Making Sense of #MeToo: Intersectionality and Contemporary Feminism

Beginning in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has brought widespread attention to sexual assault and harassment, experiences that remain pervasive. The phrase “me too” was first used by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 during her non-profit work at Just Be Inc. providing resources for people who had experienced sexual assault. In the wake of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a message with the hashtag #MeToo to illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. When Tarana Burke was interviewed in 2019 as part of the Time 100 Summit, she acknowledged that it is easy for most people to condemn the actions of someone like Harvey Weinstein; she argues that the work of the movement now involves drilling down into less straightforward scenarios. In her comments, Burke references the tendency for people to get upset about allegations against so-called “good guys”: “But when we start talking about…the good guy who’s an ally to women, who looks out for everybody, who’s a stand-up person, but maybe behaves in a way that is too permissive, then [people think] it’s a problem” (Time). As #MeToo has begun to broaden its scope to focus on more nuanced interactions, I review the popular press conversation around the movement, offering a snapshot of the public discourse around #MeToo as it has played out over the last two years, to try to answer the following research questions: Does popular press coverage suggest that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive? Whose voices are being amplified in the popular press coverage of the #MeToo movement?

Because popular press coverage not only reflects but also influences how people respond to social justice movements, I focus on coverage of the #MeToo movement from its initial dramatic beginnings to its more recent reckoning with the kind of difficult scenarios Burke references. In this article, I discuss two trends in the #MeToo pieces I analyzed: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. This data offers insight into my research questions. While the movement has unquestionably found some success in highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual assault, it remains constrained by limitations. Despite its origins in the work of a Black woman activist (Burke), #MeToo is not sufficiently incorporating an intersectional approach to its activism; rather, it is de-centering the voices of people of color and queer people. Additionally, the movement remains hamstrung by a brand of feminism—present since the women’s movement in the 1970s—that emphasizes individual agency and self-sufficiency.

#MeToo as a Power Disruptor

I situate the work of #MeToo as rhetorical, grounded in an understanding of how power functions and can be disrupted. Throughout my textual analysis, I draw on Jay Dolmage’s (2014) definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (5). His emphasis on power proves critical for a site of research like #MeToo, where participants are attempting to shift power dynamics through the tactic of speaking out publicly. I conceptualize power as a relational dynamic that enables or constrains people’s decision-making capabilities (Sullivan and Porter, 1997; Fischer, 2000; Simmons, 2007). The #MeToo movement has identified the many ways that people can take advantage of their privilege to exert influence on someone else in a way that benefits them. As I will show later, these benefits can include work status, control in a relationship, or maintaining the exclusion of certain groups to the advantage of others within an institution (for example, publicly harassing female candidates so that women are discouraged from running for office). Scholars in rhetoric and composition have developed methodologies that speak to the ability for rhetoric to erode and dismantle these institutionalized systems of power. James E. Porter et al. argue for a methodology of institutional critique that draws on theories of postmodern mapping to discern “zones of ambiguity” and unstable boundaries where intervention might be possible. They explain,

Our viewpoint is cautiously hopeful—though, realistic, we think–about the possibility of changing institutions. Our basic claim is this: Though institutions are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths; they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings, laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable. In other words, we made ’em, we can fix ’em. (611)

In framing institutions as comprised of rhetoric, these scholars offer a pathway for rhetorical intervention against seemingly impenetrable social structures. If we think of sexual harassment, misogyny, and patriarchy as institutions, #MeToo uses rhetoric to intervene in them, largely by naming the systemic practices of abuse and harassment—often gone unspoken—by which these institutions sustain themselves. This type of intervention builds toward a hopeful future in which abuse and harassment may not be as deeply engrained in women’s experiences as they are today. As Sarah Burgess (2018) contends, #MeToo is less about legislating the past and more about engaging in an act of political imagination:

advocates understand that themselves to be participating in a politics that aims to being about yet-to-be-imagined future. Such a politics, it seems, is built on the ability to define what is appropriate, healthy, and ethical in sexual encounters, without relying on or reproducing the traditions and norms that have created systemic inequalities. (346)

People who participate in #MeToo are using the power derived from speaking out and connecting with others who have had similar experiences to chip away at exclusionary institutions and norms.

The tactic of speaking against powerful institutions as a truth-telling device has a long tradition in rhetoric, illustrated in the Greek concept of parrhesia. As explained by Michel Foucault (2001), “Parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his [sic] personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself)” (19). The speaker is compelled to truth-telling out of “duty,” which comes at great personal risk. We can interpret the risk in participating in #MeToo as involving one’s literal life, in the case of domestic abuse or other violent altercations, or pertaining to quality of life factors such as employment and mental well-being. Foucault also emphasizes that parrhesiastes utilize “frankness” in their utterance(s), thereby opening themselves up to criticism from those who do not appreciate the sentiment being conveyed with such directness (or at all). Because harassers often rely upon a culture of silence and shame to shield the behavior and not face repercussions, #MeToo’s rhetorical strategy of communicating openly about abuse and harassment represents an attempt at intervening in an unstable institutional boundary, per the institutional critique methodology. Once the #MeToo movement reached a certain level of publicity, the “duty” that survivors felt in telling their own story derived, in part, from the hope that the force of the intervention might be more impactful through sheer numbers.

The circulatory capacity of online platforms can enable parrhesiastic discourse not only to reach significant numbers of people but also to yield an affective impact on readers. As Kyle Larson (2018) argues, positioning persuasion as the main goal of rhetorical exchanges ignores the affective capacity of online communications that do not emphasize rational, Western, logocentric argumentation. Through his research on a feminist Tumblr blogger, Farrah, Larson argues that Farrah uses a rhetorical technique called remonstrative agitation “as a performative, parrhesiastic rhetoric to continue and even further incite the affective circulation of counterdiscourse in the pursuit of feminist, anti-imperialist recognition of her humanity in the broader public sphere” (263). Through “remonstrative agitation”—which includes rhetorical anger1 Farrah and other online activists use parrhesiastic rhetoric to counter the dominant discourses that circulate online (and in the culture more broadly) by making counterdiscourses more visible. Through increased exposure to rhetorical stances and points of view that are feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist in nature, activists remain hopeful that readers can learn from these points of view. Larson offers a personal testimonial to the effectiveness of this type of approach: “Increased circulation of counterdiscourse offers further opportunities for those socialized by dominant discourse to reencounter the counterdiscourse again and again over time and therefore to potentially learn from and become a participant in it—like me” (274). Parrhesia in online settings (as with #MeToo) can reflect a remonstrative stance rather than the more logocentric approaches that we often associate with rhetoric. The counterdiscourses that result can affect change by merely being present and available for audiences to encounter.

In the case of #MeToo, enacting parrhesia is implicated in the body, given that the truths being told involve physical contact, verbal assaults on one’s body, and other forms of harassment. Some of the most notable recent work on the body in rhetoric and composition comes from the specialization of disability studies, with its focus on normative practices and how they influence people’s bodies. In elaborating on his definition of rhetoric, Dolmage responds to Aristotle’s canonical definition (“the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion”) by arguing that “the body has never been fully or fairly understood for it role in shaping and multiplying these available means” (3). While Dolmage is interested in how expectations of normalcy attempt to exert control over bodies (9), his point about the omission of the body as an available means of persuasion applies to #MeToo. In truth-telling about the trauma of physical/mental/emotional harassment, survivors have located the body at the forefront of their rhetorical activity. The experience of abuse has been culturally coded as a “private” matter, something that should not be talked about in an open forum like Twitter. By sharing their stories, parrhesiastes are using taboo available means such as calling attention to their bodies.

While #MeToo has instigated discussion of harassment and assault on a broad scale, I want to acknowledge the long history of feminist and queer thinkers, and women of color in particular, for agitating around sexual harassment for decades; these scholars and activists have long called attention to the kinds of behaviors that #MeToo critiques. They have developed a body of work that examines the institutionalized harassment women face in the workplace (MacKinnon, 1979); how overlapping social identities experience discrimination (Crenshaw, 1989; Lorde, 1984); gender performativity (Butler, 1990); the social construction of biology based on gender stereotypes (Martin, 1991); modes of feminist resistance (Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977; Crunk Feminist Collection, 2017); the policing of heteronormativity (Lorde, 1984; Halberstam, 2011); and multimodal feminist archival collection (Eversley, 2015). Through this work—and more that I cannot adequately address here—feminists have undertaken a world-making project, responding to injustices against marginalized populations and offering alternate models for living and working. These interventions have resulted in changes in a variety of sectors, including education (curricula) and the workplace (anti-harassment policies). This collective feminist work has offered research and a theoretical foundation to support #MeToo’s central claim that misogynistic behavior toward women is systemic.

Before I analyze my findings and position #MeToo as a power-disruption tactic, I first provide an overview of my methods for this study.


I offer a rhetorical analysis of the popular discourse surrounding the movement based on a review of 100 popular press articles about #MeToo. I chose 100 articles as my corpus in an attempt at being thorough; articles that include the phrase “me too” encompass a wide array of topics and perspectives, and I wanted to encounter as many as I could. I began with a corpus that positioned me to inductively come to working conclusions about what is being said about the movement. Using a grounded theory methodology, I also employed a critical discourse analysis approach. In his work on hashtag activism, Nicholas DeArmas (2018) argues for the usefulness of critical discourse analysis in highlighting power dynamics, especially when comparing multiple texts. This method allowed me to effectively address my research questions, both of which are oriented around the distribution of power. Through close reading, I noted trends that not only appeared frequently in the data, but also trends that, while more limited by comparison, seemed to upset prior assumptions about #MeToo (my last section about longstanding rifts within feminism falls into this category). In other words, while the mainstream media encourages us to focus on a few elements of #MeToo (e.g., the codes “consent” and “backlash” were well-represented within my data set), I am interested in amplifying some perspectives represented in the corpus that may not garner significant attention in the media. One such perspective is the need to center intersectionality within the movement.

I located all popular press articles through a Google search for the term “#MeToo.” In order to foreground articles from a variety of perspectives, I also searched “queer #MeToo,” “critiques of #MeToo” and “#MeToo criticism.”2 In the process of deciding on my final corpus, I ended up discarding several pieces that included a superficial analysis of the movement. After reading each of the articles, I inductively came up with 16 thematic codes based on patterns I saw emerging (see appendix). As I mentioned earlier, some of these themes were present in quite a few articles (such as the topic of backlash), while other themes emerged in just a few articles (e.g. the varied reactions of feminists to the movement). For the purposes of this article, I narrowed my discussion to two themes—both of which are strongly rooted in the circulation of power—that crystalize the promise and challenges of #MeToo: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. I offer a rhetorical analysis of these themes in response to my research questions about whose voices are being amplified in the movement and whether #MeToo is beginning to disrupt the power dynamics that allow harassment to thrive. With this rhetorical foundation of power and parrhesia in mind, I now will focus on the popular press publications that have sought to make sense of the #MeToo movement. All articles that I refer to from this point forward are included in my corpus of 100, with the exception of some citations that serve to provide further context; these citations are indicated by an asterisk (*).

Engagement with intersectionality proves a critical factor in the movement’s effectiveness

First conceived by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theory of intersectionality dictates that oppressions “intersect” at various axes according to identity markers such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. These intersections dictate that, for example, a cisgender white woman will experience sexism differently than a Black transgender woman. At the same time, the theory rejects the temptation to place oppressions along a hierarchy; the visual image of a traffic intersection that Crenshaw has used in her talks illustrates how various identity markers converge in a non-hierarchical fashion. The movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) enacts an intersectional approach to their activism, stating in their website materials that they recognize “the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people” (“Herstory”)* because those are the folx who historically have been shut out of movements or forced to work in the background. The BLM movement’s centering of queer and trans women is a corrective to previous movements that marginalized these voices even as the movements claimed to seek racial justice. Referencing the fact that many of the #MeToo claims that received significant attention in the media came from upper/middle class straight white women, Burgess explains that

The exclusion [of marginalized populations] matters here because the narratives told and heard determine who is recognizable as one that can make a claim about sexual harassment and be believed…Just because one’s voice is included does not mean that it is given the same weight. Access or entry to the scene of address does not guarantee equal footing. To create structural change, then, means that the norms of recognizability…must be contested. (351-352)*

Burgess calls attention to the fact that even when women of color come forward, their claims are not given the same value as those of white women. Perhaps #MeToo’s very origin—founded by an activist Black woman, popularized by a celebrity white woman—has stifled its ability to engage an intersectional approach. Regardless, popular press accounts have articulated both the failures and successes of #MeToo in this regard and also offered insights into how #MeToo can more fully apply the principles of intersectionality.

Some critics of #MeToo have pointed out that, for example, #MeToo has failed to honor queer and transgender survivors of harassment and assault. Neesha Powell (2017) argues that the movement needs to stop pretending that violence only happens to cisgender straight women. She cites the following troubling statistics from the The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse: “46% of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetime; lesbians are significantly more likely than others to experience gang rape; and 55% of trans men and 68% of trans women experience sexual assault in their lifetime” (Powell). Despite these statistics, 75% of my mainstream media corpus focuses on straight, cisgender white women. Meredith Talusan (2018), writing for the publication them, argues that this erasure ignores the particular dangers for the gender non-confomring community, given the rigid gender expectations that many people still hold: “Trans and [gender non-conforming] folks are so much more vulnerable than cis women: We not only experience unwanted sexual advances and provocations, but we are also at risk of being physically assaulted or murdered when those who approach us are unable to deal with their own attractions” (Talusan). Silencing the perspectives of queer and transgender survivors proves especially pernicious when Black queer and trans women have been at forefront of social justice movements for decades. As the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, queer women of color have often functioned as parrhesiastes around a variety of social justice issues. Failing to take an intersectional approach to talking about sexual violence not only ignores survivors but also diminishes the contributions of many current and potential talented leaders.

Marginalizing the experiences of the LGBTQ community and gender non-conforming folx also presents missed opportunities for learning from these communities about how they negotiate consent, a central concern of the #MeToo movement. In his article “Cruising in the Age of Consent,” Spencer Kornhaber (2019) argues that gay men in particular have much to offer in this area, as historically they have had to develop codes in order to safely find sexual partners. Kornhaber draws on his current-day experiences in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular gay mecca, to argue that a common question between potential lovers, “What are you into?,” represents a marker of consent that, because it does not presuppose any particular behaviors, might be adopted by people of all sexual orientations. Michael Faris (2019) argues that queer sex-education comics offer instructive perspectives on consent as techné: a way of relating to others that is not limited to sexual encounters alone. He concludes that “Consent is a set of ethical practices, not simply a matter of risk and danger, but also of pleasure and boundaries. Further, as many sex-education comics argue, consent is not solely tied to sex: it is an ethical practice, a techné, for being in relation to others” (108)*. The comics that Faris studied emphasize that bodies always exist in relation to one another, with consent representing a critical characteristic of how effectively bodies communicate in a variety of contexts. While affirmative consent has remained a feminist goal for decades (perhaps best known due to Antioch College’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, created in 1990), the #MeToo movement illustrates that consent remains an ill-defined and elusive concept for many people. Looking to queer folx, who have developed a range of relational practices oriented around pleasure, can help inform the discussion around what consent can look like. Leaving queer communities on the margins of #MeToo means missed opportunities for learning from a rich set of embodied knowledges. Keeping #MeToo focused on white, cisgender, straight women is not only exclusionary to marginalized populations but also counterproductive to achieving the goals of the movement.

