoric and Composition with Children” includes five of the mother-scholar stories presented at the 2010 CCCC. Collaboratively authored by Christine Peters Cucciarre, Deborah E. Morris, Lee Nickoson, Kim Hensley Owens, and Mary P. Sheridan, the article follows the roundtable’s dialogic format to showcase authors’ experiences as mothers working on and off the tenure track at varying types of institutions. Loren Marquez’s piece “Narrating Our Lives: Retelling Mothering and Professional Work in Composition Studies” describes the synergistic relationship between “the mother-multitasking game” and her professional responsibilities (73). Meanwhile, in “On (Not) Making It In Rhetoric and Composition,” Robert Danberg associates personal and professional disappointment with an approach to fatherhood that “might be described as the default position of mothering” (68). Throughout these narratives, children are seen and heard, named and celebrated. Their visibility serves multiple ends: to validate parenting as a lifestyle choice; to establish compatibility between academic careers and family engagement; to advocate for workplace policies that support pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and childcare; and to problematize Women’s Ways’ depiction of success. The Composition Studies articles’ images of academic parenthood nevertheless mark a binary response to their predecessor: if Jarratt’s, Bizzell’s, and Glenn’s narratives employ domestic enargeia to link professionalism with parental absence, Composition Studies’ domestic enargeia features mothers working alongside their children. Their heightened attention to the domestic sphere doesn’t change the terms of the conversation so much as it puts nurturing at its center.

At first glance, the articles appear to present generative possibilities for combining work and parenting, framing caregiving as a feminist choice. In the analysis that follows, I suggest the Composition Studies portrayals are complicit with a culture that pays disproportionate attention to children’s needs, often at mothers’ expense. Sociologist Sharon Hays describes this phenomenon as “intensive mothering.” In Hays’s view, contemporary motherhood is characterized by “a gendered model that advises mothers to expend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in raising their children” (x). Despite the large percentage of mothers working outside the home, says Hays, “a logic of unselfish nurturing guides the behavior of mothers” (x). Building on Hays’s work, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels refer to this trend as the “new momism”: “the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children” (4). This ideology infuses the Composition Studies portraits. Despite demanding professional careers, the mother-scholars work alongside their children; they bring energy to their multiple roles, though they make parenting a priority; and they establish a standard of zen multitasking that few could meet.

The pattern of domestic enargeia conveys the authors’ parental dedication. Cucciarre et al. acknowledge their use of visual persuasion, framing their article as a collection of “snapshots” designed to illustrate a “range of possibilities” for “work-life balance” (42). Their portraits reveal lives made richer thanks to their integration of home and work. Morris, for example, discusses how her children’s different stages impacted her career choices. She attributes her decision to stay home with her young children to her need “to be the one who encouraged their learning and imagining throughout the day” (46). Readers get a concrete image of this need when, speaking of her return to graduate school when her children “entered middle school,” Morris describes doing “homework around the dining room table” with her two sons (46). Sheridan paints contrasting pictures of her “R1 university” and her current “Research Intensive university,” which she describes as “far more hospitable” to families (55). She compares being one of the few faculty members who brought children to her former institution’s “welcome-back-to-school party” to her current position, where “it is not a problem if occasionally my children play in an empty classroom” (55). Cucciarre shares a near-parable about her three-year-old son writing in her copy of Women’s Ways: “page three is full of scribbles and pen marks with large swooping circles all encompassed by one big box outlining the entire page” (48). His “scrawlings” represent the “strange cocktail of shame and guilt” she felt after reading the book, mainly involving her acceptance of a non-tenure-line position (48). Together, these “visuals” prompt readers to affirm parents’ nearness to their children. Making it as a mother-scholar, the domestic enargeia implies, entails choosing a position that welcomes children at our desks, on our campuses, and in our texts.

As Quintilian reminds us, visualization persuades by simulating eye witness experience, thereby securing audience engagement. To showcase this process, I turn now to a close analysis of Nickoson’s and Owens’s vignettes within the Cucciarre et al. essay. While all contributors follow a convention of domestic enargeia, Nickoson’s and Owens’s accounts feature tenure-track mothers of young children—categories holding particular emotional exigency. As Rachel Connelly and Kristin Ghodsee discuss in Professor Mommy, “the timing of the tenure track coincides exactly with the woman’s most fertile reproductive years” (8). Ballif, Davis, and Mountford also speak to the complexity of academics’ childbearing decisions. Pointing to the tenure-achievement gap between women with and without children, they note that “women who choose to have a family before tenure . . . must be prepared to swim against the tide, particularly in the top-tier research institutions” (180). They simultaneously caution readers that waiting “too long to get started” comes with a decrease in fertility, citing a survey respondent who “waited too long” and “will regret it forever” (181). Notably, both Nickoson and Owens share scenes in which they made their young children visible to their colleagues and their workplaces, prompting readers’ affective involvement in the process.

Domestic enargeia infuses Nickoson’s description of walking her five-year-old daughter Olivia to the campus preschool three afternoons a week (43). The walks “serve as regular and yet powerful reminders” of Nickoson’s good fortune—to have a job “in such dire economic times” and “to share that part of my life—my self—with my daughter” (43). For Nickoson, the walks represent “moments of equilibrium” between the personal and the professional (43). She and her daughter have meaningful conversations, and, demonstrating her school spirit, Olivia sometimes sings the university fight song. Their return walks “often revolve around animated discussions of the new experiences of the day and how those moments leave [Olivia] feeling good, not only about learning, but also about herself” (44). The scene evokes a pastoral, idyllic quality—the two are strolling through campus, presumably in a natural setting, at Nickoson’s workplace but talking, listening, and singing in their own shared space. Readers are invited to visualize a literal journey across campus, but also to “see” it as representative of parental separation and reunification—much like Jarratt’s narrative. Nickoson’s rendering of the experience leaves readers to fill in the details of the setting. I envision Nickoson and Olivia holding hands, for example, and it makes me want to stroll across my campus with my son. I begin to share Nickoson’s optimism regarding the synergy between academic work and parenting. I feel her gratitude, even more so because I remember the adoption details she shared at the 2010 CCCC. By positioning readers as participant-observers, the domestic enargeia cultivates desire—there is much to want for oneself: children who are interested in our work, a campus that welcomes them, and a dream of motherhood fulfilled.

Kim Hensley Owens’s reflection on her 2009 Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s) presentation follows an analogous rhetorical pattern: it presents a vivid mother-child interaction designed to secure readers’ emotional involvement. Owens’s scene opens when she begins her paper while her four-month-old daughter, whose designated babysitter didn’t arrive, slept in a carrier: “Alas, she awoke, wiggly, hungry, and angry, two minutes into my twenty-minute talk, so I gave my talk bouncing her in my arms” (54). Owens recounts denying her baby’s desire to nurse, which collided with her “professional responsibility” to complete her presentation (54). Untroubled by her discomfort, the audience was supportive, seeming more “impressed” than “surprised”; a graduate student approached Owens to tell her, “You make it look easy” (54). But Owens “felt desperate. It was my third day of being at a conference with a baby; I’d rarely been more exhausted, and I was embarrassed” (54). As in previous examples, the domestic enargeia revolves around parent-child separation, albeit in the same room rather than across a distance or a campus. In keeping with the genre, Owens’s description invites readers to visualize the situation: it’s easy to picture a squirming, fussing infant shaking with full-body sobs the moment her assistant professor mother steps up to the podium. The domestic enargeia provides multiple paths to affective identification, primarily rooted in the mother-infant connection but also associated with academic expectations. We are asked to share Owens’s sense of professional vulnerability, her mommy guilt, her performance anxiety, her need to soothe her infant, and her audience’s unexpected encouragement. Bearing witness to Owens’s “‘making do’ moment” (54), in turn, convinces us of the importance of nurturing children, even at the least convenient moments. 

Domestic enargeia colors Marquez’s and Danberg’s articles as well, even as these pieces take more critical stances toward parent-scholars’ work lives. Marquez, for example, cautions readers about arranging a work schedule to accommodate a family schedule (77). While her husband taught high school during the day, she taught her classes in the evening, with each alternating parenting and teaching. Although this schedule “fit securely in the nook of our family life,” she reports, “the research and writing of my dissertation and securing a job did not” (77). As Marquez points out, flexible working hours can hinder mother-scholars’ productivity, as their most valued professional responsibilities can be overshadowed by a partner’s working hours or classes with finite meeting times.10 Marquez nevertheless closes her essay with a description of writing while her daughter Libby bangs on a Sesame Street laptop: “she looks at me, delighted with her nearly-toothless grin” (84). In highlighting Libby’s imitation of her mother, the domestic enargeia shifts the narrative toward the rewards of parenting. Working mothers’ material needs—for office space, technical resources, focused work time, and collegial interaction—are eclipsed by Marquez’s cozy pairing of writing and childcare. Likewise, for Danberg, a single father and visiting faculty member, domestic enargeia directs readers’ attention away from his career precarity. He refers to “moments of dinner and dishes, papers to grade . . . . remembering that I need to get GoGo a snack for her class tomorrow, to find cash to rent Rubin’s cello” amidst writing and lesson planning (72). “At that moment,” he writes, “I am in the midst of wanting what I have” (72), signaling gratitude for his engagement in his children’s lives.

Taken together, the Composition Studies articles inculcate a set of values that has become a staple of mother-scholar narratives: working in close physical proximity to our children is advantageous, our parenting can productively inform our teaching and scholarship, and our children’s development is a marker of work-life balance. While I share these values to a degree, I also find them consistent with the intensive mothering Hays and Douglas and Michaels critique. Nickoson works at the campus Starbucks near Olivia’s preschool if “it is not too crowded,” sitting at “a small corner table,” where she maximizes “sacred three-hour blocks of work time” (43-44). Faced with a missing babysitter and an immanent presentation, Owens doesn’t mention an alternate caregiver or a pacifier (54). Despite the frustrations of writing “inside the baby corral with my laptop to my right, and [her son] Nate and blocks and books, and balls to my left,” Marquez works alongside the same corral with her daughter (78). Danberg learns to want what he has, masking his aspirations, and calls it “mothering” (68). Presented together in a special issue, the Composition Studies portraits exert a homogenizing force: the parents look remarkably similar in their interactions with children. They write and grade alongside their kids, they cover personal and professional sacrifice with vivid descriptions of cuddly babies and inquisitive children, and they imply that their choices, however limiting, are worth it. Moreover, their reliance on domestic enargeia compels emotional and imaginative engagement. Just as readers would do well to question the stories’ orthodoxy, scholars interested in extending the conversation about parenting in the profession ought to consider more expansive and inclusive rhetorical strategies, as some are starting to do.

Envisioning Alternatives

The mother-scholar genre has shown some promising new directions in recent years. It has become more attentive to the institutional and structural dynamics affecting mothers (and sometimes fathers) and more willing to situate motherhood in relation to intersectional identities. Narratives are more likely to voice parental challenges and dissatisfactions while offering more nuanced portraits of the children themselves. New rhetorical strategies, mediums, and methods have accompanied this growth. Alexandra Hidalgo’s video work, for example, locates academic motherhood in the contexts of multiculturalism, culture loss, and feminist activism. Her footage brings viewers directly into her family life, enabling us to watch her interactions with her sons. We are starting to see more attention to diversity in conventional print scholarship as well, as is the case in Krystia Nora, Rochelle Gregory, Ann-Marie Lopez, and Nicole A. Williams’s “Surviving Sexism to Inspire Change: Reflections from Mothers on the Tenure Track.” In offering a sample size “of more than 200 Rhet/Comp tenure track mothers” (136), Nora et al.’s heterogenous composite informs the study’s call for improved workplace policies. Parents’ experiences are also getting traction in venues that are not specifically geared toward family considerations, such as Christine Tulley’s How Writing Faculty Write. In her interview with Tulley, Jessica Enoch encourages mother-scholars to prioritize “the structural piece” of university policy “rather than evaluating if you’re being a good mom or not” (67).11 That said, generic change necessitates both invention and convention. Even as mother-scholar representations are shifting, an undercurrent of domestic enargeia inheres, appealing to readers through its happy domesticity. To illustrate how innovative, critical narratives can function within existing rhetorical patterns, I reflect upon Hidalgo’s 2016 video essay “Alto Precio: Love, Loss, and Rebellion in Raising Bilingual Children.”

Alto Precio” centers around Hidalgo’s preschool son William’s “stated desire not to speak [Spanish] anymore” and his mother’s commitment, as a cultural rhetorics scholar, to sharing her home language (00:01:22-25). Through her intimate relationship with bilingualism, Hidalgo draws attention to the power differential between dominant and minority languages and the complexities her son faces as “the child of a Latina and a gringo living in Michigan” (00:23:15-17). Hidalgo’s narrative pairs the personal with broader cultural critique. She supports her decision to “keep pushing [William] toward embracing Spanish” (00:01:20-22) with references to scholarly and popular accounts of bilingualism and through interviews with her Venezuelan mother. Translated, Hidalgo’s title “Alto Precio” refers to a “high price,” and her orientation to struggle and achievement is especially striking. In contrast to the “making it” moments interspersed throughout the Composition Studies reflections, Hidalgo readily acknowledges the cracks and fissures in her experiences. These mainly revolve around William’s assertions—all expressed in Spanish—that he finds the language inadequate: “[I]t doesn’t sound good” (00:14:59); “I don’t like it” (00:15:42); “I don’t want it” (00:15:52). Hidalgo doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the complexities of William’s experiences, nor from addressing the structural barriers to her literacy sponsorship. Obstacles like the prohibitive expense and security concerns associated with travel to Venezuela, William’s monolingual school with its weekly Spanish lesson, and his grandmother’s awareness that her relationship with him suffers because he must speak to her in Spanish are readily incorporated into Hidalgo’s project. When she asks, “is all of this wondering and strategizing worth it?” (00:22:59-23:02), she licenses uncertainty, resisting mother-scholars’ conventional depiction of triumph over adversity.

At the same time, Hidalgo’s work arguably calls upon domestic enargeia to move viewers.12 By offering video footage in place of verbal description, the medium enables direct observation. We literally see Hidalgo’s homelife, which spurs our affective response. Her narration accompanies footage of family walks through a wooded park, gatherings with family and friends, and scenes of her children playing on floors strewn with educational toys. Her husband Nate consistently appears on screen. A sense of family solidarity and parental partnership emerges from these scenes. The language of video compounds our engagement, particularly the ample close shots of William’s expressive brown eyes and impish smile. Hidalgo’s camera foregrounds William’s perspective, often panning from a broader scene—including one in which Hidalgo discusses bilingualism with Victor Villanueva—to a close shot of William playing in the background. Thanks to Hidalgo’s editorial choices, we witness her son’s verbal challenges to his mother as if we, too, are in the room. The domestic enargeia, in turn, invites our participation in Hidalgo’s negotiations of language, power, and parenting.

Alto Precio” offers some notable revisions to the mother-scholar genre: the use of new media allows for fresh storytelling possibilities, the narrative grounds personal challenges and accomplishments within broader cultural contexts, and the work’s representation of a Latina mother diversifies the field’s portraits. Yet Hidalgo’s strategic visual appeals also reveal the profession’s entrenched pattern of domestic enargeia. We see a mother who thrives by doing academic work in the presence of her children, even if filmmaking is her scholarly work and her position behind the camera masks it. While Hidalgo expresses her frustrations with her parenting, she demonstrates considerable accomplishment in shooting video while tending to two boys in two languages, gesturing toward a characteristic narrative of personal achievement. She features a heteronormative home with all the trappings of middle-class privilege. These seemingly inescapable conventions raise ethical questions about domestic enargeia’s construction of academic motherhood even in progressive accounts, especially regarding which members of the field it addresses and whom it excludes.


As Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith argue in their discussion of the rhetorical topoi surrounding work, the “mutual construction of work, gender, and technology is not accomplished strictly through material means, but through rhetorical interventions that strengthen certain material arrangements and weaken others” (215). Domestic enargeia constitutes such a “rhetorical intervention.” By bringing images of intensive mothering to the profession, domestic enargeia constructs working motherhood in relation to childcare. Typically invoked in moments of physical or emotional separation, it plays to maternal exigencies in order to normalize the practice of working alongside one’s children. The field would thus be well-served by considering domestic enargeia’s implications for labor, diversity, and professional participation.

Domestic enargeia, I fear, makes mothers especially susceptible to our workplaces’ gender asymmetries. When mother-scholars treat proximity to children as a source of personal and professional fulfillment, their narratives depict our work as capably done in the company of children, repeatedly stopped and started to tend to others’ needs. The parallels between individual flexibility and exploited flexible labor should not be overlooked: an assumption that one can work at others’ convenience, subpar working conditions, lost opportunities for professional advancement, and inequitable financial remuneration. If mothers accept these limitations, we devalue our labor, a risky move in an academic culture with an established wage gap between men and women (Hatch). To publicize this representation at a moment when universities are looking to streamline budgets seems particularly imprudent. In addition to the potential personal costs, the association of writing studies with the domestic sphere fuels institutional stereotypes about the field’s academic rigor (see Miller 51-55). These assumptions impact women disproportionately. Whether we work in departments that identify as writing, English, or humanities, women in rhetoric and composition still face the “nurturing trap”: increased mentoring and advising assignments along with a perceived approachability that makes us vulnerable to unrewarded emotional labor (Ballif, Davis, and Mountford 88-89).13Recognizing how domestic enargeia sustains gendered labor disparities, in turn, may help us to complicate our self-representations.

If domestic enargeia is troubling for the caretaking it reveals, it is also concerning for the perspectives it omits. In appealing to an audience that desires nearness to children and has the socio-economic resources to provide it, domestic enargeia normalizes a privileged vision of mothering. Its practices for balancing work and family, however, don’t apply across the profession. While my nonconformity with the narratives’ portraits is attributable to clinical anxiety and a healthy, if demanding, child, other mother-scholars struggle with more pressing obstacles: inconsistent employment, cramped domestic space, racial and ethnic discrimination, children with disabilities, absent (or present) spouses, elder care, blended or non-heteronormative family structures. Such stories are silenced by domestic enargeia’s prescription for maternal devotion, doubly so because scholars excluded from the established norm may lack the resources or inclination to write about their parenting. Cultivating parenting narratives that authorize a greater range of experiences will be an important challenge for the field to take up.

The omission of queer perspectives merits particular attention. Queer, trans, and gender-fluid academics have children. Yet rhetoric and composition scholars who have used queer theory to examine parenting have focused on its absence, such as Harriet Malinowitz’s “Unmotherhood” and Maria Novotny’s “Failing Fertility.” While these essays interrogate maternity, they draw an equivalence between queerness and childlessness: Malinowitz, a self-identified lesbian, links her “unmotherhood” to reproductive choice (13-18), and Novotny, a “cisgendered heteronormative woman,” uses queer theory to “evolve the rhetoric of infertility” (194-95). Their work upholds the field’s association of parenting with heteronormativity, an unfortunate consequence for authors who adopt queer theory’s resistance to binary thinking. Indeed, Malinowitz and Novotny are on tricky rhetorical ground. The heterosexism surrounding mothering stories infuses critiques of them, including my own. Scholars who have been written out of the field’s parenting narratives would be well-served by David L. Wallace and Jonathan Alexander’s awareness that “articulating a non-normative or queer sexual identity means much more than adding a secondary discourse” (802). This “complex literacy practice,” they write, requires “resist[ing] normalizing rhetorics of identity and family” while also “transform[ing] the discourses” (802). Specifically offered as a description of queer rhetorical agency, Wallace and Alexander’s remarks speak to the intricacies of rewriting any received narrative. Revising the mother-scholar genre to include queer and other underrepresented perspectives may necessitate rehabilitating domestic enargeia, subverting it, or doing away with it entirely. 

Naming domestic enargeia’s current rhetorical dominance helps writers and readers alike to confront its limitations—an unqualified celebration of nurturing, the exclusion of multiple stakeholders, and the promotion of gender roles and sexuality stereotypes. Given its spurious representation of the profession, domestic enargeia merits cautious treatment and selective use. I’m hopeful that future scholarship will put parent-scholars’ mosaic of experiences into productive conversation. One practice would be for conference organizers and editors to sponsor presentations and publications that solicit a range of voices and rhetorical methods, situating instances of domestic enargeia within broader contexts that diffuse their dominance. Another would be to actively seek insights from mother-scholars and other scholars whose perspectives cannot be rendered through domestic enargeia’s white middle-class (hetero)normativity: the underemployed, the too-busy-to-write, mothers of color, fathers, queer and non-binary parents, the neurodiverse, and the differently abled. Taken together, these feminist interventions have the potential to transform the field’s parenting narratives into a site for inclusivity work. By remaining mindful of the limits of domestic enargeia, we stand to make rhetoric and composition a more hospitable place for future generations of scholars and their dynamic family arrangements.


  1. I use the term mother-scholar throughout this essay to reflect the prevalence of mother-scholar narratives in the profession. While I recognize the term’s exclusion of academic fathers and gender nonconforming parents, the scholarship has continued to highlight women’s parental roles, likely because of ongoing professional inequities surrounding childbirth and maternity leave. For a discussion of institutional gender bias related to parenting, see Ballif, Davis, and Mountford (174-75) and Connelly and Ghodsee (7-8).
  2. Kate Pantelides’s 2013 CCC column “On Being a New Mother–Dissertator–Writing Center Administrator” soon followed.
  3. Composition Studies editor Jennifer Clary-Lemon readily acknowledges this dimension of the pieces, referring to one reviewer’s critique of their “middle-class family archetype” and noting the “radically-changed economic climate” since the publication of Women’s Ways (11).
  4. See Heinrich Plett’s study of early modern aesthetics for an example of the former. Plett acknowledges enargeia’s classical origins, yet he deploys the term to emphasize literary descriptions of the visual arts rather than audiences’ responses to those representations.
  5. Following Watson’s translation of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, I use the spelling enargeia throughout. When directly quoting or paraphrasing authors who favor the alternative enargia, I preserve their intended spelling. Similarly, I have italicized terms when sources do, reserving my own italics for occasional emphasis (usually when discussing the term itself, i.e., “the term enargeia”).
  6. Notably, visual texts’ immediacy also facilitates a collective response. In their introduction to Defining Visual Rhetorics, Hill and Marguerite Helmers describe how television coverage of historical “points of crisis” galvanized affective involvement through implied eye witness experience (3). The live broadcasts associated with Vietnam, the Gulf War, and 9/11, they explain, generated a vicarious presence that spurred “a national consciousness of being together as a community” (3-4).
  7. Depictions of children and their caretakers are well-suited to considerations of enargeia because of their characteristic pathos. Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee cite reporter Scott Maxwell’s “Driving on Daytona Beach” to define enargeia in Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students:

    Four-year-old Ellie Louise Bland was doing what most any little girl would do during a glorious day at Daytona Beach this past Saturday—dashing here and there, playing with her family and soaking in the sunshine and salt air. . . . One moment she was holding her uncle’s hand. The next, a Lincoln Town Car driven by a 66-year-old visitor from Georgia ended her life. (185)

    Maxwell’s use of enargeia, Crowley and Hawhee explain, “casts new light on the argument [regarding driving on Daytona Beach] by invoking the innocence of children and the tragedy of their untimely deaths” (186).

  8. Lynn Worsham’s profile speaks to this generational difference and its implications for younger women’s expectations, which are often disrupted by “faculty in positions of power and influence who [still] discriminate against women professors, especially those who start a family while on the tenure track” (316).
  9. Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s subjects’ pets receive as much attention as children. See, for example, Selfe’s discussion of her Sunday “doggie potluck scrum” with Gracie and Bosco (167, 304), or Worsham’s description of her “companion animals,” including her Abyssinian kitten Pickle (319). Other examples include Glenn’s dog Charley (167) and Sharon Crowley’s cat Lady (163, 226).
  10. Connelly and Ghodsee make a similar observation, cautioning readers that “the trap of flexibility” can prompt women to tend to household responsibilities rather than devoting uninterrupted time to their scholarship (25).
  11. Enoch’s recent Domestic Occupations locates these structural considerations historically, examining how the discursive constructions of home shaped women’s relationship to the workplace during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  12. Hidalgo’s 2017 documentary Teta, a breastfeeding advocacy film about her 22 months nursing son Santiago while working as an assistant professor, follows suit.
  13. Heinert and Phillips’s recent work provides a comprehensive discussion of feminized labor and gendered service, calling for a revaluation of service as a source of institutional sustainability.


I am grateful to the Peitho editorial team and blind reviewers for their generative feedback on multiple iterations of this essay. I thank my friend and fellow mother-scholar Sue Loewenstein for her guidance throughout the project.

Works Cited

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“She Is Not Thoroughly Practical”: High School Alumnae Shaping Domestic Science in the Progressive Era

In a democratic time and a democratic place, before a democratic audience, it seems to me fitting that I should select a democratic subject, so I have chosen one which to my mind represents the flower of democracy—‘The High School Girl.’…The High School girl of Louisville is fortunate in having an elder sister to look up to and to advise with in educational, literary and civic matters. She is further assisted in her community training by her elder sister—the alumnae girl.

—Anna J. Hamilton, Female High School alumna (1899)

Speaking at the 1899 dedication of a new Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) building, notable alumna Anna J. Hamilton introduced her audience to what were becoming two key figures in her city: the high school girl and the alumna woman. While Hamilton’s focus was nominally on the former, whom she calls the “flower of democracy,” her shift instead to emphasize the alumnae club and to effectively criticize the high school girl as “not thoroughly practical” in the remainder of her speech reveals an interesting and complicated relationship between these groups which, while close and genealogically connected, had different and even competing interests and needs. The relationship and tensions between high school students and graduates informed and complicated the club’s curricular reform efforts at the turn of the century, revealing much about the function of women’s clubs and the broader pedagogical reforms shaping women’s educational experiences at the turn of the century, particularly domestic sciences.

In this article, I focus on LGHS’s Alumnae Club to ask: How did women’s high school alumnae clubs’ successful rhetorical appeals contribute to the reformation of high school curricula, particularly in regards to domestic sciences? This project brings American high schools into the rhetorical analysis of Progressive Era women’s club work, recognizing the role of the high school in promoting the cultures of service and the rhetorical skills that undergirded the club movement, and, in turn, recognizing the influence of club work on high school curricula and reform.

While Anne Ruggles Gere, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Shirley Wilson Logan, and others have documented the important role of women’s clubs as part of women’s extracurricular learning, providing a space for women’s rhetorical education when more formal outlets were often closed to them, the culture of women’s clubs also became a more formal part of the turn-of-the-century high school experience. In the high school alumnae club, extracurricular and curricular spaces overlapped as students brought club work into the school and graduates used their rhetorical training from high school and the support of the alumnae club to effect curricular change for subsequent students (see Blair; Scott; Beard).

Historians of writing, education, and women’s clubs have each addressed the important work of alumnae clubs for college and normal school students in the past (Bordelon; Farnham; Jeansonne and Bridwell-Bowles; Gordon; Ritter; Scott; Solomon). As L. Jill Lamberton explains, these clubs did more than “simply engag[e] in intellectual formation or rehears[e] new knowledge;” they “changed institutional culture and social expectations through their extracurricular writing practices” (562). The same can be said of extracurricular club work at the high school. Yet little work has been done on high school alumni and alumnae clubs to date. This omission is likely because high school clubs were often not as established and robust as Louisville’s, and they were also often not single-sex organizations (complicating their relationship to the larger women’s club movement that has otherwise been more broadly studied). Among the list of federated women’s clubs from the first decades of the twentieth century, only a small number are identifiable as alumnae clubs, let alone high school alumnae clubs. And the dissociation of these clubs from larger networks or organizations (such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) means that their activities and records may not have been structured and preserved in ways that make them readily available for researchers to study today. Nonetheless, alumnae (and alumni) clubs were pervasive in American high schools, and they are important to recover because they represent a rich site of women’s education and rhetorical practice, merging formal school learning (of “girls”) with informal club-based learning (of “women”) in the students’ home communities. Thus, Louisville’s records—scant as they themselves may be—provide a rare glimpse into the work of a local high school and women’s group in shaping the curriculum available in their community—thereby suggesting potential insights into the experiences of other communities and students as well.

Studying these alumnae clubs is also important for feminist rhetoricians because the high school, more broadly, is a valuable site of research for understanding the history of women’s education. With women in the majority among their graduates from the 1870s until well into the twentieth century, high schools have been an important site of advanced literacy and learning for American women, providing educational opportunities akin to and even, at times, exceeding those of colleges and normal schools in the nineteenth century (Graves xvii). Further, of course, a great deal more women attended high school than college, with women’s high school graduation rates outpacing that of colleges by more than 4 to 1 in 1870 and more than 20 to 1 by 1900 (with both groups expanding exponentially over the intervening decades) (Snyder). The experiences and perspectives of these students are valuable to understanding the history of formal and informal rhetoric and literacy instruction.

Here, I analyze alumnae club members’ rhetorical efforts to reconstruct the culture and pedagogies of the public high school for these students by supporting domestic science instruction. I focus on the early years of the Progressive Era—a term I use as a rough chronological marker of the years spanning from the1890s through the 1920s; I refer to Progressive Era reforms as those heterogeneous reforms initiated during this time, rather than to indicate a singular or coherent ideological reform movement. As historian Daniel T. Rodgers argues, and as this study supports, the political and ideological currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are too complex and internally contradictory to be cast as a singular “movement” (114). Still, the designation of the “Progressive Era” remains useful for marking a period of sweeping ideological, organizational, and pedagogical reforms in the US, of which high school curricular reform represents a prime example.1

Focusing on the early years of the Progressive Era, prior to the widespread adoption of domestic sciences in high schools, I unearth the tensions and contradictions inherent in these reform efforts by analyzing the public commentary of Alumnae Club leaders. I begin by introducing the club and the domestic sciences school it established and ran from 1898 to at least 1910, at which point domestic sciences were adopted by the high school. To better understand the impetus behind this reform, I provide an outline of its relation to the broader manual education movement, both locally and nationally. I then briefly analyze a notable speech by alumna Anne Hamilton, whose language lays bare some of the pitfalls of domestic science discourse in relation to broader educational goals and trends. I argue that the position of reformers such as Hamilton as alumnae (responding to their own needs as women rather than as students) and as clubwomen (espousing the broader values of the club movement) contributed to increased vocationalism in their conception of domestic sciences for the schools. I conclude by briefly following the adoption of domestic sciences curriculum in the high school and the concomitant social circulation of the club’s values of extracurricular learning and service in the school’s yearbooks by the beginning of the twentieth century, just as domestic sciences blossomed into a national movement. By the first decade of the twentieth century, club work and domestic sciences were increasingly pit against traditional academics of the school, creating a complicated legacy of gendered academic culture in their wake.2

The Establishment of the Alumnae Club

Opened in 1856 as Female High School (alongside Male High School of the same city), the school that came to be called Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) was the first—and for a long time the only—public high school for young women in Louisville, Kentucky. Considered the women’s equivalent of the collegiate courses offered to men through the Male High School, the women’s school instructed students in advanced rhetoric and composition studies alongside the Latin, sciences and mathematics courses that made up what was called an English curriculum (see Lueck). This course of study was framed as integral to the development of learners who would need practical knowledge to contribute to their jobs, communities, homes, and families. But even with its “practical” and “democratic” ethos, LGHS was tacitly an elite institution, available exclusively to white women, largely of the middle and upper classes, and never more than 10% of the high-school-age population until well into the twentieth century3. Students of the school were not insensible to the privilege that their education represented, particularly for women of the time, and they established an alumnae club to further extend their own educations and to benefit other women in their community who may be less fortunate4.

