Editor’s Introduction

The Winter issue of Peitho arrives on the heels of the first in person CCCCs since 2019 and the tri-annual conference Writing Research Across Borders held in Norway. The energy at these conferences was palpable. To be able to have unplanned encounters with folks in the hallways, during sessions, and even as we walked down the street reminded us all how important connecting with people in real time is, how travel helps us develop new understandings about place, language, and culture, and how much getting away for the daily grind of work can open new ways of thinking and seeing. In the best-case scenario, engaging in in person intellectual exchange humanizes the experiences and perspectives and helps us develop empathy (and sometimes anger), coalition, and shared political commitments to changing institutions and structures. Indeed, my intersectional feminist politics is always strengthened (and sometimes challenged) by the concerns and perspectives outside my small bubble of academia in Western MA.   

While not all essays explicitly state it, each essay in this Winter issue of Peitho is demonstrating an important shift in the field toward centralizing intersectional perspectives born specifically out of the deep political and scholarly work of women of color historically and in the present. As these essays show, when feminist scholars extend beyond liberal feminist lenses that do not address how racialized, heteronormative, ethnocentric, and class power work together, they begin to see how white feminism became a feminism that “unremarks” on the concerns of women of color and other marginalized people (White-Farnham), on how intersectional and material analyses or labor and power can create institutional change (Cox and Riedner), and how an African American Club’s study group’s secretaries worked to re-compose dominant narratives about African American women and their histories (Nelson). Feminist scholars of color have long shown that race and gender cannot be separated from our political commitments and are in fact central to them. These essays reflect Peitho’s ongoing commitment to expanding feminist rhetorical theory and showcasing feminist teaching and administrative/institutional practices.  I am excited to see that the authors of this issue have centralized these lenses in their approach to reading archives, developing cross generational coalitions, and in questioning the persistence of a feminist politics that does not take intersectionality into account.  We hope to continue this conversation not only in Peitho but at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in Fall 2023! 

This issue of Peitho also, sweetly, offers a demonstration of intergenerational feminism as the artist for our cover is the (feminist) mother of one of our authors (Rachel Riedner). We are so pleased to be able to showcase both of their works in the same issue.  

–Rebecca Dingo (Co-Editor) 

The Winter issue also includes two Recoveries and Reconsiderations pieces, both examining the rhetorical work of women in patriarchal faith communities. The first, by Tiffany Gray, is a preliminary look at some interesting archival documents: the Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection at Claremont Graduate University. The women who share their oral histories grapple with their identities as women and as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Gray shows. Gray ends her tour through this archive by offering a list of considerations, some of which can help researchers who are new to archival work navigate their way through collections of archives.  

Gray’s essay is a recovery, and the second piece, by Samantha Rae-Garvey, is a reconsideration: it looks back at Beth Moore, who was a prominent Southern Baptist leader until she decided to leave the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 2021. Rae-Garvey focuses on Moore’s Twitter account, the main place where she struggled, publicly, to process her anger about the dismissal, dehumanization, and abuse of women in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Rae-Garvey claims that the SBC mislabeled Moore’s speaking engagements as “preaching,“ possibly in an attempt to squeeze her out of the SBC by insinuating that Moore was assuming the role of pastor, which is limited to men (Moore herself never called herself a pastor or her speaking preaching).  

There are people of all genders who see inequity and mistreatment when it happens in faith communities. In Sonia Johnson’s 1981 feminist memoir, From Housewife to Heretic: One Woman’s Struggle for Equal Rights and Her Excommunication from the Mormon Church, another story of a life lived in a faith community, she recounts years of seeing and experiencing small acts of injustice against women and girls and filing each one of them away.  

Eventually, Johnson remarks, her file burst.  

–Clancy Ratliff (Co-Editor) 

Claremont Graduate University’s Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection

Oral histories document a community’s history by recording interviews from community members about their lives. For scholars, these types of first-person accounts serve as useful primary sources for the purpose of archiving a community through the vantage points of its members. While Brad E. Lucas and Margaret M. Stain emphasize that oral histories only reproduce “…a – not the – narrative…” of a community’s experience, they also note that researchers who gather oral histories reveal “inconsistencies, gaps, and silences” in the narrative, making oral histories a valuable space to find voices often underrepresented in academia (Ramsey, et al., Location 3316-3319)[1].For women’s rhetoric scholars, one example of understudied persons include religious women, particularly those who maintain their identity in relationship to their patriarchal structured faiths. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote denotes “well-behaved women seldom make history” because these women are not viewed as avantgarde, which often results in exclusion from a history’s narrative (Well-Behaved Women, 2017). Thus, for feminist and rhetoric scholars, oral history gathering not only operates as a promising site of excavation of women’s experiences to (un/dis/re)cover the missing voices of women in a community, but also serves as a proving ground of rhetorical ability for women’s voices often left out of feminist conversations. 

As potential source material of oral histories from religious women, I introduce Claremont Graduate University’s Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection, a digitally archived collection of transcribed interviews with twentieth and twenty-first century Mormon women from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its offshoots[2]. As an ongoing project with over two hundred oral histories from Mormon women around the world, the Collection allows “scholars, amateur historians, and graduate students… to draw from these primary sources in their writings” and continue the work of making Mormon women’s voices more accessible (“Mormon Women’s Oral History Project”[3]). As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and currently serving in the Church’s women’s organization, the Relief Society, I have found that Latter-day Saint women maintain a rhetorical practice that seeks to access authority within their faith by supporting the power structure of the Latter-day Saint Church and by associating their gendered identity within that structure[4].  

Like many religious women, Latter-day Saint women often contradict the standards of feminism; rather than attempt to access authority by fighting against the prevailing power structure of their religious community, these women instead assert their identity in relationship to it. Yet, several academics have noted that feminist scholars hesitate in examining women’s religiously affiliated texts, as Carol Mattingly observes that some scholars “equate religiosity with conservatism…” (103). Charlotte Hogg further notes that the field of women’s rhetoric maintains a boundary that demonstrates “a continued reluctance to engage conservative women who fall outside [the] feminist framework” where “binary constructions of women as either feminist or not persist” which results in “perpetuating the practices [scholars] strive to dismantle and restricting possibilities for meaning making” (393). By continually resisting the inclusion of religious women in women’s rhetorical studies, feminist scholars end up reinforcing the practice of limiting whose voices take precedent. Thus, to adjust the boundaries of conventional feminism so that religious women can find a space in women’s rhetorical studies, scholars must, as Charlotte Hogg implores, embrace Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s call to move beyond the binary of feminist or antifeminist and look to include “women who may not seek to empower themselves or others yet hold rhetorical sway” (397). My intention, therefore, in presenting the MWOH Collection is to offer feminist scholars a potential blueprint for examining religious women’s rhetoric by sharing the Mormon women voices who attempt to access power within their religious community by connecting their identity to the religious framework of their patriarch-oriented faith. 

Showcasing the Histories 

There are currently two hundred and twenty-two oral histories in the Collection, with different interviewers and languages represented. For my initial exploration of the archive, I chose to examine the oral histories conducted by Caroline Kline – current director of the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project and the professor at CGU who introduced me to the Collection[5]. I further reduced my selection of oral histories to the ten interviews conducted by Dr. Kline that are transcribed into English and are interviews with Mormon women affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The themes of Location, Family Relationships, Education, and the Woman Identity emerged as common threads throughout the histories, where each woman sought to explain her identity in relationship to her Mormon faith. Whether by positive or negative association with their religious community, the women of the Collection demonstrate the rhetorical ability of asserting their own identity on their own terms by connecting their identity in relationship to their religion, making Latter-day Saint women notable contributions to expanding feminist methodologies to include women who assert their right to speak in relationship to their sphere of influence or persuasion. The oral histories chosen are as follows: 007, 026, 030, 043, 156, 157, 159, 164, 166, and 178. 


Of the ten oral histories examined, only two originate outside the United States: 156 is from Bolivia, but currently (as of the interview in 2016), lives in Georgia, USA, and 178 is from Mexico. Interviews 007, 026, 030, 043, 157, and 164 are from either California or Utah, while 159 and 164 are from Massachusetts and Georgia, respectively. Given that Claremont Graduate University is in California and Utah’s high Mormon population, the elevated percentage of interviews originating in these two states is not surprising, but may inadequately represent the global Mormon woman experience[6]. 

For interviewees from California, a few note that their family originated in Utah before moving west. 007 shares, “I was born in Los Angeles in 1935, shortly after my parents immigrated to California from Utah in 1933 to find work” (1). Similarly, 030 describes that “My father came to California when he was 18. My mother was from Ephraim, Utah, my father from Salt Lake. He worked for his cousins and then married my mom and brought her to California” (1). For these interviewees, the migration path of their parents from Utah to California was significant because many of the Mormon families that moved from Utah to California had strong ties to Mormon pioneer ancestors. This is the case for 007, 026, and 030. In detail, 030 describes her lineage to prominent Latter-day Saint leader Joseph F. Smith and a former Relief Society General President whose name is redacted in the transcript. Likewise, while 157 is of Japanese descent, she notes that her California uncle has Utah roots, calling him a “born and bred Utah man” (1). While the transcripts of the interviews are inconsistent as to what questions were asked during each interview, the sharing of filial connections to prominent Latter-day Saint figures and/or Utah indicates that these connections provide a level of authority to the interviewee’s Mormon identity. The connection to both prominent Latter-day Saint leaders and the move from Utah to another location signify that these women identify that coming from a strong Mormon heritage is important, and that by moving to a new place, they have brought their religious ancestry and heritage with them, thus granting them an authoritative ethos regarding their Mormon faith.  

Family Relationships 

Early childhood upbringings are a common thread throughout the oral histories. Half come from stable families with both parents in the home, as found with 007, 030, 043, 026, 166 and 178. Several histories suggest that their parents played an influential part in their understanding of how to be a Mormon, with 026 stating, “My childhood was great…My parents were very hands on in terms of our participation in church activities and being what we were supposed to be as Mormons” (1). For interviewees, whose immediate family suffered a parental loss, either through death or divorce, extended family fills the familial void created. 159 reflects that both her parents’ divorce and her own divorce were hard for her, but she later found support from her extended family, noting that “…my extended family on my dad’s side, [is] a cohesive family. I think that we have a lot of shared values and practices that hold us together…I feel really committed to the project of my extended family” (4). While family and ancestral relationships are integral to the Latter-day Saint faith from both a spiritual and secular perspective, the relating of those teachings come through parental and familial examples as well as Church leaders and community members[7]. Therefore, the relating of family connections and their influence in in these oral histories illustrates the strong link between the interviewee’s Mormon identity and their family heritage, a link that speaks directly to how and where Mormon women establish their right to speak within their faith.  


The oral histories explore the connection between education and traditional gender roles within the family. At least six of the histories state that their mother played a key part in their early education. 043 describes that, “My mother taught all of us [the interviewee and her 7 siblings] to read by the age of five…,” (2), while 007 offers two pages of transcript describing her mother’s work as a teacher and principal of a California school that transitioned from a segregated school to an integrated school. For the interviewees, their own success as a mother is measured against their children’s religious accomplishments. While 030 and 043 go into some detail about their children, 007 explains, “All of our children have chosen to be active members of the church and have all married active members and work very hard at being the best Mormons they can be” (12). 007’s sentiments indicate that Mormon women find success as a mother based upon their children’s accomplishments of becoming ‘the best Mormons they can be.’ Her sentiments relate to Latter-day Saint beliefs of traditional gender roles, where “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” which indicate that Latter-day Saint women find access to power in the family unit by accomplishing their traditional family roles of educating their children in secular and spiritual matters (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1995).  

Most of the interviewees also noted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotion for women’s education. 156 describes that as a convert to the Church in Bolivia she was surprised to see her church friends attending school. She states, “I saw a lot of people in the church who were attending university. It was a culture totally different than the one I grew up with. The Mormon church had more of a culture of education” (4). While all the interviewees express positive support regarding their education, Oral Histories 026, 043, 030, and 159 feel the Church encourages education for women, but only as something women do until they get married and become mothers; as 164 describes, an education is “Plan B” for women of the Church (10). Interestingly, of the ten histories I examined, nine hold a bachelor’s degree, and eight hold advanced degrees, which indicates that these Mormon women both found support and sought access to power through higher education, despite feeling like the Church views women’s education as secondary to their future roles of wife and mother. The high education levels of these women, while remarkable, is a point of discrepancy for the Mormon woman experience. According to a 2016 Pew Research Poll states only 33% of all Latter-day Saint members have completed a college degree, and therefore, the over representation of well-educated women in the Collection creates an incomplete narrative of the Mormon woman experience, indicating the need for further oral history gathering from Mormon women with lower education levels (“Where do Mormons Rank…?”). 

Woman Identity  

Each interviewee presents parallel ideas about their woman identity within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The expanding presence of the woman voice in the work of the Latter-day Saint Church is a pressing identity issue for women in the Collection, one that dovetails with recent feminist and rhetoric scholarship on the recovery of women’s voices as found in Gaillet’s Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work (2019). Many of the women feel their identity ties directly to the Church’s assertions of traditional gender roles, a notion that also correlates with academic scholarship regarding women’s identity in traditional patriarchal communities, such as in Pompper’s Rhetoric of Femininity (2017) and Yadgar’s article Gender, Religion, and Feminism (2006). A common woman identity shared in the histories are that of the “good Mormon,” with several histories either using the term explicitly – 007, 030, and 043, – or implicitly – 026, and 164, – where the idea of a ‘good Mormon’ implies one who actively lives the Latter-day Saint faith and participates in all Latter-day Saint activities. The oral histories also demonstrate an evolving “good Mormon” woman persona one who embraces a more “liberal” stance regarding Latter-day Saint beliefs. History 157 tweaks the ‘good Mormon’ girl characteristic to embody Latter-day Saint women who are “insane” and “always tired” because “they do a hundred million things, but they know themselves to be powerful women” in their faith and do not need the help of men to exercise their beliefs (8).  

Several of the women also find themselves rethinking their faith and the role of women in the Church. They question doctrinal statements like The Family: A Proclamation to the World where gender is described as eternal, a concept that frustrates some of the women because it limits their access to ordination to the Priesthood (where currently only men serve) and expansion into the male-led leadership of the Church (“Oral History 026,” 6). For these Latter-day Saint women, they feel like their patriarchal-based religion inhibits the progression of their gender by withholding access to activities and leadership responsibilities reserved only for men, a sentiment that resulted in women, like 157 and 159, to leave their faith for a time. Not all the histories, however, feel slighted by the Church’s doctrinal positions regarding gender roles. As History 178 states, “It does not feel like women have a lesser part when it comes to church. We have different responsibilities and that’s okay” (4). As 178 describes, she feels a connection to her Mormon identity because she feels valued for the work she performs in her roles as a Mormon woman. Even though more than half of the histories express doctrinal objections, all the women examined feel a connection their religious community. Under the heading “Best and Hardest Part of Mormonism,” 159 shares that she thinks community is the best part of the faith, adding, “I think that because Mormonism is a pretty high-cost religion – you have to give a lot in order to be a member in good standing – the payoff is that you really feel like you are part of something…” (6). So, while some Latter-day Saint women struggle with their Mormon woman identity as it relates to the Church’s doctrinal gender roles, all the women maintain that belonging to the Mormon religious community positively impacts their woman identity.  

Another Mormon woman identity theme is the intersectionality of race and gender. As an Asian American, 159 describes herself as not knowing how to identify, stating, “I think race was an issue for me although I didn’t think about it very explicitly until later, but I think I always felt a little bit like I didn’t fit [in the Church]” (2). 164 expresses a similar disconnect within the Church due to her biracial heritage, saying, “As I moved through racial identity development, how I was able to conceptualize those experiences is that I was a novelty…” (2). For scholars, these sentiments reinforce the need for academic scholarship on women’s intersectional identities, as found in Carastathis’ book Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (2016) and Marchal’s article Difficult Intersections and Messy Coalitions (But in a Good Way) (2014), as well as continued Latter-day Saint scholarship on the intersectionality between race, gender, and identity, and the Latter-day Saint woman[8].

Future Considerations 

The Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection provides a wealth of new materials to scholars in the fields of rhetoric, archival studies, and women’s studies that provide insight into the women of the Mormon tradition. Through further examination the Collection, scholars can find ample material to consider, such as:  

Consideration 1: Addressing Archival Methodology Inconsistencies 

For archivists, the Collection lends itself to analysis on how to initiate, organize, and share ground-up archives with the public, as well as provides research opportunities such as organizing a finding aid for the Collection or contributing to the Collection by conducting interviews to submit. Since the Collection lacks a finding aid and does not provide details regarding transcription practices, further work in these areas would help scholars navigate the material. 

Consideration 2: Other Entry Points into the Collection 

There are multiple entry points into the archive, including the following suggestions: 

Examine the works by another interviewer: 

    • Consider looking at different interviewers to assess the interviewers potential focus or bias as a researcher,  
    • Analyze different oral histories gathered by one interviewer to discover themes or patterns, or  
    • Put different interviewers into conversation with one another by comparing different themes, interviewer/interviewee focuses, or assess the evolution of the Collection as it has grown since its inception. 

Examine the histories by location of the interviewee:  

    • Mormon Women originate from various parts of the world, with many coming from diverse cultural traditions that have little connection to Mormon American history. Therefore, examining the oral histories from a specific location may indicate how women who do not originate from pioneer Mormon ancestry identify with the faith.  

Examine the histories by a random sampling: 

    • A random sampling of the Collection allows scholars to look at the broad scope of the archive. Examining the oral histories from various locations, interviewers, and ages can present a larger view of how Mormon women view their identity across several spectrums, potentially allowing scholars to identify gaps in the Mormon women’s narrative.

Examine the histories by language: 

    • Reading the transcription of an oral history in the native tongue of the interviewee provides insight into how non-English speaking Mormon women navigate their intersectional identity in a community whose origination roots are grounded in a white, American, English language tradition. 

Consideration 3: Examples of Intersectionality 

  • As the dominate Mormon faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown into a worldwide faith with members around the world. Today, there are more Latter-day Saint women of different races, classes, ethnicities, and disabilities for scholars to consider. As the Collection grows in representation of Mormon women from around the world, so will scholars’ opportunities to examine patterns of women’s intersectional identities in relationship to their faith. 

The voices of these Latter-day Saint women are critical to creating a more complete narrative for the women’s rhetoric archive as their voices contribute to the work of religious women who desire autonomy over their identity, yet express their position as a relationship to their traditional faith. While research and information gathering through oral histories about religious women is growing in scholarship, further gathering is needed – a work that requires scholars to “examine the less radical, more conservative women who shape cultural beliefs” if we are to avoid potentially creating a biased perspective in the narrative of (un/dis/re)covered voices (Hogg 392). Therefore, by continuing to examine religiously affiliated women in the context of women’s rhetoric, while actively identifying potential gaps or erasures found in the narratives generated, scholars can more fully answer the call to find the voice of women wherever and however they speak.  


[1] For further information on oral history gathering as a research practice see Kurkowska-Budzan and Zamorski Oral History: The Challenges of Dialogue; Charlton, Myers, and Sharpless Handbook of Oral History. 

[2] For a detailed description of the Mormon Tradition and its various denominations, see Davies’ Mormon Identities in Transition; Shields’ Divergent Paths of the RestorationWhen referencing members from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have chosen to use the term “Latter-day Saint” in place of “Mormon” where applicable. See the Church’s Style Guide reference for further guidance on use of naming the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Style Guide – The Name of the Church: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/style-guide.

[3] See Kirsch and Rohan’s Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process on creating an archive from oral history gathering; Ramsey, et al., Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, especially part four, on the benefits of oral history archives as research material; Wetzel’s article Layered Feminist Historiography: Composing Multivocal Stories through Material Annotation Practices on annotation practices in oral history compilations.

[4] Also see Ramsey, et. al, Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition for detailed essays regarding the role of positionality in archival work; Jones, et. al, Seeking Glimpses: Reflections on Doing Archival Work on how positionality influences scholarly archival work. 

[5]For further research on the role of Serendipity in Archival and Rhetoric research see Goggin and Goggin’s Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research; Bishop’s The Serendipity of Connectivity: Piecing Together Women’s lives in the Digital Archive.

[6]See World Population Review (https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/mormon-population-by-state) or the Facts and Statistics Page of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website for further details (https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/facts-and-statistics/state). 

[7]See Doctrine and Covenants Sections 131 and 132, and The Family: A Proclamation to the World (1995) regarding Latter-day Saint beliefs on gender roles and family relationships

[8]Scholarship on Latter-day Saint history, cultural stances, and religious ideologies are emerging in the academic setting. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints houses a robust collection of primary sources in their Church History Library. From these materials, the Church has published multiple archival works, including The First Fifty-Years and At the Pulpit, both historical collections of Latter-day Saint women’s writings and public speaking. More recent scholarship on Latter-day Saint women includes Tiffany Kinney’s Legitimization of Mormon Feminist Rhetors. References to race relations in the Church are found in Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People, particularly chapters 7 and 8. 

Works Cited

Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

“Claremont Mormon Studies.” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms, Accessed 4 March 2022.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1995.

Gaillet, Lynee Lewis, and Helen Gaillet Bailey. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

“Home.” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/, Accessed 7 February 2022.

Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an “Ethics of Hope and Care.”” Rhetoric Review, 2015, vol. 34 no. 4, pp. 391-408. DOI: 10.1080/07350198.2015. 1073558

Kline, Caroline. “Re: Introductions.” Received by Tiffany Gray, 25 June 2021.

Lucas, Brad and Margaret M. Stain. “Keeping the Conversation Going: The Archive Thrives on Interviews and Oral History.” Writing in the Archives, Edited by Alexis Ramsey, et al., Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, Kindle Version Location 975-1138.

Marchal, Joseph A. “Difficult Intersections and Messy Coalitions (but in a Good Way).” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 30, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 158-61. EBSCOhost. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn3770748&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. Accessed 10 September 2022.

Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-108. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3886308. Accessed 28 Oct 2020.

“Mormon Women Oral History Project: Our Story.” Mormon Women Oral History Project at Claremont Graduate University, mormonwomenohp.org/about, Accessed 1 March 2022.

Pompper, Donnalyn. Rhetoric of Femininity: Female Body Image, Media, and Gender Role Stress/Conflict. Lexington Books, 2017.

“Oral History 007.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2009, \. Accessed 4 February 2022.

“Oral History 026.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2010, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/124/rec/26. Accessed 7 February 2022.

“Oral History 030.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2009, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/87/rec/30. Accessed 8 February 2022.

“Oral History 043.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2010, https://ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/83/rec/42 Accessed 8 February 2022.

“Oral History 156.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2016, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/201/rec/151. Accessed 20 February 2022.

“Oral History 157.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2017, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/203/rec/152. Accessed 20 February 2022.

“Oral History 159.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2016, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/202/rec/154. Accessed 24 February 2022.
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“Oral History 166.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2015, ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cms/id/208/rec/160. Accessed 1 March 2022.

“Oral History 178.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
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“Oral History: Defined.” Oral History Association, 2022, oralhistory.org/about/do-oral-history. Accessed 22 April 2022.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the end of Polygamy. Book Review. BYU Studies, vol 58 no 1, 2018. https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/sister-saints-mormon-women-since-the-end-of-polygamy/. Accessed 3 November 2022.

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Rhetorical Remembering in the Meeting Minutes of the Tuesday Morning Study Group

The influence of women’s clubs—especially Black women’s clubs—has often been overlooked in U.S. history and public memory (Cash; McHenry). Feminist and rhetorical scholars have responded to this dearth in significant ways, taking up women’s clubs as sites for rhetorical education, activism, and social advancement (Blair; Gere; Logan; Martin; Ostergaard; Richardson; Royster; Sharer). Yet many areas of the clubwomen movement remain underexplored, including civil rights era women’s clubs, whose work played a vital role in fights for racial justice and equality. This article focuses on the Tuesday Morning Study Group (TMSG), an African American women’s club that began meeting in Durham, NC in 1962. Over the next fifty years, the club met monthly to study art, literature, philosophy, and politics, often focusing on the cultural contributions of Black Americans. The TMSG offers a rich case study of a Black women’s club who fostered education and community during a tumultuous time in the Jim Crow south.  

Employing what Jessica Enoch calls the “rhetorical practice of remembering” or feminist memory studies, this article highlights how the group cultivated its own history and memory through the careful crafting of meeting minutes (60). As an “outlier” methodology, Enoch lauds rhetorical remembering for going beyond revision, to “interrogat[e] the dynamic relationships among rhetoric, gender, and history” (60). Extending critical imagination and strategic contemplation (Royster and Kirsch), rhetorical remembering is a method that facilitates studying historical (and often incomplete) records, while acknowledging the complexities and ethics of representation (Ballif; Bizzell; Frank). This article responds to Enoch’s call to expand feminist memory studies and examines how the TMSG members asserted agency through rhetorical remembering.  

Meeting minutes—rarely studied as artifacts—portray the outcomes of careful rhetorical remembering practices. In the case of the TMSG, the minutes bolster collective memories and capture Black women’s intellectual and cultural contributions in ways that are often absent in public memory. Analyzing meeting minutes from the club’s beginning (1962-69), this article contextualizes the TMSG’s work within women’s club history and within 1960s Durham, which was shaped by Jim Crow, protest, class conflict, and economic opportunity. Following a brief introduction to the TMSG, I discuss the rhetorical significance of meeting minutes, arguing that they be studied as serious artifacts that illustrate complex rhetorical negotiations. Then, I examine four rhetorical remembering practices evident in the minutes: 1) inventing and sustaining club identity, 2) creating counterpublic memories, 3) privileging local civil rights history, and 4) negotiating multiple rhetorical situations. In conclusion, I argue that feminist memory methodologies complicate hegemonic public memories and histories. Expanding rhetorical studies of Black women’s clubs, this study centers clubwomen’s social and intellectual contributions, underscoring the influence of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement.

Contextualizing the TMSG  

The TMSG was founded following the 1940s and ‘50s influx of Black women’s clubs in Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh, NC. Organizing around educational, religious, civic, social, and neighborhood interests, historian Christina Greene lists examples of such African American women’s clubs in the region: “Cosmetology Club, the Merry Wives, the Model Mothers Club, the Friendly Circle Club of the St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Pearsontown Needle Craft Club, and the West End Jolly Sisters, to name a few” (26). While local chapters of national women’s clubs like the YWCA, League of Women Voters (LWV), American Association of University Women (AAUW), and International League of Peace and Freedom allowed Black women to join by the mid-1950s, integration of clubs in Durham (and across the nation) remained difficult, which was exacerbated by segregation in Durham’s public facilities until 1963. For example, when a Black woman attempted to join Durham’s AAUW in 1954, meetings were held in Harvey’s Cafeteria, which would not serve Black customers. After much debate, the AAUW moved their meetings to the YWCA, but many white members were displeased, resulting in a 30% loss of white members between 1955-58 (Greene 50).  

Black women in Durham successfully pushed for integration of local chapters of national clubs, but white members were not necessarily welcoming. This sentiment was especially true for study group meetings, which were held in private homes. For many white members of AAUW, “the new level of interracial intimacy that study group meetings in members’ homes demanded was more threatening than crossing the racial divide to break bread together” (Greene 51). Inviting Black members into white women’s homes disrupted a historical power dynamic, wherein Black women were welcome only as domestic workers. Early TMSG member Josephine Clement, who joined the LWV in the ‘50s, described: “[white women] began to bring black women in, but they still were in control of the organization” (Greene 51). Clement was one of the first two Black board members of the YWCA, yet white women maintained a majority on the board and a “common decision among black and white” members led the group to disband dinner meetings (Greene 48). An alternative to Durham’s integrated clubs and study groups, the TMSG was founded to pursue the specific interests and concerns of Black women. Some TMSG members continued membership in integrated clubs, yet the longevity of the TMSG shows a sustained desire for a space where Black women could lead and study their own history and culture.  

Without official affiliation, the TMSG was free to invent its own purpose and legacy. The club was loosely associated with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the largest and most influential African American-owned businesses in the world. Several early members were married to executives at the company, who were also leaders in local politics. For the first decade, TMSG members were part of a small, elite social circle of affluent Black Durhamites—many with undergraduate and graduate degrees, often from HBCUs. Club members were community leaders, politicians, and educators. For example, founding member Rosemary Fitts Funderburg was a social worker who became a professor and administrator at Clark Atlanta University School of Social Work. Minnie Spaulding, a nearly life-long Durham resident, was an English teacher and professor. Alice Kennedy earned a bachelor’s in nursing, served as an army nurse in WWII, and was one of the first Black women to earn a master’s in nursing from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After moving to Durham, Kennedy taught at high school, technical school, and college levels, developing the BSN program at North Carolina Central University, Durham’s HBCU.  

In addition to teaching and social work, several of the founding members, such as Elna Spaulding, Josephine Clement, and Constance Watts, played significant roles in the local Civil Rights Movement and politics. A civil rights activist, Spaulding was the first Black female member of the Board of County Commissioners in 1974, serving five terms until she was replaced by Clement in 1986. Spaulding also founded the Women in Action for the Prevention of Violence in 1968, an interracial community group that worked to prevent racial violence and discord (Anderson 377). Similarly, Clement and Watts were founding members of the Durham Links, an organization that facilitated the desegregation of schools, supported struggling students, and promoted social justice (Anderson 365). TMSG members were integral to supporting the Black Durham community through education, community organizing, and political reform.  

Durham’s women’s clubs, like most at the time, often formed along socio-economic lines, and with significant class conflict in Durham’s Black community, the TMSG was likely considered elitist in its first decade (Brown; Greene). Early meeting minutes primarily focus on the concerns of the upper-middle class and portray traditionally feminine decorum and virtue. Yet they also reveal women with a breadth of interest and curiosity—studying topics ranging from Lord of the Flies, Malcom X, Nat Turner, and jazz to Hinduism, existentialism, and Beethoven. Greene claims, “Even social spaces that seemingly had nonpolitical aims supported demands for racial equality . . . certain behaviors may be transformative even in the absence of explicit political motives” (30). In pursuit of a wide-ranging education, members showed open mindedness and commitment to change. Many study topics illustrate a desire to learn more about Black experience, culture, and social systems. A sampling of such topics includes Black literature, African art, Panama, Jamaica, Haiti, religion, psychology, philosophy, sculpture, symphony, segregation, Black Muslims, campus revolution, lower class hostility, relationship between African Americans and Jews, and the education system. 

