Review of Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness

Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019. 204 pages.

Feminist rhetorical scholars have long been concerned with critically examining how care and love can be used as guiding forces in rhetorical methodologies (see Royster & Kirsch, Schell, Lunsford & Ede, among others). In Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness, Jessica Restaino revives and extends these concerns. Restaino grapples with questions such as, “What might research and writing look like, and how might knowledge take shape, in a practice (method) of intimacy as epistemology, as a way of writing through otherwise unspoken, even frightening, questions?” (9). She complicates notions of care and reflexivity in feminist rhetorical methods by considering how we might occupy a “space of misfit”—the space in between established ways of doing research and that which is unutterable and inexplicable, such as love and loss (85). She asks us, as practitioners of language, what do we do when our breath, and our words, are taken away? 

Surrender is an ethnography from Restaino’s two-year collaboration and friendship with Susan Lundy Maute who died of stage IV breast cancer. Restaino asks audiences interested in doing their own feminist scholarship around “unspoken, even frightening questions” to consider what new research questions and methods spaces of illness, love, and loss might present if we take those spaces as ones fit for academic, as well as personal, analysis. She writes, “What is lost when we ‘discipline’ the personal?” (3). She dwells in the multitude of written artifacts that remain after Sue’s death and grapples with the ethical questions of how and why to represent the language work that remains after the final years of Sue’s life. She considers what rhetorical work happened in the collaborative space of love and terminal illness that existed between her and Sue. Restaino calls for us to push beyond known methods, set research questions, articulable research-participants dynamics, and spaces of comfort in order to embrace “dark, uncertain spaces” such as the one she occupied with Sue as she loved and wrote with her through her illness (99). In this space with Sue, Restaino finds shifting notions of herself and her healthy body in relation to Sue’s ill body, altered and sometimes reversed researcher-participant dynamics, and a tension between known research tools and expectations and the lived experiences that cannot be fully articulated. She writes, “this book marks my own effort to stay in the work that overwhelms me, that pushes me to confront my own humanity and my capacity for pain and for love as rhetorical work. . . . I am most interested in exploring the ways in which personal and professional transformation is foundational to such projects and thus argue for working ‘imperfectly,’ honoring the limits as new forms of knowing” (7). In so doing, Restaino offers us a model for staying in the work that overwhelms us. 

Restaino’s vulnerable, beautiful work offers feminist researchers both an inspiration and model for going into the territories of our lives that might traditionally be considered seperate from or not fitting for research—the spaces that scare us, the moments that baffle us, the human interactions that might take our breath away—to look for how and why language works there and to consider new methods for working with language that such spaces call for. Restaino extends notions of care in feminist rhetoric by providing a model of intimacy as methodology. The concept of intimacy “invite[s] us to think of blurred boundaries, of being even dangerously close to each other: collapsed walls between the personal, the academic, and the analytic” (9). By taking care and loss as generative spaces fit for academic analysis, Surrender shows us the value of studying how language works in spaces where language may fail—spaces of death, love, and friendship. 

Restaino titles that chapters of the book in this order: “Stage IV,” “Stage III,” “Stage II,” “Stage I,” and “In Situ.” The chapter names represent the different diagnoses of breast cancer, but, because she “seeks to invert or disrupt our expectations,” the stages regress rather than progress as the book develops (6). Between each chapter, Restaino includes primary materials from her writing and collaboration with Sue, such as screenshots of text message conversations and Sue’s own writing. These inter-chapters, titled “Bloodwork” to signify a common process for cancer patients, allow readers to see firsthand the ways that language failed to relate Sue’s experience and body to Restaino while also showing us how Sue used language to document her wishes and to articulate her sense of loss. 

In “Stage IV,” Restaino calls for feminist rhetoricians to work with qualitative data in ways that “use our own porousness as an agent of knowledge making,” ways that acknolwedge the academic work we do as “part of our human growth” (41). Through collaboration and friendship, Sue used the rhetorical space between her and Restaino to come to terms with the end of her life. In this chapter, Restaino hopes that her own involvement in Sue’s language work might “serve as a testament to initmate human struggle as methodological and to the capacity of feminist rhetorical practices in allowing and generating spaces in which transformation can occur. Such transformation, when we use the frame of terminal illness, . . . marks a way to render ourselves as writing and thinking subjects and to subsequently destabilize the texts we produce” (41-2). Restaino’s alternative way of thinking of ourselves as writer-researchers, a way of thinking that embraces the deepest human vulnerability as a guiding methodology for the language work that we observe, allows those experiences like love and loss not traditionally thought of as academic work to be processes that use language in transformative ways.

 In “Stage III,” Restaino draws on the concept of “surrender,” which she defines as “a way of continually insisting on a kind of letting go . . . not only of what we already know how to do (practice) and what we think we know (epistemology) but also of our subjectivit(ies) as writers and researchers” (13). A practice of surrender called for Restaino to be continually remade by her dynamic with Sue. She explains, “As I served as her witness, her recorder, her scribe,…I was both rendered anew within our dynamic while also reoriented to my own body and mind” (48). Restaino offer feminist researchers an example of letting go completely to the work that we do—a testament to the usefulness of letting our ideas of ourselves continually change in relationship to our research collabroaters. Restaino and her work in Surrender are changed by loss, as she explains that “the impossibility of saving took on both practical and conceptual meanings, as I could not save [Sue] from dying—no one could—nor can I presently save or even replicate her through textual representation in our work following her death” (49). As Restaino illustrates when she describes a moment in which she dictated Sue’s wishes three weeks before her death, the ability to put words and material to the impending loss that they both felt was something that changed both of them—a moment which could not be fully realized without the practice of surrendering to what we think of as the limits of feminist research. Restaino shows us how instances of loss, friendship, and emotion that may not traditionally seem relevant to research may actually show us what language can do in moments that do not seem articulable. 

In “Stage II,” Restaino critiques Peter Smagorisnky’s notion that “studies work best when an author poses a limited set of answerable questions and then designs the paper around them” (14). Instead, she suggests that we embrace a tension between expectations for research findings and a “gut sense or force that exceeds capture. . . . In the context of my role as researcher-writer, these tensions represent a coming-into-agency, into an identity and methodology defined by movement and uncertainty and by my own material experience as witness [to Sue’s illness]” (84). The tension between a “hope for cohesiveness” and the “illegible status of lived experience” is a tension that Restaino calls us to embrace in our research methodologies. We must surrender to the questions that the work asks in order to fully embrace lived experience. For their collaboration, this meant that “unknowing [Sue]…meant treading out into the dark imagination where she resided with that which was not cured but also not immediately measurable: her cancer and its status as terminal . . . the utterly ungraspable sense of time and rationality, of how or when or why” (88). One method that Restaino used in their collaboration that is a written reflection in which the researcher and participant review the interviewer/researcher’s reactions to the audio recordings together and discuss any further questions (99). This practice, in particular, is one that feminist researchers might use to open a space of collaboration and reflexivity with participants while also creating a space for the shared project of articulating that which is not completely knowable, such as loss. 

In “Stage I,” Restaino thinks about rhetorical touch by considering the “rhetorical transaction uniquely possible between bodies, healthy and ill, in the dying process” (15). Restaino describes the eventual acceptance in decline that Sue’s condition that her physically deteriorating body forced them both into as an example of a “gathering around” that “exceeds earlier feminist notions of care and that demands instead radical sharing, at once threatening and comforting, housed in materiality” (106). Restaino’s caring for Sue’s body made the distance between their healthy and ill bodies visible while also drawing Restaino, as a person with a body also capable of illness, closer to Sue. Restaino provides a model of a researcher-participant dynamis from this experience of shared and divergent materiality with Sue. This dynamis includes: “1. I (participant) need you (researcher) to feel this in your body so you can understand. 2. I (researcher) need to feel that I can’t understand your (participant) experience. 3. I (participant) need you (researcher) to take care of my body  so I (as represented by the body) am safe and valued” (108). The dynamis that Restaino creates here provides a new way of thinking about care as both collaborative and material in feminist research. Though Restaino discovers this bodily codependence and collaboration as a part of meaning-making through the context of terminal illness, this model is particularly useful for feminist researchers in many other vulnerable research contexts. 

In the final chapter, Restaino draws on Jim Corder to consider the role of love in rhetorical work, as love reveals the lover “broken and incomplete but also, as such, evolving, and thus the researcher-who-loves-as-human, confused, fraught and generative.” Restaino advocates for the importance of work “that fails to protect us from pain or loss” (15). Restaino reminds us that our research might “unhinge us from our traditional expectations about time…and what it might yield,” as time, particularly in the context of terminal illness, is often out of the researcher’s control. Restaino also invites us to “integrate into our efforts at knowledge making the kinds of data that confound, frighten, or even repulse us.” In her case, this meant accepting her body as capable of the illness she observed in Sue’s, which is “not the same as living another’s experience. Rather, this is a methodological move that welcomes uncertainty, weakness, or even awfulness as valued, usable data” (148). Lastly, Restaino reminds us that if we are working in the “dark, uncertain spaces,” our traditional research tools will not work. In her own example, her audio recorder functioned as both a symbol of importance in traditional thoughts about research, but it simultaneously, contradictorily, functioned as agentive for Sue, as she describes how Sue often asked if she had “gotten that down” and, on one occasion, offered her bloodwork results to write on the back of when Restaino had forgotten her notebook and recorder. We must embrace that traditional research tools, like Restaino’s recorder,  might not work or we must let them work differently as we are moved by “dark, uncertain spaces” (152). Throughout the book, and in this chapter in particular, Restaino provides a vulnerable, visceral model of how we might do the work that frightens and pains us, and how the questions and tools that we use may shift as we venture into the most human of research spaces— the spaces with sometimes unanswerable questions and bodies that we both know and cannot know. 

Restaino leaves us with a sense that we must work within the spaces where language cannot fully succeed, such as in articulating the lived experience of terminal illness, to continue feminist work on care and embodiment. Scholars of feminist rhetoric can take up Restaino’s concept of intimacy as methodology as they move into their own spaces of discomfit, exploring the ways that language works in times of extreme human emotion, of loss and love. We must do the work that blurs the boundaries between personal, academic, and analytic—the work that scares us. 

Works Cited

  • Kirsch, Gesa and Jacqueline Jones Royster. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Lunsford, Andrea and Lisa Ede. Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
  • Schell, Eileen and K.J. Rawson, editors. Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010

Review of My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement

Baker, Rene Billups (with Keith D. Miller). My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement. Phoenix: Peacock Proud Press, 2019. 110 pages.

“Sometimes I would be my daddy’s mouthpiece,” remembers Rene Billups Baker within the pages of My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement (9). Over fifty years after her father’s tragic death, Billups Baker found supportive encouragement in civil rights movement scholar Keith D. Miller and she summoned the courage to speak for her father once more. In recovering her father’s activism and in telling her own story, Billups Baker speaks back to oversimplified popular narratives of the civil rights movement in a manner that provides both an enriched version of American history and valuable lessons for America’s contemporary political context. 

My Life provides readers a firsthand account of the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, which was vital to the strategies and successes of the larger black freedom struggle. Billups Baker’s memoir also grants readers a detailed introduction to her father, Charles Billups, a decorated WWII veteran and civil rights movement foot soldier whose activism warrants much further study. Billups pastored the New Pilgrim Church in Birmingham, which his daughter characterizes as a “big spark plug for the movement” (12). In many respects, New Pilgrim was the cornerstone of black life in the city—providing weekly sermons that fortified parishioners who daily struggled against the all-pervasive injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow South; New Pilgrim also provided a daycare center, a credit union, and free Monday night dinners for the community. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which Billups helped found in 1956, sponsored these Monday night dinners that turned into political rallies. The ACMHR was comprised of a core group of local ministers and parishioners who held their leadership sessions at New Pilgrim and also held their rallies there each week, enlisting the “movement choir” to help inspire Birmingham residents to “join the struggle to eliminate racial segregation” (12). As a core ACMHR organizer and a pastor at New Pilgrim, Billups worked alongside better-known movement greats like Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, as Billups’ daughter recalls, King so respected her father’s leadership that he enlisted Billups in his inner circle when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) centered their nonviolent protest movement in Birmingham in the Spring of 1963. Three years later, when the SCLC launched their Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, moreover, King recruited Billups to that northern city to help coordinate the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket initiative.

Written as equal parts memoir, organizational history, and biography, My Life includes rare photographs, historical news clippings, and never-before-published movement memoranda. Billups Baker pairs these valuable primary sources with her own intimate account, informed by eyewitness experiences and the stories passed down within her family about Billups, King, and pivotal moments within the larger movement for civil rights. Scholars interested in the rhetoric of nonviolent social change, for instance, will find Billups Baker’s account of the Miracle March that her father led particularly valuable. As she recounts, on Sunday May 5, 1963, after Birmingham police arrested the white folk singers and civil rights supporters, Guy Carawan and Candy Carawan, Billups led thousands of black parishioners—adults and children all dressed in their Sunday’s best—on a half-mile march toward the jail. Once there, they gathered on the jailhouse lawn, kneeling, praying, and singing movement anthems in solidarity with the Carawans. Bull Connor, the arch segregationist city commissioner, ordered Birmingham’s firefighters to turn their hoses on the protestors and the police to sic their dogs on the kneeling parishioners. “Turn on the hoses! Turn loose the dogs! We will stay here ‘til we die!” Billups defiantly responded to Connor’s orders (Billups qtd. in Billups Baker 56).  At that, the firefighters put down their hoses; the police kept their dogs on leash. Connor commanded them again and again, cursing the first responders, and ordering them to attack the protestors. They refused. Eventually Billups led the peaceful protestors (without incident) from the jailhouse lawn, right by the firefighters and police officers, back toward New Pilgrim. 

The Miracle March deeply affected King, who referred to it as “one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story,” from which he felt “for the first time the pride and power of nonviolence” in Birmingham (King qtd. in Billups Baker 56-57). The Birmingham story, moreover, was a pivotal force in the overall movement for nonviolent social, political, and economic change. As famed performer and ardent movement supporter, Harry Belafonte proclaimed: “For the civil rights effort in America, Birmingham was the turning point . . . it was the most astonishing victory of nonviolent action that any of us had even seen” (Belafonte qtd. in Billups Baker 61). Within the pages of My Life, Billups Baker details the national and international attention the nonviolent movement for civil rights in Birmingham received. She also connects its success to nonviolent demonstrations across the South and even to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Through his dedicated activism in Birmingham, Charles Billups became a trusted advisor to King. Andrew Young referred to Billups as “one of the most faithful and fearless leaders of the old ACMHR,” and Billups Baker recalls the long nights her father spent strategizing with King, the SCLC, and local leaders in Birmingham’s Gaston Motel (57). In 1966, when King announced the SCLC’s Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, therefore, it was not surprising that he recruited Billups to help with the effort. Moving to Chicago was exciting for Billups Baker, then just a teenager. For two years, her father supported the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago. Shortly after King was assassinated in Memphis, however, Billups was shot in the chest and killed in Chicago. “The police never arrested anyone for murdering my father,” Billups Baker laments, “and the case was never solved” (82). For a time, the authorities suspected that Billups’s murder was tied to King’s assassination. Fearing more violence, they closely guarded the Billups family, but officials eventually reasoned that Charles Billups was likely the victim of a random armed robbery and essentially dropped the case. The grieving and fearful Billups family—Rene, her mother, Almarie, and two sisters, Charlotte and Lisa—moved back to Birmingham and distanced themselves from the movement. 

“I hated the civil rights movement” recalls Billups Baker, “because it had simply meant trouble and pain for me” (90). This through line, encapsulated by the book title’s post colon emphasis, “Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement,” will likely be of particular interest to Peitho’s readers. Billups Baker’s memoir offers a first-hand feminist history of her experience growing from a black child into a black woman, all the while navigating the trauma and grief wrought by white supremacy. The long nights her father spent strategizing with King and other movement leaders in the Gaston Motel, for instance, are particularly memorable for Billups Baker because her mother worked the graveyard shift at a hospital and so her father would bring her and her sisters to those meetings. Unlike the family-friendly atmosphere of contemporary Black Lives Matter meetings, wherein activists are encouraged to “fully participate with their children,” the Billups children were not welcome in the Gaston Motel strategy sessions (Black Lives Matter, “What We Believe”). Their father would, thus, leave Charlotte, Rene, and Lisa in the family’s car, parked under a streetlight outside the motel. Their teachers complained about how tired the children seemed at school on the days following these late night meetings. The teacher complaints created tension in the Billupses’ marriage. Billups Baker remembers her mother, fed up with the strain that the movement placed upon their family, taking the girls and leaving her father on more than one occasion. It wasn’t just the time Billups Baker’s father spent organizing for civil rights that her mother found difficult to bear; it was also the harassment and violence his activism engendered. The Klan burned crosses in the family’s front yard; the homes of their activist friends were bombed; and their neighbors shunned the Billups out of fear that their activism put the entire neighborhood in danger of white supremacist retaliation. 

Among Billups Baker’s most haunting childhood memories was the time her father narrowly escaped a Ku Klux Klan lynching. On the evening of April 10, 1959, Billups was returning from his job as an airplane mechanic when he was forced at gunpoint into a Klansman’s truck, taken into the woods, tied to a tree, and lashed by a white mob. Billups Baker recounts how her father prayed aloud and “asked God to care for the children of these men who were cruelly beating him and were about to murder him”; she characterized her father as a “deeply Christian man, a nonviolent man,” who “didn’t want any revenge” (21). Her father’s vocal prayers spared his life, according to Billups Baker. Moved by the power of Billups’ words, the Klansman who had driven the mob into the woods decided not to kill Billups and the other Klansmen fled the scene along with their leader. After being rejected from a nearby veterans’ hospital, Billups finally received lifesaving treatment for his severe wounds. Billups Baker recalls that he “looked a horrifying sight! Nobody wants to see their father or mother looking like that!” (23). Nor should any child have to live with the reminders of this white supremacist brutality. For the rest of his life, Charles Billups would “get frantic if anyone touched him in certain places . . . the Klan scarred him and left their souvenirs on his body” (24).

“I spent my childhood living in fear, always living in fear,” Billups Baker remembers (42). Fear that the Klan would try again to lynch her father, fear that the police would once again arrest him, and fear that their house would be firebombed never left her mind when she was a child. All of this fear engendered deep anger and distrust toward white people. After Billups narrowly escaped the Klan lynching, for example, a young Rene told her father that she “would get a double-barreled shotgun and kill all the white people” (33). Her father scolded her for this idea and Dr. King said, “I would hate to see her grow up with hate in her heart” (33). They took her on peaceful marches, which she enjoyed, until the sight of the police dogs brought fearful tears to her young eyes. “If you cry, you can’t go with me,” Billups Baker remembers her father telling her. “Because I wanted to go with him, I stopped crying,” she writes (34). 

After her father died, remembers Billups Baker, “I wanted to commit suicide . . . It was just terrible, just awful! Mama ordered me to say nothing about the murder. Because we didn’t know who murdered him or why they did that, she worried that our lives might also be endangered” (82). Grieving for her father and terrified that her own life was in danger, a teen-aged Rene repressed her feelings, just as she had been forced to do as a young child marching for civil rights. It wasn’t until years later, after her mother and older sister died, after years of encouragement by her supportive partner, Winston Baker, and after she recovered—against all odds—from cancer surgery, that Billups Baker decided: “God left me here for a reason. I am speaking and writing about my father because the world needs to know about Charles Billups” (101). 

In the process of remembering, writing, and speaking about her father, Billups Baker appears to have found some peace. “In some ways, our family life during my childhood was terrible. Just awful, over and over! We had to live in so much fear! In other ways,” she recalls now, “life was rich and wonderful. My daddy and I had lots of good times over fifteen years. He told me not to hate white people. He told me to forgive” (98). While refusing to be consumed by hatred and promoting the type of forgiveness that lightens one’s own emotional burden are doubtlessly healthy attitudes to model, the way in which black forgiveness of white supremacist-inflicted tragedy has become an expected social script is highly problematic. Widely lauded statements of forgiveness by black people following the Charleston massacre and the murder of Botham Jean, for instance, have compelled cultural critics to wonder: are some actions too horrific to forgive? Does black forgiveness let white people off of the hook, divesting them of responsibility for the lethal effects of white supremacy? How can our nation heal from wounds we refuse to acknowledge, much less treat? Billups Baker’s recurrent reflections on her own fear, anger, and the compulsion to forgive encourage readers to think more deeply, and perhaps differently, about the expectation of forgiveness in the process of racial reconciliation.

Billups Baker’s description of the Children’s Crusade that her father organized and her account of her own childhood activism similarly compelled me to consider the climate change and gun violence activism spearheaded by children in our current political moment. While adults widely praise the child-activists’ bravery and leadership on issues that we have failed to confront ourselves, Billups Baker’s vivid descriptions of childhood trauma should give us all pause. Are we matching our encouraging gestures and words of praise for these young activists with mentorship and mental health support? Billups Baker’s experiences suggest the importance of validating not only the trauma that sparked the activism, but also the importance of working through the trauma of the activism itself. 

My Life provides a localized history that demonstrates the complexity of activist struggle and centers previously overlooked participants. More than this, though, Billups Baker’s memoir raises difficult questions and proffers thoughtful answers drawn from the crucible of her experience. My Life imbues civil rights history with much-needed humanity, vividly compelling readers to experience the toll that civil rights activism exacted from devoted families. Billups Baker’s memoir aptly demonstrates that localized histories, bravely told by survivors who have overcome trauma’s propensity to silence, provide significant counterpoints to oversimplified popular narratives of the civil rights movement even as accounts such as My Life share important lessons to inform contemporary activism.

Recipes for/of Subversion: The Rhetorical Strategies of The Suffrage Cookbook

Recipes, instructional or indicative, are not, of course, exclusively concerned with the more or less complicated production of routine meals or the orchestration of feasts, though, in doing just that, they evoke the elaborate scene of home, and the contentious arena of domestic politics and family values. In their different appearances, they are also persistently drawn into cultural debates around health and purity, about lifestyle and individualism, and into definitions of the national past, present, and future. (Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts,” 1)


It being a human Cook Book there will likely be some errors, but as correcting errors is the chief duty and occupation of the Suffrage Women, I shall accept gratefully whatever criticisms these good women have to offer. (L. O. Kleber, Introduction, The Suffrage Cookbook)

In 1915, the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania made a curious move.  Responding to the growing nationwide movement for equal suffrage, as well as an impending vote on suffrage for Pennsylvania women (which ultimately did not pass), the Franchise voted to increase their annual budget from $8,000 to a seemingly unrealistic $100,000. Records show that members not only solicited large donations from sympathetic philanthropists, but were also encouraged to do what they could to raise funds (rummage sales, jewelry donations, jam, jelly, and produce sales, etc.) (Leach 200). In addition, the Equal Franchise Federation commissioned a group-wide fundraiser—the sale of the organization’s own compilation, The Suffrage Cook Book. L. O. Kleber, a local member, worked to solicit recipes and information for the cookbook, which was published that year. 

The Suffrage Cook Book both communicated the value of suffrage to the Equal Franchise Federation’s audience, but also did so in a way that was traditionally coded female and, at least on the surface, communicated a female/feminized domestic image of the suffrage activities.  While cookbooks offer an interesting overview of food history, analysis of the rhetorical methods of The Suffrage Cook Book reveals the group making thoughtful and complex rhetorical moves. Overall, the cookbook demonstrates the Franchise participating in a “new” version of “true” womanhood—one that is both placed squarely within traditional domestic behavior through cooking and attention to the hearth/home and family, but also reflects women who were politically savvy, slightly more progressive than the more conservative national suffrage movement, aware of their audiences, aware of new trends in nutrition and domestic science, and finally, witty, using humor and satire to try to convince their audience. As Jessica Derleth notes in “’Kneading Politics’: Cookery and the American Suffrage Movement,” “by writing about food and displaying cooking skills, suffragists demonstrated their ongoing commitment to dominant gender expectations even as they demanded the right to vote” (452). Published in 1915, the Suffrage Cook Book also reflected the ways that the suffrage movement, and the Equal Franchise Federation in particular, had changed from their original tactics, demonstrating genre adaptability by presenting more nuanced (and sometimes more pointed) ways of arguing for suffrage.  