As an early trailblazer among high school clubs, though, the new club’s role and identity was not immediately clear, and there were few models to follow. According to later reminiscences in the school’s literary annual, there had even been initial resistance to the idea of supporting a formal alumnae club for a public high school: though some girls had been holding meetings, the suggestion of “a more formal organization with dues…was received with horror and much talk was indulged in, to the effect that it was not proper for the Alumnae of a public school to ask its members to pay dues” (The Record 23). In short, the idea of paying dues for club membership chafed with the girls’ sense of the democratic values of a free public high school. The prospect of paying dues may have also highlighted existing concerns about social class among students, which were reflected also in the rules of the school board around the time of the club’s establishment.5

For whatever reasons, the young women eventually resolved that it was important and valuable to support the club, dues and all. Established in 1878 under the direction of Principal George A. Chase and then united as a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and a founding member of The State Federation of Women’s Clubs of Kentucky in 1894, LGHS Alumnae Club was formally incorporated in 1898 with a purpose that was both inward looking (towards their shared LGHS experiences) and outward looking (towards their further education and service): “The united efforts on the part of those acknowledging a common Alma Mater, for self-improvement, for the progress of the organization, and for the best and highest interests of the community” (The Record 23). Alumna Anna Hamilton underscored the explicitly educational mission of the club in providing a “further means for the higher education and culture of its members and of the High School girls to bring to them the college and the university, since only a small per cent. of our graduates can avail themselves of the advantages of college life,” and providing the broader community with “the advantage of this same culture development” (Hamilton 11). In this way, the experience of the high school alumnae club paralleled that of college clubs that served to extend the higher learning of their members, as described by Scott: “While women all over the country were busily engaged in trying to make up for their lack of formal education, a small group of women college graduates created an organization for mutual support to carry on the education college had begun” (Scott 121).

The LGHS club supported the higher learning of high school students, alumnae, and the community through various programs. They hosted lecture series and debates on intellectual, cultural, literary, and political topics throughout the year—including a discussion on “Is Woman Shirking Her Duties?,” “The Study of Music Abroad,” and other topics—bringing together students, alumnae and others under the mantle of advanced education (Reports [1895] 82). By the turn of the century, the club was a major force among Louisville’s women’s clubs and a leader in the extension of literacy through the promotion of such public lectures, reading groups, and scholarships, along with other civic, environmental, and educational projects.

The club was also centrally involved in the work of the high school. From at least 1864, the club was regularly featured as part of the commencement ceremonies and other special high school events, and reports of their activities were published along with the annual school board reports for the high school and district. The Superintendent introduced these reports in 1895 by averring that the club’s work had “exercised a wholesome influence upon the school and community” (Reports [1895] 81). The club was even featured regularly in the student yearbook from its first publication in 1908. A full page spread of that first issue pictures the Alumnae Club officers framed by elaborate decorative sketches that far outdid the presentation of the graduates themselves, evidencing the conception of alumnae as a valued part of the school community (see Figure 1). By 1910, the club boasted 215 members, making it among the five largest women’s clubs in Louisville, though membership declined in the years following, down to 137 members in 1916, back up slightly to 186 members in 1918 and 1919, and declining thereafter (Winslow)6.

The inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS's yearbook, features portraits of the Alumnae Club leaders.

Fig. 1. Alumnae Club leaders in inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS’s yearbook. From the author’s collection.

Domestic Sciences as Manual Education

The Alumnae Club used their intimate relationship to the high school to further one particular educational reform initiative that many clubwomen held dear: domestic science7. Domestic science was an outgrowth of the broader manual education movement, which had circulated in the educational discourse of the Louisville public schools throughout the century, and which culminated there in the opening of a prestigious Manual Training High School for boys in 1892. Inspired by emerging scientific methods and challenging traditional approaches to learning (such as recitations), manual education, as the name suggests, encouraged students to use their hands to discover and engage the world around them. Advocates saw hands-on learning as a way to integrate mind, body, and spirit in a more holistic approach to learning, and so the movement promoted using your hands and body to learn, not developing particular skills or preparing for specific jobs. Indeed, against fears that manual education would limit students’ future prospects to specific manual careers, advocates in Louisville resolutely insisted that “a full course [of manual training] will better qualify a boy [or girl] for any business he may want to follow in after life” (Reports [1895] 89). In alumna Anna Hamilton’s words, the purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12).

Many women’s clubs across the country were invested in manual education as a key issue in education reform as well. Gesturing towards its popularity as a flagship issue for clubwomen, manual education (or manual training) is mentioned in 14 state profiles of women’s club activities in Croly’s The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America in 1898, and is numbered among the primary focuses of federated women’s clubs nationwide.

The manual education movement was the precursor to domestic sciences, which was simply gender-specific manual education8. As historian John L. Rury describes, domestic sciences and home economics courses—established in public schools from the late 1870s—were, like manual training more broadly, also not about what we would call “vocationalism,” but instead were grounded in this earlier, more capacious notion of manual education: “Contrary to the impression given by advocates of home economics later, these early courses were not intended to give women training for the home. Instruction in the domestic arts was simply viewed as another context in which young women could learn manual dexterity and practical lessons about science” (23). For example, Liz Rohan describes the “problem method” of domestic arts and sciences courses as emphasizing the “relationship between thinking and doing” that de-emphasized skills and promoted invention strategies such as a deep knowledge of design as precursors to significant projects (86). As Rohan demonstrates in her analysis of domestic arts curricula, “domestic arts [and sciences] educators made efforts to fuse the development of skill with the acquisition of liberal arts knowledge” (92).

Women saw particular success in advocating for domestic sciences instruction from within their clubs, “establishing courses and departments of domestic science in educational institutions, from vocational schools to the university” (Beard 12). Citing the beginnings of this movement to early sewing and cooking classes in the 1870s, Mary Ritter Beard explains:

Women have been supporters of this movement from the beginning and the Federation of Clubs early took an aggressive position in favor of such addition [sic] to the school curricula. “What you would have appear in the life of the people, that you must put into the schools,” is the idea they had in mind. (11)

Domestic sciences “fit with Progressive ideals aligning work and school and also with the persisting hegemony locating women’s work in the home” (Rohan 88). At the same time, with the strong Progressive Era connections between “the betterment of the home and society,” the idea of domestic sciences moved easily into other realms, such as the work of “municipal housekeeping” for which clubwomen became known, and “graduates of home economics programs did forge their way into the paid workforce” as well (Rohan 88; also see Stage 29). Thus, the interest of the Alumnae Club in domestic science would have reflected a wide range of associations and values that are by no means confined to work in the home9.

Alumnae Club president Mrs. J. Marshall Chatterson got the idea of offering domestic sciences courses at a meeting of clubwomen held in Denver, and by November 1898 fundraisers were underway to support their own alumnae-run school dedicated to these courses (“Kitchen Gardens”; Murphy). The school, which was reportedly the first of its kind established by a woman’s club in the United States, offered classes on the care of the house, laundry, kitchen, dining-room and table, practical sewing, and plain and fancy cooking, targeted to a range of audiences from “society women” and “society girls” to children “in poorer walks of life in order to prepare them for intelligent domestic service in any capacity” (1908 Record; Murphy; “Out Go the Lights”). In offering these courses, the clubwomen argued that domestic science would appeal to all classes of women, and hailed domestic instruction for both homemakers and servants alike as a “solution of the much-vexed servant problem” (Murphy). The school was reportedly popular among a wide range of women, and was well supported by business owners and other prominent members of the community10. 

Building on this success, the clubwomen next desired to incorporate domestic sciences into the formal curriculum of the existing Girls High School, or even to expand their own school into a “sister institution” to the city’s Manual Training High School for boys (Murphy). Indeed, Scott observes that it was a common trend for women’s clubs to lead the way in identifying and addressing public problems or needs before turning the work over to municipal organizations in this way (125; see also Beard 11). A paper by the club president, Mrs. Chatterson, read at the Women’s Club Federation meeting in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1899 explains their goals in this regard: 

This science should be taught in the public schools. The daughters of rich and poor alike should have a thorough training in cooking, sewing and common hygiene. Then the petty trials that burden woman’s life would vanish like snow before the sunbeam. The relation of women’s clubs to household science has been to broaden and enlarge her views. The necessity for an understanding of new civic and industrial conditions has led to increasing interest in all social and economic problems with the science that teaches us how to live. Within the last five years departments of domestic science have been added to the clubs in the General Federation. When club women, schools and colleges work together for so worthy an end, progress is assured and the conquest of public sentiment is at hand. The reign of waste and indigestion, let us hope, will be speedily ended. (“Second Day’s Session”)

Calling for cooperation among the clubs, schools, and colleges aligns these institutions as partners in education and social betterment, a move that was common among women’s clubs and reflective of the Progressive Era more broadly. But this alignment of school with civic and professional practice—the idea, as Mary Ritter had said, that what you like to see in life, you must put into the schools—introduced its own problems. The problem perpetually and increasingly faced by advocates of manual education, generally, and domestic sciences, specifically, was separating the educative function from the vocational or job preparation role of such programs. That is, though advocates insisted that manual training was about developing the full individual—“mind and muscle,” as early manual advocates put it—and not about job preparation, the specter of vocationalism was never far from the conversation in many Progressive Era curricular reforms. We can observe this slippage in commentary celebrating that domestic science students were “now gaining information which will be valuable to each member all her life” (“Learning How to Cook”)—highlighting (quite understandably) the link between today’s learning and tomorrow’s needs. But the emphasis on “information” rather a broader sense of intellectual development and the almost unavoidable slippage into narrowly imagined future applications pulled reformers ever further afield from the ideals of the manual training movement at every turn11.

But what role did the Alumnae Club play in this transformation from liberal arts to vocational approaches, from education to training? What was the nature of this reform effort for these women, and what rhetorical appeals did they make in support of it? In her 1899 speech at the dedication of a new LGHS building, Hamilton explained what this reform meant to her and her colleagues, and how they saw it as further extending women’s educational opportunities in Louisville. I analyze Hamilton’s speech in relation to the larger discourse of manual education and domestic sciences to shed light on the complexity of this educational reform initiative and the role of the women’s clubs in defining and supporting it. Analyzing the discourse of the Alumnae Club below, I argue that the particular position of these women as clubwomen contributed to the slippage of domestic sciences “from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” in the twentieth century (Apple 80).

Anna J. Hamilton: “She is Not Thoroughly Practical”

Anna Hamilton was a graduate of what was then called Louisville Female High School in 1878, the same year Professor Chase, the principal of that school, first helped to arrange an Alumnae Club for graduates. Upon graduation, Hamilton went into teaching, accepting a position in the city’s Third Ward school, where she taught until about 1890, before moving into the position of Commercial Chair and then Principal of the normal school until about 1896. Hamilton returned to her alma mater, LGHS, as head of the English department in 1897, during which time she had also begun serving her first term as president of the Alumnae Club, from 1896-98.

By the time Hamilton took over as president, club work had developed as a powerful force for social engagement and change for women in Louisville and around the country. Hamilton herself twice served as president of the Alumnae club of her high school, and she also served as director of the Woman’s Club of Louisville, president of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, vice president of the Jail Matron’s Board, vice president of the advisory board of the Juvenile Court, and member of the library committee for the World’s Fair. These clubs, Anne Firor Scott explains, “provided an alternative career ladder, one that was open to women when few others were” (177).  Scott continues: “As long as women had virtually no access to the professions or business the leadership of voluntary associations was of an extremely high caliber. All the ability that in the male half of the population was scattered in dozens of directions was, in the female half, concentrated in religious and secular voluntary associations” (180). In this way, just as the high school prepared Hamilton for her significant role as a teacher and citizen, the school’s Alumnae Club prepared her for her equally significant work as a clubwoman—identities and roles which overlapped.12

Through appeals to temporal and spatial alignment between the high school girl and alumnae woman, the alumnae club worked to establish solidarity with and influence over the high school. We see these moves in Hamilton’s speech when she applies the intellectual and figurative genealogy of the “elder sister” to describe the alumnae’s relation to the high school girl, before extending it to encompass more literally biological connections as well, asserting that “Two generations have been trained in this school, and it is now not an uncommon thing to see mother and daughter sit side by side in the Alumnae Club” (Hamilton 14). While rhetorically effective, these appeals also enabled a slippage in the identities and therefore the needs of the students and the needs of the graduates, confounding what the mother or “elder sister” needed in later life with what the high school girl herself might need as a student. This is particularly true in relation to the club’s advocacy of domestic science instruction.

By the turn of the century, LGHS alumnae like Hamilton were using their curricular and extracurricular training and the platform of the Alumnae Club to advocate for domestic sciences curriculum in the high school, which Hamilton explains in her 1899 speech. An advocate of a capacious vision of manual training to develop and exercise all the senses, Hamilton explicitly stated, as mentioned above, that its purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12). Instead, it was an answer to what she saw as the limits of “intellectual and aesthetic training,” as only “one-sided training.”

“Our High School girl, alas! Is not well-rounded,” she complained. “She is not thoroughly practical. What she needs to makes her the woman she should be is manual training” (12). This complaint echoes the arguments made by advocates of the boys’ Manual High School in the previous decade, who had contended that the traditional high school “teach[es] boys to earn a living by their wits, and their wits are educated at the expense and to the exclusion of their muscle” (Reports [1895] 89).

Though advocating this broad, non-vocational version of manual education, though, Hamilton herself almost immediately slips into a vocational framing in her discussion, focused not on the development of students’ faculties but instead on their future applications. The current curriculum, she says, is equipped for the “merest minority” and “arranged to meet the requirements of professional life” (12). Already moving into a discussion of appropriate careers and applications that she otherwise disavowed, her critique here is not really that the curriculum is inappropriately vocational by being focused on professional life but that it is focused on the wrong vocation. Instead, Hamilton’s argument forwards home and civic service as the appropriate sphere for woman: “If the hand has been trained only to wield the pen and to be dexterous with crayon and brush, then she is ill prepared for woman’s sphere about which we hear so much” (12). Thus, the “woman’s sphere” of domestic and civic—rather than professional—action is held up as the appropriate vocational goal for students.