Rhetoricizing Meeting Minutes  

Despite being one of the most common examples of writing among formal and informal organizations, meeting minutes have rarely received critical attention. Just a handful of technical and professional communication scholars have taken up their study, highlighting their rhetorical complexity and organizational value (McEachern; Whitney; Wolfe). David Ingham explains that even though meeting minute writing is often understood to be “uninspired,” useless, or a “chore,” minutes “represent one of the most complex rhetorical situations imaginable” (229). Meeting minute writers must imagine an audience beyond those people present and absent from a meeting. Future colleagues, supervisors, lawyers, archivists, and historians are all potential audiences to be considered; thus, writing minutes is a challenging critical thinking, rhetorical, and ethical process (Whitney 46). Given the potential legal implications and interpersonal strife that could result from a biased, ill-composed record, it is no surprise writers frequently use passive voice and the unanimous “we,” rather than naming specific members. Anonymity in meeting minutes indicates conscientiousness and an awareness of the rhetorical and ethical complexities (Ingham 231). 

Parliamentary guidelines have long influenced formal and colloquial rules about meeting minute writing. For early women’s clubs, Robert’s Rules of Order helped women practice leadership roles and exert power in ways that weren’t acceptable in public venues (Martin 66). The 1951 edition of Robert’s Rules describes the clerk’s or secretary’s charge: “keep a record of the proceedings, stating what was done and not what was said, unless it is to be published, and never making criticisms, favorable or otherwise, on anything said or done” (246). With the goal of impartiality, as a genre, meeting minutes organize and communicate rhetorical action for club members (Miller, Devitt, and Gallagher). The 1950 Standard Handbook for Secretaries encourages a structured and tidy entry, including meeting title, date, time, place, presiding officers, member roll, procedures, and secretary signature (Hutchinson 406). The TMSG minutes largely adhere to these guidelines, though they also demonstrate collaborative writing and carefully cultivated representations. Historically, Anne Ruggles Gere asserts, many women’s clubs feared misrepresentation and were protective of club texts, refusing to share them publicly or give access to archives (45). To produce affirmative representations and protect their reputations, it was common for club secretaries to express affection for one another in minutes and avoid documenting dissent (Gere 45). Keeping a tight control of club materials and activities, Gere argues, facilitated intimacy among members—only with privacy could intimacy blossom.  

Writing meeting minutes is a way of “self-historicizing” (Gere 51). For the TMSG, a varied yet collective picture of the club appears in the minutes, as each secretary put forth her perspective of what should be remembered. Writing meeting minutes was an opportunity for secretaries to capture their view of the club, its members, and their work. For example, Elna (‘67-‘68) wrote detailed summaries of study topics, summarizing key takeaways from the material, while Barbara (‘62-‘63) gave a terse overview of events, and Delores (‘64-‘65) sprinkled her entries with funny quips. More than documenting club business, the minutes reinforce club culture and identity as they are read aloud, approved and/or amended at each meeting. In a collaborative approach to memory making, members listened for an accurate representation and remembered their role in what occurred. To highlight the club’s memory making processes, the following sections analyze specific practices evident in the TMSG meeting minutes: 1) inventing and sustaining club identity, 2) creating counterpublic memories, 3) privileging local civil rights history, and 4) negotiating multiple rhetorical situations. These are not the only practices evident in the minutes, but they are most prominent in self-historicizing the club.  

Inventing Club Identity and Values 

Because meeting minutes were read aloud, voted on, and approved at the beginning of each meeting, they are a primary text in defining the work and values of the club. From the very beginning, the TMSG’s focus was on continued success and preparation. In the club’s second entry, Barbara wrote, “Two Excellent films were shown by Mr. Marvin which were greatly enjoyed and appreciated by the group. The first and main film shown was ‘How to Conduct a Discussion.’ There were eleven points given as elements of good group discussion” (13 November 1962). Suggestions like “The experience of the members should be used to enrich the discussion” and “All members of the group should try to improve their group performance” emphasize the importance of individual involvement and responsibility for the success of the whole. In the following meeting, the group continued to discuss good conversation practices, and one final recommendation appears written in all caps: “IS IT CHATTER? DOES IT MATTER?” (Murray ch. 5). These questions, featured in Arthur Murray’s 1944 book Popularity, were intended to gauge the efficacy of one’s conversation. The key to fruitful discussions, according to Murray, is garnering interest and interaction. Such guidelines reinforced a methodical and thoughtful club culture: “The meetings will be kept informal yet well organized” (8 January 1963, see fig. 1). Contemporaneously, these guidelines are a reminder of best practices for club members, but as a historical record, the guidelines portray a club ethos that was unified and ambitious.   

Recording specifics about membership also demonstrates a careful cultivation of club purpose and culture. As members left the club for various reasons, they discussed inviting new women (see fig. 1); the October 1964 minutes stated, for example, “Names were presented and voted upon, according to her interests and what she might contribute to the efforts of the Study Group.” Because the members were collectively decided upon, the club exercised control over the purpose and identity of the group, as seen in the May 1969 entry: “The secretary was asked to contact prospective members to stress the fact that it is a study group and that each person is expected to contribute to the success of the program.” In addition to selectivity, this emphasis indicates the seriousness of the club’s objective and the responsibility of each club member to uphold it. Other entries mention increasing membership to disperse club labor (i.e., presenting, hosting, leading) and to increase the audience so more people could appreciate the hard work of member presentations.   

Figure 1: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from January 8, 1963. It reads “The Tuesday A.M. Study Group met with Josephine. We decided that each member volunteer for the Christmas meeting with Constance entertaining in December 1963. We discussed the possibility of adding new members and in order to complete the number to eight which had been previously discussed—it was a [sic] unanimously decided that we invite Louise Elder and Dorothy Raiford to join the group. The meetings will be kept informal yet well organized. Rosemary will be termed as an associate member and notified as to the members. The remainder of the time was spent discussing the possibility of entertaining our husbands on the occasion of our first anniversary. We decided to entertain at a private dinner and Charlotte will secure the place. After good food and more conversation, the meeting was adjourned. Respectfully Submitted, Barbara (sec.)” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Figure 1: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from January 8, 1963. It reads “The Tuesday A.M. Study Group met with Josephine. We decided that each member volunteer for the Christmas meeting with Constance entertaining in December 1963. We discussed the possibility of adding new members and in order to complete the number to eight which had been previously discussed—it was a [sic] unanimously decided that we invite Louise Elder and Dorothy Raiford to join the group. The meetings will be kept informal yet well organized. Rosemary will be termed as an associate member and notified as to the members. The remainder of the time was spent discussing the possibility of entertaining our husbands on the occasion of our first anniversary. We decided to entertain at a private dinner and Charlotte will secure the place. After good food and more conversation, the meeting was adjourned. Respectfully Submitted, Barbara (sec.)” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Documenting social events similarly privileged celebration and comradery among members. Since the social aspect of women’s clubs “fostered solidarity within groups, secretaries regularly included as many specifics about social events as study topics (Gere and Robbins 644). Activities like Christmas parties, Valentine’s anniversary dinners with husbands, and community outings were highlights of the annual program whose planning was given significant space in the meeting minutes. For example, in the third meeting, Barbara wrote, “It was decided that the December meeting be devoted to ‘Christmas in and around the home’ with a member devoted to each of these topics: Foods, Decorations, Flowers, Wrapping, Wardrobe, Gifts (9 October 1962). Here, the secretary captures the club’s meticulous approach to the study of domestic topics; even festive occasions were approached with sincerity. Detailing both the formal business (e.g., club procedures, membership, annual programs) and the informal culture that unfolded (e.g., celebrations, outings), secretaries wrote a history that is multifaceted, portraying both the club’s seriousness and joy.  

Creating Counterpublic Memories

The choices secretaries made in self-historicizing must be situated within the complicated context of 1960s Durham. “Black Durham was a paradox,” historian Leslie Brown writes (19). For the Black upper and middle classes, Jim Crow invented a consistent customer base but prevented enduring economic success. Unlike many southern cities, Durham had a flourishing “Black Wall Street”—a place of unparalleled Black entrepreneurship and economic prosperity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1912 that Black Durham’s “social and economic development is perhaps more striking than that of any similar group in the nation” (132). However, by the 1960s, urban renewal severed Durham’s Hayti neighborhood, one of the only self-sustaining African American economies at the time, and class stratification and conflict intensified. Despite the potential for prosperity, segregation and racist violence was an ever-present reality. In the 1960s, Durham had one of the lowest desegregation rates in the south (Greene 71) with only 15% of Durham whites favoring racial integration of schools and businesses (Greene 79). As KKK membership rose, civil rights activism flourished throughout the decade with sit-ins, boycotts, and a 1963 demonstration at Howard Johnson’s, where 700 protestors were arrested. Regardless of these realities, economic prosperity was possible for Black residents who could overcome many barriers (Gilmore 27).  

As members of the affluent Black class, early members of the TMSG were deemed responsible for racial uplift yet were also criticized for enacting class superiority and reinforcing traditional gender roles. Following E. Franklin Frazier’s 1957 study of the Black middle class, historian Paula Giddings describes, “Black women were scolded for being too domineering and too insecure; too ambitious and too decadently idle, all in the same breath” (252). Facing this predicament, many scholars suggest Black women used respectability as a strategy to respond to social scrutiny and racism. Brown explains, “Enacted through gender roles, respectability reflected a collective priority to protect against the intimidations of racism, and virtually all African Americans acknowledged the hegemony of respectability. Against the multifaceted challenges of Jim Crow, black people wore respectability like armor” (20). Values like domesticity, submissiveness, and purity express respectability and emerge throughout the meeting minutes. For example, Barbara wrote, “On April 16th, the Study Group carried their mothers to the Duke Gardens. The weather was perfect and the gardens beautiful. The mothers were very appreciative of the trip which seems to be their annual highlight. Afterwards, Elna and Louise served a delicious luncheon at which time the fellowship was enjoyed immensely!” (16 April 1963). Many accounts of club events render immaculate and enchanting meetings; however, to characterize these depictions only as evidence of respectability does not adequately capture the intellectual and community contributions of the club. In her study of race women, Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper asserts that respectability and dignity are often conflated; whereas respectability is tied to social recognition, dignity is the “fundamental recognition of one’s inherent humanity” (5). Though Cooper does not explicitly discuss clubs, her work studies Black women as knowledge producers and argues that theories of respectability have often obscured the intellectual contributions of Black women. Thus, passages in the TMSG meeting minutes that seem to enact respectability may also reveal the rhetorically complicated work of writing history and crafting dignified representations. Focusing on “embodied discourses”—how Black women center their bodies as sites of possibility—is one way Cooper resists oversimplified readings of historical texts (3). 

TMSG secretaries invoke embodied discourses through vivid descriptions and emotional expressions, underscoring desires, feelings, labors, pains, and possibilities. At the December 1967 meeting (see fig. 2), Elna wrote, “The Clement Home was beautifully decorated with a dellarobia [sic] wreath at the front door and red berries and greens at the stoop, to appropriate and attractive decorations throughout the home. A delightful program was planned and rendered to the enjoyment of all the guests. A Christmas repast was served from the dining room and everyone had a delightful time.” Through the imagery of this carefully arranged and reported scene, Elna praises Josephine’s labor and taste. The joy that exudes in this excerpt is palpable, as Elna documents Black women who are flourishing. Cooper claims, “The audacity, conversely, to discuss in fleeting moments feelings of pleasure, despite daily contention with extreme racial repression, again challenges overdetermined readings of race women being obsessed in every moment with being respectable” (9). Because it acknowledges a certain level of comfort and deservedness, this depiction highlights the group’s pleasure and worth.  

Figure 2: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from December 12, 1967. It reads “The December meeting of the Tuesday Morning Study Group was held at the home of Josephine Clement. This was our Christmas Party meeting. Each member invited one guest, with the hostess privileged to invite as many as she wished. The Clement Home was beautifully decorated with a dellarobia [sic] wreath at the front door and red berries and greens at the stoop, to appropriate and attractive decorations throughout the home. A delightful program was planned and rendered to the enjoyment of all the guests. A Christmas repast was served from the dining room and everyone had a delightful time. The climax of the party was reached when each guest and member selected a gift made by each member and wrapped by Barbara Cook. All in all a good time was had by all who attended. A small item of business was discussed pertaining Lincoln Hospital Emergency Fund. The Club voted that a check for $10.00 be sent from the Study Group. This check was written by the Secretary-Treas. and turned over to the Chairman of the Drive. The next meeting is to be held at the home of Barbara Cooke. Respectfully Submitted, Elna Spaulding, Sec. & Treas.” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Figure 2: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from December 12, 1967. It reads “The December meeting of the Tuesday Morning Study Group was held at the home of Josephine Clement. This was our Christmas Party meeting. Each member invited one guest, with the hostess privileged to invite as many as she wished. The Clement Home was beautifully decorated with a dellarobia [sic] wreath at the front door and red berries and greens at the stoop, to appropriate and attractive decorations throughout the home. A delightful program was planned and rendered to the enjoyment of all the guests. A Christmas repast was served from the dining room and everyone had a delightful time. The climax of the party was reached when each guest and member selected a gift made by each member and wrapped by Barbara Cook. All in all a good time was had by all who attended. A small item of business was discussed pertaining Lincoln Hospital Emergency Fund. The Club voted that a check for $10.00 be sent from the Study Group. This check was written by the Secretary-Treas. and turned over to the Chairman of the Drive. The next meeting is to be held at the home of Barbara Cooke. Respectfully Submitted, Elna Spaulding, Sec. & Treas.” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Feminist memory studies encourage upending hegemonic histories that fortify the status quo” with counterpublic memories that “disrupt visions of life as it was, is, and will be” (Enoch 62). Portraying Black women as dignified, secretaries extolled a virtue and prosperity that was historically unavailable to African Americans. While much meeting minute space in the early years is taken up by pleasantries and seemingly superfluous domestic details, these rhetorical moves complicate popular characterizations of Black women at the time. Elizabeth McHenry warns against a “limited vision of the black middle and upper classes as assimilationist or accommodationist,” which oversimplifies the complexity of their actions” (17). The TMSG in its very existence—as an alternative to integrated clubs—challenged other Durham women’s clubs that were not welcoming to Black members. In documenting their work, club secretaries advanced counterpublic memories that unsettled simplified, unsophisticated, and racist representations of Black women 

Privileging Local Civil Rights History 

The TMSG meeting minutes exemplify members’ engagement in ongoing civil rights debates and dedication to documenting local history. The club interacted with prominent local intellectuals and civil rights activists as invited guest speakers. For example, in October 1966, the club hosted a talk, “The Negro in Civil Rights—Emergence of Black Power,” with surgeon and activist Charles Watts (husband of club member Constance), civil rights leader and President of North Carolina College Alphonso Elder, and activist Howard Fuller. The minutes describe that each man spoke and a brief discussion and question and answer period followed. Many guest speakers were professors at Durham’s HBCU, North Carolina College (now called North Carolina Central University). Music professor Earl Allen Sanders spoke about the history of the opera (1964); philosophy professor Ernst Manasse, who fled Nazi Germany and was the first permanent white faculty member at NCC, gave a talk, “The Disturbed Modern World and Existentialism” (1967); and Earlie Thorpe, a leading scholar of African American history, discussed history and psychology (1968). Guest speakers illustrate a multidisciplinary approach to the study of civil rights and Black experience, privileging both academic and community perspectives.  

Including reminders in the minutes, secretaries prepared the club for serious engagement with intellectuals and activists. When local civil rights activist and lawyer Floyd McKissick was coming to speak to the club, Delores wrote, “Members were urged to prepare some meaty and meaningful questions in advance for Mr. McKissick so we would not waste his time” (15 September 1964). This directive reflects meticulous planning and investment in the topic. Even though many guest speakers were in the same social circles as club members (Anderson; Vann), TMSG members formalized their discussions through club presentations and records.  

Records of current event discussions also illustrate participation in local civil rights debates. While some entries are spare on details—“the group engaged in a half-hour discussion of current events” (9 Oct. 1968)—others include the topics discussed (e.g., Alabama Governor George Wallace ignoring the federal order to integrate schools in Birmingham, the Israeli-Arab conflict, religious conflict in Ireland, or Jackie Onassis’ spending). The November 1968 entry includes a thorough description:  

The first question posed was What do we think of the use of children by activists? The consensus appeared to be that education is being lost and that children, unfortunately, are bearing the brunt of the burden. Other topics discussed were the Afro trend in hairstyling and the series of articles by Dr. Helen G. Edmonds that appeared recently in the Sunday Herald. 

This array of topics indicates a systemic approach to civil rights, ranging from protests to beauty standards to local newspaper editorials. Edmonds’ five-article series, “The Crisis in Race Relations,” examines the “racial plagues”—segregation and discrimination—that followed the civil war (Edmonds). Dean of the Graduate School at NCC, Edmonds situates Black experience historically, covering topics like lack of opportunity, white privilege, Black leadership, and protest. She offers eight solutions in her final column that emphasize “constructive interracial action” on local levels, including democratic dialogue and revised history books (Edmonds). Discussion of this series would inspire a complicated consideration of the causes and manifestations of racism. Including the details of current event discussions, secretaries portrayed a nuanced and situated study of civil rights. 

Negotiating Rhetorical Situations  

Above all else, the meeting minutes reveal a complex rhetorical negotiation for secretaries writing for multiple audiences. This negotiation is most evident when secretaries “self-historicize” (Gere), addressing the concerns of contemporaneous members and a future, broader audience, through practices like using innuendo, giving compliments, using their own voice/style, and referencing club labor. With lighthearted insinuation, secretaries boost members in the immediate moment and create a cordial picture for future audiences. For example, at the May 13, 1969 meeting, Minnie wrote, “During the first half hour there was a lively and very informal discussion of light current topics.” The adjectives in this sentence subtly allude to amusement or even gossip—a friendly and comfortable scene before the club moves onto its study topic for the day.  

Documenting the affective and embodied, secretaries showed the importance of remembering members’ friendship and joy. Similarly, thankful comments expressed gratitude. At lunch following an outing to the Duke gardens, Minnie described, “All of us were instructed to order from the menu whatever we preferred. It was a delightful occasion. Everyone present expressed her appreciation to Barbara for her kind hospitality” (8 April 1969). Here, Minnie documents TMSG member Barbara’s generosity in paying for the meal, reinforcing a culture of generosity and appreciation. Secretaries frequently incorporated compliments within the minutes, demonstrating comradery and fellowship. In nearly every entry, the secretary describes what the host served (e.g., “repast,” “luncheon buffet,” “salad course,” or “covered dish supper”) and a valuation of it, often “delicious” or “delightful.” Less frequently, compliments extend to the members’ presentations of material, e.g. describing an “excellent review” or a “quite educational, interesting, and uniquely done” presentation. Admiration has multiple purposes—increasing comradery in the present and documenting graciousness for the future. 

Some secretaries also used humor or a playful tone, entertaining contemporary audiences and adding complexity for future audiences. The September 1964 entry is one of just a handful of these examples from the ‘60s minutes, wherein Delores transcended genre conventions in a number of ways:  

After a very delicious lunch, served by Barbara (who didn’t eat a bite on account of her strict diet) Louise read an article from The Ladies Home Journal, The Answering Voice, which was a short biographical sketch of five real kooky women poets (contemporary). The article even referred to them as odd balls. But for the sake of culture we should call them eccentric females . . . Real juicy and entertaining!  

Within a genre intended to document only actions, these few moments of subjectivity provide a glimpse into the material and embodied lives of club members. Noting Barbara’s strict diet, Delores expresses empathy and perhaps even praise for her self control. With her quip about “culture,” Delores acknowledges its social construction or even critiques concurrent notions of “cultured,” as clubwomen frequently did (McHenry 228). The exclamation of “real juicy and entertaining” offers a hint of salacious material and discussion, in stark contrast to the otherwise impartial club persona presented in the meeting minutes. From the article description to the intimation of gossip, current readers can imagine members and the thrill of discussing material considered taboo. While members likely found this entry amusing at the time, for future audiences, the entry reveals insight and intimacy (Gere).  

Another example illustrates vulnerability and encouragement. At the 1964 Christmas party, Delores wrote, “Barbara played the organ—with Josephine playing the base pedals because Barbara ‘couldn’t practice enough ahead of time to feel confident about the base pedals,’ she said. Naturally, she played beautifully—and no one would have criticized her even had she goofed a little on the base—but that’s good ole Barbara, shy girl that she is.” Here, Delores documents her response to Barbara’s self-consciousness, offering reassurance and affectionately referring to her as “good ole Barbara.” When these minutes are likely read aloud for approval at the next meeting, it reminds Barbara and other members that this is not a space of high expectation or judgment. For future audiences, this entry recognizes embodied nerves and embarrassment but also portrays affection and unconditional support among TMSG members.  

Calling attention to the importance of the role, secretaries also occasionally acknowledged their labor in the minutes, by praising a job well done or leaving absences in the record. In the November 1968 entry, following reading and approval of minutes, Minnie wrote, “Elna asked that the word ‘glowing’ be used to describe the minutes. The secretary thanked her for her kind appraisal.” Through this endorsement and celebration of the secretary’s talents, members value Minnie’s work, implicitly encouraging future minutes to follow her standard, which included more extensive descriptions of topics studied. As the club progresses, entries grow in specifics and length, exhibiting the influence secretaries had on evolving practices of self-historicizing. Another more playful discussion of labor comes from the May 1964 entry (see fig. 3), wherein secretary Louise wrote, “I was away / Hurray.” Delores wrote below: “Will never know what happened now—But we DID have a meeting—So there!” This exchange notes the significance of the secretary’s role in documenting the work of the club, along with the friendship within it, as members tease each other. For current audiences, a sense of intimacy emerges from the lightheartedness and vulnerability that slips through the otherwise “objective” voice of secretaries—a glance at the fullness of members’ lives. In many ways, the TMSG minutes exemplify the multifaceted work of club literacy practices detailed in Gere’s research.

Figure 3: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from May 1964. It reads “I was away Hurray! [signed] Louise” and “Will never know what happened now—But we DID have a meeting—So there! [signed] D.” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Figure 3: Image of a TMSG meeting entry from May 1964. It reads “I was away Hurray! [signed] Louise” and “Will never know what happened now—But we DID have a meeting—So there! [signed] D.” (Tuesday Morning Study Group, Record of Meetings).

Remembering Rhetorically  

The TMSG is a captivating example of social organizing among Black women in 1960s Durham. As an alternative to integrated women’s clubs, the TMSG was established specifically for Black women to study and discuss their own concerns, including multidisciplinary and local to international approaches to civil rights. Mostly working within the confines of the meeting minute genre, secretaries leveraged their agency to self-historicize, affirm members’ dignity, engage with the local Civil Rights Movement, and counter hegemonic representations of Black women. The influence of race should not be overlooked in feminist memory methodologies that “interrogat[e] the dynamic relationships among rhetoric, gender, and history” (Enoch 60). While race has always played a significant role in women’s clubs (Gere), it has not always been scrutinized in scholarship on clubwomen, and Black women’s clubs during the civil rights era have received little critical attention. Clubs like the TMSG coalesced around the study of Black academic and cultural contributions, despite the racist paradoxes of the time: though affluent and well-educated, club members couldn’t eat at Durham’s popular lunch counter and sent their children to segregated schools. Feminist memory methodologies provide a fruitful avenue for studying the rhetorical practices, complexities, and successes of the TMSG and similar civil rights era clubs.  

Meeting minutes underscore remembering as rhetorical and pose intriguing questions for feminist memory studies. An often hidden and obscure process, remembering is somewhat structured in meeting minutes that showcase the purposeful creation of memories, building contemporaneous identity and history. Methodologies of remembering narrow our focus to the rhetorical practices that produce texts rather than just the texts themselves. Malea Powell et al. assert, “in the discipline of rhetoric studies, often, human practices become objects of study that are reduced to texts, to artifacts, to objects, in a way that elides both makers and systems of power. (Act III, Scene 2). This historical case study foregrounds the human practices—inventing identity, composing counterpublic memories, privileging local civil rights history, and negotiating multiple audiences—that sustained and invigorated the TMSG during the volatilities of Jim Crow. Through their rhetorical remembering, the TMSG left behind a record of intellectual curiosity, community investment, joy, support, and pursuit of civil rights.  

Works Cited 

Anderson, Jean Bradley. Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina. 2nd ed. Duke UP, 2011.  

Ballif, Michelle, editor. Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. 

Bizzell, Patricia. “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make?” Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics: Landmark Essays and Controversies, edited by Lindal Buchanan and Kathleen Ryan, Parlor Press, 2010, pp. 113-24. 

Blair, Karen J. The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868-1914. Holmes, 1980. 

Brown, Leslie. Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South. U of North Carolina P, 2008. 

Cash, Floris Barnett. African American Women and Social Action: The Clubwomen and Volunteerism from Jim Crow to the New Deal, 1896-1936. Greenwood Press, 2001.  

Cooper, Brittney C. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. U of Illinois P, 2017. 

Du Bois, W.E.B. Selections from His Writings. Dover Publications, 2014. 

Edmonds, Helen. “The Crisis in Race Relations,” five-article series. Durham Morning Herald, 13, 20, 27 Oct., 3, 10 Nov. 1968, pp. 12D, 14D, 14D, 12D, 10C. 

Enoch, Jessica. “Releasing Hold: Feminist Historiography Without the Tradition.” Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, edited by Michelle Ballif, Southern Illinois UP, 2013, pp. 58-73. 

Frank, Sarah Noble. “Feminist Historiography As If: Performativity and Representation in Feminist Histories of Rhetoric,” Rhetoric Review, vol. 36, no. 3, 2017, pp. 187-99. 

Gere, Anne Ruggles. Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in Women’s Clubs 1880- 1920. U of Illinois P, 1997. 

Gere, Anne Ruggles, and Sarah R. Robbins. “Gendered Literacy in Black and White: Turn-of- the-Century African-American and European-American Club Women’s Printed Texts,” Signs, vol. 21, no. 3, 1996, pp. 643-78. 

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. Amistad, 2006.  

Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Gender & Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. U of North Carolina P, 1996. 

Greene, Christine. Our Separate Ways: Women and the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, North Carolina. U of North Carolina P, 2005.  

Hutchinson, Lois Irene. Standard Handbook for Secretaries. 6th ed. Gregg Publishing Company, 1950.   

Ingham, David. “These Minutes Took 22 Hours: The Rhetorical Situation of the Meeting Minute-Taker.” Readings for Technical Communication, edited by Jennifer MacLennan, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 229-32. 

Logan, Shirley Wilson. Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth- Century Black America. Southern Illinois UP, 2008. 

Martin, Theodora Penny. The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women’s Study Clubs 1860-1910. Beacon, 1987. 

McEachern, Robert. “Meeting Minutes as Symbolic Action.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 12, no. 2, 1998, pp. 198-216.   

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Duke UP, 2002.  

Miller, Carolyn R., Amy J. Devitt, and Victoria J. Gallagher. “Genre: Permanence and Change.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 2018, pp. 269-77. 

Murray, Arthur. Arthur Murray’s Popularity Book: Vintage Advice and Wisdom from the Greatest Generation, eBook, Old House, 2014. 

Ostergaard, Lori. “‘Silent Work for Suffrage’: The Discreet Rhetoric of Professor June Rose Colby and the Sapphonian Society 1892-1908.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 2013, pp. 137-55.  

Powell, Malea et al. “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, no. 18, 2014, www.enculturation.net/node/6099. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.  

Robert, Henry M. Robert’s Rule of Order Revised: Seventy-fifth Anniversary Edition. Scott, Foresman and Company, 1951. 

Richardson, Erica. “Desire, Dispossession, and Dreams of Social Data: Black Clubwomen’s Intellectual Through and Aesthetics During the Progressive Era in Public Writing and Print Culture.” American Studies, vol. 59, no. 3, 2020, pp. 33-54. 

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.  

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.  

Sharer, Wendy. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 

Tuesday Morning Study Group. Record of Meetings. 1962-1970. Box 178, Folder 1. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, and University Archives, Records and History Center, North Carolina Central University, Durham, NC.  

Vann, Andre D., and Beverly Washington Jones. Durham’s Hayti. Arcadia Publishing, 1999.  

Whitney, Kelly. “Bridging Genre Studies and Ethics of Representation in Meeting Minutes.” Prompt, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 45-54. 

Wolfe, Joanna. “Meeting Minutes as a Rhetorical Genre: Discrepancies Between Professional Writing Textbooks and Workplace Practice Tutorial.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 49, no. 4, 2006, pp. 354-64. 


Persistence, Coalition and Power: Institutional Citizenship and the Feminist WPA


This essay looks at the concept of feminist institutional citizenship at the site of Writing Program Administration (WPA) work from a labor-focused lens. By focusing on agentic or agentive capacity building in program administration (we’ll use the terms interchangeably) that moves toward achieving feminist institutional citizenship, we hope to offer to others a set of considerations for institutional change work.  

Institutional or academic citizenship as conceived by Bruce Macfarlane engages work within “five overlapping communities: students, colleagues, institutions, disciplines or professions, and the wider public,” each of which WPA labor engages (1). We examined the concept of institutional citizenship at the nexus of feminist, labor-oriented WPA work, and we did so by way of a series of recorded conversations that were a part of a graduate seminar curriculum in Anicca’s doctoral program at Michigan State University. Rachel was then the Executive Director of the Writing Program at George Washington University. That inquiry helped us sensemake our own feminist and labor-conscious approaches to WPA work from our respective social and institutional locations. Our relationship building was both cross-generational and cross-institutional. Taking these conversations as a starting point, the goal of this essay is to conceptualize two aspects of this work—agency and reflection—one a feminist modality or practice (reflection) and one an objective (agency), as related to feminist institutional citizenship.  