Ultimately, the Federation’s 1915 publication of The Suffrage Cook Book offers a way to view the Federation’s beliefs, their participation in contemporary conversations regarding both food and suffrage, and their rhetorical approaches to suffrage. The cookbook was produced at the convergence of the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania’s formation and growth within the food sciences movement, subtle changes in the suffrage movement’s rhetorical strategies, and the community cookbook movement. This essay tracks the history of the Equal Federation’s formation and attempts to align with and push back against national organizations. This is followed by a close analysis of The Suffrage Cook Book and its rhetorical moves, including an active campaign to co-opt the idea of “women in the kitchen” and use it to their advantage. Overall, the cookbook, like other suffrage cookbooks that came before it, both reinforced and reflected the beliefs of the Equal Franchise Federation and their desire to both place themselves within but also push the envelope on the national suffrage debates.

The Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania

While national work on suffrage had been going on since the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, it was in 1890 that the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association consolidated and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) came into existence (Evans 153; Derleth 452). Eventually, NAWSA comprised 700 auxiliary groups, doing work at local, state, and national levels (Sharer 27). In 1910, the group split into the older NAWSA, led by long time suffragist Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and the newer, more radical National Women’s Party, led by the young Quaker radical Alice Paul.1

In Western Pennsylvania, suffrage efforts experienced a groundswell in 1904, when local resident Jenny Bradley Roessing and her friends formed the Allegheny County Equal Rights Association (ACERA) as a branch of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (Leach 192).  However, in 1909 ACERA dropped its state and national affiliations “in subtle protest against the lack of progress in the larger organizations” (Leach 193). In 1910, the former members of ACERA began the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania (Leach 193) and, with some concerns, aligned themselves with NAWSA.  

The Federation thus claimed an interesting space for itself—on the face, it was aligned with the more conservative of the suffrage organizations, but largely because of their reluctance to embrace the more radical work of what would become the National Women’s Party. However, they were also disappointed in the conservative, state-by-state work of the national organization, with their focus on “educational strategies” and lack of focus on the political necessity of women’s enfranchisement (Leach 193-194). According to Holly McCammon, this was typical of the entire movement, where “a rising new generation of suffragists argued that the ways of the older suffragists were outdated and too passive” (795). As Leach notes, because it was “determined to make friends, not enemies, the Equal Franchise stressed conventional strategies rather than militancy” (193). In reality, however, the group believed in a more political, more activist agenda than NAWSA had previously employed, and worked to set an ambitious agenda to create their own headquarters in Harrisburg, train women to speak publicly and lobby key lawmakers, and to reach the Pennsylvania public with any means they could imagine (Leach 194). Their production of the 1915 The Suffrage Cook Book is a reflection of this public education drive. While advertised as a fundraiser, The Suffrage Cook Book both contributed to the Federation’s goal of retaining a more conservative image for women while still pushing the suffrage agenda and making some pointed commentary regarding both non-supporters and anti-suffragists.

Community Cookbooks

The surge in early twentieth-century suffrage activities coincided with an already established community cookbook movement. While work on suffrage had wound down during the Civil War, community cookbooks appeared for the first time in 1864, when Maria Moss’s Poetical Cookbook was sold to subsidize costs for the medical care of Union soldiers (Hilliard iv). The cookbooks were a part of a larger rash of self-help manuals published during the time (Johnson 20) and often contained both recipes for food as well as cleaning products, home remedies, and household advice, gathered from contributors and assembled for the specific purpose of fundraising. As a result of Moss’s initial success, other groups began selling cookbooks for war relief, but such projects quickly branched out to local community and religious organizations which sought to fundraise. Such practices not only brought together communities of like groups of people, but the cookbooks also served to communicate American values about food, household order, and cleanliness to both residents and incoming immigrant populations (Hilliard iv; Walden 77). By 1915, community cookbooks were a well-established means for local fundraising, and one in which the suffrage movement also participated.

The timing and overall success of community cookbooks as a fundraising device also coincided with the suffrage movement’s needs to raise funds for lobbying, travel, and printings. Sociologist Stacy Williams has located seven suffrage cookbooks sold as fundraisers. These included The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (Burr, 1886 and 1890, Boston), the Holiday Gift Cook Book (Rockford Equal Suffrage Association, 1891), Washington Women’s Cookbook (Jennings, 1910), The Suffrage Cook Book (Kleber, 1915), Enfranchised Cookery (Hoar, 1915), Suffrage Cook Book (Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County, 1916), and Choice Recipes Compiled for the Busy Housewife (Clinton Political Equality Club, 1916). Of the seven cookbooks that were published, only two are readily available—Burr’s The Woman Suffrage Cookbook from 1886/1890, and Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book from 1915.2 I have chosen to work with the Kleber because it quietly but explicitly pushed the rhetorical envelope, demonstrating genre adaptability in ways that reflect the more complicated positions that the suffrage movement had begun to take on by 1915. 

It’s difficult overall to know who bought and read any of the suffrage cookbooks, or how successful they were, either in convincing their readers to join the cause, or in raising funds for the movement. I have been unable, for example, to locate any record of profits from the sales of The Suffrage Cook Book, or find evidence of how (or if) it contributed to the Federation’s 1915 fundraising goals.3

In part, all of the suffrage cookbooks were certainly purchased by women who were connected to the groups selling the books, and were therefore already supporting the cause by financially supporting their local groups (Williams 152). In addition, some evidence exists that in Washington DC in particular, the suffragists went door-to-door, selling the cookbooks and asking for support for their cause. “These tactics likely resulted in women who were not members of a suffrage organization but were sympathetic or indifferent to the movement purchasing and reading the cookbooks” (Williams 152). The audience for the cookbooks, however, was diverse and surely would also have been comprised of women simply looking for a new cookbook, those who were interested in but not yet committed to the cause, and a smaller group comprised of those who did not necessarily support the movement but were curious about how the cookbooks functioned. While the cookbooks most likely had the greatest appeal to those who were already part of the movement, however, they were also meant to convince those who were undecided, who were worried about the pressures that suffrage would put on wives and mothers to “engage in the scuffles and hurly-burly of ‘a man’s world’” (Schneider and Schneider 166).

Suffrage and Conveying the “Proper” Image

Women in 1915 America, while they were on the cusp of enfranchisement, were still often bound by leftover beliefs from the nineteenth century about the cult of true womanhood, with its four pillars of piousness, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Cott 69).  Women by the late 1800s, however, had been increasingly leaving the home and entering the public realm, as working class women sought factory work and upper class women publicly worked on various social issues (temperance, suffrage, poverty, etc.). Because suffrage work increasingly included forays into the public/male sphere to attend rallies, give speeches, march in parades, attend political meetings, etc., women were vilified for their disruption of the feminine ideal. Nationwide debates (and even a few divorce proceedings) erupted “about suffragists and their relationships to their husbands, household duties, and domestic harmony” (Derleth 451). As a result, suffragists’ continued participation in the movement led to what Evans terms “politicized domesticity” (153).

Overall, there was tremendous fear that women’s participation in the suffrage movement as a whole would render them too masculine—desexed, unmarriagable, and unable to care for their homes and children. At their best, suffragists were seen as meddling in the proper roles for women and men. At their worst, they were “painted as neglectful mothers and kitchen-hating harridans, busy politicking while their children starved” (Martyris).4 Most of the anti-suffragist arguments were an extension of the early arguments that women’s roles were in the home, and that their moral influence on the voting men in their households already gave them sufficient political power (Schneider and Schneider 166). 

Since suffragists were acutely aware of the ways in which they were portrayed, they worked to counteract those views in the hopes that a “kinder” view of them as womanly women, still able to attend to their duties as wives and mothers, would further their cause. Through such work as the community cookbooks, as Derleth notes, “suffragists used the practice and language of cookery to build a feminine persona for their movement and to demonstrate that enfranchising women would not threaten the vital institution of home and family” (451-2). In addition, they worked to find ways to coopt the “in the home” argument. As Sheryl Hurner notes in “Discursive Identity Formation of Suffrage Women,”  “for the suffrage cause to succeed, women needed to create new identities and definitions of womanhood to extract themselves from symbolically defensive positions” (251). Because even other women were opposed to the ideals of suffrage, the movement had to work doubly hard to present positive/feminized representations of themselves. The suffrage cookbooks overall combine an outward symbol of political work (the very public and visible work to advocate for suffrage) with a symbol of female domesticity (the cookbook itself). The suffrage cookbooks also sent an important message to detractors, implying that suffragists could advocate for political/radical change, but still be women who cared for their families, children, and homes. 

In part, the cookbooks particularly reinforced the idea of women’s role as silent in the culture. They used print culture to co-opt the idea of gendered domesticity, by both sharing the printed message of suffrage quietly and privately while still declaring their public positions to willing readers. The Suffrage Cook Book is no exception. Instead of proclaiming their positions loudly and in public forums (and in turn being referred to as the “shrieking sisterhood” (Chapman 36)), the cookbooks are rhetorically savvy. Their publication meant that the suffrage message could be conveyed and digested in the privacy of the women’s sphere—the home (and more specifically, the kitchen). In her work Making Noise, Making News, Mary Chapman discusses multiple print rhetorical devices that the suffrage movement used to convey their message. In addition to having their own periodicals, they used slogans, silent tableaux, letters to the editor, novels, plays, sketches, songs, film scripts, and speeches (Chapman 7).5 By the time that the cookbooks were starting to be printed in earnest, print culture was also a significant part of their strategy. While print culture could provide for mixed loud/quiet opportunities (“loud” news girls bearing “Suffrage News” bags stood on street corners and yelled out to sell “quiet” suffrage papers, for example), the cookbooks participate in what Chapman notes is a “silent voice” (5).  

This voice also successfully worked with and yet defied the anti-suffragists notions (and often those of the NAWSA) that women should stop being loud and public.  The cookbooks’ use of print did just that: a suffragist “could ‘shout,’ ‘holler,’ and ‘declare’ and be rhetorically persuasive while her literal body remained invisible, acoustically silent, and therefore womanly and unassailable” (Chapman 5). While silence is often seen as a negative for women, the particular silence of the cookbooks actually functions as a powerful rhetorical device (Chapman 58).  It offers women a voice to answer both resistant and male speech and masculinized derision of their roles.   

 The image of women who were functional in both the public and private spheres was also applied so that the reader/viewer could even imagine women leaders of the movement, such as cookbook contributor Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as a woman “who presided lovingly over her home and who sent out her good works and words from that sphere where she exerted her most profound influence of all” (Johnson 118). In an attempt to both appeal to new members and convince those who were against them that the vote would not disrupt their roles as women, much suffrage marketing was concerned with conveying this image. As Cathleen Rauterkas notes in Go Get Mother’s Picket Sign, “all of the suffrage materials, including clothing, postcards, dolls, cartoons, photographs, tea sets and tools of civil disobedience showed that they did not forget the responsibility to the home. Everything they used encompassed the right of suffrage and maintained the image of the dutiful wife and mother” (1). The announcement of the publication of The Suffrage Cook Book in The Woman’s Journal (the major publication of the suffrage movement), reinforces this, noting that the cookbook “ought to silence forever the slander that women who want to vote do not know how to cook” (“Cook Book Will Silence Enemy” 325). The material reminders of the suffragists’ work, including the cookbooks, successfully but quietly reminded citizens of the suffrage movement and intentionally worked to frame the suffrage movement as a movement that was appropriately female/feminine/proper. 

L.O. Kleber’s Influence on The Suffrage Cook Book

Behind every community cookbook is a person or team making decisions about the contents.  Little information is available about L. O. Kleber, the woman who compiled The Suffrage Cook Book. Whenever she is mentioned in newspaper articles about the Equal Franchise Federation or articles about suffrage cookbooks, she is routinely mentioned as L. O. Kleber, and attempts to discover the meaning of the “L. O.” eluded me. According to letterhead produced by the Equal Franchise Federation, Kleber was not listed among the board members of the Equal Franchise Federation in 1913 (“Equal Franchise Federation”). However, a 1916 news article from The Pittsburgh Gazette Times notes that “Mrs. L.O. Kleber reported that Dr. Anna Howard Shaw’s meetings in Pittsburgh had netted the Federation $2500,” (5) perhaps placing her as a key fundraiser or even treasurer. Kleber’s photo also appears in the Pittsburgh Sunday Post in 1916, as a delegate (Pittsburgh) and speaker attending the 48th annual convention of the Pennsylvania Equal Suffrage Association, of which the Equal Franchise Federation was a branch member. 

Black and white portrait photo of a woman smiling and looking slighty off camera.

Fig. 1. Suffragists to attend convention.

She presumably also had a daughter who was near to adult in 1915;  a Miss Laura Kleber of Pittsburgh, PA is listed as a contributor to the cookbook. Thus, it becomes clear that Kleber herself, while remaining a bit of a mystery to us, was an active and known participant in the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania. Clearly her 1915 activism in working on the cookbook was part of her larger activism within the group.

While many versions of Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book have been reprinted since its initial publication, the original version shows the designer’s attention to the suffrage movement, and the Equal Franchise Federation’s place within it, right down to the detail of the blue cloth cover. Rhetorically, the cover reflects the state-by-state movement of suffrage as well as the Equal Franchise Federation’s desire to see men and women have equal legal rights to enfranchisement. The cover also reflects patriotism (in the form of Uncle Sam as well as the blue cover) and justice (the scales of justice). Unlike future editions, which list L. O. Kleber prominently on the front cover, no author or editor is listed here. Kleber is listed as “the compiler” in the front pages. There is also no indication from the cover that this is produced by the Equal Franchise Federation. The cover looks professionally designed and seems to indicate that The Suffrage Cook Book belongs to a larger movement, rather than a smaller local group. This may have been intentional on the part of the cover designer, or it may have been an economic decision (more colors and more embossed lettering would have meant greater cost). Regardless, a carefully crafted image of a woman and a man in the “scale of justice,” shows them as equally balanced and held by Uncle Sam. In his hand, he guides a wheel, whose spokes are “a roll call of the suffrage states,” including half a spoke for Illinois, which had partial suffrage (“Cooking for a Cause”). Pennsylvania, rightfully, does not appear as one of the spokes.

The cover of The Suffrage Cook Book is a perriwinkle blue with gold lettering. It features a man holding scales in one had and a wheel in the other.

Fig. 2. Cover of The Suffrage Cook Book.

The Use of Frames: Crafting Careful Rhetorical Arguments

Looking within the cookbook provides further evidence of the rhetorically savvy nature of the Equal Franchise Federation and their use of contemporary arguments for suffrage. For example, the social science concept of framing offers one powerful way to read the rhetorical positioning of the suffragists, and such frames are also reflected in significant ways in The Suffrage Cook Book. Frames are defined as  “action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization” (Williams 148). Holly McCammon and Karen Campbell, in “Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919,” note the existence of “frame bridging” (63) in the suffrage movement. Initially, the suffragists nationwide had used “justice arguments”—those that argued that women, as citizens of the United States, had an inherent right to the vote. However, they quickly discovered that these arguments were met with significant resistance and thus were not rhetorically successful. Their arguments were generally more successful when the women moved to an “expediency argument,” which argued that allowing them to vote would help to bring their nurturing qualities into a public motherhood role, thus improving public life through the addressing of social ills (although suffragists continued to use both arguments when appropriate) (McCammon and Campbell 63). Aileen Kraditor notes the practice of using expediency arguments as early as 1894, and NAWSA used both arguments whenever practical, although they increasingly saw the value of the expedience argument (52). Expedience arguments were used in situations where “social reform was their principle goal and suffrage the means” as well as situations where “the link of woman suffrage to reform seemed to be the best way to secure support for their principle goal: the vote” (Kraditor 45-46). The expedience argument “crafted their public arguments for suffrage in ways that resonated with widely held beliefs in society; in this case, particularly beliefs about women’s appropriate roles” (McCammon and Campbell 63).6 While the claims were the same in both cases (that women should have the vote), the expedience warrant was far more effective than the justice warrant alone. Thus, the expedience frame bridged the beliefs of suffrage (which might be met with opposition) with those that were already held about women’s appropriate roles, and created a new public role in which women’s “special skills” would be brought to bear on public life. In this respect, their argument created a frame that simply extended the role of women, rather than radically changing it.  Likewise the suffrage cookbooks also occupied a space where they presented themselves as examples of the expedience argument. With a focus on nutrition, food science, and family, the cookbooks reinforced the nurturing qualities and public motherhood roles of the suffragists. 

Reflections of the New Woman

In addition to shifts in the framing of suffrage arguments, The Suffrage Cook Book also reflects the Equal Franchise Federation’s attention to other social and cultural changes present by 1915. In particular, the cookbook demonstrates adherence to the new food science movement. Rather than reflecting the “true” woman, the cookbook reflects a “new” woman, creating a more complicated image for themselves—part knowledgeable and cutting-edge housewife, part political organizer, rolled into a compatible whole. For example, The Suffrage Cook Book mixes the new formatting for recipes with the older format of including household hints and recipes for things such as food for the sick and household goods like soap. The recipes follow the “newer” trend at the time of including a list of ingredients followed by the instructions for how to put the recipe together (older recipes contained a single narrative paragraph with the ingredients embedded within).7As Derleth notes, the suffrage cookbooks “capitalized on widespread public concerns and conversations—about health and safety, science and modernization, and the consequences of urbanization—to promote the cause of female enfranchisement” (453). As such, The Suffrage Cook Book works to create an image of women who were both comfortable in the kitchen (no very basic instructions are included for brand new cooks), but were also on the cutting edge of food economy, food science, and family nutrition

Within the seemingly silent book pages, and in addition to the recipes that one would expect to find in any cookbook, Kleber’s cookbook also offers a reflection of the Equal Franchise Federation’s local participation in the suffrage movement. Just over half of the contributions to the cookbook (30 out of 57) are from women in Western Pennsylvania, where the cookbook was published (Green). While there is a list of contributors at the beginning of the book, many of the recipe entries are not identified by contributor unless the contributor is a person of note.

In addition, the opening includes a brief introduction by well-known Western Pennsylvania columnist Erasmus Wilson, who discusses the shift in cookbooks from those that were comprised of recipes that merely tasted good, to those that are aimed at maintaining and promoting health of body and mind (as noted previously, the more modern scientific and nutrition-based approach to food). Wilson likewise places cooking and domestic science as natural (he even refers to them as “sacred”) activities of the suffragists, but also ones that are squarely found in the home. According to Wilson’s introduction to the book, “Women being the homekeepers, and the natural guardians of the children, it is important that they be made familiar with the culinary art so they may be entirely competent to lead coming generations in the paths of health and happiness. So say the members of Equal Franchise Associations throughout the length and breadth of the land” (8). Kleber’s use of Wilson in the introduction sets the reader up for the cookbook as a publication that shows suffrage and the domestic ideal as compatible and links the local Western Pennsylvania organization to the larger national organization. In this scenario, regardless of the suffrage fight, the pillars of true womanhood are reflected in attention to domesticity, piousness, and food purity—but when read carefully these also reflect a new/modern woman who is both aware of the science of nutrition and comfortable having a political voice and traversing the “length and breadth” of the country to fight for her cause.    

Creating Ethos Through The Use of Experts

 Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book also follows the model of many of the other community cookbooks by having prominent people contribute to the collection. In addition to their recipe, advice, or suffrage statements, many contributors to Kleber’s collection included photographs that were published next to their pieces.   Such a reliance on “experts” is used to create a greater sense of authority in order to create a greater sense of credibility.  While rhetorical scholars view this as a fallacy, it is, of course, often an effective strategy for helping an audience to relate to and buy into your point, and participates in the traditional practice of many fundraising cookbooks. 

There are several types of “experts” presented in The Suffrage Cook Book. First, Kleber includes recipes and advice from prominent nutrition and health experts. These include information about care of the sick, including a recipe for various types of breakfast mush, contributed by a Dr. Harvey Wiley. Wiley was the driving force behind the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and he later worked in the Good Housekeeping Institute laboratories (“Harvey Washington Wiley”). Wiley encouraged suffrage as a means of securing votes for clean food and drug legislation (Derleth 460) and was also a contributor to the Clinton (NY) Political Equality Club’s 1916 cookbook, Choice Recipes Compiled for the Busy Housewife (Derleth 458). As such, Wiley’s name may well have been familiar to many readers of the cookbook.8

In addition to Wiley, Julia C. Lathrop, the bureau Chief of the U.S. Department of Labor Children’s Bureau, sent in a letter of support for the project (“Lathrop, Julia Clifford”), as did social reformer Jane Addams.  Likewise, an entire section at the end of the cookbook includes “albuminous beverages” (those concocted from eggs), contributed by dietician Alida Frances Pattee, whose book Practical Dietetics is described as “an invaluable book for the home” (222).  Including work from nationally prominent social leaders and those involved in dietetics, nutrition and children’s work strengthens the overall ethos of the cookbook, and shows the suffragists as up-to-date on nutrition and food purity issues. 

The second type of “expert” included in The Suffrage Cook Book was people who were active and involved nationwide in the suffrage movement, particularly members of NAWSA. Carrie Chapman Catt, twice President of NAWSA, included both her image and a recipe for Pain D’Oeufs (184). Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of NAWSA between 1904 and 1915, also contributed her support to the project, although she admits that she does not know how to cook, and contributes a recipe that she saw in her local newspaper for bacon with cheese, mustard, and paprika.  Shaw notes “now that is a particularly tasty dish if it is well done. I never did it, but somebody must be able to do it who could do it well” (60). Likewise, recipes and letters of support were contributed by women involved in suffrage and other progressive work across the country, including Mrs. Samuel Semple, the President of the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women, and Harriet Taylor Upton, President of the Ohio Women’s Suffrage Association. Mrs. Henry Villard, President of the Women’s Peace Conference, contributed both a statement about the importance of the peace process as well as an image (34-35), and Mrs. Ava Belmont (suffrage activist and President, Political Equality Association, New York) included a recipe for “Mayonnaise Dressing Without Oil” as well as her image (176).

Including pieces from these women helps to show readers that the cookbook organizers were connected to and had the support of the national suffrage movement. In addition, it shows the reader that the Equal Franchise Federation was particularly aligned with NAWSA, where Catt, Shaw, and Belmont in particular were well-known national leaders. No recipes, images, or letters of support are included from the more radical suffragists, but including these from the likes of Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw shows that the Equal Franchise Federation was aligned with and supported by NAWSA.

The third type of “expert” came from authors and “famous people,” such as author Jack London and his wife, who contributed a recipe for Roast Duck (46) and one for Stuffed Celery (99). Charlotte Perkin Gilman [sic] includes a recipe for boiled rhubarb with apples that she labels “Synthetic Quince” (200). Author and columnist Irvin S. Cobb sent a letter of support, and labor leader Margaret Robins contributed a recipe for Lemon Cream (160) 

Beyond this, however, a genre shift is shown in the final type of expert included—national political leaders. Pushing the envelope for what a reader might expect in a cookbook, and making an explicit political statement, political support for the women’s fight for suffrage was offered in the form of letters from the Governors of Arizona, California, Wyoming, Illinois, Kansas, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. These men, representing eight of the spokes from The Suffrage Cook Book’s cover, wrote in with support for the women and their cause, as well as reflections on suffrage in their own states, lending a significant air of authority to both the cookbook and the suffrage project. In addition, the inclusion of these letters (usually a paragraph or two, interspersed throughout the collection) reflects the group’s changing framing of the suffrage argument.

The expediency argument, discussed earlier, with its focus on using women’s suffrage to assist with social change, is particularly reflected in the letters submitted to The Suffrage Cook Book by the various governors. Idaho Governor Alexander, for instance, writes that in Idaho, suffrage is no longer an experiment, but a successful institution that helps move forward needed “domestic and moral” reforms. His letter, like many, both supports the expediency frame and reassures the reader that women’s suffrage is non-threatening: “The women form an intelligent, patriotic and energetic element in our politics. They have been instrumental in accomplishing many needed reforms along domestic and moral lines, and in creating a sentiment favorable to the strict enforcement of the law” (155). Likewise, Oregon’s Governor Oswald West reports that women’s “influence is most always found upon the side of better government. The result of their efforts is already being reflected in a number of important measures recently adopted in this state, which will make for the public good” (220). Lastly, Kansas Governor George Hodges reports that the replacement of men by women in such government offices as the Board of Administration, the Board of Health, and the Board of Education has facilitated positive change for the state. “The women of Kansas have ‘arrived’ and the state service is better by their participating in it” (182). In this way, the governors, in a cookbook, move the conversation about public activity and republican citizenship from one that is typically gendered male into one that has moral and socially responsible input from women. By including the Governors’ statements in The Suffrage Cook Book, readers can see that the Equal Franchise Federation is also supporting the right of women to vote not just because they are women and somehow inherently deserve it, but because they want a place at the table of state and national policy making.

