“It’s a … [inaudible blood-curdling screams, chaos]!”: Gender Reveal Party Fails as Ideological Rupture

Author note: This hybrid contribution includes two elements that are intended to be engaged in this order: first, a mediated performance (short film) and, second, a theoretical argument engaging the potential in gender reveal party fails. As such, this submission is multimodal. You are invited to engage the elements of the hybrid submission at your leisure, however.

Link to video: https://youtu.be/NyB90Ynd0Qg

Gender reveal party fails are a fine form of media genre. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and search for “gender reveal party fails” on any video-sharing platform (i.e., YouTube), hit play, and enjoy—whether in joy, awe, and/or disappointment. In this essay, I take seriously the implications of gender reveal party fails. I accomplish this through performance both on the page and on the mediated stage. On the page, here, I consider gender reveal party fails as ideological ruptures. The ideological formation to which I draw our attention is that of racialized cisheterosexism. I argue, the “success” of gender reveal parties relies on a normative understanding of gender as a progressive unfolding in racialized cisheterosexist terms. In turn, gender reveal party “fails” matter to the extent that they intervene in the performative sedimentation of racialized gender as a compulsory enactment. Conversely, on the stage, I embody trans monstrosity through a mediated performance adapted from the theatrical stage to the mediated stage in filmic form titled A Trans Monstrous Reflection (see Appendix for detailed script).1 Informed by Susan Stryker’s performative theorization of trans monstrosity (“My Words”), I meditate on the possibility of gender reveal party fails as affectively charged communicative enactments of trans rage resisting the performative sedimentation of racialized cisheterosexist gender interpellation. While the performance is intended as farce, the broader goal is to take seriously the potential in gender reveal party fails.

I use performance as both object and method of research. And when placed in conversation with rhetoric, I, like Bernadette Calafell, use performance to “push back methodologically against traditional approaches in rhetoric, hoping for more complex approaches to embodiment, resistance, and cultural nuances” (“Performance” 115). In this regard, I submit both the page and the mediated stage as concurrent engagements with “theory and practice, abstraction and embodiment” so as to better engage the potential in gender reveal party fails (Conquergood 153). The page provides the theoretical foundation from which the mediated staged performance emerges. On the page, I make two moves. First, I frame the “successful” gender reveal party as an ideological iteration of racialized cisheterosexism. Second, and in turn, I conceptualize of gender reveal party fails as a form of ideological rupture; the failure matters to the degree that it refuses to acquiesce to ideological expectations of racialized cisheterosexism as an uneventful sex/gender unfolding in mimetic binary terms. To begin, let us consider gender reveal parties as ideological iteration.

Gender Reveal Parties as Ideological Iteration

Gender reveal parties are a peculiar contemporary Western cultural phenomenon ritualizing non-trans embodiment. Their “invention” can be attributed to Jenna Karvunidis. In a 2019 Facebook status update, Karvunidis described the invention process: She wrote about her own gender reveal party on her now defunct blog High Gloss and Sauce in 2008. Subsequently, The Bump, a pregnancy and parenting magazine, amplified the blog post in an article resulting in a party idea gone viral. Since then, everyday people have sought innovative means to disclose the genitals of a fetus in grandiose cultural performances that are posted to social media. Interestingly, Karvunidis’s post was about more than origin stories. Indeed, she expressed “mixed feelings” about her “random contribution to the culture,” which has since “exploded into [something] crazy [sic] after that. Literally—guns firing, forest fires, more emphasis on gender than has ever been necessary for a baby.”

In the end, Karvunidis disclosed: “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!” Karvunidis’s child, Bianca, posts content on Instagram (@bianca_k_actor) using the tag #girlsinsuits.2 While Karvunidis now asks “Who cares what gender the baby is?,” it is worth exploring the cultural mechanisms enabling the repetition of gender reveal parties as a normalized cultural performance. Indeed, while Karvunidis’s initial blog post reflected a small, local idea (and while she describes her role in the creation of the cultural performance as “random”), Stuart Hall reminds us, “Ideas only become effective if they do, in the end, connect with a particular constellation of social forces” (42). Gender reveal parties are the result of a viral blog post—the virality of which was/is predicated on an understanding of gender as a compulsory enactment informed and constrained by racialized cisheterosexism, an ideological stronghold pre-determining and, in turn, delimiting gender potentiality.

Calafell’s astute observation that performance enables rhetorical scholars to “push back methodologically against traditional approaches in rhetoric, hoping for more complex approaches to embodiment, resistance, and cultural nuances” is insightful here (“Performance” 115). Notably, with regard to the question of motive or intent. Rhetorical scholars have long expressed interest in exploring a rhetor’s motive (e.g., Kenneth Burke). Conversely, performance approaches emphasize impact over intent. Indeed, from a performance perspective, the effect remains the same regardless of intent. For instance, LeMaster explores ideology as embodied rhetoric suggesting mundane cultural performances are pre-determined by that which came before (“Embracing”). In this regard, mundane communication is informed by performatively sedimented cultural scripts that reflect hegemonic ideologies. As such, a focus on intent erroneously absolves the individual from the collective performance of cultural hegemony of which we are all differently engaged. And, so, regardless of Karvunidis’s intent, gender reveal parties have gone viral taking on innovative forms that build on that which came before. Karvunidis, the author, is thusly insignificant, as is her intent, in the ongoing performance of gender reveal parties that merely remix performative cultural elements that came before. Those elements are made meaningful exclusively against a backdrop of racialized cisheterosexist ideologies.

That gender reveal parties are animated through virality suggests a need to look at digital rhetorics. Ridolfo and DeVoss advance “rhetorical velocity” as a means of theorizing rhetorical delivery coupled with an understanding of how texts work in mediated terrains. Rhetorical velocity can help us to make sense of the virality undergirding gender reveal parties. Rhetorical velocity draws the rhetorician’s attention to “the speed at which information composed to be recomposed travels” and thus focuses on the rhetor’s attention to “the working conditions of the third party and what type of text it would be useful (or not) to provide” (“Composing”). In short, rhetorical velocity gestures at intent—the rhetor’s intent in terms of crafting and delivering a text that can be “recomposed, redelivered, redistributed, etc., across physical and virtual networks and spaces” (“Composing”). However, and as we have established, a performance approach to rhetoric is interested in effect over intent. In this regard, that which is remixed (in this case, gender reveal parties as cultural performance) diverges from that which is constructed in mediated terrains for mediated repurposing. Still, gender reveal parties are cultural performances that remix elements of that which came before.

Undergirding each of these remixed enactments, however, are repetitions of racist cisheterosexist ideology. As such, the rhetorical message stays the same (nonconsensually disclosing genitals and suturing a racialized cisheterosexist map of meaning on to a fetus) while the performative mechanism by which the message is delivered changes. Said differently, rhetorical velocity draws our attention to the unique rhetorical means by which a genital disclosure occurs through the performative use of the colors pink and blue. However, what is less addressed are the ideological strongholds that possibilize the traction for the cultural performance at all. That is, hegemonic ideologies—in this case, racist cisheterosexism—are what enable the velocity by which gender reveal parties gain rhetorical traction through a mundane compulsory want to re-perform and document a racialized cisheterosexist ritual of sex/gender interpellation. And, in turn, while the rhetor may not intend a gender reveal fail, a failure provokes virality as a result of its unwillingness to easily acquiesce to racist cisheterosexism as a presumably uneventful unfolding of sex/gender intelligibility.

The rhetorics I study are ideological as they are embodied. Ideological in the sense that they are normative ideas made meaningful through historically-sedimented and uneven power relations that reflect those who hold and embody cultural power across intersecting lines of identity. That ideologies reflect the interests of the powerful, they are often understood as “common sense.” And, as Antonio Gramsci reminds us, “The relation between common sense and the upper level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’” (332). Ideology thus reflects ongoing discursive tensions between varying power relations vying for cultural significance. Moreover, the rhetorics I study are embodied in the sense that ideology informs/constrains bodily comportment (LeMaster, “Embracing”); ideology is at once discursive and material. Peter McLaren clarifies, “Ideology is not realized solely through the discursive meditations of the sociocultural order but through the enfleshment of unequal relationships of power; it is manifested intercorporeally through the actualization of the flesh and embedded in incarnate experience” (153). The rhetoric to which I draw our attention is racialized cisheterosexism as embodied ideology. As I exhibit, despite the nuanced differentiations in form (i.e., the unique mechanism by which the genital disclosure occurs), the “successful” gender reveal party performs an iteration of racialized cisheterosexism in a broader ideological sense. Allow me to unpack this a bit further.

The gender reveal party cultural performance is predicated on a Western medicalized gaze. The gaze categorizes bodies based on a phallocentric model of reproductive potential. This phallocentric model further maps a non-trans spatio-temporal projection onto a fetus. Moreover, however, this gaze, and its accompanying phallocentric model, is rooted in Western imperialism and is, thus, a colonial iteration. María Lugones characterizes gender as a “colonial imposition” distinguishing Western (white) men from Western (white) women (“Toward” 748). Conversely, sex was used to (dehumanize and) distinguish non-European subjects (of color) based on reproductive—and in turn labor—potential and, in turn, to assess “worth” under white supremacist capitalism. Said more plainly, white supremacy undergirds binary gender (binaohan; Snorton). The gender reveal party, then, continues a legacy of bodily assessment projecting futurities of normative gender based on racialized cisheterosexist notions of bodily being and becoming; there is nothing new here. Gender reveal parties are an iteration of racialized cisheterosexist ideology with different ends and in a contemporary context.

I use racialized cisheterosexism to name the ideological stronghold undergirding the systemic organization of gender as a racialized hierarchy. In this hierarchy, white non-trans bodies enjoy a culture organized around their bodily wants, needs, desires, and comportment. This reductive framing is necessarily troubled across intersections of difference such that the able-bodied white non-trans subject enjoys far greater access to cultural privileges including the assumption of bodily safety, gainful employment, and/or ready access to sex and desire on one’s own terms. More than privilege, however, this hierarchy enables and encourages the domination of those bodies that fall outside of its normative intersectional grasp. Zeus Leonardo proposes a focus on “discourses of supremacy” that acknowledge white privilege, for instance, “but only as a function of whites’ actions” toward people of color as opposed to a “mysterious accumulation of unearned advantages” (150). Leonardo highlights that “privilege is the daily cognate of structural domination” (148). And in a culture informed by ideologies of racist cisheterosexism, white non-trans subjects are empowered to dominate racialized gender other(s/ness). One manifestation of this domination can be located in the denial of bodily autonomy, and the concomitant foreclosure of transness, in the cultural performance of gender reveal parties.

Thus far, we have explored the ways in which gender reveal parties emerge as a racialized cisheterosexist ideological iteration. What the party determines is less a gender identity and more a normative parameter for gender lived “right” through time and across space and in line with dictates of whiteness. Any resulting divergences emerge through a field of rhetorical (un)intelligibility, and are, as a result, constituted as monstrous. Said differently, this subsection theorizes the becoming of trans monstrosity informing my performance. Conversely, in the next subsection, we consider gender reveal party fails as performative ruptures in the saliency of racist cisheterosexist ideology and explore the potentiality in monstrous becomings.

Gender Reveal Party Fails as Ideological Rupture

In her groundbreaking essay, Susan Stryker challenges disembodied, de-materialized interrogations of gender through “an unstated cisnormative bias” in queer theory (“More Words” 40). In her original essay, Stryker writes: “I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself. I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster” (“My Words” 240). Stryker’s performative theorization (page and stage) draws our attention to the cultural constitution of transness as monstrous; here, Stryker embraces that monstrous rendering. In more specific terms, Stryker’s theorization emerges in dialogue with the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stryker draws a parallel between her own subjectivity as a transsexual woman and that of Shelley’s monster. Where the two subjects diverge is in their drive toward humanization.

In Frankenstein, atypical corporeality renders the monster as “monstrous.” As such, ocularcentric standards for human corporeality disallow the monster from being recognized as “human.” In turn, the monster acquires the capacity for speech and, through aural means, challenges ocularcentric criteria for that which defines “human,” regardless of corporeality. Conversely, the trans subject can—presuming said trans subject has ready access to the necessary material and administrative means as well as the desire to—pass cisheteronormative criteria for embodiment and, in turn, be granted “human” status (read: granted cisheteronormative privilege and the capacity to dominate trans subjects who do not pass cisheteronormative criteria). In turn, the trans subject who passes cisheteronormative criteria must use aural means to assert their monstrosity—I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster—less they get eclipsed into the fold of cisheteronormativity.

At the same time, however, to presume transness as the sole means by which one is rendered monstrous reveals the classed whiteness undergirding Stryker’s theorization (Roen).3 Indeed, white supremacy interpellates gender in human/non-human terms based on affiliation/alignment with whiteness. Like Calafell, I am concerned with the ways in which “difference, or Otherness, gets constructed as monstrosity” (Monstrosity 4). Though, identity is always intersectional and “intersectionalities inform monstrosities” (Calafell, Monstrosity 5). Highlighting the ways race has always undergirded images of the Frankenstein monster, Elizabeth Young traces the metaphor of the black Frankenstein arguing the metaphor both challenges and reinforces “structures of race and masculinity in U.S. culture” (10). Young writes, “The origins of the Frankenstein monster’s body in the dismemberment of corpses prefigures the violation of black men’s bodies in white America” (178). More to the point, and in a US context in particular, dismembered (black) body parts—as a result of lynching—are what constitute the Frankenstein monster as always and already black in the white imagination. To extend the analysis, Young describes the sequence closing James Whale’s iconic 1931 film adaptation, Frankenstein, where the monster flees from a “crowd of angry townspeople, whose pursuit of him is represented with the visual markers—barking dogs, fiery torches, angry shouts—of a lynch mob” (177). Whale extends the lynch mob imagery in his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, where the monster’s blackness is doubly marked in juxtaposition to his (white) Bride, and, as a result, is forced to continue fleeing white terror. In short, monstrosity, like human status, is constituted at the intersections of difference.

In a recent essay, I develop Stryker’s work in analytic terms suggesting a co-constitutive process of “becoming monstrous” and its resulting affect “monstrous becomings” (LeMaster, “Transing”). Becoming monstrous highlights and analyzes the material conditions under racist cisheterosexism that give rise to monstrous renderings of difference. In tracing the racist cisheterosexist ideology undergirding gender reveal parties, we perform this becoming monstrous labor in the prior subsection. That is, such tracing illuminates the discursive field in which a failure is made meaningful. In turn, monstrous becomings take serious affective responses to those material conditions. Monstrous becomings see potential in mundane enactments of raging out and against racist cisheterosexist ideology. Quoting Stryker, monstrous becomings explore the “emotional response to conditions in which it becomes imperative to take up, for the sake of one’s own continued survival as a subject” (“My Words” 249). This can include “the affects that enable one to fight back or the affects that sustain a family of choice,” for instance (LeMaster, “Transing” 102). And for our purposes, we explore gender reveal party fails as monstrous becomings that rupture the ideological saliency of racialized cisheterosexism or the ideological means by which transness is rendered monstrous at all.

To reiterate an earlier point, ideology’s saliency is determined by its capacity to order and organize culture(s). Often understood as “common sense,” ideology is pervasive, though not static. Hall adds, “These associations [between ideology and the organization of life lived] are not given for all time. But they are difficult to break because the ideological terrain of this particular social formation [for our purposes, racist cisheterosexism] has been so powerfully structured in that way by its previous history” (41-42). As a result, thinking and imagining outside of racist cisheterosexist ideology is tough. Lugones proposes a decolonial feminism that reads the social world “from the cosmologies that inform it, rather than beginning with a gendered reading of cosmologies informing, constituting perception, motility, embodiment, and relation” (“Methodological” 79). In turn, I seek to read gender reveal party fails as monstrous becomings that fail to complete the discursive circuits animating the historicities informing racist cisheterosexist ideology.4

As a communication scholar, I am moved by Karen Barad’s query: “What are we to make of a communication that has neither sender nor recipient until transmission has already occurred?” (398). I believe Barad’s quantum-theorization of communication query is realized in the performance of gender reveal party fails. Specifically, in the GASP of surprise (sometimes a scream in horror, sometimes misogynist disgust at the sight of pink) in response to a “failure” in the presumed uneventfulness of racialized (non-trans) gender becoming. In this framework, the fail elicits an affective response that communicates ideology as embodied despite lacking an agential interlocutor. Indeed, the fail communicates at the level of embodied ideology such that the actors—party attendees, everyday folks—are responding to a rupture in normative conceptualizations of gender saliency in racist cisheterosexist terms that merely affirms their own sense of (racist cisheterosexist) gender as an unquestioned “fact,” as common sense.

Jack Halberstam theorizes failure as a queer art “activated through the function of negation rather than in the mode of positivity” (110) where “the queer subject stands between heterosexual optimism and its realization” (106). That is, as in failing to appease the optimism driving racialized cisheteronormativity as an uneventful unfolding of sex/gender intelligibility. For Halberstam, queer failure refuses to “acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and [is thus understood] as a form of critique” (88). As a form of critique, queer failure highlights the structural constrains that pre-determine and distinguish winners from losers. And in a cisheteropatriarchal capitalist structure founded on white supremacy, the “successful” gender reveal party succeeds at securing familial and nation stability through the projection of patrilineal inheritance rights and practices. José Esteban Muñoz characterizes queer failure as an embodied and mundane “mode of escape” from the “dominant order and its systemic violence” (172). In this regard, queer failure is constitutive of minoritarian subjectivity. However, and to be clear, queer failure does not highlight the subject as a failure sans culture; rather, queer failure implicates the ways in which culture has “failed to make room for and to affirm non-normative embodiment, identification, and subjectivity” effectively producing the effect of a failing subject who merely fails imposed normative criteria (LeMaster, “Pedagogies” 86). The gender reveal party fail, so understood, refuses racist cisheterosexist interpellation and thus performs an ideological rupture. In this regard, the dis-ease the gender reveal party fail provokes marks a trans monstrous becoming of potentiality that refuses racist cisheterosexist interpellation if but only for a moment.

In my mediated performance, A Trans Monstrous Reflection, a trans monster prepares for a gender reveal party. To accomplish this, the trans monster decorates a box in which they place rainbow-colored balloons. Throughout the performance, the trans monster unpacks Stryker’s theorization of trans monstrosity and, in turn, explores the potential in trans rage. In so doing, the trans monster volleys between setting the gender reveal party up for disaster and enacting rage against a racist and cisheterosexist structure exhibiting both the means by which one becomes monstrous (e.g., through the repetition of gender performance rituals expressed through the preparing of a gender reveal party) and the resulting monstrous becomings that are realized in embodied affective responses to racist cisheterosexist materiality (e.g., destruction of the scene through a failure). As we near the end of the performance, the trans monster secures the box, ensuring the rainbow-colored balloons are enclosed. As the trans monster does this they disclose that they are preparing for the party by designing its failure. Indeed, the trans monster clarifies: “a gender reveal party fail isn’t happenstance. Rather, the fail reflects an intentional energetic force of rage generated by trans monsters everywhere working to unravel the very foundation of an arbitrary and hegemonic compulsory gender performance predicated on racist cisheterosexism.” The film closes with a tight shot on the completed gender reveal box. The shot widens and fades to black.

The box that closes the film is inspired by the gender reveal box featured in a gender reval party fail video uploaded to YouTube by Mojahed Jobran (“Gender Reveal”).5 The couple, who eagerly anticipates pink or blue balloons in Jobran’s video, opens the box only to find rainbow-colored balloons ascending. Someone has pranked them (the trans monster?). And their disappointment reveals the potential in a gender reveal that fails (to easily acquiesce to racialized cisheterosexist ideology). To consider the gender reveal party fail as ideological rupture is to imbue the moment with communicative meaning that works against the common sense ordering racialized cisheterosexism as an uneventful cultural enactment. In the end, the gender reveal party fail is anything but inconsequential. Rather, it holds within it the potential to intervene in the performative sedimentation of racist cisheterosexism. Though, it can be difficult to discern such when we refuse to decenter the saliency of racialized gender normativity. And to this, the trans monster would rather fail at the outset than acquiesce to a cultural order designed to fail its non-normative subjects. With that, I invite you to join me in a performance of trans monstrosity.


  1. The first iteration of this performance was staged at the Empty Space theatre at Arizona State University and featured in the Encyclopedia Show during the fall semester of 2018. A second iteration of the performance was staged at University of New Mexico as part of the Department of Communication and Journalism’s spring 2019 colloquium series on Queer/Trans Studies. A third and final public iteration of the performance was staged at the 2019 meeting of the National Communication Association as part of a Critical/Cultural Communication Studies performance panel titled Performing Cultural Monstrosity as Embodied Means of Survival.
  2. Karvunidis manages Bianca’s account. While teasing the implications are outside of the scope of this paper, I think it important to note Karvunidis’s personal Instagram account is set to private while Bianca’s is public.
  3. Stryker later acknowledges her early monstrous work “inadvertently perpetuated the racist trope of imaging blackness as the unmarked and unacknowledged condition on which the existence of whiteness depends” (“More Words” 42).
  4. My intent is not to make light of the very violent effects many of these fails have enacted but to draw our attention to the potential in failure as a mark of discursive resistance to racist cisheterosexist ideology. Indeed, it is key to note, for instance, that some of these fails have resulted in environmental destruction (e.g., Dennis Dickey, an off-duty US Border Patrol agent, started a 47,000-acre wildfire; see Farzan) and bodily harm (e.g., broken limbs, getting hit with sports balls, untrained and unregulated detonation of explosives).
  5. This video (the cardboard box, specifically) served as the inspiration for this trans monstrous reflection on gender reveal party fails as ideological ruptures.
  6. [from Script] All vocal performances and sound editing by Lore/tta LeMaster. Each character is a morphed variation of LeMaster’s voice. Note on “SUSAN STRYKER”: This vocal performance is not of/by Susan Stryker. Rather, it is a performed excerpt from her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” published in a 1994 issue of the journal GLQ: A Journal in Lesbian and Gay Studies.
  7. [from Script] Opening sequence soundtrack credit: Tin Bowls from Outer Space by Daniel Birch, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
  8. [from Script] Scissor cutting sound effect credit: Cutting with Scissors by Rodzuz, licensed under Creative Commons: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication. This sound effect is used intermittently throughout the film.
  9. [from Script] Primary soundtrack incorporates elements from: Non-linear by Simon Mathewson, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NCSA 3.0 US); Dizhetal by Ṩtrannye Ẏagodi, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US); and Resound by Julie Licata, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).
  10. [from Script] Added suspenseful soundscape credit: The Bridge (Horror I) by David Hilowitz, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
  11. [from Script] Choir soundscape elements credit: Machinamentum Interruptus by Gavin Gamboa, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US).
  12. [from Script] Gamboa, Machinamentum Interruptus.
  13. [from Script] Closing sequence soundtrack credit: Birch, Tin Bowls from Outer Space.