Here we take up agentic perspectives from Kerry Ann O’Meara’s 2015 essay, “A Career with a View: Agentic Perspectives of Women Faculty,” which she defines this way: “Agentic perspectives are a way of viewing a situation and one’s role in it to advance goals. Typically, agentic perspectives emerge as a response to barriers and opportunities” (333).  Our conversations focused on the barriers we faced, but more importantly to us, they uncovered potential organizational strategies a WPA might employ in service of persistence, coalition and power—elements we consider to be well in line with feminist and labor-oriented praxis. Specifically, our own readings of feminist theory, and particularly activist feminism, provided a framework for thinking about these values and practices. As Kristine Blair and Lee Nickoson note, feminist traditions often involve “engaging and disrupting dominant structural systems” (3). We saw our work together as a form of relationship building located in that understanding. As such, our conversations helped us to consider how our cross-generational and cross-institutional scholarly relationship might work to deepen our feminist agencies and to help us understand the terrain of feminist institutional citizenship. We did so from the stance that, as the Combahee River Collective explains, “we see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking” (n.p). This essay argues for attention to such practices for those who seek to build agentic, feminist institutional citizenship by centering labor consciousness and collective action, and it mirrors the ways historical and contemporary “labor feminists have fought for the interests of…women…both within the feminist and the labor movements” (Boris and Orleck n.p.).  

Feminist Methodological and Theoretical Frames 

We understand institutions as places where systems of uneven power—gender privilege, white privilege, able-bodied and cisgender privilege (and more)— are constantly instantiated. We recognize that feminist WPA work must contend with all of these constraints and the work often can seem filled with insurmountable systemic conditions. As we engage with a wide variety of colleagues and students with diverse needs and desires, approaching our work as feminist, institutional citizens can provide one model of working toward change through persistence, coalition and power. Even as we know WPA work is rife with “wicked problems” based in hierarchy, class division and whiteness, we believe, as O’Meara outlines, “it is possible for faculty to craft alternatives to grand narratives through their framing of contexts and their role in them.” (332). We acknowledge that navigating that work takes time to reflect which our conversations provided.  

Lasting for an hour between Rachel’s children’s school drop off and Anicca’s writing center hours, that is, sandwiched between different labor commitments, our conversations uncovered shared experiences and perspectives. To start, both of us shared an affinity for feminist standpoint theory that grounds feminist politics in links between experiences and political perspective. Feminist standpoint theory asserts that “social situatedness is at issue” and enables an understanding of that situatedness as a tool for bringing to light the various ways systems of power affect individuals and groups (Harding 9). Shari Stenberg further notes that a hallmark of feminist work in writing studies specifically is “the use of personal experience as a site of knowledge” (47). Through our conversations—dialogic, relationship focused, and inquiry based—we sought to do just that: to uncover some of the commonalities of our own experience about gendered labor by telling our work stories together and to further locate them in larger institutional and political discourses to map moments of agentive potential.  

Our conversations foregrounded how material conditions such as productive (waged) and reproductive (unwaged) labor contribute to institutions (Riedner 122-3). Silvia Federici defines reproductive labor as “the work that produces and reproduces labor power,” or, the labor that builds the conditions for “capitalist accumulation” (Prec. Labor n.p). The work of using reflection as a feminist tool was to bring a focus on creating solidarity and to move away from a purely individualist framework. Without a move beyond individualist thinking, we run the risk of an inability to connect with those who are different from ourselves. By discussing our work in this way, we moved toward our objective: to consider ways to build relationally within and across institutional, career, and other differences. However, because institutional scenarios are highly contextualized, specific, and dynamic, our methodology of reflective dialogue and narrative work primarily acted as a tool to identify institutional places of agentive potential, and to extend O’Meara’s call toward agentic perspectives for woman identified faculty rather than to simply map institution specific actions. 

Because the WPA figure is so often archetyped into a singular administrative agent, we find that engaging these types of important conversations is vital to expand understandings of WPA praxis beyond one person’s labor. Over time, our work became less interview, and more working through and across ideas with one another. This vehicle of extended conversation and relationship building began to take an organic form into structures of mentorship and care, so crucial to understanding how to work effectively in ethical ways. However, as we will detail in the following section, that mentorship was less concerned with career advancement or disciplinary mentorship and more concerned with mapping places to become agentic participants in institutional change. We did so because we both value the incredible feminist work in our field that has considered models of mentorship and want to extend it to consider how those relationships might be a vehicle for change beyond individual experience and potential.   

As the weeks progressed, we worked reciprocally in our knowledge sharing. We moved from description and analysis of experience, to reflections on the principles and values that guide our choices and our histories and we began to reflect on the links between the personal and the political and structural. Particularly, we thought about how our mutual experiences with labor organizing could helps us as WPAs to account for identities, experiences, and standpoints to strategically address the dynamics of institutional power. This means we are oriented toward a feminist approach to scholarship and administration that takes into account the heterogeneity of women’s institutional experiences (Anzaldúa; Mohanty; Royster).  

We acknowledge that it is a precious opportunity to be able to deeply listen to someone week after week over the course of an extended time period and hope that our discussion renews a call to that kind of intentional practice between feminist practitioners. We see listening practice too, as other feminist practitioners do, as a methodology for “self reflection,” “theorizing experience,” and to “listen to those who experience the world differently than ourselves” (Blair and Nickosen 14). Reflective practice, as Kelly Concannon et al. explain, works as a “feminist intervention strategy to make meaning” in either research or community settings (157). As such, we recognize the debt of gratitude for intersectional and Black feminist approaches to feminist coalition which call for listening work as a means of discovery, empathy, and capacity building for solidarity and self-awareness (Combahee; Lorde and Rich).  

Our thinking through allowed us to learn by way of the sharing of experience from and with another feminist practitioner and affirmed a set of principles we carry about feminist, labor oriented WPA work: that it utilizes analyses of power, compassion, collective action, and strategic thinking. We began to conceive of what feminist institutional citizenship looks like over the course of a career as we sought to understand administrative movement at the sites of programs and institutional mission. Finally, we mapped places where feminist institutional citizenship and its praxis was present in this work, as it intersects with labor, program design, and institutional change.  

Feminist Mentoring as Starting Point 

After our initial conversations in the fall of 2018, we easily conceived of our shared work as a mentoring space. We did so because we quickly identified a shared interest in feminism grounded in labor consciousness. We discussed writing together but also realized we were curious about how others might perceive these kinds of relationships first. We then assembled a group of feminist mentorship pairs we know through our professional networks to present a panel at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference in 2019. Our co-panelists told the stories of their unfolding relationships where professional identity, networking, scholarship, and friendship were fostered between pairs alongside preparation for future academic appointments (for the mentee). They spoke of the ways their relationships were emotionally supportive and how they built that support. Further, they had important insights into the gendered nature of the academy and the intricacies of cross-racial/cultural mentorship relationships. But somehow, even as we identified ourselves as being inside a type of mentoring relationship, we didn’t seem to be doing much of, or exactly what, they collectively described. As we listened to our brilliant and generous co-panelists, we came to a shared realization: we didn’t fit with these pairs somehow. But why? 

We believe the models of feminist mentorship, like the ones our co-panelists shared, are vital ones. Feminist mentoring has wide-ranging impacts in writing studies, and academia in general, including the ways it may address a number of persistent problems related to power. As one example, Ana Milena Ribero and Sonia Arellano note, it can increase success, persistence, and representation for women of color in the discipline. Working to push beyond white, middle-class models of professionalization, Ribero and Arellano problematize our notions of feminist mentorship and assert practices from their own lived experiences that are instead rooted in a range of activities from anti-racism to kinship, and tangible support that connected them across their personal and professional lives (335). Kathryn Gindlesparger and Holly Ryan also delineate the practice of mentorship as serving the purpose of both “advancing ourselves as experts in the field” to “developing our professional identities” (56). In addition, Pamela Van Haitsma and Steph Ceraso provide a valuable model for “horizontal” mentoring which mirrored some of our own experience in its contrast to more traditional “power-laden, vertical mentoring dynamics” (211).  

However, our relationship didn’t unfold around encouraging one another’s professional advancement or scholarly identity. So, while we are indebted to the discourse around, and the transformative work of, feminist mentoring both peer-to-peer and cross generationally, we position ourselves and this work in a gentle contradistinction to it. Meaning, where some feminist mentorship for example takes the shape of allyship concerning gendered, raced or time bound experiences related to scholarly trajectories, or offers tools and strategies for success within the discipline, our relationship was focused on developing feminist institional citizenship.  

As such, we seek here to extend conversations in writing studies on feminist mentoring beyond a practice for personal survival or professional advancement to feminist mentoring as a site for institutional change work. We considered specificically how to build equity in institutions as citizens of them who are concerned particularly with feminism and labor at the site of WPA work. We then align our discussion with, and as an extension of, the 2019 contributions of Jennifer Heinert and Cassandra Phillips, Michelle Payne, and Eileen Schell in the Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies where the authors examine feminist WPA work and institutional participation. Those works account for some of the complexities and inequalities of participation for women WPAs across both their waged and unwaged labor (Federici, Rev. Pt. Zero) as they engaged in institutional change work by calculating for the benefits of that commitment as well as its challenges. For us, our cross-generational/cross-institutional relationship became a viable space from which to imagine how to shape and transform our institutional locations toward more equitable configurations through reflective work and agency building.   

Reflective Practice from Feminist Locations 

Our reflective practice came in several forms (notes, a seminar paper, a conference presentation), but primarily was constructed through a series of recorded conversations focused on inquiry, relationship building, and reflection. We saw ourselves as engaging feminist praxis as two women-identified labor conscious institutional workers and we took as a mutual understanding for this practice, something that Chandra Mohanty explains: where gender has meaning and consequences in institutions and where “interwoven processes of sexism, racism, misogyny, and heterosexism are integral parts of our social fabric” (3). However, as with all social locations, our perspectives here are limited. In our case, our lived experiences and perspectives do not emerge from the “margins” (hooks), but rather from a privileged racial and gender majority in our own discipline, namely white, cis-gendered women.  

Individually, our ethical commitments emerge from our histories in the labor movement, and from those experiences we draw our values as institutional citizens. Foundational to those ethics are practices of persistence, coalition and (analyses of, building of) power—captured in the title of our article. These criteria align to both materialist and intersectional feminist theory and practice, to whom we owe intellectual debt specifically to working class, feminist, transnational, BIPOC, queer, trans, and disabled scholars, researchers, organizers, and activists (Ahmed; Anzaldua; Combahee; Crenshaw; Ebert; Federici; Hill-Collins; hooks; Kabeer; Kynard; la paperson; Lorde; Mohanty; Nicolas; Royster; Smith). We are additionally indebted in our understandings to scholarship specific to feminist WPA work (Ratcliff and Rickly) and with work devoted to understanding the embodied, social, lived complexities of WPA work (George).    

We clearly recognize gendered labor as an aspect of institutional citizenship. We also recognize the complexity of two white women administrators working to enact practice informed by transnational and intersectional feminist theory. But, we believe the effort is worthwhile even if our own embodied experiences reside in racial privilege. The implications of not doing so are far riskier. Therefore, we focus on how to build a vision of feminist WPA work, centered on co-constitutive and non-hierarchical, reflective and agentive practice. Ultimately, our project was aimed at constructing feminist models for advocacy, and systems and structure changes in higher education, especially in writing programs. This feminist approach foregrounds material and intersectional commitments to labor, that is, building horizontal, coalitional practices within institutional structures where the goal is to build labor equity.  

By reconsidering selections of our own dialogue, we work to make visible our experiences and standpoints in relation to institutional structures and values as well as our efforts of persistence and coalition building. In the following two sections, we include a few extended portions of our recordings together with interpretation and analysis to demonstrate how the feminist process of collaborative reflection helped us identify what agentive practice might look like in feminist, labor-centered WPA work. Here you will mostly see Anicca’s voice, reflecting on the conversations and their meaning for her, while Rachel’s original reflections in our conversations provide the foundation for that sensemaking[1].

Reflection Toward Coalition, Persistence and Power   

In our first conversation together I (Anicca) asked Rachel how she came to be in her current role as a WPA, program director and dean. She said: 

I’m probably one of the few people who got their PhD at GW and stayed. I was studying women’s rhetorics basically with a focus on post-colonial feminist rhetorics, so I was reading a lot of Chandra Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak. 

 I was reading lots of Marxist feminism. So, Marxist feminists coming out of Italy, like Sylvia Federici, so I was thinking about feminist critiques of political economy and how that intersects with rhetoric and how rhetoric creates the ways in which women are embedded and a part of particular kinds of political economies in capitalism. So that’s my sort of intellectual history.  

In listening to this recording, I hear moments where I laugh and interject. I hear myself express how happy I am that we get to do this project and tell Rachel that if she has any recommendations for me, I can make those texts foundational to my (then) future dissertation. What strikes me now in listening is how enthusiastic I was. My own program had little in the way of thinking about political economies and capitalism and the ways in which feminist critique and action might provide an answer to the gendered aspects of systems of power. Because I was and am particularly interested in institutional work and change at the site of writing programs, the reflections she offered on her intellectual history gave me an immediate sense that I would be able to build a praxis for my own ethical commitments to labor in academia from these conversations. Her reflections on her history made me think there was a place for me and my work.  

She continued:  

I was teaching in a writing program that was at that time a part of the English department and then the writing program left, and I was hired full time. Those early years were difficult. We were all new and we had no protection. If you have senior faculty, you have protection. Eventually, one of my colleagues was hired as the executive director. He was the leader for a while and that created some stability, and he was someone who could represent us outside the university. You know, I like the model of the autonomous collective but at a university, it’s really hard. You need a representative. 

This conversation would foreground much of what we discussed and helped me form a set of questions for my own future work. How does a representative act on behalf of others? What are the ethics of that? How is that kind of role a site from which to build power in our work? It was critical to hear the stories of how Rachel does her work as a part of a collective project. That was reflected in the story she told about her own position in coming to direct the writing program: 

I was asked if I would step into the executive director position. I was an interim for two years and then I convinced the dean’s office to turn it into an elected position, instead of an appointed position. And that was for me, extremely important for the program because if it’s an appointed position, the dean’s office can bring in just anybody, like someone who is tenure-track but doesn’t know anything about writing. I was able to demonstrate that we have scholarly chops, and wisdom within the program, and then I was elected by my colleagues as the chair. But, it took a lot of figuring out how we needed to make ourselves in the university in places where people didn’t understand what we are doing.  

So, for me, the work has been the emotional, strategic, and political labor of creating the university writing program as a community in itself, and it is a community that is situated in the university and respected within the university. That took 15 years.   

Here, I saw her able to clearly name the types of work that it takes to be an institutional citizen who thinks about power, about the ethics of leadership, and the emotional investment that it takes to do so. Part of that is her unusual trajectory as a WPA. She directs a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program in the university where she received her PhD and where she is a full professor and associate dean of undergraduate studies, but a non-tenured one. I was struck by how her story pushes back on some WPA scholarship from our own field, which advocates “institutional departure” as one possible intervention to unacceptable working conditions for women WPAs (Yancey 143). Instead, Rachel’s orientation to her work appears in close relationship to her long-term commitment to the geographical area, its surrounding community, and the university community itself. This approach is mirrored in organizing work where long-term commitments to place, to community and organizations often provide the foundation for lasting and meaningful change. I (Anicca) reflected at the time:  

We talked about—feminist time, academic time, and these different scales of time. Many people are dealing with ‘classic’ WPA issues of these intractable institutional challenges, especially pre-tenure. In contrast, your work has unfolded over this long trajectory where progress has been made in terms of how you work across campus, how you work with your colleagues, how you build coalitions with colleagues laterally and vertically. A typical WPA narrative says that institutional challenges are terrible, and you just sit with this terribleness all of the time and it’s just sort of unsolvable? In that regard, your story is different. 

As our discussion continued, we came to understand an agentive practice that leads to success is rooted in understanding the importance of working across departments and units to harness collective power, something Anicca was prioritizing in her graduate program as she did WID work, community-engaged scholarship, and where she served in her graduate student labor union. For Rachel, this cross-unit interaction was especially important to the work of remedying the problem of part-time, adjunct employment and precarity more broadly.  

Even as Anicca now finds herself in somewhat different circumstances—she is newly an assistant professor and WPA on the tenure track in a small, liberal arts institution—she continues to map those questions about power, collective determination, and leadership onto her work. Much of that practice involves cross-unit collaboration and making sure that labor concerns are at the fore in an institution that has never considered closely the relationship between teacher working conditions and student learning conditions. For example, in Anicca’s new position, she has been tasked with leading a group of three other faculty in building a first-year writing program “from the ground up,” devising placement and assessment processes, redesigning a degree program, and fostering a culture of writing across the small campus she works in.  

Anicca has been able to practically apply many of the strategies she learned in discussion and reflection with Rachel, beginning with a focus on the institutional mission of care and support of students to make arguments for labor-equity in staffing. That includes advocating for higher pay, for full time hires, and paying members of her department for professional development, a new practice there. It has also included relationship building with the registrar, student retention and persistence offices, advising, the office of institutional research, the DEI office, and faculty in her own college to build responsive, dynamic approaches to teaching and administration that build on her colleagues’ expertise but do not exploit it.   

Finally, our reflective work was bi-directional. For Anicca, at that time, our work helped her get perspective on her own graduate program and commitments within it, as well as her relationship to a larger institutional structure. Listening to Rachel helped Anicca understand that institutional change work is a worthy and possible endeavor, which came in opposition to some of the WPA literature she was studying. For Rachel, who was on a sabbatical semester and was removed from the day-to-day challenges of her life as an executive director, it was an opportune time, she felt, for a series of structured reflective moments in her work after two decades at GW. She reflected that our conversations were: 

tremendously helpful, particularly because they took place just after I’d been promoted to full professor. Being promoted to full for me was a moment of relief because I’d finally reached a milestone in my career and can now relax a bit. I hadn’t had the time to think about my WPA work in a systematic way because usually I am just too busy DOING it. Conversation [with you], and our shared feminist ethos of care, helped me begin to articulate a vision for what I am actually doing. 

Because we shared the language of labor organizing, which is adept at recognizing and building worker power, we were able to use that as a conversational site for building understanding, both of our own past and present experiences and to foreground our next steps in our institutional work, Anicca’s on the job market and Rachel’s moving into a new administrative position. As Rachel articulated, 

If I think about institutional power, how does the work that I do link up with, and interact with and push at that power? My strategy is feminist but also based on a labor analysis. Over the past twelve weeks, we have articulated the feminist politics through our conversations. The feminist methodology that we’ve employed is not just you listening to me, but it’s drawing out our knowledge of feminist institutional citizenship through conversation that reveal shared interests and experiences. 

Mapping Moments for Agentive Practice and Perspective 

O’Meara’s feminist approach to the study of women faculty demonstrates how they enacted agency in their work in response to what she describes as pervasive “gendered organizational practices” that exact more service and care work from women faculty and how they took up individual agency both in perspective and action to maintain their career trajectories in the face of institutional barriers (331-59). Our work extends O’Meara’s discussion by suggesting that collective practices are a more effective model of feminist institutional citizenship. Feminist institutional citizenship seeks to move beyond individual actors and entails building relationships and capacity within and across institutional spaces to support colleagues who are balancing multiple obligations such as teaching, mentoring students and colleagues, administration and service, care work, and research. As a concept and a practice, it recognizes such labor and brings this recognition to institutional discussions, relationships, and policies (Riedner). In other words, feminist institutional citizenship values waged labor and labor that is unwaged because it is gendered and racialized (Federici Prec. Labor; Kabeer). We believe this kind of knowing is a distinct marker of feminist institutional citizenship, and is more important than ever, in both institutional and political contexts.  

O’Meara notes how agency theory points to building an understanding of how “the framing of situations is a necessary precursor to actions taken” (333). True to our shared experience in labor organizing, we used our conversations to consider how principles of lateral, collectively oriented, persistent, coalitional approaches might better help us understand feminist praxis in WPA work. In what follows we discuss two of those sites or nodes where we mapped agentive practice: program/institutional structures, and institutional mission. We consider how orientations toward persistence, coalition and power (building) are effective toward building institutional change at these two nodes.   

Program/Institutional Structures. Our recorded sections on program/institutional structures included discussions of the persistent difficulty of hierarchies of rank and pay and the role of managerial workers like WPAs. We did so because we both understand that material and social conditions impact our discursive and epistemological ones (hooks). Part of what we uncovered, primarily by first examining how Rachel’s work is structured, points to a reconceptualization of the role of various faculty designations, the agency they have and how their work must unfold creatively and in coalition. By considering the union organizing practice of “power mapping” as a tool, we began to understand how that might be applied to our feminist institutional citizenship work: 

AC: How do you think WPAs can do this work even if they themselves are vulnerable?  

RR: People familiar with union organizing talk about strategies where they may not be able to intervene in the center of institutional power but seek to create different forms of power through coalition building.  In this model, institutional and political change takes place when workers organize collectively. WPAs may think that they are not in a position of authority to challenge centralized, institutional power directly, but institutional power can be created through organizing. 

Our conversations were particularly timely because I (Anicca) was encountering much of this in my own union and programmatic contexts. Graduate unions, (I was at the time helping bargain a contract for ours) for example, tend to be bold in their organizing tactics and often bargain for issues beyond contractually stipulated areas of concern (wages, working conditions, benefits) to include advocacy work aimed at improving the social conditions of graduate education. Institutional labor structures dictate a separation between student workers and student learners but in coalition, graduate unions are able to intervene in some of those distinctions for shared gains and my conversations with Rachel had a direct impact on the strategies I took while at the bargaining table.  

 Additionally, Rachel and I found we both track these collectivist practices to feminist theory and practice. For me that was developed in my experience in feminist political education spaces. It was informed in readings of the work of the Combahee River Collective and feminist historians like Angela Davis, as well as a relationship with a founding member of one of the earliest feminist-artist consciousness raising groups (Wilding). In addition, it arises from my awareness of activist or collective groups like the Lesbian Avengers (Dixon). Making sense of the connection between that kind of collective organizing and WPA work, I noted: 

I’m starting to see that too, (the value of collective action) because we’re doing things like power mapping, and union trainings as a group and thinking about alliance and how to be strategic and I thought, wow, I really could have used this when I was a WPA. The relational place is more natural to me, but the strategic piece is really valuable. And I had no idea how vulnerable I would be as a graduate student; I was unprepared for that. 

Anicca’s work was in a graduate student context concerned with wages and healthcare amongst one academic rank, but Rachel was fighting for labor protections in such a way that much of her approach to coalition happens at the curricular and program design level. At GW, the WID program functions by departments or programs receiving support from the writing program to develop their own notions around effective writing. This orientation is part of how Rachel has enacted her understanding of feminist institutional citizenship, valuing the expertise of a broad range of stakeholders, and coming into coalition with them. Rachel takes that work out laterally and upward across the institution and administrative channels by acting as a communicative node across campus. The work of coalition helps her in power building as well, especially as regards the working conditions of faculty. She explained: 

Right now we are trying to stabilize working conditions for part-time faculty, and that’s really hard, that’s university wide, well that’s in the college. Some others have gotten involved. A thing I’ve gotten really good at is being collaborative across departments. If you have a problem with part-time faculty, don’t just go to the dean’s office, go to the dean’s office with five other chairs.  

That work necessarily takes time. Persistence over time was another key feature we identified to the work of a feminist institutional citizenship and WPA work within institutional structures and mission. Together, we drew from our understandings of labor theory, like solidarity unionism (Lynd), and political action contexts, like the fight for the Equal Rights Ammendment and (some of) the women led suffrage and abolition movements. Collective approaches and persistence over time in feminist frames are critical to increasing agency. This collectivity exists in a complex history, however, as Angela Davis demonstrates, where solidarity in feminist and labor movements are so often fractured by diverging class allegiances and divides between working and middle class/upper class movements as well as by chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing, contemporary racist violence. Nonetheless, solidarity over working conditions over the long term has and continues to be a powerful place for change work, fraught as it may sometimes be.  

Rachel was an organizer for the UAW in the 1990s and explained in our first conversation: 

Union organizing helped me more than anything to take a collaborative approach to institutional citizenship. The skills learned in organized labor are about strategic thinking about institutional power—working from an awareness of institutional power structures, democratic decision-making practices, solidarity and capacity building, utilizing people’s unique skills and abilities, and organizing groups toward action and reflection. 

This type of long-term commitment to strategic modeling of power and relationships within institutions and workplaces is critical to understanding how to effectively engage with colleagues in an organization in an equitable way and aligns to both feminist activism and labor organzing outside the academy.  

Akin to the union practice of “door knocking,” Rachel has been effective through persistence. That work has included persuading others to understand the value of writing in disciplines, but also in other areas of university citizenship like advocacy and pushback built through multiple, repeated, conversations with partners over time.  Rachel explained that her work in relationship and coalition building as well as her awareness of the constant need to question hierarchies and power structures are rooted in that feminist, agentive practice of persistence over time.  

Our conversations helped me (Anicca) make sense of my own union experience as a site of institutional change. Though different in some ways, in that I was negotiating a contract directly, I began to understand how taking a long view of improved working conditions for graduate students might yield the beginnings of change that would continue through partnership, coalition and collaboration on campus. Specifically, our union bargained for social justice gains, like language justice, supports for undocumented GTAs and pedagogy support for BIPOC GTAs. As a graduate student worker, envisioning change across the long-term presents a significant challenge as GTAs are non-permanent.  

Bargaining beyond “bread and butter” concerns for workers is rooted in an understanding of collective liberation, knowing that individual progress alone is never sufficient toward that end. Negotiating and organizing from that stance of persistence, I came to learn from Rachel, increases agency, and is based in the collective good, over time. Specifically, this kind of agentive practice involves a consideration of the generations of workers to come and can inform every level of effective decision-making.  

So much of this work is grounded in relationship building. Relationship building, as Eileen Schell argues, is emotional; it is work that requires constant outreach, listening, communicating, and empathy – as she puts it, “leading through presence as well as understanding” (322). As Ribero and Arellano demonstrate so well, relationship building is a feminist practice in institutional contexts that takes place in response to very real social and structural barriers, labor hierarchies being both. As such, as a non-tenured faculty leader, Rachel’s position necessitates a commitment to speak up, a willingness to listen and take the lead, and the initiative to find creative ways to work with others to push back against institutional practices. For Anicca, in her previous WPA position, much of her time was spent building relationships with non-tenured faculty (against the advice of a department chair), many of whom noted that the tenure stream faculty rarely, if ever, acknowledged their existence or work. Those relationships in turn built capacity for professional development of non-tenured faculty, improved curriculum and improved student outcomes. Such approaches, we argue, embody feminist institutional citizenship because they subvert institutional hierarchies.  

For Rachel, her feminist, collective approach is achieved by relational practice in this way:  

constantly communicating what we do, why it is valuable and getting people invested by building relationships with them. Communicating constantly with administration and everyone possible, getting feedback from people a lot, developing long-term relationships and incorporating their feedback into the work we do. 

Because she views knowledge and expertise as shared, as built in ways that foster participation, she explained that much of her success has come by building actual, deep friendships with colleagues. Institutional citizenship of this kind opens up a space for to not only theorize but to practice these orientations and when triangulated to notions of standpoint (Harding et al.) and communication across difference, is a part of the work of feminist institutional citizenship.  

Institutional Mission. We identified institutional mission as a site from which to orient to direct action for improved working conditions in a feminist WPA framework. In her research on women graduate union leaders, Anicca knew organized labor helps universities make good on their promises of liberatory education (Cox, forthcoming) and the two of us discussed what that means specifically in writing programs. As a rhetorician, the arguments Rachel constructed in her efforts to improve stability for non-tenured faculty (contract length, increased pay) involve appeals to the institutional mission of quality education, explaining that long-term commitment on the part of the institution to its teachers, has a positive influence on student learning.  

Specifically, Rachel understands the incongruity between GW’s notions of global excellence with its unfair pay of part-time labor. She characterized the then president’s attitude as a “dismissive [of] full-time faculty concerns about part-time faculty salaries.” She noted those “include[ed] our concern that GW’s over reliance on part-time faculty impacts our curriculum and impacts student learning.” Her feminist and labor oriented rhetorical approach enabled her coalition to make arguments to solve the problem based on the collective good. She did so by demanding GW be faithful to its mission of excellent education provided to enhance global citizenry, and by arguing that competent and promising teachers cannot stay at GW given the low pay standard. This work represents our model of feminist institutional citizenship because it understands and acts from the interrelationship of ideals and values to groups of people sharing a collective purpose.  

So, when a provost then unilaterally decided to shorten term faculty contracts for five to three years, Rachel pursued strategic pushback from a faculty governance body and through coalition building across tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty. In an alliance she’s built persistently both formally and through friendships, she and her colleagues were able to persuade upper leadership to restore some five-year contracts. This is both feminist and agentive work. She sees the long-term benefits of exercising coalitional power together in lateral ways that impact vertical structures within the university. Simply put, she said, demonstrations of worker power and solidarity have long-term effects on faculty working conditions.  

These tactics, drawn from union organizing, build power over time through the construction of relationships in which employees feel like they have a voice, and where there is mutual support. Feminism engages similar strategies and tactics; the dismantling of patriarchal power structures can take place over time and requires collective action. 

Concluding Our Conversations 

Important critiques of higher education institutions address corporatization and the infiltration of corporate interests, inequitable wage systems, structured, gendered, and racial inequalities, and lack of recognition of the contributions of staff and those who work in service to higher education (Payne; Riedner). Laura Miccichie, for example, documents a “culture of disappointment in academia and its ever-widening scope” (qtd. in Payne 280). While our sensemaking acknowledged challenges and injustice we face in our work, we see the hope presented by a feminist approach of using listening and relational action to create coalitional, horizontal power. We both were seeing movement in our institutional spaces resulting from this stance and our relationship was affirming and deepened both our commitments to it even as it subverts some of the narratives about WPA work that center on intractable injustice, insurmountable obstacles and despair (Riedner and Mahoney). Instead, our feminist framework demonstrated here, focuses on a strategic, active, agentive stance and immerses itself in optimism for our shared futures. We ultimately saw our work as a way to begin to develop a framework for feminist institutional citizenship as a concept and a practice as it pays attention to labor conditions and builds power.  