The use of various experts in the cookbook both reflects a concern for ethos and shows the rhetorical savvy of the Equal Franchise Federation. It also shows the Equal Franchise Federation’s ability to both align themselves with but push against contemporary suffrage arguments and social views about women’s roles. While the “true” woman was in charge of the domestic matter of the home, the “new” woman is appropriately extended to be in charge of the domestic matters of the country as well. By 1915, with successful enfranchisement in place in multiple states, The Suffrage Cook Book was therefore able to offer encouragement and support for the cause from local and national leaders in food science, the suffrage movement, and state politics.

Moving Beyond NAWSA-Pushing the Rhetorical Envelope

The Suffrage Cook Book, in addition to relying on authority figures and an expediency frame to help support the suffrage argument, also includes aphorisms, suffrage-themed recipes (Suffrage Salad Dressing (174) and Suffrage Angel Cake (122), for instance), and “fake recipes” for the reader. However, rhetorically the most powerful recipes in the Kleber collection are the four  “fake” recipes. These represent a significant genre shift from the earlier straight-forward “recipe-household hint” format seen, for example, in Burr’s 1886/1890 The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. Kleber’s inclusion of Hymen Bread (107) and Five Oz. of Childhood Fondant (215), for example, both offer cheery lists of ingredients for a happy marriage and a successful childhood, both reinforcing the notion that women involved in suffrage work could still be kind, generous, and successful spouses and mothers. 

A recipe for "Hymen Bread"

Fig. 3. Hymen Bread recipe (107).

A recipe from "Candies, Inc" to make five ounces of childhood fondant.

Fig. 4. Five-ounce Childhood Fondant recipe (215).

At closer read, though, the Childhood Fondant recipe is not a cheery as it looks; it reinforces the attention to social issues such as childhood poverty, as well as an attention to the physical needs of children (sunshine, good food, etc.) that were a substantial part of reform during the Progressive Era, and pushes the reader towards action. The recipe challenges NAWSA’s approach of simply educating people regarding reform, and instead contains a call to “distribute to the poor.” Both recipes are reminders of the public’s “public housekeeping” expectations for true women, with subtly added reminders that social justice, tolerance, and action were part of the new woman’s role.

More directly and pointedly geared towards the suffrage fight, Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband (Kleber 147) reveals that the women working on the collection were also interested in attempting to change minds. This recipe (along with Anti’s Favorite Hash) also provides a significant departure, for example, from Burr’s 1886/1890 cookbook, which offers aphorisms but no “fake” recipes, and certainly no direct attacks on the opposition. While Burr’s earlier focus on the support for suffrage is clear, Burr’s cookbook is otherwise non-confrontational.  Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband, in contrast, shows an appeal to a potentially reluctant audience that is reflective of the cookbook’s more complex rhetorical approaches of 1915. It is, as Dylan Dryer notes, a “motivated genre change, as tactical social intervention” (Dryer). The argument in the Pie recipe also reinforces the expediency argument presented in the governors’ letters that women have worthwhile contributions to make to significant social issues.

Fig. 5. “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband,” Kleber, 174.

Fig. 5. “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband.” (Kleber, 174).

The recipe is overtly political; it shows a sophisticated use of wit as well as a basic list of the issues about which women want to be able to vote. Much like the Childhood Fondant recipe, this list of “ingredients” shows that the suffragists were aware of and concerned about many of the major “municipal housekeeping” causes that women championed—peace, child labor and working conditions for women, and access to wholesome and clean food/water. As Derleth notes, such advocates “pointed to air quality, food purity, and city sanitation as domestic concerns” (457). These were considered issues where women might have appropriate input, and where being enfranchised would help contribute to the country’s moral and physical improvement. The intentional inclusion of this recipe shows women’s awareness of complex social issues (and the need to treat them carefully) and their inclination to draw attention to them.

The recipe also shows an awareness for how to “treat” such issues—carefully, without sarcasm or rough treatment. It also indicates the group’s understanding of class issues and the need to approach them gently, and aligns their own group as less elite and more class inclusive. In part, it shows their understanding of and attacks the notion that the Pennsylvania suffragists had earlier “adopted an elitist posture that kept working-class women at a distance,” (Leach 196) a position that they did not want to take. In fact, in contrast to NAWSA’s general practices, Equal Franchise Federation leader Jennie Roessing insisted that the group address suffrage in all locations, including “every Grange, labor union, church society, men’s gathering, and college group in the State” (Leach 201). While some of the Equal Franchise Federation members reportedly initially chafed at being asked to do work “in the precinct organizations of the Woman Suffrage party rather than in women’s clubs of their own social class” (Leach 203), Roessing’s vision of class inclusion is evident here in the Pie recipe (as it was in the Childhood Fondant recipe as well). This recipe uses “upper crust” both to refer to pie and to refer to class, with a dig at the anti-suffragists along the way. Rhetorically, this shows the suffragists using a domesticated form (the recipe) to make an overtly political point.

Pushing the envelope even further, the fourth “fake” recipe, the Anti’s Favorite Hash, reprinted from The Ebensburg Mountaineer Herald, is much more severe in tone, and recognizes the strength of the anti-suffrage movement, while deriding their viewpoints. This is not a “quiet” recipe but rather a direct attack on the rhetorical methods and beliefs of the Antis. 

Fig. 6. “Anti’s Favorite Hash,” Kleber, 56.

Fig. 6. “Anti’s Favorite Hash.” (Kleber, 56).

The ingredients of acid, mangled truth, injustice, and vitriol, point to a campaign on the part of the anti-suffragists that was run by maligning those who fought for the cause. While the tone is sarcastic, the inclusion of this “recipe” in the suffrage cookbook indicates an awareness of the ways in which the antis perceived the suffragists, and the power of such an image. As well, it offers a perception of how the antis functioned. The view of the antis as seeing the world through “dark glasses” indicates the suffragists’ sense of the antis as impeding progress and maintaining a system of oppression. Lastly, the recipe’s inclusion exerts pressure on those who did not see the potential damage of the anti-suffrage sentiment.

Overall, these two final “recipes” are a momentary act of disruption in an otherwise conventional text. Because they include “deeply political issues in a form and context that used domesticity and cookery as metaphors for political engagement,” (Derleth 465), they also push the boundary on piousness and submissiveness, two of the key pillars of the cult of domesticity and two behaviors that NAWSA encouraged in their membership. Rhetorically, these two recipes reflect a moment of what Burke terms “recalcitrance,” which happens when we “extend our pseudo-statements into the full complexity of life” (Burke 255). As such, while wit and sarcasm cover some of the more direct messaging, the recipes push the boundaries of acceptable behavior advocated by NAWSA, even if temporarily, and venture towards the more overtly political and “loud” statements made by the NWP. While important, they are momentary rhetorical disruptions, however, carefully woven into an otherwise quiet, feminized, and seemingly unobjectionable text. 


Overall, the participants in the woman suffrage movement used a variety of means to forward their agendas. In the case of suffrage cookbooks, however, they worked hard to use established gender norms and expectations to their advantage. Suffragists used the cookbook to help counter beliefs that voting would somehow masculinize them, and render them unfit to care for their homes and families. Furthermore, they used the cookbooks overall as a “quiet” (and therefore feminine/feminized) way to communicate their views, in direct contrast to the ways they had been portrayed as loud or shrill. As Bower notes, “earlier feminists often felt compelled to repress expressions of interest in domestic life for fear that such expression would consign them to an essentialized ‘feminine’ role” (9). But suffragists’ participation in the production of community cookbooks was aimed at exactly that—reminding their readers that they could do both—they would stay female/feminine even if/as they participated in civic life. They used femininity arguments to their advantage and cleverly “connected women with domesticity and socially acceptable forms of womanhood” (Derleth 467).

The Equal Franchise Federation’s use of The Suffrage Cook Book showed their understanding of the complexities of the suffrage movement, and the expectation for their behavior within it. In addition, it showed their understanding of the domestic science movement, the suffrage movement’s limitations, and their own ability to navigate these but also press against them in still seemingly acceptable ways. Overall, Kleber’s collection works to rely on authority, recognize the competition (and attempt to call them out as seeing the movement in unfair ways), use and push against an already extant and gendered idea of women belonging in the kitchen, and work to convince those who were not yet on their side. By adding in recipes from regional women, contributions from famous authors, support from Governors, and “fake” recipes, Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book creates a sophisticated, political, relevant product that reflects the Equal Franchise Federation’s complex position on suffrage in 1915—both aligned with but pushing against traditional roles for women, both aligned with but pushing against NAWSA. Kleber’s collection works to subtly remind the reader that suffragists could remain feminine/feminized even as they worked for major social change. They could be the authority figures in their homes, as well as being humorous, politically involved, and astute to both class and gender issues. As such, they invoke disruption through convention, even if it is only momentary. Much work clearly went into the collection, and it reflects the complexity of the suffrage movement and the Equal Franchise Federation’s participation in it.  


  1. This is, of course, a drastically simplified version of the struggle for suffrage. For further elaboration, see Weiss’s The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Kraditor’s The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, or Evans’s Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America.
  2. Both the Burr and Kleber are widely available online and in reprints, although most of the reprints do not retain the original formatting of the text of the recipes and omit any photos. Burr’s earlier work is a more traditional collection of recipes and household hints and is less overtly political, reflecting earlier suffrage positions (the second version was published in 1890, just as NAWSA consolidated).
  3. While no evidence exists in the newspaper announcements or the Library of Congress filing as to the cost of The Suffrage Cook Book, it likely sold for somewhere around $1, based on the price for both other books and other fundraising cookbooks at the time. The Washington Equal Suffrage Cookbook, for example, sold in 1910 for $1 (“An Equal Suffrage Cook Book”).
  4. As Flexnor and Fitzpatrick note, the anti-suffrage movement was large, organized, and often stealthy. Members included those with liquor interests (who worried that women would vote for temperance (289)) and those with business/labor interests who feared that women would vote for labor reform and anti-trust legislation (289; 293). The Equal Franchise Federation recognized liquor interests and other women as their primary local opponents (Leach 191).
  5. The Equal Franchise Federation also distributed packets of yellow flower seeds, imagining a spring where suffrage gardens would flourish and provide a quiet but external sign of support for the movement (Leach 207).
  6. Jessica Derleth points out the difficulties of the expediency argument, which allowed for class and race bias within the movement, including the argument that only the “most qualified” women should be able to vote. These biases plagued the movement throughout its existence (452).
  7. As Sarah Walden notes, recipes did not change to the current standardized list of ingredients/instructions format until the Progressive Era, when the food science movement worked to make recipes into a form that contained standardized measurements (114).
  8. Wiley also addresses the frugal cook when he discusses the fact that the cereals he recommends are “sufficient for from four to six persons. The cost of the raw material based on the farmer’s price is not over 1 ½ cents” (103), indicating that the cookbook is not just geared for the upper class. While this is not the focus of my analysis, various other recipes also address meat and even fruit
    substitutions to present economical choices.

Works Cited

  • “An Equal Suffrage Cook Book.” The Woman’s Journal, Vol. 41, No. 39, Sept. 1910, p. 157.
  • Bower, Anne. “Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings.” In Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, edited by Anne Bower. U of Massachusetts P, 1997, pp. 1-14.
  • Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change. U of California P, 1984.
  • Chapman, Mary. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism. Oxford UP, 2014.
  • “Cook Book Will Silence Enemy.” The Woman’s Journal, Vol. 46, No. 41, October 9, 1915, p. 325.
  • “Cooking for a Cause: Finleyville Resident Discovers 1915 Cookbook.” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, November 3, 1996, p. G13.
  • Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. Yale UP, 1997.
  • Derleth, Jessica. “’Kneading Politics’:  Cookery and the American Woman Suffrage Movement.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, Vol. 17, 2018, pp. 450-474.
  • Dryer, Dylan. “From the Editors.Composition Forum, vol. 31, Spring 2015. Accessed 15 May 2019.
  • Dubisar, Abby. “’If I Can’t Bake, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution:’ CODEPINK’s Activist Literacies of Peace and Pie.” Community Literacy Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Spring 2016, pp. 1-18.
  • Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania.” Letter to Miss Ada James, 20 December 1912. University of Wisconsin Collection.
  • Evans, Sara. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. Free Press, 1997.
  • Flexnor, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the US. Harvard UP, 1996.
  • Floyd, Janet and Laurel Forster. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” In The Recipe Reader: Narratives-Contexts-Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Bodmin, 2003, pp. 1-11.
  • Green, Sierra. “Cookbooks with a Cause.” Detre Library and Archives.
  • Harvey Washington Wiley.”
  • Hilliard, Sean Robert, Editor. The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. Whitlock Publishing, 2015.
  • Hurner, Sheryl. “Discursive Identity Formation of Suffrage Women: Reframing the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ Through Song.” Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 70, No. 3, July 2006, pp. 234-260.
  • Johnson, Nan. Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
  • Kleber, Mrs. L.O. The Suffrage Cook Book. The Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania, 1915. Google Books.
  • Kraditor, Aileen. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920. Columbia UP, 1981.
  • Lathrop, Julie Clifford.” Social Welfare History Project.
  • Leach, Roberta J. “Jennie Bradley Roessing and the Fight for Woman Suffrage in Pennsylvania.” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 1984, pp. 189-211.
  • Martyris, Nina. “How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion.” NPR Food History and Culture. 5 November 2015.
  • McCammon, Holly. “’Out of the Parlors and into the Streets’: The Changing Tactical Repertoire of the U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movements.” Social Forces, Vol. 81, No. 3, March 2003, pp. 787-818.
  • McCammon, Holly and Karen Campbell. “Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919.” Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 55-82.
  • Rauterkas, Cathleen Nista. Go Get Mother’s Picket Sign: Crossing Spheres with the Material Culture of Suffrage. University Press of America, 2009.
  • Schneider, Dorothy and Carl Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. Anchor Books, 1993.
  • Sharer, Wendy. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Southern Illinois UP, 2007.
  • “Suffragists to Attend Convention This Week.” Pittsburgh Sunday Post, November 19, 1916, Section 2, p. 5.
  • Walden, Sarah. Tasteful Domesticity: Women’s Rhetoric and the American Cookbook 1790-1940. U of Pittsburgh P, 2018.
  • Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Viking, 2018.
  • Williams, Stacy. “Hiding Spinach in the Brownies: Frame Alignment in Suffrage Community Cookbooks, 1886-1916.” Social Movement Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, 16 April 2015, pp. 146-163.

The Suffrage Centennial: How, Why, and on What Terms Should We Mark this Moment?

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—the amendment that pronounced the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This anniversary is at once an opportunity and a concern for those interested in intersectional feminist politics and coalition building. Indeed, there is an opportunity because this anniversary moment could galvanize and embolden present-day feminists by remembering a moment of collective action and political triumph. And, of course, such memorializing could offer real dividends in terms of electoral politics and voter activism as the centennial also happens to fall on a critically important election year. There is, however, a very real danger. The suffrage movement and feminist politics from that time on, in fact, have been riddled with exclusivity and racism. For example, black women were not invited to the first Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, and they were routinely segregated from suffrage activism and events. Furthermore, and even more disheartening, white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt courted the Southern vote by overtly expressing racist remarks, with Catt infamously stating that “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” These are all examples—and there are more—of how, as Angela Davis has written, “the woman suffrage campaign accepted the fatal embrace of white supremacy.”

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

The conversation the scholars here contribute to helps to address this question and calls Peitho readers to consider their own responses. They push us to consider a range of ways to mark this moment as the authors think about how, why, and on what terms we should mark this moment. Nancy Small starts the discussion by directing us away from traditional, masculinist memorialization and towards what she calls “feminist co-memoration.” Building on the work of such scholars as Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gesa Kirsch, Aja Martinez, and Cheryl Glenn, Small sets out that feminist co-memoration work is defined by multivocality, active engagement, counterstory, and critical imagination—strategies that challenge us to reimagine how we engage the centennial. Amber Buck places the women’s arguments for Nineteenth Amendment within the larger discussion of voting rights. Through personal narrative and critical reflection, Buck links (and complicates) the victory in 1920 both by viewing it alongside the Bloody Sunday March in Selma and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and by considering how concerns regarding voting rights remain significant today. As Buck argues, the “limits” of the suffragists’ “tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary,” and she concludes her essay by arguing for intersectional, feminist activism that focuses on “true ballot access” in the 2020 elections.

Rachel Daugherty uses the exigence of the centennial to explore feminist archival practices by analyzing the curation of the Sister March archives—the archives that collected materials from the January 21, 2017 Women’s March and the 653 Sister Marches that happened worldwide that day. Daugherty examines the construction of these archives, paying special attention to how the archive both invites collaboration and discourages critique through its submission guidelines. Daugherty argues that as the centennial unfolds and we (re-)consider our history-making activities, we must understand how our “submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism.” Reva Sias and Katie Bramlett each use their contributions to highlight suffrage histories and memory that might go unnoticed during a moment when figures like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul likely take center stage. Reva Sias presents Peitho readers with the activism of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, arguing that Terrell’s work for “women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms…should demand ourattention.” Examining Terrell’s rich rhetorical repertoire, Sias makes clear that “Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement.” Calling readers to remember the racism of this moment, Sias also makes clear that in spite of these barriers, African American women like Terrell “helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution.” In the final contribution, Katie Bramlett invites readers to consider voting rights activism within and beyond the U.S. borders as she examines the memorial exhibit “The Washington Home of the Phillipine Suffrage Movement.” Bramlett sees this exhibit as one that centers gendered experience within the history of Filipino voting rights—a history marked by “inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects.” Through her analysis, Bramlett argues that the exhibit foregrounds the multiple ways Filipina activists were marginalized and the many fronts on which they were fighting during and after the 1920 U.S. victory. In so doing, the exhibit, Bramlett asserts, “challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.” Bramlett thus ask readers to memorialize this centennial moment by taking on a transnational perspective.

The scholars in this conversation have inspired me to think capaciously, critically, and creatively about what it means to mark the 1920 passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. I hope they are inspirational as well to Peitho readers, prompting us all to consider how this moment could catalyze feminist intersectional memorial practice and present-day activism throughout and beyond 2020.

Imagining an Embodied Ethos: Serena Williams’ “Defiant” Black Ēthe

Feminist rhetoric scholars have long argued for a revitalization of many traditional rhetorical concepts, most recently, our understanding of ethos. For example, Susan Jarratt and Nedra Reynolds discuss ethos as communal and specifically emphasize the positionality and situational nature of ethos, and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Coretta Pittman argue that certain individuals already face a disadvantage when it comes to their ability to develop ethos because their bodies do not reflect the cultural values of the community to which they speak. Recently, Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Meyers, and Rebecca Jones have forwarded an important reconsideration of ethos as ecological ēthe in their Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. They argue, with due reason, that Aristotelian interpretations of ethos are in need of revision and suggest that an ecological perspective provides an understanding of ethos more conducive to feminist aims and more accurate for describing the variety of ways in which women build ethos. As they explain, drawing from the plural ēthe can “open up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts. This theorizing recognizes all elements of any rhetorical situation as shifting and morphing in response to others (persons, places, things), generating a variety and plurality of ethos, or ēthe” (3). Ryan, Meyers, and Jones provide three possible manifestations of ecological ēthe, though they carefully explain that these categories are not exclusive and often overlap: interruption, advocacy, and relation. These categories expand current understandings of rhetorical ethos to allow a “shift away from an Aristotelian framework toward a conceptualization of women’s ethos that accounts in new ways for interrelationality, materiality, and agency” (viii). While this work is sorely needed for new understandings of women’s ethos, it also points out how much is still left to be done in regards to understanding the complex nexus of women’s subjectivity, ethos, and the physical body. For example, in the Afterwords to Rethinking Ethos, Paige A. Conley points out the need for feminist research to “continue to trouble and challenge traditional notions of naming, the subject, and subjectivity as fixed and singular concepts, particularly for marginalized or doubly marginalized rhetors” (285). Therefore, I argue that in order to interrogate a fixed understanding of subjectivity and further the important work started by Ryan, Meyers, and Jones (and their contributors), we must first attend to the relationship between ethos and subjectivity and to how one’s physical, material body affects and is affected by one’s subjectivity and ethos.

One such “doubly marginalized1” rhetor who helps challenge fixed understandings of subjectivity is tennis superstar Serena Williams. Despite being one of the best tennis players in the history of the sport, Williams often receives just as much attention for the size, shape, and color of her body. As a Black woman from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform2 for a community whose values do not always reflect her own. Further, although sport has provided women with opportunities to build and transform their physical bodies, thus providing women with a way to challenge gendered expectations about women’s appearance, body shape, and size, the very structure of sport simultaneously reinforces gendered expectations for women’s behavior and their adherence to a normative aesthetic ideal. One of the problems that several feminist scholars have noted (Ryan, Meyers, and Jones included) with previous conceptions of ethos is that it does not account for the material conditions that might influence how one’s ethos is perceived, and that it assumes a certain agency for the rhetor, assumptions that do not always accurately depict a woman’s or other marginalized group’s lived reality. As I will demonstrate below, a careful consideration of the relationship between subjectivity and ethos brings us necessarily to the physical body and the need for an embodied understanding of ethos that accounts for how material conditions such as one’s physical body might influence one’s efforts at establishing ethos. Thus, I argue Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ ecological ēthe points to the need for a specifically embodied understanding of ethos in order to better convey how and why one might utilize (or be compelled to utilize) these other means of gaining ethos.

However, instead of focusing on how Williams and other marginalized women attempt to gain agency by resisting or subverting social norms, as much important feminist scholarship has already demonstrated, I seek instead to analyze the varieties of ways in which women use their bodies in order to build and construct ethos, the various bodily movements, behaviors, and practices that might constitute women’s agency, and the ways in which these bodily movements and behaviors allow one to inhabit or embody certain social norms. I argue that the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity are necessarily intertwined, and I offer the term embodied ēthe to complement Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ work on expanding feminist understandings of ethos. An embodied ēthe is capable of inhabiting—not just resisting—social norms, which further expands the various modalities of action that might lead to one’s agency and the various actions that women might use to develop ethos. I specifically emphasize embodied because it helps describe how material conditions influence one’s ethos, while utilizing Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ plural ēthe to convey the multiple, varied ways that individuals attempt to build ethos.

Associating ethos with embodiment also better accounts for the layers of oppression that certain individuals might face. Race, class, gender, and the body intersect and influence interpretations of each other. That is, it is impossible to delineate each of these constructs from each other, because they often operate in connection with each other. As Patricia Hill Collins explains, intersectionality3 treats race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other identity characteristics as intersecting, rather than competing frameworks, and as aspects of “mutually constructing systems of power” (10-11). An intersectional approach to ethos allows me to discuss various factors that may influence one’s performance of ethos, and to consider these factors as interconnected and fluid. Intersectionality is an especially important aspect of my research methodology because much previous scholarship on ethos from rhetorical studies ignores some of these identity categories, or tends to focus on a particular aspect of identity (most commonly gender or race), rather than considering how these facets of identity interact with and influence each other and one’s ethos as a whole. For example, Hill Collins argues that for African Americans, “the relationship between gender and race is intensified, producing a Black gender ideology that shapes ideas about Black masculinity and Black femininity” (6). Using Hill Collins’ interpretation, it is impossible to separate a Black feminine experience into a simply Black experience, because cultural constructions of Blackness are also inextricably tied to one’s performance of gender. Like Hill Collins, I suggest that these frameworks interact with and influence each other, and therefore, when I discuss these concepts, though I may focus my analysis on one specific aspect for a given situation, I see these constructions as operating together.

I offer the term inhabit to draw attention to the ways in which individuals might occupy and lay claim to certain social positions and behaviors, even those that appear marginalizing, and to emphasize the connection between one’s habits and one’s ethos. In using this term, I aim to tie these practices to the history of feminist efforts to claim space and to dwell in places where women and other marginalized groups were not necessarily “supposed to be.” In doing so, however, I want to clarify that ethos is not merely habit, but rather a negotiated standing within a particular community. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones helpfully explain, our modern word ethos actually has two etymologies, with ethos meaning custom or habit, while ēthos describes “social, ethical, and located dimensions” (6). According to Ryan, Meyers, and Jones, these two etymologies are “consubstantial with each other, creating a rationale for combining discussions of character, habit, and abode, thus highlighting the social, constructed, ethical, and agentive aspects of premodern ethos” (6). Thus, to inhabit a social norm draws upon both etymologies, while also providing the possibility of harnessing certain disciplinary practices for one’s own purposes.4

Examining the variety of ways that rhetors like Williams build and perform ethos therefore suggests that the physical body is even more strongly tied to one’s ethos and one’s subjectivity than even the most recent scholarship acknowledges. More importantly, and in keeping with Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ vision of expanding feminist understandings of ethos, considering an embodied ēthe allows rhetoric scholars to see and understand different capacities for action and to consider how actions and behaviors that may only seem to reinforce societal norms can actually be used to build ethos. For example, when Williams was recently singled out by French Open officials for a “disrespectful” outfit worn in the tournament, rather than criticizing the new rules about player apparel, as many of her fans and her sponsor Nike did (discussed in more detail below), Williams was conciliatory when discussing the outfit in question. Instead of taking issue with tennis officials, Williams quietly acquiesced to their ruling, letting her fans and media commentators take on the cause. In this example, Williams’ submission to French Open authorities allowed others to question the decision on her behalf, ultimately demonstrating her ethos.