Speaking from experience within this “woman’s sphere,” the “elder High School girl,” Hamilton explains, “has discovered that she needs a practical training as does also her younger sister. So she has arranged for a course of lectures on home economies, embracing home furnishings and decorations, plain sewing and hygeinic [sic] cooking” (12). That is, the alumnae’s interest in domestic sciences originated from their own interests first—from the position of worker, citizen and, often, homemaker—not those of the student and learner, per se. This makes sense, of course: the alumnae women were creating programming that reflected their own needs and perspectives, using the club as a platform for that personal and professional development. Plus, the Progressive Era ideology further celebrated the alignment of school and work. But by focusing on the work of the home and club that they were facing in their own lives, the alumnae clubwomen were participating in the process of transforming manual education into vocational training in the high school, focusing not on the broader educative value of “habits of exactness and precision” indicative of the early manual education movement but instead training for housework, in particular. 

Indeed, the effectiveness of the appeal for domestic science may have resulted from confusion about the term itself. Sarah Stage explains that, because home economics could be “whatever anyone wished it to be—conservative or reform, traditional or innovative, scientific or domestic,” advocates “proved willing to trade on traditional views of woman’s place” in order to advance women’s opportunities—“to use traditional terms to cloak untraditional activities” (Stage 9). Hamilton’s speech undoubtedly represents such an admixture of goals and ideals.

But one concern that rises above the rest, to which domestic sciences is most clearly linked in Hamilton’s speech and elsewhere, is the “practical” interests of the Alumnae woman, which are increasingly recognized to be divorced from traditional academics. In this way, Hamilton specifically goes on to argue that “The art of furnishing a home in a sanitary and economical manner is more valuable than Byzantine or Phoenician art, and the chemistry of cooking is more fascinating and more necessary than the study of Browning”—not just proposing an addition but instead pitting the supposedly “practical” against the intellectual and cultural education of the school (emphasis mine, 13). In moments like this, Hamilton’s speech is indicative of the lapse in the discourse surrounding the home economics movement as it developed: that what was once intended to enrich education comes to be set at odds with academics, difficult if not impossible to distinguish from vocational training. What was once conceived as a curricular complement becomes a competition among subjects—an either-or proposition—even within the confines of one speech.

In the words of historian Karen Graves, we see Hamilton here advancing the development of the domesticated citizen over the female scholar by the turn of the century, which came to be evidenced in sex-specific differentiation of course offerings in the twentieth century. As Graves illustrates in a case study of the St. Louis high schools, “Once society accepted that schooling ought to differ among students so as to prepare each for her or his place in the social order, educators across the United States maintained that sex differences were an important factor in determining one’s appropriate course of study.” The differentiation of the curriculum (reinforced by extracurricular activity) “led to academic decline…, altering girls’ high-school experiences, and it served to restrict girls’ access to certain kinds of knowledge, most notably mathematics and science” (xviii). In this way, the advanced intellectual curriculum that had arguably created the engaged, political clubwomen and educators in the Alumnae Club—such as Hamilton herself—was displaced in favor of a more “practical” curriculum increasingly focused on the work of the home. 

By 1908, the graduates of LGHS were no longer learning from one uniform academic curriculum, with training in the rhetorical and pedagogical skills to develop as teachers and active civic participants, as Hamilton had. Instead, their curriculum by that time had been divided into increasingly specialized tracks, including commercial or business programs, a normal (or teacher training) program, and an academic program, which were all separately managed, sometimes administered in separate school buildings. LGHS also later did take on responsibility for domestic sciences programming from the Alumnae Club, offering a system of electives that included home economics by 1911, and by 1913, school leaders in Louisville (and across the country) were calling for a transformation of manual and domestic science instruction into overtly vocational programs (Voegtle 1-2; First Report, 79). Later still, domestic sciences would become further institutionalized into the curriculum on a national level, overseen by legislation such as the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917. LGHS offered a full four-year home economics course of study by 1924 (Voegtle 1-2).

The changes wrought to LGHS’s curriculum and culture had lasting effects for the school, which continued to develop gendered vocational offerings and even merged with the boys’ manual training high school by 1950. A later teacher and alumnae club leader would characterize the 1899 dedication ceremonies of the high school and the speeches given there (such as Hamilton’s) as marking “a new epoch in [the school’s] career, which was the beginning of increased efficiency, attractiveness and usefulness” (8). That writer remarked that Hamilton’s “prophetic language” about manual education had been “fully verified” by the time of the author’s writing in the 1930s (Girls High School 8).13 And this new pedagogical and civic epoch—which, for many commentators, came to characterize the Progressive Era more broadly—had implications for women’s writing and speaking at the high school into the twentieth century.

The Complicated Legacy of the Alumnae Club Reforms

The story I have presented here traces the fate of one high school’s Alumnae Club as they worked to reform public education in their city. In its early days, the work of the Alumnae Club had been almost indistinguishable from the work of the high school itself, pointing up the significance of such clubs in the history of women’s higher learning as they extended and shaped existing educational opportunities. But the club’s critiques of the high school in time contributed to the attenuation of academic opportunity for women students, both in terms of changed curricular offerings and the alteration of the academic culture of the school. The key here is the (inadvertent) emphasis on vocationalism. Insofar as traditional academics did not lead to many viable career paths for women, appeals to vocationalism undercut the apparent value of these subjects for students as the Progressive Era value of school and work alignment prevailed.

Encouraged to see school as a means to an end and perhaps uncertain about their access to a broader range of careers outside the home, students were no longer encouraged to see their traditional high school subjects as preparing them for meaningful engagement with and contribution to the world around them. Their club work, however, did prepare them in this way. Thus, the values and practices of club work were increasingly divorced from the academic goals that the club’s early mission had embraced, and what emerged in place of these academic subjects, in part, was the club itself, as the social and civic work they engaged there remained one of few viable professional and cultural outlets for women. Thus, in time, a club dedicated to supporting and extending academic opportunity for women became pitted against traditional academics, presenting women with a choice between engaging meaningful civic work and pursuing traditional academic success.

As the Alumnae Club and its high school counterpart, the Alethean Literary Club, became more socially and civically engaged, they increasingly pitted this engagement against more traditional academic experiences in the school. A story written by an anonymous student and published in the 1908 student annual under the title “A Tale for High School Girls” illustrates this tension well. Its narrative evidences changing ideas about gender and schooling among students, which, though not directly addressing home economics curricula, does reflect the culture of the “domesticated citizen” and the values of the club movement, including its emphasis on “practicality” and the particular notions of citizenship that influenced many Progressive Era curricular reforms.

The story begins with a flirtatious, youthful rivalry between a schoolboy and schoolgirl, Tommy and Peggy. Meeting in the street, Tommy teases Peggy for her bright red curls. But young Peggy deflects the criticism of her appearance with a boast about her academic accomplishments, which are a point of pride and identity for her in her early years: “I reckon I can spell heaps better’n you can, and I’d heaps rather know lots than be just pretty,” is young Peggy’s rejoinder (“A Tale”).

As Peggy enters high school, then, she has plans to “walk off with the honors all through High School, make a triumphant entry at Vassar, absorb a large amount of learning, and in the end become a ‘big Mathematics teacher’”—in short, to “consecrate herself to the goddess of wisdom, and become a paragon of learning” (np). Meanwhile, though, she discovers the high school’s Alethean literary club—which, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, is a more social than academic club, and which serves as the feeder to the work of the Alumnae Club. The club presents a conflict for Peggy, who finds she needs to balance her academic goals with her club goals. She learns this through watching the fate of her friend Julia, who is not invited to join Alethean because, although “she’s smart,” the girls believe she is “bound to be narrow-minded, and unentertaining, when she gives every minute of her time to lessons and improving her mind” (np). Julia is a symbol of the old sense of propriety and academic values that are transforming in the Progressive Era high school. In contrast to the ill-fated Julia, Peggy begins to neglect her studies in favor of participating in club work at school: “She worked to make the Alethean more attractive and interesting than ever. She didn’t criticize. She was enthusiastic about her school affairs. And she was enjoying life in the fullest” (np). 

One day her father intercedes in this development, reminding Peggy of her academic goals and prowess. But Peggy insists that she “couldn’t do any good studying for first honor,” and instead she is learning more in her own way through her school activities, through which she “did more for the betterment of the school than in that long ago Freshman year of unmissed Latin lessons. She still stood high in her school, but in a different way” (np). For Peggy, the idea of social engagement and “doing good” has been fully severed from the idea of academics.

Some years later, just before graduation, Peggy meets Tommy once again on the street, and the students revisit their old rivalry and banter, with Peggy averring that she can still spell better than him. Significantly, though, Tommy gets the last line of story, underscoring the moral of the tale (and, perhaps notably, his own authority to name it): 

I’m glad you’ve made up your mind that knowing lots isn’t the only thing after all….I tell you, they’re the sort of people, girls and boys, that make a school, or a city, or even a nation—that make life. It doesn’t pay to be narrow. It takes just that sort to get the most out of life for themselves, and other people, too. I certainly am glad that there is one girl who has decided not to get the first honor, and spare us from a commencement essay. (1908 np)

In this narrative moment, it is not the academic goals of the school but the broader (and vaguer) citizenship goals of the extracurricular (and club) experience that are celebrated and affirmed. Peggy’s youthful ambition is dismissed as outdated and “narrow-minded,” recognizing the real work of women as not in Vassar or in front of the math classroom but in “how much you learn to know other people, accept their view of things, and understand, sympathize with them” (np). In short, a club for extending higher academic opportunities to women is no longer the needful thing, and instead young women are invited to frame their educations specifically in terms of the domestic and social roles that they will play in their community and in their homes. One cannot help but hear echoes of Hamilton’s speech about “one-sided education,” and the call to leverage domestic sciences and club work to become “what nature intended her to be—a perfect woman” (12).

But if attention to the “practical” subjects at high schools across the country undercut academics, as Graves argues and Louisville’s history supports, the case of LGHS also demonstrates the influence of graduates over their own alma mater, accomplished through their organized action as a club. This is a story of women using an intellectual and academic club to advocate for their own educational advancement and reform, embracing domestic science as an enriching intellectual and practical area of study of which they found themselves needful. In short, it evidences the rhetorical effectiveness of these women towards a cause in which they believed. Though its legacy might be complicated from our present perspective, this story reveals women intervening in higher learning to shape it to their own needs and experiences, heralding an era of domesticated citizens that were, nonetheless, soon to actually be citizens, and—through such club work—equipping themselves to define and pursue their own interests as such.


  1. Further complexities within Progressive-era education reform include the tension between what David Labaree terms “administrative” and “pedagogical” progressives—the former shaping many of the actual policies in American schools from the turn of the century onward, while the latter has dominated the ways we speak of schooling (and also, notably, the ways we characterize what the Progressive Era itself meant, writ large). I use the term Progressive Era as a shorthand throughout this piece without further exploring these contradictions and complexities, though they are important to note.
  2. Other work on domestic science in the field (such as that of Maureen Goggin and Liz Rohan) has usefully highlighted the ways domestic science constituted its own rhetorical literacies and professional opportunities. I do not argue with this claim. In what follows, however, I do hope to show how a certain version of domestic sciences—a specifically vocational approach—produced some of the less inspiring educational outcomes often bemoaned in relation to domestic sciences and manual education in the twentieth century. As I hope to demonstrate, those pedagogies and values of vocationalism are not a necessary aspect of domestic sciences, and are actually characteristic of gendered differentiated education more broadly.
  3. The low enrollments were, in part, due to the fact that there were no compulsory school attendance laws in the state until the 1920s (see Kleber 212).
  4. Like the segregated school itself, this sense of community would also have been largely limited to white women. In this way, the LGHS Alumnae Club is unfortunately in line with the trends among white women’s clubs, which remained unwelcoming to women of color through much of their history (Scott 127).
  5. Specifically, in 1873, the school board added a disciplinary rule that “The pupils of the Female High School are expected to dress in a plain, neat style; the wearing of costly dresses and jewelry is highly disapproved by the Board of Trustees, and should be discouraged by the Faculty. It is hoped that hereafter there will be less ostentatious display of dress at the public examinations and the Annual Commencement of the school” (1873 29). This rule was noticed and ridiculed on a national level, first by the New York Evening Post and then the Boston Globe, before being reprinted in the local Courier Journal (“Girls’ Clothes” 12 August 1873). Changes in the school rules also reflect a growing awareness of students as gendered, and with gendered needs, as indicated by another new rule added at that time that “any pupil may be excused from recitation in any subject upon application of the parent or guardian and a certificate of the family physician stating that the health of the pupil is so delicate as to necessitate a withdrawal from school unless such an excuse be granted” (27). Such a rule, exclusive to the women’s high school, suggests a changing understanding of students increasingly reflective of feminine ideals of True Womanhood—pit against their ability to engage in the exertions of academic effort. In this context, the formation of a club to support the extension of literary and cultural opportunities among students might have taken on additional import, as women’s bodies and activities were becoming increasingly visible at the high school.
  6. Data drawn from several volumes of Winslow’s Official Register of Women’s Clubs: 1910-1911, p. 86; 1916, p. 88; 1918, p. 113; and 1919, p. 130.
  7. As Liz Rohan observes, “[n]aming and describing the categories of home economics is difficult” (83). I use the term “domestic sciences” throughout this piece because it is the term used by the Alumnae Club members and because it is generally presented as an umbrella term for this area of study. I use the term “home economics” or other terms when source material does so.
  8. Manual training was linked also to the kindergarten movement, and the work of the Alumnae Club’s domestic science school and “kitchen garden” is explicitly described as a kindergarten: “The students are taught in the same way that kindergarteners receive their instruction, with toys and gifts to illustrate each subject given consideration” (“Some of the Purposes”). The relationship speaks further to the broader educational atmosphere undergirding early domestic science instruction.
  9. For a complimentary argument on the complicated gains and losses of domestic science instruction, see Jordynn Jack, Science on the Homefront.
  10. Consumerism and consumer culture was a major aspect of the sense of the “home” being imagined in this program from its beginning. For example, according to several news reports and advertisements, the sale of gas ranges supported the work of the club, in part; in turn, the retailer of those ranges gave free tickets to the domestic science lectures to those who purchase a new gas range.
  11. The impulse towards practical applications of education is gendered, raced, and classed, reflective of changing demographics in the public schools; as such, the vocational transformation of the domestic science is also linked to changes in audience. As Rima D. Apple explains, “changing demographics, developments in pedagogical theory, and political circumstances transformed home economics from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” (80). In this way, a report in 1900 celebrates: “Probably the most interesting work, from a philanthropic standpoint, is that which is now being done by a large colored class organized in connection with Presbyterian mission work” (“Alumnae Club’s School of Domestic Science”). As another report further explained, “The popular sentiment throughout the city as to the introduction of sewing as a part of the curriculum for girls in the colored district schools of Louisville is that cooking and the rudiments of domestic science are needed far more than the higher mathematics by the average colored child’” (“School Chat”).
  12. Hamilton was acknowledged to be a noteworthy person in her own time. Her active professional travels and activities were tracked regularly in the local newspaper and she was also profiled in Frances Willard’s Women of the Century collection.
  13.  Some of the same language of practicality and efficiency describes Hamilton’s approach to her own English courses when she served as a teacher in the school, when her composition instruction was described as “mak[ing] the work as practical as possible…aiming at rapidity and correctness in expression” (Reports [1896] 119).