We also mean to contribute to conversations around the value of feminist mentorship as well and to begin to map pathways through feminist relational practice toward advocacy and activism in our varying institutional contexts. However, we know that presenting our work as a scalable model wouldn’t be faithful to the realities of our labor or of feminist praxis. WPAs already struggle with enormous amounts of affective labor, managerial tasks and advocacy work (Wooten et al.). Building the time for this kind of practice—dialogue and reflection that takes place extra-institionally over an extended period of time—is a challenging ask for many of us.  

Nonetheless, we hope that readers will consider ways in which they might intentionally take up this kind of cross generational or institutional mentorship as feminist institutional citizenship work in ways that work for them and their exigencies. After all, we have much to offer one another from our varying experiences, struggles, and perspectives. Holding intentional structured space for sharing is invaluable. WPA graduate courses, like the one that instigated our our conversations are good starting places, especially for those of us who are concerned with institutional change work. In addition, our professional spaces like the bi-annual Feminisms and Rhetorics conference can be a cross pollination space for these kinds of relationships. With intentionality, existing mentoring relationships can also include this kind of support as people move institutions and career trajectories, so common in WPA work (Wells; Wooten, Babb and Ray). To support those interested, we propose some beginning actions that people might take should they decide to embark on the work of reflective, dialogic, labor-centered feminist work together.  

Coalition: Work together to understand who institutional partners might be in your location. Consider wide ranging coalitional approaches across units, ranks, and other markers of institutional status. Many of the intractable conditions we experience in institutions are located at the interstices of exploitation and isolation between workers. Share stories, reflections and ideas for how you might focus on that kind of relationship building in transparent, equitable ways that take into account the very real interlocking oppressions of race, ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, class and more.  

Persistence: Work together to understand timelines for change. What is shorter and longer term and where is the institutional landscape porous to change? What smaller alliances and relationships might be built into larger ones? How might you make time for the important friendships and conversations that will build solid foundations for change over time? Building friendships is institutional change work, because capitalism seeks always to alienate us from our labor and each other.  

Power (building, understanding, resisting, dismantling): Work together to understand power structures in your institutions and to build worker power. Using organizational charts is an effective way to do this. Share how you might strategically advocate or push back with/on actual people in positions within the institution. Find out who is willing to use their privilege and power to make change and where you might engage your coalition to get decisions made. Acting like you are in a union, even if you are not, is a good framework to adopt because labor organizing work considers the fluid, dynamic nature of institutional power and how to respond and work with it over the long term.  

As Rachel commented in our conversations, “All this is a part of feminist praxis: standing up, standing out, and getting others to stand up and stand out. This praxis pays attention to power, who can say what to whom, and asking them to do that, over and over.”  Such an orientation provides space for developing agency within WPA work. This work is located in feminist approaches to institutional citizenship which in turn builds tools for organizing across spaces and constituencies for better shared futures in our departments and programs.   

Works Cited 

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[1]We have chosen to highlight excerpts from our original dialogue in italics and Anicca’s later sensemaking and reflection in single spaced text written in first-person to provide contrast to the sections where we speak together as authors in the larger body of the text using “we” as the authorial voice and double spaced prose.

Religious Limitations, Mislabeling, and Positions of Authority: A Rhetorical Case for Beth Moore

As the first woman to partner and publish with Lifeway Christian Resources, a Southern Baptist media production company [1], Beth Moore has become a cornerstone of women’s ministry. Garnering international success, Moore has authored nine books and over 20 Bible studies that have been translated in more than 20 languages. Additionally, both Living Proof Ministries’ (Moore’s official ministry trademark) annual “Living Proof Live” events and Moore’s Twitter account with one million plus followers have likewise reached audiences worldwide. This success across multiple mediums and platforms has built Moore’s authority as a mainstream religious figure. Most importantly, this success has come in spite of limitations to her right to teach in Biblical contexts.  

While her work has proven ubiquitous across many religious denominations, Moore remained a faithful member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—a denomination that does not acknowledge or endorse women in pastoral roles—for over 40 years. During this time Moore consistently rejected the title of “pastor,” in accordance with SBC policies that reserve ministerial and pastoral roles to men. Still, her position as a prominent evangelical figure gave her a particular authority to speak out in moments of necessity. Her departure from the SBC in March of 2021 is one such moment.  

Moore’s influence within the Christian sphere establishes her as a dynamic figure in religious rhetoric, in part, because of these limitations imposed on her religious authority. In this way Moore’s success presents an opportunity to recognize that the women’s fight for religious authority is not strictly an 18th and 19th century issue, which has been explored by scholars like Roxanne Mountford (The Gendered Pulpit). Rather, this issue of contesting women’s roles in the church is alive and active in one the largest and most prominent 21st century Christian denominations. In this way, scholars like Stephanie Martin, and T.J. Geiger have published articles featuring Beth Moore, specifically, and her role in raising the issue of sexual abuse, exploitation, and women’s rights to speak out within religious settings. Still, there are more contexts in which to understand Moore’s impact and influence within the evangelical sphere.   

Moore’s official Twitter account is the gateway into bringing feminist scholarship of 18th and 19th century religious women into our current moment. Thus, this essay invites an interdisciplinary audience of feminist scholars to consider Moore’s role as a rhetor and living pioneer of women’s ministry to further expose the ongoing challenges of evangelical women who at once adhere to and challenge limitations to their authority to speak out against abuse within religious settings by looking at key posts from Moore’s Twitter account. Ultimately, this essay argues that Moore’s marriage to and divorce from the SBC provides a new critical lens by which we should explore this role.   

The Authority to Speak: Beth Moore’s Place in Feminist Scholarship  

Throughout her near thirty-year career, Moore has been a leading contemporary representation of the trajectory by which evangelical women pursue the Christian life. Still, her history with the SBC is complicated. Moore worked to develop and lead the rise of women’s Bible studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s to date. Speaking candidly, in early 2020 during an episode of Ainsley’s Bible Study on Fox and Friends about her own experience, Moore stated simply that she “fell victim to a childhood sexual abuse within [her] own home” (“Beth Moore Says”). So, Moore’s opposition to Donald Trump as the SBC’s choice conservative presidential candidate because of his disrespect toward women sparked her proactivity against sexual abuse. For Moore, the leaked audio of Trump’s “locker room talk” [2] should have been grounds to disqualify him from holding office. In a 2016 Twitter thread, part of which is seen in Figure 1 below, Moore summed up her distress by ending quite simply, “We’re tired of it.” (@BethMooreLPM 2016).  


Beth Moore Tweet from October 9, 2016 Twitter thread in response to evangelical support of Donald Trump following leaked audio of his “locker room talk.” Text: “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”

Figure 1: Beth Moore Tweet from October 9, 2016 Twitter thread in response to evangelical support of Donald Trump following leaked audio of his “locker room talk.” Text: “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”

This Twitter thread was not intended as an endorsement for any opposing candidate during that election. Rather, the rhetorical action here is what Stephanie Martin in “Resisting a Rhetoric of Active Passivism” defines as an enactment of evangelical citizenship that promotes women to at once “believe in Jesus and also agitate as agents of change against patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and a long-entrenched evangelical posture that encouraged—even praised— female silence” (321). Indeed, the predominant issue surrounding Moore’s opposition to Trump was whether or not she had the authority to speak at all.   

Throughout a series of Tweets and blog posts over the next few years, Moore continued to go up against the “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women” that she felt was manifesting through the SBC’s support of Trump (Moore “A Letter”). In February of 2019, an “Abuse of Faith” report released by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonia Express news detailed an investigation into sexual abuse and misconduct among SBC pastors, leaders, and prominent members. “2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off,  “don’t tell me more”) or tantalized (moves in, “oh tell me more”),” Moore wrote in a responding Tweet on February 10, 2019 (@BethMooreLPM). As T.J. Geiger in “Forgiveness is More than Platitudes […],” Moore’s point was to “urge [the SBC] to move away from platitude-based forgiveness” if the SBC as a whole would ever uphold their own standards of tradition and doctrine (166). For Moore, this tradition and doctrine is null and void when women of the SBC are marginalized.  

Figure 2: Moore’s Tweet from February 10, 2019, which is her response to the Abuse of Faith report from the Houston Chronicle. The article is linked in her Tweet. Text: “It’s monstrously common for victims to be abused again by one they thought safe to tell. 2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off, ‘don’t tell me more’) or tantalized (moves in, ‘oh tell me more’). Both heap shame upon shame.” 

Figure 2: Moore’s Tweet from February 10, 2019, which is her response to the Abuse of Faith report from the Houston Chronicle. The article is linked in her Tweet. Text: “It’s monstrously common for victims to be abused again by one they thought safe to tell. 2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off, ‘don’t tell me more’) or tantalized (moves in, ‘oh tell me more’). Both heap shame upon shame.”


Important to note here is that though she has consistently rejected the title of preacher, Moore’s critics, particularly those within the SBC, label her as such any time she speaks publicly. The intention behind this mislabeling, and Moore’s understanding of it becomes an interesting point for further study. One example, Figure 3 below, is a Tweet from 2019, which Moore posted in response to fellow Christian author Vicki Courtney. Courtney tells Moore that she would be preaching for Mother’s Day, to which Moore responds that she was “doing Mother’s Day too” but that they shouldn’t “tell anyone this” (@BethMooreLPM May 2019). That both women play on the idea that these preaching engagements should be kept secret illustrate the aspect of rhetorical silencing that the aforementioned mislabeling embodies.  

Figure 3: Christian author Vicki Courtney responds to a Moore Tweet by acknowledging she will be preaching three service at her Southern Baptist (SB) church. It is clear that both women play on the idea that their preaching engagements should be kept secret. Text: Vicki Courtney: “Your PS made my day. (crying-laughing emoji) Yours truly is PREACHING 3 services at a SB church on Mother’s Day. (raising hands emoji) But, shhhhhh. (shushing face emoji) (winking face emoji).” Beth Moore: “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.” 

Figure 3: Christian author Vicki Courtney responds to a Moore Tweet by acknowledging she will be preaching three service at her Southern Baptist (SB) church. It is clear that both women play on the idea that their preaching engagements should be kept secret. Text: Vicki Courtney: “Your PS made my day. (crying-laughing emoji) Yours truly is PREACHING 3 services at a SB church on Mother’s Day. (raising hands emoji) But, shhhhhh. (shushing face emoji) (winking face emoji).” Beth Moore: “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.”


Citing the marginalization of its women as one a key factor, Moore announced her separation from the SBC in April of 2021. This decision to leave the SBC is a rhetorical act that demonstrates Moore’s understanding and utilization of her own authority to speak, or what Martin terms as “renegotiating [her] citizenship” within the confinements of necessity (317). Again, what becomes most interesting when we argue for Moore’s importance as a feminist figure to study is that her career has been built on an ideal of renegotiation.   

Becoming Beth Moore: Teaching, Writing, and the Rhetoric of a Ministry  

As mentioned, Moore capitalized on the available means of reaching her intended audience through teaching women’s aerobics classes and speaking at women’s luncheons. She self-published her first book Things Pondered in 1993 and went on to become the first woman to publish a Bible study for Lifeway Christian Resources. Though this near thirty-year partnership ended after Moore’s separation from the SBC in 2021, her work still lines the shelves in every Lifeway store, alongside the work of other prominent Christian women like Priscilla Shirer, Lysa TerKeurst, and Jennie Allen.   

To illustrate her messages Moore pulls in examples of her own unique life experiences, which includes building a career while attending to motherhood, homemaking, and keeping up appearances. In this way, women from multiple denominations can easily situate themselves within the context of what she is teaching. Today, as Kate Bowler explains in The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, “with over 11 million of her products sold, Beth’s name has become synonymous with women’s Bible studies” (23).   

In 1994 Moore founded Living Proof Ministries (LPM), an organization “dedicated to [encouraging] people to come to know and love Jesus Christ through the study of Scripture” (“About Beth”). Through LPM, Moore has headlined and hosted Living Proof Live events that have reached 22 million women worldwide. In 2008, the first simulcast of one of these events reached “70,000 people meeting in 715 places” at once (Baptist Press). “Moore’s success,” Emma Green wrote in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, “was possible because she spent her career carefully mapping the boundaries of acceptability for female evangelical leaders.” These boundaries have kept Moore within the ideals of the faith that ultimately helped her to create her own authority as an evangelical woman who has been called to reach other women through Biblical study. These boundaries, likewise, accommodate her various rhetorical activities and the ways in which she both understands, pursues, and renegotiates her religious position and authority.

Confronting the Limitations of Beth Moore  

I’m not looking to take a man’s place…  

I’m just looking for my place.  

–Beth Moore, Living Proof Live, Norfolk, VA. 2016  

From humble beginnings as a Biblical aerobics choreographer to amassing various speaking invitations, Moore rose to fame by following her calling: teaching scripture to women. Understanding her own authority in this way exposes the positionality of both her subject matter as well as her citizenship within the evangelical community. Sensitivity to the moment manifests in Moore’s proactivity against the silencing of women in religious contexts. We know that Moore’s rejection of the SBC’s embracing of Donald Trump stemmed from personal experiences of sexual abuse. She saw this embracing combined with other rising allegations in 2016 of sexual abuse with the SBC as a “tolerance for leaders who treated women with disrespect” (“Bible Teacher Beth Moore”). In other words, the marginalization of SBC women was simply not important to leaders on the grand scale. As T.J. Geiger in “Forsaking Proverbs of Ashes” points out, Moore “mobilized a costly rhetorical grace that encouraged spiritually grounded shifts in perception” (324). Summarized succinctly, Geiger clarifies that the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” lies within the application of accountability (“Forsaking” 320). While opposition to Moore’s authority to teach and ultimately speak out from leaders in the SBC operates under a concern of modifying tradition and doctrine, this idea of rhetorical grace allows us to apply a more critical lens.   

On May 22, 2022, a year after Moore announced her separation, “a previously secret list of hundreds of pastors and other church-affiliated personnel accused of sexual abuse” within the SBC was released to the public (The Associated Press). Moore quickly responded. A Twitter thread (Figure 4) from May 23, 2022, shows her frustration. The last Tweet in this thread sums up her main speaking points: “It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with [SBC women]” (@BethMooreLPM May 2022).  

Figure 4: Moore’s Twitter thread the day after news broke of the investigative report concerning the list of SBC pastors and leaders accused of sexual misconduct and abuse. Text: (first tweet) “If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived. You are part of the deception. If you can go on” (second tweet) “your merry way in your SBC organization and carry on like nothing happened and like none of this convention rot concerns you, it will not have been “they” who decayed a denomination. It will have been you. With this I will do my best to close my mouth in regard to the SBC:” (third tweet) “If you can dismiss or explain away this investigative report or do the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, still denying that your men’s club mentality was in any way complicit, my head covering’s off to you. Lottie Moon’s tiny little body is rolling over in her grave.” (fourth tweet) “I loved you. You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.” [Editor’s Note: Lottie Moon was a prominent Southern Baptist missionary who is remembered in the Southern Baptist Convention; each year congregations collect a Lottie Moon Offering to benefit missionary work.] 

Figure 4: Moore’s Twitter thread the day after news broke of the investigative report concerning the list of SBC pastors and leaders accused of sexual misconduct and abuse. Text: (first tweet) “If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived. You are part of the deception. If you can go on” (second tweet) “your merry way in your SBC organization and carry on like nothing happened and like none of this convention rot concerns you, it will not have been “they” who decayed a denomination. It will have been you. With this I will do my best to close my mouth in regard to the SBC:” (third tweet) “If you can dismiss or explain away this investigative report or do the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, still denying that your men’s club mentality was in any way complicit, my head covering’s off to you. Lottie Moon’s tiny little body is rolling over in her grave.” (fourth tweet) “I loved you. You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.” [Editor’s Note: Lottie Moon was a prominent Southern Baptist missionary who is remembered in the Southern Baptist Convention; each year congregations collect a Lottie Moon Offering to benefit missionary work.]

Moore as an Inspiration for the Future of Religious Feminist Study  

It is interesting to consider the ways Moore’s complicated membership in the SBC provides a certain platform on which she establishes her religious authority, particularly as she enacts this authority through her Twitter account. Here, we move beyond the limitations of evangelical women to focus on how those limitations have been used as rhetorical tools in the fight against the sexualization and marginalization of women in religious settings. That is to say that particular aspects of one’s identity remain the same regardless of the circumstances. This is especially evident as we consider an identity that is based on religious faith. It is this religious faith that allows the individual to determine appropriate authority which ultimately depends on a willingness to analyze both the self and the situation. Again, Martin’s idea of renegotiation and Geiger’s point of rhetorical grace become key. Still, we are left wondering where exactly Moore fits not only in terms of her authority to speak but also in her right to be heard.  

Regarding the previous point, Charlotte Hogg offers some valuable insight. In “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope of Care,’” Hogg utilizes the framework of Royster and Kirsch’s “ethics of hope and care” to situate two “parameters that feminist scholars are comfortable with: radical and sophisticated” (392). Explicit and direct challenges to patriarchal and antifeminist systems usually constitute what defines a feminist. Traditionally, and presumptively, these parameters have been attached only to women who have challenged oppression in ways that place them comfortably within particular standards of feminism. Hogg clarifies in the article “What’s (Not) in a Name”: “As the sense of audience shifts for each rhetorical situation, tracing a discernable trend with regard to our nomenclature proves somewhat elusive, though faint patterns do appear” (194). Trends in this way refer to basic understandings; or, to relate back to the first Hogg’s reference, the two parameters most comfortable for feminist scholarship.  

Moore’s departure from the SBC is evidence that adherence to particular Biblical traditions and customs do not exclude today’s conservative evangelical women from dynamic conversations in feminist rhetorics. Perhaps, then, Moore serves as a catalyst for elevating research on 21st century women who achieve mega influence in spite of imposed limitations to their religious authority by the denominations with which they identify; such influence that separating their name from that particular denomination becomes mainstream news. Following the work of Geiger, Hogg, and Martin, we can seek to expand our focus to acknowledge and amplify Beth Moore’s separation from the SBC as a key rhetorical act in the fight against the abuse and marginalization of 21st century religious women. Some questions to ponder, then, are: In what ways did the SBC’s mislabeling of Beth Moore’s role serve to establish her religious authority? With an eye on Moore’s use of Twitter, to what extent does this mislabeling help us to understand Geiger’s idea of rhetorical grace and Martin’s point of renegotiation? Lastly, how does the specific case of Moore’s departure from the SBC help us to better understand mislabeling and limitations to authority? 

Works Cited  

@BethMooreLPM.  “I am one of many…” Twitter, 9 October 2016. twitter.com/BethMooreLPM/status/785126388776873985  

@BethMooreLPM. “It’s monstrously common for victims…” Twitter, 10 February 2019. twitter.com/BethMooreLPM/status/1094718474461605893  

@BethMooreLPM. “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.” Twitter, 27 April 2019. twitter.com/bethmoorelpm/status/1122134785244184576?lang=en  

@BethMooreLPM. “I loved you…” Twitter, 23 May 2022. twitter.com/BethMooreLPM/status/1528741088642596864  

About Lifeway, 2023, www.lifeway.com/en/about.   

“About Beth.” Living Proof Ministries, 2021, www.lproof.org/about  

“Abuse of Faith.” Houston Chronicle, www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/abuse-of-faith/.   

“Beth Moore Simulcast Reaches 70,000 -.” Baptist Press, web.archive.org/web/20110609033935/www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=28704 

“Beth Moore Says Memorizing Scripture Helped Her to Heal from Sexual Abuse.” Christianity Today, March 2, 2020. www.christiantoday.com/article/beth-mooresays-memorising-scripture-helped-her-to-heal-from-sexual-abuse/134342.htm 

Bowler, Kate. The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Princeton University Press, 2019.  

“Events.” Living Proof Ministries, 2022, https://www.lproof.org/events  

Fahrenthold, David A. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewdconversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a3d26847eeed4_story.html.   

Geiger, T.J. “Forsaking Proverbs of Ashes: Evangelical Women, Donald Trump, and Rhetorical Grace.” Peitho, vol. 20.2, 2018, pp. 315-337.  

Geiger, T.J. “Forgiveness is More than Platitudes: Evangelical Women, Sexual Violence, and Casuistic Tightening.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 2019, pp. 163-184.  

Green, E. (2021, May 17). “The Tiny Blond Bible Teacher Taking on the Evangelical Political Machine.” The Atlantic. theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/beth-moore-bible-study/568288/ 

Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope and Care.’” Rhetoric Review vol. 34 no. 4. 2015: 391-408.  

Hogg, Charlotte. “What’s (Not) in a Name: Considerations and Consequences of the Field’s Nomenclature.” Peitho, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017. cfshrc.org/article/whats-not-in-a-name-considerations-and-consequences-of-the-fields-nomenclature/ 

Martin, Stephanie A. “Resisting a Rhetoric of Active Passivism: How Evangelical Women Have Enacted New Modes and Meanings of Citizenship in Response to the Election of Donald Trump.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 106, no 3, 2020, pp. 316-324.  

Moore, Beth. “A Letter to My Brothers.” Living Proof Ministries Blog, 31 May 2018, blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html 

Moore, Beth. Living Proof Live. Norfolk, Virginia. 29 April 2016.  

Smietana, Bob.  “Accusing SBC of ‘Caving,’ John MacArthur Says of Beth Moore: ‘Go Home’.” Religion News Service. 19 Oct. 2019. religionnews.com/2019/10/19/accusing-sbc-of-caving-john-macarthur-says-bethmoore-should-go-home/.   

Smietana, Bob. “Bible Teacher Beth Moore, Splitting with Lifeway, Says, ‘I Am No Longer a Southern Baptist’.” Religion News Service. 9 March 2021. religionnews.com/2021/03/09/bible-teacher-beth-moore-ends-partnership-withlifeway-i-am-no-longer-a-southern-baptist/gclid=CjwKCAjw2bmLBhBREiwAZ6ugo4mpOueGXkGUGq5qNfqgVuXU9T_eWlKMNpeX6MJ__enm87vOhcXILRoCEv4QAvD_BwE.  

“Southern Baptist Leaders Release a Previously Secret List of Accused Sexual Abusers.” NPR, NPR, 27 May 2022, www.npr.org/2022/05/27/1101734793/southern-baptist-sexual-abuse-list-released 


[1] Lifeway Christian Resources was started in 1891 by Dr. James M. Frost after gaining approval and recognition from the Southern Baptist Convention. Lifeway remains “an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.” (About Lifeway)  

[2]An audio recording of Trump making lewd and sexualized comments about women leaked in 2016 during his run for president. Trump denounced the recording, calling the comments simply “locker room talk.” (Fahrenthold 2016)

Unremarking on Whiteness: The Midcentury Feminism of Erma Bombeck’s Humor and Rhetoric

“Did you ever see the women on soap operas iron? They’re just normal, American housewives. But do you ever see them in front of an ironing board? No! They’re out having abortions, committing murder, Blackmailing their boss, undergoing surgery, having fun! If you weren’t chained to this ironing board, you could too be out doing all sorts of exciting things.”   

–Erma Bombeck, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, 1974

Erma Bombeck was a prolific white American humor writer and morning television personality whose writing as a columnist and book author between 1952 and 1996 offered pointed critiques of midcentury social expectations of women and the male chauvinist structures in which they lived. Bombeck began writing a column entitled “Operation Dustrag” for women in the Dayton Journal-Herald in 1952. She became a syndicated columnist in over 500 newspapers and wrote 12 books, all of which offer witty and sarcastic commentary on the life of the midcentury middle-class American housewife. As the cultural revolution of the ‘60s progressed, changing the state of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles, Bombeck also became a public figure of the women’s rights movement and served on Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Advisory Committee for Women in 1978 to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. She famously “got Missouri for the ERA,” which she joked ought to be put on her headstone (Hutner Colwell 75). 

Bombeck’s writing is an apt set of texts for excavating whiteness in midcentury feminist arguments in the U.S. In this article, I conduct a textual excavation by analyzing rhetorical strategies and arguments within three of Bombeck’s best-selling books. The analysis is situated in two scholarly conversations: first, the long history of whiteness in American feminism, of which I share rhetorical examples offered in recent feminist historical scholarship; and second, observations of whiteness as rhetorical strategies in the past 20+ years of antiracist rhetorical studies.  

On the one hand, Bombeck’s writing in general advances basic feminist claims about the humanity of women and their rights to determine their own lives. Some instances of her absurdist humor evidence how her platform reached a segment of conservative or moderate women to convince them of their (and others’) potential and rights. On the other hand, her portrayal of the family, home, community, and daily quagmires of housewives mostly “unremarks” upon race, class, or sexuality. By “unremarks,” I mean that a gap of sorts exists in her writing, the result of which renders her protagonists and their characteristics as assumed to be but not explicitly stated as white, straight, and middle-class. This “unremarking” produces a singular understanding of the “American woman” and the possibilities and limits facing all women in the midcentury.  

To support these claims, after a review of literature on white feminism and whiteness in rhetoric, I analyze several of Bombeck’s essays, which often take the form of shorter vignettes within longer chapters, published in the books At Wit’s End (1965), I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression (1970), and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits? (1971). The purpose of excavating whiteness is to acknowledge the “neutral” role that white as a race plays in texts and its related effects, such as uncritically shaping and furthering white-centric dominant representations, cultural scripts, and understandings of reality. My analysis suggests that Bombeck’s work can be seen as an artifact both of the evolution and the entrenchment of whiteness in American feminist thought. I find that these works’ rhetorical effects reflect and perpetuate long-standing first-wave ideologies, including silence and individualism, into popular midcentury American feminist writing and thought. 

Historical Rhetorics of/as White Feminism 

White feminism has origins in the positions and arguments of early suffragists including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. According to the work of Louise Michele Newman as well as Koa Beck, these leaders employed rhetorics of superiority, of colonizing, and of conquering to prioritize the concerns of white, middle-class, educated women. Their concern primarily centered on political equality and equal rights with men, to the exclusion of different concerns shared by poor, queer, and women of color. In fact, the top priority for these early white feminists was the vote, and their rhetorics minimized other topics of concern through both explicit racist superiority arguments and a more neutral-seeming avoidance of the “race question” (Newman 13). Clara Peta Blencowe argues that these rhetorical moves left Black, poor, and queer women out of the dominant ideology of first-wave feminism, creating a legacy of silence about and silencing of women of color that persisted uncritically through the 20th century and today (22).  

According to Newman, white feminists in Reconstruction-era America no longer considered themselves connected in victimhood with Black men, who gained the right to vote with the passing of the Fifteenth  Amendment in 1869 (12). The women now found themselves trailing behind both Black and immigrant men in terms of civil rights. Newman highlights Stanton’s explicitly racist and classist claims about Black and immigrant men: 

Where antebellum suffrage ideology often emphasized a common victimhood, postbellum suffrage ideology stressed white women’s racial-cultural superiority to newly enfranchised male constituencies – not just Black men, but also naturalized immigrant men. ‘Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,’ Stanton proclaimed in 1869, ‘who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not [sic] read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book. (12) 

This passage exemplifies what Newman identifies as an “imperialist rhetoric,” one that feminists employed to position themselves as superior and worthier of voting rights than people of color (12).  

This same argument is reflected in an 1893 resolution of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under Susan B. Anthony as president. According to Beck, “the resolution dismissed the rights of immigrant men and women, poor, uneducated white Americans, as well as Black Americans on the basis of ‘illiteracy’” (26). A portion of text of the resolution reads: 

There are more women who can read and write than the whole number of illiterate male voters, more white women who can read and write than all negro voters; more American women who can read and write than all foreign voters; so that the enfranchisement of such women would settle the vexed questions of rule by illiteracy, whether home-grown or foreign-born production. (27) 

These superiority arguments are aimed mostly at enfranchised men, and when it came to white feminists’ positions on the political enfranchisement of women of color, queer women, or poor women, suffragists employed a tactic of avoidance and silence/ing that has reverberated over time. Newman notes that between 1870 and 1920, white women found common ground and even “moments of interracial cooperation” based on a Christian influence of compassion of the type that drove some abolitionist activism (13). Still, she notes that“many white leaders dismissed the concerns of Black women – such as miscegenation, interracial rape, lynching, and their admittance to the all-women cars on the Pullman trains […] irrelevant to the woman movement’s foremost goal of ‘political equality of women’” (Newman 13).This is just one example of avoiding and/or silence/ing. Beck offers another more public one: while the official position of the NAWSA was not to segregate, a story about the 1913 Washington Woman Suffrage Procession shows the weakness of that position. Beck cites letters to the editor of The Women’s Journal in 1913 and letters from female students from Howard University to organizer Alice Paul asking if Black women were welcome at the parade, something that had not been outwardly stated either way (26). 

In addition, historian Ama Ansah notes: “During rehearsal, parade organizers released an official order to segregate, with Black marchers being sent to the back of the parade” (n.p.). During the event itself, Ida B. Wells is reported to have stayed back for a time, only to emerge in the front in time to have her photo taken for the Chicago Daily Tribune (Beck 27). She did not stay at the front, however, and despite her act of resistance, the parade exemplifies the “silence” that Beck and others characterize as the dominant position of white feminists (26). 

A few years later, as the founder of the National Women’s Party (NWP) in 1916, Alice Paul stayed silent on (and therefore silenced) the needs of Black, poor, and queer women with her exclusive focus on legislative gains through an equal rights amendment to the constitution. Beck writes, “Paul would go on to maintain her racism and classism in her next political endeavor when she founded the NWP in 1916 […] her insistence on sexism only [as the party’s focus] would be an essential and enduring divide between white feminists and literally everyone else: queer, non-white, and working-class feminists” (29). The amendment would enable white women to advance in educational and capitalistic pursuits, but it would ignore the reality of others’ lives. 