What I am calling “modalities of action,” which is a term I borrow from feminist anthropologist Saba Mahmood, refers to the potential for one to re-purpose or re-deploy disciplinary practices and bodily movements for one’s own purposes and agenda. In this way, the very practices that might render one docile also have the potential to lead to agency. What is important about considering these behaviors and practices as modalities of action, and what is different about my understanding of these practices than those of, for example, a more traditional feminist objectification critique, is that individuals might employ a variety of behaviors and practices—even those that seem to only reinforce gendered or racial norms and stereotypes—for their own purposes and agendas. In some cases, it is the very inhabiting of social norms that allows individuals to take action. This understanding of power and subject formation means that agency is not just the same as resistance to social norms, but is a capacity for action that is made possible specifically through one’s subordination. What this means for feminist rhetoric scholars is that even actions and behaviors by rhetors who appear subordinate or marginalized can in fact be utilized to build ethos. Focusing on how individuals work within seemingly limiting frameworks—such as how Williams responds to the normative tennis community—to establish ethos broadens the scope of what feminist rhetoric scholars consider indications of ethos, and better accounts for how certain rhetors adapt to the rhetorical situations they face.

Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that the process of athletic training and the care of the self may also function as processes of invention that offer the possibility of agency. By shifting the focus from how certain practices reinscribe traditional gender roles or expectations to how those practices might produce different capacities in the subject, I argue that it is precisely Williams’ subordination to the disciplinary practices of her athletic training that enables her capacity for action. As a Black woman in a predominantly white sport, Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors do not differ from those of other (white) players. In this way, Williams’ rhetorical actions are viewed similarly to those of other Black women rhetors, linking Williams with legacies of Black women rhetors and their rhetorical practices. For example, in her historiographic work on nineteenth century African American women, Jacqueline Jones Royster argues that for these women, “any acts by which they claim agency and authority are necessarily defined as going against the grain, that is, against the dominant values and expectations of the general culture” (64). In an effort to claim agency, Royster suggests that African American women must construct multiple identities and incorporate bodily experience in order to construct an ethos that “does not operate in the absence of rhetorical actions but in tandem with them and also with the way that these writers envision the context” (66-68). Similarly, I argue that Williams utilizes these gendered and racialized narratives for her own purposes, using them as a modality of action that allows her to build intimidation in the eyes of her opponents. In addition, her resistance to the social norms of tennis—seen in her unconventional tennis attire and her unorthodox behavior during matches—demonstrates the variety of ways in which women may develop agency. Williams’ ability to either inhabit or subvert social norms depends on her ability to develop and shape the body, revealing the ways in which repeated bodily habits and behaviors provides the individual with a malleability that allows one to develop and shape one’s subjectivity.

Nonetheless, as I will demonstrate below, Williams’ identity as a Black tennis player in the predominantly white tennis community has material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. In the sections that follow, I first provide evidence for understanding ethos as specifically embodied, and theorize ethos, the physical body, and subjectivity as an intersecting nexus. I then discuss the racialized narratives circulating in popular discourses about Williams, demonstrating how both previous cultural narratives and the materiality of the body affects one’s ethos, and how Williams’ specifically Black body is read in the context of the predominantly white tennis community. I argue that the disciplined Black body presents instability and malleability in understandings of subjectivity, suggesting the need for a more fluid theory of ethos that recognizes the importance of the physical body. Finally, I illustrate how Williams inhabits certain social norms while resisting others, capitalizing on racialized and gendered expectations about acceptable behavior in order to gain a competitive advantage. In doing so, Williams presents a compelling figure for feminist analysis because she reflects shifts in traditional Black feminist understandings about subjectivity and agency. Together, these analyses suggest the need for reimagined theories of ethos that better describe how differently located rhetors negotiate social norms and other marginalizing discourses in their efforts to establish ethos.

Ethos, the Body, and Subjectivity as a Nexus

My analysis incorporates rhetorical scholarship on ethos and the body, feminist scholarship on ethos and subjectivity, and sports studies scholarship on the body and subjectivity in order to illustrate ethos as a specifically embodied concept that is inextricably connected to one’s subjectivity. This conception of ethos and subjectivity provides rhetoric scholars with a better understanding of the variety of ways in which rhetors may work within limiting frameworks, including efforts to inhabit and embody social norms, not just efforts to resist or subvert those norms. In this way, even actions and behaviors that might seem contrary to feminist aims might be re-established as actions that have agency. In my interpretation, these performances of ethos might consist of bodily movements, actions and behaviors, and outward adornment, in addition to more traditional understandings that attend to ethos as part of public, linguistically-based discourse. Considering bodily movements and behaviors as part of one’s efforts to construct ethos broadens the scope of practices that feminist scholars might include in theories of ethos, and broadens theories of ethos more generally.

Sports studies scholars such as Pirkko Markula and Eileen Kennedy (2012), Gwen Chapman (1997), David Johns and Jennifer Johns (2000), and Markula and Richard Pringle (2006) all discuss women’s use of athletics as a way of shaping the self, using Michel Foucault’s understanding of the care of the self, which they relate to athletic training. However, much feminist sports studies research that incorporates the care of the self tends to focus on questions of femininity, situating women’s exercise practices as either conforming to a dominant aesthetic ideal or efforts to subvert those ideals, failing to see how ethos might be constructed apart from those established aesthetic expectations. In addition, many of these researchers do not address the history of the care of self or its importance for ancient Greeks in creating ethical subjects, missing the importance of women’s ability to physically shape and construct the body for their ability to shape and construct their ethos, and consequently, their social and political standing.

In order to address the complexity of embodied ēthe, it is necessary to consider that subjectivity and one’s ability to shape the self (both shaping the physical body and the shaping of a particular public persona) is also tied to the body. According to Foucault, power affects the body via disciplinary mechanisms such as ranking and individualization, which functions to normalize individuals. At the same time, one’s pursuit of these disciplinary practices further promotes the circulation of power. However, the materiality of the body affects the relationship between athletic training and the body. For example, elite athletic training relies on the idea that one can change the body, that the tissues and physiological structures of the body can be developed and trained, leading the elite athlete to believe that she can shape her body, and thus shape her subjectivity. But the same understanding of the malleability and trainability of the body presents a problem because there are certain aspects of the material body that one simply cannot change, such as one’s race or height, or the types of tissue that can be built or grafted onto the body. This offers the elite athlete the illusion that she is the self-author of her body and the way her body is perceived in society, but really her understanding of herself and the way that others perceive her are culturally constructed and situated in discourses that are shaped by previous cultural narratives, which may limit how she performs ethos and how that ethos is perceived. For example, sports studies scholars Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin claim that athletes like soccer player Brandi Chastain and volleyball player Gabrielle Reese have a different understanding of how women’s bodies are represented in the public sphere, and “tend to see physical appearance as a marketing asset that is not necessarily gender-specific, pointing to the ways the male body has itself become sexualized and commodified in recent media culture” (39). As they explain, when the body is specifically coded as athletic, it can “redeem female sexuality and make it visible as an assertion of female presence, and make that presence amenable to a range of sexualities” (82-83). But though these athletes have a certain amount of agency in capitalizing on their physical appearance, these efforts are still culturally constructed and at least in some ways, shaped by discourses that the athlete has little control over. Elite athletic training makes the illusion of controlling one’s self-image intoxicating: because the athlete has been able to mold and shape her body, she assumes she has control of it, but how her body is read by others is always shaped by cultural constructions and previous cultural narratives.

One of the reasons why elite athletes present such a challenge for feminist scholarship is because they occupy a contradictory position. That is, elite athletes pursue disciplinary practices such as regimented athletic training programs and specific diets, but these disciplinary practices are also the key component for their success as athletes and for their agency as individuals. More specifically, elite athletes occupy a contradictory position because the very practices that render them docile also enable their ability to use such practices and behaviors as modalities of action that might produce their own chosen results.  Therefore, while feminist scholarship has traditionally been critical of body work (like athletic training) for its disciplinary practices, my argument is that in the context of athletics, it is this very willingness to submit to disciplinary practices that provides the means and mechanism for athletes to produce their own desired outcomes. In the case of Serena Williams, her willingness to enter a dialogue with tennis officials about returning to play at Indian Wells (discussed in more detail below), and therefore to inhabit social norms about reconciliatory behavior, allowed her to use that platform to speak about social justice.

Within rhetorical scholarship, Debra Hawhee traces the relationship between rhetoric and athletics in ancient Greece, demonstrating the long history of ethos as a bodily concept. Using the idea of melete, or repeated practice5, Hawhee argues there is a connection between one’s bodily habits and one’s ethos in that “melete becomes the means through which permanent dispositions develop” (146). Therefore, ethos’s connection to the body and to habit suggests that repeated bodily movements, such as those performed by an elite athlete in the course of athletic training, influence both one’s own conception of the self and also how others perceive the self. The bodily actions performed in athletic training thus are seen as indications of one’s ethos, which suggests that ethos can be developed and trained over time, and that these repeated bodily movements influence how others perceive one’s ethos. Utilizing Hawhee’s discussion of bodily ethos, I argue that the repeated bodily movements often performed through athletic training also play a significant role in how the subject is developed, to the extent that these particular movements and behaviors not only reflect one’s ethos to others, but come to constitute necessary attributes of the self. For the ancient Greeks, the trained, cared-for body was seen as a sign of one’s readiness to participate in civic life. That is, the physical body was symbolic of one’s subjectivity; it signaled one’s ability to act or take action in a particular context (Foucault, Hawhee). In this way, the self and subjectivity are also closely tied to ethos, because ethos amounts to one’s personal credibility and character, and thus represents one’s conception of the self or status as a subject to others.

However, while Hawhee’s work is important for understanding the relationship between specific bodily movements and habits with the way one may develop ethos, it assumes that all bodies have the same opportunities for cultivating these movements and habits that then influence one’s ethos. Likewise, Aristotelian understandings of ethos assume that one acts from deliberate choice and that one has the means to engage in chosen practices and behaviors that might lead to habit formation. This perspective ignores factors that influence ethos and habit formation about which an individual has limited choice, such as the rhetor’s race, gender, or class, and the marginalized social and cultural positions that some rhetors consequently face. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones point out, Aristotelian theories of ethos that assume a static subject and a homogenous male community “ignore postmodern and feminist critiques of selfhood and discussions about ethics” and “do not presume difference, the shared yet diverse oppression of women, or contemporary theorizing about the subject as starting points for constructing ethos” (5). This is especially troubling for Black women, whose choices may be limited by intersecting systems of power. For example, Hill Collins notes that because of similar work and social experiences, “U.S. Black women as a group live in a different world from that of people who are not Black and female,” and that these distinct experiences can “stimulate a distinctive consciousness concerning our own experiences and society overall. Many African American women grasp this connection between what one does and how one thinks” (23-24). In other words, the behaviors and actions available to Black women have a direct effect on their conceptions of themselves and their subjectivity. In this way, discussions of bodily ethos that rely on Aristotelian understandings of ethos do not address the social and political ramifications of ethos as a bodily concept and cannot account for the ways an individual’s ethos might be influenced by factors outside of his or her realm of control. Therefore, while existing scholarship suggests that ethos is related to the physical body, it is not enough to simply think of ethos as bodily; rather, we must work to understand how embodied ēthe works in connection with subjectivity and how this nexus of ethos, the body, and subjectivity might influence how certain rhetors work to establish ethos. This more intersectional approach would better account for the efforts of rhetors who face multiple layers of discrimination at the same time.

In an effort to address some of these questions about Aristotelian ethos, other scholarship (Hyde, Royster, Pittman, among others) considers the relationship between bodily and material aspects of ethos and discourse, emphasizing the material effects that language has on the individual, as well as the interplay between the audience and the speaker, demonstrating a more social understanding of ethos. In particular, Michael Hyde combines an Aristotelian understanding of ethos with Heidegger’s emphasis on the communal nature of ethos. For Heidegger, one’s ethos is contingent on one’s ability to move an audience, with move meaning both one’s ability to influence the audience to consider something (moving the passions, or taking something to heart), but also to place or “move” the audience into a relationship with the speaker, and into a “dwelling place” where audience and rhetor may deliberate together (xiii). According to Hyde, ethos “is a matter, at the very least, of character, ethics, Being, space and time, emotion, truth, rhetorical competence, and everyday situations that are contextualized within the dwelling place of human being—a place known to encourage metaphysical wonder” (xxi, emphasis mine). That is, instead of Aristotelian understandings of ethos that emphasize the speaker and tend to “fix” ethos as predetermined, Hyde considers the ways that human being—the way in which one exists in the world—influences ethos.

Royster’s important work on nineteenth century African American women rhetors suggests that though these women often faced negative stereotypes and expectations, ethos is developed through repeated decision-making opportunities. Like Hyde, Royster explains that we see “traditions of ethos formation shaped by the materiality of their relationships to work and by the material conditions of the world around them” (236). According to Royster, one way that nineteenth century African American women developed ethos was through the patterns of behavior these women developed as they acquired professional identities. As she argues, “a critical view of women’s participation in this organizational work offers an opportunity to look beyond the work itself to what this pattern of behavior suggests about the formation of ethos in rhetorical decision-making” (210). Royster explains that the “merging” of these women’s identities (personal, historical, social, professional, or even political) “gave rise to a particular type of process for the formation of ethos among these women as writers and speakers in public domains” (210). Further, Royster points out that for these women, rhetoric was an embodied practice, with arguments centered “not just rationally and ethically, but in the body—in the head, the heart, the stomach, the backbone—in the interests, apparently, of inducing not just an intellectual response but a holistic one, that is, a whole-body involvement. The goal seems often to be quite literally to ‘move’ the audience,” a rhetorical practice Royster suggests leaves “no rhetorical holds barred” (68). Therefore, in order to account for more diverse manifestations of ethos, scholars must consider embodied understandings of ethos and the process of ethos formation and its relationship to patterns of behavior.

This understanding suggests that ethos, like the human body, is not fixed in advance, but is capable of being shaped and trained, and also that it reveals some sort of fundamental aspect of the self. By utilizing Hawhee and Royster’s respective emphases on ethos as embodied and trained over time through habits and deliberate practice, along with Hyde’s understanding of ethos as fluid and constantly in flux, I want to suggest that ethos is not only embodied and trained, but that it creates possibilities of being in the world, or of existing as an ethical subject capable of action. Likewise, Hyde’s emphasis on being and dwelling resonate with feminist efforts to claim spaces and to acknowledge multiple subjectivities. The act of inhabiting social norms and dwelling in these norms (and not just resisting or subverting them) can therefore be read as actions that might lead to further possibilities for agency. Royster’s discussion of ethos formation as part of a pattern of behaviors or “an engagement with rhetorical decision-making” opens up considerations of ethos to include actions and processes of identity formations, not just the “end result,” and emphasizes ethos as something that is developed over time (211). Further, this understanding of ethos acknowledges the importance of routine, everyday actions as aspects of ethos building, which values the rhetorical practices of differently located individuals. For example, Hill Collins suggests “many contemporary Black women intellectuals continue to draw on this tradition of using everyday actions and experiences in our theoretical work” (33). While Aristotelian understandings of ethos often focus on more formal, static displays of ethos, embodied ēthe better accounts for everyday displays of ethos, which acknowledges the traditions of ethos formation of other disenfranchised groups, such as Black women.

In addition, scholars have argued that ethos is co-constructed, or negotiated, between the audience and the speaker or performer (Hyde, Jarratt and Reynolds, Smith). Because ethos is both external to and internal to the speaker or performer, one cannot just “claim” or “earn” ethos; rather, ethos must be granted by an audience. Therefore, one may deliberately style ethos for a particular audience and situation, but previous conceptions of one’s ethos may also influence how the audience perceives of subsequent performances of ethos. Because of this negotiation, women may face challenges in constructing ethos in certain contexts. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones suggest, it is often “culturally and socially restrictive for women to develop an authoritative ēthe” (2). Therefore, although the rhetor has a certain amount of agency in each performance of ethos, these performances are always read in the context of the cultural values of the community to which one speaks. In the context of athletics, while one certainly has agency in pursuing particular exercise practices, these efforts often require willing subjection to an authority figure such as a coach or trainer. Yet as I will argue, it is this very subjection to disciplinary practice that provides the means for rhetors to inhabit social norms and utilize them for their own purposes. Therefore, reimagining ethos as embodied ēthe offers feminist scholars a means to locate agency within subjection, which expands opportunities for ethos to situations where rhetors appear to lack agency or are in marginalized positions.

The Body and Ethos: Defiant (Black) Sexuality

As mentioned above, certain individuals face issues of racism, classism, or sexism that mark them as undesirable or outside of an established norm, which has consequences for how their ethos is perceived by an audience. As I will demonstrate below, the fascination with Black athletes’ bodies, as reflected in media discourses that focus on Williams’ height and muscularity, has specific material consequences manifest in Williams’ bodily behaviors and movements, which subsequently influence how she performs ethos. Williams’ Black body is thus read through the context of these discourses, meaning that in comparison to the normalized discourses of white tennis athletes, the sensationalized discourses about Williams’ body therefore represent an unstable subjectivity, although her disciplinary practices—which would serve to normalize the white body—are similar to those of other players. Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that she occupies a blurred subject-object position, and that her disciplined Black body represents instability, while the disciplined white body presents a more normalized self. Williams’ efforts at establishing ethos therefore indicate the need for an understanding of embodied ēthe, which allows scholars to examine how Williams disrupts a fixed understanding of subjectivity and the way that her physical body and the cultural narratives about certain bodies factor into her rhetorical choices.

Media commentary about Williams has often sensationalized or obsessed over her physical body or her difference from other players. For example, tennis analysts focus on Williams’ “imposing height” and physicality, even when she plays opponents who are the same height or taller than she is. Likewise, despite Williams mentioning her strategy many times in interviews, commentary about her playing often focuses on her power, rather than her skill in placing shots and thinking a few steps ahead of her opponent.6 The commentary about Williams perpetuated through tennis media can be linked to epideictic rhetoric about the Black athlete. As sport sociology scholar Nancy E. Spencer argues, Black athletes are assumed to have an almost innate, “natural” physicality (“Sister Act” 120). Such assumptions of innate athleticism undermine individual athletes’ years of athletic training, their learned skill in a particular sport, and their mental strategy.

In addition, tennis analysts love to bring up Williams’ childhood in Compton, despite the fact that she moved to Florida when she was nine (see for example Caple and Vercammen and MacFarlane). The continued reference to Compton—an area commonly stigmatized as dangerous, poor, and gang-riddled—effectively calls attention to Williams’ Blackness and ghetto-izes her, further reinforcing her as outside of the normative tennis community. Earlier in her career, tennis writers and other players also derided Williams for her unconventional behavior on the tennis court (for movements such as fist pumps, grunts and yelling, or questioning officials’ calls) calling Williams arrogant or unfriendly (Price), “disrespectful,” “ballistic,” and immature, despite the fact that other players have loudly emphasized their playing with shouts or disagreements with officials or have boldly predicted their success (such as Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenko, Martina Hingis, and John McEnroe). The emphasis on Williams’ childhood in Compton continues to perpetuate myths of the violent Black athlete, and relies on an “overcoming the odds” trope that sensationalizes Black achievement, further emphasizing spectacular “natural” talent rather than attributing such success to hard work and dedication. The persistent focus on Williams’ “unladylike” behavior within the genteel norms of tennis consistently paints her as an outsider, even when her actions do not differ from those of other players.

These discourses about Williams’ body and background have material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. For much of her career, tennis media have consistently characterized Williams as freakish or defiant, whether by drawing attention to her supposedly supernatural strength and power or by condemning her behaviors and expressions. Yet at the same time, I argue that Williams seems to embrace this framing, performing movements and cultivating an ethos that is deliberately nonconformist.7 For example, in the early 2000s, when Williams’ tennis career was newly successful (marked by her first “Serena Slam” in 2002-2003, when Williams held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously), Williams appeared to reinforce her difference from other tennis players through her choices of apparel. While other players typically wore conservative colors and minimal jewelry, Williams often sported neon colors, large earrings, and outfits embellished with rhinestones or cutouts, many of them her own design. Williams’ penchant for the unconventional offers an interesting example of inhabiting social norms. While media commentary framed Williams as nonconformist and defiant, Williams worked within that framework to utilize these sometimes marginalizing narratives for her own purposes. By highlighting the very same body that media framed as unconventional, Williams redeploys these narratives to reinforce her identity as a specifically Black tennis player. According to fashion studies scholar Tanisha Ford, one’s dress might be considered a “political ‘strategy of visibility’” (4). Ford examines the role of dress and style as “embodied activism” within the civil rights and Black Power movements (3), ultimately arguing, “in the everyday choices that Black women made as they dressed themselves and styled their hair lay a revolutionary politics of style” (1). Using Ford’s compelling discussion of how fashion might be incorporated into activism, I argue that Williams utilizes a similar approach, using her on-court clothing choices to challenge stereotypes about Black women.

Williams is especially well known for her “catsuits,” the first of which she wore at the 2002 U.S. Open. The sleeveless, one-piece black Lycra bodysuit she wore received a tremendous amount of attention from tennis media, who described it as “super-tight, ultra-risqué” and “requir[ing] more bravery than fabric” (Everson, Harris, Preston). According to Jaime Schultz, media response to Williams’ catsuit focused not only on the way that the garment highlighted her muscular physique, but also suggested “a deviant sexuality, thereby contrasting her with a compliant sexuality emphasized in journalistic and promotional representations” (338-339). However, as Schultz argues, though Williams’ catsuit was unconventional, it was not an entirely novel fashion choice, even in the traditional confines of women’s tennis: in 1985, Anne White wore a long-sleeved, one-piece white Lycra bodysuit at Wimbledon. Schultz claims that although White’s bodysuit and Williams’ catsuit were similar in design, “there is a striking discrepancy in the ways in which she [Williams] and Anne White were framed and discussed by the popular media… White was scolded for accentuating her feminine assets; Williams was admonished for exhibiting her masculine muscularity” (344). As Schultz convincingly points out, even the term catsuit has different connotations than White’s bodysuit. On the one hand, Williams’ catsuit was sleeveless and included shorter legs, while White’s bodysuit was long sleeved and had full-length legs, essentially covering her entire body. However, Schultz notes that catsuit often refers to a type of lingerie, which immediately groups Williams with “the legions of other female athletes sexualized by the popular media” (344). The catsuit is also sometimes considered a fetishized form of lingerie, associated with deviant forms of sexual expression. Though it is important to note that the outfit was designed by Williams in connection with her then sponsor, Puma—whose logo is a leaping cat—and that Williams herself refers to the outfit as “a catsuit” (Boeck), responses to Williams’ tennis apparel, and the catsuit in particular, emphasize the ways her physical body is outside of the dominant white, slender, normatively feminine aesthetic typical in tennis. Therefore, any efforts by Williams to establish ethos within the tennis community are read in the context of this outsider identity.

While tennis media roundly criticized Williams’ first catsuit, it is important to view this fashion choice in light of Ford’s scholarship on dress as a means of political visibility. As Ford explains, during the fight for Black liberation in the 70s, Black people used clothing “to not only adorn but also re-aestheticize the Black body,” leading to “a re-aestheticization of Blackness, which created new value and political power for the Black body in the twentieth century” (7). In particular, Ford argues that Black women used their clothing to “write new ‘body narratives,’ new renderings of their personal narratives that reflected their more expansive view of freedom; through their clothing, they projected a sense of sexual freedom, gender non conformity, and upward social mobility” (7). Seen in this framework, Williams’ first catsuit might be read as an effort to challenge tennis media’s criticism and persistent focus on her body, and to defy that criticism openly. In this way, Williams inhabits certain stereotypical social norms about Black women, but redeploys them for her own purposes, celebrating the very same body that the tennis media scorned.