Works Cited

  • “Alumnae Club’s School for Domestic Science.” Courier-Journal June 24, 1900: B5.
  • “A Tale for High School Girls.” The Record 1908. TS. Filson Historical Society Library, Louisville.
  • Beard, Mary Ritter. Woman’s Work in Municipalities. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
  • Blair, Karen J. The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Woman Redefined, 1868-1914. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “‘What Should Teachers Do to Improve Themselves Professionally?’: Women’s Rhetorical Education at California State Normal School Alumni Association in the 1890s.” Rhetoric Review 30.2 (2011): 153-169.
  • Croly, Jane Cunningham. The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America. New York: H.G. Allen & Co., 1898.
  • Dayton-Wood, Amy. “‘What the College Has Done for Me’: Anzia Yezierska and the Problem of Progressive Education.” College English 74.3 (January 2012): 215-233.
  • First Report of the Board of Education of Louisville, Kentucky, From January 1, 1911 to July 1, 1912. Louisville: John P. Morton & Company, 1913.
  • Farnham, Christie Anne. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
  • Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.
  • Goggin, Maureen Daly. 2002. “An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sampler-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Praxis.” Rhetoric Review 21: 309 – 38.
  • Gordon, Lynn. Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era. Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Graves, Karen. Girls’ Schooling During the Progressive Era: From Female Scholar to Domesticated Citizen. New York: Routledge, 1998.
  • Hamilton, Anna J. “Speech 7 Jan 1899.” Girls’ High School: 50th Anniversary History. 1899. TS. Filson Historical Society Library, Louisville.
  • Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope and Care.’”Rhetoric Review 34.4 (2015): 391-408.
  • Jack, Jordynn. Science on the Home Front. University of Illinois Press, 2009.
  • Jeansonne, Christine and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. “Women, Work, and Success: Fin de Siècle Rhetoric at Sophie Newcomb College.” Peitho 19.1 (Fall/Winter 2016): 28-53.
  • “‘Kitchen Gardens,’ the New and Sensible Movement Started by Clubwomen.” Courier-Journal, December 11, 1898: B3.
  • Kleber, John. The Encyclopedia of Louisville. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
  • Knupfer, Anne Meis and Christine Woyshner. The Educational Work of Women’s Organizations, 1890-1960. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Labaree, David. “Progressivism, Schools and Schools of Education: An American Romance.” Paedogogica Historica 41.1-2 (February 2005): 275-288.
  • Lamberton, L. Jill. “‘A Revelation and a Delight’: Nineteenth-Century Cambridge Women, Academic Collaboration, and the Cultural Work of Extracurricular Writing.” College Composition and Communication 65.4 (June 2014): 560-587.
  • “Learning How to Cook: Interesting Class Composed of Little Girls.” Courier-Journal, April 22, 1899: 3.
  • Logan, Shirley Wilson.  Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.
  • —. “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
  • Lueck, Amy. “‘High School Girls’: Women’s Higher Education at the Louisville Female High School.Ohio Valley History, vol. 17 no. 3, 2017, pp. 44-62. Project MUSE.
  • Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.1 (2002): 99–107.
  • Murphy, Ethel A. “Out Go the Lights.” Courier-Journal, November 27, 1898: A2.
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Feminist Practices in Digital Humanities Research: Visualizing Women Physician’s Networks of Solidarity, Struggle and Exclusion


Feminist historiography of rhetoric has increasingly emphasized recovering not only individual women rhetors but also recovering the communities and collectives of women who work together (Gaillet and Gaillet; Gries and Brooke; Ryan, Myers and Jones). Following this momentum, our project studies a community of early 20th century women physicians and draws on the Woman’s Medical Journal (WMJ)—the only medical journal published by and for women physicians—as a primary source to study how women created community, shared resources, and collaborated across geographically distributed communities. Utilizing both digital humanities (DH) methods as well as critical imagination (Royster & Kirsch), we explore the ecology of this community, its evolution over time, and the rhetorical strategies that supported the building of community.

In particular, we pay attention to how women negotiated solidarity and inclusion, while remaining mindful of exclusions within this community. We ask: Community for whom? Solidarity for whom? From this archive we gain insights about community and collaboration, about the politics of in- and exclusion, and about the affordances and limitations of white feminist solidarity.

We began this feminist project because we admire how the editors of the WMJ deliberately set out to foster the community, collaboration, and professional networks of women. The journal published not only medical research, case studies, and treatment plans, but also notices, announcements, and listings of women physicians, personal and professional; women graduates of medical schools; opportunities for positions, fellowships, internships; advanced clinic training; and international travel. In short, the WMJ appears to have functioned as a print-based form of social media. We identified an opportunity to use DH methods to map key actors, institutions, and centers of activity (and power) to better understand this extensive influential social network platform of early women physicians.

Additionally, once we began closely studying the WMJ, the racist logics of the times quickly rose to our attention. We noticed the exclusions of African American women physicians from the WMJ and from the opportunities presented and documented in the WMJ. We therefore expanded our research beyond the WMJ to deliberately search for sources that document when, where, and how African American women physicians entered the medical profession and created their own professional networks. As Tessa Brown argues in her cultural rhetorics critique of white feminist discourse, there is an “ongoing and unresolved history of white supremacy in the United States women’s activism” (234). We seek to study this unresolved history by researching two overlapping, yet separate communities: those of white women physicians featured in the WMJ, and those of African American women who were largely excluded from the journal and community.

Our analysis is composed of two overlapping methods: first, we employed DH methods to create social network analyses of the community of women documented in the WMJ in the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes of the journal. From this distant reading analysis we make claims about how these white women used the journal as a means of social networking to support one another and challenge sexist institutions. We further support these claims with close reading of one smaller community that is documented in the WMJ in order to highlight the importance of attending to local contexts and analyzing the rhetorical strategies that women developed to support one another.

Because DH methods are a relatively new key tool for feminist historiography, we questioned how these tools may support feminist research practices. We asked, what can we learn about social and professional networks of women by employing DH methods? What do we learn about key actors, institutions, and centers of activity (and power)? What changes and movements can we trace over time? What can we learn when pairing DH methods with feminist rhetorical practices? What remains hidden, invisible, or excluded in the visualizations created via DH methods?

Second, we practice critical imagination to recover the African American women who were excluded from the WMJ. We conducted research beyond the WMJ to integrate African American women physicians into the social network analysis. We employ the feminist method described as critical imagination, a method that calls on scholars to search for and collect all available evidence in order to imagine, create, and visualize what might have been. In our case, this meant creating visualizations of the networks of African American women physicians based on extended research, and then superimposing those images onto the visualizations of white women’s networks. Creating an overlay of these two social networks is a practice of critical imagination that calls into relief the exclusions from the white community as well as the robust, supportive social network that African American women sustained.

Medical Education in Early 20th Century

Medical education in the US should be understood in the context of the Progressive Era (Luker). While this period was a time of dramatic and substantive social and political activism and reform, the changes made did not benefit all Americans equally. There was progress in matters such as government reform, women’s suffrage, scientific management, and academic professionalization. Simultaneously, however, racist laws and regulations were instituted that repressed and undermined opportunities for African Americans. The “separate but equal” racial segregation legalized in 1896 by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v Ferguson decision continued well into the 20th century, as did the Jim Crow laws, white terrorism that led to the Great Migration, and voter suppression.

Racism informed even one of the most crucial strides for women: birth control. Margaret Sanger’s revolutionary work in family planning, birth control options, and women’s reproductive freedom was paired with the espousing of eugenics and sterilization for population control of communities of color. Found throughout the WMJ during this time are racist medical practices and beliefs of eugenics, sterilization, and racist stereotyping.

At the time, white women physicians perceived their tireless efforts fighting sexism to be paying off. In 1900, the editors of the WMJ were buoyed by signs of progress. The number of women in medical school and women practicing medicine seemed to be increasing steadily: up to 5% of all physicians, estimated at approximately 7,000 women total (Morantz-Sanchez, “So Honored So Loved?” 232). However, by 1920 this celebratory climate had dissipated. As early as 1910, the number of women practicing medicine and attending medical school began to decline, and continued to decline for many decades. As medical historian Ellen More writes,

Between 1904 and 1915, many financially weak medical schools succumbed to external pressures to close their doors, while others—taking their cue from Abraham Flexner—drastically curtailed enrollments…Women graduates declined from 198 to 92, a decline of 54% … (“American Medical Women’s Association” 166)

The American Medical Association’s Committee on Medical Education had asked the Carnegie Foundation, led by educator Abraham Flexner, to conduct a survey of all American and Canadian medical schools. Published in 1910, the Flexner Report provided a comprehensive survey of medical educational practices and training standards, which at the time were widely variable. The report led to a dramatic tightening of the medical curriculum along with standardization of educational expectations and scientifically-based training requirements.

As a result, many women’s medical colleges began to close their doors. The new standards required more time, resources, and funding than were available to them. Within this context, the women’s rhetorical strategies in the WMJ evolved to address these additional challenges and foster solidarity among a shrinking number of women physicians within a context marked by increased struggle and marginalization (More, Fee, and Perry, “Introduction”).

In like manner, following the recommendations of the Flexner Report, 5 out of the 7 black medical schools in existence closed. In “Creating a Segregated Medical Profession: African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846-1910,” (a report commissioned by the AMA Institute for Ethics to analyze “the roots of the racial divide within American medical organizations” and published in 2009 in the Journal of the National Medical Association), the authors report that the Flexner Report led to the creation of a medical system that was “separate, unequal, and destined to be insufficient to the needs of African Americans nationwide” (Baker et al. 501) during a time when 90% of the 9.8 million African Americans living in the US lived in the segregated south (501). Further, the authors of the report, Robert Baker, Harriet Washington, Ololade Olakanmi, Todd L. Savitt, Elizabeth A. Jacobs, Eddie Hoover, and Matthew Wynia, note,

In the United States, organized medicine emerged from a society deeply divided over slavery, but largely accepting of racial inequities. Throughout this period, racism was pervasive, and pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority were common. Hospitals, training programs, and many medical and nonmedical organizations, in addition to the AMA, accepted or enforced racial segregation (510).

The AMA further institutionalized racist exclusion in the organization, the authors explain, by using parliamentary maneuvers to shift power to state medical associations in the selection of delegates, which obstructed African Americans from participation. The professional organization of women physicians would also exclude African American women from its founding in 1915 well into the 1940’s (More “American Women’s Medical Association” 169).

The Woman’s Medical Journal in Context

Published from 1893-1952, the Woman’s Medical Journal (later renamed the Medical Woman’s Journal), published research articles that report case studies, best practices, and research on medical findings and treatment. In addition, the WMJ published a range of editorial articles, reports on medical education and the status of women physicians, news items and social announcements, which were listed in sections titled “Items of Interest” and “Miscellany.” By printing editorial and miscellany content, women physicians used this venue to connect an internationally distributed community, announce professional opportunities, amplify their efforts, warn of inhospitable communities, and empower each other by outlining strategies for talking back to sexist institutions. Elsewhere, we closely analyze these announcements, noting that they include successes, collaborations, struggles, cautionary tales, and setbacks (Kirsch and Fancher). We conclude that the WMJ provides a fascinating portrait of the growing women’s medical community where “we find struggle on every page” (25-26). Along similar lines, both Susan Wells and Carolyn Skinner demonstrate, in their rich rhetorical studies of 19th century women physicians’ scientific writing and professional ethos, respectively, that these women had to negotiate the double bind of performing the feminine ethos of caregiving and a medical ethos, which required typically masculine performances that may not have been socially acceptable for women.

To use contemporary feminist language, the WMJ was conceived as being a venue for, by and with women physicians, not only “about” women. In the January 1899 volume, for example, Dr. Eliza Root1, the editor, reflects on the strides that medical women had made and articulates the hopes she has for the upcoming year and new century. She writes:

The Woman’s Medical Journal is yours for such an effort. Our mission is yours, and our columns, our strength, our influence is at your service. Let us make the year eighteen hundred and ninety-nine a memorable one to women in medicine. (10, emphasis added)

Here, Dr. Root calls upon readers to join forces and participate actively in shaping the future of the profession. Further, she urges her fellow women physicians to own the platform that the WMJ provides (“our mission is yours”), share their work (“our columns, our strength, our influence is at your service), show a united front (“with united, concentrated effort”) and advance the medical profession (a year of “great achievements”). In short, the editor appears conscious of her role as an advocate, educator, and sponsor of medical women as demonstrated in her frequent calls for action, participation, and involvement in the medical profession and in her explicit description of the WMJ as a collaborative forum for the advancement of women in medicine.

Yet once again, we note that the calls for community, collaboration, and solidarity did not include women of color. In 1915 the WMJ became the official organ of the newly founded Medical Women’s National Association (MWNA), which was a professional organization supporting women’s advancement in medicine. However, the MWNA denied membership to African American women. As More notes, “Shamefully, on the issue of racial equality in the profession, the MWNA did no more than keep pace with American health care institutions in general, most of which remained segregated until the 1960s… As late as 1939 the organization continued to reject applications for membership from otherwise eligible African American physicians” (“American Women’s Medical Association”169).

Employing Digital Humanities Methods: Affordances and Challenges

In rhetoric and composition, numerous research projects have utilized distant reading methods in order to visualize large-scale shifts in technology (Denson; Palmeri and McCorkle), rhetorical trends (Faris; Gatta; Gries), and social networks (Mueller “Grasping”; Mueller Network Sense). The power of DH methods, and distant reading in particular, lies in the ability to draw on large sets of textual data to reveal patterns, trends, and changes over time that are not visible with close reading and rhetorical analysis alone.

In an effort to better understand the history of medicine, a group of digital humanities scholars explored network analysis as “an object of study, a tool for analysis, a framework for collaboration, and a means of scholarly communication” (Viral Networks 4), not as a definitive representation of a problem or community. Used as a tool for interpretation, social network analysis offers ways for humanities scholars to “approach a problem in a different way, or understand what is missing in their sources or interpretations” (Viral Networks 5), identifying previously unseen connections and correlations. For instance, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Kirsch have reflected about the use of digital tools for studying the WMJ with the goal of “stepping back from the specificity of rhetorical analysis of artifacts and processes of communication to gather other layers of evidence in order to detect larger patterns of action” (“Social Circulation” 176).

We use digital humanities (DH) methods for distant reading because these methods can be strategic, innovative methods for studying women’s rhetoric. Jessica Enoch and Jean Bessette define distant reading as a technologically enhanced form of “not reading” that invites us into “a different way of encountering evidence” and foregrounds visual analysis and interpretation based on “pattern, repetition, and aggregation, a new type of resource” that prompts new types of questions (645).

At the same time, the use of DH methods has been taken up with care and caution by feminist scholars. Enoch and Bessette, for instance, caution us to recognize that distant reading may be counterproductive for the feminist goals of listening carefully and honoring the unique context and challenges of participants (621) and may reproduce some of the gaps and exclusions that are present in the archives (645-46). Like Enoch and Bessette, we hold reservations regarding distant reading and ask: Might distant reading reduce the complex lives of the women associated with the WMJ into simple data points on a graph? How might we attend to gaps or exclusions in the archives and reveal them in the visualizations? How might feminist rhetorical practices work with or against digital humanities methods? We offer our experience with DH for feminist research as an essay, an attempt that we enter into cautiously while recognizing its limitations.