Newman and Beck characterize these rhetorical moves as a strategy of imperialism, dehumanization, and conquering designed to move elite white women ahead and ignore the “daily lives of working-class and poor women – women who cleaned homes, cared for children, and picked cotton” (Beck 39). Beck argues that the rhetoric and organization of early white feminists not only left Black and poor women behind but also, in achieving a legislative victory like the 19th Amendment, “[blamed] other women for not achieving the possibilities that had been secured for white straight women” (29).  

Newman similarly explains: “White women’s use of discourse to empower themselves as central players in civilization-work during the late nineteenth century helped consolidate an imperialist rhetoric that delegitimized dissent from nonwhite and non-Christian women” (15). Even “common commitments” such as temperance and suffrage between white and Black women activists “were not sufficient to override the social and political divisions between Black and white women that derived from the material differences in their lives and that were exacerbated by nineteenth century discourses” (Newman 16). The white focus on equality between the sexes to the exclusion of other concerns became, according to Beck, “a defining characteristic of white feminist mobilization in every successive wave, and foundational to how they would continue to both fight for and envision gender equality” (29). It is this defining characteristic that I observe continues to animate second-wave feminist thought into the twentieth  century through Bombeck’s examples. 

Tracing this trajectory into the twentieth century, Clare Peta Blencowe suggests that feminists like Margaret Sanger turned to the modern scientific discourse of the twentieth century to advance women’s causes as an update to the earlier imperialist rhetorics. Of course, we are now well-aware of the connection between scientific discourses and the violence of eugenics by whites in power. After and because of the Holocaust, Blencowe argues, a shift in thinking away from biological categories of humanity generally and into social construction and identity politics changed feminist thought in the second wave, but did not leave behind the silencing of the first wave (8). 

Beck also traces the shift in white feminists’ focus in the 1970s away from biology to identity politics and self-liberation, encompassed in works by Erica Jong and Germaine Greer. Attention on the self and one’s own experience was a powerful way to bring change to the collective, Beck argues; for instance, in publishing individual stories about having abortions in Ms. Magazine, feminists were able to embolden each other to come forward on behalf of reproductive rights legislation (60). Analysis of the self and one’s own positionality as a woman in the limited roles afforded to women such as wife and mother allowed women “to explore what that existence could be” – including enjoying sex, being other-than-heterosexual, not a mother, and a professional (Beck 60).  

However, there are downsides to this shift that again center white women: first, Blencowe argues that in the second half of the twentieth century, second-wave feminists struggled for clarity around the competing notions of sex (biology) and gender (social construction). For one, part of the second-wave women’s movement was interested in better education about and heightened respect for women’s bodies. Yet, Blencowe notes that since “education” had been a pernicious cover for eugenicists, twentieth century feminists downplayed the historically racist biological notions of women like Stanger (8). That downplaying resulted in a situation in which later generations (like me and perhaps you) simply didn’t know eugenics played a role in the foundational beliefs of, to take an example of a revered early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (14). 

Finally, Beck notes that in the over-attention to the self in feminism, the ideal of moving forward as a collective movement interested in changing social and political structures to better reflect women’s interest faded. In its place stood a focus on individual self-empowerment, which evolved (or devolved) into self-interest and helped to spark the self-improvement industry, a tens of billions of dollars industry that focuses almost exclusively on convincing women of their needs to change in many ways – physically, spiritually, as a partner, as a parent, as a productive worker. In this way, any dreams of women’s liberation that would tackle societal inequities and injustices for all women comes to be overshadowed by capitalistic consumption and success for those who have luxury time and funds to commit to this focus. This is reminiscent of the capitalistic and individual power gains Alice Paul was mostly interested in (Beck 62). Here again we see the first wave informing the second wave in an insidious way that speaks to whiteness and privilege.  

Taken together, the legacy of silence and the evolution toward individualism leads us to the midcentury conditions in which Bombeck wrote. In order to notice unremarkings of whiteness, the next brief section discusses whiteness in rhetorical studies with several examples of how scholars have interrogated texts of various kinds in the manner proposed here. 

Locating Whiteness in Rhetorical Studies 

Definitions of whiteness proffered in rhetorical studies for many years have dovetailed with the interpretations of feminist historical rhetorics covered above as erasure of other than white realities through discourse. In Rhetorics of Whiteness, Tammie M. Kennedy et al. write: 

Whiteness is defined as a term functioning as a trope with associated discourses and cultural scripts that socialize people into ways of seeing, thinking, and performing whiteness and nonwhiteness […] in ways that inform not only a single person’s identity but also identities of cultural groups, cultural sites, and cultural objects, such as texts and technologies. (5) 

Providing further nuance to the ways that whiteness operates in texts, Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek’s “discourse of whiteness,” entails six rhetorical strategies at work: whiteness as majority, whiteness as the absence of markers of “otherness,” conflation of whiteness with color, with national identity, with ethnicity and with nationality (218). These are the ways that whiteness is constructed as normal and invisible, the frame in which the world is always, naturally seen. Rarely are these strategies explicit. 

Accordingly, Krista Ratcliffe’s 2000 suggestion in “Eavesdropping as Rhetorical Tactic” for interrogating implicit strategies that construct whiteness in dominant historical narratives and the history of the field of rhetoric is through rhetorical analysis. She asserts that the trope of whiteness, or the invisibility of whiteness as a racial identity in tellings of history in particular, can become an oppressive force that shapes dominant historical narratives of the future (96). To address this problem, Ratcliffe seeks to interrogate dominant narratives within academic and popular discourse, “eavesdropping on history,” and exposing the trope of whiteness (101). 

In a similar spirit of uncovering tropes of whiteness, Matthew Jackson finds a trope of whiteness in everyday discourse and in the dis-identification with dominant stances of neutrality on the part of whites. He writes: “Part of the problem of whiteness, then, is that it is too easy for whites to assume a position of supposed racial neutrality; we assume that if we are not doing anything overtly racist, then race is a non-issue for us (602). Jackson advocates for speaking up and calling attention to the supposed neutrality or the embedded tropes of whiteness in such areas as, for instance, news reports about Muslim men who are terrorists. He writes: 

Rhetorically speaking, the hegemonic power of whiteness is wrapped up in the power to set the terms of the discourse, to determine the taken for granted rules of society, what counts as a source of grievance in society, and who gets to make a difference. This is often made manifest in whites’ silent agreement not to talk about racism (with its underlying social, ontological, and epistemological premises and assumptions). (626) 

And, although it has been misunderstood and politicized beyond the realm of interrogating whiteness in specific discursive arenas, the work on critical race narratives by Carl Guttierez-Jones in legal studies exposes patterns of Black exclusion in the records of witness testimony. He asserts that white-centric narratives, or “strategic narrative reconstruction that excludes all but the [white] defendants’ perspectives,” historically trump other kinds of evidence at trial (5). A main example is drawn from the Rodney King trial in which the four white police officers’ testimony led to their initial acquittal despite evidence against them such as King’s extensive injuries and video footage. Gutierrez-Jones calls for the use of critical race narratives by legal professionals that expose when and how racial assumptions shape accepted testimony, rulings, and legal precedents. 

Inspired by these observations and methods for questioning whiteness, I offer the term “unremarking,” which refers to what texts and discourses are not saying about race, class, and privilege and what the rhetorical effects of these are. Whether one is discussing historical events, current events, legal matters, or even feminist humor writing, the absence of considering and/or remarking on more than white, “neutral” subjectivities, as these scholars and I also argue, too easily conveys a dominant point of view and understanding of reality informed by white supremacy, which is often taken as neutral and has the luxury of appearing apolitical.  

The term “unremarking” is not a popular coinage, but at least one recent study in mass communication by Nikki Stevens et al., has used “unremarked” as a way to discuss whiteness as the luxury of appearing apolitical in the history of database optimization (114). In their work, they identify that the language used in foundational studies of their field reflects an uncritical, white-centric stance that resulted in allowing whiteness to operate not only as a neutral, but as the ideal. They write: “some of the most prominent works of the database revolution took up ‘whiteness’ as a kind of unremarked optimum— that is, as the prototype or ideal around which database optimization efforts were (implicitly or explicitly) organized” (114). This resulted in database optimization working as a tool for the continued oppression of people of color, disguised as a neutral technological advance. 

Extending this usage, I use unremarking as a way to identify what goes unsaid about race, class, sexuality, and other subjectivities, all important in a contemporary intersectional feminism. In Bombeck’s work, I link what is unremarked upon to the aforementioned legacies of first-into-second-wave feminism: a simultaneous silence/silencing of other-than-white, middle-class realities and a reduction of social action to individual gumption. 

Erma Bombeck’s Humor and Rhetoric 

Bombeck’s books are collections of short essays and vignettes. In a typical vignette, two rhetorical patterns stand out: her use of details and dialogue. Bombeck relies heavily on details of family life, such as kids’ sports equipment taking over one’s house, or each person’s behavior – husband, teenager, etc. – on a family road trip, to portray such events as overwhelming but inevitable for women to undertake with or without patience or grace. In addition, she uses snappy and specific dialogue between characters without much exposition, which keeps the pace of reading brisk, and creates a demand on the reader to “get it” quickly. 

Largely, Bombeck’s reading is fun and witty, her overall project being to elevate the experiences of her readers/housewives by denigrating both the unfair expectations placed on women and her protagonists’ ability or interest in performing housework and motherhood well in the first place. The preponderance of Bombeck’s work pokes fun at homelife to critique the expectations of and attitudes toward women in the midcentury. Moving from the 1950s to the later ‘60s and early ‘70s, Bombeck extends her criticism of the conditions in which women are expected to care about and achieve perfection in the realm of housework to include commentary on political issues of the second wave, including equal rights and birth control. The three books containing the essays I’ve chosen to analyze were published during this period and contain political critiques: At Wit’s End (1967), If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits? (1971), and I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression (1974). 

To offer some transparency on my choices, Bombeck’s writing is quite dear to me. I encountered most of her books as a teenager via tattered paperbacks. She was one of the first nonfiction writers whose purpose I understood, and her writing seemed feminist because it was by a woman, for and about women – even if by the 1990s, when I was a teen with an employed single mother, the 1950s housewife was only a caricature to me. Now, in a time during which I and more white feminists need to analyze for whiteness, I undertook a re-read of Bombeck’s work during the pandemic. These passages stand out in Bombeck’s catalog because of their political nature, and thanks to scaffolding provided by the scholarship cited above, I could notice and articulate how the works unremark. 

Unremarking #1: A Singular Representation 

First, Bombeck’s body of work is predicated on an understanding of the housewife as the caricature easily imagined today, a Donna Reed if you will: straight, white, married, stay-at-home, home-owning mother and housewife. There are some variations on this representation in terms of age of the mother, ages of the children, or stage of one’s marriage, but the premise is stable throughout her vignettes and books. In Bombeck’s characteristic manner, this representation is presented via an intricately detailed story. Consider this comparison to men’s work in a dinner party vignette: 

The fact that housewives are a misunderstood group was evident recently at a cocktail party. A living room psychologist was analyzing women who move furniture every time they clean the house. “Basically,” he announced, “they are women who hate men. They cannot bear the thought of a man entering his home and walking across the floor without cracking his femur bone in three places. Rearranging the furniture is a little more subtle than putting a cobra in a basket by the bed” […] Everyone laughed, but it occurred to me that men don’t really know boredom as women do. If we had offices with secretaries with appointment books you could do our week with one original and six carbons. Same old egg on the plate, same old dustballs, same old rumpled beds, same old one-of-a-color-socks in the wash” (Post-Natal Depression, 152). 

There are a few facets of the housewife’s life to unpack in this vignette, all which must be taken as givens in order for the joke to land: the woman is married to a man and lives a life in which dinner parties are routine – imagine that caricature in her pearls holding a martini. The fact that the man at the party is analyzing the behavior of housewives as men-hating is unfair of course, as he construes them to be the strident feminists of his disdain. This is a joke on the middle-class white man, who is so oblivious to the plight of women that he thinks housewives are the problem and that feminists are a problem in the first place.  

Additionally, the protagonist of the story also realizes that the man doesn’t understand why a woman would move furniture around so much (a number of reasons, though Bombeck hints at boredom), which also resists the idea that women’s actions center on men. Bombeck is astute to present this double critique of the male chauvinist point of view. However, we see unremarking in two ways: if housewives are not truly a threat to men, but some women are – which women? An unremarking perhaps of more strident, public feminists of any race who are not married, do not live in the suburbs, are not middle-class. What is unsaid about the women whose focus is not changing furniture to annoy men? And, when the protagonist admits that the motivation to move her furniture is boredom – a sad comment on the roteness and under-stimulating conditions that gender roles forced upon many middle-class women – one must also point out the assumed class privilege and level of comfort undergirding the protagonists’ complaints.  

Unremarking #2: Obfuscating the Stakes 

As the cultural revolution progressed, Bombeck’s commentary touches on the changing state of the nuclear family, shifts in traditional gender roles, and politically charged topics like equal rights and birth control. Bombeck advances clearly feminist claims through humor, which must be appreciated for its creativity and absurdity: for instance, she frames her pro-birth control argument within a conversation with a pigeon. However, the rhetorical effects of her approach at times obfuscate the stakes of women’s rights for those who have more to lose than middle-class white women. 

For instance, in I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression (1974), Bombeck advocates for equal rights in a mock speech that is both exasperated at the notion of needing to legislate equality and relies on gender stereotypes that women must work through pain, while men are wimps. She writes:  

When women’s lib comes out for Equal Colds, I will join it. […] just once I would like to have my cold given the same respect as a man’s cold […] You’ve heard it sisters, now what are we going to do about it? I propose we initiate federal legislation to make women’s colds legal in all of the fifty states to be protected under a new law called: Bombeck’s Equal Cold Opportunity Bill. The bill would provide that women would receive more than fifteen minutes to get over a twenty-four hour virus. Under Equal Opportunity, her cold would be granted the right to stay in bed and would be exempt from car pools, kitchen duty, laundry, bowling, and visiting the sick. Any husband who degrades and taunts his wife’s cold with such remarks as “maybe it was the pot roast,” or “you’re just bored” or “if it hangs on till spring, you’d better see a doctor” or “get on your feet, you’re scaring the children” will be liable to a fine. (Bombeck “I Lost Everything,” 138) 


The reader is obviously meant to support the protagonist because she is sick and in need of sympathy; however, the mocking of the Equal Rights bill (the ERA having been passed by Congress in 1972 but ultimately stalled) meets Bombeck’s audience wherever they fall on the political spectrum. A conservative could cluck their tongue in scorn if they oppose the ERA or think Bombeck is a radical for backing the bill, and a liberal could shake their head at the unfairness of needing such a bill or the fact that it stalled. In playing to both sides, the joke unremarks on class and power, meaning that it can allow an interpretation by the reader that her life won’t change too much without the ERA – what is not said is that she would need to be a comfortable, middle-class woman for that to be the case. From a 2022 vantage point, we know that plenty of Americans still feel this way. The cold scenario is clever but a little unclear in its politics. 

Absurdity is a Bombeckian trait. Consider her argument in favor of the Pill in At Wit’s End (1965) in which she pretends to interview a pigeon, convinced that the birds are “blocking the break-through of the Pill to American women” because the nation’s efforts to control the birds’ over-population is distracting from the needs of women (128): 

I talked recently with a spokesman — the only bird who knew pigeon English — about the talked-about Pill. ‘Well, if people don’t want us around, why don’t they say so?’ he cooed. ‘I’m sick of this shilly-shallying […] Oh, I suppose we do produce at a rather astounding rate. But there’s nothing else to do up here all day long but fly over parked cars and mess around the statues in the parks.’ I asked him how the women of this country should go about getting The Pill. ‘All I can offer is some advice on how we got to be a menace. We just made our numbers felt in the downtown area.’ (129) 

 In this passage, the pigeons are experiencing the conversation about birth control from the opposite point of view of women — they want to procreate without impediment, while the powers-that-be try to reduce their numbers. On the other hand, twentieth century American women want to impede their procreation, and they can’t get the attention or solution they want. The suggestion at the end of the passage — making your numbers felt — speaks to the need for collective social action. Readers might agree with me that this argument in support of birth control is weirdly funny but subtle to the point of unremarking on the stakes of reproductive freedom for women beyond that white, middle-class housewife caricature. It allows a range of readers with a range of political ideologies to again nod, chuckle, or roll their eyes at several facets of the issue. To me, the treatment here belies whiteness and privilege as a neutral position from which one can observe, rather than be affected by, the issue at hand. 

Unremarking #3: Individualism 

Bombeck is quite consistent in the use of a specific and unique ethos of a loser for her first-person protagonists. The loser protagonist is always wrong, doesn’t look good, doesn’t take care of herself, and is terrible at her house chores. The loser is an outsider to an imagined group of more poised suburban mothers. Bombeck offers this imperfect foil for the reader to laugh at and compare herself against. This is an endearing feature that, when interrogated, places the locus of creating change on individual self-improvement rather than structural change, a distraction of focus in feminist activism that the scholars cited above argue persists today.  

Two vignettes from At Wit’s End exemplify this ethos. The first example touches on feelings of inadequacy regarding intelligence or lack of educational opportunities for the protagonist: 

Even my own children know I’m a no-talent. There was a time when I could tell them anything and they would believe me. I had all the answers […] Then one day recently my [teenaged] daughter asked, ‘Do you know the capital of Mozambique?’ ‘No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it,’ I grinned. ‘Mother,’ she announced flatly, ‘you don’t know anything!’ (41) 

The loser ethos is a way to remark on the conditions of women’s days spent at home with limited intellectual engagement and feelings of being taken for granted. Bombeck also paints the loser as someone who often tries to improve herself through diet, exercise, hobbies, or other self-help advice. Consider an example of improving one’s self esteem: the loser enters the salon and tells the stylist she’s been a little depressed since her baby was born. When asked how old the baby is, the protagonist answers “thirty-four” (39). At the end of the vignette, the woman feels great about her new hairstyle, and the stylist calls her a sex symbol. The victory doesn’t last long, however: “I felt like a new woman as I walked across the plush carpet, my shoulders squared, my head held high. I could feel every pair of eyes in the room following me. ‘Pardon me, honey,’ said [the stylist], ‘you’re dragging a piece of bathroom tissue on your heel.’” (40). Of course, the loser has gotten the attempt at self-improvement wrong as well. 

These portrayals of characters who are not successful but who might be if they tried harder to improve themselves dovetails with one of the key legacies of white feminism stated in the introduction: self-help. In particular, the notion that women’s change efforts can or should be directed one’s self and maybe less on social movements or for the good of others is on display in Life is a Bowl of Cherries, in which Bombeck heads more explicitly in this direction. A more earnest essay, “My Turn,” is less jokey and exhorts women to improve, grow, or change. In it, Bombeck lists famous women who didn’t achieve success until their later years, such as actress Ruth Gordon winning an Oscar when she was 72, or Senator Margaret Chase Smith winning her election at age 51. She writes:  

For years, you’ve watched everyone else do it [such as husbands and children getting their educations and changing careers]. And you envied them and said, ‘Maybe next year I’ll go back to school.’ And the years went by and this morning you looked into the mirror and said, ‘You blew it. You’re too old to pick it up and start a new career.’ […] Or you can be like the woman I knew who sat at her kitchen window year after year and watched everyone else do it. Then one day she said, ‘I do not feel fulfilled cleaning chrome faucets with a toothbrush. It’s my turn.’ I was 37 years old at the time.” (Cherries, 241-3) 

This is an encouraging message but one that elides the consciousness-raising of the midcentury with self-improvement, part of a neoliberal evolution that Blencowe and Beck note of white feminism that has its roots in the early suffragettes’ notion of middle-class success in capitalist terms. The assumptions embedded in self-improvement messages rest on a bootstraps mentality, which offers a limited vision of possible liberated futures other than reaching goals of appearance, intelligence, poise, and personal accomplishment. The onus is on the individual to self-improve, rather than collective action to improve conditions for all women.   

Taken together, Bombeck’s second-wave political essays may not be explicitly racist or exclude women other than white women on purpose, but they do evince silence/unremarking on race, class, sexuality, and other subjectivities, as well as reflect long-standing first-wave feminist rhetorics of whiteness with a focus on the (white, privileged) self.


Bombeck was a popular humor writer and television personality who, on the one hand, used her national platform to (gently) persuade a politically-center, assumedly white audience to accept basic feminist precepts that women’s lives should be improved. Considering where Bombeck’s arguments stop short is productive for the twenty-first century antiracist feminists, since many of us and the women who raised and supported us personally and professionally were likely steeped in something similar to a Bombeckian feminist framework. Erma Bombeck held 30 million readers and the Good Morning America audience in sway from 1952 until her death in 1996. Among those numbers are our grandmothers, aunts, and retired female professors, and maybe their mothers and aunts.

As I have argued previously in this journal, the rhetoric of political, proto-feminist, and feminist women in the mid-to-late twentieth century needs more attention. Megan J. Busch’s recent excellent case study attests that the task is worth undertaking. In her analysis of white second-wave feminist activist Zelda Nordlinger, Busch acknowledges the rhetorical failures of white feminists of the 1960s and ‘70s in terms of listening to and including Black and poor women, including Nordlinger’s inappropriate comparisons of sexism to slavery and segregation that were tone-deaf to racialized women’s experiences (n.p.). Busch notes that Nordlinger’s rhetoric and ethos evolved over time, offering “an example of the growth and the complexity of crafting a feminist ethos before the term intersectionality had a pervasive impact on feminist thought” (n.p.). As I have noted, Bombeck’s point of view evolved over time as well, and she became more stridently politically feminist in the 1970s, although still couched in first-wave legacies, like Nordlinger and other feminists of the time (and now).
When we do turn our attention to midcentury feminist rhetorics, it is also important to resist liberal bias, as Faith Kurtya has smartly noted: 

Research on women’s rhetorics has tended to center on women whose beliefs align with contemporary liberal feminist politics—usually historical figures such as suffragettes, female preachers, and union organizers—and eliding the rhetoric of conservative women [and] responsible feminist rhetoricians in the present and future political climate [need] to be able to see conservative women in their contradictions and complexities. (n.p.) 

Where Kurtya detects a methodological bias in selecting whose rhetorics to study, I additionally suggest that there is an analytical bias toward finding historical and liberal women’s rhetoric empowering in nearly all cases. I have attempted to pump the brakes on reading Bombeck’s feminism as clearly empowering or not uncomplicated by reading closely its strategies and arguments through the lens of whiteness as it discussed and defined in histories of feminism and rhetorical studies. As Busch notes, critiques of our feminist histories and rhetorics will take sustained inquiry into the archives, into the received accounts, and, I suggest, even into the very popular, seemingly well-known tattered paperbacks – to trace, locate, question, and complicate where whiteness goes unremarked.

Works Cited 

Ansah, Ama. “Votes for Women Means Votes for Black Women.” Womenshistory.org 16 Aug. 2018. https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/votes-women-means-votes-Black-women

Beck, Koa. White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind.  Atria, 2021. 

Blencowe, Claire Peta. “Biology, Contingency and the Problem of Racism in Feminist Discourse.” Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2011, pp.  3-27 

Bombeck, Erma. At Wit’s End. Fawcett, 1965. 

—. I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. Fawcett, 1970. 

—. If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? Fawcett, 1971. 

Busch, Megan J. “Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger.” Peitho, vol. 24, no. 1,  2021.

Gutierrez-Jones, Carl. Critical Race Narratives: A Study of Rhetoric and Injury. NYU Press, 2001.

Hutner Colwell, Lynn. Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist. Enslow Pub Inc, 1992. 

Jackson, Matthew. “The Enthymematic Hegemony of Whiteness: The Enthymeme as Antiracist Rhetorical Strategy.” JAC, vol. 26, no. 3-4, 2006, pp. 601-41. 

Kennedy, Tammie M., et al. Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education. Southern Illinois UP, 2017. 

Kurtya, Faith. “Hitting the Limits of Feminist Rhetorical Listening in the Era of Donald Trump.” Peitho, vol. 23, no. 3, 2021.  

Nakayama, Thomas K., and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.” Quarterly  Journal of Speech, vol. 81, no. 3, 1995, pp. 291-309. 

Newman, Louise Michele. White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. Oxford, 1999. 

Ratcliffe, Krista. “Eavesdropping as Rhetorical Tactic: History, Whiteness, and Rhetoric.” JAC, vol. 20, no. 1, 2000, pp. 87-119. 

Stevens, Nikki, Anna Lauren Hoffmann, and Sarah Florini. “The Unremarked Optimum: Whiteness, Optimization, and Control in the Database Revolution.” Review of Communication, vol. 21, no. 2, 2021, pp. 113-28.  

White-Farnham, Jamie. “‘Were Those Bad Times for Women or What?’: The Practical Public Discourse of Mary Leite Fonseca, Massachusetts State Senator, 1953-1984.” Peitho, vol. 16, no. 2, 2014. pp. 168-182


Introduction to the Fall 2022 Issue

Cover art: “Our Secret,” by Mike Edwards 

 Mike Edwards (https://preterite.net) is an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Washington State University in Pullman. His work has appeared in Pedagogy, Rhetoric Review, and a number of edited collections. His scholarship focuses on the intersections of rhetoric, technology, composition, and economy. He likes cats. 

Greetings from the Peitho editorial team! This issue marks one year of Clancy and I leading the journal! In addition to day-to-day tasks of keeping the journal fresh, relevant, and fierce, we have been working on creating processes that align with our commitment to anti-racist practices, improving our submission and reviewing processes, and working to make the journal more accessible not only on our site but also in databases. With our new editorial board, our constantly hardworking team, and our soon to be announced associate editor, we see that Peitho is going to thrive! But we need our readers’ continued support too. Please fill out (and share with your feminist colleagues) our reviewer interest survey. We rely on our feminist community to act not only as supportive peer reviewers but also mentors for prospective authors. Our current list is a bit out of date. Over the past years, many of our reviewers may have developed additional research, teaching, and service expertise, and there are always new folks entering the conversation. We’d like to know who you are, what you are doing, and how you’d like to engage with the Peitho community.  

In this Fall 2022 issue of Peitho, feminist approaches to agency, context, and genre thread across the essays and demonstrate the dynamic and broad feminist inquiry that scholars continue to bring to the journal. Read together, authors in this issue invite readers to consider rhetorical nuances by re-seeing and re-examining the agentive writing of individual women students (“Student Writings as ‘Mutt Genres’ and ‘Unique Performances’), the popularity of the well-circulated and celebrated book Persepolis (“Global Mobility”), and the rhetorical uses of shame and affect (“Unsticking Shame”). These essays demonstrate the importance of feminist rhetorical scholars working at various scales and the need for scholars to consider contexts. In this issue’s case, this means examining local writing and composition pedagogy within the context of one university in the mid-west USA, tracing rhetorics of shame in a US-national context, and questioning the transnational perceptions of the Iranian Revolution in a book that has been incredibly popular for US and European audiences.  

In Azadeh Ghanizadeh’s essay “Global Mobility and Subaltern Knowledge: A Transnational Feminist Perspective on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,” she lays bare the often unexplored complex historical and feminist contexts of the well-circulated (especially in first-year writing curriculums) book Persepolis. In doing so, Ghanizadeh draws attention to how US and European-feminist audiences often celebrate the book for its feminist and multicultural story of migration and Iranian identity. However, as Ghanizadeh suggests, rhetorics of Islamophobia and Eurocentric feminism weave through Persepolis and thus limits US and European audience members’ understanding of the complexities of migration. Moreover, such rhetorics perpetuate misunderstanding about people and cultures different from our own. As she argues, these rhetorics are shaped by histories of capitalism, colonialism, and cosmopolitanism, making them fascinating for US and European audiences who are interested in stories about exile and subaltern identities while not demonstrating these discursive limits for the very people they impact. Ghanizadeh asks us as readers to re-see and re-examine the affinity of stories like Persepolis. This essay is timely given the protests in Iran against strict veiling laws that have come in the wake of the murder of Masha Amini, a member of Iran’s minority Kurdish group, at the hands of police for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Amini’s murder is just one of many examples of the violence against women, particularly women protesters, currently unfolding in Iran. 

While Ghanizadeh is concerned with audiences’ needs to understand the nuance of popular stories about subaltern women, Sarah Polo, in “Student Writings as ‘Mutt Genres’ and ‘Unique Performances,’” looks at how women students write against and with common rhetorical and composition conventions. She uses the archive of one student at the University of Kansas in the early 1900s to show how women students developed savvy rhetorical skills and agency that responded to (and even critiqued) their writing instruction. As Polo details, the student’s unique uptake of genres shows a shift from the teaching of rhetoric to the teaching of composition and in doing so she asks her audience to re-see and imagine how students developed agency through their writing. Polo’s nuanced reading of the archive points to the complex ways that student writing and their “mutt genres” helps readers revise the history of composition. 

Like Polo, Hannah Taylor considers how participants of the Braving Body Shame Conference similarly use rhetorical skills to carve out agency and in doing so help rhetorical scholars re-examine how they have analyzed rhetorics of shame. Shame, according to Taylor, has been flattened in rhetorical theory. Taylor shows how participants in the conference have usefully redefined shame by attending to it not as monolithic and flattened feeling but rather as a recursive process that can be generative and agentive. By drawing readers’ attention to the nuances of shame and recontextualizing as it as agency, Taylor offers feminist scholars grounded and fruitful examples of how to reconsider rhetorics of shame. Taylor ultimately ends with a call for scholars to ground their analyses of women and their rhetorical acts “as characterized by those women,” shifting feminist rhetorical methods toward thinking about the dynamics of agency. 