Though Williams works to counter these discourses, media commentary about her body and the first catsuit in particular reflects racist and gendered stereotypes. For example, feminist scholar Janell Hobson explains that the criticism of Williams’ catsuit can be related to a long history of “enslavement, colonial conquest, and ethnographic exhibition” which often framed the Black female body as “grotesque,” “strange,” “unfeminine,” “lascivious,” and “obscene” (87). Sociologists James McKay and Helen Johnson add that “the categorization of Black women’s bodies as hyper-muscular and their targeting for lascivious comment mirrors the public and pseudo-scientific response to nineteenth century exhibits of Saartjie Baartman,” or the Hottentot Venus, and such assumed racial difference only serves to reinforce historical and cultural associations with “grotesque and deviant sexuality” (493). For example, after Williams’ disappointing finish at the 2006 Australian Open, The Telegraph’s Matthew Norman opined, “Generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars…. But tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different U.S. state from the rest of her” (Norman). This commentary not only portrays Williams as hypersexualized, but also suggests a kind of freakish, subhuman body.

While these discourses focus on Williams’ body as hypersexualized, and therefore aberrant, other discourses focus on Williams’ body as atypical in another way: her well-defined muscularity is framed as unnaturally masculine or superhuman, denying Williams’ femininity. For example, Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price described Williams’ catsuit as “flaunting curves and muscles that could be dreamed up only by the brains at Marvel Comics,” (“Grand Occasion”), and The New York Daily News’ Wayne Coffey described her body type as a “defensive-back physique” (p. C01). The persistent focus on Serena’s muscularity and physical stature, along with the suggestion that she looks more like a male football player than a women’s tennis player, not only masculinizes her body, but also figures her as unnatural or superhuman.

Sport historians Patricia Vertinsky and Gwendolyn Captain explain that discourses equating Williams’ muscularity with masculinity can be traced back to several persistent historical myths about Black womanhood, namely, “the linking of African American women’s work history as slaves, their supposedly ‘natural’ brute strength and endurance inherited from their African origins, and the notion that vigorous or competitive sport masculinized women physically and sexually” (541). According to Vertinsky and Captain, the association between “stereotyped depictions of Black womanhood and ‘manly’ athletic and physically gifted females” is related to “slave womanhood stereotypes involving the colonization of the Black female body by the white master” (541). Likewise, as bell hooks argues, though historians tend to focus on how slavery emasculated Black men, “it would be much more accurate for scholars to examine the dynamics of slavery in light of the masculinization of the Black female” (22). According to hooks, while enslaved, Black men were not expected to perform what might typically be considered “feminine” work—such as cooking, cleaning, and child care—while Black women were required to perform “masculine” labor such as working in the fields, in addition to their domestic tasks (Ain’t 50-51). Therefore, when tennis commentators focus on Williams’ “masculine” qualities, or when she is depicted as manly, these depictions effectively place her in the relationship of master and slave, positioning her as one that does not matter (to use hooks’ phrasing). The obsessive focus on Williams’ body by the predominantly white tennis world can be read as an attempt toward colonization, or at the very least, suggests an attempt at surveillance over Williams’ Black, muscular body (Douglas).

In addition, these discourses illustrate the ways in which social constructions of Black women’s bodies have material consequences for how certain individuals may perform ethos. Because Black women historically performed both physical labor and sex work, their labor resulted in a simultaneous blurring of masculinity and femininity (Peterson, x-xi), leading to a grotesqueness associated with the disciplined Black body, as opposed to a sense of normalization in the disciplined white body. And according to Schultz, in the context of tennis, “where traditional femininity is publicly valued above strength,” there is “little natural about female athleticism and muscularity” (348). Consequently, like many other Black women, Williams must negotiate overlapping racialized and gendered stereotypes, which suggests the need for a more intersectional theory of ethos that accounts for the ways in which certain rhetors may face several layers of discrimination in their efforts to gain ethos. In this way, while the disciplined white body might lead to a more stable understanding of the individual, the disciplined Black body actually creates more instability, such that while certain individuals may attempt to work on the body, that work may already be undermined by previous discourses and histories that construct their bodies in different ways. Therefore, while Williams might utilize the very same disciplinary practices that other (white) female athletes employ, rather than normalizing her body these practices only serve to reinforce her difference. That is to say, Williams and other marginalized rhetors disrupt typical, fixed understandings of subjectivity, pointing to the need for a more varied, fluid understanding of ethos that accounts both for multiple subjectivities and for how the physical body affects one’s subjectivities.

However, I argue her tennis apparel is specifically designed to draw additional attention to her difference from other, more traditional (white) players, and suggests an effort to construct her ethos as specifically feminine, perhaps as an attempt to counteract discourses that consistently paint her athletic performance and body type as masculine. Williams designs many of her tennis outfits, including the infamous catsuits. Her proclivity to wearing jewelry, rhinestone-embellished tennis dresses and body jewels, and manicured fingernails while playing all function as a type of hyper-feminization, emphasizing Williams’ femininity in the face of her bullet of a serve. In addition, Williams’ habit of spinning in place to address the crowd following a win—which usually causes her tennis skirt to flutter around her as she twirls—can also be read as an effort to evoke femininity and innocence, recalling a behavior more typical of young girls. In this way, Williams seems to employ the rhetorical concept of metis, or cunning intelligence, which refers to one’s ability to shift or blur identities to gain an advantage in a specific situation (Hawhee), such as the way that Williams may embrace the media’s masculine framing with her grunts and shouting while also emphasizing her femininity with her manicured nails and delicate twirling. Importantly, metis is developed in part through repeated practice, and though one cannot train for every possible situation, repeated practice allows one to develop a ready, perceptive body that is capable of particular maneuvers at key moments. Using this interpretation, scholars can also consider the concept of metis as a malleability or a rhetorical flexibility that allows the rhetor to adapt to particular situations, shifting shape in order to better respond to the specific moment. In addition, the apparel Williams chooses for tennis matches suggest a political activism in the everyday choices of how she dresses or styles her hair. According to Ford, “in a world where Black women’s bodies were often objectified and used as placeholders in a variety of competing ideologies—whether as symbols of ‘primitive’ Black sexuality or as keepers of Black respectability—women’s choices to adorn themselves differently became political” (14). In her unconventional tennis attire, Williams pushes back against these ideologies and discourses about her body. Understanding the body’s influence on metis and ethos more broadly adds to scholars’ knowledge of how ethos might function for a variety of rhetors, especially those whose subject positions are marginalized or changing. Like ecological ēthe, embodied ēthe suggests an important plurality to ethos, one that better accounts for certain women’s rhetorical practices within their lived realities.

Williams’ more recent “catsuit,” which I’m referring to as the “SuperMomSuit,” also reveals the way that Williams uses adornment as a rhetorical tool. In the 2018 French Open, Williams’ first Grand Slam after delivering her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams wore a fitted, compression style garment designed to help prevent blood clots, a known problem for Williams before her pregnancy and even more so in her post-partum period, which included multiple complications and surgeries. The “SuperMomSuit,” with its full legs and cap sleeves, was less revealing than Williams’ earlier catsuit, and had the additional function of improving blood circulation. Like her earlier catsuit, the “SuperMomSuit” also drew attention to muscular thighs and arms, and was black. Though the outfit was mostly praised by fans and tennis media at the time (Williams framed it as a “tribute” to other moms on her personal Twitter), several months following the event, officials of the French Open announced a new dress code for athletes, with French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli reasoning, “‘I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place’” (qtd. in Gaines). In critiquing Williams’ outfit, Giudicelli made no allowances for medical needs, nor did he explain what was “disrespectful” about Williams’ apparel. When Giudicelli questions the respectfulness of Williams’ outfit, he is really relying on and recirculating racist and sexist discourses that have framed Black women’s bodies as obscene. Further, by calling Williams’ medically warranted outfit somehow disrespectful, Giudicelli is not only deeming Black women’s bodies as insolent. He and the tennis community that he represents are also effectively disregarding Black women’s medical concerns.

Despite Giudicelli’s troubling announcement, Williams received mostly support and praise about her “SuperMomSuit.” For example, other players, such as Andy Roddick and Billie Jean King, criticized the French Open’s decision (Fleming), Williams’ longtime sponsor Nike put out a print ad in response, and media and fans spoke out about the unfair singling out of Williams. As Christen Johnson of the Chicago Tribune puts it, “if her powerful thighs, hamstrings and butt were thinner — and therefore less accentuated by the spandex suit — would Giudicelli still think that ‘we’ve gone too far’? If her biceps were smaller, her torso leaner, her hair in a silky, swinging ponytail instead of a cornrow-braided-bun, would Giudicelli then think she is ‘respecting the game and the place’?” (Johnson). Though tennis officials (as reflected by Giudicelli’s comments) have still ostracized her, other responses to Williams’ “SuperMomSuit” were vastly different than those of her earlier catsuit. Whether the change in attitudes about Williams is due to overwhelming success (Williams has won an astonishing 19 Grand Slam titles since the 2002 U.S. Open), the medical needs that warranted the “SuperMomSuit,” or her status as a mother (in contrast to discourses that hypersexualized her), responses from fans, media, and other players suggests that Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and subjectivity have changed for good the discourses around her body and other bodies like hers. Acknowledging actions and behaviors such as Williams’ efforts at adornment, her fist pumps and twirls, or her responses to media as rhetorical practices that demonstrate embodied ēthe better accounts for the ways that differently located rhetors might build ethos. Yet at the same time, Giudicelli’s comments and the French Open’s stance on tennis apparel suggest that gendered and racialized discourses still challenge certain rhetor’s efforts at establishing ethos, and feminist scholars need theories of ethos that understand and acknowledge how existing discourses might affect individual efforts to gain ethos.

As another example of Williams’ agency within a limiting framework, Williams readily acknowledges her role as an entertainer, expressing a desire to play “thrilling, high-level tennis [that gives] the fans something to cheer about,” instead of the routine point-trading that sometimes happens at the beginning of matches (On the Line, 6). Williams asserts, “I understand that I’m in the entertainment business. I compete at the highest levels of my sport. I know the only reason there’s all that prize money and endorsement money is because people buy tickets to watch. I get that” (On the Line 76). Indeed, Williams’ acknowledgment of her public image suggests both that Williams actively produces her ethos and that she considers herself a product, an entertainer that audiences pay to see.

The athlete-as-entertainer is a particularly interesting concept in relationship to women’s athletics. Heywood and Dworkin note that in today’s body commodification culture, male and female athletes tend to be seen as “both active subjects who perform their sport and market their image, and commodified objects who are passive” (86). In this understanding, by situating herself as an entertainer and professional athletics as part of the entertainment business, Williams suggests she is the author of her own self-image and ethos—an active subject who specifically performs for an audience—and also an object to be consumed and sold as a product. However, because ethos is always co-constructed, no one is completely self-created, and this often presents a challenge for feminist scholars because of the ways in which the female body has typically been objectified. That is, the traditional feminist objectification critique suggests that Williams’ body and athletic performances are always-already under surveillance through the very structure of sport and the sporting context, and therefore, through her participation in the social institution of athletics and its related commodification culture, Williams’ body is objectified. Yet Williams’ (and other female athletes’) ability to occupy this blurred position of both subject and object, in combination with her strategic use of both inhabiting and resisting social norms (such as by highlighting her Black body through atypical tennis apparel), complicates the objectification critique.

This somewhat paradoxical position reflects a tension in traditional feminist scholarship about the body and what Maria del Guadalupe Davidson suggests is a tension between how young Black women and traditional Black feminists view agency. Davidson presents this tension as a question, asking, “is the present generation of young Black women experiencing the realization of Black feminist efforts from the past or is it deceived about its own agency?” (88). Davidson contends that many traditional Black feminists are troubled by how younger Black women are using their bodies or presenting their agency. For example, Davidson points out that Beyoncé’s version of feminism and “brand of agency” signifies “what traditional Black feminists mean when they say that young Black women today see their agency but they fail to see when their agency is being challenged or jeopardized” (91). According to Davidson, because traditional Black feminists are “impacted by a history that constructed Black women as sexually deviant … they see young Black women today who by tricking or any other means play into this image of Black women’s sexuality as reductive, ahistorical, and dangerous for all Black women” (109). Yet younger Black women, as reflected by Williams’ acknowledgement of herself as a product, are influenced by “the commercialization of sexuality and sex—indeed, it is their cultural heritage willed to them in part by a successful feminist movement” (Davidson 109). Davidson argues for a “fused” understanding of Black women’s agency, which would “posit a discussion around modern Black women’s sexuality that respects Black women’s right to express themselves, yet at the same time acknowledges the way in which some sectors of society view Black women’s bodies as objects” (109). In this way, Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and demonstrating agency complicate traditional Black feminist understandings of agency, and suggest the need for broadening the scope of what might be considered agency. Williams’ agency in creating certain outfits, highlighting certain aspects of her body, and performing certain movements and behaviors thus situates her as an embodied subject that must be understood through her corporeality, which in turn extends discussions of women’s subjectivity and embodiment within rhetorical theory, and draws attention to the important nexus of ethos, subjectivity, and the physical body.

Training (Black) Habits and Behaviors for Political Action

In the previous section, I suggested Williams at times seems to embrace media discourses that situate her as outside of the norm for women’s tennis. More specifically, I argue below that Williams seems to employ her Blackness as an element of her ethos, often drawing on racialized narratives and using these audience expectations to her own advantage. Rather than reinforcing these narratives, however, I argue that it is Williams’ very efforts to embrace and inhabit these racialized expectations that then allow her to capitalize on them. Williams’ ability to inhabit these expectations suggests the importance of viewing ethos as both specifically embodied and inextricably tied to one’s subjectivity. Embodied ēthe, therefore, better describes women’s efforts to gain ethos even in circumstances where they appear to be subordinate subjects, expanding the scope of feminist understandings of ethos.

Williams’ efforts to embrace her Blackness and the relationship between Williams’ behaviors and tennis media’s tendency to portray Williams as defiant or nonconformist is especially evident in analyzing her performance of ethos in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Jennifer Capriati. Although not a championship match and not one of her more recent, record-breaking wins, this match is an important moment in Williams’ career for several reasons. First, the match vs. Capriati is notable for a number of questionable officiating calls that would later become the catalyst for the player-driven challenge system now used. Second, Williams’ justifiable questioning of these calls would eventually become linked with other, more aggressive disputes that were criticized by tennis media (Abad-Santos). This match would also be grouped with other incidents8 at least partially influenced by race. Finally, Williams chose unusual tennis apparel for her match vs. Capriati: a studded, cropped black tank top, a denim skirt, and black sneakers that combined with removable gaiters to give the appearance of knee-high boots. Williams claims she chose the outfit because of its “in-your-face, hip-hop feel,” a description which draws on associations of Black hip hop culture with violence, intimidation, deviant behavior, and masculinity (Arthur 113), associations that Williams perhaps employs to put additional pressure on her opponents, but also associations that tennis analysts have drawn on in describing Williams as “pummeling” opponents or responding to officials with “cockiness.” Once again, Williams utilizes adornment as a rhetorical practice, using her apparel to make a political statement. Though Williams was not as outspoken about her activism at this stage in her career, her choice of dress and style, as well as her interactions on the court, can be read as what Ford terms “embodied activism.” As Ford suggests about the history of soul style, “in substance and symbolically, soul and style politics writ large are more critical to the Black liberation and women’s liberation struggles than we have previously recognized” (14). In this way, Williams’ rhetorical practices of adornment might be read as early (perhaps more palatable for mostly white tennis media and officials) efforts of political activism that paved the way for her later, more explicit efforts (discussed in more detail below).

Another example of Williams’ emphasis on her racial difference can be seen in her “matchbook,” which includes inspirational quotes or reminders of an opponent’s playing style and weaknesses (7). One of her matchbook entries reads: “Be strong. Be Black…. They want to see you angry. Be angry, but don’t let them see it” (42). Here Williams equates her Blackness with a source of personal strength and confidence, and she seems to suggest that it is a quality she can use to her advantage. Williams also seems to conflate Blackness with anger, or at least implies that her audience may conflate Blackness with anger, and that this composed, concealed anger is a quality that will help her succeed. This is an interesting directive given the social sanctions against Black women for displaying their anger. Black studies scholar Brittney Cooper argues, “Angry Black Women get dismissed all the time. We are told we are irrational, crazy, out of touch, entitled, disruptive, and not team players” (2-3). Though Cooper suggests that the Williams sisters are experts at “how to use rage with precision,” Serena Williams in particular has been criticized for her emotional responses—both passionate and outraged—and often punished for them. Cooper argues for an “eloquent rage,” a righteous anger as a productive force, and while she describes Williams as “eloquent rage personified,” it’s important to note the ways that Williams has been ostracized because of this (typically) justified anger (7). Though her actions and behaviors are similar to those of other (white) players, Williams has been fined and penalized for what tennis officials might call her “anger,” yet Williams herself suggests this quality is part of her success. Williams’ awareness of the power of her anger is similar to hooks’ concept of “talking back,” or “speaking as an equal to an authority figure … daring to disagree … having an opinion,” which hooks claims is “the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice” (Talking Back 5, 9). In unapologetically questioning calls, in demonstrating anger when tennis officials treat her unfairly, Williams performs her subjectivity, moving from object to active subject.

Importantly, Williams makes the distinction that she doesn’t want others to see her as angry, perhaps because of the social sanctions Cooper notes. The effort to conceal this emotion also suggests a carefully crafted ethos. Royster notes that for nineteenth century African American women, the process of creating a speaking self includes “encoding ways of being,” which “operates from a particular vision of mission and power, thereby exhibiting both agency and authority” (70). In similar fashion, Williams articulates her particular vision and way of being: decidedly Black, in the midst of a white tennis community.

In addition, the directive to “Be Black” suggests that Blackness is an important part of Williams’ embodied ēthe, and is a quality she actively works to construct and embody through her athletic performance. While it is impossible to determine whether or not Williams intentionally invokes this typically negative stereotype of Black athletes, I argue there is a relationship between epideictic rhetoric about Black athletes, media discourses about Williams, and Williams’ own behaviors and bodily movements, suggesting the need for understanding ethos as part of a complex nexus that includes the physical body and subjectivity and can account for multiple, intersecting layers of marginalization. By donning clothing that already represents a certain set of cultural values and behaviors in her match vs. Capriati, Williams embraces cultural narratives about Black athletes and almost conditions herself to behave in ways that are consistent with these circulating discourses. In other words, her very choice of attire, and her efforts to cultivate an “in-your-face, hip-hop feel” reflect the epideictic rhetoric being promoted by popular media, and may have also influenced her bodily movements and behavior as she got “in the face” of the head umpire to question the incorrect call.

In this way, Williams’ actions and behaviors were read through the context of racialized narratives perpetuated through popular media and Williams’ response to these narratives reflects her own embrace and acceptance of these narratives. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that media discourses about Williams necessarily dictate her behaviors and actions, but I do think it is important to consider the ways in which these discourses shape audience expectations about Williams and how Williams subsequently responds to audience expectations.  In this way, previous cultural discourses and audience expectations may influence how one constructs ethos. At the very least, I argue that Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors did not differ from those of other (white) players. As Royster suggests, African American women have traditionally come to a rhetorical task with “a reputation,” or a situated ethos that is “deeply compromised, especially when they seek as one of their target audiences those outside their immediate home community,” and that in these instances, “African American women are called upon to define themselves against stereotypes and other negative expectations, and thereby to shift the ground of rhetorical engagement by means of their abilities to invent themselves and create their own sense of character, agency, authority, and power” (65). Though Williams seems to embrace and inhabit these stereotypes and negative expectations, she redeploys and redefines them for her own purposes, using them as motivation in her playing strategy.

As another example of how Williams inhabits racialized expectations and repurposes them for her own agenda, when Williams announced she would return to play at Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2015, her decision was framed by tennis media as a move toward forgiveness and signaling Serena’s new maturity over the incident, especially when discussed in contrast to Venus’ “stubborn” position to continue to skip the event (Jones). The Williams family has boycotted the event following an incident in the 2001 tournament, when Serena faced a hostile audience that reportedly shouted racial slurs. Yet ESPN’s Peter Bodo claims that the Williams family chose to “punish” the tournament with the boycott, and that Serena reacted to the crowd’s response at the 2001 event “as if the sky had fallen in, because to her 19-year-old mind and heart it really had” (Bodo). According to Bodo, during the interim in which she was not competing at Indian Wells, Williams was more interested in her celebrity, but “once she embraced her identity [as a serious tennis athlete rather than a part-time actress], a new, more thoughtful and secure Serena began to emerge. She earned a platform from which she could say whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, with the guarantee that she would not only be heard but also that many would take her words for gospel truth” (Bodo). Presumably in contrast with her previous stance of boycotting the tournament, Bodo says of Williams’ new outlook on the tournament and her decision to return to play there, “Serena is making a statement, but it isn’t aggressive, vindictive or self-regarding” (Bodo).

Bodo’s characterization of Williams reveals several insights relevant to my discussion of ethos and race. First, Bodo’s assertion that it is only in her decision to return to Indian Wells that Williams demonstrates maturity implies that Williams’ earlier stance of boycotting the event was immature and that her stance on the issue was overly spiteful. However, rather than throwing a tantrum, Williams quietly—there has never been a public announcement that the Williams sisters were boycotting the tournament—chose to boycott the event, relying on a type of protest traditionally associated with the African American civil rights movement. The decision to boycott the event was thus actually an incredibly appropriate means through which to communicate her embodied ēthe.

In addition, Bodo’s focus on Williams as now older and wiser effectively focuses the incident on Williams’ response to it, discounting the way that tournament officials handled the incident (the Williams family has still not received a formal apology from the tournament) and exempting tennis media from addressing issues of race. This type of framing puts the onus on Williams for reaching a resolution to the issue, allowing tennis media and officials to escape any sort of accountability for the boycott. Unfortunately, this construction is consistent with racialized narratives that place the responsibility for reconciliation on the one who experiences racism. As journalist Howard Bryant points out, African Americans who have been subjected to racism often only get one choice from the American public: “forgive, be the bigger person, focus not on what occurred and its accompanying trauma but on all of the good, supportive people. The unforgiving suffer even worse labeling for the crime of not recognizing that things are better than they were, and for not getting over it—that is, until they come around and make America feel good about itself” (Bryant). And indeed, Williams framed her return to Indian Wells as an act of forgiveness (“I’m Going Back”), and by several accounts, it was Williams who initiated discussions of returning to Indian Wells rather than tournament officials who reached out to her (Bodo, Bryant, Jones).

However, as in other circumstances, Williams’ willingness to embrace racialized expectations—such as seeking reconciliation—actually allows her to use such moments of subordination for her own purposes. As Bodo suggests, Williams’ athletic success means that she has earned a public platform, and Williams leverages this platform to bring attention to issues of racial injustice. The fact that she was able to make such a vocal stance about racial justice suggests that her status within the tennis community has shifted, and that she has gained some levels of audience support. Though she still seems to face racial and gender discrimination from tennis officials (as evidenced by her experiences in the 2018 French Open and U.S. Open), tennis fans and mainstream media have begun to embrace her. When she announced her return to Indian Wells, Williams also highlighted the social injustice still faced by African Americans by inviting fans to donate to the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice group that addresses the mass incarceration of African Americans and provides legal aid to those who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. One lucky donor would be selected to attend Williams’ first match at the tournament from her players’ box. Indeed, fans seemed excited about her return to the tournament, and her first-round match was sold-out. By using her return to call attention to racial justice, Williams is able to utilize racialized expectations, redeploying the discourses that continue to reinscribe her as subordinate to the dominant white tennis community as modalities of action that then allow her to take political action. Importantly though, I want to emphasize that it is specifically Williams’ complicity in inhabiting these social norms about appropriately reconciliatory Black behavior that then allows her to bring attention to these systemic issues of racism. Attending to the ways in which Williams and other marginalized rhetors are able to develop embodied ēthe by inhabiting (rather than merely resisting) social norms provides a fuller discussion of women’s rhetorical practices and broadens theories of ethos for feminist aims.