Appendix: Detailed Script

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 387-422.
  • binaohan, b. decolonizing trans/gender 101. Biyuti Publishing, 2014.
  • Calafell, Bernadette Marie. Monstrosity, Performance, and Race in Contemporary Culture. Peter Lang, 2015.
  • —. “Performance: Keeping Rhetoric Honest.” Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, 2014, pp. 115-117.
  • Conquergood, Dwight. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” The Drama Review, vol. 46, no. 2, 2002, pp. 145-156.
  • Farzan, Antonia Noori. “A Border Patrol Agent threw a Gender-reveal Party. He Ended up Starting a 47,000-acre Wildfire.” The Washington Post, 1 Oct. 2018. Accessed 1 Aug. 2019.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, edited by David Forgacs, New York University Press, 2000.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Hall, Stuart. “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 2, 1986, pp. 28-44.
  • Jobran, Mojahed. “Gender Reveal Party Fail.” YouTube, uploaded by Mojahed Jobran, 13 Nov. 2016.
  • LeMaster, Lore/tta. “Embracing Failure: Improvisational Performance as Critical Intercultural Praxis.” Liminalities, vol. 14, no. 4, 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.
  • —. “Pedagogies of Failure: Queer Communication Pedagogy as Anti-Normative.” Critical Intercultural Communication Pedagogy, edited by Ahmet Atay and Satoshi Toyosaki, Lexington Press, 2018, pp. 81-96.
  • —. “Transing Dystopia: Constituting Trans Monstrosity, Performing Trans Rage in Torrey Peters’ Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones.” The Popular Culture Studies Journal, vol. 6, no. 2-3, 2018, pp. 96-117.
  • Leonardo, Zeus. “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the Discourse of ‘White Privilege.’” Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 137-152.
  • Lugones, María. “Methodological Notes toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy, edited by Ada Mara Isasi-Daz and Eduardo Mendieta, Fordham, 2011, pp. 68-86.
  • —.“Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 742-759.
  • McLaren, Peter. “Schooling the Postmodern Body: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Enfleshment.” Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics, edited by Henry A. Giroux, The State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 144-173.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
  • Ridolfo, Jim and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009. Accessed 20 Jan 2020.
  • Roen, Katrina. “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2001, pp. 253-263.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Stryker, Susan. “More Words about ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein.’” GLQ, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 39-44.
  • —. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994, pp. 237-254.
  • Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. New York University Press, 2008.

GET THE FRAC IN! Or, The Fractal Many-festo: A (Trans)(Crip)t1


You already know what we are talking about. We are talking about the experience of finding it impossible to fit in. No matter how you shape yourself, you are always further confined by infinitely regressive borders. These colonial scripts for how and with whom we belong are ever-receding horizons. They always require more of you. Every iteration of your identity—no matter how large or small—becomes a battleground.

This manifesto is an invitation to get the frac in (GTFI). You are tired of having to mold yourself for others. We know that. You are tired of watching your friends sequestered, imprisoned, evicted, institutionalized, deported. We know that too. And you are tired of trying to write/teach/learn in a place you were never meant to belong. We know this most of all. This manifesto, then, is dedicated to you. We dedicate to you a space, perhaps for now imaginary, where you may enter, complicate, transform, expand, and flourish.


We believe that trans people and disabled people are entitled to survive and to thrive. In a world engineered for trans and disabled death, there is no such thing as neutrality. When 77% of trans kids in the U.S. experience harassment in grades K-12, when 24% of young trans people have been physically attacked in school, when precarity follows trans people into adulthood as they struggle to work, to shelter themselves, and to survive, we insist that inaction participates in the marginalization and endangerment of trans lives. Similarly, disabled people are forced to navigate physical and social architectures designed for their exclusion—built to deny them housing, employment, and care. It is no accident that 39% of trans folks identify as disabled, compared to 15% of the general population (Grant et al. 35; Puar). These are two populations whose experiences are already deeply entwined, whose liberation depends on a clear articulation of the mutuality of their conjoined oppressions. To that end, we are calling for co-conspirators in a mass mobilization to end ableism and cissexism.

Our collaboration was precipitated by openly transphobic developments in the field of disability studies, which are reflective of broader academic, national, and international discursive trends. Even recent attempts for trans inclusivity in rhetorical studies have failed to acknowledge the multidimensionality of trans experience, as well as the ways trans of color, queer of color, and woman of color feminisms and activisms have made space for gender diversity (Pritchard, “When You Know Better, Do Better”). Such narrow disciplinary approaches not only deny the intersectionality of trans experience (that is, that many trans folks are also disabled and identify as sexual, religious, and/or racial minorities) but also preclude the powerful alliances that could be built among disabled communities and others working towards more inclusive and accessible worlds.

We offer this (Trans)(Crip)t to transcribe the imbrications of trans and disabled lives, which are all inevitably embedded in social worlds shared and acted upon by those who do not identify as either. The TransCript offers alternative scripts for identity and belonging that defy assimilation and border-policing. The TransCript exposes the paradoxes of gendering—the always-receding horizon of racialized masculinity and femininity of which we are only ever (poor) approximations. As a text, this is an invitation—an attempt to carve out discursive space through which we can continue to contest, contort, play with, and refuse the strictures of race, gender, and related bodily norms.

Throughout this manifesto, we utilize “fractal” as a theory-in-motion to illustrate both the distinctiveness and interconnectedness of trans, disabled, LGBQ experiences as well as the logics that inform racism, misogyny, and settler colonialism. Fractals inform textual structures and the development of literary genres (Dimock; Finan). But what if fractals also structure social worlds, historical and rhetorical forces, and struggles for power? What if fractals structure the choreography of heads that turn and stare as we enter grocery stores (Garland-Thompson), structure like verse “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” (Lorde p. 36)? Like fractals, social dynamics are recursive, chaotic, expansive, and interconnected. Like fractals, social encounters are also characterized by repetition, iteration, and associations with larger infrastructures. Fractals bloom, classifying space with increasing clarity. Likewise, social logics organize our lives through intersecting vectors of identity both huge and microscopic. Our entanglements with social structures are corporeal and psychic, ideological and material, abstract and concrete; they infiltrate our voices and vibrate our bones. We cannot escape the architectures that constrain and facilitate our survival. Linked as we are to expansive social geometries, we are all implicated.

Fractals are defined by marking out space, with demarcations growing progressively complex with each iteration. Across space and scale, fractals are connected by patterns, by parallel principles of mathematical order. They are geometric feedback loops that transverse sites, articulating differently sized increments across (and beyond) a canvas. A fractal organizes according to a pattern that continually delineates by lineating. It is a process of territorialization without termination, of identity in unending crisis. As the fractals delineate, they reiterate—a dialectic of the increasingly small and the unendingly large, of “finite parameters and infinite unfolding,” of microscopic detail and of “what keeps spinning out, in endless spirals” (Dimock 88-89).

Take, for example, the Koch snowflake (Fig. 1). In its first iteration, the Koch snowflake appears as an equilateral triangle. In its second iteration, three smaller versions of the triangle emerge from the center of each of the sides, converting the perimeter to a six-pointed star. In the third iteration, two more triangles bloom from each of the new triangles. In each subsequent iteration, the perimeter of the snowflake becomes increasingly multifaceted, but never complete. Any visual manifestation of the Koch snowflake is a simplification, a snapshot of an identity always-in-process. Fractals thus extend their mathematical principles across size and space, marking and patterning territory in asymptotic aspiration.

This figure has four images of triangles in different stages of becoming a fractal.

Fig. 1. A Koch snowflake shows how a triangle becomes a fractal. (image from Wikimedia Commons)

We find it generative to think about power, identity, and relation as fractally formed. If we understand ourselves as operating within a fractal, we have the opportunity to see one another as

  1. connected;
  2. distinct;
  3. participating in related and repeating distributions of power, which is to say, self-similarity.

We can come to see our lives as “relational and constellated” because our praxes for living “are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters [we] have with one another within and across particular systems” (Powell et al.). The recent rise of “gender critical” feminism (or Trans-Exclusionary Reactionary Feminism) exemplifies a failure to see or acknowledge the reiterative connections among social oppressions—the fact that Indigenous peoples, Asian and Latin American immigrants, and Black Americans have all been dehumanized for their failures to obey white gender ideals; that trans women are punished for violating the strictures of femininity used to contain cis women; that disabled folks are subjected to the infantalization and deprivation of agency used to humiliate trans people and people of color. With the expansion of Western political, economic, and social powers, these scripts for racialized gender can be found across continents, classifying various groups of “Others” while denying the intimacies of our continental histories (Lowe).

This many-festo is dedicated to the question: What would it mean to regard coalition as fractal—as the ongoing re-examination and renegotiation of communal boundaries? We can’t help but notice, for example, that the same kinds of microaggressions reiterate across contexts and communities, and that these microaggressions also escalate into familiar macroaggressions. Moreover, we notice that carving out spaces for ourselves also requires repetition—recurrent battles over, explanations of, and justifications for our existences.  Koch snowflakes that we are, we crip, trans, and queer spaces through community collaboration—after all, queerness is an intimate, relational process.

Although some fractals are sanctioned by colonial powers, our repeated carvings-out of spaces are often pathologized, regarded as echolalia or tics (Yergeau Authoring Autism) or willfulness (Ahmed). When they fail to be sanctioned by the powerful, rhetorical fractals appear to be perversely tautological, inappropriate fixations (perseverations?) of individuals who won’t stop talking about gender and disability. Likewise, tics are often conceived as pathological for their failure to terminate (Bliss). A tic is embodied tautology, embodied echo: it magnifies and lessens, recursively maneuvering across the body, often chaining and bonding with yet more tics, forming clusters and bands and coalitions of complex “sensory utterances” (to channel scholars such as Nolan & McBride). We can imagine fractals, conversely, to behold such failures to terminate as a kind of thriving, as a potential to go, move, link, constellate, constitute, ford, chain, rip, rev, be.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin root of “stimulus” refers to a goad or a stylus. For us, stims—known by doctor-types as self-stimulatory behaviors—refers to this persistent worldmaking. We stimulate ourselves—that is, we mark out our being with a stylus; we goad ourselves (and each other) into existence; we draw ourselves in the dirt with a stick. In this way, our identities and our bodies are implicated in our agenda-making—we are the TransCript as much as we make the TransCript. A TransCript thus refers to the reiterative making of trans, crip space by an active allegiance to, and obsession with, an agenda. Just as a fractal expands and deepens in accordance with mathematical principles (e.g. the Mandelbrot Set, Fig. 2), so our collaboration expands and deepens according to the principles of disability and gender justice. Just as colonial systems imbue toxic gender performances into everything from pens to zygotes to prisons, so our invitation to GTFI, to obsess with us about our agenda, extends endlessly. The TransCript is a pathological perseveration—an embodied, automatic, neuroqueer performance of being every bit as persistent as a tic or a stim.

Image of a Manelbrot Set, which looks like cells or bacteria you would see under a microscope. It is bright, neon green with a pinkish outline and purple outer glow.

Fig. 2. A Mandelbrot Set shows how fractals swell and intensify.

Stimming is a world, but it is also a world that is constantly subject to extinction. Structural violences like ableism and transphobia are not only about epithets and intentional oppression; these are systems that manifest on the bodymind via routinized forms of (self) governance. We are taught to hide our differences and to regard marginalized identities as aberrations in everyday life. Disability, race, and gender matter everywhere, but only some configurations of these identities can remain unseen as the invisible norm (Browne and Misra; Kafer). Tanya Titchkosky speaks of these conditionals in terms of “justifiable exclusion” (77). How does this negation, this absence, come to be implicitly framed as a justifiable and reasonable absence? Noting the paucity of disabled people in her workplace, Titchkosky states that “the building is not missing disabled people and yet it is” (78). We are here and yet we are not. You are here and yet you are not. That there are few openly trans, nonbinary, and/or Two-Spirit scholars in our field speaks to the enduring effect of such erasure—a fractal reiteration of Titchkosky’s justifiable exclusion. In concert with trans, Two-Spirit, and nonbinary rhetoricians, we insist on the need to embrace more imaginative forms of knowledge-building (Rawson; LeMaster and Johnson; LeMaster et al.; Patterson; Hsu; Driskill, “Doubleweaving”). There are many more of us who have been drawn out of the fractal plane, who have been bounded and binded, rationalized (as) out of existence. “We” supposedly only need five accessible, gender-neutral restrooms for a campus of 30,000. This, dear readers, is safety and progress and high-five-worthy because we are here, and yet we are not here as long as our knowledges and contributions across fields and worlds are ignored.

Fractal Solidarity

Fractals are the geometries of collaboration. To “fractal” is to tack in-and-out of particular issues while maintaining political coalitions across multitudes. Fractals imbue entire fields with organizing principles, transforming conglomerations of space into systems of meaning (e.g. Sierpinski’s carpet, Fig. 3). To read social space as a fractal, one might trace, for example, how white ownership of capital is protected by state, social, and religious orchestrations of heteronormativity, racism, xenophobia, ableism, and transphobia. Fractal solidarity thus collaborates across distance and size, engaging every point in shared processes of resignification and renewal.

Image is a white square with a large black square in the middle and smaller black squares surrounding it. In between the squares are black dots.

Fig. 3. Sierpinski’s carpet replicates smaller versions of a shape into infinity. (image from Public Domain Vectors)

In tacking between the micro and macro, we practice what Stryker, Currah, and Moore describe as “transing.” Rather than focusing on “trans” as a horizontal migration along the spectrum of gender, Stryker et al. define transing as vertical movement between the experiences of individual bodyminds and the structures of “nations, states, and capital-formations” through which those individuals are made to live. Within our fractal coalitions, we tack in and out of our cultural contexts, commingling with the granular and the capacious. We find resonant conceptions of mutual socialities in cultural rhetorics, decolonial theory, crip communities and crip activism, and other communities maintained by people whose praxes are informed by theories in and of the flesh (Powell et al.; Escobar; Moraga and Anzaldúa; Calafell; Hamraie and Fritsch). Across disciplines and perspectives, we create constellative knowledge(s) with our relations.

At any given time, we are always contributors to various disciplinary field(s), members of various communities, subject to federal and state regulations, and other conditions of belonging. For that reason, when we advocate for trans communities or disability justice, we cannot align our interests with one group to the exclusion of others. Nor must we translate our advocacy into self-interest before we act. Our connections suggest that “their” problems are “our” problems—without erasing difference (e.g. distance, magnitude) and without demanding individual benefits from community justice. Each identity we claim is a locus of our power, but such power also comes with constraints, considerations, and responsibilities. We must be cognizant of the ways that our manifestations, our deeds and discourse, may silence or alienate others. Moreover, we cannot participate as scholars and teachers in disciplines that would deny facets of our identity.

Those of us who are multiply marginalized know how often we are pressed to acquire different forms of expertise in order to justify our own existence. We must constantly educate others regarding “what it means to live as” trans and/or nonbinary people, as people of color, as disabled persons, and only a small fraction of that labor is ever paid (if we are paid at all). You and we do not take our access to institutional resources for granted; we are all familiar with what it’s like when we are barred from some of those resources. Part of our work, therefore, consists of self-creating access—whether in the form of collectively compelling our institutions to accommodate our bodyminds, or struggling to invent new minutes and hours to finish our tasks (perhaps forgoing sleep or other important sustainability services), or independently developing the knowledge or skill to forage for our own resources, all while having our experiences dismissed and denigrated. Because we are so intimately familiar with the isolation and exhaustion of this labor, we take seriously Shawn Wilson’s call to research, teaching, and activism with the tenets of respect, reciprocity, and relationality at the fore, heeding these principles so as to “act with fidelity in relationship to what has been heard, observed, and learnt” (59). We are all worthy of basic human dignity, but we demand more. We want safety. We want freedom. We want joy. Collectively, then, we commit to community safety, dignity, and liberation.

The fractal reminds us that all oppressions are connected. Transphobia emerges from a colonial capitalist cis-tem of gender dimorphism and is upheld by neoliberal economic models that extract value from rigid gender norms (Driskill et al.; Driskill, Asegi Stories, “Doubleweaving,”; Boellstorff et al.; Besnier and Alexeyeff; Green and Bey; Snorton; Chen). The same colonialism that sought to eliminate Indigenous genders beyond the cis binary through cultural and physical genocide still endangers trans and gender nonconforming individuals, especially those who are disabled, people of color, poor, and/or forced by Western expansion to im/migrate across borders. Decolonial work inside and outside the classroom must honor the presence and struggles of trans and gender nonconforming relations, or else such work enforces ongoing colonialism and imperialism.

We need to divest ourselves of some very violent tendencies towards “diversity normativity.” When we neglect to account for experiences and needs different than our own, we must depend on retrofitting (Dolmage; Yergeau et al.; Wood), which equates presence with monetary value and highlights a failure to think about already Othered others. Retrofits are “passive aggressive” and “often aggressively delay access” while also suggesting that the work of inclusion is done (Dolmage 77). Likewise, we must find new ways to plan for an array of bodies and experiences, new forms of intentional and unanticipated coalition-building, a new Universal Design for survival, a new commitment to getting the frac in.

How Do We Get the Frac In?

Our many-festo is an invitation to “get the frac in,” to join a chorus of scholars and activists articulating the fractal anthem of the TransCript. We invite you into our constellation of energies to invent new affective and material worlds for trans and disabled people. Fractals are at once solid and mobile. Creating active solidarity through trans, crip worldmaking, we commit ourselves to:

  • Valuing each other’s lives and experiences on their own terms, rather than in terms of their usefulness to us. We will align with one another not on the basis of our similarities but on the basis of our active decisions to establish community together.
  • Troubling the ideas of neutrality and passivity. We recognize that “neutral” and “passive” positions are reiterations of fractal boundaries, creating the illusion of independence from the larger whole. In particular, we recognize that being cisgender is not a “default” and is every bit as much of a “choice” as being transgender—that the binary is a fiction imposed by Eurowestern colonial taxonomies.
  • Earning trust. Especially for those working with historically marginalized groups to which they do not belong, getting the frac in requires humility. Allyship is not an identity; it is praxis. Allyship means learning from those who live the life, not debating your theoretical knowledge. Allies must do the work of creating (and relinquishing!) trans, crip spaces. Performative allyship and virtue signaling merely affirm the privilege of those who have the least to lose.
  • Becoming better accomplices in one another’s struggles by researching the uneven social architectures we inhabit and pursuing more wholly inclusive and liberatory worlds.
  • Taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the communities we write about/to. Practicing what Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Eric Darnell Pritchard model as “community-accountable” and “ancestor-led” scholarship and teaching (Pritchard, Fashioning Lives; “On Black Queer Literacies and Activism; Gumbs).
  • Understanding that citational politics matter, that the effects of our research matter, and that this is not a sport or a competition but a practice of mutual care.
  • Dismantling the academic cis-stems that exclude trangender people. Trans knowledge exceeds esoteric niches. Academic spaces cannot be liberatory until we collectively struggle against transantagonism, trans-exclusion, trans-erasure, and trans-sequestering in all their manifestations.
  • Building infrastructures of education founded on principles of mutual welfare, rather than on myths of meritocracy.
  • Leveraging privileges and resources in solidarity with marginalized communities.
  • Learning when to create space, when to occupy space, when to dissolve space, and when to withdraw from space in order to elevate those most affected by the issues at hand.
  • Risking failure, imperfection, and embarrassment in pursuit of community care. The ongoing process of accomplicehood is messy and sometimes painful; we accept that. Even with the best intentions, we may hurt one another, and we will have to find ways to take responsibility for that hurt. We also accept that an untarnished reputation can itself be a form of privilege and that the fear of social sanction does not excuse a failure to do the work of accomplicehood.

How Do We Exercise Community Care?

This project is itself a practice of community care, through which we created opportunities for textual and spoken dialogue, for listening across difference, and for sharing our experiences and desires with a broader audience. Following the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, we hope that this manifesto is also an invitation, through which members of our fields might explore more opportunities to venture into unconventional academic genres, to make visible the substantive labor of cultivating more inclusive disciplinary spaces, and to foster open exchange of ideas, fears, and aspirations.

We say “community care” and not “self care” because we find ourselves webbed in systems of power, of affect, of material conditions, and of social conditions that extend far past the “sovereign” power of individual volition. Each iteration of a fractal is defined in relation to the iteration that precedes it. Like fractals, we contextualize ourselves within formative structures. “Self-care,” then, presumes a kind of universal access to individual care made possible by universal access to structural care. If you believe that “self-care” is really possible, that is because you have neglected to credit the innumerable persons and systems that care for you.

Thinking about community care, then, allows us to consider what forms of care are available in the context of unequal social structures. Approaching community care fractally enables us to consider how to build communities of power. The co-creation of this article is one example of what it means to build community care. In writing this paper, each of us authors have acted as nodes of support for one another. Within this network of social validation, we’ve built a social space that offers refuge from the unrelenting ableist and transphobic formations of academia. Like fractals, we conjoin to reiterate spaces of belonging—spaces defined by the affective, material, and social structures of our collaborative design. Though we hope others will stretch, transport, and transform our ideas, we offer the following initial principles for community care:

Community care requires perseverance, a “pathological” commitment to building spaces of social justice. We must make ourselves an unrelenting force (“fus ro DAH!”) of reiteration, of the rearticulation of our community home. Community care means working towards an environment where everyone can feel valued and affirmed. Regardless of any Supreme Court rulings, our personhood is not up for debate.

Community care recognizes the material and affective conditions that structure academia. The ability to afford rent is as much a part of an academic career as emotional wellbeing, as a sense of fulfillment, and as the ability to effect positive community changes. Our mentoring practices, our departmental procedures, and our citational practices should all be sensitive to how they impact others inside and outside academic institutions.

Community care acknowledges that surviving as a person may require community assistance. These needs do not indicate lack or deficit but signify many of the structural evils that silence and exclude marginalized communities and individuals. The one-size-fits-all model of accommodations reinforces normate violence, especially across diverse identities. Viewing diversity as an abstract concept rather than rooted in bodily and material realities can lead to retrofitting “at best” and complete erasure at worst.

Community care means calling folks in or out as needed and making strategic choices that reduce occasions for (re-)traumatizing students and colleagues. Community care means learning to avoid publishing in, assigning, or recommending journals that do not acknowledge historically marginalized perspectives or that publish writing that invalidates our experiences. This includes work in disability studies that refuses to acknowledge the inextricability of ableism from transphobia and other forms of social oppression. Such work is both harmful on an interpersonal level and plainly irresponsible scholarly practice.


We are calling for a collaboration of misfits. We are the snowflake pegs to their Mandelbrot-shaped holes. Drawing upon the work of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Aimi Hamraie describes fitting and misfitting as “material-discursive, relational, and interdependent categories.” As Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch show us, misfits are more than mere byproducts of oppressive forces: misfits “are engaged agents of remaking.” In this way, the TransCript summons a commitment to the program of disorderly survival—surviving as oneself by carving out spaces for oneself-in-community.

In writing this manifesto, we ask whether you would collaborate with us, whether you would tic with us, whether you would help us to invent and sustain and share trans, crip space. Whether you would like to articulate the TransCript together. Whether you would like to join the Gay Agenda.™ Not because you’re trans. Not because you’re disabled. But because you share with trans disabled communities a project of worldbuilding. Because you take pleasure in your tics, in your (gender)queerness, in your desire. We invite you to obsess with us. Echo with us. Perseverate with us. Drift in our Koch snowstorms and cover your floors with Sierpinski’s carpet. Connect to and manifest with us.

As scholars and teachers, we all have difficult choices to make. We have careers, families, students, and colleagues that depend on our presence within these field(s). We are all bounded by colonial scripts. Carving new spaces, (trans)gressing and (trans)cribing these boundaries is materially and emotionally demanding. For all these reasons, we know that some colleagues will gtfo. They will follow the scripts we have been handed, inhabit the stories we already know.