A Note on Copyright (and Accessibility) 

In the past, Peitho has provided only PDF versions of articles. Then, for a time, we had both web and PDF versions of articles, and then only web versions. Recently, under the leadership of our Web Coordinator, Kelli Lycke, we have been offering both PDF and web versions of articles again. We do this for two main reasons: first, we sometimes get inquiries from people who are putting together portfolios for tenure and promotion, and they would like a PDF of their article with the journal’s formatting and branding. Second, and more significant, for accessibility: PDFs offer more flexibility for screen readers – apps like Speechify allow users to download PDFs and listen to them without needing an internet connection. Kelli is leading the effort to design front matter for the PDF version of the journal, and copyright is part of that.  

When I (Clancy) first applied to be an editor of Peitho, I was thinking about my time in graduate school, when I first became passionate about open access scholarship. I wanted to be a part of Peitho, especially because it is free and open access, meaning no subscription fees are required and no paywalls, logins, or other barriers to entry exist. When I was in graduate school, during the height of the blogosphere, some of us mounted an informal campaign to pressure rhetoric and composition journals to adopt Creative Commons licenses, and several did: Kairos, Computers and Composition Online, and The Writing Instructor. Now, we are pleased to announce that the issues of Peitho during our term as editors will have a CC-BY license, or Attribution license. That is considered the gold standard of open access, meaning that we grant permission in advance for Peitho articles to be reprinted in edited collections, archived on other websites including institutional repositories and course websites, as well as permission in advance for adaptations, including translations into other languages and audio recordings. We hope that, observing the process of shared governance including input from the Peitho Editorial Board, Coalition Advisory Board, and Coalition Executive Board, we may eventually revise the Peitho bylaws to adopt a Creative Commons Attribution license permanently.  

Student Writings as “Mutt Genres” and “Unique Performances”: The Course Papers of Kate Hansen, Spring 1900

Recent feminist historiographies in the field of Rhetoric and Composition continue to yield nuanced understandings of the past rhetorical practices, including those engaged in by women, people of color, and other marginalized subjects and sites. Ranging from book-length studies to chapters in edited collections and scholarly articles (Enoch; Gold and Hobbs; Ostergaard and Rix Wood; Schultz), our understandings of writing, broader rhetorical practices, and marginalized subjects continue to grow. Within Peitho’s own recent issues, particularly poignant examples of archival studies of women’s rhetorical practices include Julie A. Bokser’s reclamation of women’s contributions to the 1893 Columbia Exposition, Liz Rohan’s examination of the writings of students Mabel and Max, students using Jane Addams’ service-learning methods at the Northwestern University Settlement in 1930, and Marion Wolfe’s exploration of women’s missionary society publications.  

In many recent feminist historiographies, the origins and evolution of Rhetoric and Composition itself is a frequently recurring thread, including with regard to formalized writing instruction. Within Lori Ostergaard and Henrietta Rix Wood’s 2015 collection, In the Archives of Composition, Edward J. Comstock’s “Toward a Genealogy of Composition: Student Discipline and Development at Harvard in the Late Nineteenth Century” provides such an origin story. To do so, Comstock builds on past composition historians and primarily cites Carr, Carr, and Schultz, Connors, and Kitzhaber. Rather than composition emerging as a response to capitalism and the need to prepare students for the workforce, as James Berlin contends, with a pedagogy marked by repetition and rote practice, Comstock argues that what is actually going on in writing classrooms at this time is not a “decline” in writing instruction (202), but instead a shift “from the classical pedagogy of ‘mental discipline’ to the pedagogy of body discipline” (186).[1] Further, this shift is actually one that uses modes and significant practice in writing more heavily and beneficially centers students and their experiences: “Now the student, and his or her development, becomes the location where knowledge is formed. By making the disciplined body the site of disciplinary knowledge, the student becomes, in fact, the subject of writing[…]” (Comstock 194).  

As evidence, Comstock analyzes samples from an archive of student self-reports which are “written in response to a question asked of all students taking English courses (including the Lawrence Scientific School and Radcliffe College) by the [Harvard English Faculty Committee of Composition and Rhetoric] in 1869” (187). Comstock’s examination of these Harvard students’ self-reports provide not only insight into the shift from the old rhetoric to the new composition, but also provides an opening for new ways to view student writing produced in actual courses around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  

In this article, I use Comstock’s framework as I focus on the writings of one woman student, twenty-year-old Kate Ingeborg Hansen. Hansen was enrolled in a course titled “Advanced English Composition” at the University of Kansas in the spring of 1900, a course that was co-taught by Edwin M. Hopkins and an Assistant Professor, Raphael D. O’Leary. In contrast to Hopkins, who is a well-known figure in Rhetoric and Composition due to his advocacy for fair labor conditions for writing teachers[2], Hansen is a figure unknown to the field, a seemingly-ordinary student pursuing an education. Born in 1879 as the daughter of an American mother and a Danish political refugee father, Hansen was the eldest of six children. Hansen first came to KU along with her brother, George, to obtain a teaching certificate (though she returned again in 1903 to complete a Bachelor’s degree) (Bales et al. 110). Hansen went on to become a career-long missionary and music teacher at the Miyagi College in Japan, eventually becoming the dean (“Guide to the Kate I. Hansen Collection”). 

Although she would later go on to achieve these feats, Hansen’s writings for “Advanced English Composition” were produced when she was only twenty years old, a regular college student just beginning to make her way in the world. Her forty-two handwritten assignments for this course are archived at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, the special collections library of KU. These papers comprise just one folder within the thirty-six box collection, which was donated by a female relative (“Guide to the Kate I. Hansen Collection”). While another student’s notes from an earlier iteration of the course do exist (Margaret Kane, Spring 1899), Hansen’s writings are the only known assignments submitted for the course to be preserved, and they have not been a subject of study in previous rhetoric and composition examinations of KU. This study of Hansen’s writings, particularly the ways she responds to genre-based assignments, is therefore all the more significant, as it presents an opportunity to engage with a rare archival find, further verify Comstock’s theory regarding the shift from rhetoric to composition, and reinforce research about student use of genre. 

Searching for Student Writings; Finding Kate Hansen 

In her 2002 College English article titled “The Platteville Papers: Inscribing Frontier Ideology and Culture in a Nineteenth-Century Writing Assignment,” Kathryn Fitzgerald opens by stating that her work investigates “a kind of writing not usually deemed culturally significant—school assignments” (273). Indeed, this notion that school assignments and student writing are typically not viewed as valuable is confirmed by other scholars. Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon, for instance, note that locating teachers’ assignments and student writings responding to them is challenging because students often did not save their writing and teachers lacked the space to store all of their students’ writings indefinitely (7-8). Robert J. Connors suggests that freshman composition writings in particular may not have been viewed as valuable by student writers, and therefore not saved (“Dreams and Play” 58). Julie Garbus points out that this lack of value may extend to the level of the archive, as well, since “institutional archives tend to show a preference for the papers of committees, administrators, and professors over students (Sullivan 365, 366; Moon 2-3)” (564-5). Given student writing’s low status on the hierarchy of preservation-worthy documents, within the eyes of the archives, instructors, and perhaps even students themselves, it seems all the more important to carefully examine and prioritize student writing from the past when we are so lucky as to find it. 

In addition to their rarity, Hansen’s writings also have the unique feature of having been “labeled” with the course and assignment title. Though some of Hansen’s writings lack specific labels for their genres, a notion discussed below, the full range of explicitly-labeled genres in Hansen’s papers from Spring 1900 include: descriptions, exercises in paragraphing, an exercise in outlines, a definition and synopsis, an exercise in editorial and news paragraphs, an exercise in letter writing, an exercise in theses, exercises in briefs and brief-making, exercises in refutations, an exercise in brief and amplification, an exercise in characterization, a theme, and an oration. Although Hansen’s papers do contain brief feedback and scores that appear to be from her instructors, I do not explicitly analyze them in the scope of this piece. Hansen’s papers alone are a treasure trove of insight, with topics ranging from things like “The Greatest Need of the University of Kansas” (a new fine arts building) to a “Description of a Library Chair.” Working at the intersection of archival research and rhetorical genre studies, this article performs a case study of this woman’s responses to writing instruction and her performance of Comstock’s “rhetoric vs. composition” through the genres she composed. 

Combining Comstock’s framework for approaches to writing instruction emerging in the late nineteenth century with contemporary understandings of genres, I argue that Hansen’s course papers demonstrate Comstock’s theory of the struggle that students evidenced when trying to mesh rhetorical training with the new mode requirements for composition, creating what Elizabeth Wardle refers to as “mutt genres” (774).  This article explores Comstock’s framework through the guise of student writing (rather than students’ self-reporting about their writing), and in doing so, contributes to our understandings of the ways that students attempted to navigate the use of older rhetorical practices within the confines of the new “composition,” which in turn encouraged the production of mutt genres.     

I proceed by first detailing this conception of genre and its intersections with archival research, focusing in particular on the concept of uptake. Next, I situate Hansen’s writings within their particular local context, drawing heavily on other archival materials. Afterward, I move to a detailed analysis of her papers themselves. 

Combining Genre Studies with Archival Work 

In order to undertake this analysis of Hansen’s work through Comstock’s lens, I utilize the concept of genre furthered by rhetorical genre studies. Within our field’s expanding range of archival studies, genre is utilized by some histories, though in varying degrees. For some of these scholars, genre is a briefly-mentioned term used to label a specific form of writing (see Lowry; Mannon). And certainly school-based writings more broadly, including those that came to prevalence with the increase in what some historians have termed “current-traditional” or rhetoric or “composition-rhetoric”, have been a focus of some scholarship (see Schultz; Connors, Composition-Rhetoric). In contrast, genre plays a much more dominant role in some archival scholarship on women’s writings and rhetoric. Particularly exemplary examples include: Wendy Sharer’s use of genre to look at bulletins from the Women’s Bureau; Suzanne Bordelon’s analysis of Louise Clappe’s use of genre to construct ethos in The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852; and Risa Applegarth’s examinations of women’s vocational autobiographies in the 1920s and 30s, which women used to push against the strict separation of personal and professional identities of the day and allowed women to disrupt “professional spaces of labor” (531). These examples demonstrate that genre can be of particular utility to feminist scholars engaged in recovery work.  

While these examples clearly demonstrates that genre is, as Dara Rossman Regaignon notes, a useful “tool” for engaging with “historically distant texts” and that many scholars’ usage of genre aids in their ability to perform highly rich, successful analyses of women’s archived writings, little scholarship exists that uses genre to explore women’s rhetorical educations in formal school settings (141). Perhaps the clearest examples take place in Fitzgerald’s work with archived student papers at the Platteville Normal School in Wisconsin (“The Platteville Papers”; “The Platteville Papers Revisited”). The forty-four student papers that are the subject of her analyses are authored by seniors at the Platteville Normal School in 1899 to “commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Wisconsin’s statehood” (“The Platteville Papers Revisited” 117). Using conceptions of genre by Carolyn Miller, Carol Berkenkotter, and Thomas Huckin, Fitzgerald is able to demonstrate that the genres of these student papers are simultaneously empowering and constraining (“The Platteville Papers Revisited” 133). Thus, even though Fitzgerald’s analyses contribute to a fuller understanding of writing instruction in normal schools, they also have implications for our understanding of the generic nature of student writing. 

Miller argues that the definition of genre should be based on the action the genre accomplishes and defines genres as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (159). This conception of genre provides a lens for viewing student writing—whether historical or contemporary—as situationally-embedded rhetorical actions. The set of archival documents this article examines—Hansen’s forty-two course papers—constitute particular genres of writing, ones which Hansen was expected to produce to successfully complete her “Advanced English Composition” course. Hansen’s writings are typified in form and in function. That is, these texts are similar in features and in purposes to other writings of the same genre. Even so, rhetorical genre studies recognizes the role of individuals in selecting, using, and shaping genres. Amy Devitt writes that recent genre scholarship “recognizes and helps to account for the variation that necessarily occurs every time someone performs a genre in a particular text” (2). This variation within genres occurs because “genres are at once shared and unique” (Devitt 2). Devitt continues,  

Each performance of a genre demonstrates its degree of prototypicality, disciplinary membership, historical moment, authorial identity, and many other qualities shared with other members of its category. Yet all of those sources of variation gathered together cannot account for the unique text that an author performs in a unique moment in a unique rhetorical situation, its unique action carrying out a unique communicative purpose through a unique process. In the end, each text is a unique performance. (2) 

I extend this same consideration of genres as “unique performances” to the writings of Kate Hansen, examining her course papers not simply as evidence of the genres students produced, but, more significantly, as evidence of her unique response to writing instruction as she worked to straddle her sense of rhetoric with that of composition.  

In addition to the notions of genres as social action and unique performances, a closely-connected and useful concept is that of uptake. Anne Freadman describes uptake, a term from J. L. Austin meaning the “bidirectional relation” between texts (“Uptake” 40), using the metaphor of tennis players exchanging shots (“Anyone for Tennis?”). According to Freadman, genres need to be understood as series of uptakes or “interaction[s]” (“Uptake” 40). Summarizing Freadman’s conception of uptake, Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff explain that uptake is “The ability to know how to negotiate genres and how to apply and turn genre strategies (rules for play) into textual practices (actual performances)” (85). In other words, uptake is both knowledge and application of genres; it is understanding the “rules” for negotiating meaning as well as carrying these rules out within “textual practices.” Part of this negotiation relates to genre selection, of which Bawarshi and Reiff write that “knowledge of uptake is knowledge of when and why to use a genre; how to select an appropriate genre in relation to another or others; where along the range of its uptake profile to take up a genre, and at what cost; how some genres explicitly cite other genres in their uptake while some do so only implicitly, and so on” (86). Uptake, then, can be understood in part as the phenomenon by which individuals and groups select genres to employ based on their memory and understanding of which genres are appropriate to given situations, as well as the individual composing decisions users make within the genres they select, including possible deviations from genre norms. In other words, uptakes are individual uses of genres, resulting in Devitt’s “unique performances.” 

Since Freadman’s initial work, rhetorical genre studies scholars have continued to articulate and add nuance to the notion of uptake and the ways in which processes of uptake occur, and several features of uptake as articulated within this scholarship make it a fitting lens for my own study of the writings of Kate Hansen. First, uptake is frequently utilized in rhetorical genre studies scholarship to examine writing within academic settings, a context in which Hansen’s writings belong. Reiff and Bawarshi, for instance, consider the antecedent genre knowledge that students bring to their first-year composition courses. One implication of their study advocates that instructors should attempt to disrupt their students’ “habitual uptakes,” such as by assigning tasks that begin with metacognitive exercises that ask students to reflect on their prior knowledge (Reiff and Bawarshi 331-332). Likewise examining contemporary students’ utilization of genres in the first-year writing classroom, Heather Bastian describes the usefulness of uptake in that it “allows [her] to highlight the ways in which the individual as well as genre and context influence how writers take up texts and make use of their discursive resources” (“Capturing Individual Uptake”). To make largely invisible uptake processes more visible, Bastian employs “disruptive pedagogical interventions” within her study by giving students a writing task but not specifying the genre in which they are expected to complete it. As work by Reiff and Bawarshi and Bastian indicate, genres scholars are concerned with the cognitive processes by which students recall and select genres to achieve desired outcomes, as well as the ways in which instructors can assist students with that process.  

A second important facet of uptake relates to the subjectivities which uptakes reinforce. In “Acknowledging the Rough Edges of Resistance: Negotiation of Identities of First-Year Composition,” Melanie Kill explains the fittingness of uptake for describing students’ positions in the university: 

If we understand the academic writing of first-year students to be largely delimited both by these students’ position within the university and by the materials and assignments provided to them, this formulation [uptake] seems to describe their situation quite well. To participate successfully in the academic and intellectual communities to which they are presumably pursuing entrance, they must write in genres, and thus assume subject positions, for which they might not yet understand the motivations or possibilities. (219) 

Thus, more than just the selection of genres and strategic composing decisions within selected genres, Kill’s conception of uptake draws attention to the risks and affordances of particular genres through the subjectivities they construct. Kill’s focus on subjectivities and the ways which genres and uptakes of genres construct student identities within the university is particularly fitting to my study of Hansen’s writings, as her uptakes of required genres necessarily position her within the academy in particular ways and demonstrate Comstock’s sense of students straddling the old rhetorical training with the new composition. Importantly, though, Kill notes that this positionality does not mean that students are completely without agency (219). This is something confirmed in the studies above in which instructors study their students’ individual uptakes and create tasks designed to encourage new, productive uptakes.  

Thus, by studying Hansen’s work closely, I gain an understanding of how she accepts, resists, or transcends her positionality as a woman student via her particular uptakes. Like most students, Hansen wrote within genres that she was required to produce for successful completion of her “Advanced English Composition” course. I explore Hansen’s particular, individual uptakes, her “abilit[ies] to know how to negotiate genres and how to apply and turn genre strategies (rules for play) into textual practices (actual performances)” (Bawarshi and Reiff 85).  

Before situating Hansen’s course papers within their local context and their embodiment of Comstock’s framework for the shifts in writing instruction that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, it is important to consider the specific generic nature of Hansen’s set of course papers. The genre labels that appear on some of Hansen’s papers—and likewise, the genres these papers constitute—provide evidence of Wardle’s “mutt genres” (774). Mutt genres are those which writing teachers assign which “mimic genres that mediate activities in other activity systems, but within the [First-Year Composition] system their purposes and audiences are vague or even contradictory” (Wardle 774). In other words, mutt genres are those that only exist within the context of composition courses. Though Wardle is speaking specifically of modern-day assignments in FYC courses, this very much is the case for some of Hansen’s papers as well, particularly since many are labeled as “exercises” in various genres, rather than just the genre names alone. They are similar to what Amy J. Lueck, citing Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, calls “‘boundary-blurring items’ in the archives…which are those that do not easily fit in the categories of diary, scrapbook, commonplace book, and so forth” (384). Thus, Hansen’s writings can be understood as school genres that might not necessarily perform a full function outside the context of the classroom but that are nevertheless deserving of careful study for what they can tell us about her uptakes and what these moves can demonstrate about disciplinary shifts in composition.  

Situating the Old Rhetoric and the New Composition: Writing Instruction at KU & “Advanced English Composition” 

Next, it is important to situate Hansen’s writings within the local context in which they were produced. Throughout this section, I strive to frame secondary scholarship on KU history and material contained within the university’s archive through the lens of how they relate to Hansen and her “Advanced English Composition” course, seeking to center this woman and what affected her work as a writer. These primary and secondary sources promote an understanding that the writing curriculum at KU was systematic and rule-governed; likewise, they show a writing faculty who were aware of the labor-intensive nature of writing instruction and actively sought to make that work more manageable. Students, then, were expected to abide by those rules and expectations. Further, and perhaps explaining this rule-governed emphasis, the writing instruction occurring at KU at this time is illustrative of the same kind of shift Comstock and others say was going on at elite, eastern schools as they moved from the old rhetoric to new writing instruction. The result of this was often the production of mutt genre writings such as Hansen’s. 

The University of Kansas officially opened in Lawrence, Kansas on September 12, 1866 (Griffin 33). Archival materials documenting the history of the Department of English show that it consistently sought to create clear systems for managing the grading of student writing, particularly as it moved away from a more rhetoric-based curriculum to the newer writing instruction, which was much more likely to involve frequent, repeated writing exercises, “a system of daily written work” (Comstock 193). KU underwent a number of curricular changes in its early history, but courses in English had remained a requirement throughout each of these shifts, as Skinnell points out (Conceding Composition 9). Offering these courses became more challenging as enrollments at KU continued to grow. Enrollment numbers totaled 1150 in 1899-1900, the year of Hansen’s “Advanced English Composition” course. By this time, the Department of English faculty listed in the university catalog included two full professors (Charles G. Dunlap, Professor of English Literature, and Edwin M. Hopkins, Professor of Rhetoric and English Language), one associate professor of elocution and oratory (Charles Vickrey), and two assistant professors of English (Raphael D. O’Leary and H. Foster Jones) (1899-1900 Course Catalogue 65-6).[3]  

In addition to rising enrollments, the difficulty of managing the teaching of writing was further compounded by the forensic system in place at KU. David R. Russell broadly defines the forensic system as “various college wide writing requirements from entrance to graduation, which endured in the curriculum until 1900 at Harvard and elsewhere into the 1920s” (Russell 51). After moving away from a system of orally-delivered rhetoricals, KU moved to a forensic system beginning in the 1886-87 school years. KU’s forensic system consisted of themes, theses, and forensics. A daily (or near-daily) theme, as Comstock notes, is very much “an artifact of the classroom with only an arbitrary relation to ‘outside’ forms of communication. The system was legitimized in the institution to the extent that it made intelligible the development of the student him/herself, and vice versa” (193). Students were, in effect, regularly producing mutt genres for their themes and other assigned genres.  

While the distinctions between these three genres of writing within the forensic system are not always clear[4], each of them were graded by Department of English faculty (and, most likely, manuscript readers). These required writings within the forensic system certainly contributed to the labor required of Department of English manuscript readers and faculty, including Hopkins and O’Leary, the co-instructors for Hansen’s “Advanced English Composition” course.  

Due to the quantity of text that students produced in the new composition-based program, the Department of English had to find ways of making the work of grading forensic system writings more sustainable. To help manage this work, the Department of English published its English Bulletin for the first time in 1894. This booklet was written by the department and appears intended to be read by all students engaged in English coursework (which itself also sometimes included the production of themes, theses, and forensics) and all students engaged in forensic system writings as required by their individual schools. The 1899-1901 English Bulletin opens by articulating its purpose, remarking heavily on the “need of a system” for handling its immense number of themes, theses, and forensics received by the department (8).[5] The Bulletin remarks that 

The English Department receives each year from 1,100 students about 45,000 pages of manuscript aggregating nine million words, requiring for critical reading and correction the equivalent of four years’ labor by a single reader working four hours per day, which is the limit of endurance for such work. Only by making it as systematic as possible can it be done at all; and it is evident that in the handling of such a mass of material every detail, however minute, is of importance [. . .] every student is required, by careful attention to these instructions, to aid the department in the most burdensome part of its duty. (1899-1901 English Bulletin 8) 

The Bulletin goes on to detail its systems, including providing criteria such as exact specifications for paper size and folding methods to follow, precise “superscriptions” to write on the outside of completed work, and protocols and locations for submitting work, picking up graded work, and re-depositing it again “for permanent filing” (1899-1901 English Bulletin 9-10, 17).  

Further, much like a contemporary handbook, the English Bulletin also provided expectations for quoting and citing material and constructing bibliographies and structuring outlines (1899-1901 English Bulletin 11-12, 13-14). Much like a modern syllabus, the Bulletin also provided late work submission policies, office hours, and a grading system and scale (English Bulletin 18). Thus, the Department of English at the time of Hansen’s “Advanced English Composition” courses had very specific procedural expectations for the submission and handling of student work in their writing courses and in their completion of themes, theses, and forensics, and the English Bulletin served as a genre through which those expectations could be conveyed. 

And so, in addition to preparatory requirements that aimed to standardize the courses, textbooks, and content that students were taught prior to enrolling at KU, the English Bulletin suggests that the department sought to be systematic and rule-governed in its approaches to receiving, responding, and returning student work once they were fully-fledged students fulfilling their forensic system requirements. In this way, similar to what Comstock observes at Harvard, “training in writing becomes disciplinary and largely physical” (189). 

By the time Hansen was a student at KU, individual schools within the University set the requirements for their students. Hansen’s school (the School of Fine Arts) and her specific Pianoforte program required that she take “Advanced English Composition.” Although courses in the Department of English were frequently restructured in the years surrounding Hansen’s course, in 1899-1900 the course was grouped within English B, “Rhetoric and English Language,” relating more strongly to rhetorical and language concerns than to literature. For Hansen, a student in the School of Fine Arts, this course was required, and she opted to take it during the second semester of her first year (Hansen enrollment card). 

The ways in which Hansen’s “Advanced English Composition” course is described varies somewhat across the documents and genre systems of the university and department. The course description for the class in the course catalog during the year of Hansen’s course describes it as “A study of the general theory of all forms of discourse, with copious original exercises” (119). Within the English Bulletin of 1899-1901, the course is a “Study of the forms of discourse with reference to structure and style; lectures, exercises, reference reading, and seminar” (6). These descriptions of the course are helpful in shaping an understanding of the course, and they reflect an emphasis on repeated, “copious” writing exercises that seem more about “disciplining of the body” using routine than “training of the mind” (Comstock 189). But how did students—in particular, women students—actually respond to the instruction they received? What did they actually write? What were their unique performances of the genres they were expected to produce? These are questions that university/departmental documents such as the course catalog or the English Bulletin cannot answer. 

Analyzing Kate Hansen’s Course Papers 

I now move to an examination of the forty-two course papers archived at KU’s Kenneth Spencer Research Library which Hansen produced for her specific “Advanced English Composition” course in the spring of 1900. Each of these papers is handwritten with pencil on lined paper, and each is labeled with a superscription and folded in half, as the English Bulletin indicated was required. The information contained in the superscriptions of Hansen’s papers are highly valuable for a study of her writings. Students’ superscriptions were required to list the following: “First, the subject of the paper; then, in this order: the writer’s name, the writers’ class, and the date of presentation” (1899-1901 English Bulletin 10). Hansen’s superscriptions are most often full and complete, and their dates provide a clear indication of the order in which her papers were submitted throughout the course. The earliest paper’s date is February 2, 1900, and the latest May 28, 1900. Only four of her papers are missing dates within their superscriptions.  

While determining the precise genres students were expected to produce is not always possible, in many cases, clues to the genres in which Hansen composes are likewise provided by her papers’ superscriptions. Twenty-seven of her papers’ superscriptions include a title, while fifteen of Hansen’s papers lack this exterior title. In these cases, I rely on the title that appears at the top of the interior first page of the assignments. These titles in either Hansen’s superscriptions or her papers’ interior first pages frequently provide what I call genre labels, named indications of what genre she was asked to write. For instance, her February 25 paper is titled an “Exercise in Editorial and News Paragraphing,” which indicates that Hansen was asked to produce the genre of editorial and news paragraphs, or at least exercises closely connected to the imitation of these genres. As described above, the range of labels present within Hansen’s paper set suggest that students in “Advanced English Composition” were required to write within a wide variety of genres, some of which were certainly mutt genres brought on the by the movement from the old rhetoric to the new composition. These pieces contain those “purposes and audiences” Wardle describes as “vague or even contradictory,” and they appear to only exist within the context of a composition course (774). Of Hansen’s forty-two papers, eleven do not contain a direct indication of their intended genre via a label.  

Remaining Within Genres 

Hansen’s course papers demonstrate that she often remained largely within the conventions of the genres she was expected to produce. When I use the term “within,” I mean that Hansen takes up the assignment and produces a text that appears in keeping with the form and function of the genre she has been assigned to produce. This is often evident based on expectations presented in the English Bulletin because, although Hansen’s writings in her paper set are for her “Advanced English Composition” course and not for the additional forensic system writings to which the Bulletin most often directly refers, it is logical that her instructors maintained many of the same logistical expectations for the writings produced within the courses they taught.  

My analysis of Hansen’s course papers demonstrates that there are three primary overarching genres in which Hansen makes no obvious deviations from the genres’ form, content, or function, instead maintaining the “habitual uptakes” expected by the assignment, and each of these certainly function as mutt genres that do not exist outside classrooms: outlines, briefs and refutations (refutations are identical to briefs, yet involve arguing for an opposing claim to the one presented in a brief), and descriptions (Reiff and Bawarshi 331). In her outlines, for instance, which discuss topics such as “What I think of Being Vaccinated” or “Some Advantages of Eight O’Clock Classes,” Hansen follows the parameters and models provided in the English Bulletin to carry out her own outlines for “Advanced English Composition” (Hansen, “Exercise in Outlines” 1; Hansen, “Some Advantages” 1; 1899-1901 English Bulletin 13). Likewise, in each of her briefs, Hansen begins with a clear thesis and then follows with outline-like structures, detailing reasons that the thesis is true, another expectation presented in the Bulletin. Some thesis statements which begin her briefs include: “Industrial education should be given a place in the public schools,” “The study of German is preferable to that of Latin,” “All teachers in country schools should be required to pass an examination in music,” “Students should not study on Sunday,” “Students in college should help frame the laws by which they are governed,” and “Undergraduate students should devote themselves to a single line of study” (Hansen, “Exercise in Briefs” 19 Mar 1900 1; Hansen, “Exercise in Brief-Making” 21 Mar 1900 1; Hansen, “Exercise in Brief-Making” 23 Mar 1900 1; Hansen, “Exercise in Brief-Making 25 Mar 1900 1; Hansen, “Exercise in Briefs” 27 Mar 1900 1; Hansen, “Exercise in Briefs” 11 Apr 1900 1). 

However, even within these mutt genres for which Hansen performs seemingly normal uptakes, she frequently includes clear traces of her own interests and experiences, as well as her past experiences. For example, nearly all of Hansen’s arguments in her briefs connect closely to the subject of education, a subject Hansen has an investment in as both a former educator in rural Kansas schools and as a current student herself at KU. Only one brief’s thesis, “The poet makes use of his earlier writings in his Latin works” does not directly address education or students (Hansen, “Exercise in Briefs” [4 Apr 1900] 1). Likewise, some briefs showcase Hansen’s knowledge of the German language. In other words, the briefs Hansen produces are still unique performances of those mutt genres because they reflect her own interests and experiences; her uptake of writing instruction to produce these very mutt-genre-esque briefs that are largely about repetition and following prescribed rules does not preclude her ability to do so in ways that are unique to her as an individual.  