In spite of these shortcomings, a limited intersectional approach has yielded forward progress in at least one high-profile cases of abuse that has garnered increased attention since the beginning of #MeToo. In January 2019, the Lifetime television network ran a mini-series entitled, “Surviving R. Kelly,” chronicling the R&B star’s long history of sexual abuse allegations; the following month, he was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse in Chicago. Despite his marriage to a 15-year old girl, Aaliyah Haughton, in 1994; a profile in the Chicago Sun Times in 2000 regarding his interest in underage girls; an indictment of 21 counts related to child pornography in 2002 (he was acquitted at trial); and a Buzzfeed article in 2017 accusing him of holding several women against their will in a sex cult (France), Kelly has thus far avoided jail time, enjoying widespread popularity throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The series represented one of the few sustained, in-depth examinations of sexual abuse of women of color in the mainstream media since the #MeToo movement began (a follow-up series of the same name ran in January 2020). One of the criticisms of #MeToo has been its initial, well-publicized focus on the Harvey Weinstein survivors, the majority of whom are wealthy, cisgender, white women. Ten articles in my corpus of 100 argue that from its inception, the movement has failed to center voices of color, transgender women, and non-binary individuals. Instead, #MeToo has largely reflected “white feminism”: “a common term for a particular set of feminist dispositions and discourses that consciously or unconsciously uphold Eurocentrism and white supremacy for the expedient advancement of Western, white women” (Larson 280)*. Moments where the focus has been placed on women of color have provided reason for hope. In one such instance, Lisa Respers France (2019) argues that the #MeToo movement gave momentum to increased attention to the alleged crimes of R. Kelly. France writes,

For years Kelly’s fans had heard rumors—and even made jokes—about him having a ‘thing’ for young girls. What’s changed? The entertainment industry is now viewed through the lens of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, making accusations like this harder to dismiss. (CNN)

While women of color have for years played the role of parrhesiastes, calling out R.Kelly’s behavior, the kairotic environment of the #MeToo movement has granted their voices greater impact. The founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, sat for an interview in “Surviving R. Kelly,” solidifying the connection between the movement and increased (legal and public) attention to Kelly’s behavior. Even so, the series argues that the lack of intervention in Kelly’s prolonged abusive behavior toward young women underscores a societal disregard for women of color. #MeToo has stumbled in enacting a sustained intersectional feminism that calls attention to this plight, with numerous critics calling for a more inclusive feminism at the core of the project.

Though this instance offers reason for hope, people offering critique and analysis through the lens of #MeToo should more deliberately draw on Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, a theory that has informed feminist analysis for decades. As many commentators have pointed out, especially in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, Black women have long been at the forefront of social justice activism; #MeToo needs to more explicitly center their voices, while also paying increased attention to the violence targeted at women and girls of color. Brittney Cooper (2018) has recently emerged as a powerful feminist voice, arguing that

I’m advocating for people-centered politics that hold the safety and protection of the least of these—among them Black women and girls—as a value worth fighting for. I’m asking what will it take to have a politics that puts Black women and girls (cis, trans, and everything in between) at the center and keeps them safe. What will that look like? Because I sure as hell know what it doesn’t look like. (85)*

Cooper is careful here to include transgender women, a population that experiences consistently high levels of violence, particularly among communities of color. Cooper’s plea models an intersectional approach that recognizes how significant strides in women’s equality will not be made until the full range of women’s experiences and backgrounds are honored. Enacting exclusionary practices and politics—particularly in relationship to communities of color and LGBTQ folx—is a self-defeating proposition that will ultimately stifle movements like #MeToo.

#MeToo has affirmed that longstanding rifts within feminism still exist

#MeToo has proven polarizing not only in its initial tactics—a wave of firings and public humiliation—but also based on its premise that harassment and assault are systemic problems. Several public commentators have criticized the movement as infantilizing, believing that #MeToo implies that women are powerless in the face of inappropriate behavior. Commentators Daphne Merkin, Bari Weiss, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe, and Caitlin Flanagan have all published pieces decrying the loss of individual agency that #MeToo allegedly implies. While it would be easy to attribute the differences perspectives on #MeToo to a generational divide, the public opposition of commentators such as Weiss (who is not yet 40) suggests that age is not necessarily a determining factor in one’s orientation to the movement. Rather, disagreements among self-proclaimed feminists about #MeToo tread well-worn pathways within feminism regarding the role of individual responsibility when it comes to navigating abuse and harassment (Donegan). While this debate has existed for decades (with white women often espousing an ethic of personal responsibility and women of color often pointing to structural inequalities), #MeToo represents a kairotic moment for increased theorizing around this issue.

In her 2018 piece for the Guardian, Moira Donegan claims that this divide among feminists is more serious than a rift caused by different generational perspectives. The debate over #MeToo demonstrates that “feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity” (Donegan). These approaches place different emphases on the role of individual agency in combatting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social ills. Folx who argue that #MeToo infantilizes women, for example, tend to claim that women should remove themselves from situations where they are being treated badly; that saying “no” can prevent assaultive behavior; that the #MeToo movement only reinforces the idea that women are defenseless. The more “communal” perspective, as Donegan puts it, emphasizes the structural nature of misogyny–that harassment and assault, while differing in degree of violence, both stem from the same underlying cause of misogynist thinking. Institutional critique fails when the institution (i.e., patriarchy and the systemic harassment of women) is not acknowledged as existing.  For this reason, it is not easy to combat that structure through individual actions such as saying “no.” In fact, women feel as though they cannot say “no” in situations that they recognize as potentially dangerous for many reasons, including the fear of escalation to physical violence and long term retribution.

Several self-proclaimed feminists, some of them mentioned above, have argued that #MeToo has laid out unrealistic standards for men to achieve. In one of the more forceful examples of this line of argumentation, Bari Weiss (2018) uses an incident involving Aziz Ansai as an example of #MeToo’s alleged overreach. As the story was reported by journalist Katie Way (2018), Ansari used sexually aggressive behavior toward a woman, Grace (a pseudonym), on their first date. At the time that the story broke, Ansari had just won a Golden Globe for his television show Master of None and was a respected comedian.3 The story gained a good deal of press coverage, with some commentators arguing that Ansari’s behavior reflects a broader lack of understanding of consent. Among those who publicly critiqued this reading of the incident, Weiss argues, “If you go home with him and discover he’s a terrible kisser, say, ‘I’m out.’ If you start to hook up and don’t like the way he smells or the way he talks (or doesn’t talk), end it. If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door” (Weiss). Weiss draws upon the individualist philosophy of sexism to argue that Grace bore the responsibility for extricating herself from the situation; Ansari would have had to have read Grace’s mind in order to know that she was uncomfortable.

Adjacent to Weiss’ personal responsibility argument is the notion that public conversations about consent through vehicles like #MeToo inevitably paint women as weak. Caitlin Flanagan, writing for the Atlantic, picks up on this same thread by bemoaning that  “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it” (Flanagan). Generalizing about women in “pretty outfits” minimizes Grace’s experience, refusing to consider why she may not have felt comfortable/able to simply “call a cab.” While she bemoans the apparent inability for Grace to take forceful action, at the same time, Flanagan expresses regret that Grace (and women like her—whatever that means) have garnered some measure of power. Notably, at one point in her piece, Flanagan writes that she found “the most significant line in [Grace’s] story” to be when Grace bemoans “You guys are all the fucking same.” Flanagan uses Grace’s exasperation to infer that this type of encounter has happened to Grace “many times before,” foisting the blame onto the survivor. Flanagan preemptively declares Ansari’s life ruined as a result of the incident (though he would quickly reemerge in 2019 with a Netflix standup special), showing more concern for him than for a woman who allegedly has had several men not respect her wishes. She fails to recognize the institutionalized pattern of harassment and instead casts the incident as related to the survivor’s personal will.

Both Weiss and Flanagan portray #MeToo as a vehicle for spoiled, aggrieved women to seek revenge on men who have not accommodated their romantic fantasies. Neither writer acknowledges the structural inequities and institutionalized discrimination that women have historically faced in every area of life—the workplace, the home, the streets—and how those inequities bring to bear on romantic encounters. For them, #MeToo has become an excuse for women to air their individualized  grievances with the intention of taking down well-meaning men. In response to both Weiss and Flanagan, Osita Nwanevu of Slate acknowledges the complexities of the Ansari story, maintaining that it is precisely for that reason that it should fall under the purview of #MeToo:

It is by no means clear what we’re all to do with a man like Ansari. But one thing is for certain: if #MeToo is to be a movement that merely indicts the worst of the worst, then we might as well start winding it down. It will never, then, be truly useful to the vast majority of women who have not been preyed upon by millionaire moguls promising them roles or bosses who can lock doors from their desks. (Nwanevu)

While the ill-intent of men such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer (both invoked above by Nwanevu) remains obvious to most, Nwanevu argues that the value of #MeToo lies in its ability to instigate conversations about less clear-cut scenarios. How might public conversations around consent develop in ways that help all people better negotiate romantic encounters? What factors bear upon a woman’s decision about whether she remains in any given situation with a man (i.e., physical safety, fear of retribution, etc)? How do age, race4, and sexuality, among other factors, affect interpretations of consent? These more nuanced conversations seem far afield from the initial wave of #MeToo tweets, but as Nwanevu and others have pointed out, the early approaches and tactics of #MeToo can give way to discussions about less-straightforward instances of coercion, silencing, and harassment. The Ansari story represented just one opportunity to have such a discussion, though commentators such as Weiss and Flanagan imply that a “call a cab”/”I’m out” mentality would render the need for such discussions moot.

Debates over the role of personal responsibility in the face of sexism will likely steer the conversations around #MeToo in the future. If, as Flanagan and Weiss argue, sexism can be overcome with grit and persistence, #MeToo and movements like it will evade more difficult discussions about issues such as consent, where there are no straightforward answers. The personal responsibility argument is reminiscent of a bootstraps mentality: the idea that through determination and hard work alone, people are able to create a more comfortable way of life for themselves. Women, for example, should be able to “pull themselves up” from situations where sexism is at play if they would reject an alleged learned helplessness that these writers see as increasingly common. The bootstraps perspective historically has been directed at people of color, with the implicit argument that they could counter the effects of racism if only they tried hard enough. Notably, both Weiss and Flanagan are white, as are Daphne Merkin, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe: all writers who have publicly argued, to varying degrees, that #MeToo has infantilized women and denied their agency. Writers of color, both men (Osita Nwanevu, cited above) and women (Tarana Burke, Brittney Cooper, Stephanie Jones-Rogers—all of whom have engaged publicly in discussions about #MeToo) will have experienced the effects of racial prejudice, with women of color having experienced multiple axes of discrimination; these experiences make them more likely to adopt the perspective that countering the patriarchal institution involves more than simply willing oneself outside of it. In an interview with Elizabeth Adetiba for the Nation, Tarana Burke calls out the difference between a movement that is focused on individual transgressions and one that examines structural oppression:

Understanding the structural and historical nature of misogyny positions #MeToo as a communal project, one in which personal actions and reactions are part of a larger patriarchal system that is entrenched and normalized. From its earliest days, feminism has struggled to keep the voices of women of color, lesbians, and transgender women at the center of its work. This failure makes it even more critical that #MeToo maintain an intersectional approach and honor/learn from the voices of people of color. Doing so will steer the conversation away from one of personal responsibility toward an interrogation of the larger structural forces that limit women’s choices. (Burke)*

As Burke points out, centering people of color makes the movement more likely to become more focused on structural oppressions. Because people of color have felt these forces, they are more likely to steer the movement toward addressing the root causes of misogynistic behavior.


This overview of 100 of popular press articles about #MeToo demonstrates how the movement has evolved over time—and provides clues as to how it might continue to develop. Viewing the utterance #MeToo as an act of parrhesia, or truth-telling, begs the question of whose truth is being told and listened to. In response to my research question on this issue, my conclusion is that we are failing to center the voices of women of color, queer folx, and transgender women; if we continue to do so, #MeToo’s reach and effectiveness will be limited. Those of us who carry white privilege need to be vocal when people of color find inadequate representation in these conversations; academics who are writing about #MeToo (or any topic, for that matter) need to ensure that they are citing scholars of color and building on their work in an ethical manner. This principle extends to all categories of representation. Tarana Burke bemoans that “the women of color, trans women, queer people—our stories get pushed aside and our pain is never prioritized…We don’t talk about indigenous women. Their stories go untold” (Time). Those of us who do have privilege need to take concrete action to give these stories their due. Foucault’s definition emphasizes that a parrhesiastes “recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people” (19).* Truth-telling is not merely for the benefit of oneself, but also for the benefit of others. In the case of #MeToo, telling one’s story can inspire others to do the same, thus creating a wider discourse around an issue than previously existed. This collective truth-telling also challenges the taboo around abuse survivors sharing their experiences in an open forum. Expectations around what are appropriate public topics of discussion have long impeded women’s ability to find support in cases of abuse and harassment. #MeToo, in this sense, challenges not only expectations for public spheres but also patriarchy as an institution: the notion that women can be abused/harassed and should not upset the status quo by complaining about it.

The concept of parrhesia finds complication in the present day, which is influenced by post-truth logics. The decreasing ability for factual evidence to persuade an audience leaves the tactic of truth-telling imperiled. Burgess analyzes this current day challenge in detail, and in reflecting on #MeToo, she explains that “If the problem is, as the body of literature advocating for deep, structural changes to systems of oppression evidences, that we must alter the norms that determine who might be believed, then it is ‘post-truth’ discourses that are at play in setting these norms” (355)*. While incidents of sexual violence have often been reduced to “he said/she said” scenarios (with “he said” often holding primacy), “post-truth” calls into question even those incidents with clear factual grounding. This quandary is made even worse, according to Burgess, by the #MeToo hashtag’s implied mandate that all #MeToo tweets should be believed without question. Along with the rise of #MeToo, the phrase “believe women” has gained traction in the public. Burgess worries that this kind of automatic belief helps fuel post-truth logics, precipitating a reliance on affective politics to legislate sexual harassment and assault (361)*. One of the two reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Jodi Kantor, has commented publicly on the “believe women” catchphrase, explaining that she and her co-author Megan Twohey “do, in many ways, want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism, which is that everything needs to be scrutinized; everything needs to be checked. And we believe that really solid, well-documented reporting protects women…the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly” (Kantor)*. This kind of scrutiny need not derail the movement but rather counter post-truth impulses that can easily be marshalled against accusers. In his own time, Foucault was also concerned with “knowing how to recognize [parrhesiastes]” (170).* Recognizing a truth-teller means working to center women of color so that they can be more readily accepted in this role. It also means not shutting out others who may not agree with #MeToo politically (Burgess 363*), as doing so could facilitate a further slippage into post-truth logics. These tactics fly in the face of current norms, but they represent hopeful attempts at intervening in institutionalized oppression.

This challenge to institutional norms speaks to the kinds of interventions that Porter et al imagine in their institutional critique methodology. Returning to my other research question, the popular press coverage that I analyzed suggests that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive. The high numbers of women saying “me too” suggest a collective attempt at altering an institution that has limited their self-efficacy: the patriarchy. Through parrhesia, women are attempting to make this institution more visible, citing the ways that it bears upon their very bodies. Like all institutions, according to Porter et al, the patriarchy contains unstable boundaries that are dependent on silence and fear of retribution or not being believed; parrhesia represents one tactic by which women are seeking to further destabilize those boundaries. In order to eradicate this institution, it is not enough for women to simply “call a cab” when they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Likewise, in the workplace (another thematic code that emerged in my data, though I do not have space here to address it), calling attention to all forms of unequal treatment is a crucial part of intervening in an institution that was not designed for women to be present. Decades after women entered the workforce en masse, we are still seeing signs (e.g., harassment, lower wages than men) that we are not completely welcome. The #MeToo movement’s best chance for effecting change is—despite the grousing of some self-proclaimed feminists—remaining focused on the collective and the institutions, whether that involves calling attention to how women are treated in the workplace or in the bedroom.

Consider a case where a woman is sexually harassed at work. Oftentimes, if she wants to stay in that job, she must endure being objectified and marginalized within the work environment–or she must risk the possibility of retribution and/or a loss of professional contacts by reporting the harassment. This kind of scenario maintains a hierarchy within the workplace, with women experiencing routine professional setbacks through no fault of their own. #MeToo, then, challenges this hierarchy, in the workplace and beyond. Echoing an institutional critique approach, Melanie Yergeau and John Duffy (2011) argue in Disability Studies Quarterly that “rhetoric functions as a powerfully shaping instrument for creating conceptions of identity and positioning individuals relative to established social and economic hierarchies. Yet this perspective on rhetoric is incomplete if it does not acknowledge the capacity of individuals to respond to and re-imagine such shaping rhetorics” (Yergeau and Duffy)*. Their conception of rhetoric emphasizes the agency of individual actors when it comes to reimagining hierarchical structures. Through this re-imagining of “shaping rhetorics,” women are envisioning #MeToo as a way to resist quid pro quo arrangements, threats against their reputations, physical violence, and implications of being lesser-than. #MeToo represents a tactic by which those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment have attempted to disrupt institutional structures, enacting the kind of agency that is endemic to rhetoric.