Our methodology is further inspired by the work of Leah DiNatale Gutenson and Michelle Bachelor Robinson, who narrate their journey of searching digital archives for traces of two important African American 19th century educators, Susie Adams and Lottie Adams. As Gutenson and Robinson discovered more erasure than inclusion, they caution that even big data digital archives exclude African American women and conclude “that ‘open’ in digital spaces is not synonymous with inclusion, and in some ways it can actually be ‘closed’ to many underrepresented groups, particularly African American women” (73).

Gutenson and Robinson specifically address how digital archives are created and curated in ways that can perpetuate the exclusion and marginalization of African American women. They write,

In order to assure that the newly emerging field of the Digital Humanities and Historiography of Rhetoric and Composition attracts the work and perspectives of people of color, we must become race-cognizant multimodal scholars….We would argue that if we ignore the ways we utilize technology to construct the digital archives, these virtual spaces may continue to serve the majority culture and status quo rather than provide opportunities for revisionist inclusions. (87 emphasis ours)

Taking up Gutenson and Robinson’s critical approach to digital humanities research, we attempt to practice “race-cognizant multimodal scholarship” by revising and rethinking our distant reading methods to avoid perpetuating the exclusion of African American women physicians. Subsequently, we made the choice to read beyond the original scope of this project, the contents of the WMJ, in order to amplify the work and words of women of color, resounding within and against the discourse preserved in the WMJ. If we had used only the archival material from the WMJ, then our research would not have included any African American women. However, this is not a sign of silence on the part of the African American women physicians. Rather, the African American women were speaking loud and clear. They were largely excluded from the community of white women physicians and their published discourse.

We also recognize our responsibility as white women scholars not to perpetuate the racial exclusion of African American women in our research on women’s rhetoric. Instead, we seek to both recognize the rhetorical strategies that white women physicians employed to build solidarity in the face of severe sexism (Bonner; Morantz-Sanchez), and we seek to recognize the limits of their solidarity by calling attention to the exclusion of African American women physicians. Finally, we recover a portion of these African American women’s voices in order to listen to them speaking back to the community of white women physicians with whom they worked. It is not enough to simply note these silences, but instead, we highlight excluded African American women physicians by employing “critical imagination” (Royster and Kirsch, Feminist Rhetorical Practices) and create enhanced social network analyses that allow us to see two distinct, overlapping yet separate communities.

Analysis I:

Social Network Analysis: Visualizing White Women Physicians’ Networks in the WMJ

The first stage of analysis involved integrating both distant reading through social network analysis and close reading that situates the broader trends in particular women’s lives. As we designed our methodology, we were particularly inspired by Katherine Hayles who advocates for combining both distant and close reading to facilitate different ways of interpreting texts and discourses.

We want to emphasize that our methods began and ended with close reading. Coding hundreds of pages of the WMJ—whether a research article, an editorial, or a miscellany item— required us to gain a greater familiarity with the content because we recorded each and every item. We then used the visualizations to identify trends, patterns, and networks by viewing at a distance. These visualizations represented the discourse from a new point of view, which opened up new questions and lines of inquiry. From this new point of view, we returned to a close reading of the WMJ. This close reading allows us to view the community of women physicians in their embodied particularity and historical context.

We designed the social network analysis to visualize the relationships among people and institutions that are documented in the WMJ and that represent the relative connections among these actors2. We coded the WMJ for actors, defined as any person, group of people, or institution named in each article. Institutions most typically included medical schools and universities, hospitals, professional organizations, and state and regional medical societies, and community groups. The location of each actor on the network is determined by the number of connections: the more connections an actor has, the more centrally the actor is located in the graph.

We coded the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes because these years represent the community at the beginning of each decade3 and mark important milestones for the WMJ. In 1900, the editors celebrate their previous accomplishments and look with optimism to the new century. By 1910, the year of the Flexner Report publication, the WMJ evaluates women’s medical training, cautions women of the challenges that lay ahead, and encourages women to become active members of state and national medical associations. In 1919, the editors report on women’s efforts in World War I and the recovery work that followed, often internationally, and largely under the auspices of the American Women’s Hospital Association.

We also recognize the limitations of our coding choices: we selected only three years and were only able to include a selection of the people and institutions named in the WMJ. Subsequently, our visualizations do not include every person and institution mentioned in the journal. In addition, the editors WMJ did not include every woman physician or every important member of the community. Rather, they made choices regarding who and what to publish. Moreover, we made choices regarding the scope of our research, which affected who and what was included in the project. Hence, the visualizations do not represent the community as it was in reality or in completion. Rather, the visualizations represent a partial version of the community, as curated by the editors of the WMJ and as interpreted by ourselves as researchers.

Reading Social Networks in the WMJ

From the furthest distance, we see a discursive trend towards greater connectivity, centralization, and collaboration within professional organizations. Figs.1, 2, and 3 below illustrate this trend while also including labels that highlight select actors. To view the social networks without the obstruction of labels, see the appendix with Figs, 6, 7, and 8.

Fig. 1. The WMJ 1900 volume social network

Fig. 1. The WMJ 1900 volume social network


In Fig. 1 (above), we visualize a network of people and institutions included in the 1900 issue (see Fig. 6 in the appendix for image without the labels). This social network is relatively dispersed, with numerous smaller clusters distributed across the image. Dr. Elizabeth Backwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, is centralized and connected to many people and institutions, indicating her continued leadership among women physicians.

The institutions that are central and include the most connections are primarily women’s medical colleges, especially Northwestern and the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Often, the editors of the journal would highlight a woman’s professional credentials by listing membership and leadership roles in professional communities. The New York State Medical Association hosted professional events, which many women physicians attended.

The institution with the most connections is the American Medical Association, which women physicians were actively trying to join and participate in. At the time, the AMA appears to be the most significant professional organization for women physicians. Women were technically allowed to become members of the AMA; however, they first had to be selected and approved by their state medical society (Baker et al. 507).

Fig. 2: The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 2. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 2 (above) illustrates the social network of people and institutions included in the 1910 issue (see Fig. 7 in the appendix for image without the labels). The first change in the network shows that, by 1910, the social network appears more densely connected. There are more people and institutions tightly bound in the center of the image. Like the 1900 social network, the AMA is the central professional organization, which indicates its continued relevance for white women physicians. In addition, the AMA Health Education Committee, which produced the Flexner Report, is also central. We note another change in network: women’s organizations appear more centralized and are connected to more people, especially the Women’s Medical Societies of New York and Colorado.

As in 1900, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is a central figure. She died in 1910, and the journal dedicated many pages to documenting and celebrating her long career and many contributions to women in medical professions. Dr. Eliza Mosher also appears in the center of the network, connected to many people and institutions. Dr. Mosher was the long-time editor of the WMJ and worked tirelessly to advocate for women in medical professions.

Fig. 3: The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 3. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 3 (above) visualizes the social network of people and institutions included in the 1919 issue (see Fig. 8 for image without the labels). The most significant change in the network is that, again in 1919, the network appears even more dense with people and institutions. There is a tight, dense cluster in the center with relatively few marginal or unconnected clusters of actors.

We also note significant changes regarding what institutions are central. In 1900 and 1910, national, male-dominated professional organizations, especially the American Medical Association (AMA) and subcommittees of the AMA, are at the center. In 1919, women-led professional organizations, especially the National Medical Women’s Association (NMWA) and the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH), are at the center and include dense connections. We also find it important to note that Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, though not as central and connected, still appears toward the center of this visualization. Even 9 years after her death, the editors of the WMJ continue to invoke her name, reputation, and legacy as a mentor and trailblazer for women in medical professions.

Interpreting Social Networks in Context

It is important to interpret the trends that we see as indicative of a rhetorical discursive phenomenon. In other words, the community appears more centralized and connected in the 1919 visualization (Fig. 3) than it does in the 1900 visualization (Fig. 1). This may or may not mean that the actual community of women physicians was experiencing greater connectivity and collaboration. Rather, this visualization indicates that their rhetorical practices began to emphasize great connectivity, solidarity, and collaboration.

When we put this trend towards greater connectivity in historic context, the choice to highlight women’s organizations in 1910 (Fig. 2) and then even more so in 1919 (Fig. 3) can be interpreted as a rhetorical response to continued struggles and sustained setbacks. The numbers of women physicians practicing began dropping after 1910 and continued to decline for decades. More notes that, “From a steady rise to 6% of all physicians in 1910, the number of women practitioners dropped back to the 5% level by 1920. Never were women in medicine more in need of a powerful, united voice” (“American Women’s Medical Association” 166). In response to this decline, the WMJ placed a strong emphasis on solidarity and collective support for women in medicine.

The primary rhetorical discursive trend that this social network analysis makes visible is the important rhetorical strategy of naming. The editors include long reports naming every woman who participated in an event or contributed towards public health initiatives. They publish directories of all white women physicians practicing in a specific area, city, or hospital. Whenever they named a woman physician, they would also list her professional credentials, including degrees, places of employment, internships, and professional memberships.

The importance of these naming practices can be identified in the figures above. For instance, in Fig. 3 from 1919 the American Women’s Hospitals is central and is connected to a thick network of people. In monthly reports during 1919, the WMJ would list every woman who contributed to the vast, international humanitarian work undertaken after the end of WWI through the American Women’s Hospitals.

The naming practice is an important feminist rhetorical choice. These women likely struggled for recognition in the male dominated journals, hospitals, and local communities. The editors’ use of naming practices—identifying, listing, and acknowledging individual women physicians—serves as a record of accomplishments and praises women for their tireless and fearless work. It also establishes women’s credibility, expertise, and professional ethos (Skinner) and brings visibility to their successes and struggles.

In addition to making visible the work of women physicians, this naming practice served another rhetorical purpose: the WMJ facilitated collaboration. Readers of the WMJ could learn about the work of other women physicians and connect to these physicians and associations for support, questions, and collaboration. The connections that we see in the WMJ were not exclusively on the page. The women were gathering for meetings, to collaborate on public health projects, and to discuss medical as well as social issues. The editors included many invitations to meetings, conferences, and even invitations to tea. By choosing rhetorical practices such as naming and inviting, the editors of the WMJ made visible the labor of the women physicians and facilitated further collaboration.

In order to illustrate the importance of this rhetorical practice of naming, we examine one community of white women physicians based in Colorado. Their network is visible in all three of the years as a cluster that attached to the center through their connection to the American Medical Association and the Medical Women’s National Association. While connected to the center, this community is also located to the side of the primary central cluster, suggesting that the community is tangentially connected to the community based in New York City. In particular, it appears that Dr. Laura Liebhardt was a leader and mentor in this community, appearing in 1900, 1910 and again in 1919 (included in Fig. 1, Fig. 2, and Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Close-up view of Colorado-based women physicians from the “Denver Letter” in the WMJ February 1910.

Fig. 4. Close-up view of Colorado-based women physicians from the “Denver Letter” in the WMJ February 1910.

Fig. 4 (above) highlights this Colorado-based community and their rhetorical practice of naming. We can see the extensive—and powerful—rhetorical practice of identifying individual women physicians and their credentials. For instance, the 1910 February issue contains the annual meeting report of the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, titled “Denver Letter” (35-36). First, the report names elected officers of the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, including Drs. Liebhardt, Mary Phelps, Kate Lindsey, Lucy Wood, and Kate Yont, along with their institutional affiliations and locations (35). This network of officers is visualized in figure 4. Second, the Denver Letter includes the verbatim address delivered by Dr. Liebhardt, who, like the WMJ editor, employs the practice of identifying women physicians by name, in this case, the women working on the AMA educational committee.

Through these extensive naming practices we can trace a rich set of primary and secondary connections—the local Colorado network and the national AMA network of women physicians, with a total of fifteen women identified in the Denver Letter. Moreover, the report includes observations about the social nature of the event, stating that “the ladies then adjourned to the banquet table, where matters previously suggested were more fully discussed and where a delightful social hour was enjoyed” (35). This report represents a rich example of the continued, extensive naming practices employed by the WMJ editors and members of women’s medical societies, allowing us to trace several clusters of women physicians, both at the local and national levels.

Who Is Missing? Not Naming as a Means of Exclusion

While we note the powerful practice of naming, these distant reading methods also made visible the scale of exclusion. The visualization we created do not include any African American women. The editors of the WMJ did not name any African American women at all during the years 1900, 1910, and 1919. Thus, while they deploy a rhetorical practice of naming to support white women, they also deploy a racist rhetorical practice of not naming as a means of exclusion.

While this community supported and advocated for white women, we again ask: who may be missing from this network? And again we find the answer that African American women have been excluded. For instance, in 1901, Dr. Justina Laurena Ford became the first African American woman to be licensed to practice medicine in Colorado. Dr. Ford moved to Denver and began practicing at the same time as Dr. Laura Liebhardt, discussed above. Dr. Liebhardt’s name appears in every single social network. However, Dr. Ford’s name was not included in any visualization. She was not invited to tea nor was she included in “Denver Report” in the WMJ.

Dr. Ford practiced medicine for 50 years, becoming well-known in the city for delivering over 8,000 babies and caring for African American and immigrant patients who often would not be treated by white doctors. Dr. Ford applied for entry and was consistently denied into the Colorado Medical Society, the Denver Medical Society, the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, and the American Medical Association. This racist exclusion had real effects on Dr. Ford’s career. Only doctors who were members of the Denver or Colorado Medical Societies were permitted to practice in the Denver Hospital. Because the medical societies did not admit African American doctors, the hospitals then would also not allow Dr. Ford to practice there. Dr. Ford was persistent. She applied and reapplied for membership to the medical societies. In 1949, she petitioned again writing, “many patients wonder why I do not go to hospitals. I see it establishes an inferiority complex in their minds. It has required patience and fortitude to endure as I have, from 1902 to 1949” (letter published Riley, 37-39). After nearly 50 years practicing medicine in Denver, she was admitted to Denver Medical Society in 1950, just two years before her death.

In the next section, we will continue to address the extent of racist exclusion and also practice critical imagination so that we do not reinforce this racist exclusion in our archival research.

Analysis II:

Critical Imagination: Recovering African American Women Physicians’ Legacy

Thus far, we have interpreted what we see in the social network visualizations. As feminist scholars of rhetoric, we must also ask: Whose voices are missing? What are the gaps, blind spots, and omissions? As Gutenson and Robinson found, digital archival research may be open to all, but that does not mean inclusive of all, especially for African American women.

Royster’s and Kirsch’s discussion of archival research methods offer us the analytic concept they call “critical imagination,” which asks us to gather all the available evidence and then imagine what might have been, filling in the gaps, silences, and omissions as we learn more about the historical contexts and times. We draw on the definition of critical imagination as first introduced by Royster in Traces of a Stream, which prioritizes “a commitment to making connections and seeing possibility… and functions as a critical skill in questioning a viewpoint, an experience, an event, and so on, and in remaking interpretive frameworks based on that questioning” (83). Following this definition, we first question the viewpoint offered through the distant reading by asking “who is included” and “solidarity for whom”? From there, we continue to practice critical imagination by “remaking interpretive frameworks.” In this case, we sought to enhance our own interpretive framework, created in the first social network analysis, by “making connections and seeing possibility.” In particular, we use critical imagination to remake the critical framework so as to render visible African American women’s presence and contributions to the medical professions.