But, maybe you want something different. In which case—welcome! GTFI.


  1. We thank Jo’s 2018 FemRhet students and especially Alex Rogers for providing the term “Many-Festo.”

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Because Trans People Are Speaking: Notes on Our Field’s First Special Issue on Transgender Rhetorics

While there have been a good many special issues around trans topics in other fields—and while the flagship journal, Transgender Studies Quarterly is nearly ten years old now—for K.J. and I, two1 trans scholars in rhetoric and composition, this special issue (the first of its kind in our field) feels like a long time coming. To observe that this special issue, which exclusively focuses on trans topics, is “new” doesn’t quite get at the importance of this moment. This is, quite simply, for many of the contributors included here, the issue we needed as graduate students—and, if we’re being honest—perhaps, even now, as faculty.

There have, of course, been several notable special issues and edited collections in rhetoric and composition on LGBT topics. We value these collections for the conversations they have opened up in our field. And yet, as Patterson and Spencer observe in this issue, there’s something deflating when it comes to searching for transness in such collections only to find that the “T” is more often than not silent. You begin to wonder if there’s anyone out there like you—or if you’ll only ever be the only gender-expansive scholar (or educator)  in your orbit. You wonder if our field’s journals will ever acknowledge the trans-specific research, writing, teaching, and professional experiences you encounter. You wonder how much of the professional advice espoused in such academic literature actually applies to you.

This isn’t, of course, to say that trans people are monolithic, nor is it to say that some of us haven’t benefited from LGBQ scholarship written by our cisgender colleagues (no doubt, we have)—but there is something important, something necessary, about centering trans-specific inquiries, concerns, and experiences. Though this inaugural special issue on trans rhetorics is just the beginning of the conversations that need to happen in our field, we nevertheless hope our readers experience even a fraction of the life-affirming joy we feel in bringing scholarly voices together around this topic. For our fellow trans and gender-expansive students and colleagues, we hope this issue provides a moment of feeling seen and valued within our field—which, as Hsu, Maier, Cedillo, and Yergeau rightly point out in this issue, regularly fails to consider “the multidimensionality of trans experience,” even as it attempts at trans inclusion

Setting our enthusiasm aside for the moment, I devote the rest of our introduction to anticipating and answering the following questions that our readers are likely to ask:

  • how are we defining trans?
  • are the authors here exclusively trans?
  • what does trans have to do with rhetoric?
  • and why does this special issue belong in Peitho?

Trans, we posit, is a somewhat imperfect umbrella term to describe those who disidentify with the sex and/or gender designated to them at birth. As Rawson and Williams have elsewhere opined, the definition of trans, along with the people who do claim the term is—and perhaps always will be—an enduring process (6). To be crystal clear, however, we understand trans as an umbrella that welcomes those of many (and even multiple, and in some cases, no) genders. We honor our trans sisters and brothers, and all of our gender-expansive and gender-agnostic siblings. Our nonbinary, agender, bigender, pangender, genderqueer, and genderfluid kin are not only “valid” (as the many internet memes insist), their insights and rhetorical contributions are also valued and welcomed here. As LeMaster illustrates through their intervention in this issue, nonbinary scholars offer important lenses for interrogating “racist cisheterosexism.” Moreover, as Bey illustrates in their essay on the connections between blackness and nonbinariness, one may find possibility, invitation even, extended to “the marginalized and the outcast.”

It also feels important to add that trans is not a universally welcome term to describe all gender-expansive people. Indeed, as Presley echoes in this issue, we must be vigilant in rooting out a troubling colonial impulse to label people without their consent—or to erase other gender cosmologies under the rubric of transness. Nor should culturally-specific terminology, traditions, histories, and identities be appropriated (or used as a prop) “to dismantle gender oppression and the gender binary system” (Towle & Morgan, 471). All gender-expansive people ought (as we will expand upon later) to be granted the rhetorical agency to speak for themselves.

And here we pivot to the second question: Are all of the people featured in this special issue trans? In brief, no. This collection includes the work of cisgender authors, gender-questioning authors, trans authors—and, of course collaborations between them. That being said, our primary aim in editing this collection was (and is) to feature trans voices—particularly multiply-marginalized trans voices. We trust our readers not to interpret this aim as some shot across the bough at cisgender scholars, who also write on trans topics. We value our cisgender colleagues. At the same time, we echo Barsczewski’s insistence (in this issue) that while cis researchers can (and sometimes should) write about trans topics, they may want to “deeply consider whether they need to speak on trans experiences and to ask themselves why.” This point isn’t inconsequential. As it stands, the majority of published scholarship on trans experience has been published by cisgender academics (Galupo, 1).

In recent years, several trans scholars have published pieces lamenting the experience of being crowded out by their cisgender colleagues—who, however sincerely they may be committed to trans scholarship, simply cannot lay claim to the same embodied, emotional, and socio-political ties that trans scholars have to their communities (Benavente and Gill-Peterson 25; Chu and Drager 103-104; Malatino 407-408). For this reason, we invite our cisgender colleagues to join us as co-conspirators—crafting a scholarly ethos that not only resists monopolizing trans airwaves but that also actively seeks to signal boost trans voices, whenever their privilege affords them such opportunities (Patterson 149-150).

With this in mind, we pivot to the next question: what does trans have to do with rhetoric?

Perhaps the answer to this question seems obvious—but we think it’s worth stating explicitly. Some might say, for example, that trans becomes relevant to rhetoric at the level of argument. Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of arguments “about transness”: Are trans kids too young to assert their genders? Should trans people be allowed into gender-segregated spaces with “everyone else”? Should trans athletes be able to participate in competitive sports? Are nonbinary people just snowflakes trying to get attention with their made up genders? Isn’t it a bit ridiculous to talk about menstruation and pregnancy in gender neutral ways? What’s the harm, really, of gender reveal parties? Isn’t trans identity a sin? Aren’t trans people asking for trouble by misleading people about “who they really are”? Isn’t it a slur to be called cis—or to be called a TERF?

Such arguments abound. And sometimes, as trans colleagues sharing your hallways and departmental spaces, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being called upon to act as informants. Not long ago, for example, I found myself in the inevitable position of being asked by a cisgender colleague and fellow rhetorician (who sidled into their office without so much as a by-your-leave): “I mean, you can see that there are both sides to this whole trans debate, right?”

So let’s be clear: trans identities are not up for “debate.”

Trans people are not topics to be trotted out into our classrooms for the purpose of practicing “the arts of persuasion” through sloppy pro/con arguments. Trans people are real human beings. As Hibbard and Bartels remind us in their contributions to this issue, trans people are our students, our fellow colleagues. Trans people are our neighbors, our partners, our friends and family members. And, as Jackson, DiCesare, Rawson, and McCormick also remind us in their contributions to this issue, trans people are rhetorical agents—moving through the world as activists, writers, educators, creatives, lawyers, workers, healthcare professionals, politicians, and community organizers. Trans people are crafting arguments that, quite frankly, need listened to, because cis culture’s profound lack of imagination about the ways gender is weaponized and racialized doesn’t just result in terrible arguments—it results in danger, precarity, and soul murder for gender-expansive people.

For us, what trans has to do with rhetoric hinges upon the simple fact that trans people are speaking. Full stop.

Finally, I close this essay by addressing what may (for some) seem like the elephant in the room: what are the connections between transness and feminism? Why does this special issue belong in Peitho?

There are several ways to answer this question. An optimist might answer that feminism is for everyone. For instance, it seems relevant to point out that, in 2016, the Coalition of Women Scholars in Rhetoric & Composition changed the name of their organization to the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Rhetoric & Composition to highlight this very fact. And, indeed, addressing and redressing kyriarchal violence extends well beyond the experiences of white cishetero women. Trans-inclusive feminism, Stryker and Bettcher argue, can be charted all the way back to Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement, which rejected biological determinism as the basis for politics (9).

It would be remiss, however, to ignore the fact that trans culture tends to harbor simultaneous feelings of affection and ambivalence toward feminism. Many of us, after all, have cut our teeth on the writings of feminist scholars, cis and trans, whose words lit up the night sky for us. On the other hand, it is also painfully true that some feminist academics still tend to over-rely on a cis-centric gender binary (Keegan, 10) and sometimes publish reductive narratives about trans people (Awkward-Rich, 825-827). And, in turn, some of these feminist publications are then used to justify policies meant to deny trans people access to housing, employment, medical care, legal documents, bathroom access—along with a host of other indignities. Such violences call to mind the now thoroughly memed question: if your feminism isn’t intersectional, then who’s it really for? But it also feels important to ask, if feminism is the robust organizing principle it presents itself to be, then why does this question need to be asked in the first place?

Our job here isn’t to resolve this issue for readers—nor is it to belabor the connections between our contributors’ scholarly insights and what (by some) may be regarded as the traditional concerns of feminist scholarship.

We are here to take up space. We are here because trans people are speaking—and we are indebted to our trans elders (those who are living and those who have walked on), whose radical insistence in taking up space and speaking anyway has made our lives possible.


  1. I’d like to thank my co-editor, K.J. Rawson; my partner, the newly-minted Dr. Mandy Watts; and my friends-and-colleagues, Jen Wingard and Jo Hsu, for generously offering up feedback on this introduction. I’m lucky to have y’all in my world.

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan, Janell Haynes, and Jacqueline Rhodes, Eds. “Public/Sex: Connecting Sexuality and Service Learning.” [Special Issue] Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service-Learning, vol. 9, no. 2, 2010.
  • Alexander, Jonathan, and William Banks, Eds. “Sexualities, Technologies and the Teaching of Writing.” [Special Issue] Computers & Composition Online, vol. 21, no. 3, 2004, pp. 271-400.
  • Alexander, Jonathan, and Jacqueline Rhodes, Eds. Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics. New York, Routledge, 2016.
  • Awkward-Rich, Cameron. “Trans, Feminism: Or, Reading like a Depressed Transsexual.Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 42, no. 4, 2017, pp. 819-839. University of Chicago Press, doi: 10.1086/690914.
  • Banks, William, Matthew Cox, and Caroline Dadas, Eds. Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects. Logan, Utah State UP, 2019.
  • Benavente, Gabby, and Gill-Peterson, Julian. “The Promise of Trans Critique: Susan Striker’s Queer Theory.GLQ, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 23-28. Duke University Press, doi: 10.1215/10642684-7275222.
  • Chu, Andrea Long, and Emmett Harsin Drager. “After Trans Studies.TSQ, vol. 6, no. 1, 2019, pp. 103-116. Duke University Press, doi: 10.1215/23289252-7253524.
  • Combahee River Collective, “Combahee River Collective Statement.” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith. New York, Kitchen Table Press, 2000, pp. 264-274.
  • Galupo, M. Paz. “Researching while Cisgender: Identity Considerations for Transgender Research.International Journal of Transgenderism, vol. 18, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1-2. Research Gate, doi: 10.1080/15532739.2017.1342503.
  • Keegan, Cáel M. “Getting Disciplined: What’s Trans About Queer Studies Now?Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 67, no. 3, 2020, pp. 1-14. Taylor & Francis, doi: 10.1080/00918369.2018.1530885.
  • LeMaster, Benny, and Amber L. Johnson, Eds. “Unlearning gender—Toward a critical communication trans pedagogy.” [Special Issue] Communication Teacher, vol. 33, no. 3, 2019, pp. 189-198. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/17404622.2018.1467566.
  • Malatino, Hil. “Pedagogies of Becoming: Trans Inclusivity and the Crafting of Being.” TSQ, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 395-410. Duke University Press, doi: 10.1215/23289252-2926387.
  • Mayberry, Maralee, and Lane Hansen, Eds. “Transgender Youth: Focusing on the “T” in LGBT Studies” [Special Issue]. Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 4, 2016.
  • Morrison, Margaret, Ed. “Queer Rhetoric.” [Special Issue] Pre/Text, vol. 13, no. 3-4, 1992.
  • Nicolazzo, Z, Ed. “Introduction: what’s transgressive about trans* studies in education now?” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 30, no. 3, 2017, pp. 211-216. Taylor and Francis Online, doi: 10.1080/09518398.2016.1274063.
  • Patterson, G. “Entertaining a Healthy Cispicion of the Ally Industrial Complex in Transgender Studies.” Women & Language, vol. 41, no. 1, 2018, pp. 146-151.
  • Rawson, K.J., and Cristan Williams. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.Present Tense, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014.
  • Spurlin, William J., Ed. “Lesbian and Gay Studies/Queer Pedagogies.” [Special Issue] College English, vol. 65, no. 1, 2002.
  • Stryker, Susan and Talia M. Bettcher. “Introduction Trans/Feminisms.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1-2, 2016, pp. 5-14. Duke University Press, doi: 10.1215/23289252-3334127.
  • Towle, Evan and Lynn Marie Morgan. “Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2002, pp. 469-497.

Welcome to Peitho’s Advertising Coordinator Intern, Timothy Ballingall!

The Coalition is pleased to welcome Timothy Ballingall as our first Advertising Coordinator Intern for Peitho! Timothy is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Composition at Texas Christian University, where he teaches courses in composition, argument, and gender. His dissertation, Rhetoric to the Lovelorn: Women’s Newspaper Advice Columns between the Wars, uses feminist historiography, archival research, feminist interpretations of ethos, and qualitative content analysis to examine advice columnists in the 1920s and 30s. His work has appeared in Peitho.

As the Advertising Coordinator Intern, Timothy will be responsible for assisting in generating advertising revenue for Peitho (contributing to and maintaining a contact list of potential advertisers, soliciting ads, collecting revenue, and assisting with the publication of the ads within Peitho, etc.) over the next 11 months.

Many thanks are due to the Peitho Editorial Board members who served as the search committee for this position: Dr. Suzanne Bordelon, Dr. Lisa Mastrangelo, and Dr. Temptaous McKoy.

Review of Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work

Enoch, Jessica. Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2019. 260 pages.

I finished reading Jessica Enoch’s Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work a few weeks before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak caused a majority of cities and states to issue shelter-in-place orders that closed schools, colleges and businesses, and most people worldwide found themselves suddenly living and working at home. The rhetorics of domestic labor changed almost overnight. As our worlds became isolated, I thought often of Enoch’s discussion of space and gender, and specifically about how domestic spaces function in our patterns of life and our patterns of thought. While Enoch examines nineteenth-century schoolhouses, turn-of-the-century domestic science home laboratories and public kitchens, and childcare centers during World War II, her arguments and methodology are also immensely relevant to the current moment. Her book is essential to feminist rhetorical scholarship for its insight that as we shape our spaces, our spaces shape us. Enoch issues a charge to pay attention to space and a guide for how to do so.

Domestic Occupations considers the ways in which rhetoric constructs and reconstructs the spaces in which women live and work. Using a variety of archival materials, Enoch recovers and reconstructs their dynamic spatial histories, demonstrating how rhetoric shaped the material space, the bodies that could enter and inhabit that space, and the values and patterns of movement associated with that space. While I will focus primarily on the content of each case study in the paragraphs that follow, I want to begin by saying that Enoch’s discussion of method is what makes this book an essential text for any feminist scholar. In chapter one, “Contending with Home: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work,” Enoch describes her project and sets out key premises that will inform her case studies. She establishes that her project is to explore how women’s relationship to home and work spaces has changed over time, writing that “this relationship is created, sustained, and reshaped through rhetorical operations that are crafted in response to particular constraints and that capitalize on specific opportunities” (5). She defines spatial rhetorics as the arguments made by the spaces themselves, which include the function of the space, the bodies and objects that can inhabit that space, and the values conferred upon them by that space (6). She also clarifies her choice of the word “space” as opposed to “place,” noting that her discussion is of the general types of spaces (schoolhouses, childcare centers) rather than specific locations. Enoch sets out three premises that guide her study and that should guide any exploration of spatial rhetorics: that “spatial (re)construction occurs through a variety of means and agencies,” that we must consider power as central, and that the meaning of any space confers meaning on bodies and objects within that space (10). Finally, she notes that her goal is to understand the construction of the white middle class through spatio-rhetorical discourse, but that this discourse inevitably reveals what it excludes from consideration: race, ethnicity, culture, and class. Enoch works to give special attention to these exclusions at the end of each chapter, and then devotes all of chapter five to a discussion of how feminist scholars might recover these spatial histories. Enoch ends her first chapter with a discussion of her personal stake in this issue, reminding readers that while her case studies are historical, her methods are relevant to contemporary discussions of women and work by writers such as Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg. Additionally, she notes that the spaces we inhabit make demands of us and arguments about us, and it is our job as feminist scholars to be attentive to those arguments. Enoch offers three case studies as examples of this project.

In chapter two, “From Prison to Home: Spatial Rhetorics Regender the Nineteenth-Century School,” Enoch examines how spatial rhetorics allowed women to enter the teaching profession by altering the traditionally masculine space of the schoolhouse to resemble the feminized, nurturing space of the home. Using a variety of materials, from women’s magazines to newspapers and architectural plan books, Enoch constructs for readers the space of the early nineteenth-century schoolhouse as dirty, violent, and immoral, and the space of the home as nurturing, well-decorated, and virtuous. This distinction is necessary in order to demonstrate that the values and behaviors associated with both spaces derived from the material construction of those spaces and were at the center of educational reform. Spanning roughly from 1820-1870, this “radical renovation” of the schoolhouse took place as a response to the push for educational reform by educators such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, who believed that in order to train engaged citizens, schoolhouses should more closely resemble the tasteful, pleasurable, comfortable space of the white, middle-class home (33). Enoch uses Sarah Hallenbeck’s concept of “nondeliberate rhetorics” to argue that the introduction of female teachers was not the intended outcome of this reform, but that the design and location allowed for different bodies to inhabit that space (34). Enoch also points out, however, as she indicated in chapter one, that power is often central to these spatial transformations, and that, as spatial transformation allowed for women to enter the teaching profession, the profession was also changed such that women were rarely afforded the power and pay of their male counterparts.

In chapter three, “The Domestic Scientist’s Home Experiment: Spatial Rhetorics and Professional Ethos,” Enoch explores the role of space in ethos, describing how transforming the home into a laboratory enabled domestic scientists to construct a professional ethos for women without threatening traditional gender roles, particularly in light of women’s increased access to higher education and a burgeoning feminist movement. Domestic scientists sought to reinvent the home as a response to its construction as a maternal idyll or a site of domestic drudgery by challenging the idea that instinct was at the heart of domestic success. They promoted this spatial transformation through public kitchens, such as the New England Kitchen in Boston and the Rumford Kitchen at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. Enoch highlights the spatial rhetorics at play in the Rumford Kitchen in particular, as Ellen Richards, director of the exhibit, turned down a space in the Women’s Building and instead set up a public kitchen near the Anthropology building because she wanted to associate domestic science with professionalism rather than gender. This deliberate spatial choice clearly demonstrates the goals of the movement, and its success extended even beyond demonstrations of home kitchens. Its principles were soon enacted in many public spaces under the purview of “municipal housekeeping,” in spaces such as settlement houses, dormitories, asylums, etc. (111).  At the end of the chapter, Enoch offers an empathetic scholarly examination of the conflict between domestic scientists and feminists working for suffrage and women’s representation, noting that “[f]or many working women, to associate with feminist causes might have come at too high a cost,” and that it is essential that feminist scholars consider the variety of arguments and methods women used to gain access to education, ethos, and financial support of their families (116).

Chapter four, “The Motherless Home: Working Mothers, Emotive Spatial Rhetorics, and the World War II Childcare Center” is perhaps Enoch’s most compelling case study, as she describes not one shift in spatial rhetorics but two. These shifts occurred in quick succession in response to the same event. During World War II, federal and state governments, private industries, and individual communities spent over $75 million constructing childcare centers or “war nurseries” to allow mothers to work to support the war effort without fearing for their children’s (and future citizens’) wellbeing. Enoch examines the emotional rhetoric used to make the childcare center a home-like space, and therefore acceptable individually and culturally as a place that provides a mother’s care, in order to counter the negative associations of failed and delinquent motherhood that had previously characterized the use of outside childcare. What is unique about this case study is how quickly this rhetorical reconstruction (and actual construction) of childcare centers took place, but also how quickly it was dismantled, again literally and figuratively, after the exigence of women’s wartime service had passed. In 1945, officials used prewar rhetoric surrounding the childcare center as unsafe, unhealthy, and an impediment to children’s growth and wellbeing to quell support for their continued existence. Meanwhile, they constructed the suburban “victory home” as a site of middle-class achievement and a place where women could now focus on rebuilding the nuclear family. Of course, as Enoch notes, this rhetoric was heavily raced and classed, as childcare centers served many families but their dismantling disproportionately harmed women of color and lower socioeconomic status who did not have access to the new home space that promoted its own culturally acceptable version of motherhood and labor.

In her final chapter, cleverly titled “Home Work: Spatial Rhetorics and Feminist Rhetorical Scholarship,” Enoch opens with Joan Wallach Scott’s charge that feminist scholarship should not only examine the past, but offer pathways for the future. While I always appreciate a thorough “future research” section in any academic article or book, there is something special about how Enoch constructs her final chapter. Rather than feeling like the book was winding down, “Home Work” gives readers energy and drive to start applying her methods to spaces they inhabit or study. By focusing on the feminist interrogation of the everyday, it suggests that this is work we should all be doing in order to be fully present and aware of our own spaces, and how the behaviors, ideas, and principles that result affect those women who do not share or are not permitted to enter those spaces. Enoch develops a series of topics that her examination of dominant spatio-rhetorical discussions did not allow her to explore, but which are essential to a fuller understanding of this rhetoric: she suggests that scholars should examine “the workings of politics and power,” especially in these everyday spaces (175), including, for example, the roles of domestic violence, family relations, and sex and sexuality on home spaces. Each of these topics is thoroughly articulated through a series of insightful questions that make this chapter dynamic and exciting as Enoch prepares scholars to take up this work.

I am grateful that I had the chance to read Domestic Occupations, and I can only hope that Enoch will write a follow-up study that considers her argument in light of the upheaval of living and working patterns for women during COVID-19. The methods she offers and case studies she provides can serve, as Joan Wallach Scott suggests, as knowledge of the past, insight into the present, and imagination for the future (171). Living and working at home has exposed many complicated legacies of domestic labor, and as we navigate the political, cultural, and consumer discourses that offer suggestions for our spaces, we can look to Enoch as our guide to understanding the work we must do and the everyday importance of spatial rhetorics.

Review of Crazy Horse Weeps: The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America

Marshall, Joseph M. III. Crazy Horse Weeps: The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2019. 168 pages.

As a scholar and teacher of ecocomposition based on service-learning for environmental advocacy writing, I have often relied on the many works of Joseph M. Marshall III to provide my students with a narrative lens into the Indigenous worldview of the Lakota Sioux. Crazy Horse Weeps, Marshall’s most recent work, takes a fresh approach in weaving together not only the current state of our environment in the U.S., along with U.S. history, but also addresses modern day politics in light of the fact that, for the Lakota, the pervasive threads of oppression and simultaneous disrespect for Grandmother Earth have not changed over time. Where traditional Lakota esteem our planet as a living female entity connected in a balanced relationship with all things, too many of her inhabitants continue to view her simply as an exclusive sphere of resources to be controlled, “promoting an ideology of power over nature” in conquering “undomesticated ground” (Alaimo 2, 23). This “tamers of the land” mantra is diametrically opposed to the Lakota worldview, which teaches human responsibility to care for our planet, as she cares for us (Marshall, The Journey, xx). Her power and destiny are already manifest in her very existence. Our destiny is to reciprocate in kind. This important insight ultimately educates readers about the roles they play in the past, present, and future of consumerism, which has a profound effect on all people and our planet’s vital ecological balance.