  1. Recent publications such as Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage have attested to the rhetorical value of women showing their anger in the public sphere.
  2. Because Google has become attuned to my search patterns over time, I acknowledge that the results that were generated are likely oriented toward what the search engine determines are my political and ideological leanings (Noble 2018). For example, a number of the articles that comprise my corpus are from the New York Times, a publication that I read regularly. Additionally, the Times broke the initial Weinstein story and has maintained a focus on the issue through regular opinion pieces, profiles, and news items.
  3. Ansari never disputed the story publicly and issued a statement in which he said that while he believed that his encounter with Grace was consensual, “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said. I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
  4. Some commentators have speculated that race may have played a role in how/why Ansari, who is Indian, was treated in the media subsequent to the encounter described in Babe. Others have critiqued the Babe story for sloppy reporting, particularly pertaining to the timeline/sequence of events in Ansari’s apartment.

Appendix: Codes for Popular Media Articles

  • Impact of #MeToo
  • Consent
  • Backlash
  • Reticence to report abuse
  • Hollywood
  • Reporting on #MeToo
  • Queerness
  • Preserving a record of #MeToo
  • Pop culture coverage
  • NYU case
  • Harvey Weinstein
  • Media men
  • #MeToo has lost its way
  • #ChurchToo
  • Academia
  • Blue collar workplaces

Works Cited

  • Burgess, Sarah K. “Between the Desire for Law and the Law of Desire: #MeToo and the Cost of Telling the Truth Today.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. vol. 51, no. 4, 2018, pp. 342-367.
  • Burke, Tarana and Elizabeth Adetiba. “Tarana Burke Says #MeToo Should Center Marginalized Communities.” Where Freedom Starts: Sex, Power, Violence, #MeToo: A Verso Report, Verso, 2018, pp. 14-17.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage. New York: Picador, 2018.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8.
  • DeArmas, Nicholas. Using Hashtags to Disambiguate Aboutness in Social Media Discourse: A Case Study of #OrlandoStrong. 2018. University of Central Florida. PhD dissertation.
  • Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014.
  • Donegan, Moira. “How #MeToo Revealed the Central Rift within Feminism Today.” The Guardian, 11 May 2018. Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.
  • Eversley, Shelly. Equality Archive. 2015.
  • Faris, Michael. “Sex-Education Comics: Feminist and Queer Approaches to Alternative Sex Education.” The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. Special Issue: Comics and/as Rhetoric, vol. 3, no. 1., 2019, pp. 86-115. Accessed 4 Jan. 2020.
  • Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
  • Flanagan, Caitlin. “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” The Atlantic. 14 Jan. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
  • Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Pearson, Joseph, ed. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001.
  • France, Lisa Respers. “‘Surviving R. Kelly’ is Resonating More Because of #MeToo.” CNN. 17 Jan. 2019. Accessed 4 Aug 2019.
  • Greenberg, Zoe. “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?The New York Times. 13 Aug. 2018. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke, 2011.
  • Herstory.” Black Lives Matter. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Kantor, Jodi and Megan Twohey. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. New York: Penguin, 2019.
  • —. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air, 10 Sept. 2019. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
  • Kornhaber, Spencer. “Cruising in the Age of Consent.” The Atlantic. July 2019. Accessed 2 Aug. 2019.
  • Larson, Kyle. “Remonstrative Agitation as Feminist Counterpublic Rhetoric.” Peitho, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 261-298. Accessed 4 Aug. 2019.
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A.  Sexual Harassment of Working Women. New Haven: Yale, 1979.
  • Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York UP, 2018.
  • Nwanevu, Osita. “There is No Rampaging #MeToo Mob.” Slate. 16 Jan 2018. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
  • Penney, Joel and Caroline Dadas. “(Re) Tweeting in the service of protest: Digital composition and circulation in the Occupy Wall Street movement.” New Media & Society, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74-90.
  • Porter, James E., et al. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” College  Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610-642.
  • Powell, Neesha. “Here’s How We Can Center Queer & Trans Survivors in the #MeToo Movement.” Everyday Feminism. 29 Nov. 2017. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.
  • Simmons, W. Michele. Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions. Albany: State University of New York P, 2007.
  • Sullivan, Patricia and James E. Porter. Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1997.
  • Talusan, Meredith. “How #MeToo Stands to Marginalize Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People.” Them. 27 Oct. 2017. Accessed 21 May 2019.
  • Time. “’Our Pain Is Never Prioritized.’ #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Says We Must Listen to ‘Untold’ Stories of Minority Women.” Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
  • Vie, Stephanie and Douglas Walls. “Overview.” Because Facebook: Digital Rhetoric/Social Media, special issue of Kairos, vol. 19, no. 9, 2015. Accessed 10 Jan 2016.
  • —. Social Writing / Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2017.
  • Way, Katie. “I went on a Date with Aziz Ansari. It Turned into the Worst Night of my Life.” Babe. 13 Jan. 2018. Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.Weiss, Bari. “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” The New York Times. 15 Jan. 2018. Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.
  • Yergeau, Melanie and John Duffy. “Guest Editors’ Introduction.” Disability and Rhetoric, special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, n.p.

Writing Groups as Feminist Practice

We locate ourselves in this essay as three women (along with two others1) who have been writing and sharing writing together for almost a decade, women who initially came together as graduate students at different stages in our degrees, and who have steered one another through many changes in our writing, jobs, and lives. This essay is a story about our writing group, one that is about more than just scholarly writing. It is a story that continues by virtue of the women we continue to write alongside and of a history of women before us, writing and “making it” together (Baliff et al.).

Initially we imagined that peer review of articles, chapters, proposals, and the like would be our group’s main purpose. But while review certainly remains a part, our writing group is much more a capacious co-mentoring network that nurtures our very lives and the feelings that underlie—more truly, constitute—our writing and professional processes still today. Indeed, as our group reveals, writing (and its support) is never really about just writing but always everything else—a perspective, we argue, that can enrich support for graduate and early-career writers. Much of the graduate-level writing support we see increasing across disciplines emphasizes rhetorical features and scholarly genres—approaches that, while useful, can nonetheless atomize and contain writing, cleaving it from its dizzying affective, embodied, and material dynamics.

Inspired by the reach we’ve discovered in our own group, we ask our feminist colleagues to reconsider writing groups as more than extracurricular sources of feedback focused on genres and products. Writing groups are also essential mechanisms of access, inclusion, and professional sustenance. As a feminist pedagogical practice, writing groups illustrate the nature of writing itself and its role in our daily lives; the blurred lines between writing support and mentorship; our need for community and security both professionally and personally; and the value of mentorship beyond traditional vertical hierarchies. Such support may allow those who are seen (or see themselves) as disciplinary outsiders to combat feelings of impostership, confront experiences of exclusion, and participate in a wider range of professional activities, as our group has done for us. Indeed, publishing, reviewing, editing, serving on national committees, and even mentoring colleagues and graduate students is still the province of only a fraction of our field’s members and mastery is often an assumed prerequisite (Almjeld et al.; Blewett et al.; Enos; see also Chakravartty et al.; Jones; Law and Corrigan; Verzosa Hurley et al.). Writing groups can facilitate professional entryways into—or even grant “permission”to endeavor in—the profession, as well as highlight the value of multiple perspectives and partial knowledges, thereby increasing the range of voices represented in and leading our field(s) activities.

Our “Open Writing Group”

Our origins stretch back to 2011, when our friend (and fellow group-member) shared Claire P. Curtis’ Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “The Rules of Writing Group” with the idea that we should start a group of our own. Curtis advises forming writing groups composed of exactly three members, each one assigned a different week to submit writing for feedback, and requires group members to attend all meetings (her group has “met with infants in tow, sick children upstairs, and through crises both personal and professional”). We tried at first to abide by these rigid rules but quickly discovered this strictness and smallness didn’t suit us, nor did the focus on review alone. While other friends in our graduate program at the University of Cincinnati occasionally dropped in, what eventually stuck was a regular five-person community of reader-writers. Our core group initially met in a coffee shop once a week (rotating among four Cincinnati neighborhoods) to sit and write together. We designated one or two of those meetings each month as “sharing” days when anyone could bring writing and receive feedback. Likely owing to the strong collegiality and collaborative spirit of our grad program, we named the group OWG, or the Open Writing Group.

This consistent yet fluid, less rule-bound structure has defined and made possible OWG’s success. Rather than a “you must” imperative, OWG is guided by an affirmative “I should” motivation, built around the recognition that there’s value to presence—to showing up, to being together, to reading and responding. Writing groups (like Curtis’s) often focus exclusively on reading and critique in their time together. We, however, have found value in doing writing and reviewing it together. Even as we labelled OWG meetings “reviewing” or “writing” days, that distinction productively blurred. During writing days, for instance, we could look up from a sentence and ask our group members for help with a word we struggled to think of, a citation we couldn’t recall, a conceptual problem that just arose. We could, in other words, get in-the-moment response, making the isolating experience of writing more social and supportive.

Our group built upon friendships already established and forged new ones. Friendship, we believe, is one of the reasons our group persists. As Pamela VanHaitsma and Steph Ceraso note in their discussion of horizontal mentorship, “[c]hoosing the right peer mentor is crucial” to maintaining a successful and productive relationship (215). Having someone who is supportive, invested, and empathetic matters. For us, even as graduations and jobs across the country have brought changes to the group dynamic, OWG still reflects this same core commitment. We meet about once a month over Google Hangouts to share our writing, send out last-minute email requests for feedback, support each other with accountability check-ins over Facebook Messenger on writing days, talk about our personal lives, and share advice with one another on political situations, tenure, salary negotiations, starting a business, leaving the academy, peer review, writing program administration, and more. As we’ll continue to illustrate, OWG acts still now as a capacious site of support of all kinds in our careers and our growth as academics, as writing groups have done for others outside of exclusionary institutions and systems.

Potentials from a History of Women’s Writing Groups

While writing groups can be found today in academic settings (Armstrong et al.; Shaver et al., Sonnad et al.), women’s formal and informal writing groups have existed for hundreds of years, as sites of educational, interpersonal, and professional support. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s access to college education and professional training and networks were limited (e.g., Adams; Woolf). In response, women created their own clubs for professional development; one such women’s club, Sorosis, was formed by journalist Jane Cunningham Croly in 1868, after she was barred from attending a Dickens reading at the Press Club in New York City (Gere, Writing Groups 42). Sorosis became a space for women professionals to network, gain feedback, and expand their careers in writing—all functions echoed in our present-day writing group.

Writing groups have also been critical collectives for subverting exclusionary, often racist, structures and norms. African American women in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Buffalo, and Rochester, for example, formed literary societies in the 1800s to meet and provide one another feedback on their writing (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These groups “embraced writing’s capacity to effect social and economic change, to enact their motto, ‘lifting as we climb’” (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These societies gave women opportunities to network and publish their own writing, but, perhaps even more critically, opened access to literacy for others. African American women in the South created secret schools, “comprised of one person who could read and write and a group of individuals who wanted to learn,” with the mandate that graduates would continue teaching others (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). Here we emphasize the overt activist potentials of writing groups historically, their capacities through social connection to make space where there wasn’t any before (and do so acknowledging that we have not personally experienced all these facets of barrier breaking, as three cis-identifying-women, two of us White and one of us mixed race and White-presenting). Comprised entirely of women, our own writing group routinely shares gripes about and brainstorms strategies to dismantle (sometimes sneakily, sometimes loudly) the routine sexism and gender assumptions baked into everyday life in the academy. Indeed, writing groups have potentials to open access for more diverse voices in our scholarly conversations—minoritized or othered voices, the voices of single mothers, those with high teaching and service loads, adjuncts and other contingent faculty, or those who lack equal access to research resources (see Cole and Hassel; Sharer).

In addition to creating critical socio-material space, writing groups also provide writers with productive critique from a community of peers. For example, the co-ed Harlem Writers Guild, founded in 1950, gave writers like Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, and Audre Lorde “support and encouragement while at the same time acting as critic—sometimes harshly—pushing its members to work harder and do better” (Moss et al. 1). As Beverly Moss and coauthors note, the Harlem Writers Guild used critique not just to improve writing but to help “members grow and succeed as writers” (2; emphasis added). We see this dynamic echoed in our experience in OWG. We have gotten to a point of comfort and trust where we can almost “say anything”; we don’t have to dance through politeness before questioning,  offering direction, or giving advice. Indeed, on the infrequent occasions when our drafts or writing plans are thoroughly undermined in the group, we still feel relief, even excitement, about moving forward. Perhaps our long friendships and familiarity with each others’ successes and setbacks helps. But this openness to feedback also is due to our regularly writing alongside one another as well as our willingness to review and discuss projects in any stage of development—all of us have failed to deliver a draft we promised and so have instead submitted notes, an abstract, or even just a talk-through of ideas. This openness to “come as you are” (rather than meet a strict deadline) amplifies the sociality of invention, acknowledges the disorderliness of process, and, above all, supports the writer not the development of products.

Writing Groups Today

As the brief overview above demonstrates, women’s writing groups have emerged out of necessity and survival, making progress possible not just for individuals but collectives. Reconsidering writing groups is particularly imperative in the context of today’s improved-yet-still-limited conversations on graduate student writing and professionalization. These issues are all-hands-on-deck exigent in light of the glut of PhDs competing in the ever-narrowing academic market in writing studies and related fields (e.g., “Final Report”; Kramnick). Some have responded to this critical need with a focus on transferable skills and preparation for alternative-academic (alt-ac) or humanities careers. We see writing support as an under-considered locus of intervention that might unify efforts to aid graduate students no matter where they locate careers. A focus on writing—which, again, from the perspective of the writing group, is about much more than writing “skills” alone—could help graduate students more richly imagine their lives, work, and potential.

Every doctoral student writes, a lot. And yet, writing instruction in graduate programs, both in practice and in the literature, is still “largely barren territory” (Micciche with Carr 485). When attention has been paid, writing scholars tend to advance approaches informed by WID and rhetorical genre studies that focus on decreasing the “invisibility” of genre and discourse conventions like voice, presentation, and epistemology (Brooks-Gillies et al.); demystifying the “hidden curriculum”—or unstated assumptions behind disciplines and their conventions (Sundstrom); or providing insight on “the subgenres of the dissertation” (Autry and Carter; see also Clark). Although such approaches help writers navigate the complexities of academic discourse, they also hyper-focus on writing products. But, as writing groups teach us, writers need support, trust, confidence, safety, camaraderie, permission, belonging, and more-than-just-technical aptitudes or skills.

Interdisciplinary and other workshop models (Gradin et al.; Micciche with Carr; Phillips; Rose and McClafferty) do emphasize these social dimensions alongside demystifying unfamiliar discourse communities. But the realities of working in(to) scholarly communities feels rather different than it’s often described. Scholarly communities can be quite small and their criteria for belonging nebulous. Discourse communities are fickle and disunified; they have enormous power differentials and dynamics; they are layered with implicit biases and exclusionary practices; they are constituted at once by shared and divergent knowledges. Scholarly genres are wiggly and unstable; they overlap and deviate; they are always more than just a collection of textual conventions. Writing is always much more than just getting the forms right or executing discourse. Writing in graduate coursework and into varied careers is chiefly and even painfully social: disorienting, uncertain, unfair, and so on. These social and affective layers are the reasons why we wonder if graduate writing instruction would benefit from more overt overlap with mentorship. Graduate writing and mentorship have seen increased attention, but separately. Writing processes (and mentorship and professionalization) can’t be tidily cleaved from sociality, guidance, affirmation, contexts, institutions, care, professionalization, advice, self-reflection, or, in sum, the very lives we make through and beyond the academy. If graduate student writing groups aim for their participants to better “understand the process of writing and the rhetorical function of language in their disciplines as those components are articulated through conversation” (Gradin et al.), then they should also recognize how much bigger those processes are than written products or rhetorical savviness alone.

To this end, writing groups can encourage genre study and workshopping, intertwined with what we might recognize as horizontal mentoring. For example, VanHaitsma and Ceraso emphasize that their horizontal mentorship relationship started with their intent to be “job market buddies,” focused on the genres of applications, interviews, and campus visits (211). But their focus expanded to all manner of considerations, including book development (a work requirement they both shared) right alongside whole-person questions including “discussing and re-framing the concept of work-life balance” (222) or “acknowledging and celebrating successes (even small ones)” (225). By imagining writing and mentoring unified in the work of writing groups, we resist atomizing academic life; we make the question not of genre acquisition or improving one’s interviewing skills, but of how we “‘make it’ together—in conversation and collaboration with supportive peers” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 215).