First, we compiled a list of African American women physicians practicing between 1900-1919. We identified 37 in total4. Then, we used the digital search tool in the Hathi Trust to search for these women’s names in the digital archive of the WMJ. In our original research, we included only the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes. In those volumes, the editors of the WMJ did not name, publish, or cite any of the 37 African American women physicians. In order to further pursue the presence or exclusion of African American women from the WMJ, we expanded the scope of our research. We searched every volume from 1900 through 1919 for each of these African American physician’s names.

In the 240 WMJ issues published between 1900-1919, six African American women are named:

  • three announcements of professional achievements (Dr. Nellie Benson 1903, page 95; Dr. Georgia R. Dwelle 1904, pg. 182; Dr. Matilda Evans 1911, pg. 107 and 1915, pg. 42),
  • two death announcements (Dr. Sarah G. Jones 1905 pg. 162; Dr. Susan Maria Smith McKinney Steward 1918, pg. 90), and
  • one article by an African American woman (Dr. Isabella Vandervall 1917, pp. 156-58).

The WMJ was in the practice of publishing an annual directory with names and addresses of women physicians practicing medicine in each state. None of the 37 African American women who we identified are included in these directories.

Critical Imagination: Reading the Gaps

Figs. 1 through 4 were generated computationally, using an algorithm to generate the network. Below, Fig. 5 is based on secondary research and was created using critical imagination. Starting with the list of 37 African American women physicians, we identified how the African American women physicians were connected to each other and to the medical institutions. From that research, we imagined how a social network analysis might represent this community, and overlaid these African American women and the institutions that they were a part of onto the network from the 1910 issue of the WMJ5. From this imagined social network, we highlight how the African American women were often connected to the same schools as the white women’s community, excluded from the white professional communities, and how the women supported organizations by and for African American communities.

Fig. 5: African American women physicians overlay on 1910 network.

Fig. 5. African American women physicians overlay on 1910 network.

The visualization above, Fig. 5, illustrates our critical imagining of a social network that African American women created to support each other and provide care to African American communities. Dr. Rebecca Cole was placed closest to the center of the network because she was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. She is connected to both Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Eliza Mosher because she worked with both of these leaders among white women physicians. The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) is a centralized institution for African American women as well because several African American women earned their medical degrees from this college, including Dr. Rebecca Cole, Dr. Caroline Still Anderson, Dr. Isabella Vandervall, and Dr. Matilda Evans.

While African American women physicians were excluded from many of the professional organizations and also from the WMJ, they supported each other and supported African American communities by creating and leading organizations including the National Medical Association and its journal6. We have tried to make this visible on the social network above. The National Medical Association, the professional organization by and for African American physicians, is connected to four women—Georgia Dwell, Isabella Vandervall, Caroline Still Anderson, and Matilda Evans—because all of these women were members, and both Dr. Dwell and Dr. Evans served as Vice-Presidents. In addition, these women created new organizations to support African American communities, which we highlight by drawing connections between these women and the professional organizations that they helped to found.

Next, we highlight the work of three of these women—Dr. Dwell, Dr. Evans, and Dr. Vandervall—in order to feature how each build professional networks and to highlight their struggles against racist exclusion from white women’s professional communities. We focus on Drs. Dwell, Evans, and Vandervalls’s stories because they are three of the six African American women mentioned in the WMJ, and because they were accomplished physicians and distinguished leaders in their communities.

In 1904, the WMJ included an announcement detailing that

Dr. Georgia R. Dwelle graduated in medicine recently from the Meharry Medical College, Walden University, Nashville, Tenn. She took the examination of the State Medical Board of Georgia. She gained an average of 97 and stood second in a class of about fifty. She will practice medicine at her home, Augusta, Georgia” (182).

Dr. Dwelle (1884-1977) later established the first “mother’s club” to care for and support African American mothers. She established the first African American-serving clinic for venereal disease, which was located in Athens, Georgia. Dr. Dwelle held leadership positions in professional and social clubs for African American communities. Notably, she served as Vice-President for the National Medical Association (Changing the Face of Medicine, Georgia R. Dwelle).

In 1911, the WMJ announced that Dr. Matilda A. Evans (1872-1935) was a physician in charge of the Taylor Lane Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina (107), the hospital she founded in 1901. In February 1915, the WMJ included a second announcement (pg. 42) about the second hospital Dr. Evans founded, St. Luke’s Hospital (“Historic Columbia”). This was the only hospital to care for the African American residents of Columbia, a city with over 10,000 African American residents. Dr. Evans, born in Aiken, South Carolina, grew up amidst the turmoil of reconstruction and the threat of violence from white supremacists. Upon graduating from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, she returned home, becoming the first African American woman to be licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina (Hine).

Dr. Evans built her reputation as a top-rate medical professional and committed herself to advocating for the economic and medical needs of African American communities. As medical historian Darlene Clark Hine explains, “concepts of soul, caring, racial uplift, and alleviation of suffering shaped Evans’s evangelical understanding of her medical missionary stewardship and sense of calling in Jim Crow South Carolina” (17).

Dr. Evans was denied membership and leadership opportunities in many predominantly white medical communities and professional organizations. Nevertheless, she served as the president of a state medical association, the Palmetto Medical Association. She founded the Negro Health Association of South Carolina, a nurse training program with a focus on public health initiatives, and she edited its official journal, The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina.

The commitment of Dr. Evans and Dr. Dwell to organizations for African American medical professionals also enacts the community-centered rhetoric practices that Jacqueline Jones Royster identified in the 19th century club movement among African American women:

From the shared space of club work these women articulated a ‘common good,’ charted courses of action, raised voices in counter distinction to mainstream disregard, and generated at least the capacity—if not the immediate possibility…to make themselves heard and appropriately responded to. By this process, the club women sustained their roles as critical sources of support for the educational, cultural, social, political, and economic development of the African-American community. (217)

Dr. Evans and Dr. Dwell both worked tirelessly within African American communities in South Carolina and Georgia to promote health and medical care, as well as support the next generation of women in medicine, especially the professional development needs of African American nurses, women, and children. Both women worked as actively in the medical professional as they did in education and activism, thereby serving as historical models for what Tamika Carey describes as “rhetorical healing,” the importance of education and knowledge that allows African American women to focus on self-help and wellness campaigns during the last twenty-five years.

In Fig. 4 above, we have highlighted their connections to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and the National Medical Association as well as several medical organizations led by and for African Americans. We could only include a few of these professional organizations on the visualization above. Therefore, we emphasize that these women were active leaders in many more medical communities, as well as in literary, social, educational, and religious communities, as rhetorical scholars Shirley Wilson Logan, Beverly Moss, and many others document so richly.

In the only WMJ article authored by an African American woman, entitled “The Problems of Women of Color” from 1917, Dr. Isabella Vandervall (later Vandervall Granger) describes her experience of both racism and sexism as she pursued an internship in a hospital. She argues that the new requirement of an internship was a major roadblock to African American women. She describes her experience applying to three different internships, all of which rejected her explicitly on racist grounds. One hospital sent her an acceptance letter, but when Dr. Vandervall arrived, they immediately rescinded the offer, saying, “You can’t come here; we can’t have you here! You are colored! You will have to go back!” (158).

Dr. Vandervall, who was at the top of her graduating class, turned to her trusted mentor, a white woman who taught at the New York Woman’s Medical College. In an attempt to reassure Dr. Vandervall, the woman explained that “she had never thought of me [Vandervall] as colored; she simply thought of me as one of the girls…but now that I was applying for a position as intern the situation was different” (157). This teacher’s reaction is significant because we can see the point at which solidarity was denied. The teacher accepted African American women as students and even professed to be “color blind.” However, she would not accept her own African American student to work alongside her as a colleague and practicing medical professional.

Dr. Vandervall writes with conviction, care, and commitment to her work as a physician, especially for other women of color who are so often denied medical care. She ends by directly addressing progressive white Americans:

It casts a serious reflection upon those white people—democratic and philanthropic Americans—who lavishly endow colleges and hospitals and allow colored girls to enter and finish their college course, and yet, when one steps forward to keep pace with her white sisters and to qualify before the State in order that she might do the same service for her colored sisters that a white woman does for her, those patriotic Americans figuratively wave the stars and stripes in her face and literally say to her “what do you want, you woman of the dark skin? Halt! You cannot advance any further.” I ask, is this fair? (158)

The entire letter is a critique of a racist system with a focus on Dr. Vandervall’s particular experience. In the conclusion, Dr. Vandervall broadens her critique beyond her own experience in an indictment of white people broadly and white women in particular. This conclusion is especially potent. Here, Dr. Vandervall’s speech act can be placed in the long rhetorical tradition of Black Women “talking back” which bell hooks describes as,

Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice. (9)

Because Dr. Vandervall is demonstrating her qualifications as a top medical student as well as her rhetorical skill, this letter also fits in the rhetorical tradition that Gwendolyn Pough identifies later in hip-hop as “bringing wreck,” which Pough defines as Black Women’s rhetorical performance of both resistance as well as excellence. In her conclusion, Dr. Vandervall identifies the limits of solidarity: white women may say good words and have good intentions to “give aid” to African American communities, but only as long as they remain a step behind white women. Dr. Vandervall finds that the gesture towards solidarity is revoked when African American women strive to work side-by-side with white women.

By publishing Dr. Vandervall’s critique of racist white women, the WMJ editors make at least one gesture to acknowledge racist exclusion. However, Dr. Vandervall’s experience is dismissed in the next issue. The WMJ published a response in which Dr. Emma Wheat Gillmore offers statements of empathy, while, at the same time, suggesting that the prohibition against African American women may be warranted. Dr. Gillmore both dismisses Dr. Vandervall’s experience of racism and suggests that Dr. Vandervall may lack qualifications. As medical historian More explains, Dr. Vandervall was not alone in these struggles: “few [African American women] could obtain internships; even fewer could secure one at an integrated hospital” (110). Disturbingly, many internships were denied to African American physicians well into the 1940’s.

This exclusion is just one historical example of what Kimberlé Crenshaw has identified as intersection oppression, which describes African American women’s experiences under both racist and sexist systems of oppression. African American women have been and continue to be excluded and marginalized on the basis of both race and gender. In the case of the community of women physicians identified in the WMJ, this oppression means that while white women extended solidarity and support for one another to improve the status of white women, African American women physicians were excluded, as we can see detailed in Dr. Vandervall’s article.

Our research on African American women physicians is just beginning, and we hope to have opened more questions and lines for future research. For instance, more work could be done to study the professional organizations and mentoring networks that these women engaged in to sustain themselves and support other African American physicians. Our research began with the WMJ and the white women’s community. We could ask, how might the social network analysis appear differently and lead to different conclusions if we center on the discourse and community documented in the Journal of the National Medical Association, the professional organization for African American physicians which continues to publish to this day? We have highlighted just three African American women’s lives and careers. But there were many others; more research could study their writing and social networks in order to examine how their medical practice was committed to racial uplift and empowerment of African American communities. In this article, we have focused on the relationship between white and African American women physicians, but further research could explore the complex role of international women physicians who do appear relatively regularly in the pages of the WMJ.


We initiated this project recognizing that early women physicians, struggling against severe sexism in the medical profession, built communities of solidarity that have been preserved on the pages of the Woman’s Medical Journal. As we continued to read and engage with their work, we also saw more clearly the complexity, limitations, and exclusionary practices of these white women and the community they supported. As we conclude this article, we also seek to make visible the limitations and racist practices they enacted, all the while professing solidarity among women physicians. The white women’s discourse both articulated a strong need for solidarity and gender equality, and at the same time their practices refused solidarity with African American women and perpetuated racial injustice. This is a contradiction that continues to plague contemporary feminist communities.

For our analysis, we employed two main methods: First we employed DH methods to create social network analyses of women’s professional networks over time and combined these analyses with close reading to allow for describing specific women in historical contexts. When we primarily close read, we clearly hear women’s calls for solidarity and mutual support, amplified in a resounding way from the pages of the WMJ. However, when we step back and read from a distance, we notice not only changes across networks, social conditions and influential actors, but we can also discover silences, erasures, and missing voices. With distant reading alone, we can call attention to the exclusion of African American women physicians. Two, we employed critical imagination to go beyond simply noticing absent voices and racist practices of exclusion. Instead, we decided to search for contributions of African American women physicians, foreground their writing, and locate their work in relation to the community of white women in the WMJ. Importantly, we hope to begin documenting African American women physicians’ leadership and legacy within the African American community and beyond, thereby suggesting avenues for further research.

This research is especially important now given that white feminist communities continue to fail in efforts to build solidarity with African American women and work for racial justice. As we move forward, we continue to ask about our own feminist communities: Solidarity for whom? On whose terms? Whose voices are included? And whose voices are excluded?


  1. We have added the title “Dr.” for women with M.D. degrees throughout this article because the journal editors themselves used this title consistently in their effort to establish and reinforce women’s professional ethos, credentials, and achievements. Hence, we find it imperative to honor this practice as we tell these women physicians’ stories and accomplishments more than a century later.
  2. In coding, we included up to 5 people and up to 5 institutions per article, announcement or report. For the vast majority of the articles and announcements, we included every person and institution named. However, if articles or announcements included long lists of names and institutions, then we only included the first 5 people and 5 institutions. We believe that our sample size includes the majority of the actors and is large enough to represent the general trends of the community. To make the actual visualizations, we collaborated with University of California Santa Barbara data science student, Raul Eulogia, who created the social network analysis by processing the data in R and then added interactive features using JavaScript.
  3. We included all original content of the WMJ as we coded the years 1900, 1910, and 1919 while noting two caveats. First, two months of the 1919 volume were not available through the Hathi Digital Trust, the digital archive we used for our coding and analysis. Two, we only coded from January through September of 1900 because this volume was over twice as long as every other volume. Subsequently, we coded an equal number of pages from each volume. If we had included every page of the 1900 volume, then the network analysis would be weighted towards 1900. In total, this included 30 issues, 1017 pages, and 745 separate articles or announcements.
  4. For lists of African American women physicians see Bettina Aptheker’s list of African American women graduates of medical school (100) and the Black Women Physician Project hosted at the Legacy Center archives and special collections at Drexel University. We cannot be sure of the completeness of our list of 37 women, given that the historical records are partial, and that the various numbers that we found from secondary sources vacillate between 20 to 100 African American women physicians in the late 19th and early 20th century (see Aptheker 92; Ward 53). Our list includes women physicians practicing or in medical school between 1900-1920 who were included in the Black Women Physicians Project. We also verified these names in secondary sources and double-checked for additional names in research by More, Morantz-Sanchez, and Wells.
  5. We created this overlay for the 1910 network because it allows for the best visual representation: it includes black women’s professional organizations in relation to several regional white women’s professional organizations. The networks are more spread out because the national women’s organizations were not as centralized as in 1919. Hence, we were able to create a visualization that allows us to superimpose two networks without losing readability.
  6. For a discussion of the Journal of the National Medical Association, published by and for African American physicians, see Savitt.