Williams’ performances of ethos draw attention to the ways in which previous cultural narratives, along with the materiality of the body, affects one’s ethos. Williams faced gendered and racialized discourses that positioned her as an outsider, even when her behaviors or actions did not differ from that of other (white) players. These considerations are important for rhetoric and sports studies scholars because the bodily practices and behaviors that come to establish one’s sense of self and subjectivity have real material consequences in the bodies of individuals that perform these movements. Williams’ efforts to construct embodied ēthe therefore demonstrate an important nexus of the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity, which suggests a further broadening of feminist theories of ethos and the need for an intersectional approach to understanding ethos. In addition, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe enrich discussions of modern Black women’s agency and reflect legacies of Black women’s rhetorical practices. Williams’ use of embodied activism and adornment complicates traditional Black feminist understandings of agency and respectability politics, while also bringing added attention to the value of everyday behaviors and actions (such as choosing certain tennis apparel) of claiming subjectivity. As Davidson suggests, paying attention to these everyday, often unrecognized acts of claiming subjectivity is important because these very same actions “have laid the groundwork for Black women making bold proclamations of agency on the most public of stages” (6). Considering embodied ēthe helps scholars account for the specific role of the body and one’s multiple subjectivities, which is more inclusive of marginalized rhetors and which might be particularly important for Black feminist scholars. According to Davidson, Black feminism needs to be open to new forms of agency, especially if it wants to appeal to younger Black women (140). Davidson argues that young Black women are looking for a Black feminism that is “more physical, one that is rooted in a politics of the body: a Black feminism that is nasty, and deviant, and violent, and sexy, and unapologetic” (123). Opening up theories of ethos to include embodied ēthe certainly accounts for the various ways that women such as Williams express their agency, including the role of the body within agency.

Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe also demonstrate the ways in which one might inhabit social norms, in addition to resisting them, expanding the actions and behaviors that might constitute one’s agency. Williams’ efforts to either inhabit or subvert social norms suggest a malleability and variance to one’s subjectivity. In this way, repeated bodily actions do not just signify one’s ethos, but actually work to constitute the individual. Therefore, in contrast to feminist sports studies scholarship that emphasizes the care of the self as either enabling resistance to or reinforcing social norms, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe suggest that disciplinary practices such as the care of the self and dedicated athletic training are not so much about the social impositions placed on the subject but on the work that these practices do in shaping the individual. Likewise, examining Williams’ embodied ēthe expands feminist understandings of ethos to include various capacities for action, broadening the scope of actions and behaviors that might be seen as efforts to gain ethos. A reimagining of ethos as embodied ēthe therefore highlights the ways in which some marginalized rhetors might work to construct ethos, and values actions and behaviors not traditionally considered as efforts to gain ethos.


  1. Of course, though Williams has been cast as an outsider for much of her career, her status as a professional athlete grants her certain opportunities not available to many women of color, and certainly not to many women in the Global South. Describing Serena Williams as marginalized is, without doubt, relative. Nevertheless, the ability to speak for oneself as a subject capable of action has life-threatening consequences, as even Williams can attest. After giving birth to her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams (who has a history of blood clots) felt short of breath, and worried she was having a pulmonary embolism. Yet despite warning nurses about her symptoms and requesting appropriate treatment—a CT scan and blood-thinning medication—nurses initially brushed off Williams’ concerns (Haskell). That is, despite being one of the most successful tennis players of all time, despite being one of the most recognizable female athletes, and despite warning medical professionals about her history of blood clots, Williams was simply just one of many black women who disproportionately experience pregnancy-related complications. In fact, black women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than any other group (Lockhart).
  2. I use perform both to describe her athletic performance—her behaviors and actions while on the tennis court in competition—and also to acknowledge that any interactions with tennis media respond to a particular situation and can be considered performative actions. Performative understandings of rhetoric draw from the work of J.L. Austin, who explains that a given communicative event is performative if by saying something, one also does something, the classic example being when one says “I do” during a wedding ceremony. However, performative actions are dependent on context: if one says “I do” in a context other than the wedding ceremony it is not performative. Thus, when using perform or performance of ethos, I do not wish to suggest that Williams’ actions are not genuine, but rather that they respond to a particular context.
  3. Collins’ argument is based on critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work. Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality as a means of conceptualizing problems within the legal system that occurred when individuals faced both racial and gender discrimination. Because the law had no means of accounting for multiple forms of discrimination at that time, legal counsel did not know how to address multiple forms of exclusion. Collins applies Crenshaw’s term to forward a theoretical framework that accounts for race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as compounding systems of power (11).
  4. Although the focus of this paper is on how Williams inhabits social norms, other female athletes inhabit, rather than resist, social norms as well. For example, soccer player Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and is forever memorialized for her sports-bra revealing goal celebration, is another woman working within what might be considered a marginalized discourse. Chastain’s femininity and sexuality (and that of her teammates) were highlighted in commercials, newspaper articles, and television appearances leading up to the World Cup, yet in inhabiting this “safe” (for white male audiences) social norm, Chastain is able to speak against discourses that denigrate women’s sports and treat women athletes unfairly. Her iconic goal celebration is often used as the symbol of Title IX’s success, yet it is important to consider that the body displayed in this image is a white, feminine, heterosexual one. More recently, gymnast Aly Raisman posed nude for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with words like “Survivor” and “Trust Yourself” painted on her body, alluding to her testimony in the 2017 trial of Larry Nassar, who had sexually abused Raisman and countless other athletes while serving as a team doctor with USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State University. In response to critics who expressed surprise that a sexual abuse survivor would pose nude, Raisman said, “women do not have to be modest to be respected” (Talarico). Therefore, though Raisman inhabits social norms about the objectified female body by posing in SI, she redeploys those discourses, using the very same body to speak out about sexual abuse and to complicate understandings of women’s bodies and subjectivities.
  5. Jeffrey Walker also links melete (or deliberate practice, training) with cultivating ethos in Rhetorics and Poetics in Antiquity (148).
  6. For example, The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg draws attention to Williams’ “mold-breaking muscular frame,” and commentators at the 2015 Wimbledon tournament emphasized Williams’ height and power in her match against Maria Sharapova, even though Sharapova, at 6’2”, is taller than Williams. In fact, Williams’ height, at 5’9”, was merely average for players ranked in the top ten in 2015.
  7. However, while several scholars rightly criticize the media’s focus on Williams’ Compton roots, the Williams family themselves often employs this narrative and emphasizes their difference from other players. In fact, Richard Williams appears to have deliberately trained Venus and Serena to expect that they will be treated differently than their white tennis-playing peers. For example, he reportedly bribed neighborhood children to yell racial taunts while Venus and Serena practiced to “prepare them for the kind of prejudice they might face in the mostly white tennis world,” and he had the brilliant foresight to prepare the sisters for the media by videotaping them playing and answering questions about their technique and future goals (Todd, 15; R. Williams, 229). In emphasizing their Blackness and the possibility of racist remarks, Richard Williams has helped influence the development of Serena’s ethos as specifically Black and the shaping of her identity as different from her audience of mostly white tennis fans and players.
  8. For example, at the 1997 U.S. Open, Romanian Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped into Venus Williams during a change of sides in their match (Price, “Venus Envy”). At Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2001, the Williams family heard racial
    slurs during Serena’s championship match. In a 2009 U.S. Open match vs. Kim Clijsters, Serena was again victim to a number of questionable officiating calls, and when she threatened a lines judge in frustration, Clijsters was awarded a penalty point, giving her the set and the match. In addition to losing the match, Williams was also fined and placed on probation. According to Sam Damre, despite being played on American soil, the crowd largely rooted for the Belgian Clijsters, even before Williams’ outburst (Damre). In 2011, Williams was called for an intentional hindrance in a U.S. Open match against Australian Sam Stouser for yelling, “Come on!” after hitting a shot. When Williams asked for a replay, claiming that the shout was involuntary, head official Eve Asderesky refused, leading some to question the difference between Williams’ shout and other players’ grunts, which are usually not ruled as intentional hindrances (Abad-Santos). Finally, at the 2018 U.S. Open, Williams was warned for a coaching violation (a very unusual violation), and when she appealed the warning with umpire Carlos Ramos, Williams thought they reached an understanding and that no violation was awarded. Later in the match, when Williams broke her racquet in frustration, she received a point penalty (the next escalation in penalties after a warning). Thinking it should only have been a warning because the earlier coaching violation had been overturned, Williams questioned the penalty, calling Ramos “a thief.” This comment got her a game penalty, a rather severe punishment given the circumstances.

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Stories of Filipina Suffrage: Remembering Marginal Histories in Colonial Contexts

As this Peitho conversation makes clear, the Nineteenth Amendment heralded new political possibilities mainly for white women. One group that we often do not consider is suffrage history of Asian American communities, especially Filipinas. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States took imperial control in the Philippines. Yet, instead of giving Filipino citizens rights to participate in United States politics, the new rule placed Filipinos in a political limbo. Beginning in 1901, Filipinos in the United States and abroad were considered as neither foreign alien nor American citizen, but simply as ambiguous U.S. “nationals” who held no U.S. political rights (Baldoz 74). Filipinos were granted the right to vote in elections in the Philippines in 1907; yet women were not granted the same right until 1937 (Carandang and Tiongson 81). As U.S. nationals, though, Filipinos—both men and women– could not become U.S. citizens or vote in American politics. The history of voting rights for Filipino Americans reveals inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects. Yet, Filipino American history is often glossed over, forgotten, or erased. As we reflect on ways to mark the suffrage centennial, we should consider this history and the women who continued fighting for voting rights even after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.

To embody feminist ideals and emphasize the historical contributions of all women who fought for equal rights and suffrage beyond 1920, it seems we need to expand our thinking to include colonial histories and to center attention on women who have more transnational identifications. Terese Guinsatao Monberg argues that our recovery of feminist rhetorics is guided by Western ideological assumptions about whose activities count as feminist and may “prevent many Asian/American women from being heard” (84). According to Haivan Hoang, Asian American rhetorical memory is a “rejoinder to the persistent forgetfulness that displaces Asian Americans from commonplace understandings of what is American” (63). Memorials created by and about Asian Americans can reshape our historical narratives to be more inclusive of diverse voices. Such community memory projects are noteworthy outlets for investigation, especially as we reframe our centennial discussions to be more inclusive of multiply marginalized women like Filipinas.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” is an innovative project that works on addressing this memorial concern and is a model we should pay attention to at this centennial moment. It is an exhibit dedicated to establishing the presence of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. and making clear the relationship between American history and women’s voting rights in the Philippines. This exhibit was created in 2016 by Titchie and Erwin Tiongson, a husband and wife research team who are not archivists or professional historians. Rather, they are what we might see as everyday public memory activists. “The Washington Home” is part of a group the Tiongsons founded in 2012 called Philippines on the Potomac, which is dedicated to the research and recovery of Philippine history. “The Washington Home” is a traveling exhibit and has been displayed in various libraries, museums, and archives, including the University of Maryland, Philippines Embassy, and Fairfax Museum and Visitor’s Center. The Tiongsons also travel with the exhibit and lecture about their research, the exhibit, and Filipina suffrage history in the United States. Until this exhibit came to be, these women and their presence in the United States had all but been forgotten.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit features large panels filled with black and white photos, scanned newspaper articles, and other historical information about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century.

Fig. 1. “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit.

As seen in Fig. 1, the exhibit is made of six large, olive green panels that display an abundance of pictures, historical overviews, and newspaper articles about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century. Although the title and exhibit make it clear that a major theme for the exhibit is Filipina suffrage history in the United States, the exhibit does not focus on suffrage activities alone. The variety of materials on display may even seem out of place when considering typical notions of suffrage that centers around voting rights. While all the women featured in the exhibit were active in civic life of some sort, including membership in charitable organizations, advocates for women’s literacy rights, and politicians in their own right, the materials displayed paint them not only as activists, but also as mothers, socialites, sisters, and wives. The result is that the exhibit evokes the genre of a scrapbook, one that recovers a comprehensive picture of the daily activities and identities of Filipina activists in twentieth century United States. Amy Mecklenburg-Faenger maintains that scrapbooks have historically allowed for women to construct their own histories and identities to act as a counter to dominant historical narratives that dismissed or erased their contributions (142). In the same way, the Tiongsons created a public display that contextualizes and recovers the lives of women who had been forgotten. The exhibit’s vision of what belongs within suffrage history is expansive and challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.

My contribution to the centennial cluster considers “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” and the methods this community memory project employs to (re)frame suffrage history to consider the everyday experiences of Filipinas that were multiply marginalized. Additionally and importantly, “The Washington Home” also acts as a model of how everyday archivists move from archival research to a public memory project in ways that call viewers to recast their understandings of suffrage history. This memorial offers a much-needed intervention in our centennial celebrations, as it speaks to methods community members might employ when curating marginal histories in the face of archival scarcity and during this moment when more prominent figures like Susan B. Anthony might be highlighted.

I assert that the archival elements on display in “The Washington Home” work together to transform an eclectic collection of archival material into something like a public scrapbook that preserves a history that has been virtually forgotten and, even more, reconsiders what rights rhetorics and public memory might entail for women whose culture, nationality, and gender prevented them from gaining rights in both the Philippines and in the United States. I argue that “The Washington Home” exhibit uses archival material and diverse stories of Filipinas’ lives to expand the suffrage moment and its memory beyond just voting rights. Instead, the exhibit advocates for viewing suffrage moments that multiply marginalized women engaged to fight not only for the right to vote but also for the right to viewed as human. During the early 1900s, not only was the Philippine nation was under imperial control; but individuals of Filipino descent on American soil also experienced harsh prejudices and violence. For example, as Samantha Heinrich writes, a newspaper report on the 1904 World Fair discussed an exhibit of Filipino natives and maligned them as “‘dog-eaters’, ‘savages’ and/or ‘barbarians,’ while simultaneously gathering support for the continued presence of the United States in the Philippines” (Heinrich 26). This example is representative of a national discourse that Filipinas were attempting to combat as they also fought for their right to vote. Thus, the exhibit recalls a history when Filipinas were seen as less than human and had to negotiate widespread misunderstandings of their culture and identities.

Archival Scarcity: Rethinking the Scene of the Archive

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” was inspired by one serendipitous trip to the Library of Congress when Titchie and Erwin Tiongson unearthed a photograph (see Fig. 2). The photo was taken in 1922 and its description in the Library of Congress holdings was simple: “Philippine women received by the first lady.” The photograph features twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding, but, as the description of the photo indicates, there was little information about who the women were or what they were doing at the White House. Deeply interested in learning more about the image, the Tiongsons discovered that the Filipinas were the family members of a Filipino delegation that was visiting the United States (Carandang and Tiongson 76). The delegation was known as the Philippine Independence Mission of 1922 that advocated for Philippine freedom from U.S. imperial control (Onorato 559). While the Filipino delegation members and their meeting with President Harding are well documented, the lives and activities of their Filipina counterparts during this same time is not as easily accessible. Unable to let go of the mystery of exactly who these women were and their role in Filipino history, Titchie and Erwin set out to prove it was not “just one more vintage photograph—pretty, yet unremarkable” but instead this was a photo of “some of the most extraordinary women of their time,” who would help to rewrite suffrage laws in the Philippines (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). Titchie and Erwin eventually learned the names of most of the twenty-two women in the photo; however, historical records often included limited information about these women or their lives in the United States.

Black and white photo of a group of Filipina women on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding.

Fig. 2. Twenty-two unidentified Filipina women are greeted by First Lady Harding on the White House lawn.

In the face of archival scarcity, the creators of “The Washington Home” reimagined what could be considered as sources for their research and expanded their research methods to discover more about who the women were. Cheryl Glenn and Jessica Enoch assert the capacity of “smaller collections or accidental discoveries” to “expand our notions of what counts as a primary resource, as an archive” (328). Titchie and Erwin spent months reading biographies and newspapers, contacting community members who had family oral histories and photographs of Filipinas in the twentieth century, and visiting archives that had collections dedicated to Filipino history, like the University of Maryland’s Hornbake library. Through such actions, Titichie and Erwin “reth[ought] the scene of the archive” and collected archival materials from sources not typically taken advantage of by scholars (327). These community resources and smaller archives created a valuable outlet in which the Tiongsons could follow the traces of the women’s histories and collect a multitude of evidence about their lives in the United States.

By rethinking the scene of the archive, Titchie and Erwin culled enough material to create a scrapbook-like memorial where audiences can view the majority of the documents they discovered. This includes a collection of photos, cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and seemingly disconnected stories about Filipinas living in the United States in the early twentieth century. With the help of Monica Bascon, a graphic designer, Tichie and Erwin transformed their collection of eclectic archival documents into a narrative of Filipina activism, which reclaims Washington, D.C. as a rich site for Asian American culture and history.

Remembering Filipina Suffrage: Sophia de Veyra and the Negotiation of Multiple Identities

A prime way the exhibit encourages viewers to expand their knowledge of suffrage history is focusing on basic information about Filipina suffrage history and highlighting Filipina suffragist Sofia de Veyra as a key figure in women’s rights narratives. One of the first panels viewers of the exhibit encounter is entitled “The Women of the 1922 Independence Mission.” The White House lawn photograph of the Filipinas with First Lady Harding is at the top and the bottom of this panel. The middle section of the panel features a historical overview that gives a background of who the women are in the photograph and a brief history of Filipina suffrage. The central figure in the photograph facing Mrs. Harding is Sofia de Veyra (see in Fig. 2). The first two lines of the historical overview establish de Veyra as a key figure in the exhibit: “On June 19,1922, U.S. First Lady Florence Harding hosted the wives, daughters, and sisters of the delegates of the Philippine Independence Mission. The group was led by Sofia de Veyra, the wife of the Resident Commissioner Jaime de Veyra” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The caption goes on to make clear that, fifteen years after this photograph was taken in 1937, de Veyra and other women in the photo, like Ines Villa Gonzalez and Aurora Quezon, would “be instrumental in the passing of the September 1937 Election Law that allowed Filipina women to vote and run for office” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This information is important because it firmly situates the exhibit in context with women who played a key role in Filipina suffrage. Further, by focusing on de Veyra as a leader of the movement, it places her in similar positions of power like other suffragist leaders who may be better known to the viewer.

This understanding of Sofia de Veyra’s activism is strengthened by the first panel’s inclusion of Carrie Chapman Catt and her work with Filipina suffrage. The first panel displays a picture of Catt and the historical overview that follows explains that she visited the Philippines in 1912 to help establish and grow suffrage movements. During her trip she met with de Veyra and, despite Catt’s doubts about the success of her visit, the meeting directly inspired the founding of the Women’s Club of Manila (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). By invoking Catt and highlighting her connection with Filipina suffragists and her investment in their rights, the exhibit expands visions of the suffrage movement beyond the U.S. These women were U.S. nationals who worked with prominent American suffragists, and thus the exhibit intervenes in the typical omission of this fact. The scrapbook-like style of the exhibit reinforces this association. According to Danille Elise Christensen “scrapbooks can also be experienced as exhibits that makers use to position themselves actively within symbolic discourses and regimes of value” (Christensen 44). The photograph of Catt and the historical overview rhetorically creates an association between the women in the White House photograph, especially de Veyra, and American suffrage. As the text points out, the photo was taken two years after women in the U.S. were granted the right to vote in 1920. Filipinas (whether they were Filipino American or living in the Philippines) were still barred from the franchise. By bringing Catt into Filipina suffrage memory, the exhibit creates an unfinished narrative of suffrage, one which de Veyra would take up the responsibility to gain Filipinas the right to vote. 

The exhibit continues to highlight de Veyra as a key figure in Filipina suffrage history and as an active civic force challenging American racist perceptions of Filipinos. De Veyra is the only Filipina to have an entire panel dedicated to her, and it highlights her activities in D.C. including her time as a Red Cross volunteer and as a wife and mother. Her biographical overview uses a personal history that showcases her as a refined, elite individual—a narrative that works in direct contrast to the negative perceptions of Filipina in American culture. As noted, Filipinos were commonly labeled as savages. The savagery labeled upon Filipino bodies coalesced into a movement colloquially called “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” Such a phrase was something that became commonplace in the mid-1900s. American Studies scholar Antonio Tiongson reflects on the prominence of “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” signs and the social and political realities Filipinos during this time and especially in his site of study, California:

Displayed prominently on doors of hotels and other business establishments throughout California in the 1920s and 1930s, [The sign “Positively No Filipinos Allowed”] was a sign Filipinos frequently encountered in their day-to-day lives symptomatic of their racialization—as nationals and aliens through state-sanctioned practices and policies, and as cheap labor by capital interests and imperative—that resulted in their disenfranchisement and disempowerment. As a consequence, Filipinos were denied not only public accommodation but also access to rights and entitlements, including citizenship, the franchise, and property ownership. (1)

Understanding these realities contextualizes how Filipinas had to negotiate prejudice and legal ambiguities as U.S. nationals. The exhibit creates a new narrative of Filipinas at this time through the collage of newspaper articles and photos that focus on de Veyra’s life as a refined wife and mother in addition to her activism.

The exhibit’s panels work together to show how civic engagement of Filipinas in D.C. took the form of embodying an elite persona, and we can read this persona as a targeted rhetorical strategy these women used to address the prejudices they faced. By featuring more traditionally “feminine” roles the Filipinas embodied, like that of mother and caretaker, the exhibit displays the multiple modes of activism the women employed to gain rights. Refined clothing and other feminine outlets of expression such as composing cookbooks can be useful outlets for cultivating elite identities to advocate for equal rights. Carol Mattingly notes the sophisticated way women have used clothing to “capitalize on the intense attention given their appearance in order to undermine criticism and to re-direct audience to their words” (36). Newspaper articles and photos featuring well-dressed Filipinas on the steps of the White House and at D.C. social events offer a more nuanced version of their suffrage activities and show how they physically presented themselves even in the face of signs like “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” This history necessitates that we extend our understandings of how women engaged and navigated the suffrage moment. As Filipinas faced different kinds of prejudice, their intersectional concerns called for a variety of activist endeavors, not all of which centered on voting rights.

Sofia de Veyra’s panel directly shows how she navigated these elements to inspire changing U.S. opinions about colonial rule in the Philippines and the rights of Filipinas. The biography states that she acted as the Philippine’s cultural ambassador and that she traveled throughout the United States to give lectures on Filipino culture. Her presentations often focused on the arts and material culture and that she played an active role in reshaping the American imaginary concerning Filipinas and the ability of the Filipino people to govern themselves (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The exhibit cites The Boston Globe’s assessment of her: “Those who have doubts about the ability of the Filipinos to govern themselves should have heard the illustrated lecture by Mme. De Veyra” (as qtd. in Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This argument is furthered by the display of additional newspaper articles about de Veyra entitled “The New Women of the Philippine Islands” from the New York Times (1932) and “Foremost Filipino Women” from the Philippine Republic (1924). de Veyra is also mentioned multiple times throughout the exhibit panels, and she is depicted as a team player, leader, and friend who worked for over thirty years on suffragist and civic activities in the U.S. and the Philippines. Viewers can thus trace de Veyra’s influence throughout the exhibit, seeing how the other women featured in the panels are connected across time and pursuits. The last panel, titled “In the Footsteps of the Leaders of the Philippine Suffrage Movement,” especially emphasizes this connectedness by focusing on the women who became President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino (1986) and Gloria Arroyo (2001), and consequently visited Washington, D.C. during the 1990s. By first establishing de Veyra as a leader on the first panel and then showing her connections to various outlets of Filipina civic activities, the final panel suggests that that due to the activism of their pioneer foremothers, especially de Veyra, Aquino and Arroyo were elected into the highest level of office.

Scrapbooking History—Recasting Suffrage Memory 

Overall, the exhibit panels present an eclectic, scrapbook display of materials used to leverage an argument about Filipina suffrage in the face of archival scarcity. While Sofia de Veyra’s suffrage activism is well documented, many of the other women in the exhibit might not be labeled as suffragists and much of the material about them and their achievements is not directly about suffrage. For example, the exhibit displays cookbooks written by or featuring recipes by de Veyra, photos of Filipinas with their families, and pictures of the D.C. homes where they lived and worked. By including these elements, audience members can witness the various activities Filipinas took on in order to counter the harsh stereotypes they faced in their everyday life and to argue for their equal status. To connect these everyday life elements with suffrage, “The Washington Home” calls viewers to leverage critical imagination. In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch see critical imagination as thinking “between, above, around, and beyond” gathered evidence to speculate on “what might likely be true based on what we have in hand” (71). Using critical imagination, viewers are asked to make connections between the figures and stories displayed and to think about their connections to women’s rights and suffrage especially given their Filipino identity.