The dynamics of horizontal mentorship in writing groups also recognizes that mentorship need not, even should not, rely on mastery. Peers have something valuable to offer us; we grow in return from advising them. In OWG, we have grown in confidence from giving, and trusting in each other’s feedback, even when it contradicted more “established” advice. The choices this peer mentoring has led us to have sometimes been small, like taking writing group suggestions for focusing a seminar paper over those of the faculty member teaching the course. But sometimes they are larger, such as opting to conduct a search with both in- and out-of-field positions, or leaving a tenure-track position at a doctoral-granting institution to start a business.

Our meditation on writing groups only begins to explore their potentials as feminist pedagogical practice. We have illustrated their ability to build broad professional support; propel a sense of belonging, even access; provide critique, which not only strengthens products but grows processes and motivates writers; enrich genre-based graduate instruction with a profoundly social orientation; and enact horizontal mentoring. With these histories, our experiences, and the landscape of higher ed today, we are left lingering on these questions:

  • How might the ethos and histories of writing groups inform everyday professional practice?
  • How can writing groups support graduate student writing as professionalization and mentorship?
  • How might making institutional space for the sustaining dynamics of writing groups in some measure dismantle the “sexist, racist, classist, and/or homophobic systems and microaggressions within academic life” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 216)?
  • What other models of feminist collaboration, community, writing groups, mentoring are available to advance our thinking about graduate literacy support?


  1. The two other founding members of the writing group we describe, OWG, are Allison D. Carr, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College, and Kathryn Trauth Taylor, founder and CEO of Untold Content.

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  • Kramnick, Johnathan. “What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 09 December 2018.
  • Law, Martin, and Lisa M. Corrigan. “On White-Speak and Gatekeeping: Or, What Good are the Greeks?” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 326-330.
  • Micciche, Laura, with Allison D. Carr. “Toward Graduate-Level Writing Instruction.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, 2011, pp. 477- 501.
  • Moss, Beverly J., Nels P. Highberg, and Melissa Nichols. Writing Groups Inside and Outside the Classroom. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.
  • Phillips, Tallin. “Graduate Student Writing Groups: Shaping Writing and Writers from Student to Scholar.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 10, no.1, 2012, n.p.
  • Rose, Mike, and Karen A. McClafferty. “A Call for the Teaching of Writing in Graduate Education.” Educational Researcher, vol. 30, no. 2, 2001, pp. 27-33.
  • Sharer, Wendy. “Opening the Scholarly Conversation.” Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack, Parlor Press, 2019, pp. 183-202.
  • Shaver, Lisa, Elizabeth Tasker Davis, and Jane Greer. “Making Feminist Rhetorical History Five Pages at a Time: A Cross-Institutional Writing Group for Mid-Career Women in the Academy.” Peitho, vol. 22, no. 1, 2019. n.p.
  • Sonnad, Seema S., Jennifer Goldsack MChem, Karin L. McGowan. “A Writing Group for Female Assistant Professors.” Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 103, nos. 9 & 10, 2011, pp. 811-815.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela and Steph Ceraso. “‘Making It’ in the Academy through Horizontal Mentoring.” Peitho, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 210-33.
  • Verzosa Hurley, Elise, Amanda Wray, and Erica Cirillo-McCarthy. “Rhetorics of Interruption: Navigating Sexism in the Academy.” Cole and Hassel, pp. 258-269.
  • Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own (1929). Harcourt, 2012.

Early Quaker Women and Civility Rhetorics

Recently I have been thinking about civility. Given the current state of U.S. political discourse, this is likely not surprising. More specifically, I am thinking about how civility is contested and complex—it is both an aspirational mode of disagreement in a diverse and pluralistic society and a tool of exclusion used to silence opposition and dissent. Civility is an important issue for feminists today because women, especially women of color, are often vilified for pushing back in public disagreement. Three notable examples of popular book-length manifestos about the power of women’s political anger include Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Mona Elthahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Rhetorical studies scholars have also analyzed how the very concept of civility disallows or significantly diminishes the public political participation of marginalized groups. In their recent edited collection, Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch gather essays that explore “ethical unruly rhetorical practice” (14) as disturbances that “highlight both the precarity of lives and conditions of being as well as the insufficiency of prevailing or dominant platforms for public conversation” (15). And in an account of civilizing strategies of the academy and specifically within rhetorical studies, Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore powerfully critique “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race as well as calls for more ‘civil and courteous’ exchanges that don’t offend white sensibilities” (331).1 As this work makes clear, civility discourse can be a mechanism to disenfranchise marginalized groups in any number of institutional contexts; strategies to counter delegitimizing practices can include both engaging in unruly speech and action as a form of ethical political expression, as well as historicizing, redefining, and displacing “norms” of civil discourse.

In pointing out how civilizing strategies within and across historical sites have resulted in the silencing and punishment of unruly rhetorical practice, feminists—especially feminists of color—have argued for theories and practices that acknowledge the legitimacy, necessity, and value of angry speech and action.2 English scholar and cultural historian Carrie Tirado Bramen has examined how nineteenth-century reformer and activist Ida B. Wells “understood the limits of niceness…[and] continually had to negotiate between niceness and outrage while combating Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction South” (242). In her famous essay about women and racism, Audre Lorde reminds us that anger is a catalyst for positive change: “[e]very woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” (280). Sara Ahmed echoes Lorde in her assertion that “[a]nger is creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against” and that feminism is the tool through which “associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures” (176). Thus, while feminist anger can be vulnerable to charges of incivility in which “the terms of its reception may ‘undo’ its claim,” it can also be a productive site of invention and dialogue (Ahmed 177).

The contested nature of civility claim, and, relatedly, the delivery and reception of women’s public anger in specific historical moments are central to my research. In my work on political participation by women in England in the mid-seventeenth century, a time of intense conflict and experimentation, I examine a range of women who inserted themselves into the emerging public sphere to write about principles guiding personhood and sovereignty, contracts and oaths, and persecution and toleration. Despite prescriptive and normative decrees against early modern women’s public speech and writing, women from various social groups vigorously participated in heated political debates in print. Pamphlets, books, petitions, letters, and manifestos were an important mode of women’s public political engagement during this time, and the 1640s mark a dramatic turning point for women’s print output. The quantity and range of women’s print publications increased considerably in the 1640s and 1650s—from 1621 to 1640 the total number of new print publications by women was 24, and from 1641 to 1660 that number increased almost tenfold to 236 (Crawford 265).

Despite the significance of this surge in political participation by women in print, these texts comprise an understudied resource for scholars interested in women’s and feminist rhetorical history and historiography.3 In the next section I will present examples of “uncivil” political rhetoric by women in England in the early Friends movement (called “Quakers” by antagonists who mocked their exuberant embodied practice of trembling, sighing, and groaning in worship) to suggest how deployments and assessments of in/civility are historically and culturally contingent. I believe that these examples offer a rationale for feminist scholars in rhetoric and composition to engage the past in ways that help us see that our civility crisis is not new. I will end with resources to access early Quaker writing by and about women. In presenting possibilities for future work that looks to the more distant past, I hope to heed Jen Wingard’s call for analysis that moves “between past and present with an eye toward how each time period is not static, but rather a conversation point in a larger feminist project.” 

“Their Language is too irreverent for a Temple, and too uncivill for a Tavern”

Of the many radical dissenting Protestant sects and congregations that formed in England in the 1640s and 1650s, in part due to the lifting of restrictions on speech, printing, and ways of worship, Quakers were reviled as the most “uncivil” (5). In Donald Lupton’s 1655 anti-Quaker tract he writes that male Friends “sco[r]ne their Superiours, and truly give no man his Due” and that female Friends “impudently rush, and run into all places, not to hear but to controul the Preachers Doctrine: women are called houswives, they should in modesty keep at home; but these are Gadders and Rovers abroad“ (14, 19). When Lupton portrays Quaker women as unfixed and aimless, subverting social order by straying from their proper place of home and eschewing conventional feminine ideals of modesty and silence, he is drawing on a misogynist tradition going back to the Bible (see Proverbs 7) and Aristotle (see The Politics, Book 1, 1260b, 28-31).  Although Lupton’s depiction of Quaker women’s public preaching is gendered and sexualized, all members of the religious group rejected social conventions. Women’s public participation in the movement was enabled by a sect-wide emphasis on the spiritual equality of all humans and a core belief that within each person dwells the light of Christ (called the “inner light”), as well as an emphasis on preaching, prophesying, letter writing, and petitioning. Given the highly individualized and relatively egalitarian nature of the movement, Friends rejected conduct that demarcated and reinforced hierarchical social difference: women traveled and published pamphlets and men refused to remove their hats in deference to social superiors. These factors contributed to the development of Quaker women’s rhetorical-political skills in recruiting and ministering; organizing meetings; engaging in acts of protest, dissent, and disruption; and appealing to public figures in the name of promoting their rights and the rights of other Friends.

Scholars have cited the generous hospitality of Margaret Fell (1614-1702), a founder of the movement, in sustaining the sect by providing her home as a “crashpad” for itinerants, a communications hub for a letter network among Friends across the country and abroad, and a safe space for meetings. One of the most prolific Quaker preachers, writers, and activists of the later seventeenth century, Fell’s best-known tract in defense of women’s public preaching, Women’s Speaking Justified (1666), is widely anthologized.4 But examining rhetorical activities by a broader range of early Quaker women is important in analyzing civility discourse given that all members of the movement were expected to disrupt polite and ordered everyday social interactions in order to draw attention to its message.

Given the role of Quaker women in the history of civility discourse, and the relevance of civility in feminism today, I would like to offer brief but suggestive excerpts from three Quaker texts that engage questions of civility/incivility related to social differentiation.5 Like other egalitarian religious movements of the seventeenth century, Friends embraced women’s preaching and writing by invoking the Christian belief that the low, the poor, the weak will in the end be first. Although deep-rooted cultural traditions and values supported the widespread belief that women were weaker than men in body and mind, the Bible’s edict that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) was frequently summoned by the community. This belief granted women spiritual authority and the grounds to challenge political and religious figures; such challenges were framed as markers of incivility, especially given that women from lower social groups largely made up radical sects like the Friends, and so their refusal to pay deference challenged both gender and class hierarchies.

My first example is a 1654 tract by Anne Audland describing her imprisonment in Banbury for blasphemy. In the tract she describes being unjustly accused of creating “a tumult” in church. In describing how she was violently abused by both minister and churchgoers for speaking back to the preacher, she calls into question the very legitimacy of the church building and, by extension, the state and religious institutions that impart it with authority: “Oh blush, and be ashamed of that which you call your Church, who are so suddenly in a tumult…never call it a Church, who are fighters and strikers, scoffers and scorners, tumulters and false accusers” (230). Shaming her supposedly devout accusers, Audland points out the hypocrisy of her rough treatment and imprisonment, and reframes the terms of the charges against her. As she implies, if a church is both a sacred place of worship and a collective of pious individuals gathered in the name of God, then she should have been welcomed and not abused. The violent treatment she endures within the church building by its members disqualifies it from being recognized as such.

My second example is a letter written in 1657 by Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, to angrily reprimand him for overseeing the persecution of Friends: “When thou wast low, the Lord was thy strength, but now thou hast departed from him, and thy strength is in man…. [T]hou hast chosen the glory of this world, and art as a stinking dunghill in the sight of God…and instead of serving the Lord, thou hast served thy own glory and thy own pleasures” (114). Public letters to political and religious leaders were a common genre of Quaker writing, and women produced twice as many of these types of tracts than men.6 Here Howgill disciplines Cromwell for abusing his power and elevating his own importance, a critique rooted in the Scriptural belief in raising the frail and bringing down the mighty (“Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted,” Ezekiel 21:26). To vividly compare the head of the English republic with a smelly pile of excrement, while undeniably exceeding the bounds of decorum, also reinforces the Biblical idea that God sees earthly riches and glories as repulsive, degraded, and foul. Howgill’s letter carries a clear warning for Cromwell that because he persecuted Quakers, God “is coming for thee…and all thy gallant glory will he bring down” (116).

My third and last example is Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole’s tract co-written in 1655 from prison for disrupting church services to reframe the terms of the civility charges so often leveled at them: “[T]wo of your Priests came to speak with us; and when they could not bear sound reproof and wholesome Doctrine, that did concern them, they railed on us with filthy speeches, as no other they can give to us, that deal plainley and singly with them, and so ran from us” (101). Here Cotton and Cole contrast their practice of proper and skillful rhetoric with the priests’ improper and indecorous speech. The women describe admonishing the priests and offering healing doctrinal knowledge, positioning the priests as incorrect and at fault and themselves as authoritative teachers. In response, the men are shown to uncivilly hurl insults and then flee and foreclose further debate. Through this exchange the women not only portray themselves as more skillful rhetors, but they also point out power dynamics undergirding rhetoricity, in which the men are granted an undeserved authority by their gender and their social positions, and the women, who, as the more highly skilled and ethical rhetors, win the argument but are nonetheless punished with imprisonment.

Lessons from the (Distant) Past

I hope that, with these few examples, I have illustrated why feminist rhetoricians should study what medieval historian Judith M. Bennett calls the distant past. Bennett argues that women’s history needs to be more explicitly feminist and that feminist politics needs to engage a longer and deeper historical view of women’s lives. I direct feminist rhetoricians to Bennett’s call to recognize and forge more substantive connections between the distant past and today’s feminist concerns. One of Bennett’s claims is that women’s history has become truncated to mostly focus on contemporary history. In her survey of major English-language women’s history journals and women’s history conferences, she finds little coverage of women’s history before 1800 and most attention on the twentieth century (30-53). Following Bennett I did a quick-and-dirty review of chronological coverage in Peitho, looking for historical articles in its last ten years of publication, both in its current form as a peer-reviewed journal from Fall/Winter 2012 through Spring 2019 and as a newsletter from Fall 2009 through Summer 2012, and my findings are similar. Although my review is not exhaustive or comprehensive, it demonstrates that Peitho’s historical coverage trends significantly toward the present, with a majority of historical articles covering the last century. While there is some coverage of eighteenth- and nineteen-century women’s rhetorical activities related to feminist political issues such as abolition, suffrage, education, and literacy, there are only three articles covering the ancient or pre-modern period (before 1500).7 There are no articles for the period from 1500-1700, which is troubling. Of course articles in Peitho are not representative of all scholarly work on women’s early rhetorical activities, but given the journal’s charge to support “the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media,” I invite us to reconsider how our field is being shaped by our attention to the past. How can feminist rhetoricians allow our imaginations to reach back further in time and space to see how and where and when the past affects our own research?

As I have argued here, early Quaker women’s writing counts as a rich resource for the examination of a more distant history of women’s rhetorical agency and the role of women in shaping emerging political ideas such as public sphere(s), toleration, and rights. Identities and identifications related to gender, sexuality, race, and class in civility discourse during this time period, within religious sects and in mainstream culture broadly, is an important area for future consideration. Given my own interest in the seventeenth century I would be thrilled if more feminist rhetoricians were curious about the lives of women of that era, but I believe that what is at stake is a more historically informed feminism. Like critical race studies, queer studies, and disability studies, three theoretical-political undertakings to gain momentum in employing modern terminologies and critical approaches while taking a longer temporal view, feminist rhetorical studies can benefit from broadening its view to understand historical change and continuity in women’s lives, and to identify feminist practices and patriarchal ideologies in and across time.8 For example, as a feminist who studies early modern women and rhetoric, I turn to history to understand today’s charges of incivility against marginalized groups, while drawing on feminist methods to be aware of the differences among the women whose rhetorical practices I study. Further, locating the ideological structures and practitioners of in/civility discourse in specific historical contexts can help to craft more rhetorically effective political approaches to exposing systems of injustice and inequality, then and now. Given that early modern formulations of civility were situated within British imperial and colonizing imperatives, these discourses also reveal histories of racial thinking, practices, and institutions that created social and cultural hierarchies that, while rooted in specific institutional conditions and frameworks, persist today. As we think about our feminist commitments and our feminist scholarship, I hope that we will look to the distant past and consider how history can help us see persistent power imbalances and opportunities for rhetorical agency today.