From the onset of Crazy Horse Weeps, Marshall mourns the heartbreaking death of “They Are Afraid of Her,” Crazy Horse’s young daughter, from cholera. The book ends with dancing. In between is an enlightening journey beginning with the ability of “Tasunka Witko” (Crazy Horse) to carry on in the face of the unspeakable loss of a child, tragically the result of Euro-American invasion, accompanied with new disease(s). From there, Marshall patiently guides the reader through the Lakota vantage point of U.S. history starting with Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and the Oregon Trail, to the resulting mantras of Manifest Destiny, Christian missions, assimilation, and capitalism, all of which remain, by and large, constant. Cause and effect examples in the text reveal the many troubling issues facing the Lakota today—ongoing results of unjust and often traumatic colonial forces. The ways in which these issues are oft portrayed by today’s mainstream media still contribute to what has historically been a “literature of dominance” (Vizenor 3). Rather than the greater population heeding Indigenous voices and knowledge regarding equal rights for all races of people, as well as a respectful belief to not deplete Grandmother Earth’s natural resources which sustain humanity, such worldviews are unfortunately more often quietly or unquietly silenced, and/or dismissed as unprogressive, inapplicable, and quaint.

Where some of Marshall’s previous works may have invoked a warm and nostalgic cedar flute tone, there is no flute here. This work boldly addresses today’s pivotal political issues which impact not just the Lakota, and not just the U.S., but ultimately, our connected global population. True to the subtitle, “The Challenge of Being Lakota in White America,” Marshall gives an authentic, autobiographical, and often familial context for what has been much of his experience on and off the Rosebud Reservation. He awakens the reader with an enlightening documentation of the fortitude required by the Lakota to endure with a spirit of survivance, while continuing to resist forces who oppress and disrespect both Indigenous peoples and Grandmother Earth. As a participant in the Standing Rock/DAPL water protectors peaceful protest, Marshall expresses that despite how some may misinterpret motives, “What we do want is for others to learn that coexisting with the environment and adapting to it is the way to ensure that our children and grandchildren of any race and color will have an unpolluted environment” (135).  At the heart, Marshall echoes the sentiments of Crazy Horse in seeking unity and a promising future “for all living things and [including] young white ones…” One must believe this noble vision ensures the possibility of sustaining all future generations, therefore such a goal necessitates purposeful leadership today: “Leadership is a responsibility, not a prize” (63). Within the Standing Rock camps, Lakota young people took up that responsibility. “It’s the young people who taught us how to stand again. It was the young people that brought that empowerment to the people” (Brave Bull Allard qtd. in Barnett).

As my students gradually become more aware that they exist in a relationship with the natural world through Marshall’s voiced identity and guided leadership in his writing, they are inspired to become fellow seekers in making changes, not only via my classroom and related service-learning work, but also in their everyday lives. These actions, in turn, shape their identities. Writing for environmental advocacy can serve as “one of the activities by which we locate ourselves in the enmeshed systems that make up the social world. It is not simply a way of thinking but more fundamentally a way of acting” (Cooper 373). When one invests their own identity in a place they have lived, cherished, interacted with, and advocated for, that relationship can foster an ongoing lineage crossing time-space dimensions (Deloria 209). Ties to land and place can become intergenerational, which has the potential to ultimately empower a heritage of respect for Grandmother Earth en masse, and from family to community. As Sidney I. Dobrin and Christian R. Weisser have argued, “Ecological thinking relies upon interrelationships rather than rigid boundaries” (569). Furthermore, shared Indigenous rhetorics based on these multifaceted relationships can foster a profound sense of belonging and purpose within the composition classroom, both locally and beyond.

With Native American lands constantly under ecological threat of contamination, endless pipeline developments, and myriad other ongoing treaty violations, as Keith H. Basso states, “new forms of ‘environmental awareness’ are being more radically charted and urgently advocated than ever in the past” (105). Operating from, and delving in-depth into, what Basso calls “contrasted ways of living in the world” are essential to experience the organic connection and relationship between human beings and all of creation. Once explored, these new and vital contrasts not only allow students to change their writing, but also their perception of identity and place within the world, clarifying their roles of respectful responsibility for Grandmother Earth’s care.

As Marshall very practically and poignantly illustrates the Lakota view of respect for all of creation via storytelling/narrative, such as with his remembrance of shock and sadness at a rancher indifferently destroying a meadowlark nest, he reminds us that abuses of power, even when interacting with the natural world, can start out small (127). Add racism and self-promotion to such an ideology, along with a group of followers, and soon a dangerous world leadership based on hatred of others can emerge, eventually leading to ethnocentrism and genocide (48-49). Such scenarios are painfully acute in Native American communities, yet still their belief in, and hope for, an eventual awareness of the essence of what it truly means to be human lives on for non-Native peoples. “I, for one, will place that hope and extend it to the cosmos, because where there is one good person and one kind heart, surely there are others” (115). Concurrently, from my observations, despite the often terrible treatment of the Lakota by whites, and despite the ways in which whites have disrespected Grandmother Earth, the Lakota love of “Unci Maka” (Grandmother Earth) is far greater than their hatred of the hate exhibited and exercised by those who seek to oppress them. In learning from scholars at Sinte Gleska University, as well as knowledgeable Lakota elders and friends, their prayer is that white society will realize what it means to be truly human in connection with all of creation, along with adapting to Grandmother Earth in good ways of balance (as it should be), rather than assuming that she will adapt to the whims of human dominance with every decision. It is overwhelmingly apparent, she cannot.

Amidst addressing current and weighty social issues in Lakota communities (and their related causes), as well as our overall environmental distress, Marshall balances what could seem to be solely insurmountable struggles, with humor. In reading the book chronologically, Marshall recounts his boyhood story of being chased up a tree by a badger, remembering an earlier lesson from his grandmother about the wily ways of badgers. In a subsequent chapter, he ties his first-hand experience with the badger to a story his grandmother later lovingly tells him about a stick and a snake, expressing that he values her profound and uncanny insight in light of the fact that she was previously “right about the badger” (9). This made me laugh out loud. As one of Marshall’s earliest teachers, his grandmother certainly modeled compassion and wisdom, and Marshall highlights the further wisdom of seeing the irony in certain situations. This tempered humor, so often a sign of Lakota strength in adversity, brings to the surface the depth of Lakota character and honor, simply facing what needs to be done. This is the Lakota way, echoing what has remained over millennia: constancy, stability, structure, purpose…part of the greater whole of what it means to be authentically Lakota (80). Returning to the traditional way of attending to concerns within the community, Marshall’s final chapter may initially seem out of step. However, considering Lakota oral culture and storytelling, he is highlighting the circular and reflective collaborative dialogue depended upon for countless generations. In effect, he is, like the book’s opening with Crazy Horse, reminding us of history and the old ways.

While Crazy Horse Weeps fully and openly confronts wrongdoings of the past, as the ending focuses on dancing, the limitless resiliency that comes with a sense of connected culture and tradition is a continued vision of hope for the future of Lakota people. And while Marshall quietly veils his own portion of that resiliency in his thankfulness for those non-Native people who have stood with the Lakota, one realizes hope for all humankind is perhaps what he, and Crazy Horse, have also together wept for all along (112). A journey in understanding the words of these two stalwart and unified leaders challenges my students (and myself) to develop a deep appreciation for a worldview with authentic relationships at its heart. And while over millennia this worldview has not changed, neither has its power to bring humanity together to serve and know that which sustains us, as was intended from the beginning.

Works Cited

  • Alaimo, Stacy. Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space. Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Barnett, Tracy L. “Women of Standing Rock: LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.” Resilience. Accessed 30 Aug. 2019.
  • Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
  • Cooper, Marilyn. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English, vol. 48, no. 4, 1986,  pp. 364-75.
  • Deloria, Vine, Jr. The Metaphysics of Modern Existence. Fulcrum, 2012.
  • Dobrin, Sidney I., and Christian R. Weisser. “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships between Discourse and Environment.” College English, vol. 64, no. 5, 2002, pp. 566-98.
  • Marshall, Joseph M. III. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History. Penguin Books, 2005.
  • Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Review of Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects

Banks, William P., Matthew B. Cox, and Caroline Dadas, editors. Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects. Logan: Utah State UP, 2019. 223 pages.

This review has two goals: First, we do the work of tracing some of the key arguments made by the authors of Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects. Second, we offer some thoughts on the current state of queer rhetorics research and the possibilities available to the field, especially our feminist allies, when we reflect on and re/orient our terms, methods, and methodologies. However, these two goals do not happen in isolation or in a this-then-that fashion. Instead, we utilize the more collaborative mode of dialogue to bounce ideas around, interspersed with quotations, zines, and critical commentary. In doing so, we invite readers to re/orient their thinking through the rhetorics of intentionality, rhetorics of forgetting, and rhetorics of failure suggested by Banks, Cox, and Dadas in their introduction. This might mean that you ask, “how does a queer rhetoric of intentionality shape methods of data collection or methodologies for understanding research purposes and contexts? (13). Or “What do we do with failure?” (13). Or “why [have] certain tropes, conceits, or values picked up steam in writing studies and c[o]me to occupy a central place in our journals and books and why [have] others have been (strategically) forgotten? How has forgetting those things been advantageous to certain researchers, composers, institutions? Why? What is it about these shameful figures that has made us forget?” (15). Or don’t.

Let’s begin.


Gavin: Or, perhaps, let’s begin again. Re/Orienting Writing Studies, after all, is definitely not the beginning of this conversation. [stares at shelves of scholarship in queer theories]

Cody: I’m thinking, as I sit here in the midst of trying to shed some of the brain fog that’s been lingering around, how to approach a review essay like this. On one hand, we want to discuss the elements of the text, as any review essay must do. On the other hand, we want to reach out for ways of doing queer work, specifically queer methods of engaging the labor of reviewing. Though I’m not exactly sure it’s as evenly divided as this. Should we use GIFs here? I feel like GIFs would be nice.


This edited collection, published by Utah State University Press, contains eleven chapters and a forward. Each chapter describes the author’s(s’) project and reports on the ways in which each author engages a queer method/ology. The authors offer individualized definitions of queer. But beyond offering individual visions of queer they also orient and reorient …

queer/ness as identities/theories/writings/methods/methodologies/beings.


The authors and this collection are uninterested in offering a singular mode of queer/ing rhetoric and writing studies. We orient and are re/oriented as needed, or, perhaps, as desired.


30. Don’t be Faithful or loyal to institutions, disciplines, or persons to whom others say you must be speaking. (Waite 46)

33. Don’t become an authority on your subject. (Waite 46)

54. Ignore subject agreement, how normative, how boring, howunplural. (Waite 47)


Gavin: GIFs would be cool. Non-stationary images that don’t act in /normal time/ seem appropriate. But then we have to consider the limits of Peitho. Can Peitho’s infrastructure handle constant movement? Playful modes? Non-normative reviews?

Cody: I’m watching you type this and I feel like a voyeur. Just noting this for the record.

Fig. 1. Gif of dog gazing at fish until fish attacks. via GIPHY

Cody: In their forward to the book, Pamela Takayoshi recognizes that the type of queer work, or “queer methods,” we seem to long for “cannot arrive fast enough” (xi).

Gavin: And lord knows that queer turn in rhetorical studies has been slow! (cf. Alexander and Wallace; Cox and Faris; Morris & Rawson; Rhodes).

Cody: So…queerness is, at the same time, too slow and too fast? Something we can’t keep up with and also something we’ve left behind…stuck between orientations almost. What might re/orientation-as-praxis feel like? I guess that’s what I’d like to ask, and I think what this book gestures at repeatedly.

Gavin: I think so, and we can see Banks, Cox, and Dadas working through this in the introduction. They offer us three rhetorics which emerge from queer method/ologies: rhetorics of intentionality, rhetorics of failure, and rhetorics of forgetting (12-16). With these rhetorics, the editors are re/orienting us away from standard research exigencies. That is, the exigencies I see in this project are not the “realization of a gap in the scholarship” but rather an intentional orienting that puts us in contact with failed research or research topics rhetoric and writing forgot. Take, for example, Michael Faris’s chapter, which argues that scholarship has forgotten sex (the embodied act) as a rhetorical force and should turn toward an ontological orientation that privileges “affects, desires, and sensual life” (143). Or, perhaps, G Patterson’s point that marginalized communities are failed by quantitative research methods because such approaches attempt to remove outliers and clean the data.


When we look for X, what are we strategically forgetting in order to keep X in focus? How could we acknowledge that tension in our work? Why might we need to forget X in order to discover Y? (Banks, Cox, Dadas 16)

I am not trying to convey who I am, I am trying to arouse others’ desire or be open to encounters. (Faris 137)

Queered assemblages of health and medicine, then, rather than counterstories of health and medicine, male spaces to question biomedical practices and discourses that construct bodies of health within paradigms of “normalcy.” (Novotny 121)

Interpreting one’s data queerly isn’t just about embodying one’s participants; it’s about calling attention to how these bodies are (un)able to move through political space. (Patterson 68)

As we work to diversify rhetorical research through an interconnected queer and cross-cultural lens, we are not merely adding voices to rectify their absence within writing studies—we are working to redraw boundaries of rhetorical knowledge and paradigms, remapping the terrains of rhetorical studies within the global turn of rhetoric and composition with reflex, critical, and accountable cautions. (Adsanatham 91)


Cody: I’m also almost forced to point out the need for neuroqueer (cf. Yergeau, 2017) interventions in the work we come into contact with on queer rhetorics and queer/ing composition.

Gavin: I agree, and a discussion of neuroqueerness, crip theory, and disability is missing in this collection. I wish that that growing part of the scholarly conversation would have made its way into these pages—such frameworks don’t just re/orient us but change our very notions of the moves of orientation.

Cody: As I’m following your keystrokes, lightning bolts keep pinging…ideas forming and swirling. For instance, I’m still entangled with the Foreword and some of the metaphors deployed there. Takayoshi mentions that “this book provides a theoretical window onto the importance of understanding the knowledge-making practices involved in research” (xiv). They also state that “Queer theories…are foundational theories for anyone interested in writing and identity…” (xiii). And, I agree with this. I’m just lingering for a bit in the imagery of the home, because there’s something about disciplinarity that keeps us within the metaphor of “the home.” We hear a lot of talk about “disciplinary homes.” What happens when we take this metaphor, and that of the Burkean Parlor for that matter, and reorient ourselves? Maybe another way of asking: what happens when we cruise the Burkean Parlor? When we dare to disrupt the notion that there are ever seamless entries and exits in and out of discursive circulation(s) of knowledge. I’m rambling now, I think. But a crucial point that Stacey Waite makes in her chapter: “Don’t stay ‘on topic.’ Drift gleefully off. Get lost” (44). So, at the moment, I’m lost, and maybe that’s okay.

Gavin: Defining a disciplinary home is really hard when we engage in[queer]y. For example, as we work through this book, I’m drifting between documents and composing cover letters for the academic job market. I’ve been a rather promiscuous scholar in that I don’t do one thing and stick with it. I don’t just study writing. I don’t just study rhetoric. I don’t just study queer culture. I don’t just study digital communities. Such a diversity of interests—really, I’m willing to write about whatever momentarily catches my attention—makes it hard to qualify (quantify?) myself as a scholar. But reading this collection of essays has helped me understand that my unique orientation as a researcher is what moves me through this precarious academic world. Doing things differently, engaging in[queer]y, this collection suggests, is intentionally messy, open, unstable…just like the knowledges, languages, communities we wish to study.

Cody: I think this “in-between” feeling is a queer terrain, really. Jean Bessette’s chapter on queer historiography makes this point within the context of archival method. Your examples illuminate something that I think needs to be foregrounded a little more in conversations about queer method. That is, how can we acknowledge the embodied ways we simultaneously inhabit and “drift” in and out of disciplinarity? For instance, how can queer methods work to transform the material realities of our discipline and local contexts while also reaching outside of the academy, as so many queer scholars do, to remind us that queer praxis has never been anything but embodied? Asking how we can queer disciplinarity while also clinging on to it for dear life, is another way of putting it, I guess.

Gavin: I see a number of the authors struggling with it in their chapters. And I’ve definitely felt it too. In her chapter, Hillary Glasby turns to a “failure-affirming methodology.” So much of that argument is built around Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s notion of the impossibility of composition, and I think it falls into the same issues that Alexander and Rhodes run into in their work; that is, in working against the idea of composition’s disciplinarity they reinforce its power. Queer composition is impossible because the very people who seek to queer composition say it is impossible. It ignores, to some degree, the generative nature of queerness and the issue of practicing a queer methodology.


In the context of this collection, we might ask, how does a queer rhetoric of intentionality shape methods of data collection or methodologies for understanding research purposes or contexts? (Banks, Cox, Dadas 13)

Queerness at its core embraces ambiguity, excess, and instability, whereas methods represent logics that provides structure for inquiry. So when we discuss a queer method, we are discussing a contradiction in terms: unstable and ambiguous logics and ways of knowing. (Kuzawa 150)

Queering the field’s methodological lenses will involve exploring how queer theory can be used to disrupt objectivity, neutrality, and normativity. Because professional writing research had historically been associated with objectivity, we believe it is all the more important that we draw on queer notions of disruption, or “messiness” to reorient that work. (Dadas and Cox 190)


Where is race in queer rhetorics?

(Incomplete) Index:

Adsanathan, Chanon, viii, 10, 17
African American Vernacular English, 36
Ahmed, Sara, 4, 123, 169, 170, 176
Anzaldúa, Gloria, 27, 39, 30, 31, 32, 33
Buddha, 86, 87, 89, 90, 92n5
Buddhism, 17, 86, 87; bicultural
……….perspective of, 88; men/women privileges in, 92n9; understanding of, 90
civil rights, 8, 195
Combahee River Collective, 33
critical race theory (CRT), 114-115
Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Smith), 20
discrimination, 28, 59, 66
diversity, 83, 171, 178, 182
ethnicity, 158, 171, 194, 198-99
Eurocentrism, 75, 76, 83
heterowhiteness, 26
Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (Kovach), 20
intersectionality, 116, 130, 177, 179
Lorde, Audre, 31, 155
Muñoz, José Esteban, 78, 101, 188
Pritchard, Eric Darnell, 202
Puar, Jasbir K., 71, 116, 122
race, 78, 114, 139, 158, 171, 189, 194;
……….technical communication and,
racism, 36, 55, 170
REDRES, 17, 76, 92n10; illustrating, 86-
……….91; methodology of, 79-86
Rhetorical Listening: Identification,
……….Gender, Whiteness (Ratcliffe),
sexuality, …racialized perverse, 116…
students of color, 70, 178
whiteness, narratives of, 114
women of color, queer, 37


Chanon Adsanatham’s chapter “REDRES[ING] RhetoricaA Methodological Proposal for Queering Cross-Cultural Rhetorical Studies” offers the most direct engagement with queerness and race. Specifically, this chapter approaches non-Western views of rhetoric, but is clear to remind readers,

Any attempt to queer rhetorical studies cross-culturally, however, raises complex issues. To begin with, studying non-Western rhetorics in the context of the West is already a complicated undertaking; it involves selecting, interpreting, and negotiating unfamiliar concepts from one culture and re-representing them to another—all of which has epistemic and ethical consequences. (75)

To aid in this work, Adsanatham offers a methodology of REDRES: Recontemplation, Defamiliarization and Reevaluation, Ethics of Care, Seeking Incongruities.


Gavin: And then there is Cox and Dadas chapter on queering professional writing. Could there be a more disciplined discipline? Or Nikki Caswell and Steph West-Puckett’s chapter on assessment! A queer approach to writing that is professional and the assessment of writing?! It is quite a beautiful contradiction, and one I’m happy to sit with in discomfort. What I really like about Cox and Dadas’ chapter is how they navigate the critiques coming from professional writing scholars. They are determined to bring cultural rhetorics and queer praxis to a stiff discipline regardless of the protests of the establishment. Similarly, Caswell and West-Puckett suggest a queer validity inquiry (QVI) to push against assessment’s critical validity inquiry (CVI). A QVI is “messy, scattered, lateral half-drawn” (175) and, in a way, represents the assessment of writing more validly then traditional approaches that seek to normalize results. Those chapters, to me, is perhaps the most radically queer (not in its writing—that goes to Waite) of the collection. Cox and Dadas and Caswell and West-Puckett as well as G Patterson are working on and against crystalized disciplinary structures that many queer scholars have abandoned. I really love the queering of a decidedly unqueer institution. Re/claiming spaces that were never designed for queer bodies or queer knowledges. I do, of course, recognize the high potential of failure here. But, as we are reminded throughout, failure is also queer.



Image shows a page from a zine. In the top-left corner there's a quote from J. Jack Halberstam's "The Queer Art of Failure," and in the bottom-right corner there's a quote from Nicole I. Caswell and Stephanie West-Puckett's "Assessment Killjoys." Each quote is boxed in with a black square. In the middle of the page and overlapping the quotes is a big red "F" written and circled in red.

Fig. 2. Failure: Halberstam to Caswell and West-Puckett. Zine by Cody Jackson.


[A rhetoric of failure (summarize it yourself, see pg. 13 & 14)]

Queer methodologies seek to expand not only representation for non-normative individuals but also ways for representing them and their complexities and paradoxes. (Glasby 39)

A failure-oriented practice of assessment would fail to be commodified, refusing to participate in these neoliberal ideological frames. As such, it would take a critical stance toward using assessment instruments to build collective capacity in our student populations and in our programs, foregrounding an understanding that writing, learning, and literacy are social practices enacted, shared, and embodied cultural networks (Caswell and West-Puckett, 180). How can we think beyond assessment as a validating protocol and, instead, as a process of queering and undoing the historical trajectories of composition theory and practice? In other words, a failure-oriented practice of assessment risks the inevitability that assessment—as a normalizing enterprise—must be undone.


60. Don’t come to conclusions. Come to other things: inquiry, questions, failures, side roads, off-road. (Waite 48)


Image shows a spiral of black text, starting from the center of the image and swirling counterclockwise. The text is a list of readings (titles and authors) on queerness.

Fig. 3. A spiral of queer texts. Zine by Cody Jackson.

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan and David Wallace. “The Queer Turn in Composition Studies: Reviewing and Assessing an Emerging Scholarship.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 1, 2009, pp. 300-320.
  • Cox, Mathew B. and Michael J. Faris. “An Annotated Bibliography of LGBTQ Rhetorics.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol.4, no. 2, 2015, n.p.
  • Morris, Charles E., III, and K.J. Rawson. “Queer Archives/Archival Queers.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif. Carbondale: Southern Illinois State UP, 2013, pp. 74-89.
  • Rhodes, Jacqueline, editor. Queer Rhetorics, special issue of Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 24, 2018.
  • Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Durham: Duke UP, 2017.


Review of Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border

Lozano, Nina Maria. Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2019. 188 pages.

Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border, by Nina Maria Lozano, exemplifies the kind of scholarship that can emerge from in-depth, participatory field work. The book provides several site-based cases that engage a variety of materialisms—assemblages of things and their vitalities, but also the place-based materialisms of monuments and visual rhetorics employed by counterpublics and social movements—all couched within an historical materialist critique of neoliberalism. Lozano interanimates these different materialisms and, in so doing, adds much to our understanding of the ongoing feminicidios as complexly situated in the political, cultural, and economic intersections that frame agentive possibilities in border towns reinvented by neoliberalism. It is neither a coincidence nor a simple calculation that these feminicidios emerged in the 1990s at the dawn of NAFTA and its promotion of foreign factories—maquiladoras—along the Mexican border. Such free-trade zones have been disruptive politically, economically, and culturally as cities like Juárez were not infrastructurally designed to support large numbers of factory workers, the female labor force predominantly employed by these factories lefts gaps in the traditional family structures, powerful drug cartels already predominate these border sites, and the Mexican government appears compromised by both cartels and corporate power. Lozano captures this on-the-ground reality and its role in the ongoing feminicidios through a lens she calls border materialism, a theoretical framework that intersects new materialism with historical materialism. As she defines it, border materialism “retains the element of human agency, attunes carefully to the role of economic and cultural forces, and yet focuses on the importance of physical matter and the assemblages of things in relation to cultural phenomena” (8). Using this theoretical approach, the study grounds itself within neoliberal political economic structures and their assemblages in the border town of Juárez, Mexico.

In addition to this theoretical contribution, the book provides an important model for rhetorical field work. Rather than exploring advocacy efforts from a purportedly neutral, outside perspective, this method encourages “participatory rhetorical advocacy where the scholar-activist engages with community members” (11). Lozano has been actively engaged with local activists in both Juárez (the site of her case studies) and Chihuahua for over 15 years. During this time, she has participated first-hand in movement actions (protests and rastreos or searches), interviewed participants for a total of 423 transcript pages, organized and conducted an “alternative break trip” for students to visit these cities and learn from local activists, sponsored trips for the victims’ Mothers (a label she capitalizes to stress their centrality to the movement) to speak at her campus, and documented her experiences through photographs and video-recordings. This rich field documentation undergirds her case studies (selected to illuminate both the possibilities and limitations of using new materialist theory to study the complex relations that contribute to feminicidios) and enables her to “privilege the testimony from the Juárez families and activists” (11). Lozano avoids appropriation and misrepresentation by affording these numerous voices the same authority as any other primary text. Indeed, the detailed first-person accounts that anchor the case studies position this book differently than so many of its predecessors.

The staggering number of feminicidios along the Mexican border—nearly 2400 women have been killed and countless others are officially missing—has garnered significant attention. Overwhelmingly, however, these responses have faltered because they have not centered the Mothers and their organically produced groups such as Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for our Daughters), Voces sin Echo (Voices without Echo), Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring our Daughters Home), and Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black). Without a strong, historical, and contextualized, local perspective, responses tend to view the feminicidios through a singular, and frequently narrow, lens that distorts the intersectional complexities contributing to the ongoing violence against women in this specific neoliberal location. This book, which has been in the making since Lozano began her activist work in 2003, does not fall into that trap as it both privileges local participants and analyzes their movement rhetorics through interlaced materialist theories that account for the many cultural, historical, political, and economic contingencies contributing to the feminicidios.

Lozano begins with an overview of the feminicidios that have been making news for nearly thirty years by sketching four historical waves. During the first wave, 1993-1998, activists, scholars, and family members became cognizant of and began to organize themselves in response to the surging violence against women. During the second wave, 1998-2010, these groups started “connecting the feminicidios to the larger neoliberal economic structures of Juárez” (21). This understanding pitted the Mothers (who opposed the changing neoliberal landscape) against a government that welcomed it. Fearing bad publicity for the burgeoning maquiladora industry, the government began to work against the activists. They falsified evidence, harassed protestors, and divided the Mothers by representing them as hysterical and the victims as promiscuous. These tactics, along with straightforward corruption, prevented investigations as well as interventions. Nevertheless, the movement pushed forward. Three cases were brought before the International Court of Human Rights on November 6, 2009, and the court ruled in their favor. Dubbed the “Cotton Field” ruling to denote the location where eight victims’ bodies were found, the decision mandated, among other things, that the government build a monument to memorialize the victims and assist in further investigations. After this landmark victory, the movement stalled for a short period. The activist efforts of wave three (2010-2014), identified as the lost years, were overshadowed by the face-off between an increasingly militarized government and the drug cartels. With government efforts targeting the so-called “narco war,” feminicidios continued virtually unnoticed. Explicitly designed to counter this invisibility, the fourth wave (2015-present) demonstrated a resurgence of feminist activism that, importantly, included a more visible role for men. The activist work of this wave, explored through a new materialist lens, provides the material for Lozano’s subsequent case studies.

As a challenge to new materialism’s emphasis on enchantment, chapter two examines the assemblage of things in border cities—including transnational products, maquiladora workers, a municipal infrastructure that privileges tourism over local workers, and female bodies both living and dead. As women have become the major workforce in maquiladora factories, there have been significant ruptures to the social and cultural fabric of Mexican families. Children are left without childcare, teenage girls travel unaccompanied to work (often in the middle of the night because of continuous shift production), and men feel emasculated without sufficient opportunities to provide for their families. Given this context, Lozano concludes that “the feminicidios in Juárez are structural, not individual crimes,” inasmuch as “women’s bodies are vulnerable precisely because of their relationship to the objects and things both within and outside the maquiladora sector’s free-trade zones” (60). This assemblage of things is “never neutral” and “cannot be isolated in its properties and impacts” (67). Whereas new materialism ignores historical, cultural, and economic contexts in its myopic focus on things, border materialisms, as Lozano envisions it, examines the conditions that enable things like dark roads, female bodies, and exported consumer items to form a particular assemblage. Moreover, she highlights the power of human agency in the neoliberal assemblage of things by studying the ecological toilets produced through the Las Hormigas project. Living in the outskirts of Juárez, far from the factories and the wealthier communities that surround them, workers have only intermittent access to running water; consequently, they use outhouses for toilets that, with reoccurring floods, send raw sewage into the streets. The interaction among this flooding landscape, the tipping toilets, and these female agents, combined to produce a new thing: ecological toilets for use and for sale. For Lozano, such contextualized analysis is imperative to border materialism, but frequently absent in new materialism.

Chapter three furthers this critique and extension of new materialism by focusing on thing power. Lozano compares the government monument (mandated by the Cotton Field decision) with the impromptu monuments produced by family members of the victims. Walled off from public view, the state monument contains misspelled, missing, or repeated names, suggesting that the victims are “not worthy of public remembrance” and that the feminicidios are part of the past rather than a contemporary urgency (73). Alternatively, the activist-produced memorials, located at strategic sites such as the state attorney’s office, shopping centers, bus stops, and border crossings are designed to garner attention for the ongoing importance of anti-feminicidio efforts. By continuing to place pink and black crosses (symbolizing women and loss) at the places where feminicidios occur as well as in areas where tourists frequent, activists construct memory by reshaping matter. This chapter accepts the thesis that things have power, but insists on human agency as a key factor that “affords matter and objects their ability to ‘kick back’ against neoliberal hegemonic logics” (86).  The power enacted by these different memorials derives simultaneously from their producers, locations, and symbolic features.

Perhaps the most intriguing of such oppositional assemblages, the “Faces of Feminicidio,” as chapter four details, serve vital affective and rhetorical ends. These murals represent individual identities whose faces “haunt, protect, and comfort vis-à-vis the public’s tactile interaction with the objects’ location” (102). The project organizers, graffiti artist Maclovio and Lluvia Rocho, interview the Mothers and family members to determine the design and site for each mural and work with the community to raise money for materials. Located in neighborhoods, on school grounds, and, in one case, on the side a family home, these murals contain identifying features like characteristic poses, jewelry, and musical instruments that stand in stark contrast to standardized government images “produced in assembly-line fashion—a face and a rose” that reveal nothing “of the face’s life—the face’s corporeal history” (104). Here and elsewhere, Lozano emphasizes the human mediated interactions among objects, bodies, and publics, arguing that “the affect emitted from the murals’ properties is deeply foregrounded in the ‘behind the scenes’ work that Maclovio and Lluvia painstakingly accomplish” and not from the inherent power of things themselves (105).

The final case study examines the new materialist concept of vibrant matter or the vitality to nonhuman things. This chapter explains how a main sense of justice for the victims’ families comes from retrieving their loved ones remains—clothing, bags, and especially bones. The case study focuses on remains from the Arroyo Del Navajo just outside of Juárez, considered the “dumping grounds” for many feminicidios. To date, the remains of 19 victims have been unearthed from this dried river bed. Endowed with DNA, skeletal remains identify themselves with specific victims and thus lend credence to the notion of vibrant matter. However, these remains must be collected and often that task falls to community groups rather than government officials. If these groups find anything, they hold press conferences and pressure the government to run DNA testing. Without such activist work, these bones would remain silent in the Arroyo where they were dumped, suggesting that the vibrancy within things “is always influenced by larger structural forces” (119). Because community-led restreos and state-sponsored forensic specialists form part of the human apparatus that determines whether or not human remains are worthy of speech, new materialist accounts should not, she argues, jettison human agency in their analysis of vibrant matter.

Through extensive primary data and carefully chosen case studies, Not One More! illustrates how neoliberalism structures gendered violence as well as the resistant practices pursued by Mothers and other family members against past and current feminicidios. Lozano’s conclusion reiterates her main critique: “new materialism’s decontextualization of matter, through its disavowal of the mediated properties of rhetoric and human agency, in conjunction with its lack of attention to the hegemonic and neoliberal forces” results in a theoretical approach in danger of slipping from posthumanism into antihumanism (134). Although the many new materialist proponents she cites might quibble with her reading of their work, it would be difficult to find a rhetorical theorist or critic willing to dismiss the asymmetrical power relations between the government, organized drug traffickers, and U.S. corporations on the one hand and poor, young, female workers on the other. Such power struggles call out for dynamic rhetorical solutions and the activist politics that have emerged in the face of this locally situated but globally structured feminicidio have much to teach us about the work of producing economic, political, and cultural justice.

After the Ink Dried but Before History was a Woman’s

Remembering, Renaming, Rewriting

Woman. Othered. Intelligent. Celebrity. Victim. Survivor: these are all characterizations of how Olive Oatman’s identity has been molded. As a teenager, Olive Oatman was captured by the Apache tribe and then traded to the Mohave tribe where she lived within the Mohave culture for five years. After forcibly being returned to the colonists, a then-illiterate Olive encountered Reverend Royal B. Stratton who agreed to pen her autobiography. Oatman’s words became Stratton’s, and quickly her story became appropriated to fit his professional goals of rising within the religious community. During the nineteenth century, women’s individual identities were forced into gendered spaces where the men controlled the public and women were forced to remain in the private domain.1 Nancy Weitz Miller writes about the seventeenth century, but these problematic spaces have proven to be apparent throughout history and continue to be maintained by the rhetoric employed within this patriarchal culture: the separation between genders “secur[es] authority […] in an effort to keep them in a submissive position” (273). Stratton used this historical silencing to overtake Oatman’s narrative and formulate an identity that would enforce the separation between cultures and continue the religious narrative of pious, white, men. Olive Oatman managed to break through this dominant narrative by refusing to allow her voice to be silenced by the patriarchy. Olive Oatman strategized her resistance by employing several rhetorical strategies to appeal to the audience’s pathos, through her use of ethos, voice, and identity.

Margot Mifflin explains that Oatman’s lectures spanned the locations of Toledo, Ohio, Evansville, New York City, and other locations, and the response to her lectures were all the same:

“The audience listened with breathless interest, and all were deeply affected.” […] She packed the house: “Her pathetic story, surpassing in interest the most thrilling romance, was told with an unaffected simplicity and grace and a touching pathos that went to every heart and drew tears from eyes unused to weep. Miss Oatman evinces much dramatic power in the grouping of incidents”. (169)

She used Stratton’s ethos of the pious, white, male by acting as his tool to support his message. Oatman began her speech by explaining that she is not talking to her audience as a “public lecturer” (1), but instead is standing before the audience as a “narrator of events” (1) where she feels she has a “duty” (18) to present what she “experience[d]” (1) and “observ[ed]” (1) during her captivity. Using the words narrator, duty, and experience provides her connection to the audience, purpose of her speech, and ethos for speaking her own voice instead of continuing to let the public form her identity. In this sense, she simultaneously built her own authority before separating from him and his book tour, and making the public lectures her own. Oatman used the Othered identity the public cast her in as a catalyst for control of her identity and power as a woman. Focusing on the rhetorical aspects of identity employed in her speech, she resisted the public’s assumptions about what it means to be a captive who is Othered and displaced.

Olive Oatman is Othered because of her physical appearance, her lived experiences, and how her celebrity status causes the public to interpret and label her identity. The information regarding Olive Oatman comes from Bowling Green State’s archival collection, which houses her notes outlining her handwritten speech, the newspaper articles, as well as Stratton’s narrative which was reportedly relaying Oatman’s captivity narrative. Books, articles, and movies touch upon the problems Stratton causes to Oatman’s identity and the work she completed during her lifetime, but do not call attention to the rhetorical or feminist impacts that Oatman made. Examining Oatman’s narrative through the lenses of feminism and rhetoric allows the audience to investigate the rhetorical choices surrounding her captivity narrative that she used as a vehicle to employ a multiplicity of identities, which furthers and continues Oatman’s resistance to how the public writes her story within the dominant narrative.

Olive Oatman’s microhistory is a single event that represents how one narrative fits within a genre of forgotten, misrepresented, and Othered women who have contributed to the field. Microhistory, according to Istavan Szijarto and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson, “giv[es] a completely different picture of the past from investigations about nations, states, or social groupings stretching over decades, centuries, or whatever” (5) by examining a single event in history.2  This allows for an alternative recognition of the impact less recognized figures have made in society and presents other identities for that individual. Additionally, this article demonstrates how one person has the ability to add to the collective of women who have made significant changes to rhetoric and feminism, but have been overshadowed or who are “often dominated by ‘a male approach to the world’” (Myatt 41).3 As rhetorical scholars, women have the opportunity to continue the tradition of unearthing Othered identities.

Othering Olive Oatman: Captivity Narratives as Displacement

Identity and being Othered are terms within the pharmakon that both help the public relate to a group, but also isolate a person if the term does not connect with the majority who have socially constructed the boundaries in which people use to be identified with. Identity can be explained as “something that one does in language; or, more exactly, identity matters as something that one does to the audience through the expression of who or what one is” (Anderson 4).4 The group examining a person or action creates the structure in which a person identifies or does not identify with the collective. When a person does not identity with the majority they become situated on the outside of that society where they are Othered: that the collective “establish[es] a sense of identity and the mode by which they establish a relation to one another” (Davis 126). An identification can indeed cause the separation between the collective and the identified, making that person “Othered.”

Olive Oatman is known as “the girl with the blue tattoo” (see Fig. 1). Mifflin refers to Oatman by this nickname, and titles her book after the tattoo on Oatman’s chin that garnered this identity: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Oatman’s tale began in 1851 (at the age of fourteen), when she and her family began traveling west with a caravan of Mormons who were following John Brewster to what they believed was the “land of Bashan” in California. During the expedition, the Oatman family separated from the group as they entered into Arizona. Soon after the Oatmans detached from the group, they encountered Native Americans who killed the majority of her family resulting from an altercation over food. After witnessing the murder of her parents and siblings, Oatman and her sister, Mary Ann, were spared but taken as captives by the Yavapai tribe (Olive referred to them as the Apaches) who held them hostage for a year. She and Mary Ann were traded to the Mohaves. Mary Ann eventually died of starvation. After five years of life with the Mohave tribe, Olive returned to Fort Yuma in California when the Commanding Lieutenant Colonial Burke sent a letter to the Mohave, by way of Francisco, a Yuma Indian who was acting as a representative for Fort Yuma. The letter demanded the safe return of Olive Oatman (Mifflin 104). Francisco conveyed the threat that there were “millions of whites lurking in the surrounding mountains [who] would kill them and all the local Indians if they didn’t give her back” (Mifflin 106). After much deliberation among the Mohave, Oatman was returned to the colonists.

A full-length photo of Olive Oatman standing in a floor-length, long-sleeved dark dress. She is posing with one hand resting on a decorative wall. She looks at the camera but isn't smiling. Her face tattoo is visible even from a distance.

Fig. 1. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Upon her immediate return, Oatman was interviewed by Col. Burke. She was able to answer him in English. Burke asked Olive: “How did the Mohaves treat you and your sister” (Kroeber 312)? She answered, “‘Very well.’ They had never whipped her but always treated her well” (312). Burke continued, “Did the Mohaves give you plenty to eat” (312)? Oatman again answered “yes” (312).5 From this initial encounter, we can compare how Oatman’s initial reaction to her time with the Mohave followed her general experience explained throughout her speech later in her life despite how the media and Royal B. Stratton decided to narrate her captivity.

During her time with the Mohave, Olive and Mary Ann received face tattoos comprised of “five thick vertical bars that stretched from her jaw line to her lower lip” (Mifflin 79). These tattoos visually marked the girls as outsiders to the colonists. Oatman’s tattoo visually separated her from the public, and was the reason for much of her celebrity status as her tattoo served as a way to Other Oatman; however, this paper is not focused on the transculturation that her tattoo caused, but on the actions after her tattoo gained Oatman notoriety. William B. Rice writes that Olive Oatman’s rescue caused her to be “celebrated” as the “Indian captive” (97). After Oatman’s deliverance from the Mohaves in February 1856, the story of her trials was recounted all over California in “the letters of correspondents and in articles which appeared in many news papers through a cumbersome system of exchange” (97). The Los Angeles Star published several articles updating the public about Oatman’s whereabouts, who visited her, and how she was progressing after being rescued. One article reads, “Miss Oatman is in her sixteenth year, without a relative save a young brother, as poor as herself, without education, and without even a knowledge of her native language” (“Miss Olive Oatman”). Not only is the information inaccurate, but the newspaper paints Olive Oatman as a victim in the eye of the public. Oatman was nineteen when she returned to Fort Yuma, she also did have knowledge of her native language. While she could not write, she was able to converse. The Sacramento Daily Union described Oatman as having her faculties “somewhat impaired by her way of life” (“Olive Oatman”). Again, Olive was portrayed as someone lacking the mental capacity to survive in her native culture, despite proof that she had survived in multiple environments. These newspaper articles, along with her tattoo, displaced Oatman among the public and made her into a celebrity figure where the majority of the population was unable to relate to her experience, and took the word of the media which was generated to the masses.

While Olive Oatman still remembered her native tongue, she possessed no written literacy skills. Unable to write the events that took place during her captivity, until later in her life, meant that someone else needed to record her narrative for her. Royal B. Stratton penned Oatman’s narrative and published a book on her captivity; however, the diction he used to write her story largely conflicted with the diction in the public lectures Oatman gave later in life, as well as the first interview. For example, Stratton quoted Oatman as saying, “‘One little incident took place on the morning of my departure, that clearly reflects the littleness and meanness that inheres in the general character of the Indian […] the son of the chief came and took all my beads, with every woolen shred he could find about me, and quietly told me that I could not take them with me’” (264-5). The attitude of the Mohave portrayed here differed from the answers previously given in the interview by Oatman, and found later throughout this article.

These differences suggest a conflict in Stratton’s views and Oatman’s experiences. Stratton’s views are reflective of dominant power structures which have historically silenced anyone who was not a white, straight, male. In essence, Stratton’s views that were projected in colonial society, represented so few, but were projected onto everyone became a “counterpublic memory that disrupts visions of life as it was, is, and will be” (Enoch 62).6 His use of a captivity narrative follows a structure that presents one perception of events, not even represented by Olive Oatman.

The definition of captivity narratives I am referring to comes from Brian McGinty where he writes that

The Indian captivity narrative was a quintessentially American form, a literary reflection of the long struggle between the European invaders and the Native peoples of North America for control of the continent. The narratives were first-person accounts written by whites who had been snatched away from their homes and families by marauding “savages,” made to endure unimaginable cruelties, and later (as a result of either escape or rescue) “redeemed”—that is, returned to their white families. Although typically attributed to the captives themselves, the narratives were almost always shaped, if not entirely composed, by other writers. (161-2)

Oatman’s captivity narrative is no exception to this form. Her narrative, written by Stratton, is a reflection from an American perspective and presents a power struggle between the Indigenous and colonial people. Stratton wrote from Olive’s voice, and presented the Native Americans as “savages,” but then Olive Oatman was indeed redeemed upon her return to the colonists. The problem lies not only between the power structure of cultures, but the power struggle between the author and subject, man and woman, and victim and survivor duality. When Oatman talks of the chief’s daughter, Topeka, during her speech Oatman declares “may God bless the poor forest girl” (58) following her explanation that Topeka had only wanted Oatman to be happy. On the other hand, Oatman addresses a monument named after Oatman by explaining that the monument is “handing down to posterity a key to the sad remembrances of my life” (58) marking her as “one of the most unfortunate of women” (58). While circumstances had made her a slave, she was treated with kindness by the Mohave, but the media depicted all Native Americans as evil and Oatman as helpful despite her strength in surviving captivity, famine, and language barriers as an adolescent.7 Her graceful attitude when speaking of Topeka implies this behavior. The western community wanting to cement the identity of a victim is what Oatman is remarking as harmful. Oatman’s story is a tragedy filled with loss; however, her narrative is also one filled with a complex identity composed of strength, courage, and survival, and having a monument named after her towards the Mohave tribe only furthers the misrepresentation of her story and the attitude of hate and blame towards the tribe.

Similar to the monument, the genre of captivity narratives comprises the same problematic duality of victim/survivor. This duality possesses reciprocal identities with opposing properties for one individual. On the one hand, the individual has faced a traumatic experience where (s)he was victimized. On the other hand, the victim becomes the survivor by living through and overcoming the traumatic experience. Authors like Malea Powell present impactful captivity narratives; however there is still the potential for problems with employing this genre, i.e., Stratton’s embellishment of Olive Oatman’s account and removal of her voice as a woman, author, and experiencer.

Retelling/creating these narratives becomes problematic with the limited duality of survivor/victim through circulation. Several captivity narratives were written by proxy or years after the captivity had taken place, leaving room for the author to misrepresent, control, or limit the identity of the “captive.” Brian McGinty writes that the formula for not only Oatman’s captivity narrative, but the majority of captivity narratives, follows the formulation of describing

a “brutal” Indian attack on an innocent white family and the forcible capture of two members of the family. It detailed a long list of cruelties that the captives suffered at the hands of the Indians. It related heroic efforts to “rescue” the captives, and it concluded with the “redemption” of one of them. It followed the pattern of many of the narratives in that it was written by a clergyman and adopted a vehemently anti-Indian tone. (164)

Stratton’s intention of writing Oatman’s narrative was in his self interest. Mifflin explains that Stratton’s pursual of Oatman’s story was to “deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating for his publisher, Whitton, Towne and Company, an arm of the Methodist Book Concern, which was trying to boost book sales in order to fund less lucrative church projects” (Mifflin 136-7). In Stratton’s version, Oatman was written with the same duality of victim/survivor that the public used to formulate her identity in a flat two-dimension persona of Otherness instead of the complexity within an identity. Lorryane Carroll’s book, Rhetorical Drag, argues that “In addition to the specific historical contexts that conditioned each narrative, I think this pleasurable position, with its discursive power, accounts for the choices these men made to write in the first person” (188). Carroll presents several narratives, excluding Oatman, that follow the principal of having narratives retold as fiction rather than fact, to fit the agenda of the author rather than retelling the accounts of the captive. Having the choices of the author overshadow the protagonist removes the complex nature of identity and instead writes identity in only the forms in which benefits the author. Carroll’s statement is applicable to Oatman’s narrative as she had her story rewritten by Stratton. For most captivity narratives, this would call into question the authenticity of the text; and Oatman’s narrative is no exception. Oatman herself called into question the authenticity of the text by presenting a dissenting narrative to the public where she was able to reframe her identity through her public lectures. As shown above, Col. Burke’s interview with Oatman contradicts Stratton’s account of Oatman’s experience; Stratton writes a narrative that reflected the public’s popular belief of Native Americans in order to sell a best seller rather than penning Oatman’s actual thoughts about her time with the Mohave tribe.