Although the Tiongsons’ research uncovered a variety of documents, the exhibit makes it clear that the story is unfinished. For example, the bottom half of the first panel is the White House lawn photo. Seventeen of twenty-two the participants are labeled with a number that corresponds with their individual snapshots, leaving five women unidentified. The labels let the viewers know the names of the women in the photo and a few of the women are featured in later exhibit panels, but for some, all that could be remembered is their name and for five women, the archive bore no results. According to Titchie, simply discovering who the women were was particularly difficult as many of the women had married before or after the photo was taken and recovering their names took significant work. Seeing this portion of the exhibit, viewers simultaneously learn who the women are but also witness the realities of archival scarcity and the need for critical imagination. The unlabeled women emphasize the unfinished story and ask the viewer to critically imagine their connection to prominent figures like de Veyra, suffrage, and First Lady Harding.

Displayed at three different points in the exhibit, the White House lawn photo suggests the social prominence of the Filipinas, especially as they relate to American politics. In a scrapbook display, a photo can “act as both icon (literally representing a real-world referent) and index (evoking a range of related forms and feelings)” (Christensen 84). The photograph acts as an index showing that the Filipinas had access to powerful figures in American history. It records twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn, including four of the most important suffragists in Filipina history: Sofia de Veyra, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Aurora Quezon, and Ines Villa Gonzalez. The photo also then becomes symbolic for the Filipina suffrage movement, asking viewers to critically imagine that the photo is a Filipina suffrage delegation, even though what the women discussed with Mrs. Harding remains unknown. The exhibit is clear that the meeting itself is still a mystery, but we can see that viewers are asked to use their critical imaginations as they think about what might have been a topic of discussion. As the exhibit makes clear, its work is to “honor these women, their predecessors, and their modern-day successors. . . [M]ark[ing] their ties to the city[,]. . . we remember a group of women’s graceful and fleeting moment on the South Lawn” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson).


“The Washington Home of Filipina Suffrage” displays the forgotten histories of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. The Filipinas were in the nation’s capital in the midst of anti-Filipino sentiment. The women were physically present when businesses across the country were denying Filipinos entrance. Filipinas were fighting not only for voting rights but also the racism that targeted Filipinos. Titchie and Erwin’s memorial project thus reads suffrage broadly as activities around civics, citizenship, and activism and considers how Filipinas negotiated stigmas like being labeled “savages” and being denied rights by U.S. imperial rule. Filipinas recast themselves as feminine human beings who were worthy of rights, and they paved the way for women after them to become presidents and active participants in politics.

When faced with these prejudices, how did Filipinas advocate for rights in a country where they were considered less-than human? How did they do this in a way that was also mindful of their cultural and social values? To truly understand the answers to these questions more research must be done; however, the exhibit and its collection of the archival artifacts suggest what Filipina civic participation entailed during the suffrage moment in the U.S.—they were writing cookbooks and comportment manuals, they were wives, mothers, and daughters, they worked with Carrie Chapman Catt, they rewrote suffrage laws in the Philippines, and they attended tea with First Ladies. By ending in the near past (the 1990s), the exhibit also connects almost a century worth of activism to the achievements of modern Filipina politicians and argues for a consideration of how these actions animate one another. Public memory scholars engage memory texts as they “travel and circulate through networks and across geographical, temporal and other borders” (Nugent 96). At this centennial moment then, it is important to consider how memorials create narratives about the ways multiply marginalized women negotiated and connected to the suffrage movement. The “Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit especially helps us understand and think about suffrage in a more global and transnational light as it attempts not only to educate viewers about Filipina suffrage but also to (re)claim D.C. for Filipina histories that have been erased.

Works Cited

  • Balce, Nerissa S. “Filipino Bodies, Lynching, and the Language of Empire.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Baldoz, Rick. The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898-1946. NYU Press, 2011.
  • Borda, Jennifer L. “The woman suffrage parades of 1910–1913: Possibilities and limitations of an early feminist rhetorical strategy.” Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports) 66.1 (2002): 25-52.
  • Carandang, Teresa and Erwin R. Tiongson. “Florence Harding Welcomes Philippine Women to the White House: Suffragist Leaders Identified in White House Photograph.” White House History Quarterly, vol. 53, 2019, pp. 74-83.
  • Carandang-Tiongson, Theresa (Titchie). Personal Interview. 25 October 2019.
  • Carandang-Tiongson, Teresa, G. and Erwin R. Tiongson. “About POPDC,” 2013.
  • Christensen, Danille Elise. “(Not) Going Public: Mediating Reception and Managing Visibility in Contemporary Scrapbook Performance.” Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds. Edited by Jason Baird Jackson, Indiana University Press, 2016, pp. 40-104.
  • Guinsatao Monberg, Terese. “Listening for Legacies.” Or, How I Began to Hear Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay Behind the Podium Known as FANHS.” Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State UP, 2008, pp. 83-105.
  • Heinrich, Samantha. “The ‘Savage’ Filipino Natives and Their Dog-Eating Habits.” Western Illinois Historical Review, vol. 8, 2017, pp. 25-41.
  • Hoang, Haivan. “Literacy, Race, and An American Ethos.” Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. Pittsburgh, Pa., University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
  • Mabalon, Dawn Bohulano. Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[Ing] Dress : Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
  • Mecklenburg-Faenger, Amy. “Material Histories: The Scrapbooks of Progressive-Era Women’s Organizations, 1875–1930.” Women and Things, 1750-1950, Edited by Beth Fowkes Tobin and Maureen Daly Goggin, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 141-154.
  • Nugent, Maria. “On Buses: Still Photographs, Travelling Memories and Transnational Histories of Civil Rights Activism in Australia and North America,” Australian Humanities Review, vol. 59, 2016, pp. 96-113.
  • Onorato, Michael P. “The Jones Act and the Establishment of a Filipino Government, 1916-1921.” Philippine Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1966, pp. 448-459.
  • Philippine Women Received by First Lady. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  • Tiongson, Antonio. “Introduction.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Tiongson, Erwin and Teresa Carandang-Tiongson. The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement. 2016, Traveling Exhibit.
  • Washington Exhibit Honors Filipina Suffrage.” June 2016, Embassy of the Philippines

African American Women and the Rhetoric of “Dignified Agitation”

The 2020 Centennial is a celebration of women’s right to vote in the United States. With the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the law erased voter disenfranchisement based on sex. Today, public and private initiatives, commissioned monuments, and curated spaces mark the 100th anniversary by remembering those women who put their intellect and bodies on the line in the fight for their right to vote. The centennial initiatives, monuments, and spaces also commemorate exemplar women and activism, as a product of the American suffrage movement that began with the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yet, the 2020 centennial anniversary is not a celebration of equal access to the American ballot box. Even as we celebrate and recognize that the Nineteenth Amendment afforded white women due process (i.e., fair treatment under the law), it did not guarantee the right to vote for people of color. Likewise, the tenacity, hardships, successes, and sacrifices of white women are acknowledged as essential in the fight for the women’s right to vote, while the contributions of women of color were marginalized and are less visible in recorded history and public memory.  

I appreciate the 2020 centennial initiatives, monuments, and curated spaces that attempt to show both gender and racial contributions. Today, for example, in anticipation of the 2020 centennial, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery includes the images of African American suffragists such as Sojourner Truth, Sarah [Parker] Remond, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, in its Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence exhibit. Through a touch of revisionist history, the exhibit serves as a contemporary counter-narrative to the pervasive anti-black post-American Civil War and Progressive-era hegemonic views on African American women in general, and as suffragists specifically. White women actively ignored, threatened, and silenced black women during this activist moment; as Rosalyn Terborg-Penn explains, “Black women were either invisible or expendable because they, even more than poor white women, represented a lesser class, which created problems for many of the white women in the woman suffrage network” (134). As a contemporary countermeasure, the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit illuminates and provides first-, second-, and third-generation African American women a space for equitable recognition and inclusion, as the exhibit “outline[s] the more than 80-year movement for women to obtain the right to vote as a part of the larger struggle for equality that continued through the 1965 Civil Rights Act” (Smithsonian). Still, how can we use the revisionist counter-narrative example of the Smithsonian’s Votes for Women exhibit to remember and speak to the past activisms and talents of African American women? What wisdoms, discourses, words, deeds, and strengths can we take from the past as examples and catalysts to embrace the work ahead and to celebrate all women and people, as we look forward to and beyond the 2020 centennial? 

In this essay contribution, I recall and analyze primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts that speak to the African American women’s experience within the women’s suffrage movement and at the Woman Suffrage Procession on March 3, 1913—the march in Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Alice Paul, chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA’s) Congressional Committee, which brought together, by many accounts, over 10,000 women, and was pivotal in shaping the public narrative of disenfranchised women in the United States. I highlight the published and unpublished writing, personal discourses, and activism of Mrs. Mary Eliza Church Terrell, as a third-generation suffragist (as Terborg-Penn suggests). Terrell served on the frontlines and at the intersections for women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms, which should demand our attention. Enacting a rhetoric of “dignified agitation,” Terrell modeled and used her leadership as a writer, editor, educator, public speaker, and organizer to facilitate her calls for “meddling” and “agitation” to bring about social, gender, and political changes, in spite of Progressive-era hegemonic norms and Jim (and Jane) Crow racial segregation and discriminations. Through an examination of artifacts, this contribution relies on Terrell’s accounts about organizing and friendships with leading white suffragists and African American women’s club members. More broadly, Terrell’s papers, speeches, and articles show the black women’s desire for cross-racial collaboration and affiliations with white women’s clubs, even as white women found reasons to reject their participation. For example, speaking on the accomplishment of black women and “The Federation’s Attitude,” Terrell writes,

In refusing to receive a delegate from a colored woman’s club at its fifth biennial, the General Federation [of Women’s Club’s] has taken a long step backward. I feel sure, however, that on its sober thought it will not be so unjust and unkind as to exclude colored women’s clubs. Efforts have been made in the past to debar colored women from local white women’s clubs even in the broad and liberal West. . . . I have no doubt that the question of admitting colored women’s clubs to the General Federation will be eventually settled according to the eternal principles of right and justice, rather than according to the unworthy behests of prejudice and arrogance. (“What Colored Women Have Done”)

Terrell saw value in intercultural communication and participation as tools in the fight for the women’s enfranchisement. She was certain that white women would see the social and educational strides and uplift that black women had achieved since emancipation. Terrell hoped that “eternal principles of right and justice” would garner black women equitable treatment within the women’s rights movement, whereby white women could enter into fellowship with black women. We can learn from the primary rhetorical historiographic artifacts of Mary Church Terrell, as her experiences and voice are but one example of countless African American women, who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement in America, and whose memories should invigorate to the 2020 centennial anniversary. It is the intercultural fellowships and affiliations of the women’s suffrage activism that the 2020 centennial must address and celebrate.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) devoted her life to service. Born the daughter of former slaves, into an affluent black family, Terrell recognized her privilege within the African American race, and she was determined to be a voice for women’s suffrage, in general, and to be a champion for African American women and the race, more specifically. Contemporary scholars of African American rhetoric and nineteenth-century women’s rhetoric recognize Terrell as one of the elite black womens’ voices of the age. For example, in Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women, Jacqueline Jones Royster identifies Terrell and other like-minded African American women (i.e., Mary Jane Patterson, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Frances Joseph Norris, Anna Julia Copper, and Ida Gibbs Hunt) as “agents of change,” who processed a “type of ethos, nurtured both formally and informally by a spirit of both intellectual engagement and social activism” (195). As one of the earliest African American women to complete a B.A. degree from Oberlin College, Terrell and others “demonstrated leadership abilities that were unparalleled in terms of power and influence, and they set the pace for how leadership among African American women would be shaped for generations to come” (Royster 195). In We Are Coming: Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, Shirley Wilson Logan reflects on Terrell’s contributions as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and as editor of the Woman’s Era’s Washington, D.C. column. Logan recounts Terrell’s public activism as an anti-lynching crusader, writing that Terrell “refuted the standard lynching-for-rape connection, associating it instead with slavery, race hatred, and lawlessness in her 1904 article ‘Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View’” (96-97). As an editor, writer, and public speaker, Terrell was uniquely positioned to use her rhetorical skills and powerful presence to challenge injustices based on race, gender, and class. Reflecting on Terrell’s 1950s activism to desegregate public spaces, Pauli Murray remembers,

Mary Church Terrell, militant civil rights activist and longtime feminist who had fought for woman suffrage . . . A patrician born in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the essence of Victorian respectability, Mrs. Terrell led picket lines against downtown eating places and ultimately chaired the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws. (Song in a Weary Throat, 231)

As Murray’s memory recalls genteel propriety and social justice radicalism, it frames Terrell’s enactment of “dignified agitation” as a means for political redress and activism. From a review of contemporary scholarship, one may find Mary Church Terrell’s name, memberships, and leadership in connection with multiple civil rights campaigns, literacy and educational initiatives, women’s clubs, civil and human rights organizations, and quests for international human freedoms. In 2020, We should revisit Terrell’s first-hand accounts of the African American women’s suffrage experience, in light of the founding of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1869) and of the founding of the National Colored Women’s Association (1896). The 2020 Centennial must be a tribute to all suffragists.

Despite antebellum and Progressive-era prejudices and black segregation, history shows that African American women have consistently worked for women’s rights and suffrage, even though it is true that no woman of color was present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. At that convention, an enfranchisement collaboration was forged between white women and black men, as signified by the invitation and attendance of Frederick Douglass. It was through Douglass, by extension, that a mutually beneficial working relationship with free colored women was recognized. With the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, African American men were granted the right to vote. In effect, the amendment’s passage ended the close ties that were shared between white women and black men, during the abolitionist and early women’s rights movements. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in New York. The NWSA enacted a Southern campaign strategy that sought to gain the support of Southern white women. Anthony and Stanton weaponized The Revolution (1868-1872), the weekly newspaper of the NWSA, to publish racist discourses and attacks against black civic participation in general, and against black men’s suffrage in particular. In contrast, Lucy Stone supported the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the enfranchisement of black men, thinking that it would eventually lead to a women’s rights amendment. Later, Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), in Boston, in 1869. Although the two women’s suffrage organizations functioned independently, until the groups merged in 1890, they were keenly interested in enfolding Southern white women into their ranks. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler explains,

The overtures of Northern women were crucial in the decisions of [Lucy] Clay, [Belle] Kearney, [Nellie Nugent] Somerville, and the Gordons [Jean and Kate] to become suffrage leaders; and once converted, these Southern suffragists helped recruit others. Clay, who was recruited into the movement with her mother and sisters in the 1880s by the combined efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, in turn converted many other Southern women. (New Women of the New South 63)

Laura Clay, “the woman who was to become the key link between Northern and Southern suffragists” (114), supported Lucy Stone’s husband’s (Henry Blackwell) plan to make women’s education a qualification of suffrage. Blackwell, Clay, and others “would subsequently argue for woman suffrage as the key to solving ‘the negro problem’” (114). With the addition of the white women’s votes, they argued that “[t]he South had an opportunity to insure white political supremacy without taking the vote away from those already enfranchised” (114). By the time that the NWSA and AWSA merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, its main appeals for women’s suffrage were to the legislatures of Southern states, the Democratic Party, and to Southern white women.

African American women were pushed further to the margins, as half of the black race gained the right to vote, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) continued the Southern campaign strategy that was carried over from the NWSA. For a decade, from 1890 to 1900, Anthony and Stanton, respectively, led the NAWSA. By the turn of the century, the NAWSA presidency transferred to Carrie Chapman Catt (1900-1904; 1915-1920) and Anna Howard Shaw (1904-1915), even as the organization blessed the segregation and exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. The NAWSA leadership and members-at-large did not officially prohibit African American women from membership in the national organization. Still, state and local women’s chapters, leagues, and groups maintained their own autonomy, and only coordinated their suffrage efforts through national means. The NAWSA thus allowed each women’s club affiliation in each state to make membership decisions based on reasons such as race, to accommodate Southern white women, at the expense of black women.

As Terborg-Penn explains, “Despite arguments that national suffrage leaders were not really racists when they ignored or rebuffed Black women who sought inclusion, there is evidence that northern woman suffrage leaders used southern suffragists as foils for racist behavior among white women nationwide” (161). Although black suffragists did not completely trust their white counterparts, Terrell encouraged intercultural communication and coalitions. She was not a member of the NAWSA, but Terrell attended its national meetings, and she counted Susan B. Anthony as a friend, “which lasted till she passed away” in 1906 (Terrell, Colored Woman 143). As an educated black woman, Terrell worked in close proximity to spaces that were established for white women. Taking a page from the suffragists’ meetings, Terrell exclaims that she “entered enthusiastically into club work among the women of my own race” (Terrell, Colored Woman 148). She set her eyes on the creation of a national women’s association for the benefit of the African American women and the race. In 1893, she published “What the Colored Women’s League Will Do,” which was a call for support of her plan for such an organization. Speaking directly to black women, Terrell wrote, 

There is every reason for all who have the interests of the race at heart to associate themselves with the League, so that there may be a vast chain of organizations extending the length and breadth of the land devising ways and means to advance our cause. We have always been equal to the highest emergencies in the past and it remains for us now to prove to the world that we are a unit in all matters pertaining to the education and elevation of our race. (qtd in Terrell, Colored Woman 149)

While Terrell’s article is credited as the first written call to establish a national colored women’s league, there was a rejoinder from Mrs. Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin who sent out a national call that brought black women to action. African American women answered Ruffin’s “Call to Confer” to discuss measures that would be needed to bring together the force, strength, and talents of black women, on behalf of the race. Guided by its motto: “Lifting as We Climb,” under the leadership of Terrell as the first president, and with the joining and collaboration of colored women’s clubs from around the country, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1896, which started the nationally recognized Black Women’s Club Movement.

While serving as president from 1896 to 1900, the NACW offered Terrell access to black women on a national stage: “By the end of the [nineteenth-]century, the NACW was the largest federation of African American women’s clubs in the nation. From the outset, woman suffrage was a notable department of the NACW” (Terborg-Penn 88). But on the eve of the Woman Suffrage Procession, to be held on March 3, 1913, black women found active measures in place to exclude their participation in the Washington march. In fact, the 1913 women’s suffrage march in Washington reflected symptoms of the American racial divides, as well as internal disputes over the value and/or lack of value of African American women that had been allowed to fester within the American women’s suffrage movement. According to The Crisis, when black women attempted to register for the procession, they were rebuffed and ignored: “At first Negro callers were received coolly at headquarters. Then they were told to register, but found that the registry clerks were usually out” (“Along the Color Line,” 267). At the direction of Alice Paul, a white suffrage leader, the parade guidelines worked outrightly to hinder and reduce the visibility of black women “for fear that the Southern women affiliated with the parade and the populace of Washington would object to the presence of negro suffragists in the demonstration” (“Colored Women” 2). Regardless of tactics of evasion and misinformation, accounts show that African American women kept up a regular drumbeat to gain entry; they sent letters and telegrams to obtain permission to participate in the march. Although I was not able to find the names of specific NAWSA leaders who were against Paul’s directive, public accounts do state that the action was against the wishes of NAWSA leadership. For example, The Times Dispatch reports the following:

Miss Paul informed some negro suffragists who wished to march that while the National Association recognized equal rights for colored women, . . . the people of the South might take unkindly to their presence in the parade. This statement of Miss Paul rather discouraged the organization of a colored division in the parade. . . . But when the news of Miss Paul’s action reached the national headquarters, it was said it created a storm. (“Colored Women” 2)

While the rumors of fighting within the NAWSA were denied to the public, “at least one member of the national committee regarded Miss Paul’s action as disobedience of orders, as she had been instructed to permit negroes to march if they cared to” (“Colored Women” 2). It is clear from the suffragist infighting that the NAWSA leadership, at that moment, some members found value in black women’s participation and collaboration in the movement, but that esteem did not signal a reversal of the NAWSA’s systematic use of white supremacy policies regarding the “negro question” and marginalization of black women. On the other hand, the dispute to include black women over the wishes of Southern white women and the “disobedience of orders” may have foreshadowed Paul’s departure from the NAWSA because she left shortly after the 1913 suffrage parade, to start her own women’s suffrage organization, the National Women’s Party.

Despite systematic barriers, African American women were represented in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, as demonstrated by the participation of Colored Women’s Clubs members and other groups. More specifically, the suffrage march in Washington was important to black women because the suffrage parade was one of the first opportunities for racial and public activism for some of the black suffragists. For example, shortly after the foundings of (1) Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Alpha Suffrage Club, located in Chicago, Illinois, and (2) Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, established at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., members of the Alpha Suffrage Club and the twenty-two founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were included in the “Negro Women section” of the parade. According to sorority folklore, Terrell accompanied the twenty-two founder and carried the Delta Sigma Theta banner in the Woman Suffrage Procession. Under Terrell’s leadership, there was a well-appointed assembly of African American women in “the Negro Women section.” While Terrell was present on the day of the march, Wells-Barnett’s experience is most often recalled with regard to African American women and the Washington march: After she “consented to march with the women of her race when two [white] suffragists promised to join her,” Wells-Barnett defied the NAWSA’s directive to “keep [the Illinois] delegation entirely white” (“Illinois Women” 3). The Chicago Tribune reported that following behind the sixty-four white suffragists of the Illinois Delegation, “[s]uddenly from the crowd on the sidewalk Mrs. Barnett walked calmly out to the delegation and assumed her place at the side of [Miss Belle] Squire and [Miss Virginia Brooks]. There was no question raised of her eligibility and she finished the parade” (“Illinois Women” 3). For Wells-Barnett to complete the parade walking alongside white suffragists, without being arrested or assaulted, was a personal and political triumph. But she was not the only black woman who faced and challenged discriminatory practices at the march. 

Indeed, the presence of black women was a problem that caused objections from many of the “fair-minded” Northern white women delegations and the Southern white suffragists, despite some favorable newspaper reports of the day that stated, “no color line existed in any part of it.” Terrell’s public acclaim as the past-president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and as one of the leading members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) marked her as undesirable and a threat to Southern white-rule. In a 1974 interview, Alice Paul remembers her part in the 1913 parade, as well as Terrell’s. The interview reads in part:

I walked in the college section. We all felt very proud of ourselves, walking along in our caps and gowns. . . . It was very impressive. Then we had a foreign section, and a men’s section, and a Negro women’s section from the National Association of Colored Women, led by Mary Church Terrell. She was the first colored woman to graduate from Oberlin, and her husband was a judge in Washington. Well, Mrs. Terrell got together a wonderful group to march, and then, suddenly, our members from the South said that they wouldn’t march. Oh, the newspapers just thought this was a wonderful story and developed it to the utmost. I remember that that was when the men’s section came to the rescue. The leader, a Quaker I knew, suggested that the men march between the southern delegation and the colored women’s section, and that finally satisfied the southern women. That was the greatest hurdle we had. (Gallagher)

Paul praises Terrell for her community activism and organization abilities, even as she states that a division of white men marched between the black and white women suffragists. With the support of Southern white women hanging in the balance, Paul confirms that Terrell’s presence, specifically, and the black women’s presence and participation, in general, was the “greatest hurdle” to overcome at the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. The black women’s participation in the march agitated the Southern white women who had bigoted reasons to despise Terrell and her fellow activists.

Terrell’s life and suffrage activism are examples of what the 2020 Centennial celebration should commemorate. Prior to her marriage in 1891, she accepted her role as a suffragist. Terrell explains, “The first large suffrage meeting which I attended was the one in Washington” (144). She recalls:

At the close of the one of the meetings the presiding officer requested all thoseto rise who believed that women should have the franchise. Although the theatre was well filled at the time, comparatively few rose. I was among the number who did. I forced myself to stand up, although it was hard for me to do so. In the early 1890’s it required a great deal of courage for a woman publicly to acknowledge before an audience that she believed in suffrage for her sex when she knew the majority did not. (Terrell, Colored Woman 144)

She accepted the call, and stood up. Terrell was trailblazer, as is evident in the women’s suffrage movement, as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the list goes on. In addition to her women’s club work, Terrell’s national attentions were far and wide, as she meddled, shamed, and agitated her target audiences with published rebukes and polemic titles, which are too numerous to mention here. With the power of her pen and oratorical skills, Terrell regularly pointed to the injustices against black women and the race as well as consistently called for women’s suffrage and equitable treatment of black women. Still, her rhetorical voice and leadership presents the “other side” of the case (as Terrell suggests), as her example indicates how African American women contributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and to the national women’s suffrage movement narrative.