Select Resources for Quaker Women’s Writing (pre-1700)

Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection

This free and open resource contains full text and page images of more than 500 individual Quaker works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Early English Books Online

This subscription database contains more than 125,000 mostly English works printed between 1473 and 1700. While digital archives and texts enable the work of scholars and students unable to visit physical archives, access to EEBO can be limited by the lack of an institutional subscription.

Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655–1700

Teresa Feroli and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, eds. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Toronto: Iter Press; Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018. This collection of forty texts written by Quaker women covers major genres such as warnings, directives/letters to authorities, and sufferings, and is contextualized in a thorough and engaging introduction by the editors.

Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography based on Wing’s Short-title Catalogue

Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale, eds. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. An indispensable reference book on seventeenth-century works by, for, and about women. It offers descriptions and assessments of just over 1,600 items written between 1641 and 1700 (637 by women and 973 for and about women).


  1. Báez and Ore are part of a growing number of scholars in rhetoric, writing, and communications studies who critique how these fields marginalize and exclude scholars of color. See also Chakravartty et al, Law and Corrigan, and Wanzer-Serrano.
  2. For a discussion of tensions between invitational rhetoric and civility see Lozano-Reich and Cloud, especially 220-222.
  3. To be sure there are excellent historical studies of women’s rhetorical practices and theories in the early modern era, notably Glenn, Donawerth, and Graban. More, please.
  4. See Donawerth and Lush’s recently published excellent edited collection of Fell’s writings.
  5. All three texts from which these excerpts are taken can be found in the Feroli and Thickstun edited collection.
  6. Feroli and Thickstun 26.
  7. “A Selection of Secondary Texts Concerning Ancient Women” by Cara Minardi in Peitho 12.1/2 (2010), “Claudia Severa’s Birthday Invitation: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Earliest Artifact of Latin Written by a Woman’s Hand” by Richard Leo Enos and Natasha Trace Robinson in Peitho 18.2 (2016), and “Reviewing Conduct Books as Feminist Rhetorical Devices for Agency Reforms” by Florence Elizabeth Bacabac in Peitho 21.1 (2018).
  8. The work of scholars Heng, Traub, and Bearden engage historical, methodological, and political questions related to race, sexuality, and disability in the premodern and early modern eras.

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2015.
  • Alexander, Jonathan and Susan C. Jarratt. “Introduction.” Unruly Rhetorics: Protest, Persuasion, and Politics, edited by Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch, U of Pittsburgh P, 2018, pp. 3-23.
  • Audland, Anne. “A True Declaration of the Suffering of the Innocent.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 226-236.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Bearden, Elizabeth B. Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability. U of Michigan P, 2019.
  • Bennett, Judith M. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.
  • Bramen, Carrie Tirado. American Niceness: A Cultural History. Harvard UP, 2017.
  • Chakravartty, Paula et al., “#CommunicationSoWhite,” Journal of Communication, vol. 68, no. 2, April 2018, pp. 254–266.
  • Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. St. Martin’s, 2018.
  • Cotton, Priscilla and Mary Cole. “To the Priests and People of England, we Discharge our Consciences, and Give them Warning.” Feroli and Thuckstun, pp. 94-102.
  • Crawford, Patricia. “Women’s Published Writings 1600-1700.” In Women in English Society 1500-1800, edited by Mary Prior, Routledge, 1985, pp. 211-282.
  • Donawerth, Jane. Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900 and Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Woman’s Tradition, 1600-1900, Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Donawerth, Jane and Rebecca M. Lush, editors. Margaret Fell: Women’s Speaking Justified and Other Pamphlets. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 65; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 538. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Elthahawy, Mona. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Beacon, 2019.
  • Feroli, Teresa and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, editors. Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655-1700. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois UP, 1997.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra. Women’s Irony: Rewriting Feminist Rhetorical Histories. Southern Illinois UP, 2015.
  • Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge UP, 2018.
  • Howgill, Mary. “A Remarkable Letter of Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, called Protector.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 112-117.
  • Law, Martin and Lisa M. Corrigan, “On White-Speak and Gatekeeping: Or, What Good Are the Greeks?” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 326-330.
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1997, pp. 278-285.
  • Lozano-Reich, Nina M. and Dana L. Cloud, “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality,” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 220-226.
  • Lupton, Donald. The Quacking Mountebanck Or the Jesuite Turn’d Quaker. London, 1655. Early English Books Online. Accessed 10 August 2019.
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  • Traub, Valerie. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015.
  • Wanzer-Serrano, Darrel. “Rhetoric’s rac(e/ist) problems,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 105, no. 4, Oct 2019, pp. 465-476.
  • Wingard, Jen. “Editor’s Welcome.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2018, p. v.

Feminist Citational Mapping as Recovery and Reconsideration: A Methodology for Analyzing Citational Practices

Click below to read the article. An accessible copy of the article is available as a Google Doc linked here.

Feminist Citational Mapping as Recovery and Reconsideration

Alternatively, you can read the article at

Museum of Modern Art’s “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers”

Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr sitting on the grass and smiling off camera. Barr is wearing a long-sleeve dress and large brim hat.

Fig. 1. Margaret Scolari Barr in Venice. Miller, Lee (1907-1977) © Lee Miller Archives. Margaret Scolari Barr in Venice, Italy. June, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4″ (14 x 21 cm). Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, I.E.2. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.© Conde Nast Publications LTD. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Margaret Scolari Barr, wife of the Founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, is recognized as her husband’s collaborator, co-author, translator, and helpmeet; however, her pivotal feminist work is less well known. This essay introduces Barr to a larger, interdisciplinary audience, inviting feminist scholars interested in not only contemporary art history but also innovative educational practices, grassroots social justice collaboration, co-authorship, archival research practices, and alternative academic work to visit her archival materials housed at MoMA.

The “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” (the collection contains materials from 1883-1989, but the bulk of documents and artifacts come from 1925-1987) comprise 38 linear feet and include documents addressing MoMA founding, operations, and exhibits collated between the years 1930 and 19671. As primary curator at MoMA, Barr’s correspondence, notes, museum ledgers, and public event materials are of interest to scholars wishing to research the founding of the museum, orchestrated in tandem by Alfred and Margaret Scolari Barr. Yet, perusal of other materials germane to Barr’s life (including her personal correspondence, research materials, draft manuscripts, newspaper clippings, datebooks, photo albums, travel scrapbooks, and household accounts) reveal a deeper understanding of an influential and activist woman leader. Barr’s advocacy and educational activities are compelling, warranting recovery and wider retelling through a feminist lens of recollecting. Letizia Guglielmo repurposes re-collecting as a “feminist rhetorical act of gathering or assembling again what has been scattered.” She explains that this process has “connections to public memory and remembrance, highlight[ing] the agency of both the re-collector and the subject whose story is recovered or retold” (2). In this vein, re-collecting Barr’s varied life work seeks not only to preserve the scope of her public memory, but also suggests new avenues for feminist research guided by the interests of the investigator and her intended audiences. Projects from this archive (historically associated only with the history and preservation of modern art) hold the potential to build upon and extend current feminist research discussions and case studies (see contributors to Enoch and Jack 2019; Gaillet and Bailey 2019; Gold and Enoch 2019), specifically inviting feminist scholars to re-envision Barr’s lifework as they “ask different questions, challenge received scholarship, test the efficacy of staid research methods, and chart new scholarly agendas” knowing full well “that their answers may only be provisional, may serve best as a stepping stone or even revision point for the next researcher” (Enoch, Jack and Glenn 5).

In addition to fascinating MoMA ephemera (including photographs of famous artists, exhibition details, and acquisition correspondence), the Margaret Scolari Barr archive includes rich personal correspondence and manuscript materials detailing the research and composing practices of co-authoring with her husband (they called their joint projects “campaigns”), insights into Barr’s life as an adjunct teacher in the first half of the twentieth-century (including job search documents and position negotiations), and innovative pedagogical art history materials she created for all-girl classes. For over forty years, Barr taught art history at the Spence School for Girls, founded in 1892, as well as teaching at Vassar while a student there. These topics dovetail with other emerging micro-histories about erased collaborators and women teachers from this period (see 2019 essays by Bordelon, Grohowski and Hart, Myatt, Myers, and Shirk in Remembering Women Differently). The collected materials also provide rich ground for putting current discussions of archival research methods in conversation with rhetorical scholarship, as illustrated in the final section of this essay. As K.J. Rawson explains in “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression,” the “selection, organization, and labeling” of archives “functions not only for bureaucratic and access purposes, but for epistemological ones as well” (327).

Margaret Scolari Barr, “Protector and Defender of Modern Art”

Before listing possible research topics suggested by the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers,” I want to highlight a fascinating avenue of research buried within this MoMA collection, the topic that initially led me to the archive and one that resonates with twenty-first century social justice issues: Barr’s use of her position as wife of the Founding Director of MoMA to sponsor European artists and their family members following the 1940 collapse of Paris during WWII2. Alfred Barr did not have the required time or language skills to assist artists seeking asylum, so asked his wife to shepherd this effort. In a grassroots movement, Margaret Scolari Barr organized and collaborated tirelessly with art dealers and owners (including Peggy Guggenheim), artists, writers, museum employees, and the Emergency Rescue Committee based in Marseilles to obtain detailed documentation, affidavits, and the $400 necessary for each applicant for artistic sanctuary in America. In a life and death endeavor, Barr went far beyond the efforts of the government to ensure the safety of artists, particularly since the “activity at the State department was described as a ‘bottleneck,’ and the whole process as ‘laborious’” (Roob 18).  Barr herself explains in a 1980 autobiographical manuscript (“Rescuing Artists in W.W. II”) that she is not sure how many artists were saved by the cooperative, for several reasons:

  1. She received a great many requests that were initiated but left incomplete because of “formidable hurdles” and delays at the State department (who required proof that the artist was neither leftist or Communist),
  2. Artists changed their minds about immigrating or found other solutions, and
  3. Artists were detained and sent to concentration camps (MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).
Archival photo of 14 men wearing suits and posing for the camera. Two of the men stand behind the others who are sitting. Most men appear to be middle aged.

Fig. 2. Artists in Exile. ‘Artists in Exile’: Exhibition at Matisse Gallery March 3-28, 1942. Left to right, first row: Matta Echaurren, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguely, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Lger; Second row: Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Amdee Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, Eugene Bermann. Research photograph associated with the exhibition, “Matta.” September 11, 1957-0ctober 20, 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographer: George Platt Lynes. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

We do know from Barr’s unpublished manuscript that MoMA was responsible for saving “Tanguy, Masson, Ernst, Chagall, Mondrian, Lipchtiz, some with and some without wives” (Barr 12). However, we are only now discovering just how many refugees the Margaret Scolari Barr cooperative sponsored through examination of her papers housed at MoMA and elsewhere (see works by MoMA Fellow Christina Eliopoulos and MoMA Curator Rona Roob published in the MoMA Newsletter). Interestingly, from the archivist-researcher point of view, there is another critical reason that Barr and MoMA’s immigration assistance efforts aren’t more fully documented. Varian Fry, an American journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy and was recognized as “Righteous among the Nations” by the State of Israel for risking his life to save those persecuted during the Holocaust, borrowed the museum’s rescue operation papers while writing a book about his activities during WWII. The papers were subsequently either never returned or lost, despite Barr’s exhaustive search for them in her home and the museum (39, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).

Scholars interested in contemporary Do-It-Yourself activism can learn much from Barr’s 1940’s participation in coalition building to define and execute an emergency solution for saving lives, one that the MoMA Director himself and government officials could not adequately address. Yes, Barr collaborated with high-profile folks like Fry and Guggenheim (who rescued Max Ernst and subsequently married him), but Barr also recognizes the tremendous rescue efforts of women occupying support positions. In particular, she singles out Alfred Barr’s assistant Elizabeth Litchfield, who raised funds to cover immigration costs at social events; Barr recalls Litchfield once saying at the end of the workday, “Well—I’m off to a cocktail party—I’m going out fishing [for donors]” (38, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).  Barr also praises Ingrid Warburg, a “heroic” and “very tall reassuring and authoritative” woman who worked with the Emergency Rescue Committee and made connections with Fry in France; Barr says of Warburg, “In the blackest moments she could find a way or at least invent a new path worth pursuing” (3-4, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY). This feminist coalition building was instrumental in procuring necessary resources to sponsor mostly male fleeing artists. This area is ripe for broader investigations from feminist perspectives. As the Margaret Scolari Barr finding aid asserts, “[a]n examination of Scolari Barr’s biography from a feminist perspective warrants further consideration.”

Access and Ideas for Future Feminist Engagement

The subdivisions of the  “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” suggest a range of possible topics that will resonate with feminist researchers and correlate with current rhetorical and archival scholarship. Divided into nine series, the collection is easily searchable and accessible, and the MoMA archivists are helpful, quick to suggest where to find salient materials both within the museum and at external locations. After I reached out to archival librarian Christina Eliopoulos, she immediately and graciously provided links to corollary digitized materials, conference presentations, and published articles that paved the way for my visit to the archive—located adjacent to the museum and accessible through a rear entrance.3 Below are descriptions of the archives’ subdivisions (taken from the online finding aid) followed by a list of possible research topics grounded in feminist rhetorical and archival scholarship.

Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr and her husband Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The couple is sitting on a bench in a museum talking to each other. Behind them hangs four large paintings.

Fig. 3. Margaret and Alfred. Miller, Lee (1907-1977) © Lee Miller Archives. Margaret Scolari Barr and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in a museum in Venice, Italy. June 1948. Gelatin silver print, 5 112 x 8 1/4″ (14 x 21 cm). Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, I.E.2. The Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Series I:

Biographical Material (divided into 6 subsets) provides materials for studying Scolari Barr’s entire life and includes materials prior to her immigration to the United States in 1925; ephemera documenting her studies as a linguistics major at the University of Rome, her time at Vassar College (from 1925-1929), and her brief work as a graduate student in art history at NYU; lecture notes and administrative material related to her forty-year tenure as an art history teacher at the Spence School for girls in NYC; documents detailing her marriage to Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in 1930 and the birth of their daughter, Victoria Barr; genealogical research conducted by Scolari Barr; autobiographical notes and writings along with notes for her oral history interview housed at the Archives of American Art; obituary and eulogy. Possible research topics include:

  • Education of a feminist activist (early twentieth century)
  • Education of girls
  • Italian genealogy and early immigration experiences
  • Oral history
  • Biographical archival collation
Series II:

The largest section of the archive, comprising over 400 folders, including copious and prodigious correspondence between Scolari Barr and her husband Alfred, her contemporaries working in art history, and her family and friends.

  • Husband-Wife Professional Collaborations
  • European Art and History
  • Female Life of Letters
Series III:

Publications, Writings, Lectures, and Research contains documents and reminiscence on Scolari Barr’s participation in the Emergency Rescue Committee and MoMA’s early history; Scolari Barr’s translation work; research materials, correspondence, and partial drafts of her publications; correspondence and bibliographic material relating to Alfred’s posthumously published works; chronology of the Barrs’ “campaigns” at MoMA. According to the finding aid, “when the materials in Series III are considered cumulatively it is made apparent that as a writer and art historian, Scolari Barr was capable of producing scholarship across several mediums, genres, and time periods.”

  • The WWII Emergency Rescue Committee
  • Coalition Building
  • Translation Work
  • Analyzing art history
  • Editing
  • Co-authorship
  • A woman’s writing life
Series IV:

Museum Matters includes correspondence, exhibition research materials, and press clippings about the life of MoMA.

  • Acquisition and Curation
  • Fund Raising and Donors
  • Community Building
  • Public Writing
  • Founding of the Museum
Series V:

Photographs and Scrapbooks includes hundreds of informal and personal black-and-white photos that document the entirety of Scolari Barr’s life (1901-1987).

  • Archival photo preservation and collation
  • Museum events
  • Women as wordsmiths and imagesmiths
  • Local history
  • Public Memory
  • Individual artists
Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr and Salvador Dali at an exhibition opening. Barr is wearing a floor-length gown with her hair done up. Dali is wearing a tuxedo. Barr's back is to the camera while Dali looks off in the distance.

Fig. 4. Margaret and Salvador. Margaret Scolari Barr and Salvador Dali the opening for the exhibition “Art in Our Time: 10th Anniversary Exhibition” [The Museum of Modern Art, Exh. #85-89, May IO-September 30, 1939]. 1939. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 7 15/16″ (25.4 x 20.2 cm). Photographer: Eliot Elifoson. Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, V.21. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Series VI:

Notebooks and Datebooks are handwritten and chronicle daily life. The series includes travel diaries, daily calendars, and miscellaneous notebooks dating from 1948 to 1987.