Further, Hansen’s papers demonstrate that her engagement with assignments relies on her personal interests even in genres that would not necessarily require student writers to draw on the personal as the basis for their work. To return to Hansen’s briefs to illustrate this, the personal connections Hansen utilizes do not appear to be required components of the form and function of briefs as established in the English Bulletin, which instead appear very logic-based, requiring an argument and evidence or proofs. However, writing within the genre of a brief seems to intrinsically require an insertion of the self and an investment in the selected proposition or thesis. Hansen must have familiarity with the argument she presents in order to readily and successfully convey it. As such, Hansen’s use of personal connections within her briefs does not seem to constitute a deviation from the genre. Or, at least, having familiarity with her topic and argument serves as an aid and makes producing a brief more feasible. This notion of making academic tasks more personal is similar to observations made by Sue Carter Simmons in her study of Radcliffe student Annie Ware Winsor Allen. Simmons argues that Allen, who was likewise writing for male professors, was able to learn and eventually manipulate the academic discourse she was taught to “[transform] the hostile curriculum she met into a more personally fulfilling one that enabled her to meet her own goal of becoming a school teacher” (270). In this way, Simmons demonstrates that Allen made use of her daily themes—themselves a genre—to help achieve her own educational and personal goals. Though it is not clear if this was likewise a motivation for Hansen, it is clear that Hansen’s affinity for taking up genres in ways that draw on her personal interests and experiences spans across genres, and doing so appears to allow her to more readily enact the mutt genres she was expected to produce.  

Pushing Against Genres 

While Hansen’s enactments of the genres of outlines, briefs and refutations, and descriptions most certainly demonstrate her working within these mutt genres in expected ways, as well as using her personal interests and experiences to assist herself in doing so, she engages in other kinds of uptakes, as well. There are other clear instances in her writings for “Advanced English Composition” that instead show her pushing against the mutt genres she was expected to produce. Hansen is not a passive recipient of writing instruction and the bodily discipline teaching methods that Comstock demonstrates were becoming the new method of writing instruction at the end of the nineteenth century. I illustrate this by providing examples from Hansen’s work where she either expresses difficulty with producing specific genres or where she uses genre imitation in ways that show her understanding of mutt genres’ forms and function, yet also her manipulation of them to evoke humor. 

Challenges in Completing Writing Tasks 

First, there are instances in Hansen’s course papers in which she attempts to take up the mutt genres she has been assigned to produce but expresses her difficulty with doing so. On April 23, Hansen submits an assignment—one whose contents reveal is the genre of a theme—titled “One Student’s Directions for Cultivating Cabbages.” This assignment opens as follows: 

The cultivation of cabbages! Dire dismay overwhelmed the mind of at least one long-suffering student, when this subject was announced. “What do I know about the cultivation of cabbages?” she exclaimed. “I never cultivated a cabbage in my life! I do not know if cabbage grows from a seed or a bulb!” For two days she worried over those cabbages. She searched every nook and corner of her brain for “subject” or “theme material”, but she searched in vain. She annoyed all her friends with questions about cabbages. They knew but little more than she did. She obtained only two bits of information which she thought of any value- the first, that cabbages do not grow from bulbs, and the second, that the plants must be transplanted to make them grow well. But that could never be made into a five hundred word theme, she thought. At last, into the gloomy emptiness of her brain there flashed a dangling light. It was, an idea- at last. “Now,” she thought, “I have been studying reasoning for these past six weeks, and I surely ought to know something about it. Why should I not reason out the proper manner of cultivating cabbages?” She did so, and here is the result of her reasoning […] (Hansen, “One Student’s Directions” 1) 

In this theme, Hansen spends nearly half of her two-page assignment expressing the difficulty she has with completing this writing task. Narrating her pre-writing process, she begins by explaining that she took an inventory of her already-held knowledge. Finding nothing useful to aid her in writing about cabbages, she writes that she then consults friends, which yields some information, yet not enough for a “five hundred word theme,” which is apparently the required length for her paper. After narrating this process, she claims that she draws on her skills of “reasoning” to write the remaining page of her two-page paper (Hansen, “One Student’s Directions”). 

Hansen’s meta-commentary on the difficulty she has with completing this assignment, as well as the percentage of the whole theme that these commentaries take up, show her engaging in uptakes that seem out of keeping with the genre of the theme. The English Bulletin, previous student Margaret Kane’s 1899 course notes, and Hansen’s other themes suggest themes instead ought to begin with a clear focus or point and then proceed in a logical order to address that focus or point. Instead, Hansen devotes substantial time and space to overtly describing why she has difficulty carrying out the assignment. The challenges Hansen faces in taking up this theme are certainly valid—she simply does not know how to cultivate cabbages. But Hansen’s use of the theme itself to describe those challenges pushes against the form and function of the genre she has been assigned to compose. Like the students at Louisville Girls High School described by Lueck who produce or even sign their school memory books (394-9), Hansen recognizes the expected uses of genres while also noting and even pushing back against those same genres’ constraints. This demonstrates her rhetorical savvy when faced with a composition-based task. 

Hansen’s expressions of difficulty with writing tasks are most obvious in this theme on cultivating cabbages. However, shorter commentaries on the challenges of taking up her assignments likewise occur in other papers. In her April 25 paper titled “Two Games of My School Days,” Hansen is apparently tasked with describing games she played as a child. She opens her essay by saying that 

It is indeed a difficult task to go back in memory to the games of childhood. The distance is so great, that very few objects can be recalled with sufficient accuracy for the present scientific investigation. Vague pictures, scraps of verse with their accompanying monotonous chant, one or two names- these are all that now remain. Here is one of the verses which come to me: […]. (Hansen, “Two Games of My School Days” 1) 

Hansen next provides two verses that appear to be nursery rhymes, after which she further elaborates on the lyrics and the actions that accompany them. Hansen could have omitted this opening and moved directly to providing these verses; instead, she chose to open the paper by expressing the challenge this assignment presents. This may be because she feels these “verses” are not in keeping with the “games” her paper’s title suggests she was instructed to write.  

In this paper, as in “One Student’s Directions for Cultivating Cabbages,” Hansen seems to want to produce her assignments in ways consistent with her assigned tasks. But when she feels she is unable to do so successfully, she modifies the genre’s contents to instead devote (sometimes substantial) length to explaining the challenges she encounters. She may do so for a variety of reasons, such as to expand her papers’ lengths to meet their requirements, or perhaps in order to ensure her readers, Hopkins or O’Leary, are aware of the challenges she faced (and perhaps not grade her harshly for remembering verses but not actual games). Or, like the Louisville Girls High School students who Lueck studies (398), Hansen simply has anxieties and difficulties in composing in this new (mutt) genre. For whatever reasons, Hansen’s uptakes may push against the specific assignments with which she is tasked, showing that although she was a recipient of the new composition and the bodily discipline that came with it that Comstock describes, doing so does not mean Hansen did not struggle or engage in uptakes that are individual to her own experiences.  

Using Genre Imitation in an “Exercise in Letter Writing” 

In addition to expressing difficulty with her writing assignments, Hansen subtly pushes against the genres she has been assigned through a use of humor or playfulness. While many of Hansen’s papers demonstrate this usage of humor, it is particularly well-illustrated in her March 9 “Exercise in Letter Writing.” This example is also especially interesting because letters themselves are real-world genres, not classroom mutt genres; however, the ways in which Hansen choses to compose this particular letter shows that she still recognizes the artificiality of a letter-writing exercise; she realizes that she and her classmates are writing letters that will not actually circulate outside the classroom. 

Hansen’s “Exercise in Letter Writing” is dated “Lawrence, Kans. March 9, 1900” and addressed to “Mr. J. S. Bach, The Seventh Heaven.” Hansen writes: 

Most Honored Master:- A poor student, who for the past six months has been laboring, with ardent devotion, but alas! all in vain, to gain some conception of the meaning of your wonderful Inventions and three part Fugues, ventures to address you, the Master, alike of past, present, and future music. Words are indeed inadequate to express my admiration for those sublime compositions. They are also inadequate to express my opinion of the labor involved in mastering them. O, Master, We work so faithfully: we practice, “one, two, three, four,” regularly as the clock ticks, for four weary hours every day. We think we understand your meaning; we go to class full of confidence. We play one measure, or perhaps, in rare cases, two; then our instructor, hard-hearted as he is, interrupts- tell us it is all wrong, that we have not the slightest idea of your meaning, and in short makes us feel that we never can attain any understanding of your works, no matter how we work. We wish, so earnestly, that we might see you, and year you tell us what to do, and how to express your thoughts- But what do these Inventions really mean? One voice says something; then another one begins, then a third one interrupts- All three keep on, each one with a different something to say, until it seems that neither is saying anything. So they keep on quarreling, arguing, disputing. Sometimes one stops for a measure or two, apparently for lack of breath. Once in a while, although rarely, two agree for a measure enough to follow each other in thirds and sixths. Finally, with a last parting thrust, they die away one after the other. Is that what you think people do? Is this meant to be a philosophy of life? Or is it just so much “exercise for the independence of the fingers?” Forgive the presumption of the questions, dear Master, and set at rest the mind of one who is well-nigh distracted with these confusing, conflicting “voices.” With all humility, Your disciple, Hansen Ingeborg Hansen. (Hansen, “Exercise in Letter Writing” 1-2) 

In this letter, Hansen describes the difficulty she has with learning Bach’s musical compositions. This letter clearly shows a connection to Hansen’s own interests as a piano student in the School of Fine Arts. 

Aside from taking up the genre in a way that connects to her personal interests, Hansen’s uptake of the letter genre is significant in that she has addresses it to a non-living recipient. Other features of the letter seem in keeping with the genre: the structure of the heading, paragraphs, salutation, and closing all seem to match the form of a personal letter. But the actual content of these features shows Hansen crafting an imaginative, humorous letter, one addressed to long-deceased composer Johann Sebastian Bach who resides in “The Seventh Heaven,” entreating him to reveal the purpose of his complex musical compositions (Hansen, “Exercise in Letter Writing” 1). In these ways, Hansen shows her understanding of both the form and function of a letter; in this sense, she is writing within the genre and engaging in expected uptakes. However, these modifications to its form and function may likewise show her ability to imitate the genre, to use it in playful ways that do not fit its real-world function. Hansen may also be pushing against the constraints of a fairly prescriptive genre and looking for ways to exercise creativity or choice within those constraints. This is her “unique performance” of the genre (Devitt 2).  

On a deeper level, Hansen may be showing a keen understanding of the artificiality of classroom writing assignment genres, even ones that aren’t necessarily mutt genres. She may recognize that she does not need to write to a living person in order to successfully complete her assignment. Thus, being a recipient of the new, much more disciplined composition does not preclude her abilities to take up genres in her own unique performances. 

Moving Beyond Genres 

Hansen most frequently writes within the genres she is assigned as part of her course. And there are occasions, as I demonstrate above, in which Hansen may even push against the genres she is required to produce. It’s clear that, although a woman being taught by men in a time when teaching writing was becoming more disciplined and rule-governed, Hansen is not a passive recipient of writing instruction, but rather a unique individual engaging in unique performances and uptakes of her assignment genres. In this final section, I analyze ways in which Hansen may do more than write within or against genres. In the two examples that follow, I argue that she may even write beyond genres, utilizing the genres she has been required to write within “Advanced English Composition” in ways that expand beyond their intended forms and functions. In each of these examples, while I have no reason to believe Hansen did not actually engage in the activities she claims she did, the possibility should be acknowledged that the writing Hansen produces were products of her imagination. 

Writing Beyond Genre in “An Experiment in Artistic Observation”  

On May 7, Hansen submits an untitled paper slightly over three pages in length whose interior title is “An Experiment in Artistic Observation.” Unlike most other papers, Hansen opens this one by directly identifying the writing task she has been assigned: “We had been assigned as a subject for composition, ‘A Night in the Deserted House.’ Not being possessed of sufficiently vivid imaginations to manufacture a story about it, and never having been in such a place, several of us were at a loss what to do” (Hansen, “An Experiment” 1). Hansen and her friends have apparently been assigned to construct a paper—perhaps a theme—related to this subject. Though the genre is not completely clear from this opening, it does seem that this assignment requires students to use their “imaginations” to construct this piece of writing. 

Next, Hansen discusses the plan formulated by herself and some fellow students, who she identifies only by their first initials (M., B., and R.), to accomplish this work. She writes that “At last M. had a brilliant idea. ‘Why not go there tonight?’ Four of us agreed to try it. The owners of the place looked surprised at our request, and cast some unkind reflections on our common sense. However, on our explaining our object, they granted us the desired permission” (Hansen, “An Experiment” 1). Hansen and her three friends find their assigned task to be challenging, and, in response, they apparently actually go to a deserted house. The remainder of Hansen’s paper recalls their experience, which includes their arrival at the deserted house, their surveillance of it, and their splitting up to spend the night in separate rooms within it, “In order to make [their] impressions more vivid” (Hansen, “An Experiment” 1). Hansen manages to fall asleep, during which time she experiences a terrible nightmare. She is awakened by a loud noise (which her paper later reveals to be one of her friends falling out of their hammock) that scares Hansen and her companions, many of whom then flee the deserted house (Hansen, “An Experiment” 1-3).  

Hansen turns in this assignment for “Advanced English Composition,” and she titles this experience “An Experiment in Artistic Observation.” Again, this title that Hansen writes at the top of the interior first page of her assignment is quite distinct from the assignment Hansen says in the beginning of the paper’s body that she and her classmates have been assigned to write. She writes that “We had been assigned as a subject for composition, ‘A Night in the Deserted House,’” and that it is supposed to be written through use of the imagination alone.  

Hansen’s construction of her ethos within this paper is interesting. On one hand, her movement well beyond the genre she has been assigned to complete shows somewhat of a disregard for the instructions she has been given. However, she is careful to include an indication in her paper that she and her friends did ask permission to stay in the house, and that they were not trespassing or breaking actual laws in modifying their assignment to actually go to a deserted house. Even so, Hansen identifies the sex of at least one of her friends accompanying her on this excursion as male. As such, Hansen spends at least a portion of the night in the house with other male students, a mixing of company that likely would have been frowned upon in 1900.  

While in papers such as “One Student’s Directions for Cultivating Cabbages” or “Two Games of My School Days” Hansen expresses her difficulty with carrying out her writing tasks, and while in “Exercise in Letter Writing” she carries it out in a humorous, genre-imitating fashion, in this “Experiment in Artistic Observation” she moves well beyond the task she has been asked to undertake, and does so using a complicated construction of personal ethos that likely would not have been raised had she remained “within” the confines of the original assignment. Scholar Brad Peters describes his own student’s use of a different genre to accomplish a writing task an “antigenre” (201). Likewise, as Peters says may be the case of his modern-day student, Hansen may “[feel] a need to conceptualize and articulate what she knows about a topic in a new way,” one other than the genre that has been assigned (Peters 201). Rather than imitating or playing with the assigned genre, Hansen experiments with a new genre to achieve her purposes. 

Not only is the genre very different from what she is assigned, but so are Hansen’s methods for completing it. Whereas “A Night in the Deserted House,” Hansen’s actual assignment, asked that she produce a fictional account based on her imagination (and it is possible that is what she did), Hansen and her friends certainly appear to instead enact first-hand field research. Rather than construct their papers from their imaginations, as Hansen’s opening suggests they were asked to do, they actually go to a deserted house to be inspired and gain material for their assignment, moving beyond the assigned genre and task in both their writing process and their final writing product. Comstock argues that the previous rhetorical instruction was about training students’ minds, while the newer composition was more about disciplining their bodies; in this example from Hansen’s papers, the separation between the two is not so clear and may actually be a combination of each. 

Writing Beyond Genre in an “Oration” 

Hansen’s decision to alter the parameters of her assignment in order to produce “An Experiment in Artistic Observation” shows her taking up the assignment in a unique way, though one apparently shared by her three friends. But there is one other instance of Hansen writing well beyond the genre she has been asked to complete. 

On May 28, Hansen submitted the final paper contained within this collection of her “Advanced English Composition” papers. This “Oration” is one, according to the line following the main title, that Hansen “Delivered Before the Freshman Harmony Class.” The full transcript of this oration is as follows:  

Miss President, ladies and gentleman [sic]:-  

It is indeed a sorrowful occasion which calls us together. For nearly nine months we have had toil and suffering in common. Our brains have vibrated in unison as we labored to calculate the ratios of the vibrations in a chord of the augmented sixth. The most violent discords have not disturbed the concord of our relations with our esteemed instructor. Without a word of complaint we have robbed ourselves of our much-needed sleep, which we strove to rid our exercises of parallel fifths, augmented seconds, and doubled leading tones. We have strained our ears to comprehend the difference between consonances and dissonances, until our whole existence seemed to be moving to the time of a diminished seventh. With unmixed patience we have striven to understand the mysteries of mixed chords. With unalterable determination we have wrestles with the difficulties of altered chords. Dominated by the one desire to do our whole duty, we have not shrunk from the multitudinous array of dominant discords. These were comparatively easy. But what shall I say of our last month’s work? it is unnecessary to speak of that; for the pale face, in which the lines of care are all too deep, the tired eyes, the attenuated forms before me bear a far more eloquent testimony than I could every do, to the devotion with which we have given ourselves to the last task-master, the subject of modulations. We have succeeded. Even our professor admits that. The family of keys is to us as our own kindred. The relative minor of the dominant, the opposite mode of the relative minor of the sub-dominant, present no more difficulties to use. Direct extraneous modulations, consecutive dominants, enharmonic exchanges, have become as integral parts of our minds. We have avoided no part, however abstruse or mystifying. At last, our labors seemed about to be ended. it would be only one week, and then freedom, for had not the chancellor decreed it. Do you remember our rejoicing? Alas, that it was in vain! Soon there came to use the awful news, that when all the other schools had ended their work, when all the other students, happy in their release from quizes [sic] and “cramming,” were hastening homeward- we alone were to be compelled to remain, in order to prove our possession of this dearly-bought knowledge of ours. No matter, that our instructor already knows we possess it. Classmates, you do not need to be told that this is unjust and injurious. You all agree that such cruelty must not be. For the sake of our health, which will surely give away under the strain of that extra day; for the sake of our faithful work in the past; for the sake of Harmony in every sense, I move that we present a petition to our instructor, most humbly begging and entreating him to spare us that last crowning ordeal. (Hansen, “Oration” 1-3) 

This particular paper is likewise transcribed in the biography of Hansen written by Dane G. Bales, Polly Roth Bales, and Calvin E. Harbin, though the only commentary or analysis Bales, Bales, and Harbin offer is to say that it was a “good-natured student protest” (117). The situation surrounding this particular assignment is somewhat complicated: Hansen claims that her “Freshmen Harmony” class worked exceptionally hard to learn a difficult set of chords, finally succeeding in doing so. However, even though all the other schools had dismissed for the semester, the Harmony instructor announced the students would still be quizzed on the material and need to “prove” their “dearly bought knowledge” (Hansen, “Oration” 2). Hansen’s oration is an address to her fellow “Freshmen Harmony” classmates (including a “Miss President”), asking them to stand together and petition the music professor for a release from this final exam.  

At the end of this paper, Hansen includes the following parenthetical comment on the outcome of her oration: “The motion was carried unanimously. The petition was written in the most touching style. But the hard-hearted professor, instead of being moved to compassion, seemed only amused at our suffering. The quiz will proceed” (Hansen, “Oration” 3). In other words, Hansen was successful in getting her classmates to agree to petition their instructor for a release from the exam. They then did so; however, their attempts to persuade the professor were unsuccessful. 

In this paper, Hansen produces a writing assignment that, in many ways, resides “within” the genre of an oration. The course notes of student Margaret Kane from May 29, 1899, who was enrolled in a course by the same title and instructors just one year earlier than Kate Hansen, include ample information about this genre, the various classes of orations, and many of their characteristics. Kane’s notes likewise indicate that in her own “Advanced English Composition” course, an “address to a class” was one of the options from which students could select for their assignment (Kane 169). It is likewise feasible that Hansen was given this option during her course a year later. In this sense, Hansen is writing within the parameters her instructors likely set.  

Even so, there are two features of Hansen’s oration that call its “within-ness” into question. First, Hansen actually delivers her oration. Kane’s course notes regarding her own assignment are unclear as to whether this was a requirement; rather, Kane simply writes in her notes that she has as “choice” of six possible orations and that she must “avoid oratorical errors” (Kane 169). But Kane gives no indication as to whether this entails simply writing a script for an oration or whether it must also be delivered. In this sense, it is possible that Hansen may be writing beyond the requirements of her assignments in writing and actually delivering an oration. 

This issue of delivery is unclear, but a second factor, and one which I argue does indicate Hansen moves beyond the genre of the oration, is the particular exigence and function of her oration to her harmony class. Kane’s course notes indicate that, while an “Oration contains persuasion,” its actual likelihood of being persuasive is not likely (Kane 166). Among Kane’s options listed for the assignment are seemingly non-persuasive situations, such as “an after dinner speech” or “a toast to a class” (Kane 169). Kane writes, “One goes to hear an oration expecting to be entertained and expecting the orator to try to convince him against his better judgement & so he is less easily convinced” (Kane 166). Because it is unlikely that a speaker will actually be able to persuade using the genre of an oration, “Oratory is not considered practical now-a-days” (Kane 166). 

Assuming that the instruction that Hansen receives in her “Advanced English Composition” course taught by the instructors one year later is similar, Hansen should not have expected to be successful in actually persuading an audience through the genre of an oration. However, Hansen selected an exigence for her oration that she actually felt was pressing and in need of modification, rather than something she needed to do simply to fulfill the requirements of a classroom mutt genre, as perhaps Hansen does in a paper like her “Exercise in Letter Writing.” Moreover, Hansen used her oration writing assignment from the course to attempt to enact change where she saw need for change. She has created an active situation out of what was likely intended to be passive exercise. Her speech itself was successful, as her classmates were persuaded that they should petition their harmony instructor. Although this later petition to the instructor was not successful and did not yield Hansen’s desired outcome, her speech itself did accomplish what she intended. 

Hansen uses her assignment to attempt to enact change, and the instruction she likely received about the nature of orations suggests that it was very likely her attempts at change would be unsuccessful. But doing so, Hansen shows her desire to move beyond the genre of an oration, do more than entertain, and successfully persuade for a cause connected to her own interests and beliefs. In this way, Hansen has taken up the oration genre in a way that moves beyond the function her instructors expected an oration could feasibly perform. This shows an interesting blending of both mind and body discipline that coincides with the blending that may have occurred between rhetoric and composition in the framework Comstock forwards. 


This study demonstrates that the fusion of rhetorical genre theory and archival research provides meaningful understandings of the factors shaping and shaped by writing instruction at individual universities, as well as by larger, more widespread shifts in writing pedagogy. It prompts a recognition of what can be gained by focusing on individual women students and their responses to that instruction, their unique performances of the genres they are assigned. 

Writing instructors at KU were undoubtedly working under enormous strains as a result of moving toward a newer writing instruction and away from the older rhetoric, and they attempted to mitigate those challenges by creating orderly systems and procedures for themselves and their students. Documents such as the English Bulletin show an English department making concerted efforts to establish its role in the university, attempting to define and teach writing effectively long before the formal establishment of rhetoric and composition as a recognized field with journals, professional organizations, and doctoral programs. In his analysis of Harvard student self-reports, Comstock shows the movement from the old rhetoric to the new composition and its prioritizing of bodily discipline. My own analysis of Hansen’s papers show that the shift from the old rhetoric to the new writing instruction described by Comstock was very much happening at KU and that it resulted in the production of mutt genres. However, there is still more that can be learned about students’ individual uptakes and their work to balance rhetorical moves with composition in this time period when we narrow to a focus on individual students. 

While KU as a site of formal education has been previously examined largely in terms of its instructors and programs, by narrowing in on the previously-unexamined writings and uptakes of writing instruction of a female student, we gain a closer understanding of what it was actually like for such a student to receive that instruction. Even when Kate Hansen was largely writing within the expected confines of specific genres’ forms and functions (thus conforming to the expectations for students presented in documents like the English Bulletin), she still frequently used her own knowledge and past experiences as touch-points for doing so. Her uptakes, movements against, and even movements beyond the conventions of genres further emphasizes that her responses to writing instruction results in unique performances of genres. Though academic genres, including mutt genres, in the new composition may encourage habitualized uptakes, Hansen manages to insert her own identity and assert agency in her individualized uptake of her writing tasks. Hansen’s writings provide a missing piece to understanding writing instruction at this institution, demonstrating how this sort of feminist recovery work can illuminate hidden corners of Rhetoric and Composition.  


I am grateful to Dr. Jane Greer and Dr. Lisa Mastrangelo for their wisdom, guidance, and mentorship at various stages of this research and writing project. 

End Notes

[1] Connors is the first scholar to coin the term “Composition-Rhetoric” to distinguish this shift. While I recognize that Comstock is using Connors as a base model (although he does not explicitly state this), I have chosen to use Comstock here because of his focus on pedagogy and on specific student writing, which provides a more detailed example and an updated read on Connors’ work

[2]For example, histories of writing instruction by Robert J. Connors (Composition Rhetoric)James A. Berlin, David R. Russell, and Ryan Skinnell all discuss Hopkins. Hopkins’ work and life were also extensively studied by Randall Popken. 

[3]Although these five men are the only English faculty listed in the course catalog, documents produced internally by the Department of English. This catalog and the preceding year’s likewise list seminar librarians (Edith M. Clark and Dora C. Renn) and manuscript readers of the department (Robert Wilson Neal, Annie H. Abel, and Will B. Sutton). So, although women helped to comprise and perform important labor within the department during the year of Hansen’s composition course, the professorship roles, those that the university apparently assigned the most institutional credibility by their listing in the catalog that circulated to all of the other schools, belonged only to men. 

[4]In general, themes at KU referred exclusively to the required writing done within most degree plans by sophomores. Themes were expected to be “not less than 1000 words each” and had specific due dates throughout the year (1899-1901 English Bulletin 9). Theses and forensics, which were the junior and senior requirements, differed in that they were “designated forensics when argumentative, and theses when expository” (1899-1901 English Bulletin 15). There is no evidence that students at KU were required to deliver their forensic writings orally (as they had been in the previous tradition of rhetoricals). However, the delivery of approved types of orations or other public addresses could substitute in place of forensics (1899-1901 English Bulletin 16). Students were still required to submit their orations “to an English instructor for criticism at least a week before delivered” (1899-1901 English Bulletin 16-17). 

[5]There are four issues of the English Bulletin preserved in the Department of English artificial records. The 1899-1901 edition is the only one that spans two academic years rather than one, and the document itself offers no explanation as to why.  

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Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming

Shame has become a hot-button topic in popular discourse over the past few years. 

Brené Brown, a researcher who moved into public consciousness through her moving TedTalk “The Power of Vulnerability” and book Daring Greatly, describes shame as “universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience” (“The Power of Vulnerability”). The popularity of Brown’s TedTalk and 2022 HBO Max series, Atlas of the Heart, demonstrates the resonance of this emotion in our contemporary moment. Brown claims that: “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders…if you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment” (Daring, 68). Brown positions shame as the root cause behind much tension and turmoil in contemporary society. In contrast, other popular writers, like John Bradshaw, view shame as occasionally healthy, because shame is human and allows us space to make mistakes (127). Kristina “The Shame Lady” Cizmar sees people escaping shame by translating it, interrogating the ideal we are failing to live up to and looking to others who don’t feel shame to model individual behavior (17-19). For popular writers, the key to escaping shame is discussing it publicly, as “people who come out the other side by default feel braver, more connected and compassionate” (Brown, “The      Power of Vulnerability”). Each of these approaches has led to increased public discourse about shame—both its impacts and possibilities. 

This increasing public discourse has sparked new forums dedicated to discussions of shame. For example, the 2020 Braving Body Shame conference, which took place over eight days between February 24 and March 3, 2020, featured 36 men and women discussing their personal experiences with body shame and fatness.[1] Each day, hosts Alicia, Ani and Julie engaged the speakers in conversations about their experiences with shame through interviews lasting between 30 minutes and two hours.[2] Unlike other conferences on the topics of fatness and health, the event was free for participants, held entirely online, and featured a range of experts across fields, rather than academics and individuals whose knowledge is concentrated to a specific discipline.[3] From actresses and professional dancers to social workers and dietitians, the conference asked people from all walks of life to engage with and share their experiences of body shame. The conference had two primary purposes: community building and education. The inclusive, accessible, and diverse nature of the conference allowed speakers and audience members alike to hear others’ experiences of shame, which were all validated as real and important by the structure of the conference. According to the website and opening remarks, building community was a central goal of the conference (“Home”). The second purpose was to grant individuals a unified platform to discuss their experiences of body shame with the goal of educating people in the community about the legitimate harms caused by shame. Within the conference, the speakers were framed as experts due to their own experience, regardless of academic or professional background. 

While feminist academics would likely embrace the goals of this conference, especially its emphasis on lived experience and goal of empowering women, the organizers explicitly position Braving Body Shame as counter to academic conferences and discourse. The home page defines the exigence of the conference as follows: “After attending a couple of in-person academic conferences, one of our hosts saw that there was a BIG part of knowledge and understanding missing from each conference. She realized that there was a great NEED for a conference that was more accessible and less academic-focused” (“Home”). This rationale suggests a gap between academic scholarship and the people these scholars imagine their work speaking to. While the conference organizers address academia broadly, as a unit, the focus of the conference on women’s experience and shame makes their concerns particularly noteworthy for feminist scholars. Indeed, a potential gulf between feminist scholarship and the lived experiences of nonacademic women has been identified previously by feminist rhetorical scholars. For instance, Charlotte Hogg identifies a tendency in feminist scholarship to overlook “elements of women’s lives that may be less palatable to feminists,” specifically the ways that “participants are not working for systematic change in a patriarchal culture and may be  reinforcing that culture” (403). But by overlooking “less palatable” gendered rhetorics, scholars risk misidentifying or mischaracterizing the people we study or that we hope might recognize themselves in our research, shoehorning them into existing feminist frameworks. Though the conference does not make explicit mention of feminist academic scholarship whose work, I argue, closely aligns with the mission of the conference, this aperture offers a fruitful opportunity for feminist rhetorical scholars to further investigate the rhetorical nature of shame. Specifically, this study explores what women do with shame as enumerated through narrations of overcoming this  sticky emotion. 