Since her return to Fort Yuma, Oatman became a public figure because of her circumstances that were visualized through her chin tattoo, marking her as Othered among the people who shared her ethnicity. She was physically and emotionally displaced within each culture.8 Oatman’s chin tattoo initially generated public recognition. Her celebrity status that the public recognition created caused Olive to be cast in different roles that created the identity the public wanted to see her as; she was: a victim, “the girl with the blue tattoo,” a survivor, a Mormon, the sister of Lorenzo Oatman, etc.9 Forcing Oatman into this celebrity role emphasized her displacement as someone who did not fall into the majority population of average citizens, and, therefore, was not part of the collective. Some of these identities were accurate, some were false, and some still remain unknown. The objective of this argument is not to dictate which identity proves to be authentic or inauthentic, but to examine how Oatman took control of her identity by retelling her story in her own voice after the colonial society imposed a displaced identity. Suzanne Bordelon writes that, “although some aspects of ethos are controlled by the rhetor, other elements are shaped by material and social surroundings” (118). This quote is applicable to Oatman’s life because through the disruption of her ethos and appropriation of her identity came her way to alter the disruption and appropriation. Oatman used the social circumstances and material around her to tell her stories, gain back her ethos, pave a space for women in the public, and construct her identity to be dependent on the circumstances.

A Fight for a Voice, the Control of Identification

Olive Oatman’s Voice

Treatment by the Mohave, actions of this tribe, defense of the chief and his family, and seeking out the Mohave after reentering society are four accounts from the lectures Oatman gives where she rewrote the narrative that Stratton gave her, and constructed a new identity that contrasted the image that society and Stratton have forced upon her. Brian McGinty writes about Oatman by describing her as “one of the first women to defy the social stigma attached to women speaking in public. Her personal history was well calculated to attract audiences, and she had the voice, poise, and presence to hold their attention” (McGinty 173). In each account Oatman contrasted the normative captivity narratives and foreshadowed contemporary theories of embodiment, feminism, and identity emphasized in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For instance, Oatman’s rhetorical choice to speak against Stratton’s narrative and the collective’s perspective on her identity embodied the work of Helene Cixous’ twentieth century concept of rewriting the woman to counteract the subversive representation of females in the phallocentric culture10 that affected Oatman from her captivity, removal from captivity, and Stratton’s use of rhetorical drag. While it may have been apparent to Oatman that her life was consumed by the patriarchy of different cultures, it was not until Stratton’s book was released that Oatman began to actively speak against the voices who tried to oppress her.

Four instances of discord between Oatman’s lectures and Stratton’s book will be reviewed, though there are others, in order to provide a chronological variety of Oatman’s experiences throughout her captivity while demonstrating the contradictions between Oatman’s language and Stratton’s diction. Stratton’s narrative was written prior to Oatman’s lectures and constructed through the lens of a patriarchal culture where his words attempted to remove Oatman from her own narrative by replacing her perception of events with how he wanted to view Native Americans. During these instances, we see Oatman posing contemporary questions of feminist rhetoric within her accounts by “Shift[ing] […] attention to the rhetorical work of recovery writ large, investigating the rhetorical work that goes into remembering women, and consequently examining how women’s memories are composed, leveraged, and forgotten, and erased in various contexts and situations” (Enoch 62). Oatman drew attention to the variances in diction, tone, and belief with her refutation of experiences, thereby removing Stratton’s authority and ethos while raising her own.

Friendly is a theme that Oatman presents when describing the actions that the Mohave presented to the Oatman sisters. Mary Ann died from starvation during the drought of 1852 when no substances were able to grow in the valley where they were located. In Oatman’s initial assessment of the Mohave, she recounted that “the chief’s daughter showed some kindness and seemed careful of sister Mary” (36). These thoughts continued to be reflected when “the wife of the chief gave us some wheat and a spot of ground” (37). Despite being a captive, Mary Ann was not the only person who died in this drought. Oatman mentioned on several occasions that the chief’s wife provided them with food while other members of the tribe went without. When Mary Ann died, Olive stated that the “The wife of the chief came and bent over her, the night she [Mary Ann] died, and appeared as did her daughter to weep bitterly” (41). The Mohave displayed actions of consistently caring about the Oatmans’ well-being by feeding the girls before other members of the tribe, allowing her to host a Christian burial, and weeping over Mary Ann after her death. In this example, Oatman is creating a counter public narrative through altering the presentation of memories (Enoch) with her voice. As Cindy Moore writes, the author has the ability to “capture the disruptions, the differences: the textual expressions of female authors intent on shaping their own creative destinies” (193). Oatman is using her voice to share memories that recreate a positive ethos for the Mohave. Oatman shows the empathy and character of the Mohave by sharing how the tribe allowed Oatman to continue with her religious beliefs by burying Mary Ann as she saw fit, and putting the girls’ survival needs before their established members of the tribe.

The Mohave chief continued to protect Oatman after Francisco came to collect Olive Oatman. Once the colonists’ discovered where she was the tribe panicked and “Some were for killing me at once, but the chief forbade it” (49). Oatman was publicly admitting, in a room full of the collective, that the Native Americans’ actions contrasted the typical captivity narrative by not performing “cruelties” towards her, and instead went to great lengths to protect Oatman.11 Oatman was attempting to rewrite the dominant structure by presenting alternative, historical examples while simultaneously demonstrating how a woman could survive and adequately tell her experiences. Britt-Smith’s explanation of individuals creating social change is represented here through Oatman’s protection of the Mohave’s identity as the chief protected her physically. In using her voice and authority as a form of protection, Oatman is implicitly making a rhetorical stance on her ability to control her narrative.

Continuing to form her identity and change public perception, Oatman relayed another instance on how the chief’s family was hospitable during her captivity, and desired that Oatman one day be able to assimilate back into the colonial culture: “The chief’s daughter had always given evidence of a strong attachment to me, and had more than once expressed a desire that I might again enjoy a reunion with the whites. This daughter in accordance with my wishes and greatly to my surprise was sent by her father to accompany me to the Fort” (51). The chief’s daughter, Topeka, was characterized by Oatman as anything other than a “savage.” I might even go as far to describe both of these women as warriors. Two women who protected each other during a journey through the “Wild West” leaving both of their homes to enter unknown territory and not only surviving, but setting a precedent for women who speak up for each other and support each other. Topeka by helping Oatman escape the Yavapai and being part of her Mohave family, and Oatman for telling her experience of how kind Topeka was to Oatman in a room full of colonists who as a society had been known for demonizing Native Americans: both acted as fierce warriors of oppression towards normative narratives. Through this example, Oatman presented, in the nineteenth century, an alternative way to represent women: brave, fierce, supportive people who spoke out against what they perceived as unjust.

Well into her return, and after Stratton’s book was published, Oatman “heard that among the number [of Mohaves coming to negotiate with the Government], was the chief. I sought an interview with him and found that it was not the same chief that reigned when I was among them, but his brother” (56-7). She willingly chose to seek out the man that was responsible for four years of her captivity.12 Upon discovering that the representative was not the same chief, she still went to meet with him: “We met as friends giving the left hand in friendship, which is held as a sacred pledge among some tribes. I conversed with him in his own language, making many inquiries about the tribe” (57). Again, meeting as friends, speaking in their language, demonstrated Oatman’s willingness to challenge social constructions of gender and identity. Oatman did not hesitate when scheduling or discussing her meeting with one of her captors, and referring to him as a friend. Oatman was challenging the Indigenous narrative, while disavowing the victim/survivor duality of a captivity narrative, and presenting herself as a strong woman who challenged counterpublic memories in order to (re)present spaces that women could control, who women could meet with, and how women could refer to different spaces, places, and people.

Stratton’s Appropriation of Oatman’s Identity

Oatman’s public lectures began during the book tour for Stratton’s biography of Oatman’s life; however, her word choices varied dramatically from the language Stratton used in the captivity narrative. Stratton was a minister who citizens looked up to because of his identification as a white, heterosexual man, in a position of power. No one would question the ethos of a man of God speaking to his audience in a masculine, pious, space. Being able to read and write gave him all the opportunities that Olive Oatman did not possess, and Stratton used this to his advantage. Stratton “marked” her by physically inscribing his own voice over what Oatman had to say, and by publishing this rhetorical drag, he implicitly told the world that he (as a Caucasian, heterosexual, male, minister) had the authority to tell Olive Oatman’s story as he saw fit, allowing Stratton to narrate the dominant cultural and gendered identity stories that he found appropriate for the collective.13

One example where Stratton’s book contrasted Oatman’s public recollection took place when Olive connected Mary Ann’s death with the drought and famine that plagued the valley, but Stratton wrote that Oatman claimed “‘The last of our family dead, and all of them by tortures inflicted by Indian savages’” (196). Clearly opposed Stratton’s recount of events, Oatman spoke of Mary Ann’s death lacking torture, and instead listed what the Mohave did to help Olive Oatman with her grief, while the tribe grieved as well. The difference in tone and attitude between Stratton’s text and the opposing belief that Oatman directly relates to the public, questions Stratton’s narrative as a whole. Lorryane Carroll categorizes this behavior when she writes that “By impersonating captive women, male writers recognized and appropriated this experiential credential while retaining their own positions of patriarchal and often institutional privilege” (8). Carroll is not directly referencing Oatman’s experience, but the quote demonstrates how Oatman was performing her identity and denying Stratton’s construction of the typical captivity narrative where the “savage” is responsible for the helpless female’s death.

Another example is when Stratton’s account argued that Francisco was the reason that Oatman survived, not the chief. Stratton wrote that Francisco, fearing that the Mohave would kill her, refused to return to the Fort without her. Again, Stratton writes as if Oatman stated the following beliefs:

She began to fear for her life, especially as she saw the marked changes in the conduct of the Indians toward her. The wife of the chief seemed to feel kind still toward her; but yet she plainly evinced that the doings of the last few days had compelled her to disguise her real feelings. The chief was changed from a pleasant don’t-care spectator of Olive’s situation, to a sullen, haughty, overbearing tyrant and oppressor. (253)

The concept of redemption for women is apparent in Stratton’s text where he portrayed the Mohave as wanting to commit unspeakable acts to the captive, and she is sent a savior by the colonists. In Stratton’s version, we can see him “leveraging” his views to hyperbolize the role of the Native Americans as dangerous outsiders, with Oatman as a victim who needed savin, and protection. This portrayal subsequently writes women as weak and submissive who are props for the male agenda. These depictions help further the normative power constructions of violence toward the identification of minorities.

Stratton embodied the latter sentiments of misrepresentation, in this last example, when he wrote that Topeka, and her mother, the chief’s wife “‘seemed not wholly insensible to my condition, these were the wife and daughter of the chief. They manifested a sympathy that had not gathered about me since the first closing in of the night of my captivity upon me'” (197). “Not wholly indispensable” and “not gathered about me since” are contradictory to Oatman’s use of the words “had always” and sentiments that the chief’s family had always done what was in the best interest of Oatman’s survival. Stratton’s portrayal represented hatred toward the Native Americans that caused an inability to generate acceptance of accounts that went against the collective views of Native Americans.14 Stratton failed to observe the “various contexts and situations” that made Oatman’s experience, and allowed the audience to initially understand the complexity within her identity. The parts of her stories that did not fit into Stratton’s initiative and the collective’s colonialism became erasures, and Oatman’s identity was forced into a two-dimensional character where the woman was subservient to the patriarchal hierarchy. Oatman’s made the decision to overcome the displaced identities the colonists used to define Oatman: the image of her tattoo, the fact that she was held captive, the place of a woman within the colonist settlement, and instead, reclaim her authority by creating her own disruption to reclaim what she lost: her voice and identity.

The colonial views refused to integrate different societal mindsets into the collective view until Oatman’s defiance forced the public to consider the implications of forcing an individual into an identity that follows the cultural and historical beliefs of the collective. Once again Stratton attempted to revise Oatman’s voice to fit into the collective view by combining Oatman’s contrasting words with the collective tone: “‘I learned to chide my hasty judgment against All the Indian race, and also, that kindness is not always a stranger to the untutored and untamed bosom. I saw in this that their savageness is as much a fruit of their ignorance as of any want of a susceptibility to feel the throbbings of true humanity, if they could be properly appealed to’” (200). The characterization of the Mohave as a tribe that had no sympathy and had no regard for the lives of captives because they themselves admitted to their barbaric characterizations goes against the actions that Oatman described in her lectures. This narrative paints Oatman as a victim who is subject to everyone’s will for her life—which goes against the actions of her public speaking. The accounts that Olive Oatman presented are clearly contradictory to the writing of Stratton. The Othered identity that Stratton and the public cloak Oatman with prove to be the exigence she needed to reclaim her narrative and identity.

Oatman’s public discord with the previously published “autobiography” allowed her to (re)present her identity. Her actions not only presented a contrast with Stratton, but the normative behavior for women of the nineteenth century who were typically excluded. This residual behavior has led twenty-first century women to be celebrated for finding their voices because they have been silent for so long. The fact that Oatman had so much going against her, and yet still had the courage to find her voice, is an example to everyone who has ever been oppressed. In addition to finding her voice, she spoke it in a social construction where the audience established a general consensus of a belief system that represented the collective view in which she had to contend. Oatman’s courageous acts reflect disruption to the constructed norms of society imposed by history and continuously restored by institutions of power.15

By using Stratton in the same way as he used her, Oatman was able to break through the social barrier of the time to present alternative views, and have society begin to question the ethos behind captivity narratives. Oatman’s public resistance through her lectures were not only presented as contentious to Stratton’s word, but to the collective belief. She, an Othered woman, offered alternative perspectives to understand cultural and gendered identities. Oatman was not arguing for one identity or belief, but attempting to cultivate a discussion and challenge the normative constructions: “‘The goal of feminine rhetoric is not to achieve a sense of victory over the audience, to persuade them that one’s position is the correct one, but rather to empower the audience—to inspire it to believe that it has a credible voice and thus to negate that insecurity that allows the status quo to operate unchallenged’” (213).16 By posing continual examples that deny the normative narratives of the Native Americans, Oatman allowed for the collective to begin to create a social circulation of her version of events, and opening alternative beliefs for the audience on identity, power, and current constructions.

Rhetorical Identities: The Importance of Being Woman

When Oatman returned to Fort Yuma, her tattoo made her “Othered,” her initial inability to write made her vulnerable, allowing for Stratton and the collective to mark her as the Other. We have discussed how Oatman used her otherness to transform her identity from a negative displacement into positive différance. All of these factors made her what Luce Irigaray describes as the “scape goat” where “woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about” (13). There was a high potential for Oatman to fall into the dominant narrative where the women faced rhetorical drag and continued to be forgotten in the captivity narrative, but again we see that Oatman used what seemingly condemned her into rhetoric that overpowered the phallocentrism.

Oatman’s speech ends with her addressing the women in the audience: “allow me to address a few words to the young ladies of this audience” (Oatman 59). By making this statement, Oatman was drawing attention to the importance of women in society and the future. She went on to explain her hardships and alluded to the conclusion that she overcame every obstacle and young women have the possibility to do the same. Her recognition also allowed for the platform for more women to “talk back.”17 Speaking the events that transpired could not have been an easy task; she was talking about a culture that has historically been despised and oppressed by the colonists, and yet she spoke of the intimate details surrounding her relationship with the Native Americans. Oatman set out to not let the opinions of the collective dictate her history. bell hooks talks about the courage that speaking up takes, especially as women who are viewed as Othered, oppressed, and lack power:

True speaking is not solely an expression of creative power, it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such is a courageous act; as such it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced. (126)

The act of speaking reclaims the power that the public intended to take away from women. Oatman’s speech implicitly addressed what a woman could do as much as her identity or relationships to varying cultures. Oatman’s reframing of her identity through the speech she continued to give highlights the ways in which she endeavored to control the narrative of her captivity and present alternative ways to view her identity as a positive image as a survivor, woman, and celebrity. She achieves this by dismantling gendered spaces and challenging normative, social constructions.

“The girl with the blue tattoo” may have gained infamy because of her tattoo, that set her apart from other captivity narratives, but the importance and relevance of her speech, the reason her lectures went on for years was because of her ability to wield rhetoric so effectively that she was able to talk back in a way that used the dominant narrative to dismantle the hierarchy, and  therefore removing the identity forced upon her in the dominant narrative. Oatman was able to shift the attention from the object (her victimhood) to the subject (her malleable identity within cultures): “It is that act of speech, ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice” (hooks 128). Oatman had something to say, and she said it, both through words and silence. What she did not say was represented through her performance: the act of feminism and the roles of cultures.

Olive Oatman clearly made important leaps and bounds in rhetorical and feminist practices, but why have her actions not been given the credit? Karlyn Kohrs Campbell attributes the lack of acknowledgment as a problem that we still have as a society by failing to recognize the women who have altered history: “One important but difficult aim is to identify the rhetorical theories that informed the practices of women activists in the past” […She continues:] “Another is to identify the distinctive characteristics of early women’s rhetorical practices, including the strategies they preferred and the representations of themselves as rhetors and of others as audiences that emerge out of these practices” (125). While Kohrs Campbell does not specifically reference Olive Oatman’s life, the exigencies Campbell is establishing can be applied to Oatman’s life as a microhistory within the larger context of women’s roles.

A woman claiming her role, denying the victim identification, and choosing to be an inspiration of rhetorical womanhood are just a few examples of the many ways Olive Oatman can be identified, as she demonstrated to us. She took back her voice, she re-wrote her narrative, and reclaimed what it meant to be an Othered woman, a rhetorical woman. Olive Oatman rose above the challenges and spoke up for herself as well as for the other women and young girls of the time. The problem with forgetting who Olive Oatman was, what she did for her societ(ies) and with her identities, cannot continue if progress is to be made. This is the argument that Oatman’s actions were making in the nineteenth century! And yet where are they today? Why do we not hear of Oatman or speak of her work?

Olive Oatman’s actions were before her time and yet painfully imperative to the collective of her time. The choice to use her displacement as a tool, to “talk back,” to use her “Othered” identity in order to demonstrate how identity is malleable, to be a woman in a place of authority during the nineteenth century was revolutionary. Seemingly, Oatman had everything going against her. She was captured as a child, lived among Native Americans for five years, and was an uneducated woman whose past was unknown to the colonists, leading to her displacement; her voice was taken from her by Stratton who used his power to construct his identity of how he wanted her to be perceived, along with the news outlets and the public, and yet she resisted it all. Oatman took control, molded her identity from a negative perception of Othered (victim, etc.) into a positive perception of survivor, woman, author, lecturer, and more. Oatman’s actions continue to be lessons from both rhetorical and feminist perspectives. She taught us that boundaries should not exist, and that flexibility is a necessity to survival. Our identities change based on our experiences and surroundings, our Kairos.18

Oatman’s work pre-dated work with rhetoric and feminism which forced the public to re-evaluate the socially constructed identity forced upon Oatman, the voice of women, and the ethos of captivity narratives. Through Oatman’s speech, she reclaimed her identity and challenged the public’s conceptions of culture, gender, and power by using rhetorical thinking to inform social change. She put into practices theories that were not yet written by demonstrating how identity is a multifaceted tool that can be used to resist structures and challenge gendered roles. These assertions are grounded in Oatman’s language and use of spatial temporality which helped build her malleable identity that functioned as a medium to speak back to others’ conjectures of her identity. Alice Johnston Myatt (and others) call to challenge dominant narratives so that our society can continue to evolve, by sharing Olive Oatman’s rhetorical resistance where she pushed back against her socially constructed identification, the acknowledgement and recollection of resistance work can continue.19

Women’s opinions are alterations of the phallocentric discourse. They offer multiple perspectives that have the possibility to add to the thought process and expand the mind into a “new consciousness”; but how can we do so without microhistories of the past? As I write this version of Olive Oatman’s history and contribution, I am reflecting on the contribution I am making by not letting the ink dry, making sure women of the past do not become erasures, and adding to the collection of women’s rhetorical history.20 Rebecca Solnit avows, “I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope they will get to say it” (10). There has always been and will always be a need for questioning, disrupting, and resisting dominance as it continues to emerge in socially constructed spaces. Oatman’s microhistory is just one example of where and how a woman refused to accept the categorization of her identity within the dominant structure. Olive Oatman’s choice to not accept the identity created by others, her determination to retell her story, and reclaim her voice to forge an alternative identity encourages us to rethink the role women have had in rhetorical history as we continue writing, rewriting, speaking, and talking back with the women of the past, future, and present.