  • Daily Life
  • Salons
  • Women’s Diaries
  • Travel
Series VII:

Barr Art Collection documents the Barrs’ personal art collection, including legal correspondence concerning appraisal estimates, loan and photography requests from other institutions, and art events.

  • 20th-Century Art
  • Public Memory
  • Fund Raising
  • Community Sharing
  • Local Interpretations of Global Art and Artifacts
Series VIII:

Financial and Legal Documents is restricted and available to the public in 2040.

Series IX:

Miscellaneous includes ephemera such as receipts, bills, deeds of ownership, Christmas cards, phone numbers, invitations, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and recipes.

  • 20th-century history
  • Artifact and ephemera collation
  • Storytelling
  • Local life
  • Biography


Interdisciplinary collections like the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” located in the Museum of Modern Art provide rich opportunities for feminist rhetorical research. Our work occurs across disciplines, in collections that may initially seem unlikely, and in response to critical imagination, as outlined by Royster and Kirsch. I’ve suggested a few research topics connected to the collection’s contents; however, the possibilities are limited only by researchers’ interests and imaginations. Other scholars may find a wide range of additional topics to investigate in any given collection, as we all know. I recommend the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” to readers, in hopes that you can find other hidden research gems housed here.


  1. The collection includes 47 5″ manuscript boxes; 4 5×12″ card boxes; 1 9.5×12.5″ storage box; 2 8×12 1/2″ storage boxes; 1 11×17″ flat box; 5 25×19″ flat boxes; 2 16×20″ boxes; 1 flat file.
  2. Throughout my archival research, I’ve sought historical antecedents to current issues and events. MSB’s sponsorship of persecuted artists (collaborating with like-minded others when governments lacked resources or determination to do so) serves as a model of social-justice activism; the groups organizational strategies may appeal to readers interested in current issues of economic migration, environmental justice, intersectionality politics, and youth activism.
  3. Correspond with librarians and request materials prior to scheduling a visit to the archives. Also be prepared to store your personal items with an attendant on a separate floor from the reading room, which is protected by access-controlled elevators.

Works Cited

  • Barr, Margaret Scolari. “Rescuing Artists in W.W II.” Unpublished manuscript. 7 January 1980. TS. “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers.” MSB III.A.22. New York: Museum of Modern Art. New York. 44 pages.
  • —. “Our Campaigns: Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and the Museum of Modern Art: A Biographical Chronicle of the Years 1930–1944.” The New Criterion, special summer issue 1987, 23-74.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “Please Cherish my own ideals and dreams about the School of Expression”: The Erasure of Anna Baright Curry.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 118-134.
  • Cordova, Elena. “The Margaret Scolari Barr Papers: Now Open for Research at MoMA Archives.Inside/Out, MoMABlog, 13 October 2015.
  • Eliopoulos, Christina. “In Search of MoMA’s “Lost” History: Uncovering Efforts to Rescue Artists and Their Patrons.Inside/Out. MoMA Blog, 22 June 2016.
  • Enoch, Jessica and Jordynn Jack, editors. Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Parlor Press, 2019
  • Enoch, Jessica, Jordynn Jack, and Cheryl Glenn. “Introduction: The Endless Opportunities for Feminist Research.” Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack, Parlor Press. 2019, pp. 3-15.
  • Gaillet, Lynée Lewis and Helen Gaillet Bailey, editors. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. South Carolina UP, 2019.
  • Gold, David and Jessica Enoch, editors. Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor. U. of Pittsburgh P, 2019.
  • Grohowski, Mariana and Alexis Hart. “Not Simply “Freeing the Men to Fight”: Rewriting the Reductive History of U.S. Military Women’s Achievements On and Off the Battlefield.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 91-108.
  • Guglielmo, Letizia. “Re-Collection as Feminist Rhetorical Practice.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 1-17.
  • Margaret Scolari Barr Papers in The Museum of Modern Art Archives.” Finding Aid.
  • Myatt. Alice Johnston. “From Erasure to Restoration: Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 39-55.
  • Myers, Nancy. “Turning Trends: Lockwood’s and Emerson’s Rhetoric Textbooks at the American Fin D’Siècle.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 242-256.
  • Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Roob, Rona. “From the Archives: Refugee Artists.” Inside/Out, vol. 6, 1991, pp. 18-19.
  • Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Shirk, Henrietta. “The Audubon-Martin Collaboration: An Exploration of Rhetorical Foreground and Background.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 109-117.

The Rhetoric of Letter-Keeping

When I was young, I could always count on a birthday card in the mail. This card was handmade, a sheet of printing paper folded and decorated with a penned sketch. Every year my brother who left when I was nine would send his apologies for his absence. I dreaded these birthday cards, storing them out of sight, but I kept them. These painful documents leave a question in my mind: Why do we keep painful writings? In an effort to answer this question, I sought cases of women who have acted as family archivists1 by keeping letters that document painful events. What I discovered is that women act rhetorically not only through letter writing but through letter keeping.

This study rhetorically analyzes two artifacts, a breakup note and a set of memorial letters. To analyze these items, I use imaginative reconstruction—a method feminist researchers such as Jacqueline Jones Royster and Zosha Stuckey use to conjecture multiple, most-likely narratives for incomplete histories—to assemble possible narratives for the artifacts. To support my analysis, I draw from epistolary and women’s rhetoric. This combination of scholarship sheds light on women’s rhetorical work guarding, editing, and facilitating family histories through their practices and methods of keeping letters. I conclude with a call for researchers to search garage/estate sales as uncommon archives where lost voices can be rediscovered.

In a 1987 article, Micaela di Leonardo identifies a sphere of women’s work called kin-work, community-building activities including phone calls, social visits, and letter writing (442). Although men occasionally participate in letter writing, historical research has revealed the way women specifically have used the genre as a rare space for feminine rhetoric. Because letter writing was often a part of family and household affairs, society preceding the Women’s Rights movement accepted women’s participation in the practice (Johnson). Lucille Schultz reveals the rhetorical importance of the practice when she notes that letter-writing instruction in the U.S. informed nineteenth-century virtues (118). Women, therefore, learned to use this domestic genre to comment on social justice (Buchanan), religion (Hoermann), and politics (Wallace; Sowards; Martin and Patrowski). Pamela VanHaitsma details a poignant example of such rhetoric in her article “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic Letters, Genre Instruction, and Rhetorical Practice.” VanHaitsma analyzes two twentieth-century African American women who reinvented letter-writing practices to accommodate their queer relationship. These women challenged letter-writing tradition which taught that letters should be either for business alone or romance with the intention of marriage. These revolutionary women, however, mixed the romantic with the professional, also nurturing a romantic relationship that in their time could never resolve in marriage. With epistolary writing, women adorned the guise of conservativeness, but they also found an available means by which they coped with and influenced society.

Discourse studies such as VanHaitsma’s show the incredible rhetoric behind women’s letter writing, but research has overlooked a second rhetorical act that women often participate in when handling letters: letter keeping. As the following case studies demonstrate, women enact an additional set of kin-work through letter keeping. By keeping letters, women document ancestors’ successes, guard family secrets, and connect community members.

I uncovered both of the following collections at separate estate sales, inside unexpected containers: the breakup letter in a makeup compact and the box of memorial letters inside a trunk. Unlike brick and mortar archives, which typically store artifacts in standard boxes and files, private archives often house items in meaningful containers. In many stories2 of discovered documents, the containers themselves play a critical and, I suggest, rhetorical role. Therefore, the following analyses consider the rhetoric of both the keeping of letters as well as the materials involved in that keeping.

The first collection includes a series of letters written by a mother to her deceased son, Ronny.3 This mother collected her letters in a holiday greeting card box (see Fig. 1, below) stored in a trunk. This archive consists of twelve letters, seven photographs, fifteen personalized newspaper clippings, and two short religious writings (a tract and a newspaper cutting). This pairing of items, as well as the box’s storage, says something about the purpose of the mother’s letter keeping. Like an undertaker who meticulously arranges a corpse, this mother carefully constructed her son’s memorial, using items that depict her favorite version of him: stories of him as a boy (told in her letters), a photograph of the granddaughter who resembles her father, and pieces of the faith the mother is certain her son also shared (Dec. 7, 1984, Letter). Additionally, the location where the mother stored the memorial is telling. Instead of choosing a location where she could daily view the memorial, the mother chose to hide it in a closed trunk. I imagine that, like her choice of materials, the choice of where to store the box was due to the mother’s desire to control the memory of her son. She kept her favorite parts of him for her own private viewing when she felt capable of fully engaging with her suffering. This collection represents a safe and contained place where she could give in to her pain. She could uncover the box, gaze upon the contents, and add another reflective letter as she attempted to find closure. The methods by which this mother kept her memorial letters shows minimal, yet incredible control. She could not undo the pain of her son’s death, but she could control how and when she remembered him. By creating and keeping this memorial, the mother enacted kin-work, keeping herself connected to her son.

Photo of an old box, about the size of a shoe box, with letters inside. The box has an image of a horse-drawn carriage and holly leaves on it, with faded and peeling tape holding it in place.

Fig. 1. Box of memorial letters.

In addition to her own memory, the mother also used letters as an attempt to control her son’s public memory. Overwhelmingly apparent in all the mother’s letters is her work to keep her son connected to family. In one of the earliest letters, written only four months after Ronny’s death, his mother spends a quarter of the letter listing for Ronny the names of those who attended his funeral, who still speak of him, and who have taken his death the hardest. The woman also used the letters to update her son on what his daughter, wife, and other loved ones did each year. She describes holidays, moves, purchases, and illnesses and includes direct quotes from his daughter who had only just turned two when he died. In addition to these letters which she kept private, the mother kept certain letters publicly in a newspaper. Here she published notes that assured her son that he was missed on Easter, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, his birthday, and the anniversary of his death. Each of these announcements appears in the form of a letter, addressed to her deceased son. Unlike her handwritten letters, she chose to print these notes in the newspaper. This act indicates that even though the notes were addressed to Ronny, the woman intended them for a wider audience. It is likely that in this act, the woman was again performing a complicated attempt at kin-work by reminding her community to remember her son. Each note ends by assuring Ronny that his family will never forget him. Publicly printed, this closing would also remind others that they too should remember him.

Analyzing the breakup note (see Fig. 2, below) in the compact requires speculation since the letter offers few clues about its surrounding circumstances. In the top-left corner of the note is a man’s name. I have changed the name and concealed it in the photo to retain anonymity, but the real last name is popular in romance-language populations. Since this is the only name present and it does not appear in the left corner where we would expect the name of the recipient, I assume this is the author’s signature.

Photo of an old note typed on a yellowing sheet of paper and dated September 14, 1954. The note reads: "I will respect your wishes--and I will not call or write--But always when the sun goes down--My heart will say goodnight--And always when the stars appear--I shall remember all the words--You ever whispered, dear--And seek the ship that might have sailed--To bring you back to me--I may not ever find your smile--Or hold your hand again--But every image will be bright An beautiful as then--And truly as I promised you--The moment that we met--I will love you always and--I never will forget.

Fig. 2. Breakup Note.

Based on these sparse clues, we can infer that the author of the note likely had Spanish or French ancestry but wrote in fluent English. The man was clearly a romantic, given that he chose to deliver his goodbye in the form of a poem and must have held a great deal of affection for the recipient. None of this tells us anything about the woman who kept the note, though. All we can glean from the note about her is that, for some reason, she requested that the couple end communication. From this request, we can deduce that calls and written communication had been the norm for the couple. The reasonable conclusion from these details is that the two were romantically involved and that the note marked the end of the relationship. To better understand the woman who kept the note, we again have to depend on the discourse expressed in the rhetoric of her keeping the note and the material way she went about this keeping.

When it comes to the materials involved in this collection, the most overtly meaningful is the compact that houses the note. I found the note folded and tucked inside a latched compartment inside the compact (see Fig. 3, below). This compartment would have originally held a blotting cloth, now replaced with the note. In the fifties when the note was written, a woman would have kept a compact among her most personal items, likely stored in a vanity or purse, perhaps the only safe spaces where her husband and children would not prowl. This choice suggests two possible scenarios: the woman kept the note close as either a frequent reminder or to guard it from prying eyes. In the first scenario, one possible explanation for her wanting to keep the note as a reminder is that she was punishing herself for a choice she regretted. A more optimistic explanation is that the note offered her comfort because it provided her a gateway into a time when she was admired. In preserving the note, she also preserved this admiration, regardless of who she later became. Whatever her reason for keeping the note, the act ensured that she would reserve a closeness to this admirer. In the second scenario, the letter is not just close but hidden. Typically, secrecy is kept for one of two reasons. The possessor of the secret fears either the shame of the secret or the anger that could result from another’s knowledge of the secret. If the woman married, or was married to, another man, she likely would have kept the note hidden to keep her family intact. Therefore, the woman did not initiate kin-work by writing the note, but she did continue kin-work in the way she kept the note. Keeping the note preserved a bond between her and her admirer. Keeping the note hidden possibly preserved the family she built after the relationship.

Photo of a small square compact that opens and unfolds from the top and left sides. The top side is a mirror. In the main compartment of the compact there appears to be small folded notes.

Fig. 3. Latched compartment open on compact.

The memorial letters demonstrate how significant paired items can be for kept letters. The same is true of the breakup note. Although the breakup note is alone in its latched compartment, the main compartment holds a broken mirror, detached from the lid so that it flops and clatters when the compact is opened (see Figure 4, below). We cannot know how long the mirror has been broken, but the image recalls for me a line from the 1960 film The Apartment when Fran Kubelik tells “Bud” Baxter that she carries a broken mirror because “it makes me look the way I feel.” Perhaps our mystery woman carried the breakup note alongside the detached mirror because she also felt detached and consequentially broken. The note represents an attempt to remain close to a time or person that made her feel loved, but the attempt is flawed just as the note’s container is also flawed.

Photo of the small square compact (from Figure 3) with the mirror removed from the top side. Brown and gray residue remains where the mirror was attached.

Fig. 4. Detached mirror from compact.

Based on these case studies, I suspect that we have underestimated the rhetorical role women play in keeping written artifacts. Letter writing is just the beginning of women’s kin-work and rhetorical means. When they keep letters, they continue their work for the family by guarding the secrets, memorializing the events, and bridging the gaps between distant or deceased relatives. The mother used private and public letters to stave off emotional detachment from her son. The breakup note bound the woman to her admirer, despite physical and relational distance. In preserving and protecting such letters, women preserve and protect their loved ones, continuing the kin-work initiated in the original act of writing the letters.

Kin-work offers a new lens through which we can study women’s rhetoric, which does not always fit conveniently into traditional rhetoric. Future discussions might consider what rhetoric emerges when women’s acts/materials are re-read through this lens. Furthermore, a rich discussion could be had concerning the ethics of “reading” such sensitive and often secret materials. What, for instance, happens to a deceased author’s rights when a family sells her private writings? Can we justify the publicizing of these writings for the sake of continuing the community kin-work started by an author’s initial authorship? Archival research can specifically gain from these case studies. Carol Mattingly and Barbara Biesecker argue that women’s rhetoric should highlight new styles of rhetoric that diverge from the classical, machismo styles from which women were largely excluded. If we are to reap knowledge from women who lack positions of public power, we have to look to uncommon archives for quieter, domestic writings. Garage/estate sales can be prime archives where we can discover such writings. As was the case with the artifacts studied here, women’s rhetorical letters can surface at sales when benefactors edit their inherited collections. By meeting these inheritors halfway, researchers of rhetorical and archival materials can tap into lost remnants of woman’s rhetoric and kin-work.


  1. For this study, I use Rawson’s expanded definition of archives as used in “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression,” which includes any aged documents of historical value even if they have not been formally arranged by an institution (329).
  2. See for instance Jason Whitely’s “Hidden Letters Discovered in Old Desk Reveal Tragic Story of WWII You Haven’t Heard.”
  3. I have changed the name and concealed it in the photo to retain anonymity.