Our research depended on collaboration, mentoring and support from our own broad community. First, this research benefited greatly from the expertise and care of the Kairos Camp faculty, especially Cheryl Ball, Douglas Eyman, Kristin L Arola, Karl Stolley, David Rieder, Madeleine Sorapure, Jeff Kuure and the funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additionally, Patricia Fancher would like to thank the CCCC for supporting this research with an Emerging Research Grant, which offered the gift of time and technical support. The Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara supported undergraduate research assistants, Ari Gilmore and Pranati Shah. We thank Raul Eulogio, data science student at UCSB, for his expertise, time, and patience as we collaborated to create the social network analyses. Gesa Kirsch would like to acknowledge the support of a National Humanities Summer Stipend that offered her opportunity to dive deeply in the Woman’s Medical Journal. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Gesa Kirsch also would like to thank Bentley University for providing research and travel support for this collaboration. Alison Williams appreciates the research and travel support from Chapman University’s Wilkinson College, and the scholarly support particularly from Ian Barnard, Doug Dechow, and Jana Remy.

Works Cited

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  • Bonner, Thomas Neville. To the Ends of the Earth: Women’s Search for Education in Medicine. Harvard UP, 1992.
  • Brown, Tessa. “Constellating White Women’s Cultural Rhetorics: The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and Its Contemporary Scholars.Peitho 20.2 (2018): 233-260.
  • Carey, Tamika L. Rhetorical Healing: The Reeducation of Contemporary Black Womanhood. SUNY Press, 2016.
  • Changing the Face of Medicine. “Biography of Georgia Rooks Dwelle.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2015.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stan. L. Rev. 43 (1990): 1241.
  • Denson, Shane. “Visualizing Digital Seriality or: All Your Mods Are Belong to Us!.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 22.1 (2017).
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  • Enoch, Jessica, and Jean Bessette. “Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities.” College Composition and Communication 64.4 (2013): 634-660.
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  • Faris, Michael. “Assaying Queer Rhetoric: Distant Reading the Rhetorical Landscape for Queers and Feminists of Color.” Peitho 20.2 (2018): 160-97.
  • Gaillet, Lynee Lewis, and Helen Gaillet Bailey, eds. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Lynee Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, eds. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2019.
  • Gatta, Oriana. “Connecting Logics: Data Mining and Keyword Visualization as Archival Method/ology.Peitho (2014): 89-103.
  • Gilmore, Emma Wheat. “A Call To Arms.” Women’s Medical Journal 27.8 (August 1917): 183-184.
  • Gries, Laurie. “Mapping Obama Hope: A Data Visualization Project for Visual Rhetorics.” Kairos 21.2 (2017).
  • Gries, Laurie E. and Collin Gifford Brooke, eds. Rhetoric, Writing, and Circulation. Utah State UP, 2018.
  • Gutenson, Leah DiNatale and Michelle Bachelor Robinson. “Race, Women, Methods, and Access: A Journey through Cyberspace and Back.Peitho (2016): 71-92.
  • Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin 150.18 (2010): 62-79.
  • —. “Combining Close and Distant Reading: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and the Aesthetic of Bookishness.” PMLA 128.1 (2013): 226–231.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. “The Corporeal and Ocular Veil: Dr. Matilda A. Evans (1872-1935) and the Complexity of Southern History.” The Journal of Southern History 70.1 (2004): 3-34.
  • Historic Columbia. 2027 Taylor Street. Dr. Mathilda Evans House.
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  • Logan, Shirley Wilson. With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African American Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1995.
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  • Luker, Kristin. “Sex, Social Hygiene, and the State: The Double-Edged Sword of Social Reform.” Theory and Society 27.5 (1998): 601-634.
  • Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. U of North Carolina P, 2005.
  • —. “So Honored; So Loved?: The Women’s Medical Movement in Decline.” Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835-1920. Ed. Ruth Abram. Norton, 1985. 231-246.
  • More, Ellen S. Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995. Harvard UP, 1999.
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  • Moss, Beverly J. A Community Text Arises: A Literate Text and a Literate Tradition in African-American Churches. Hampton P, 2003.
  • Mueller, Derek. “Grasping Rhetoric and Composition by Its Long Tail: What Graphs Can Tell Us about the Field’s Changing Shape.” College Composition and Communication 64.1 (2012): 195-223.
  • —. Network Sense: Methods for Visualizing a Discipline. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017.
  • Palmeri, Jason and Ben McCorkle. “A Distant View of English Journal, 1912-2012.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 22.2 (2017).
  • Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Northeastern UP, 2015.
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  • Root, Eliza H. “Editorial: The Last Year of the Century.” Woman’s Medical Journal 8.1 (January 1899): 9-10.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. SIU Press, 2012.
  • —. “Social Circulation and Legacies of Mobility for Nineteenth Century Women.” Rhetoric, Writing, and Circulation. Eds. Laurie E. Gries and Collin Gifford Brooke. Utah State UP, 2018. 170-188.
  • Ryan, Kathleen, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones. Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2016.
  • Savitt, Todd L. “The Journal of the National Medical Association 100 Years Ago: A New Voice of and for African American Physicians.” Journal of the National Medical Association 102.8 (August 2010): 734-744.
  • Skinner, Carolyn. Women Physicians and Professional Ethos in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois UP, 2014.
  • Stratton, Mary Reed. “Social Evil and its Consequences.” Woman’s Medical Journal 29. 4 (April 1919): 62-65.
  • Vandervall, Isabella. “Some Problems of the Colored Woman Physician.” Woman’s Medical Journal 27.7 (July 1917): 156-158.
  • Ward, Thomas J. Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South. U of Arkansas P, 2003.
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  • “Women Serving Abroad.” Woman’s Medical Journal 29. 7 (July 1919): 152.


Fig. 6: the WMJ 1900 volume social network.

Fig. 6. The WMJ 1900 volume social network.

Fig. 7. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 7. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 8. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 8. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

“Moving” Days

January through April, in an even year, mark “moving” days for the Coalition, in more ways than one. But this year began with a unique kind of movement: Peitho journal’s moving to a fully online format. If you haven’t already, please do check out Issue 22.1 (Fall/Winter 2019). Jen Wingard, Jen England, and Peitho‘s editorial team worked diligently to put out this beautiful issue, in and around constraints caused by our decision to redesign the Coalition website.

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Call for Applications: Peitho Journal Associate Editor

The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC) seeks an Associate Editor for Peitho, its quarterly peer-reviewed online journal. The Associate Editor holds primary responsibility for book reviews (identifying new titles for review, soliciting reviewers, working with reviews to revise and edit reviews prior to publication, etc.) in each issue and for the annual “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” feature of the journal.

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NEW Peitho Feature: Recoveries and Reconsiderations

The editorial team of Peitho is pleased to announce a new, annual feature of the journal and to issue a call for submissions. We envision that “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” will include the work of multiple contributors, with each contribution limited to 2,500 words, and will serve as a forum for sharing innovative perspectives on and application of existing feminist work, as well an incubator for new feminist research projects.

With “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” we wish to provide a space for more voices to enter our scholarly conversations. Contributions need not require the extensive time commitments of full-length articles and, thus, may be amenable to the working situations of many feminists in the field. In addition, we intend to provide a venue within feminist scholarly publishing that explicitly values the processes of discovery, invention, reflection, and complication. The short contributions that comprise the section will not present extended analyses and definitive conclusions about the materials they engage; rather, the goal is to introduce readers to resources for ongoing consideration and further discussion.

Contributions might include, but are not limited to,

  • Preliminary description and feminist analysis of the work of recently recovered historical groups, figures, and practices (feminist rhetors/rhetorical practices, queer rhetors/rhetorical practices, etc.)
  • Preliminary description and feminist analysis of current-day groups, figures, and practices
  • Focused feminist reconsiderations of well-known or established rhetoricians, rhetorical theories, and/or rhetorical practices
    Descriptions and contextualizations of archival collections/materials of potential interest to Peitho readers
  • Examples and discussions of feminist pedagogical practices for re-visioning rhetorical education

In the forward-looking spirit of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” each submission should close with a section that provides readers with questions to consider and/or ideas for future feminist engagement with the materials on which a submission focuses.

Submissions will be peer-reviewed by two people, with results of the reviews and final determinations being the responsibility of the Associate Editor.

Submissions are reviewed on a rolling basis and should be made via Submittable, using the link available on the Peitho website ( Please be sure to include “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” as part of your manuscript title.

Direct questions about “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” to Dr. Temptaous McKoy, Associate Editor of Peitho, at

Transgender Rhetorics

Please consider submitting work to this fabulous special issue of Peitho on Transgender Rhetorics edited by GPat Patterson and K.J. Rawson.


On May 15th, 2016, the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition became the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition (“Welcome to the Coalition of FEMINIST Scholars…”). This shift from “women” to “feminist” signals two significant changes. First, it centralizes feminist praxis as it reaffirms, through the name and mission statement, the Coalition’s commitment to “intersectional” feminist inquiry (Crenshaw, 1989). Such a commitment had already begun strengthening since CFSHRC transformed Peitho into a journal in 2012. Peitho’s contributors have helped readers consider how women’s experiences of gender-­based oppression are always-­already bound up in questions of race (August, 2014; Royster, 2012; Licona & Chávez, 2015; Martinez, 2018), region (Khoury, 2015; Miron, 2018; Nish, 2018; Thompson, 2017), class (Dubisar, 2016; Guglielmo, 2013; Hallenbeck & Smith, 2015), orientation (Bentley & Lee, 2018; Malinowitz, 2013; Osrorio, 2015), disability (Gay, 2017; Phillips & Leahy, 2017), and embodiment (Johnson, Levy, Manthey & Novotny, 2015).

The second impact of the Coalition’s name change concerns inclusivity—membership is now openly welcoming for all people as the scope of the organization has broadened. This reframing emphasizes that feminist concerns in Rhetoric & Composition are everyone’s concerns, which follows an implicit understanding that women are not the only people who experience gender­-based oppression. Indeed, for the last twenty years Transgender Studies has worked alongside feminist, queer, disability, and critical race studies to offer a more expansive view of gender-­based oppression and empowerment.

The subfield of Transgender Rhetorics, while still emerging, has begun to open up gender-­expansive lenses for thinking about activism (Hundley and Rodriguez, 2009), pedagogy (Alexander, 2005; Driskill, 2014; Patterson, 2016; Sathiyaseelan, 2014), literacy (Alexander, 2008; Driskill, 2004; Kimball, Houle & McKee, 2004; Pritchard, 2009), methodology (Driskill, 2009; Patterson, 2018, 2019; Rawson, 2010), archives and memory (Rawson, 2014, 2018; Woods, Ewalt & Baker, 2013), popular culture and media (Cooper, 2002; Landau, 2012; Patterson & Spencer, 2017; Squires and Brouwer 2002), institutional and legal critique (Spencer & Patterson, 2017; West, 2011, 2014), sexual harassment (Hsu, 2018), and resistance to racist and colonial violence (Driskill, 2016; Hsu, 2018; Pritchard, 2018).

Putting this emerging tradition of trans-­specific inquiry in Rhetorical Studies into conversation with the Coalition’s gender­-expansive focus on feminist inquiry, we invite contributions to a special issue of Peitho focused on Transgender Rhetorics. We can imagine many topics contributors might pursue, such as:

  • What is the relationship between Feminist and Transgender Rhetorics? What are their points of convergence and departure and how might each inform the other?
  • Who might be considered a trans or gender non­-conforming rhetor and what might they contribute to our understanding of rhetoric?
  • What rhetorical concepts might be usefully engaged, expanded, or revised for understanding transgender rhetorical practices?
  • In what ways do trans rhetors call attention to unique vectors of gender-­based oppression?
  • What has been done in the field of Rhetoric & Composition thus far concerning transgender topics? (Such a review might take the form of an annotated bibliography, for example)
  • What might a critical trans pedagogy look like? How might our pedagogies amplify the rhetorical agency of our trans students?
  • In what ways might our Rhetoric & Composition pedagogies be complicit in enacting gender-­based violence against trans students?
  • These and other topics can be taken up by contributors in a variety of formats including full­-length academic articles (6,000–8,000 words), shorter exploratory essays (1,000–2,000 words), as well as through digital and multimodal formats.

This issue will also include a special section titled “Recovering Transgender Rhetoric,” which will consist of short essays (1,000–2,000 words) or brief digital pieces that closely consider items available in the Digital Transgender Archive ( This section of the special issue invites scholars to (re)turn to the archive to excavate primary source materials that offer a point of entry for recovering Transgender Rhetoric. Contributions to this section might focus on one or more items in the Digital Transgender Archive that help us to begin thinking through transgender rhetorical practices. This format is designed to be welcoming for a wide range of scholars who might not otherwise explore the topic of Transgender Rhetoric or those who may not have a full­-length manuscript to contribute.

Submission Details & Timeline

All submissions should be emailed to both editors—GPat Patterson ( and K.J. Rawson (—by September 30th, 2019. Peer review will occur during the fall of 2019, revisions will be due in spring 2020, and the anticipated publication date will be summer 2020. If you are considering a digital or multimodal format, please reach out to the editors in advance of your submission to confirm that the format could be supported.

Feel free to contact the editors at any point to pitch an idea or pose any questions you might have!

The Suffrage Centennial: Possibilities for Intersectional Memorializing and Coalition-Building

The year 2020 will be an important one for feminist citizens and scholars alike. Not only is 2020 an election year, but it also marks the 100-year anniversary of the 19th-amendment—the year women won the right to vote. This meeting of the moments is at once an opportunity and a concern for those interested in feminist politics and feminist coalition building. Indeed, there is an opportunity because this anniversary moment could galvanize and embolden present-day feminists by remembering a moment of collective action and political triumph. There is, however, a very real danger. The suffrage movement and feminist politics from that time on, in fact, have been marked by exclusivity and racism. For example, black women were not invited to the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, and they were routinely segregated from suffrage activism and events. Furthermore, white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt courted the southern vote by overtly expressing racist remarks, with Catt infamously stating that “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” These are all examples—and there are more—of how, as Angela Davis has written, “the woman suffrage campaign accepted the fatal embrace of white supremacy.”

Given the stakes and complexity of this moment, figures from Brent Staples to Ann Gordon have called attention to this issue, calling the American public to think critically about what a centennial celebration should look like and do. For example, in her New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Celebrate a Complicated Win for Women,” Gordon asks, “Can we celebrate a transformation that broke men’s monopoly on political power while we simultaneously face up to ways that the ugliest aspects of American history influenced how citizens achieved this victory and how they behaved afterward?”

This call for papers poses this question to the Peitho readership. As scholars of rhetoric and public memory invested in intersectionality and coalition building, how might we envision or evaluate public memory projects that engage the suffrage centennial? How are we bringing or might we bring this question to our communities and to our classes and students? What projects and course sequences are we, as feminist teachers, creating or envisioning to engage the suffrage centennial from an intersectional perspective? And how might we cast the centennial as a moment for coalition building—one that creates positive feminist momentum as the 2020 election draws near?

For the purposes of this special section of the Winter 2020 issue, we are looking for short, 2,500- to 5,000-word essays, that take up the impact, promise, and troubles of suffrage and suffrage memorialization with the goal of fostering new conversations for the next 100 years. Please submit your essay for the “Centennial Cluster” by June 15 to Jess Enoch at Please note “centennial cluster” in the subject title of your email and your document title.

Selections will be made through a review process by July 1.  Peitho will publish the cluster in the Winter 2020 issue.