  1. Gendered spaces is referencing Nancy Weitz Miller’s work in “Ethos, Authority, and Virtue for Seventeenth-century Women Writers.”
  2. Laurie A. Britt-Smith follws a similar assertion when she references Dorothy Day’s beliefss, “The locus of social change is found not in institutional or legislative mandate but within the heart of the individual (Britt-Smith 208).
  3. Myatt is quoting Sue Rosser.
  4. Dana Anderson is elaborating on Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification.
  5. These questions are taken from A.L. and Clifton B. Kroeber’s article “Olive Oatman’s First Account of Her Captivity Among the Mohave.”
  6. Enoch is drawing from Carole Blair.
  7. “Slave” is how she is referenced according to the captivity narratives and how she referred to herself within the speech at times.
  8. Katrina Powell explains that “Displacement narratives do not merely reflect the material conditions of a person’s forced removal or dislocation” (3).
  9. David Blakesley uses Kenneth Burke’s theory on identification: “We have bodies and experiences and a common language, each of which can help us identify with each other. Yet we also have unique experiences that we may interpret differently from others, keeping us divided” (15).
  10. Cixous writes that “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (Cixous 877).
  11. Reference to Brian McGinty’s wording in the structure of a captivity narrative.
  12. Oatman used the word “captivity” within her speech.
  13. See page 879 of “Laugh of Medusa” for Cixous’ twentieth century thoughts on “marked” writing.
  14. Stratton continues with this theme when he writes that Oatman voiced, “‘Every day brought to their ears expressions, casually dropped, showing their spite and hate to the white race. […] They taunted them, in a less ferocious manner than the Apaches, but with every evidence of an equal hate, about the good-for-nothing whites’” (Stratton 1740).
  15. Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch explain disruption as a “social circulation, our move is to also disrupt the public-private divide by suggesting a more fully textured sense of what it means to place these women in a social space, rather than a private space or public space” (24).
  16. Britt-Smith is referencing Karlyn Kohrs Campbell.
  17. Referring to bell hooks’ “Talking Back.”
  18. The definition of Kairos employed here comes from Thomas Rickert where he acknowledges that the tradition comes from the Ancient Greeks and is “a timely or appropriate moment for rhetorical action” (74).
  19. “Refutation often takes the form of resistance or pushback against a particular aspect of an individual’s character or contribution or role in history” (Myatt 49).
  20. Men Explain Things to Me is where Rebecca Solnit discusses how women have been erasures: “Thus coherence—of patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative—is made by erasure and exclusion” (65).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Dana. Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion. The University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. Pearson Education, 2002.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “’Please cherish my own ideal and dreams about the School of Expression’ The Erasure of Anna Bright Curry.’” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Britt-Smith, Laurie A. “Not So Easily Dismissed The Intellectual Influences and Rhetorical Voice of Dorothy Day—‘Servant of God.’” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. University of California Press. 1969.
  • Campbell, Kohrs, Karlyn. “Theory Emergent from Practice.” Rhetorical Women: Roles and Representations. Ed. Mildy Miller and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. The University of Alabama Press. 2005. Pp. 125-141.
  • Carroll, Lorrayne. Rhetorical Drag. The Kent State University Press, 2007, pp. 1-251.
  • Cixous, Helene. “Laugh of Medusa.” Signs, vol.1, no.4, 1976, Pp. 875-893.
  • Davis, Diane. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 123-147.
  • Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography Without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.
  • hooks, bell. “Talking Back.” Discourse, vol 8, Fall-Winter 86-87, pp. 123-128.
  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press. 1985.
  • Kroeber, A.L. and Clifton B. Kroeber. “Olive Oatman’s First Account of Her Captivity Among the Mohave.” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, 1962, Pp. 309-317.  
  • McGinty, Brian. The Oatman Massacre a Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. University of Oklahoma, 2005. Kindle file.
  • Mifflin, Margot. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Nebraska University Press, 2011. Kindle.
  • Miller, Nancy Weitz. “Ethos, Authority, and Virtue for Seventeenth-century Women Writers.” Listening to Their Voices The Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women Edited by Molly Meijer Wertheimer. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Miss Olive Oatman.” Los Angeles Star. Vol. 5, no. 47, April 5, 1856. California Digital Newspaper Collection.  
  • Monroe, M. H. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Moore, Cindy. “Why Feminists Can’t Stop Talking about Voice.” Rhetorical Women: Roles and Representations. Ed. Hildy Miller and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. pp. 191-205.
  • Myatt, Alice Johnston. “From Erasure to Restoration Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure.” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Oatman, Olive. “Handwritten Narrative of Olive Oatman’s Captivity by the Apache and Mohave Indians, Passes Issued to the Yuma Indian who Affected Her Release, a Photograph, and Published Accounts of Her Captivity, as Presented on the Chautauqua Circuit.” 1856-1927. MMS 566 Olive Ann Oatman (1837-1903). Women’s Study Bibliography Manuscript Collections in the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. 16 October 2017.
  • Olive Oatman, The Apache Captive.” Sacramento Daily Union. Vol. 11, no. 15 1586, April 25, 1856. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  • Powell, Katrina M. Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2015.
  • Rice, William B. “The Captivity of Olive Oatman: A Newspaper Account.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1942, pp. 97–106. JSTOR.
  • Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Composition, Literacy, and Culture). University of Pittsburgh Press. 2013.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press. 2012.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Haymarket Books, 2014.
  • Stratton, Royal B. Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
  • Szijarto, Istavan, and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson. What is Microhistory? Routledge, 2013.

I Have Not Always Shown Humility: Reclaiming Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

In June of 2018, British historian Fern Riddell caused a social media stir by insisting on being referred to as Dr. Riddell, rather than accepting other people’s default of Miss or Ms., in recognition of her authority as a scholar. She described receiving immediate criticism, being “told that wanting my professional title to be acknowledged in a public setting, where I work as a public expert, is ‘vulgar’ and ‘immodest,’ and that I lack ‘humility’” (qtd. in Flaherty). While her critics have been vocal, she has also gained supporters, who use the hashtag #ImmodestWoman in solidarity. Such support, however, is far from universal. Pride in one’s self and accomplishments, not to mention humility, still looks very different for women than it can for men.

At times, it seems rather obvious that women and men can be judged differently on the basis of their rhetorical choices. For example, women face a particular double bind as teachers: “female instructors are expected to be nurturing and supportive; when they’re not, it may count against them in evaluations. At the same time, if they are nurturing and supportive, female instructors risk being perceived as less authoritative and knowledgeable than their male counterparts” (Mulhere). Still, too few people realize how tied to gender their irritation at an accomplished and proud woman like Riddell (or even their desire to downplay her accomplishments) is. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical approach in her presidential campaign was described as showing “intelligence, articulateness, politeness, and a wealth of knowledge” (Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton 185). Yet, “as a woman with those qualities, she also had to be taken down a notch or two—and not just by men, but by those women who resented what they saw as her haughtiness” (Bordo, The Destruction 195; italics in original). What might have worked for a man did not work for a woman, because despite her politeness, she lacked deference to male authority.

In lacking deference, as well as in experiencing a resultant backlash against their rhetorical approaches, Clinton and Riddell share something fundamental with women who have sought public voices throughout Western history. The rhetorical constructions of gender shaping the idea that “women take care, men take charge” (Huston 79) have deep roots, but they are worth considering anew as factors that influence how women experience voice and their receptions in positions of power. Exposing this communicative undercurrent opens a new dimension for considering the experience of one notable sixteenth century figure: Anne Boleyn. Despite her enduring popularity as an object of fascination, few scholars to date have considered her as a potentially skilled and instructive wielder of rhetoric. Instead, her transgressions of accepted feminine rhetorical practices have led many writers and scholars to consider her as rhetorically inept, arrogant, and unlikeable—the ultimate failed feminine public figure. What that idea supposes, however, is that a feminine public figure is what Anne’s use of wording and image was attempting to portray.

While some historical women were able to utilize traditional (i.e. male) rhetorical affordances of bold, public speech, most worked within a separate sphere of accepted female rhetorical forms, such as letters and interpersonal conversation (Donawerth). However, Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical style defies easy categorization, and the social boundaries she transgressed prevent us from seeing her potential as a figure of study. Yet her rhetoric shows us how one woman used language and imagery to challenge the constrictions against women’s voices in her historical moment. In doing so, she helps us question, perhaps even challenge, the constrictions of our own.

Anne is as much an obsession for the modern world as she was for Henry VIII. Many versions of her story, told in novels, histories, movies, and miniseries, invite controversy in their portrayals: Anne the schemer, Anne the seductress, and Anne the bitch battle it out with Anne the intellectual, Anne the politician, and Anne the religious reformer for space in our hearts and minds. Unsurprisingly, the darker, nastier Anne tends to win out in the balance of public opinion, as Dr. Susan Bordo explores in her work of history and cultural criticism, The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Even prominent historians present Anne as, essentially, a sexual predator who victimized her husband and a nation in her desire for power (Bordo 43). What isn’t as often acknowledged is that there is no historical basis for this interpretation; no factual, unbiased accounts exist to indicate that Anne set out to “trap” Henry or that show us her motivations. In fact, if we look more closely at Anne’s own words, a very different presentation of her actions and wishes emerges. The fact that history and fiction have yet to do this looking on a wide-scale tells us much about our own society’s view of women. We continue to define women in terms of “good” and “bad,” and in both our own time and in hers, the quality that puts Anne squarely in the “bad woman” category is her voice, her insistent sense of self: she made herself visible. Writers and historians assume for Anne the role of “bad woman”—using interconnected descriptors of her such as loud, shrill, cruel, and sexually voracious—perhaps without even realizing their own assumption, let alone questioning the social forces framing and encouraging those assumptions (Bordo, The Creation 47).

Regardless, Anne the historical figure and Anne the fictional character loom large in our cultural preoccupations. But Anne the rhetorician? Her we have yet to fully consider. At first glance, she may not appear to warrant such consideration. Yet when we do, we see that Anne’s use of rhetoric opens up new ways of thinking about her as a woman speaking publicly, specifically a woman who re-wrote the rules of what public address was supposed to look like and achieve. Rather than using the available means open to women, through visual messages and performances of gendered submissiveness, Anne usurped the male prerogative of bold speech, in order to create a persona of strength that was otherwise denied women. It was an approach that garnered an undeniably negative response from her contemporary audiences; through her unwillingness to alter her approach, Anne’s rhetoric calls into question why we speak out at all, especially if doing so goes against what our audience will accept.

The Historical Anne Boleyn

In Renaissance English society, women could conceivably achieve public roles and influence while maintaining the veneered gender performance of submission to the “natural order” in which men governed and woman obeyed. For example, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, was able to play a powerful cultural role during her son’s kingship, establishing educational institutions and promoting religious men of her choosing. Yet, in her early efforts to establish the kingship of her son, Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, she had to disavow her own right to the throne, despite the fact that Henry’s claim came through her. Men and women inhabited extremely rigid social roles, and these roles saw expression in the personas each gender was expected to adopt; for a woman, overt rulership was not on the table. Women’s submissive personas were demonstrated and shaped through a variety of rhetorical means, up to and including manners of speaking (Gibson 10), the rules of which Anne would decidedly break.

While Anne’s cultural context was more rigid in its gender norms and the consequences for transgressing them, the gender norms themselves bear a similarity to our expectations today. Generally speaking, gender rules continue to require participants to enact rigid definitions of male and female identity in order to achieve acceptance and reward. In Anne’s day, women’s gender performance emphasized “chastity, silence, and obedience,” while “courageous and active virtue” defined positive masculinity (Gibson 10). Shades of these ideals remain today, as Riddell’s case so starkly demonstrates. In fact, our continuing fascination with Anne and her story indicates that we see in it something of relevance to our own experience—there’s something in Anne’s story we haven’t worked out yet, as evidenced by her enduring presence in films, television shows, biographies, and novels, each with its own unique take on the events of her life and its meaning.

That so many different perceptions of Anne are possible stems from the inconclusiveness of her historical record; much of what can be known about Anne is brought to us through the biases of third party witnesses. More factual data about her was lost, in no small part by Henry VIII’s intentional efforts to erase her from history (Bordo, The Creation x). From a biographical standpoint, we can reasonably state that Anne Boleyn was born (in either 1501 or 1507, the date is disputed) to an upper class family, and her father served as an ambassador for King Henry VIII, a status that would have repercussions for Anne’s educational opportunities.

During Anne’s developmental years, women’s education in and use of rhetoric, in the sense of public speaking, was severely curtailed by their gender. While humanism sparked renewed societal interest in classical education and rhetorical studies, women’s expected roles in society, as chaste, obedient wives and mothers, meant that the education they received was “narrower, usually excluding substantial portions of the pagan classics” (Gibson 10), texts which were seen as essential to the rhetorical education of young boys. These boys were expected, in humanist educational theory, to become the men who would improve society though their participation in legal and political circles. Women, however, could benefit from education as a means to “strengthen and stabilize their characters” (Gibson 10)—given that society viewed women as inherently giddy and mentally and emotionally unstable, this was perceived as important work. In fact, women’s silence in the public arena became conflated with their proper performance of their gender role; “female silence was equated with chastity, female eloquence with promiscuity” (Jones qtd. in Levin and Sullivan 6). Thus, women’s education focused on issues of grammar, languages, and the translation of important texts (an activity which did not necessitate public speech), as opposed to rhetorical persuasion. While men were taught the “diverse forms of argument and the need for a practical grounding and application for argumentation” (Gibson 17), women who received any linguistic training learned to use language to “delight, but to persuade no one” (Gibson 19).

However, Anne would receive learning opportunities unavailable to most of her gender. Because of her father’s international connections, Anne’s family was able to send her to be educated in 1513 by Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, where she was taught French and court etiquette, subjects seen as fitting for her gender and station. In 1515 Anne went to France, where she became a companion and translator for the French Queen Claude. Here, Anne witnessed the political and intellectual prowess of women like Marguerite of Navarre and Louise of Savoy. While Anne, as a woman, likely never received a formal rhetorical education, through these international connections she gained role models for women as intellectual, outspoken, and politically powerful in a way they had never achieved in England (Lindsey 51). She would have been made aware of popular debates over women’s value and voice, and would likely have had access to Christine de Pizan’s popular Book of the City of Ladies, a famous fifteenth century rhetorical work refuting women’s inferiority and arguing for their right to educational opportunities (Bordo, The Creation 85). These experiences exposed Anne to humanist ideas unavailable to most English women.

It is also while in France that Anne is thought to have developed the religious views that would later influence England’s Reformation. William Latymer, her chaplain and an influential religious reformer, later described Anne’s reformist proclivities: she advocated for an English translation of the Bible, a copy of which she kept in her rooms for people at court to read. She used her authority to protect the illegal influx of vernacular Bibles into the country. This type of radical reformism earned her many enemies, and Anne seems to have done little to placate her opposition.

The progress and tone of Anne’s relationship with Henry is far from clear, though it hasn’t stopped both historians and novelists from assuming Anne dominated Henry with her sexual wiles in a bold attempt to “steal” him from his wife. In fact, what is more definitively documented is that Anne attempted to rebuff the king’s advances, as evident in Henry’s own surviving letters to her, as well as by George Wyatt, one of Anne’s earliest biographers. Yet historians and novelists have long attributed Anne’s refusal to become Henry’s mistress to coyness and design—Anne using sex as “bait” to make Henry leave his wife and marry her—though there is no evidence that this was actually her motivation. Whatever her intent, Anne was trapped by Henry’s desire, unable to marry elsewhere while pursued by the king (Lindsey 59). This does not mean, however, that she had no interest in him, as they at least initially shared intellectual and cultural interests. During the six years it took Henry to annul his first marriage, he wrote a series of passionate love letters to Anne that survive today. Unfortunately, Anne’s responses have never been found; in their absence, many historians and fiction writers alike have fallen back on the gendered cultural stereotype of the femme fatale, filling in the blank with an image of Anne as intentionally playing hard to get, an interpretation not substantiated by any real evidence.

After Henry declared himself head of the church in England in order to achieve an annulment, he and Anne married in 1533. Anne, however, seems to have had a deeper interest in religious reform, as evidenced by her work to popularize the vernacular Bible and protect religious reformers. William Latymer also provides evidence that, as queen, Anne was a vocal advocate for educational access and poverty relief. In her experience among figures such as Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy, and Marguerite of Navarre, such advocacy was well-within a queen’s purview (Lindsey 55).1 However, for Henry, Anne’s primary function was to provide him with a legitimate son, not to exercise political power. In fact, the letters of the French ambassador Jean du Bellay note that Henry later blamed Anne’s eventual execution on her “meddling” in his political affairs, a point he raised in order to warn a later queen not to do the same (Correspondence 506).

While Anne did give birth to a daughter in 1533, who would become the much-celebrated Elizabeth I, this was not enough to save her in Henry’s eyes. Anne had at least two miscarriages in the next two years, the second of which was believed to have been a boy. By 1536, Henry was publicly expressing his dissatisfaction with Anne. In early May, she was arrested and charged with adultery and treason. Her execution took place on May 19th; Henry announced his engagement to another woman (Jane Seymour) the following day.

Historians dispute the primary reasons behind Anne’s downfall, yet nearly all agree that she was innocent of the charges against her. As Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb explains, the accusations against her of adultery and incest were deliberately intended to play on the idea of Anne as a sexual predator, and therefore to make Henry seem more vindicated in seeking her death. Anne was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th.  This was the first execution of an English queen in history (although Henry would also execute a later queen, Anne’s cousin Katherine Howard, also for adultery).

Uncounted depictions of Anne’s story have been produced throughout the years since her death, and in them we can continue to read contemporary gender preoccupations (Bordo, The Creation 3-6). The Anne we see in these narratives can vary widely, from the feminist heroine of the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days (dir. Charles Jarrott) to the cold-hearted, power-hungry schemer of Hilary Mantel’s popular 2009 novel Wolf Hall. Yet all these depictions, factual and fictional, of Anne share a notable trait: in each, Anne is loud. She doesn’t keep silent; she’s willing to say things that can only make those listening angry. For some, the concept of a powerful, vocal woman is inspiring, but for many others, it is apparently as terrifying now as it was in the Tudor era. Yet for someone who has been characterized as so loud, little attention has been paid to what she actually said and how she said it.2

Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

Analysis of Anne’s rhetoric calls into question her customary use as a cautionary tale against female ambition (Bordo, The Creation 221), by asking us to reconsider what Anne’s ambitions were and how her rhetoric achieves them. It requires even more reconsideration of what a woman speaking boldly in such a rigid patriarchy could hope to do, and why. The traces of evidence we have for Anne’s rhetoric, including her letter from the Tower, her trial response, and her execution speech, argue that Anne was not necessarily seeking to persuade; she was using language and image to shape her own voice, to show herself as a woman capable of speaking boldly and valuing her own ideas, even if the cost of her voice was her own life.

That traditional persuasive rhetoric has long been a male preserve is well documented. Education as a whole has for centuries been shaped along gendered lines, with rhetorical study and training available to only a few privileged women, up until comparatively recently. During the 16th century in England, humanism provided slightly more opportunity for women to achieve formal education, but even then rhetoric was unlikely to be part of the curriculum. Dr. Maria Dowling explains that even among the privileged classes, “women were not trained for public office; their domain was the household, their cares were their own moral well-being and the upbringing of their children” (221). The learning women received was intended to thus “enhance those twin jewels, piety and chastity” (Dowling 221); a “good” woman, therefore, was not one brazen enough to speak or hold power in a public arena. Regardless of the fact that this era saw, by the necessity of succession, the first acknowledged queens-regnant in England’s history (Mary I, Elizabeth I, and arguably, the short-tenured Jane Grey), most women’s destinies were not seen as commensurate with formal rhetorical education.

In part, the conceived purpose of such an education made rhetorical training seem unnecessary, even dangerous, for women. Juan Luis Vives, who composed a plan for the instruction of Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Princess Mary titled Instruction of a Christian Woman, stated that “for maids to be eloquent of speech, that is to say great babblers, is a token of a light mind” (113). Despite the fact that his intended recipient of these instructions was not only a princess but, at the time, the heir apparent to the English throne, Vives believed Mary required “an education befitting her station—that of a silent, submissive woman and not of a vocal, aggressive ruler” (Vosevich 65). Vives demonstrates not only the patriarchal ideal of feminine education and behavior, but also that this ideal of womanly silence applied across social status boundaries: even queens should play their proper gender role.3 Tudor-era pedagogues, almost all of whom would have been teaching boys, would likely have defined rhetoric as the Greco-Romans had done, as the art of persuasion. Women, being as they were thought by nature less moral and logical, were thus not fit to be persuaders of men. Some women received such training despite this; Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, for example, studied classical rhetoric under her tutor Roger Ascham. On the whole, however, any education women received in literacy or communication would not have been intended to make them persuasive writers and speakers.

Anne’s rhetoric is therefore particularly intriguing. She doesn’t seem to have received any classical rhetorical education (which would not have been deemed necessary to her gender and station), and yet she does seem to have used language, presentation, and interpretation to establish voice and identity, if not necessarily to be persuasive. If we look at Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical purpose as primarily about audience persuasion, then she has far less to teach us. She was unable to “persuade” the people of England to accept her as queen, while even more specifically she was unable to argue herself out of arrest, a guilty verdict, and execution. By this definition, she is an exceptionally unsuccessful practitioner of rhetoric. Yet for such an unsuccessful communicator, Anne certainly continues to make her presence known. Defining her rhetoric as unsuccessful fails to explain the enduring quality of Anne’s voice and image in our literary and popular culture.

My listing of Anne’s persuasive “failures” does not mean she was incapable of influence. On the contrary, Anne Boleyn was capable of persuasion in a traditional sense. While we don’t know the rhetorical means she utilized to achieve her ends, the success of those ends themselves indicate that she was extremely skilled. Eric Ives notes that Anne was not just the reason for the Reformation, she was also the mental force behind the push for religious reform (48); her first biographer, George Wyatt, having spoken with those who had living memory of Anne, described her as the “mind [which] brought forth [to Henry] the rich treasures of love of piety, love of truth, love of learning” (29). She is described by one witness, Lancelot de Carles, as a skillful user of language as well as appearance to achieve rhetorical effects.

She was also able to persuade the king in smaller, more personal matters; for example, she convinced Henry to read the “heretical” book by William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, an incident that was related to George Wyatt by Anne’s former lady-in-waiting, Anne Gainsford. Even George Cavendish, one of Anne’s enemies, noted that she had “a very good wit” (35-6). And Anne seems to have theorized ways of conveying her arguments despite the restrictions of her gender, through the promotion of specifically chosen delegates; though women could not preach, she successfully promoted the appointments of religious figures who would advocate her reforms, including Thomas Cranmer (Ives 73). She also utilized men more directly as rhetorical stand-ins; Anne approved, and perhaps helped compose, a sermon to be delivered by her almoner John Skip, opposing Henry’s plan to confiscate the wealth of several monasteries without turning those resources toward public educational initiatives (the latter being a project Anne advocated). Historian Eric Ives (307-308) argued that Anne’s role in shaping the sermon was most obvious in its preoccupations with the king’s sexual infidelities and misuse of crown funds, by reminding the listeners that King Solomon “became very un-noble and defamed himself sore by sensual and carnal appetite” and “also by avaricious mind in laying too great or sore burdens and yokes upon his subjects.” Skip’s sermon also presented a parable in which Anne represented the Biblical Queen Esther, whose husband King Xerxes was led astray by an evil counsellor, referring to Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell (Records Office, State Papers 6). Anne, then, was capable of thinking through her arguments, including her audience’s gendered expectations and the best means to convey points when she would not have been seen as an acceptable voice for making them.

So when Anne’s use of rhetoric does not have the effect of persuading her audience to her side, it is not necessarily because Anne herself is rhetorically unskilled. On the contrary, there are cases where she seems to go out of her way to not utilize the means of persuasion available to her. She had a very good example of what these means were. Anne’s relationship with Henry brought her into the notice of a public that very much loved Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen. Catherine projected the ideal image of a queen consort: gentle, submissive, and religious. David Loades notes that Catherine’s time “was taken up with works of piety, with her domestic responsibilities, and with her daughter” (25)—exactly befitting a “good” woman in the Tudor age. That this image of Catherine was one she intentionally created is made clear by her ability to assume roles that were the very opposite of this queenly feminine ideal when she believed them warranted. For example, Catherine could portray herself as a fearsome warrior; she not only oversaw England’s military defeat of Scotland in 1513, she sent the absent Henry the bloody coat of the fallen Scottish king as a trophy. (As she herself noted, the Englishmen’s “hearts would not suffer” her original plan: to send Henry King James’s battered body [Letters and Papers]). In other words, Catherine seemed able to intentionally shape her own public image: in peace time, she showed herself as a gentle, kind, devout woman, devoted to her husband and adopted country, for the most part masking her capability as a martial leader.