Works Cited

  • Biesecker, Barbara. “Coming to Terms with Recent Attempts to Write Women into the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 25, no. 2, 1992, pp. 140-161.
  • “Breakup Note.” 1954. MS. Personal Collection.
  • Buchanan, Lindal. “Motherhood, Rhetoric, and Remembrance: Recovering Diane Nash.” Peitho, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 14-39.
  • di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs, vol. 12, no. 3, Spring 1987, pp. 440-453.
  • Hoermann, Jackie. “Speaking Without Words: Silence and Epistolary Rhetoric of Catholic Women Educators on the Antebellum Frontier, 1828-1834.” Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric, vol. 9, Spr. 2012, pp. 19-30.
  • Johnson, Nan. “‘Dear Millie’: Letter Writing and Gender in Postbellum America.” Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
  • Martin, Andrea and Tyyne Petrowski. ” ‘Are You “Doing Your Bit?’: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg.” Manitoba History, no. 82, 2016, pp. 4-12.
  • Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-108.
  • “Memorial Letters.” 1983-1989. MS. Personal Collection.
  • Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Royster, Jacqueline J. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Schultz, M. Lucille. “Letter-Writing Instruction in 19th Century Schools in the United States.” Letter Writing as a Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall, John Benjamins Publishing, 2000.
  • Stuckey, Zosha. “‘What has become of Jimmy Thornton?’: The Rhetoric(s) of Letter-Writing at The New York State Asylum for Idiots, 1855-1866.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, p. 11.
  • The Apartment. Directed by Billy Wilder, performances by Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Adolph Deutch, Joseph LaShelle, and Daniel Mandell, The Mirisch Company, 1960.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic Letters, Genre Instruction, and Rhetorical Practice.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-24.
  • Wallace, Patricia D. “Feminine Rhetoric and the Epistolary Tradition: The Boniface Correspondence.” Peitho, vol. 24, no. 3, 1995, pp. 229-246.
  • Whitely, Jason. “Hidden Letters Discovered in Old Desk Reveal Tragic Story of WWII You Haven’t Heard.” WFAA, 23 July 2019. Accessed 23 Dec. 2019.

Dr. Battey’s Ovariotomy, 1872-1878

“The reality is obviously a good deal more complex; disease is at once a biological event, a generation-specific repertoire of verbal constructs reflecting medicine’s intellectual and institutional history, an occasion of and potential legitimation for public policy, an aspect of social role and individual—intrapsychic—identity, a sanction for cultural values, and a structuring element in doctor patient interactions.”

Charles E. Rosenberg

Medical journals from the 19th century provide rich information about diagnoses, treatments, and contentions within the field at the time. It’s important to place these primary sources in historical context, and close study can also reveal broad trends in how diseases are framed at specific points in history. Specifically, there is a long history of attributing many diseases and symptoms to the female reproductive organs.1 For example, Terri Kapsalis explores the “wastebasket diagnosis” of hysteria through time, from Plato’s wandering uterus to Silas Weir Mitchell’s rest cure. From the years 1872 to 1878, Robert Battey’s normal ovariotomy, a surgical procedure to remove the ovaries, was publicized in various professional medical journals, such as the Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, Gynecological Transactions, and The American Practitioner. George J. Engelman published a piece in the Transactions of the American Medical Association titled “Difficulties and Dangers of Battey’s Operation,” which is ultimately an endorsement of the procedure. C.H. Rauschenberg published “Ovulation and Menstruation, and Dr. R Battey’s Operation of Normal Ovariotomy,” highlighting disagreement over the role of the ovaries in menstruation.

Through analysis of these primary sources from the late 19th century, we can note four broad observations: the sheer variety of diseases and illnesses attributed to the ovaries, the role of opioids in everyday use and medical procedures, the specific gaze adopted in the assessment of success, and contentions surrounding the surgical procedure in the professional field. These archival materials provide a rich bounty for further feminist rhetorical analysis. Rhetoric scholars, in particular, may be interested in how diseases are framed historically, insofar as medical discourse embodies and perpetuates cultural assumptions, and produces identities; specifically, rhetoric scholars may investigate portrayal of women’s bodies as pathologized throughout history and how these portrayals have real-world consequences for medical diagnoses and interventions, even today.

Diseases and Illness Attributed to Ovaries

The most interesting part of this analysis might be the sheer number and variety of illnesses attributed to the ovaries. These afflictions include but are not limited to cardiac malady, hemorrhages from stomach and rectum, paroxysm, nervous disturbances (Battey, “Normal” 322-325), vascular excitements, pernicious ovulation, ovarian neuralgia, ovarian insanity, nervous prostration, insomnia, vicarious menstruation from bowels, lungs, and skin (Yandell 3-13), suffused countenance, convulsions epileptiform in character, mania, hysteria, unbalanced mind (Battey, “Extirpation” 2-5). Battey argues that his normal ovariotomy is a last resort intended to treat diseases that cannot otherwise be cured by any other method. Somehow, removing the ovaries in order to prompt menopause is thought to be beneficial. The attribution of so many various ailments to the ovaries is not unlike misunderstandings about what causes and transmits disease throughout history. For example, we can look to the miasmatists for their misguided framing of cholera2 or to the various attempts to quell the transmission of malaria throughout time.3 Misunderstandings of illness and disease can come from lacking knowledge about vectors and microbes, and it can also come from concepts and frames that rest on long-held cultural assumptions.

One difficulty of looking at medical publications from the late 1800s is that further research is needed in order to fully understand the time-specific definitions of many terms. For example, what is ovarian insanity? What did it mean about doctors’ knowledge that rectal bleeding might be called menstruation from the bowels? Despite these difficulties of interpretation, the types of ailments described throughout these documents can fall into several categories: symptoms related to menstruation, descriptions of symptoms that seem to describe what we now call epilepsy, symptoms that seem to describe heart disease, symptoms that seem to indicate a type of cancer or infection, and symptoms that have to do with mood disturbances and emotional liability.

The Role of Morphia and Opium

The development of anesthesia in the 1840s, and antiseptic later in the century, facilitated a boom in surgery in the late nineteenth century (Porter 148). In his publications, Battey provides detailed accounts of his patients’ case histories as well as detailed accounts of the surgical procedure. Two important parts of the procedure, which are granted detailed descriptions, are the anesthetization of the patient before surgery and the pain relief treatment administered after surgery. For initial surgery, Battey used chloroform to sedate patients. Then, morphia and/or opium were used for pain management. In some of these cases, it appears that the patient already had a daily regimen of morphia (morphine): “For the past four months, she had been entirely bed-ridden and constant sufferer. She vomited her breakfast daily but retained nourishment at dinner and tea. She required each day two or more grains of morphia, and every night sixty grains of chloral” (Battey, “Extirpation” 7). One has to wonder if drug use was not the cause of various symptoms of these patients. Would periodic withdrawal from an opioid cause many of the documented complaints? Did doctors at the time understand the addictive properties and side effects of these various substances? Rhetoric scholars might consider how a focus on pathologizing women’s reproductive systems could obscure other areas of investigation.

The Gaze of Success

When writing about the success of the surgical procedure, Battey primarily records his own observations as a physician. However, Battey also, at times, folds in the perspectives and observations of husbands and other household members. For instance, “She now does unaided the house-work of her family” is touted as an indicator of success (Battey, “Extirpation” 4). Similarly, we can ask where the “definitely known” information originates in the following passage:

Does this operation impair the aphrodisiac power of the subject? I answer there is not reason to suspect this in any of my cases, and in most of them it is definitely known that such is not the result. There is no loss of the womanly graces, but on the contrary the patient gains flesh and becomes even more attractive. (Battey, “Extirpation” 19)

How does one measure womanly graces or attractiveness in medicine? What kinds of metrics are these, anyway? At the very least, we can assess that they are metrics accounted for, and devised, by men.

Contentions in the Field

From these archival documents, three contentions surrounding this procedure emerge:

  1. vaginal versus abdominal surgery for removal of ovaries,
  2. the role of ovaries in ceasing menstruation, and
  3. the proper name of the procedure and the medical meanings of the words “normal” and “abnormal.”

For the first contention, Battey, after beginning with the abdominal surgery method, shifts to the vaginal surgery method, arguing that this is best. Engelman, although largely in support of Battey’s ideas, argues that the abdominal method is indicated in most cases (3-4). Rauschenberg, on the other hand, questions the very premise (and, therefore, purpose) of Battey’s procedure (1-2). Battey argues that his goal is to induce “change of life” by the removal of the ovaries, and that this will relieve the litany of otherwise uncurable diseases. However, Rauschenberg argues that the link between the ovaries and menstruation is not yet well-established and that removal of the ovaries may not necessarily cease menstruation (4). Throughout these publications, there is various discussion of the procedure title, whether normal ovariotomy is appropriate. In the Yandell and McClellan interview, Battey explains he has given up his initial name for the procedure but has yet to rename it (9). It seems the contention surrounds the word “normal,” as many of the ovaries Battey ends up removing are inflamed or cancerous: abnormal. Of course, the surgeon cannot know this until surgery, but this contradicts Battey’s premise that the normal (non-diseased) ovaries can cause a plethora of debilitating symptoms in women as a matter of course.

Questions for Further Research

Is Battey a maverick surgeon of his time, or is this level of experimentation typical?

Andrew Scull, author of Hysteria, certainly sees the popularity of this operation as a dangerous experimental period, describing that “a veritable mania for ovariotomy swept the United States” (89). Surgery, as a profession, was booming during this time, in part due to the introduction of anesthesia in the 1840s and the emergence of antiseptics, popularized by Joseph Lister in the mid-1800s (Porter 126). Further research is needed to better situate Battey in surgical history.

Many of these patients seem to have pre-existing “morphia” use. Do doctors at this time recognize the side effects and dangers of morphia?

It would be interesting to do a more in-depth study of the evolving medical understanding of addiction, and specifically opioid addiction, throughout time. In Battey’s time, we understand that women with means could easily take morphine or opium daily. How were withdrawal symptoms understood, if at all? What was the social context surrounding the use of these drugs?—what were the norms? When do controls on substances emerge, and why? What is the longer arc we see with doctors using and prescribing opioids? One could also take the contemporary opioid crisis as a starting point for analysis and move backwards with historical critique.

In the late 19th century, were doctors treating men’s nervous, cardiovascular, or mental disorders with removal of the testes?

It stands to reason that if all of women’s otherwise incurable diseases can be treated by removal of the ovaries, then, in tandem, all of men’s otherwise incurable diseases can be treated by removal of the testes. If, for example, it was thought that the removal of a woman’s ovaries would cure epilepsy (Battey, “Extirpation” 13), were men with epilepsy being treated with removal of the testes? More broadly, what was the medical consensus, at the time, regarding the functions of these organs? If no comparable treatment is found for men, then we can ask:

Where does Battey’s normal ovariotomy fit into the broader historical trend of targeting women’s reproductive organs as the source of many maladies?

Scull argues that “In this instance, the assault on the ovaries was in line with long-standing folk beliefs about the origins of women’s emotional liability, beliefs that had acquired a new veneer of scientificity with the development of reflex theories of nervous action” (90). This assertion dovetails nicely into research on contemporary manifestations of the hysterical woman4 in various discourses.

Battey’s normal ovariotomy provides a historical comparison for use with research on framing women’s diseases, and rhetoric scholars can investigate the historical trends and contemporary implications of the medical discourse surrounding women’s bodies. In what ways are women’s bodies characterized as inherently abnormal or pathological? In what ways are women characterized as liabilities due to their reproductive organs? In what ways are women’s bodies described and defined by the male-gaze? Where are the women’s voices and accounts, historically? Where are the women’s voices and accounts, within medical discourse, today? The scope of archival materials discussed here is limited by this researcher’s personal time, and there is undoubtedly much more material to uncover.


  1. See Scull, Andrew. Hysteria: The Disturbing History. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  2. See Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map. Riverhead Books, 2006 and Rosenberg, Charles. The Cholera Years. The University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  3. See Packard, Randall M. The Making of a Tropical Disease. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007 and McNeill, J.R. Mosquito Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  4. See Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Random House, 1978.

Works Cited

Transforming Feminist Narratives and Participation of African Marginalized Women through Ceremonial Beads

As a Ghanaian and an Akan woman, I grew up learning the significance of using objects to create uncommon meanings. Within the Akan maternal ethnic group, objects such as beads are considered an important gesture of communicating and creating a cultural connection between people within and outside the Akan group. Put differently, the Akan people of Ghana regard beads as sacred material that signify one’s status, cultural belonging, and, importantly, African womanhood.

My very first gift upon coming of age at sixteen was a bead specially designed by my mother to represent my African femininity and the cultural values I embody. Even before the gift presentation, I remember having many conversations with my mother about beads and their aesthetic symbolism, but she never said anything extraordinary except that wearing beads made a woman look more feminine. I also remember the special times when my mother would bring out every bead she owned and share their individual stories with me. I grew up cherishing such intimate moments between us. As a result, I started collecting beads so I could continue that tradition one day with my future daughter. Little did I know that my process of collection was tied into the complexity and the exploration of being in a culture that often excludes women—a culture that is heavily loaded with sexism.

Although beads are used by Akan women and men, they are often worn by women for both religious and non-religious rites and practices. The color, size, or shape of a bead can indicate the mood of a person, her social achievement, and her status within the community. Beads are an emblem of feminine identity, beauty, socio-cultural and family connection, and a relationship between mother and daughter. For instance, during a marriage ceremony, Akan mothers often pass down beads to their daughters as gifts that represent their bond.

Beads have also been reclaimed as a symbol of African femininity and recuperated as African feminist artifacts due to their ability to perform an agential role and their social significance within the Akan community and Ghana at large. As an Akan woman and an African feminist, I advocate that we pay attention to the materiality of beads because it helps us to redefine and negotiate the vital connection between objects and bodies, especially how both human (body) and non-human materiality (beads) play a prominent role in enabling the margins of what meaningful and outstanding actions might become.

Image of African beads in yellow, tan, black, and navy blue. The beads are looped in circles, four in total.

Fig. 1. African Beads.

In this essay, I interpret African beads as a symbol of African womanhood and as a unique feminist artifact, intervention, and variant of African feminism that seeks to redefine participation and activism while also reconceptualizing the cultural specificity of what feminist activism can look like in a transnational location like Ghana. I reconsider African beads as objects that can be used to challenge marginalized African women’s experiences, and I reflect on how the materiality of the body and object work together in shaping cultural, social, and political relations. Lastly, I suggest that beads as representative objects can be used as a tactic to disidentify with hegemonic dialogues and thus help to define a feminine and feminist African subject and way of performing feminist activism.

Although I focus on Ghanaian women in this essay, my goal is to highlight the unique forms of performance, participation, and delivery that have been adopted and practiced by African women and feminists. Let me make clear that I am by no means insinuating that one is given a platform to make changes just because they are wearing beads. Women can still be in disempowered positions regardless of what they wear or display. However, as Karen Barad asserts, objects can act as an “agential intra-action” (135) to create e/affective actions and hopeful possibilities. The dynamic entanglements among humans, society, and environment has been explored further by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, who argue that material feminism is pivotal in understanding and reflecting upon the relationship among objects, histories, bodies, and place. They assert that using this point of view can enable scholars to “describe nonhuman agency in a scientific or ‘cultural, historical, biological’ context…and redefine our understanding of the relationships among the natural, the human, and the nonhuman” (7). The work of these scholars is crucial for contemplating the relationships among objects, bodies, experiences, sensual connections, and their narratives within cultures, while also not privileging one aspect over another.

Important perspectives on these relationships also come from Peta Hinton, Tara Mehrabi, and Josef Barla, who focus on “the very processes through which bodies marked by race, ethnicity, nationality, sex/gender, and species come to matter” (2). Their approach calls attention to new materialism as a site for knowledge production (3) and challenges new materialist scholars to critically reflect on how the othered come to matter within and beyond their locations. It is here that I argue once again that focusing on how beads are used by African (Ghanaian) women offers a different approach to how feminist practices are enacted through material objects and demonstrates how othered women within different geographical contexts respond to problematic narratives and hegemonies and defy colonial practices through a complex form of cultural practices, power, religion, and agency.