Today, Terrell’s thoughts, writings, speeches, and activism still ring true, on so many fronts in America, as we look back at contributions of countless black suffragists and look to the promises of the 2020 suffrage centennial. Terrell exemplifies the successes and challenges of the African American women’s participation in the women’s suffrage movement. In addition to the images in the National Portrait Gallery, Terrell stands as only one example of the many African American women, who should be acclaimed and publicly recognized at this year and for years to come. Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement and our narratives about it. While we cannot correct the harmful actions of the past, the 2020 centennial should remember African American suffragists, who helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution. When the Votes for Women exhibit is removed and replaced at the National Portrait Gallery, let the record show that the 2020 centennial celebration included African American suffragists, who “lifted,” “climbed,” and enacted a rhetoric of dignified agitation to secure the women’s right to vote in the United States.

Works Cited

  • “Along the Color Line: Politics.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Editor: W. E. B. Du Bois, vol. 5, no. 6, April 1913, New York. Accessed 9 June 2019.
  • Anthony, Susan B., Editor. The Revolution. New York, 1868. Accessed 2 June 2019.
  • “Colored Women in Suffrage Parade.” The Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 2 Mar 1913. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Gallagher, Robert S., Interviewer. “Alice Paul: ‘I Was Arrested, Of Course,’” American Heritage. Accessed 15 June 2019.
  • “Illinois Women Feature Parade.” Chicago Tribune, 4 Mar 1913, p. 3. Accessed 14 June 2019.
  • Logan, Shirley Wilson. “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1999.
  • Murray, Pauli. Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage. Pauli Murray Foundation, 1987.
  • National Portrait Gallery. Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence. Smithsonian Institute.
  • Royster, Jacqueline. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African-American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana UP, 1998.
  • Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Ayer Co., 1992.
  • —. “Pretty Writing Will Do No Good.” MCT Papers. Accessed 29 May 2019.
  • —. “What Colored Women Have Done: The Federation’s Attitude.” National Association Notes, vol. 3, no. 10, Nov. 1900, p. 1, 3. Alexander Street. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. Oxford UP, 1993.

Intersectional Politics of Representation: The Rhetoric of Archival Construction in Women’s March Coalitional Memory

This is the rebirth of the women’s movement. These women are the suffragists of our time. And our movement isn’t going away—it’s just the beginning.

-U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the Women’s March

The 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage—the right to vote—calls us to consider how we understand women’s activism today. The 2017 Women’s March on Washington is a pivotal example of feminist collective action as it was the “largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history,” connecting 470,000 marchers in Washington, D.C. and five million marchers in Sister Marches worldwide through women’s activism (Chenoweth and Pressman). The suffrage movement and the initial formations of the Women’s March had overlapping similarities in that they were both marked by the centrality of white women to the movement. Kristan Poirot argues that “a rhetorical understanding informs accounts of racism in feminism’s ‘first wave’” because “in the minds of some nineteenth-century advocates, these contexts pitted sex against race, and those who advocated for woman attempted to ensure that white womanhood would win in the end” (A Question 44).1  Nearly a century later, the planners of the woman-led protest against Donald Trump’s inauguration initially used the name “Million Woman March” in ignorance of the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia that focused on uniting women of color. While this naming confusion resulted in the revision to “Women’s March on Washington,” it also signaled greater concerns about potentially centralizing white women’s experience and repeating feminist activism’s historic exclusions of women of color. Women’s March organizer Vanessa Wruble explained: “What we were hearing was basically, ‘Black women, you should not march with these white women, and this is why.’ And then it was like, oops, a bunch of ignorant white women have reappropriated this name that black women used in the past. It was a huge controversy” (The Women’s March Foundation 37). Wruble went on to describe how the Women’s March organizers responded to this critical feedback:

I saw the opportunity—and this is where you can fault me for being naive and idealistic—but I saw it as an opportunity to try and properly build a coalition amongst women from different backgrounds. I jumped, thinking I can help make this happen. And I knew that the march had to be led at least in part by women of color. And those voices needed to be going on, because we can’t continue to make the same mistakes—we can’t do something that’s going to tear this country apart. We can’t afford that at all right now. (The Women’s March Foundation 38)

The Women’s March organizers clearly demonstrated their investment to intersectional feminism in order to avoid the mistakes of the past by creating a “woman-led movement” to express connected concerns in a pivotal political moment (Chenoweth and Pressman). The 2017 Women’s March shows how contemporary feminists can come together in collective resistance, but also how feminist activist practices are in progress, presenting opportunities for reflection that can lead to future growth. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians need to take a critical look at how contemporary women’s activism is taking shape to prevent the exclusionary mistakes of first-wave feminists and make inclusive strides toward future action.

The 2017 Women’s March revealed how a contemporary women’s movement could utilize digital networks to coordinate 653 Sister Marches worldwide, and their “Sister March” archive is one such site of study to explore these concerns around inclusivity. The “Sister Marches” page on the Women’s March website connected participants by providing locations of planned marches worldwide, transportation information, and press resources, including links to a photo archive and video archive of the Sister Marches where anyone could download images from Flickr and video clips from Dropbox. On January 21—the day of the March—the “Sister Marches” page featured a new link to stream photos and videos through their Facebook and Twitter pages. The Women’s March organizers invited marchers to upload videos to the official Dropbox website and email photos to the Sister March Google Group as soon as possible, with the hope that “photos and videos could end up in the official Women’s March livestream!” (“Submit Your Sister March”). The YouTube recordings of the Sister March livestreams contain over 10 hours and 37 minutes’ worth of footage of images, videos, and social media posts. After the march, the Sister March archives contained a Dropbox video archive of 38 videos (produced and phone-recorded) titled, “Sister March Videos (For the Press),” and a Flickr photo archive with five albums, 871 total photos with a descriptive “About” page.2 Together, these three websites constituted the Sister March Network, the network of websites actively collecting Sister March photos and videos connected through the Women’s March main site. By creating decentered, plural, and digital records of Sister March memories, the Women’s March organizers attempted to construct archives that aligned with their collaborative and inclusive feminist values, creating an opportunity to study this coalition’s feminist practices through the construction of public memory in this archive.

In this article, I demonstrate how feminist rhetoricians can take a critical look at current women’s intersectional activism through archival construction: acquisition, selection, and curation methods that circulate selective histories through authorized materials. Feminist rhetorical historiographers like Jessica Enoch have established the “construction of memory” as a rhetorical act (“Releasing”), tracing the ways that ideology shapes the inclusion and exclusion of memories from archives and public memory. I apply Enoch’s concept of construction to the archival submission and selection criteria of the Sister March archives, treating archival construction as a rhetorical site for inclusion through representation in public memory. As a rhetorical analytic, archival construction encourages researchers to identify how, why, and for whom public memory is made, reiterating our discipline’s commitments to making visible what KJ Rawson calls “the invisible organizational logics of a collection” (“The Rhetorical Power” 337).  My analysis of the Sister March archives continues feminist rhetorical attention to archival metadata and organization (Graban; Graban, Ramsey-Tobienne, and Myer; Potts) by urging rhetorical scholars to question whether and how archival construction facilitates inclusive and exclusive representation in public memory. As my analysis will detail, I see that these archives work toward inclusivity by documenting the scope of the 2017 Sister Marches and inviting marchers to collaborate in the archival process, but fall short through disinviting critical feminist reflection and crafting an unquestioning narrative of unity through archival construction. In this centennial moment, feminist rhetoricians can look to archival constructions of women’s activism to take stock of our practices, assess how our practices reflect our values, and then critically engage in activism as it unfolds.

Archival Construction and Coalition-Building Practices

The Women’s March organizers created an opportunity to study their activist practices through their official archive—the Sister March archives—containing photos and videos from Sister March events worldwide. The archival construction of the Sister March archives reveals how the Women’s March organizers intended to frame these records for public memory. On the Women’s March website, the “Submit Your Sister March Photos and Videos” page encouraged marchers to connect their Sister March participation with archival practices: “On Saturday, January 21st, we will make HERstory when one of the largest worldwide grassroots mobilizations in history takes place. . . . [P]lease help our team capture this important moment in time” (“Submit Your Sister March”).3 Marchers were encouraged to submit “only your best” 5-10 photos and 2-3 videos, creating an initial participant curation method that anticipated many submissions. The submission page described how to upload videos directly to the “official dropbox,” and submit photos by email to the Sister March Google Group, making sure that submissions included location and attribution information to provide evidence of the scope of archival materials and a glimpse of the march itself. This page frames the Sister March archives as a historically significant event itself, encouraging marchers to generate evidence of the worldwide scope of participation as a coalition-building practice of solidarity with the Sister Marches. Through inviting submission in this way, the archive fosters collaborative connections with marchers by making archival practices part of the 2017 Women’s March experience.

The Sister March archives continues to shape its memorial activism by defining submission guidelines through conditional agreements for the Sister March Network: Community Guidelines and Terms and Conditions for Photo and Video Submissions. All Sister March submissions were subject to community guidelines, which list the following restrictions on photo and video content:

  1. No material with overt criticisms of politicians or political parties.
  2. No depictions of violence, destruction of property, alcohol, or drugs. 
  3. No material that contradicts the tenets of respect, honesty, transparency, and accountability in our actions.
  4. No material that undermines or contradicts the unity principles . . . that have been put forward by the Women’s March team. (“Submit Your Sister March,” emphasis in original)

Archival submissions that did not adhere to these restrictions would “not be published on behalf of the Sister March team” (“Submit Your Sister March”). Collectively, the Community Guidelines prioritize restrictions on the content of material submitted to facilitate positive narratives of marcher’s experiences that align with the Women’s March agenda.

Individually, each item on the Community Guidelines creates policing mechanisms for the Sister March Network to select or exclude photo or video submissions. The first criteria point restricts materials with “overt criticisms of politicians or political parties,” which seemingly contradicts the March’s initial exigence of resisting Trump’s election because of his misogynistic statements and actions. However, this restriction does shield the coalition from external political criticism or internal pushback from members whose political affiliations might differ. Indeed, the second criterion protects the Sister March Network and thus the Women’s March from liability for destructive or illegal behavior. However, the third and fourth criteria prohibit contradiction with the coalition, specifically with their moral actions and Unity Principles. These policing mechanisms allow the Sister March team to curate the photo and video submissions, creating a selection process that ensures that all archival materials posted on behalf of the Sister March team adhere to the Women’s March Unity Principles.

The Unity Principles is a six-page document that describes the coalition’s intersectional activist priorities regarding reproductive rights, ending violence, LGBTQUIA rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.4  The Unity Principles connected the Women’s March organizers with marchers by articulating shared beliefs and agendas, but this statement was also critiqued by activists concerned about intersectional practices. Disability rights activist Emily Ladau found that the Unity Principles subsumed disability under larger frameworks of oppression5 and represented disability as a burden for care-givers: “It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a ‘burden.’ My existence as a disabled woman is ‘work’ for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter” (Ladau). Furthermore, Janet Mock, one of the contributors to the Unity Principles, noted how the initial release of the Unity Principles showed that the Women’s March organizers had removed the phrase, “we stand in solidarity with sex worker movements” and changed it to “those exploited for sex and labor” (@melisagira). Mock saw this language shift in the Values & Principles as “momentary erasure” of sex workers that perpetuated the “policing within and outside women’s movements that shames, scapegoats, rejects, and erases and shuns sex workers,” but also still encouraged sex workers to “[show] up to their local March and [hold] the collective accountable to our vast diverse, and complicated realities” (Mock). Both Ladau and Mock demonstrate how feminists can offer critique as productive engagement with a movement’s goals to advance future intersectional activism. Thus, by prohibiting contradiction with the Unity Principles, the Sister March archives calls contributors not to take on (and archive) intersectional critiques like Ladau’s and Mock’s, constructing an archive that could make the same mistakes of the past by silencing feminist critique.

Read positively, the Terms and Conditions reveals the Sister March attempting to live up to its intersectional goals by requiring users to agree not to “submit images that abuse or discriminate on the basis of religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc.” (“Terms and Conditions”). The Women’s March organization sought archival materials that supported their activist goals, and thus required that archival materials adhere to the coalition’s intersectional activist mission. These conditions echo the tenets of intersectional feminism by recognizing the intersecting features of identity than can be subject to oppression and thus ensure that submitted materials will be representative of the Unity Principles. In short, the Sister March Network submission guidelines ensure that the collected memories would represent the Unity Principles and therefore the future activism of the Women’s March organization. In this instance, Terms and Conditions ensure inclusive representation of intersectional feminist values in the Sister March archives under the leadership of the Women’s March organization. 

As a feature of archival construction, submission guidelines provided the Sister March Team with control over archived materials, revealing how this decentered intersectional feminist movement planned to use archived memories of the 2017 march to recruit for future activism. The Women’s March organization became the guiding leadership for intersectional activism when they were incorporated with 501(c)(4) status after the 2017 march, making their organization directly responsible for the Sister March archival content (Women’s March, Inc.).6 Forming the Women’s March organization connected the 2017 march to future intersectional activism through the Sister March archives by crafting a positive and unquestioning narrative of unity in the 2017 march. Yet as this analysis has already shown, the productive feminist critiques that guided this movement’s growth were potentially silenced through the Sister March submission guidelines. On the one hand, submission guidelines provide archival and organizational alignment with intersectional values, but on the other hand, the same guidelines reify a partial, specifically positive narrative of the 2017 Women’s March. While the archival collection process characterized marchers as collaborators in the Sister March archives, the archival Terms and Conditions redirect marchers’ collaborative agency to the Women’s March organization.7 Thus, the organizational responsibility of the Women’s March removed individual agency from marchers through archival construction.

By using submission guidelines to craft a narrative via submissions that follows the Unity Principles, the Women’s March organizers created a positive archival legacy for public memory and a selective official history of this ongoing social movement. Importantly, these submission guidelines are no longer associated with the Women’s March official website, nor are the links to the Flickr or Dropbox pages that house the Sister March archives. One can perform a Google search for “Sister Marches Flickr” and find the official photo archives, but the Dropbox link to the Sister March videos and associated submission guidelines are only available through Internet Wayback Machine links. When you visit the official Women’s March website, it no longer contains a page dedicated to the 2017 march. Instead, this intersectional feminist organization is now focused on future activism and this year’s national Women’s March. Thus, the Sister March memories have been integrated into the Women’s March organization and therefore disconnected from their archival contexts. Without knowledge of these archival submission guidelines, archival researchers would lose this sociohistorical context of this social movement’s archival collection and selection practices. For feminist researchers, it is critical to understand these guidelines and their work in shaping archival construction in order to understand how intersectional activist practices included or excluded from the archives.

I argue that the internal archival contradictions of collecting positive memories of intersectional activism while removing the individual agency of marchers prioritized the long-term growth of the Women’s March organization over the feminist value of critical reflection that benefitted the organization since its inception. As a feature of archival construction, archival submission guidelines can dictate the conditions for public memory by restricting submissions and policing recorded materials. Social movement scholar Suzanne Staggenborg argues that “[c]oalition organizations need structures that allow for input from different types of members. . . .Coalitions and SMOs [social movement organizations] that lack participatory structures may engage in actions that do not benefit all of their members equally” (“Conclusion” 323). Thus, the archival construction of social movement archives can provide rhetorical evidence connecting activist values and archival practices. But to generate this evidence, inclusive activist movements like the Women’s March need to welcome materials that document the moment, not materials that reify a specific narrative. As feminist rhetoricians, I argue we can actively engage in ongoing social movements through their memorials to encourages critique as a path to positive feminist growth.

Evaluating Archival Construction for Public Memory

As we reflect on the importance of the suffrage centennial for women’s history, we can also appreciate how the networked, digital, and transnational nature of our current activism necessitates new methods of critical engagement. Archival construction reveals how social movement rhetoric extends into public memory by aligning a movement’s agenda with the archived materials. The archival construction of the Sister March archives offers curation criteria that shaped what marchers saw as possible for submission and provided the Women’s March organization with ownership over all Sister March archival materials. For rhetorical historiographers, these kinds of criteria are vital for understanding the content of the archive, and thus exist as part of the social movement’s rhetoric in the archive. If we, as feminist rhetoricians, are invested in developing methods to evaluate public memory projects around women’s rights and activism, then those methods must facilitate what Stephanie Kerschbaum describes as the “difficult, intersectional questions about how our histories are composed” (“Inclusion”). As feminist rhetorical scholars increase their attention towards intersectional coalition-building practices, archival construction can reveal the inclusive and exclusive rhetorical practices shaping coalitional memory. With the archival metadata now available to contemporary researchers, we can use archival construction to determine how the memorial activism crafts narratives for public memory to shape future activism.

Public memory projects like the Sister March archives present an opportunity to discover the politics of inclusion and intersectionality in action, creating new possibilities for rhetorical analysis that could intervene in ongoing movements and their memorials. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge have urged feminists to analyze the critical praxis of intersectionality, emphasizing that being critical in social movements working toward “equity, freedom, and social justice” requires a “self-reflexivity of thought, feeling, and action about one’s own practice” (Intersectionality). The Sister March archives created a woman-led, collaborative archival collection of memories from marches around the world. But also, the archival construction of the Sister March archives paints a positive, yet partial picture of the 2017 Women’s Marches by excluding critical reflection on the organization’s values in the archives. Feminists and archivists should be encouraged that contemporary social movements are actively documenting their actions and telling their own stories. But also, archival construction reveals the inner practices of social movements, creating a need to understand how and why activists tell their own histories. Ultimately, the Sister March archives circulated valuable memories of this significant feminist activist moment and provided insight into new intersectional activist archival practices that demand feminist rhetorical attention.

If the Women’s March organizers are indeed modern suffragists, as the opening epigraph suggests, then I see this centennial anniversary as an opportunity for feminist rhetoricians to determine how contemporary women activists are making their own histories, and how the archival construction of women’s activism makes arguments for future feminist action. I urge feminist rhetoricians to consider the troubles of suffrage memorialization as rooted in selective archival practices, specifically the ways that submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism. Coalitional social movements function as rhetorical negotiations of shared exigence and vision. Since the Women’s March contained so many different and connected ideologies, the Sister March archives could be instructive to rhetoricians who seek to discover what Benita Roth describes, “the meaning of coalition for situated groups of social movement actors in order to understand how or whether that meaning may have influenced decisions that participants made” (113). As rhetorical scholars, our critical attention to archival construction in records of women’s activism can enable us to build better future coalitions on tenets of accountability, transparency, and inclusivity.


  1. Poirot uses the singular word “woman” to indicate how “‘woman’ and ‘female’ function as changing prisms” of meaning through which identification and difference are rhetorically defined (A Question 5).
  2. While the Dropbox video archive only allows users to view the files, Flickr’s “About” page feature provides a description of the archive’s purpose to “feature select highlights from over 600 solidarity events planned globally” and share the Women’s March mission (“About”).
  3. Interestingly, the Women’s March livestream did not include any photos or videos from the Sister Marches. The livestream was a five-hour YouTube broadcast of the Washington D.C. march and speakers, reinforcing the centrality of the Women’s March organization and leadership in this coalition.
  4. The “Unity Principles” were first released by the Women’s March organizers as the “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles” nine days before the 2017 March. This six-page document includes four major sections: “Overview & Purpose,” “#WHYWEMARCH,” “Values & Principles,” and “About This Document.” The “Overview & Purpose” outlines the vision for this “woman-led movement,” and “#WHYWEMARCH lists a legacy of 27 women “revolutionary leaders who paved the way for us to march,” (Women’s March on Washington). The third section, “Values & Principles,” contains nineteen bulleted descriptions of what “we believe,” giving the impression to readers that the “we” in these statements are the members of the Women’s March coalition. Finally, the “About this Document” section lists 23 contributors (and recognizes unlisted contributors) that collaboratively shaped this “agenda” for coalitional action.
  5. The Unity Principles statement Ladau refers to reads, “We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work—caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities—is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society”
    (Women’s March on Washington).
  6. 501 (c)(4) organizations are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt, as long as the organization adheres to the guidelines for political activity within promoting social welfare. While this status does not allow organizations to directly participate or intervene in political campaigns, it does allow them to “engage in some political activities, as long as that is not their primary activity” (“Social Welfare Organizations”).
  7. If a marcher chose to submit their photos or videos, they granted the Sister March team a “perpetual, nonexclusive, world-wide, royalty-free, sub-licensable license to the submissions,” meaning that these records could be shared and commercialized for future use (“Terms and Conditions”). By submitting to the Sister March archive, a marcher acknowledges that their content “may be edited, removed modified, published, transmitted, and displayed by the Sister March team.” Indeed, the Terms and Conditions state that as a contributor, “you waive any rights you may have in having the material altered or changed in a manner not agreeable to you” (“Terms and Conditions”).

Works Cited

  • @melissagira. “Further confusion: NOW the @womensmarch platform says… this? (And still, no, no reply from my earlier inquiry.)” Twitter, 17 Jan. 2017, 1:10 p.m.
  • Bland, Bob. “Women’s March on Washington: Origins and Inclusion.Facebook 20 Nov. 2016.
  • Chávez, Karma. “Counter-Public Enclaves and Understanding the Function of Rhetoric in Social Movement Coalition Building.” Communication Quarterly vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 1-18.
  • Chenoweth, Erica and Jeremy Pressman. “This is What We Learned By Counting the Women’s Marches.The Washington Post, 7 Feb. 2017.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality (Key Concepts). Cambridge, 2016.
  • Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif, Southern Illinois UP, 2013, 58-73.
  • Felsenthal, Julia. “These Are the Women Organizing the Women’s March on Washington.” Vogue, 10 Jan. 2017.
  • Gillibrand, Kirsten. “Tamika Mallory, Bob Bland, Carmen Perez and Linda Sarsour.Time. Accessed 1 June 2019.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra. “Ripple Effects: Toward a Topos of Deployment for Feminist Historiography in Rhetoric and Composition.” Networked Humanities: Within and Without the University, edited by Jeff Rice and Brian McNely, Parlor Press, 2018, pp. 106-130.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra, Alexis E. Ramsey-Tobienne, and Whitney Myers. “In, through, and about the Archive: What Digitization (Dis)Allows.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson. University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 233-244.
  • Hu, Nian. “How the Women’s March Failed Women.” The Harvard Crimson, 16 Feb. 2017. Accessed 20 May 2019.
  • Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “Inclusion.Peitho vol. 18, no. 1, 2015.
  • Ladau, Emily. “Disability Rights are Conspicuously Absent from the Women’s March Platform.” The Establishment, 16 Jan. 2017. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
  • Mock, Janet. “Women’s March ‘Guiding Vision’ and its inclusion of Sex Workers.” Tumblr 17 Jan. 2017.
  • Poirot, Kristan. A Question of Sex: Feminism, Rhetoric, and Differences That Matter. University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
  • Potts, Liza. “Archive Experiences: A Vision for User-Centered Design in the Digital Humanities.” Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities, edited by Jim Ridolfo and William Hart-Davidson. University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 255-262.
  • 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.
  • Roth, Benita. “‘Organizing One’s Own’ as Good Politics: Second Wave Feminists and the Meaning of Coalition.” in Van Dyke and McCammon, pp. 99-118.
  • Social Welfare Organizations.IRS, 13 May 2019. Accessed 12 June 2019.
  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. “Conclusion: Research on Social Movement Coalitions.” Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements, edited by Nella Van Dyke and Holly J. McCammon, University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 316-329.
  • “Submit Your Sister March Photos and Videos.” Women’s March on Washington, 22 Jan. 2017, []. Internet Archive [].
  • “Terms and Conditions for Sister March Photo and Video Submissions.” Women’s March on Washington, 22 Jan. 2017, []. Internet Archive [].
  • The Women’s March Foundation. Together We Rise. HarperCollins, 2018.
  • Van Dyke, Nella and Holly J. McCammon. Strategic Alliances: Coalition Building and Social Movements. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Women’s March. Women’s March on Washington, 2016. Accessed 18 Jan. 2017.
  • Women’s March, Inc. Women’s March Annual Report 2017. Web. 14 April 2019.
  • Women’s March on Washington. “Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.” Web. 12 Jan. 2017.

Memorials in Action: Building Intersectional Futures

1. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Selma, AL, March 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Tuscaloosa, AL, October 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Montgomery, AL, March 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Tuscaloosa, AL, May 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

From Commemoration to Co-Memoration as Feminist Practice

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

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

Commemoration as Traditional Masculinist Practice

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

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

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

Co-Memoration as Rhetorical Feminist Tactic and Feminist Rhetorical Practice

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

Co-Memoration as Active Engagement through Multivocality and Countermemory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Co-memoration as Critical Imagination and Strategic Contemplation

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

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

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

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

Coalition Building as Co-Memoration Goal

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

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

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

Co-Memoration as Hope-Fueled Struggle

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

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


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

Works Cited

  • About Us.2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative. Accessed 27 Sept. 2019.
  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances. Duke UP, 2008.
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