One of the ways that Catherine was able to portray her image was through the means of a chosen badge and motto. Read as rhetorical texts, these presented an idea about the bearer (their “brand” as one of my students recently described it), particularly useful for conveying messages in times of high illiteracy. Catherine’s chosen badge was the pomegranate. For anyone with an understanding of Catherine’s Spanish history, this would have held a religious and possibly military meaning: in Spanish, pomegranate is “Granada”, also the name of the region her parents, the Christian monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, had conquered from the Muslims during Catherine’s childhood (Fox 13). However, the English read this image as one of nourishment and feminine fertility (Fraser 71), fitting symbols for the woman who stood to enhance England’s royal line through progeny bearing her illustrious European royal blood. Her motto likewise conveyed her feminine virtues: “Humble and Loyal.” Though Catherine’s ancestry was more exalted than her husband’s, and her home country far more politically and militarily significant than England, her motto disavowed any sense of her own superiority. She did not, her motto demonstrated, look down upon the nation she was joining; given England’s national inferiority-complex in comparison with France and Spain, this was an excellent reassurance for her new people. Catherine would be their humble and loyal English queen, not a self-assured Spanish princess. In short, Catherine used the means available to her to present her ideal feminine qualities, and by doing so, she created an ethos that encouraged the sympathy and support of the English people.4 In these ways, Catherine played by the rules of feminine self-presentation. Yet, Anne did not follow Catherine’s example, seemingly choosing instead to reject the rules all together.

Anne projected her own individual voice and sense of self through at times very unfeminine rhetorical choices. Anne’s desire to convey her individual voice, over persuading others to view her as a virtuous, correct Tudor woman, is demonstrated in her choices of badge and mottos. While Catherine’s badge conveyed what she could provide, fertility and the seeds of future monarchs, Anne’s choice of a falcon conveyed an image of strength over feminine softness. The falcon image conveyed aggression and vitality—not widely held at the time as feminine virtues. As Karen Lindsey describes Anne, “Like the falcon she chose as her emblem, she was a wild creature used, curtailed, but never truly tamed; she was a sexual woman whose vitality belonged only to herself” (48). These are certainly not attributes one would expect to find in the Tudor system of accepted gender norms. Even more significant is Anne’s choice of mottos. Her early motto, chosen in 1530 as she was gaining infamy for her relationship with Henry, was far from designed to placate her detractors: “Ainsi sera groigne qui groigne”, or “Let them grumble; this is how it’s going to be.” Rather than conciliate her opposition, she directly stated her intention to overrule them. Anne thus raised her voice in a very public way: she would speak as she wished and act as she wished, without regard to those who were judging her. Even her more well-known motto, chosen at the start of her queenship, emphasized her right to make her own choices, despite their unpopularity: as Henry’s wife and queen, Anne proclaimed to the world, she would be “The Most Happy,” privileging her own feelings and fulfillment, regardless of how unhappy her status made others. Anne was not utilizing the same tools as her predecessor by embracing an ideal feminine image. Rather, she was creating and projecting an image of herself as outspoken and confident; certainly not what Tudor England expected in the public persona of a good woman, let alone a good queen.

These attributes also come across in the language of what might be the most deeply personal remnant of Anne’s voice, her letter to Henry written during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. This letter is deeply controversial among historians, with some, including Eric Ives and Elizabeth Norton, arguing that it is a forgery. However, I am guided by the recent work of Dr. Susan Bordo and, particularly, historian and writer Sandra Vasoli, who make strong cases for the letter’s authenticity. This case requires further explanation, not least of all because Vasoli is most well known for her fictional, rather than historical, writing. While nearly all popular fictionalizations of Tudor persons are at times problematic in their portrayals—see, for example, the works of Phillipa Gregory—Vasoli’s non-fiction book and research regarding Anne’s letter from the Tower utilizes archival methods and linguistic analysis. Vasoli makes a case for the letter’s authenticity based upon language, syntax, and content commensurate with the historical record and Anne’s own rhetorical self-presentation (23). Additionally, accounts such as that of Lord Herbert of Cherbury report that the copy of the letter that eventually became part of the Cotton collection was originally found among the papers of Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. Another early copy of the letter, located within the British Library’s Stowe collection (MS 151), corroborates this account, recording it as made from an original letter by Anne to Henry which was later found among Cromwell’s papers. The copy itself was made by an anonymous hand known by historians as “the Feathery Scribe,” who was known to have copied documents for highly placed clients, including William Cecil, the chief advisor of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I. Therefore, Vasoli notes, “someone of importance contracted the Feathery Scribe to reproduce the letter in order to preserve the words for posterity, directly from the one found in Cromwell’s papers, prior to 1628” (28). Likewise, she points out that historians from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century treated the letter as genuine (33). The argument for the letter’s authentic provenance rests upon Cromwell having not delivered it to Henry, rather keeping it among his own papers, after which it was preserved by an unknown source before copies were made and became part of private collections. Vasoli makes the (ultimately unprovable) case that the letter might have been transmitted from Cromwell’s protégé William Sadler to his friend and colleague, Cecil, during Elizabeth’s reign.

Ultimately, without definitive evidence of the letter’s authenticity, Vasoli and Bordo look to the correlations between the style and content of the letter to other known statements and speeches that Anne made. Bordo argues that “it’s hard to imagine anyone else” (109) writing the letter that so embodies Anne’s known voice and demeanor, while questioning the gender and personality politics implicit in doubts about its authenticity. Perhaps, she notes, not everyone has been willing to believe that Anne could write what has been called “one of the finest compositions in the English language” (112).

As an artifact, this letter emphasizes Anne’s sense of her own self-worth and desire to speak out in a social context that conflated silence with femininity, even for well-educated women (Gibson). If we look at this letter through the lens of traditional rhetorical analysis, guided by a definition of rhetoric as persuasion, then our foremost question might be about Anne’s persuasive intent. In other words, the letter is, at least on the surface, a persuasive artifact; she has an external audience (Henry) from whom she wishes to achieve something: “My last and only request shall be, That my self may bear the Burthen of your Grace’s Displeasure, and that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait Imprisonment for my sake” (British Library). Anne thus specifies what she wants from her reader: she wants Henry to pardon the men who have been imprisoned and accused along with her. Again, if we are to judge Anne’s skill as a wielder of rhetoric from her success in using language to achieve this end, she will always be found wanting—each of the five men tried alongside her were also executed.

However, it should be noted that Anne’s request is only a brief section at the very end of her letter. While this is not to say she wasn’t sincere in her wish for their freedom, the small role this plays in the letter overall, and the authorial choices she makes in the earlier part of the letter, indicate that persuading Henry was not her only, or perhaps even primary, purpose in writing. The majority of the letter is what Anne calls her “confession,” the attestation of her point of view on the events that had overtaken her. She analyzes her own feelings on their extraordinary relationship, proclaiming that: “…never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn, with which name and Place I could willingly have contented myself, if God, and your Grace’s Pleasure had been so pleased” (British Library). Anne as self-contented in her role as a private Tudor-era gentlewoman is not what we tend to see in popular representations of her; rather, Anne as a schemer who purposely destroyed a marriage in her thirst for power has been the default interpretation of her for centuries. Yet from her own point of view, Anne attests both her loyalty to Henry as his queen and her own initial disinclination to achieve that status. It was Henry, and God, whose pleasure made her Queen Anne; she would have been happy and proud to remain simply Anne Boleyn. This pride in her sense of self over and above her status as queen is echoed in the letter’s closing, which she signs not as Queen Anne, but as Anne Boleyn. It is Anne Boleyn whose voice predominates throughout this letter, and that, she emphasizes, is enough.

The letter itself, then, is a testament of a voice, an identity, of which she is not ashamed, and which she will not silence or soften for her audience’s pleasure. In fact, if getting back into Henry’s good graces was her chief motivation, she would have been ill advised to include some of the zingers that make it through. For example, she writes that she is well aware of Henry’s inconstancy. It was his “fancy” that made her queen, and she claims to have always understood the fickleness of it. “The least alteration, I knew, was fit and sufficient to draw that Fancy to some other Subject” (British Library) she declares, knowing by this time Henry’s interest in his soon-to-be third wife, Jane Seymour. This also illuminates an aspect of Anne’s character that is often overlooked in popular history and fictional portrayals. Anne was a front row witness to Henry’s poor treatment of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. (In fact, in many of these portrayals, it is Anne even more than Henry who is responsible for these cruelties.) The Anne we see in these portrayals is thus rendered foolish: she fails to understand that a man who treats his first wife cruelly could just as easily do the same to her. The Anne in this letter is no such fool. Not only does she proclaim herself innocent of the charge that she destroyed Henry’s marriage (he being the one to pursue her, rather than vice versa), she also attests her clear understanding that what happened to Catherine might also become her fate.

Likewise, were Anne truly hopeful of persuading Henry of anything, she would also have done well to avoid telling him her hope that God “will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; and that he will not call you to a strict account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me” (British Library; italics mine). In other words, she will pray that God will not punish Henry too much…but will punish him some, as he, after all, deserves it. Also, given Henry’s notoriously thin skin and his perception of himself as a chivalric, enlightened monarch, her descriptions of his behavior as unprincely and cruel would have deeply offended him. Again, Anne doesn’t pull her punches; no feminine reticence leads her to soften the blow to Henry’s sense of personal virtue. Why then, write such a letter, and risk even greater anger than Henry already feels? Why is she speaking, when what she says can only do her more harm?

If we think of Henry as her primary audience, and swaying him as her primary purpose, of course her authorial decisions seem illogical. More sensible would be a retreat to a feminine ideal of helpless grief, to play the damsel in distress for Henry, a self-proclaimed adherent of chivalry (Ives 92), to pity and rescue. However, if we see her audience as including herself, Anne’s authorial choices make more sense. Certainly, many of us know the power of words and writing to shape our identities and strengthen our resolves. Anne seems to be doing so here—crafting and reaffirming her own sense of self, identity, and innocence. Yet, she is doing so in a public way; this is not a diary entry intended for her eyes only. It is meant to be read by Henry (though in reality, it likely never reached him [Vasoli 4]), but Anne would have known it would also be read by the chain of people between herself and Henry, including her jailor Sir William Kingston and chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Anne is shaping her truth and speaking it back to power, even though her truth is not what they want to hear.

That the sense of self Anne created with her words and symbols is one of such strength and outspokenness is something that can strike modern readers as feminist in its aims. While we can’t attribute to Anne a prescience of modern day feminism, her formative years in other cultural contexts would have exposed her to women in power (Bordo, The Creation 72); she would have known that such women existed, and perhaps even at this point hoped her daughter would become one. Therefore, it is not impossible that Anne would have seen herself as having a right to speak boldly, a right with which other women and men in English society would have disagreed. There is no evidence that the rhetoric of this letter is the result of her own misunderstanding of the ways her words might be judged. To say that Anne included, for example, the insults to Henry because she was rhetorically unskilled is to indicate that persuading him was her ultimate goal. However, if we read her as having personal and political aims beyond Henry, we might read her as courageous, perhaps even as sensing that future audiences could give her the hearing she wouldn’t receive in her own time.

As previously noted, there are some who debate Anne’s authorship of this letter. Yet two more rhetorical artifacts, more definitely tied to Anne Boleyn, exhibit similar moves: Anne’s trial speech and her execution speech. Specifically, both demonstrate her desire to exert her voice, even when doing so might in some ways be to her present disadvantage.

In a speech delivered to the court following the pronouncement of her verdict, Anne directly challenges the honor of the jurors who have found her guilty. She states, “I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done, but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge” (De Carles). If taken as straightforward, this statement accuses her judges of deception or conspiracy, as they have produced weak and even demonstrably false evidence against her. This was, in fact, the case. The charges of adultery were made in an obviously slapdash and careless manner: “even after nearly 500 years, three-quarters of these specific allegations can be disproved. In twelve cases Anne was elsewhere or the man was” (Ives 344). The “sufficient reasons,” for finding Anne guilty, therefore, were not about Anne’s guilt, but about the jurors’ unwillingness to displease the king, and Anne wants them to know that she knows it. What Anne is guilty of, and what she admits to, has nothing to do with sexual fidelity (which she asserts that she has always, unlike her husband, maintained):

I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. (in de Carle)

In other words, Anne is attributing her real “crimes” to her insistent use of voice: she lacks the “humility” to remain silent and submissive; she has particularly refused to turn a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities. In demanding a voice in both politics and her own marriage, Anne has made herself a “bad” woman, wife, and queen, with lethal results.

Her last statement is particularly intriguing, and perhaps gives us a better sense of Anne’s own thinking about her rhetorical purpose. She assures her listeners that her purpose in speaking is not to persuade them (“think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life”). Why, then, does she reiterate her failure to perform the appropriate gender rhetoric of her time? Perhaps she is not solely speaking to her contemporary audience at all. She seems to be speaking more to herself, reassuring herself that what this hostile audience believes does not ultimately matter—it is God who will ultimately preserve her and strengthen her faith. This attitude is fitting with the new religious beliefs taking root in England at this time, which Anne advocated. While Anne remained essentially Catholic, never fully committing to the new Protestant ideas in the way her later successor Catherine Parr would, under figures such as Marguerite of Navarre she would have been exposed to reformist ideas. Among these was the priority of personal relationships with God; in other words, of the importance of inward thinking beyond outward ritual. That Anne may have used rhetoric to look inward, to strengthen rather than subsume her own interpretations and beliefs, fits with what is believed about her personality and faith. Her rhetoric demonstrates a belief that she had as much right as a man to seek and speak her own truths. Thus this, her next-to-last opportunity for public address, is used not to persuade her audience, something that was fruitless given their loyalty to the king’s will, but to use language to shape and present her own voice for herself, her God, and as part of the public record for posterity.

Anne’s execution speech does more to acknowledge her audience’s gendered rhetorical expectations, although the way in which she makes these concessions is still atypical for her time. Executions in Henrician England were common enough to have developed their own rhetorical genre, with particular genre expectations. The condemned, after ascending the execution platform, would address the assembled crowd with an oration acknowledging his or her guilt, even if innocent of the crime in question. He or she then asked the audience to turn away from their own sins; finally, the condemned praised the king and asked the assembled to pray for his or her soul. Anne’s own execution speech follows this basic format, but also exhibits her own steadfast belief in her voice and innocence, as well as the possibility that one day these attributes would be judged differently.

Anne’s speech might seem staid and conciliatory in light of her previous rhetoric. Yet when read against the expectations of execution speeches in her day, Anne’s tweaks speak obliquely what the words themselves may not. Anne does not acknowledge guilt or proclaim herself deserving death, as was the expectation; what she does instead is pointedly refuse to discuss this issue. She states, “…according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die” (in Wyatt). So, while not upending the established form by proclaiming innocence rather than guilt, Anne acknowledges the expectation while specifically explaining that she is skipping over it. She is not allowed by tradition to say she is innocent, but she will not say she is guilty.

In a move which both maintains traditional expectations and has the effect of endearing herself, at last, to her audience, Anne praises King Henry, the very man who is most responsible for her death: “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and a sovereign lord” (in Wyatt). Anne allows the absurdity of this statement to go unremarked. However, the audience seems to have appreciated Anne’s willingness to make such a pretense. Given Henry’s popularity with his subjects, the statement was well-received; most of the audience fell to their knees in sympathy during Anne’s speech, in what might have been the most overt show of public respect Anne ever received during her career. Yet why would Anne, who has seemed so unwilling to silence herself, even when doing so would be in the best interest of preserving her own power and/or life, not overtly proclaim her innocence in this speech, which was the most likely of all her words to be remembered by posterity? Why would she acquiesce in praising the king? This we might attribute to Anne’s ability to play the traditional rhetorical game when she chose to. In praising Henry, Anne was able to protect her daughter. Henry had already shown himself to be a fickle father, particularly toward daughters, as demonstrated by his humiliating treatment toward his daughter Mary, whose mother Catherine embarrassed Henry by her refusal to accept the annulment of their marriage. Further embarrassing Henry in this last, most public of venues would do little to endear their daughter Elizabeth to his paternal affections. It is also worth considering that Anne was as much a product of her time as we all are of ours, and perhaps therefore she did wrestle with feelings of guilt or shame about her own lack of womanly humility and submissiveness. Maybe she honestly believed, in that moment, what she said—that Henry was a great, gentle, and merciful sovereign, and that what had befallen her was more her fault than his, even if not for the reasons he claimed.

Yet Anne’s denouement also subtly reasserts both her sense of self-belief and her hope that future audiences would acknowledge her differently. Again, she seizes the opportunity to assert her sense of self. As a conclusion, Anne adds, “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best” (in Wyatt). In slipping in this statement, Anne reminds us that she has a cause worth meddling over. She is not the treasonous seductress as others have defined her; rather, those who may one day judge the best will see her as she has shaped herself: strong, forthright, intelligent, and with a right to both speak and be heard.

Reclaiming Anne Boleyn, Rhetorician

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical approach, in which the desires and expectations of her contemporary audiences seem almost subsumed by internal or future ones, was not without precedent. The use of language to shape and present identity was in fact becoming fashionable amongst Renaissance intellectuals. Stephen Greenblatt has identified “an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process” (2) during the Renaissance. This contrasts with an earlier medieval philosophy that identified the self as pre-determined and the shaping of it as either useless or even damaging. The self-fashioning possibilities opened by Renaissance philosophy was something achieved through language (Greenblatt 9)…or at least, achieved by men through language. Figures like Thomas More, William Tyndale, and Thomas Wyatt could use language to seek “a new basis of control” (114) over their identity and its dissemination in ways they chose for themselves; Anne Boleyn was allotted no such privilege. Her attempts to do the same have been consistently interpreted not as “Renaissance self-fashioning,” but rather as ill-judged mouthiness.

The default interpretation of Anne’s voice as thoughtless and uncontrolled, rather than intellectual and rhetorical, demonstrates how our gendered assumptions can continue to slip in under the rhetorical radar, for authors across genders. Take, for example, how one of the most well-regarded biographers of Henry’s queens, Antonia Fraser, describes Catherine of Aragon’s rhetorical approach: “Queen Catherine, in her prime, had been far too well-trained, and too clever, to allow herself to appear ungraciously argumentative; she had followed the pattern of a certain kind of intelligent woman throughout history, making her point without confrontation” (265). What’s notable is Fraser’s wording; acquiescing to the status quo of female silence is both gracious and intelligent; by extension, Anne was neither. More overtly, historian Gareth Russell has described Anne’s outspokenness as evidence of “occasional stupidity” from an “otherwise intelligent woman.” Neither seem to conceive of Anne’s insistence on voice as a potentially rhetorical tactic rather than a misunderstanding of her available rhetorical means or a complete failure to think rhetorically at all. This pattern extends to many of her fictional representations. In Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, the character Anne tells Thomas Cromwell that “People should say whatever will keep them alive” (480), which is, of course, the complete opposite of what she did in reality. Therefore, this Anne, the depiction which is the most prominent in our current cultural moment, is presented as again lacking in rhetorical intelligence—she simply couldn’t understand what the right words to keep herself alive might be. These portrayals of Anne don’t show her as someone who did know what to say to please an audience, but for whom doing so would be a betrayal of herself.

Ultimately, such interpretations of Anne’s rhetorical (in)ability effectively neuter her as a rhetorical power player. We have a reason to not listen to this mouthy woman, because she obviously didn’t put much thought into what she had to say. Additionally, Anne’s perceived lack of feminine graces open her memory up to social stricture. In many interpretations, such as Mantel’s, Anne is a kind of ruthless, hysterical female monster. In these interpretations, Anne, in ending her life on the scaffold, arguably got what she deserved for victimizing the good and proper Queen Catherine, who was standing between Anne and the power she ultimately proved too incompetent to hold onto.

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical legacy is emblematic of what happens when the social forces that shape our ideas about women’s voices go unacknowledged. Anne’s creation of her image as a woman with a strong public voice, a voice that so greatly challenged accepted feminine characteristics, caused rage among her listeners. Even today, her rhetoric is often correlated with ineptness, as her misunderstanding of what a woman could realistically use rhetoric to do; when this happens, factual and fictional portrayals marginalize the very brave and potentially instructive work she undertook.

Political discourse in the United States is at a particular crossroads, raising questions about the nature of ethos and audience expectations among women in positions of power. Mary Beard identifies Western culture’s fear of women’s public voices as in an inherited Greco-Roman anxiety about gender identities, but also more deeply as a fear for the very social and political orders we live by. In raising these concerns, Beard argues that we can “make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us [judge vocal women negatively]” (40). However, she also notes that there is no clear and easy remedy for this state of affairs (49). Should women try to “play the game” of acceptable feminine rhetoric if it means gaining an audience’s acceptance, to be “likeable”…or should we speak our own truth, even for audiences unwilling to accept it? Do we acquiesce to gendered rhetorical expectations in the hope of succeeding to positions of power, or reject them even if that means failure? Is there a middle ground? We don’t yet have answers to these questions, but there is something to be said for the “success” of Anne’s style of rhetoric. While we know that in her own time, Anne Boleyn’s bold rhetoric contributed to her downfall and made her unpopular amongst women and men, there are more in our own time who seem ready to admire her for those very transgressions.

Anne Boleyn did not always bear the humility expected from a woman in her age, as evidenced by the ways she used language and image to create a sense of herself as powerful and outspoken. Many would not see her as much more likeable today. Yet by questioning the gendered rhetorical restrictions of her time, she has ensured a lasting role in our cultural imagination, and inspired some women today as a model for the role voice can play in self-fashioning. In response to a 2010 online poll about Anne Boleyn’s cultural relevance, one anonymous respondent said, “Anne is a good role model for young women. Those who speak out can see her as an ally, and those who are shy can be inspired by her” (Bordo, The Creation 253). It’s hard to see how this could have happened if she had “shown humility” and kept her mouth shut, even if it meant keeping her head.

Had Anne relied on feminine rhetorical means, had she been more silent, played the damsel in distress, and, when speaking, said only whatever would keep her alive (to paraphrase Mantel), we today would likely not know her or, for at least some of us, honor her as one of the original #ImmodestWomen.


  1. It is worth noting that these women, though they inhabited public positions of power, did so through the acquiescence of even more powerful men. Margaret of Austria deferred to her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, while Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Navarre operated through the approval of their son and brother (respectively), King Francis of France. Even so, each faced occasional persecution for such “unfeminine” behavior, especially Marguerite, whose work as an author and religious reformer led to persecution and threat from the powerful religious establishment, despite her brother’s protection (Cholakian).  Anne, while she had Henry’s approval, was relatively safe; without it, she was open to the character assassination that has reverberated across centuries.
  2. Anne Boleyn has been the subject of historical interest as early as the late 16th century, when George Wyatt composed her earliest known biography. Modern examinations of her life have been authored by Retha Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1989), Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII, 1992), David Starkey (Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 2003), Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2005), and Alison Weir (The Lady in the Tower, 2010). These assessments differ over questions such as Anne’s sexual and gynecological history, the prime movers behind her downfall, even her appearance, but only Ives’ superlative study offers any, albeit limited, rhetorical analysis of Anne’s own words. Elizabeth Norton’s 2013 collection The Anne Boleyn Papers combines contemporary texts both by and about Anne, but without a more critical examination of the gendered forces shaping and expressed by Anne’s rhetoric.
  3. Kathi Vosevich contrasts Princess Mary’s education with that of Princess Elizabeth (under Roger Ascham, who praised Elizabeth for her unwomanly intellect) as a means of illuminating their different approaches to the rhetoric of queenship. However, some have argued against Mary’s education being categorically different than Elizabeth’s (see Schutte, Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications).
  4. Given the xenophobia and sexism of Tudor society, that she succeeded in gaining such approval, despite her Spanish heritage and lack of male offspring, is impressive. However, she also had a long tenure as queen, something that made her a more familiar and endearing presence than Anne ever became.

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