Living and doing feminist or feminine work in Ghana can be difficult for various reasons. The multiple connotations of the term “feminist” in many African locations have negative associations and maintain a complicated identity and position for many African women. African women who identify as feminist are liable to being labeled as “rude,” “unhappy,” “women who cannot find husbands,” “white women in Africa,” and “women who have neglected their African heritage.” As African feminist scholar Ruvimbo Goredema states, “if African women identify themselves as feminist, they run the risk of being automatically linked to the white feminist ideology” and creating actions and making movements that intend to “implement freedom can be interpreted and regarded as a reinforcement of mainstream white feminism” (40). That is to say, feminism is not considered a part of the African culture. In short, as Chimamanda Adichie attests, the term “Feminist is considered un-African” (10) and many African women who identify as such as are “labelled as women who have been influenced by Western books” (10).

In response to the charge of feminist being un-African, some African women activists, like Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Onyeronke Onyewumi have developed strategies and terms that can enable African women to use their agency to engage in women’s work and to set their experiences apart from the white mainstream feminist. One such strategy is to use the term African feminism to classify any feminist action by African women that is conducted within and beyond the African context. This strategy can be regarded as a choice consciously made by African women to use their identity and subject position (which is often presumed non-existent to make significant changes within their varying locations. Goredema defines African feminism as a “feminist epistemology and a form of rhetoric that has provided arguments, which validate the experience of women of Africa and African origin against mainstream feminist discourse” (34) as well as a position of “justice that aims to create a discernible difference between women who were colonized and those who were deemed the colonizers” (34).

While the term African feminist certainly gives hope and a grounded identity for women who openly challenge dominant discourses and apparatuses within African societies, it is not enough to label women of such complex realities as African feminists. The label feminist is still regarded as a foreign concept that is aligned to white middle-class women who often lack empathy for women of color, especially non-Western women. Furthermore, the label complicates our subject position and interferes with the societal expectations of African womanhood. Despite these complexities, the term African feminism is an intervention that can empower African women to change the negative connotation of feminist actions within our locations and redefine the representation of African women. In an effort to preserve our cultural identity as African women, African feminists have taken a different route to originate a space where African women’s voices can be heard, be unique, and be distinct. They willingly made it a part of their objectives to maintain some African traditions through objects (beads, hair patterns, clothes), and form alliances with African men while exploring and discussing the inappropriate and partial treatment of women in Africa. This objective is affirmed by African women scholars like Filomina Chioma Steady, who maintains that African feminism does not seek to separate itself from men but to critique some traditional African practices without degrading those practices (28).

This deliberate display of identity can be regarded as an innovative performance tactically developed to help African women use their position to make memorable and positive impact while keeping their feminine and feminist identity culturally specific. For example, the Akan women who have chieftaincy titles or roles often shave off their hair and wear beads as a symbolic and performative act that aims to distinguish their positionality and voice within society. From a new materialist perspective, this display can be considered a deliberate gesture in which hair and beads signifies an embodiment of the material nature of physical bodies connected to constrained narratives, places, and complex epistemologies. Thinking through the role of objects and bodies in this context also allow us to reimagine human nature, materiality, performance, and experience not as idealistic or free from social inscription, but as something that is closely linked to the historical, social, and cultural practices of a place. For instance, women with such titles in the Akan ethnic group generally wear beads designed with gold whenever there is any traditional function or when they must represent the interests of the community. Here, the ceremonial beads become representative of Akan women’s authority, identity, and cultural connection, and afford them the privilege to enact feminine and feminist practices as well as serve as a protective mechanism and ethos which allows them to engage in conversations and contribute in roles which they otherwise would not be allowed to perform. Indeed, as Cheryl Glenn puts it in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope “identity determines who may speak, who merits an audience,” and ultimately what the results of the speech will be (25).

I started collecting beads to continue my mother’s tradition with my future daughter; however, my current outlook on collecting and wearing beads has changed. I no longer collect beads because the activity reminds me of my childhood experience; rather, I do so because the display of beads and its material meaning and history in Ghanaian feminist and feminine activism allows Ghanaian/African women to explore and understand transnational women’s practices as potentially or already feminist. Ghanaian women and feminist activists have found a way to use objects such as beads to map their indigenous identity as African women who embody African values with good intentions for society. Women activists may wear beads as a form of social approval while simultaneously calling attention to the social and political stance they embrace, illustrating how non-human objects can help us to redefine and imagine feminist epistemological spaces as fluid sites of perceptions and interpretations.

For example, prominent Ghanaian female advocate, journalist, queen mother, and television show host, Gifty Anti, is well-known for wearing beads as a means of showing her Africanness whenever she speaks about women’s exclusion and activism. While she does not identify as a feminist, her “apparent feminism” performance (to borrow Erin Frost’s term), is sometimes responded to with hostile comments on social media. However, Gifty is also commended for doing feminine work in a way that is notably African. This situation can be interpreted in at least two ways. First, Gifty’s physical body and its relationship with the beads and place show how the embodied perception and reflection of non-human materials can take form socially and culturally and can silently create powerful narratives where they are situated. And crucially for a feminist inquiry, the connection of the beads on her body with her audience not only establishes her ethos but also can be regarded as a skillful feminine move to enter spaces, make her voice heard, and create possibilities and potential for feminist activism in varying forms.

For me and many other Ghanaian women, wearing beads represents a grassroots performance that strives to create a space for negotiation. This space can be envisioned as an ethical possibility where we can negotiate our Africanness, reclaim ourselves and our memories, and feel a sense of connection to culture, environment, and history while we work to establish socio-cultural transformation. Most importantly, wearing beads while performing women’s activism gives me a sense of agency and the voice to share stories from a personal perspective and engage with listeners in a respectful relationship of reciprocity.

As an Akan woman, I believe that the material elucidation of the beads—their dynamic relationship, influence, and connection with the body—presents new possibilities for transformation and spaces where other young women like myself can engage in active feminist work without the fear of losing part of our identity. By wearing beads, we surround ourselves with African feminism—precious objects, feminine objects—and practice a unique form of activism that goes beyond colonial practices, prioritizing our needs even if they are not of concern to our dominant culture, and inviting a redefinition of feminist activism.

Wearing beads as feminine and feminist activism gives us hope: the hope to keep transforming our narratives within and outside our location, the hope to re-define the representation of African women and create spaces for African women to become visible, and the hope to create alliances and transnational networks with other feminists. These forms of hope are what Glenn discusses as the potential that keeps rhetorical feminists alive. They help rhetorical feminists discover themselves, create new possibilities for change, and forge new and stronger alliances with other feminists, both marginalized and non-marginalized (197-201). It is this kind of hope that African feminists hold onto to reconfigure our struggles not only for ourselves but for women who may not identify and name themselves as African feminists.

I conclude with two questions to spark investigations into the value of African feminism in new materialist studies and to invite rhetorical feminists to delve deeper into how transnational processes of participation and transformation offers different insights into what feminist activism can achieve:

  1. How can rhetorical feminists seriously consider transnational feminist activism and its delivery through objects particularly in non-Western locations?
  2. In what ways can the study and practice of African feminism offer a potential space for revising and problematizing the misrepresentation of non-Western women?

These questions highlight new materialist and transnational feminist studies as sites of inquiry where both the othered and privileged can make meaning of their material agency and set up conversations about how identity, place, and body construct resistant strategies that might destabilize dominant social narratives.

Works Cited

  • Adichie, Chimamanda N. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor Books, 2015.
  • Alaimo, Stacy and Hekman, Susan. “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 1-23.
  • Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 123-154.
  • Frost, Erin. “Apparent Feminism as a Methodology for Technical Communication and Rhetoric.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-28.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Goredema, Ruvimbo. “African Feminism: The African woman’s Struggle for identity.” African Yearbook of Rhetoric, vol.1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33-41.
  • Hinton, P., T. Mehrabi, and J. Barla. “New Materialisms/New Colonialisms” (Online self-published work-in-progress). 2015. pp. 1-15.
  • Steady, C. Filomina. The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Schenkman Publishing, 1981.

Recoveries and Reconsiderations: Introduction

I am so very happy to present the first “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” section of Peitho! Perhaps the best way to explain the goals of this new feature is to draw on our initial call for submissions. As we stipulated in that call, one fundamental goal is to highlight and enhance the generative, recursive, and collaborative nature of research experiences:

We envision that “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” will…serve as a forum for sharing innovative perspectives on and application of existing feminist work, as well an incubator for new feminist research projects…In addition, we intend to provide a venue within feminist scholarly publishing that explicitly values the processes of discovery, invention, reflection, and complication. (“NEW Peitho Feature”)

With this objective in mind, we directed submitters to “close with a section that provides readers with questions to consider and/or ideas for future feminist engagement with the materials on which a submission focuses” (“NEW Peitho Feature”). This guidance, and the larger goal it supports, seeks to make scholarly research and publication less of an individual or small-group effort by encouraging scholars to share ideas and resources and by expanding the contexts in which scholars engage in what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch call “strategic contemplation.” Royster and Kirsch urge feminist scholars to take time to “pay attention to how lived experiences shape our perspectives as researchers and those of our research subjects” (22). Strategic contemplation, they elaborate, is essential for scholars wanting to produce more robust, and more ethical, scholarship:

[S]cholars have only recently begun to value the different layers of knowledge and understanding that can emerge when we attend to the world around us and in us: paying attention to the material realities of scholarly work, being mindful of the locations we visit (both archival sites and places where historical subjects lived)…By claiming a space for contemplation, reflection, and  meditation, by observing without rushing to judgment, by noticing without the immediate need to analyze, classify, and establish hierarchies, we allow new vistas to come into view, unexpected leads to shape scholarly work, and new research questions to emerge. (22)

“Recoveries and Reconsiderations” is intended, in part, as a space for collaborative strategic contemplation, a place where scholars invite others to assist with uncovering “different layers of knowledge and understanding” through observation of materials, locations, and phenomena without a rush to judgment and without the foreclosures of an immediate leap to extensive analysis and classification. In this section, we hope that both readers and writers will witness new research vistas, engage unexpected scholarly leads, and identify new, generative research questions.

To this end, each contribution to this initial offering of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” concludes with questions for readers to engage, descriptions of materials for further research, and/or suggestions for building upon the brief, contextualized accounts provided in the article. Mavis Boatemaa Beckson, for example, describes the value and power of beads among the Akan people of Ghana in order to emphasize the potential and necessity of (re)considering rhetorical objects in cultural, ethnic, and familial contexts beyond those that have, for too long, centered scholarship in Western, white rhetorical situations. The questions that conclude Beckson’s article can guide readers forward as they pursue this essential work. In a similar effort to support and propel other scholars, Kristina Lucenko offers a list of resources that might launch further study of the civility-challenging rhetorics of early Quaker women, and Lynée Lewis Gaillet includes details from the finding aids for the Margaret Scolari Barr papers at the Museum of Modern Art. Amber Nicole Brooks, too, supplies questions for others to consider when investigating the rhetorical contexts of gendered medical treatment in the late nineteenth century and when engaging the broader field of feminist rhetorical studies of health and medicine.

While many of the items that follow invite readers to reconsider the materials on which we focus our inquiries and to recover texts and objects that have been effaced through traditional approaches to the study of rhetoric, other contributors ask readers to reexamine our research, writing, and mentoring practices. Cheyenne Franklin calls attention to the overlooked and under-studied rhetorical tradition of letter-keeping among women and directs us to search for primary sources in unlikely sites, and even in hidden compartments. Janine Morris, Hannah J. Rule, and Christina M. LaVecchia use their experiences with writing groups to ask readers to consider how feminist writing groups might thoughtfully and powerfully blend professionalization and mentoring. Lastly, Liz Lane, Lori Beth De Hertogh, and Jessica Ouellette capitalize on the digital nature of Peitho by providing a venue for Peitho readers to collaboratively re-see our scholarly conversations through feminist mappings of the sources we cite (and thus amplify) through our publication choices.

The contributions in this issue are generative and the contributors generous in sharing them. Contributors also, as a group, reflect a related foundational goal of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations”: to welcome and empower more people to participate in Peitho, and, thus, to further the mission of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC). The CFSHRC mission stipulates that the organization and its affiliated publication should promote “the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media,” and “the education and mentoring of feminist faculty and graduate students in scholarship, research methods, praxis, and the politics of the profession” (“About the Coalition”). To accomplish these ends, “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” is structured to accommodate a wide variety of the institutional and personal contexts that feminist researchers, teachers, and scholars inhabit. As the call for submissions explains,

With “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” we wish to provide a space for more voices to enter our scholarly conversations. Contributions need not require the extensive time commitments of full-length articles and, thus, may be amenable to the working situations of many feminists in the field. (“NEW Peitho Feature”)

Efforts to enable further participation are reflected in the length parameters for contributions to the section. Traditional articles in Peitho run 6,000-8,000 words, while “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” articles are typically less than half that word count (“NEW Peitho Feature”). The items appearing in this issue, along with the large number of submissions received in response to our first call for submissions, suggest that this shorter format is valuable to many feminist scholars. And while no single offering can capture the full array of locations from and within which scholarship emerges for feminist rhetoricians, contributors to this first “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” section come from an impressive variety of institutions. Also notable, most of these contributors are assistant professors or graduate students. Given that each of the thirty submissions received was peer reviewed by two scholars in the process of selecting the items that follow, the format of the section appears to be amenable to both rigor and broad participation.

In keeping with the forward-looking spirit of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” I close with an invitation for you to submit your work and, in this way, expand participation even further. Peitho welcomes your descriptions of and observations about materials, sites, and methods of feminist research and practice in our field. The seven items that follow provide an excellent sampling of approaches that contributors might take in future installments, and there are many other areas for generative inquiry and conversation, including feminist digital and multimodal rhetorics, feminist pedagogy, feminist administration, and intersectional rhetorical feminism, to name but a few. For more information about submitting your work to “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” head to our website at

Works Cited

  • “About the Coalition.” Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Accessed 24 May 2020.
  • “NEW Peitho Feature: Recoveries and Reconsiderations.” Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Accessed 24 May 2020.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.

Editor’s Welcome

It has been humbling to be the editor of one the few Rhetoric and Composition journals dedicated to feminist work, throughout the Trump administration and now during the global protests working to validate, celebrate, and at least ensure that Black Lives Matter in the U.S. Regardless of my personal scholarship and political commitments, I have viewed my editorial mission to expand the definition of feminist work in the field through the submissions and publications in Peitho.

At this moment, I am reflecting and asking myself: is that enough? Is the move toward inclusion of BIPOC authors and scholarship merely a mark of performative allyship rather than authentic allyship? And if it is, what else can I do as a journal editor to challenge that model, so that I am not implicitly gatekeeping and maintaining the status quo. Regardless of my vision for Peitho, it is still a journal that follows academic convention. And by its very inception, as we have seen in the brave accounts posted in #BlackinTheIvory, the academy is built on the principles of white supremacy. So no matter how much we try to open the gates, those gates always already belong to the power base.

Therefore in my final year as editor, I want to continue to question what it means to be a feminist in our field by asking all contributors to think about the following:

  1. How does your scholarship engage with or intervene in historical or current systems of oppression?
  2. Who are you citing? Are you citing feminists of color?
  3. How can we engage history, rhetoric, writing to work to dismantle systems of oppression that create vast inequalities in our field, our country, and the world?

I recognize these are big questions, but nevertheless they are important ones. And I believe it is the responsibility of all of us doing feminist scholarly work in our current political moment. Regardless if we look at historical figures and texts, or current political movements, we all need to be thinking about how our work can engage with the larger critiques being made across disciplines of

In the upcoming journals, we are demonstrating how Peitho is working to shift the conversations around feminism and history in our field. In our current issue there is the new Recoveries and Reconsiderations section, which Wendy Sharer will discuss more in her introduction to the section. I am hopeful that this section is a space to begin conversations about the field’s history and how we can re-center our own historical narratives. Our next Summer Special Issue is devoted to Transgender Rhetorics and will be published on August 15th. KJ Rawson and GPat Paterson have put together an issue that will help us think through questions of gender, activism, and responsibility in important ways. And in our Fall 2020 issue we will have a special article cluster commemorating Rhetorical Listening, with an Introduction by Krista Ratcliff and a Response by Cheryl Glenn, all edited by Timothy Oleksiak.

Each of these sections and issues are sites where we can begin conversations on what it means to be a feminist, in composition and rhetoric and in the greater world. And it is my hope that these conversations will create spaces where we can continue to speak truth to power in Peitho, instead of merely gatekeep the conventions of the academy. We have a lot of work to do, and I intend to make space for that work in this journal during my last year as editor.

Stay Safe, Be Well, Keep Fighting.

Jen Wingard