The conference participants’ views on shame may be “less palatable” to feminist scholars because they position shame as something that can be productive and, what I am calling, inventional. Inventional shame is actionable, it is productive, and allows the person experiencing the affect to do something as a result of feeling. In contrast, many academic conceptions of shame focus on its formation and its inextricable nature. In many  ways, shame is conceived academically as a feeling that cannot be shaped by the people experiencing it. Scholarly conceptions of affect note the difficulty of naming an emotion and understanding its impacts. As Erin Rand describes in her analysis of shame in the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement, “the rhetorical process of labeling the inchoate intensities of affect, of marshaling them in the name and direction of a particular emotion and toward the goals of a particular movement or cause” can be a critical way to engage and change social structures (130). However, this movement and direction is almost always more complicated than simply defining an affect such as shame, “since the language of emotion pins down the fluidity of affect only temporarily and incompletely, at best” (Rand 132). Affect, then, runs the risk of being flattened because in pinning down an affect through a specific definition, the fluidity of its embodied experience can be lost. 

Shame is a particularly complicated emotion for scholars to conceptualize because it is, as Sara Ahmed characterizes, sticky (11). Part of what makes shame so sticky is its public nature— while feeling is commonly discussed as a private experience, emotional responses are shaped by public, social values. Focusing on its public aspect, communications scholar Sara Banet-Weiser asserts that shame is a tool of discipline and self-discipline that renders women unable to act (72). Shame is an innately social feeling and structure of power as it “functions to regulate and police the gendered body” (Banet-Weiser 71). Shame and shaming, then, comprise both the action taken against women as a means of disciplining their bodies and a tool of self-regulation that develops as a form of protection against the material impacts of shaming. Within this conception, shame becomes very difficult to disentangle oneself from. Philosopher Bonnie Mann understands shame as “a viscerally lived experience and as a historical phenomenon” (404). Mann posits two kinds of shame: ubiquitous shame and unbounded shame. Ubiquitous shame is, as Mann describes, “that shame-status that attaches to the very fact of existing as a girl or woman, or of having a female body” (403). This is the kind of shame that all women must navigate in a world that defines their very selfhood. Ubiquitous shame has a “promissory temporality,” one that asserts the possibility of resolution through rectifying the cause of shame (403). Similarly, Ahmed describes, shame is restorative “only when the shamed other can ‘show’ that its failure to measure up to a social ideal is temporary” (107). Unbounded shame, however, exists without a sense of resolution. It builds on itself and sticks. The two types of shame are related, in that the promise of resolution  within ubiquitous shame can lead to unbounded shame—an intense, dangerous, and inescapable feeling that puts the subject at risk. In other words, there is a promise of escaping shame through aligning oneself with the dominant power structure—in the case of body shame, losing weight. However, aligning oneself with a dominant structure does not allow for escape from shame, because dominant structures are often changing and work to continue oppress people. Positioning an action intended to relieve shame as aligning with the dominant power structure that is inescapable flattens the actions that  women take to cope with their own lived experiences. This view  of shame highlights its complicated nature.  

As shame is so deeply embedded in cultural beliefs and practices, there is a tendency in its academic exploration to overlook the ways it is addressed or confronted by the people who live it. However, the Braving Body Shame conference participants see shame as something that can be overcome, and even be generative[4]. Feminists might be tempted to discount these narratives of overcoming shame as unrealistic or wishful thinking but doing so limits the kind of work feminist scholarship can do. As Hogg notes, “broadening the scope of whom we study and how we engage them can better enact the kind of productive messiness and multiplicity we exhort” (401). I argue that scholars run the risk of flattening the productive qualities of shame through focusing exclusively on defining it and examining the multiple layers of its production. By focusing, instead, on what people do with this complicated feeling, I aim to honor the conference participants’ narratives of their own lived experiences. 

My goal in this article is not to make a judgment about whether the participants actually overcome shame, but instead to focus on the rhetorical power of narratives of overcoming for those who experience shame. Taking the Braving Body Shame conference as a case study, this article explores how feminist rhetorical scholarship can both critique oppressive structures and honor complicated affective experiences by focusing on what people do with shame. I attempt to chart this course in my reading of the Braving Body Shame conference by pausing over the urge to critique and focusing first on what participants’ understanding of their own experiences do for them as people living with complicated affects. Below, I examine rhetorics of shame in the Braving Body Shame conference through an analysis of nine video interviews. In line with feminist rhetorical scholarship, these participants frame shame as an ongoing process. However, shame is also crucially narrated as a feeling and phenomenon that can be overcome through private, relational, and inventional acts. By focusing on these acts, on what women do with their shame, scholars can more fully recognize the generative potentials of shame. This study explores what women do with shame as enumerated through narrations of overcoming the sticky emotion. 

To begin this work, I establish my case study approach through a discussion of research methodologies that center lived experience in feminist rhetorics. Next, I examine videos from the 2020 Braving Body Shame conference to discuss how the speakers position shame as a generative, recursive process. Specifically, I analyze the private, relational, and inventional acts that the conference participants feature in the discussions of overcoming. I conclude by noting how narrating shame functions as a generative, inventional practice for the women speaking at the conference and invite scholars to be attentive to the urge to critique individual acts. 

Throughout, I seek to avoid flattening the affective experiences of the conference participants by modeling a process for grounding feminist rhetorical study in the expressions of gendered individuals. For complex affective experiences like shame, this is sticky work. 

Case Study Methods and Women’s Lived Experience 

The Braving Body Shame conference provides feminist rhetoricians an opportunity to grapple with our understandings of shame, particularly what people who experience shame do with the feeling. However, this research also raises an ethical question about employing the voices of women who have expressly disagreed with academic research to produce academic research.[5] My decision to discuss the conference in an academic paper arose from several considerations. First, the videos were public and intended for the purpose of education and grounding narratives of shame in lived experience, which is a goal I advance in this writing. As stated on the conference website, the vision “for this conference is to give those who have braved the path already, those who have overcome many obstacles to find a place of peace, understanding, acceptance, neutrality and yes often love for their bodies to use their voice and share their stories with others” (“Braving Body Shame”). Second, I resist the urge throughout to critique the participants’ approaches to shame, but instead focus on what narratives of overcoming do for the participants. In this section, I unpack my methodological approach to analyzing Braving Body Shame as a useful case study for considering the rhetorical functions of shame. 

I analyze the Braving Body Shame participant videos and paratextual material act as case study data for considering what women do with their shame. Case study analysis is an “inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (Yin 13). According to Robert Yin, the case study method “arises out of the desire to understand complex social phenomena” because it “allows investigators to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events” (14). In other words, case study analysis is one way that scholars attempt to get at the lived experience of the people we study. 

Additionally, case study analysis allows scholars to meet the people in our research where they are. For example, case studies are key components of Jacqueline Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s notion of “strategic contemplation,” a feminist research method which “involves engaging in a dialogue, in an exchange, with the women who are our rhetorical subjects” (21). Also important to Royster and Kirsch is that scholars use strategic contemplation to try to understand the world from the point of view of the people we are studying (21). Case study research allows scholars to focus “closely on existing resources, fragmentary and otherwise, and existing scholarship to assess what we understand and to speculate about what seems to be missing” (Royster and Kirsch 72). As the Braving Body Shame conference illuminates the complex relationship between affect and societal structures, complicates existing scholarly conversations about shame, and provides multiple voices for analysis, approaching it as a case study is appropriate. 

To begin the work of this case study analysis, I follow methodological interventions from rhetoricians Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith that seek to ground feminist rhetorical research in the lived experience of women. One example of a methodology of lived experience is Hallenbeck’s “feminist-material methodology” (21). Hallenbeck employs a case study approach to move beyond the “sanctioned narratives” of feminist scholarship, offering a vocabulary of networks and emergence that, while recognizing individual agency, disrupts intention and uses a feminist material methodology which accounts more for the embodied, broad, experiences of women outside of the sanctioned stories scholars have told about women’s lives (21). 

Specifically, Hallenbeck asks scholars to take “nothing for granted as background or context” and instead situate analysis within a densely populated constellation of materials and objects (22- 23). Scholars can then perform “close, intertextual rhetorical analysis within those constellations in order to identify trends, discrepancies, or transformations” in the ways that phenomena are addressed (21). Much like the often-shortchanged background materials that Hallenbeck discusses, affective experiences like shame are part of the constellation of rhetorical processes that warrant further attention (18). 

Similarly, Michelle Smith builds on these methodologies by reframing Burke’s recalcitrance to move beyond binary gender frames that often squash the material experiences of women. For Smith, a “feminist methodology informed by recalcitrance starts with  a claim and constructs a discursive-material network of gender as lived” (523). Through a case study of utopian societies, she encourages scholars to not predetermine what is context and text, as the material situation may allow a new understanding of how a narrative has emerged. At the end of Smith’s material discursive methodology, “we are left not with the truth of the situation, but with a new narrative” (523). Both methodologies seek to enable alternative narratives for women beyond the scope of sanctioned approaches to feminist rhetorical scholarship. They join Hogg in cautioning against reinscribing accepted ways of analyzing women, challenging the scholarly conversation around women by including the material alongside the discursive—which makes analysis messier and often times more illuminating. 

Building off this scholarship, my own approach to case study analysis challenges scholars to dwell within the narratives that women create for themselves as individuals within larger social structures. It asks feminist scholars, in particular, to pause at our impulse to critique and focus on what experiences can show us about affect. To return to Hogg’s earlier point, centering the affective experience of individuals can help scholars question “what assumptions or ideological approaches are prevalent that might canonize a more monolithic kind of feminism than we identify in our discussions about the state of the field” (392). The feminist-materialist methods sketched above ask scholars to account for the broad range of agents that allow for the emergence of any rhetorical experience, including affect. As Hallenbeck resists the sanctioned narratives of women’s rhetorical contributions, I resist a flattened analysis of shame as a phenomenon beyond the agency of individual women and instead focus on what women do with shame. 

Before undertaking this analytical work, I want to point out that case study analysis requires close attention to the collection of data. According to Yves-Chantal Gagnon, “multiple sources should be used so that the researcher can analyze a variety of information, trace lines of convergence and strengthen construct validity” (58). Of the 36 videos in the Braving Body Shame conference, I chose to analyze nine that feature depictions of overcoming shame from female participants, as body shame is a historically gendered phenomenon. While men also experience body shame, it is a feminine phenomenon, historically, and its material effects are exacerbated when linked to a female identity[6]. I also chose not to focus on the participants who are medical professionals or experts––six dieticians, six therapists, three life coaches, and one fertility coach—who spoke about navigating the medical establishment and finding proper healthcare rather than personal experiences with body shame. Similarly, there were a handful of fitness professionals who discussed integrating body neutrality and acceptance into exercise practices. While fascinating, these presentations did not discuss the speakers’ personal relationships with shame: they spoke to   rather than from the lived experience of shame. Having made these choices, I was left with the stories of nine women to analyze for this case study—Ivy, Ashley, Sophie, Shannon, Amanda, Nia, Georgie, Katie, and Toni. 

Following Hallenbeck’s methodology of constellation, I transcribed the videos in order to analyze emergent themes present in the women’s experiences with shame. The videos and transcriptions were kept in a Google Folder to both increase the possibility of replicability and ensure a clear chain of evidence for the claims I make throughout the paper (Gagnon 57). I then made note of recurrent approaches to shame throughout the interviews, including participants recognizing themselves within larger social structures, attending therapy, seeking community, and participating in social media, to name a few. I then categorized these approaches into the larger themes that illuminated what women were doing with their shame: private actions, relational actions, and inventional actions. The themes I will discuss in the following analysis appeared in all nine interviews to various degrees, with some participants leaning more heavily on therapy and healing practices. This emphasis was highly dependent on the material effects of the participants’ shame. For example, participants who developed eating disorders needed different recovery strategies than those who had a falling out with their families. What is compelling, however, is the almost uniform way participants narrated their processes of overcoming shame. 

It is worth questioning this uniformity, as the participants in the conference were instructed to answer a clear set of questions that may have directed them to frame their experience in similar ways. Every participant was asked a variation of the same questions, and those questions undoubtedly influenced the themes of my analysis: What is your story of overcoming body shame? What communities or tools helped you overcome shame? What differences are you making in your communities now that you have overcome shame? These questions, intended to prompt the participants to discuss their own experiences, assume that overcoming shame is not only possible but a universal experience for the participants. Again, I am not concluding that the women overcame shame or that it is possible to, but rather embracing this opportunity to explore how narratives of overcoming shame function rhetorically for conference participants and their communities. The framing of shame in these questions is not a primarily social entity, nor situated entirely in the individual; it is this interweaving of individual and structural approaches to shame that provides the opening for my analysis. 

Narratives of Overcoming 

The participants in the Braving Body Shame conference narrativized their experiences of overcoming shame. Within their narratives, the women were often empowered individually when they saw themselves as moving past their shame. They were able to connect with groups in more profound and meaningful ways and find a sense of acceptance within themselves. However, as I will examine in greater detail, they are also acutely aware of the social aspects of shame that feature in academic examinations. In this way, this case study is a productive exemplar for analysis of affect because the participants exemplify the kind of shame that Mann describes— one tied up in the political, personal, and social structures of shame—while also offering a way to coexist with the feeling. I see the speakers as navigating shame by engaging thoughtfully in private, relational, and inventional acts to experience relief from shame in their everyday lives. 

Overcoming Shame Through Private Acts 

Shame is a private feeling that impacts one’s relationship with oneself, even situates the blame for shame on the individual. The emphasis on personal methods for achieving resolution is possibly because “shame in contemporary Western, late-capitalist life is a deeply personal and viscerally lived affect,” and therefore requires individual solutions (Mann 404). As a result, individual practices are necessary to unlearn and move past shame. Personal growth and practices were brought up when the organizers asked, “what struggles have you overcome?” Within this question, and the narratives at large, there is an assumption that, over time, it is possible to overcome shame through individual action. The resolution that the participants in the Braving Body Shame conference seek contests, rather than upholds, the structures of heteropatriarchal violence, resisting the unbounded shame they would otherwise experience. The women resist societally sanctioned body standards, and instead seek other methods of resolving shame through personal and private acts. 

Before acting in personal, private ways, the participants had to first become visible to themselves as socially situated subjects. Michel Foucault expressed that visibility is often a trap for vulnerable bodies (187). To make oneself seen, particularly within a marginalized body, is to open oneself up for surveillance. Additionally, particularly in a neoliberal context, visibility cannot be separated from economies: the visible body is the commodifiable body. As Banet-Weiser explains, visibility in neoliberalism “indicates a move toward seeing visibility as an end in itself, where what is visible becomes what is” (67). Visibility, then, is a sort of requirement for any type of change to occur—it acts as a spotlight, highlighting one space while putting the rest in shadow. Visibility has become a performance that doesn’t require further engagement, as “politics are contained within the visibility—visual representation becomes the beginning and the end of political action” (Banet-Weiser 23). The relationship between commodifiable bodies— read: normative bodies—and political visibility can be a damaging one; if there is not a way to profit off a subject’s presence in a neoliberal society, visibility incurring positive action is considerably more difficult. However, these scholarly conceptions of visibility are about others viewing the self, and not what happens when someone becomes visible to themselves. This self- visibility occurs in the Braving Body Shame conference and provides the participants with an opportunity to combat their feelings of shame through private actions. 

The women uniformly narrated a moment of visibility where they became visible to themselves outside of other’s assessment of their bodies. The feeling of overcoming shame was intimately tied to this experience. Here, they were not different because of a personal failing or inability to achieve an ideal, but marked as different by the social structure they existed in. Seven out of the nine women described this as a moment of undoing, in which the social structure, itself, was now clear to them. Katie, a fat activist and social worker, described this moment of clarity as relief because her ontological failing could be corrected and blame replaced to the social structure, stating “obviously I am going to have fatphobic thoughts, because we live in a fatphobic society” (00:30:12-00:30:18). Other women expressed less catharsis from this realization but recognized that “we blame ourselves for all this stuff that is not coming out of nowhere. I am receiving the message multiple times a day” (Sophie 00:11:22-0011:29). This moment which shifted the blame of shame from the individual to the social allowed the women to see themselves as socialized subjects in a world that placed material impacts on their bodily difference. 

It was important for the participants to engage with their identity because, according to academic scholars, shame impacts an individual’s conception of self. Feminist rhetorician Heather Brook Adams discusses in her analysis of rhetorics of unwed motherhood that shame is distinct in its effect on a woman’s view of herself. Shame results in an “ontological failure,” where the woman herself is positioned as beyond remedy or repair, as opposed to the action that brought on the shame (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 103). In this ontological failing, the woman becomes responsible for the effects of shame, which “resituates an individual’s failure of the self” as responsible for “threaten[ing] the social and economic viability and interpersonal wellness” of both their own life and their families (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 97). The focus on individual and personal shame was present in the conference proceedings. The first question asked by the organizers, “tell us your braving body shame story,” highlights the conference’s emphasis on personal narrative to overcome shame and particularly the role that visibility plays in these narratives. Each woman expressed in some way that crafting a narrative about their body shame is how they came to publicly speak about their bodies. 

However, this moment of visibility was not a uniquely positive thing. The women recognized that they exist in a system that provided them identity, even if that identity caused them harm. The process of untethering themselves from that identity was difficult. 

Ashley, who is working on her master’s in social work, noted this tie between their shame and identity, “I think a lot of us, our identities become our eating disorder or how we’re obsessed with food, how we’re obsessed with our bodies” (00:05:13-00:05:21). Shame and hatred of their bodies was not just a stumbling block but tied to how they related to the world around them. As Ivy discusses, it was “a lot of work to overcome it because it was a part of how I defined myself early on in life” (00:07:32-00:07:40).  

Additionally, the knowledge of their subjectivity doesn’t do much to alleviate the material impacts of their subjective position. As Shannon, a yoga teacher and sociology student expressed, “like most social constructions, it very much affects my life chances and the ways that people treat me and the way that medical establishments deal with me” (00:24:18-00:24:24) Other women mentioned    that stores still did not carry clothes that fit them, and they feared traveling on airplanes because they may not have seatbelt extenders that accommodate their size. For them, seeing the social structure that creates these material impacts did not provide empowerment. Instead of relying upon the structure to change, the women engaged in other means of seeking empowerment. 

Most of the women used the term compassion to describe their relationship to their body in the present moment—not a feeling of positivity or love, but of acceptance and care. “Body compassion allowed [them] to shed the layers of the body shame” (Ivy 00:06:18-00:06:20). Toni, a disability advocate and Instagram influencer, discussed that some of her first steps in the process of overcoming shame would be to visually and verbally reclaim her body. She said, “I would also  stand in the bathroom and look at myself before I took a shower and say ‘this is my body” (00:35:49-00:35:56). Seeing themselves, then, was an important move towards acceptance. 

Untethered from their identity that was rooted in shame, the women expressed the need to engage in personal growth practices, such as body compassion, therapy, and reflection to gain a sense of embodiment. The rootedness in the individual is important because, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes, shame creates “far more durable, structural changes in one’s relational and interpretive strategies toward both self and others” (59). To undo these ways of viewing the self, the women have to focus on unbuilding through practices of individual growth. Every woman discussed attending therapy, a support group, or another avenue for self-growth work to, as Katie put it, “come to a place of love for myself; from there the love or acceptance from my body grew” (00:07:16-00:7:23). These moments of growth were working toward the goal of embodiment, as years of shame and living in a body that was marked as different, as deviant and out of control, forced a disembodiment. Shannon describes this, “I didn’t realize how much I had disassociated from my own body…you are told so much that you are wrong that you even stop thinking about this [referencing her body] as you” (00:10:56-00:11:08). Repeatedly, the women positioned their embodying actions as seizing their body back and claiming some kind of agency over it again. From this generative space of personal growth, the women were then interested in reaching outward and creating relationships. 

Overcoming Shame Through Relational Acts 

Part of what makes shame so difficult to capture is the way it is shaped by public and social values. Shame is also located in the female body across historical and cultural contexts. It “structures relationships and shapes women’s identities across the three major aspects of subject formation… the individual, the familial, and the cultural or national” (Johnson and Moran 3). 

Similarly, Adams notes that “shame was communicated by specific persons…but also that it emanated from an indirect source: the socially held standard for women’s purity” (“Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood” 98). Shame’s sociality relates to its rhetoricity, because it is “an affect that is always contingent and ever intersubjective” (Adams, “The Feminist Work of Unsticking Shame” 585). The feeling is the result of an encounter rooted in disappointment, and it does not exist for its own sake, reliant upon the subject to become visible to others. Shame builds on itself and spreads, then, as it comes from both the individual and the social, which then places the blame of its impacts back on the woman to amplify the felt experience of shame. To untether themselves from shame, the participants had to address shame in their relationships and work to forge new connections. 

The participants additionally expressed moments narration that tied to the social nature of shame, and how the feeling requires affirmation from others. There were instances in each interview where the women said, “when I usually tell this,” (Amanda) or “as I have explained on my blog” (Nia). In fact, it was clear through the introductions of each participant that the reason they were selected for the Braving Body Shame conference was their willingness to tell their story and act relationally. All but one of the women I discuss here were introduced with some variation of “your powerful story has impacted me,” or “people have been touched by your stories.” Additionally, I noticed an initial moment where the women described being looked at by others. This moment, expressed by each participant as pivotal in their story of shame, showed the women that they were different in a way that incurred judgment from others. In a sense, the difference always present on their bodies became visible to them. For example, Amanda, an 18- year-old professional dancer from Los Angeles, described a time when she was 7 at a dance convention where other attendees stared at her. She describes feeling confused, stating, “I didn’t know why at first…and then I kind of put it together that it was because I didn’t look like everyone else” (00:14:11-00:14:19). Sophie, a psychology student who studies Health at Every Size, mentioned that “[she] was kind of always aware that there was something not quite right with [her] body, apparently,” but that repeated encounters with people in middle school illuminated her difference (00:06:57-00:07:05).[7] It is important to mention that this was not framed as a positive event in their lives. Their difference, rooted in the body, becoming visible spurred shame, in every case, and in more extreme circumstances mental health crises and eating disorders. 

After recognizing the moments when the women become visible to themselves as socially situated subjects, attention to narrative can show processes of coping and overcoming: what do the women do with this newfound understanding of their positionality? How do they employ this knowledge to cope and exist in the world that may still actively work against them? As previously discussed, scholars have conceived of shame as difficult, if not impossible to extract oneself from. However, these women view the shame trap as escapable through intentional moves and relational acts over time that are unrelated to their body presentation. 

Supportive friends and family were a key element to the women overcoming shame. When asked what support they had in the process of overcoming shame, every woman emphasized the importance of friends who understood their struggle. For example, Nia noted that it was “important to have the time and space with friends who you can have those honest conversations with” about body shame (00:24:22-00:24-31). Contemporary scholars agree that “shame arises when a break in social connection is made or threatened, whether real or imagined” (Stenberg 121). Therefore, work has to  be done in order to rebuild those social connections. Georgie, a teacher from Australia, expressed this: “I find it’s really important to surround yourself with people…you need some people in your life that have the same experiences as you” (00:39:37-00:39:52). The emphasis is on finding other women who had similar experiences of shame. For many of them, they would be the only fat woman in their town, or the only person willing to disagree with diet culture or dominant cultural messaging about their bodies. Connecting with other people who could help maintain strength to subvert hegemonic ideals was a priority. 

When asked what three things listeners should take away from the conference, almost all of the participants stated, “find community.” Ashley explained the importance of community, stating: “when you live in a marginalized body…having community is essential for getting through  the muck…being able to have a resources, and I consider other people a resource…and being able to reach out, find solidarity…find people who occupy the same intersectional identities that you do that is huge and has been huge for me” (00:28:03-00:28:32). It was important not only to have community for the sake of having people to talk to, but to grow and change in their relationship to shame. For the participants, the internet was an important place to build connections and relationships. Katie noted that “online was the first place” she was able to find support and that she was “really really isolated” before joining online communities (00:31:34-00:31:39). Online spaces provided participants with a place to engage with others and work out their experiences of body shame among likeminded people. 

The relational acts that the participants engaged in, in some cases, allowed them to get out of their shame. Shannon noted this her experience engaging with others: “The love you have for yourself should also.. you should see that for other people…sometimes you can’t have the energy because you are focused inward but sometimes the way to get out of that, the way to give yourself more energy to work on yourself is to work for and with other people” (00:35:11-00:36:03). The women see their engagement with others as undoing, at least some, of their shame, as it allows them to think carefully about their own relationship to their body and challenge body shame in others. Many of the participants noted that this also allowed them to engage with others more carefully. Sophie stated that engaging with others allowed her to be more thoughtful  in how she discusses body shame: “on a small interpersonal level, the way I interact with people related to food and body image is very deliberate” (00:42:38-00:42:43) The relational acts to overcome shame allowed the participants to not only unmoor some of their own shame but also discuss shame more clearly with others. 

As I outline in these sections, the complex network of private and public affective experiences make shame a difficult feeling to grasp. Within these complex academic discourses of shame, feeling shame is hard to escape. Because of its social nature and its role in policing the embodied experiences of people, shame lingers in a profound way. Therefore, to combat  feelings of shame, the participants engaged in various public discourses. These discourses, while individual, were often inventional in nature, as they encouraged others to grapple with their experience of body shame through creative practices. 

Narrating Shame as Inventional Practice 

The public-facing acts that the participants engaged in were inventional in nature—they allowed the women to create worlds where they were untethered from their shame and beckon others to do the same. This invention could happen because the participants engaged their shame in public and invitational ways. The participants of Braving Body Shame’s processes were inherently public through the videos, opening themselves up to others. This is how they were selected for this conference—they are outspoken in how they live in fat bodies in a world that is constantly telling them to change. When asked how they saw themselves making change in the world around them, the women most frequently cited their public work of telling their stories. 

This again emphasizes the importance of narrating women’s experiences. As Toni describes, “if we had more people living life and showing them living life…we would have less astonishment when we saw people living in public” (00:29:56-00:30:07). Four different women mentioned that they wanted to be the role model they wish they had. Amanda, a young woman, explicitly stated that she “wanted to be the account she wished she could have followed in middle school” (00:21:19-00:21:24). They saw others in a world where shame was less of an issue, and in doing so, worked to invent their own. 

Additionally, witnessing other women’s acknowledgment of their subjectivity in public spheres became important for overcoming, as it provided models for how to overcome shame. Other ashamed women’s expressions of shame became key for the participants to understand and move past their own feelings, as it allowed them to invent a world where they were untethered from shame. One, almost uniform, space where this invention took place was on social media. 

Instagram, specifically, provided a space for women to see like-bodied and minded people. This is worth pausing to discuss, as social media and its relationship to visibility is complicated. As Shari Stenberg describes, “while the prevalent role shame plays in cultural dynamics would seem to lend it visibility, in fact, the opposite is true” (123). This is because shame is an emotion that compounds, and publicly showing an experience of shame has the potential to compound its effect. Benet-Weiser discusses the role of humiliation in shame, particularly in public, online spaces. The public nature of social media, and the way it makes the body visible, can be an instrument for shaming. Though “social media sites… certainly have multiple functions…shaming, especially of women’s bodies, seems to be a practice that they all share if not encourage” (Banet-Weiser 67). With the presence of trolls and fatphobic sentiments, to raise a few concerns, engaging on social media has the potential to reinforce the material impacts of shame. 

Therefore, the choice of the women to display and discuss their bodies is counter to many scholarly conceptions of how social media operates within shame—it is an act of empowerment through reclamation, an act of invention. Toni describes her joining Instagram as a formative moment in her own acceptance: “I was seeing other people have those bodies and seeing them and loving them and thought, oh I can do that, too” (00:43:37-00:43:39). 

The power of Instagram was tied to its ability to show bodies and provide a space for visibility. It allowed them to invent realities where they could exist without shame. Seeing bodies like their own existing happily was empowering for the women interviewed at the conference. As Sophie describes, “we seek permission from people who came before us to be ourselves…I want to see myself to get permission.” Once they were able to see themselves as not alone in their experiences of shame, the women were able to move to create change in the world around them. 

To do this, they started blogs, created art, moved to careers to help other women realize their subjective, socialized position in the world. In this way, shame is an inventional practice. Shari Stenberg, building off of Elspeth Probyn’s work, argues that “writing shame is an invitational, critical, and generative act” (121). Much like the women Stenberg analyzed who shared their stories of sexual assault, the participants in the conference sharing their experience of body shame invites others to analyze their own relationship to shame. It additionally becomes a site of invention, a catalyst to create. This conference, itself, is a manifestation of the generative potential of shame. It demonstrates that if scholars are attuned to the ways women write their shame, we can analyze how women use shame to connect to their larger communities. As shame creates a break in social connection, these efforts are paramount to the processes of overcoming shame. Notably, all but one of the women, Katie, resisted the term “activist.” Nia, an Instagram personality with a large following, expressed, “I don’t set out to fix the world, but I do put my story and experience out there and I think that a lot of people take that as activism because it is advocating for marginalized people” (00:37:51-00:38:08). Though the work they are doing is oriented toward acceptance, it is still deeply rooted in and borne of the personal because of its ties to narrative. 

Despite the private, relational, inventional ways the women work to overcome shame and make visible their socialized subjectivity, the participants were hesitant to condemn or critique other women who were not fighting shame. As explained by Ashley, the women highlighted the importance of understanding that we all grow up in this. “We are all indoctrinated into this. And some of us have unlearned it and some of us haven’t yet and it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person that you haven’t unlearned and interrogated that yet, you just haven’t done it yet” (00:34:13-00:34:42). The  women don’t see other people at fault for their shame and subjectivity, but rather point to diet culture, the Western ideals of thinness, and other material in social pressures that force shame upon them. In short, as enunciated by Sophie, “I have compassion for the individuals, I just hate the system” (00:43:11-00:43:14). 

This move from difference and shame to embodiment and empowerment seems very neat as I present it here, but I would not be doing justice to the stories of the women if I didn’t point out that the overcoming was, as all of them described, messy. It was not something that went away for them the moment that their subjective position in the world became visible to them. 

The material world and infrastructures intervened, even when their intentions were to overcome. When the women discussed multiple marginalization, such as race and disability, the social pressures placed on them emerged in different ways. This particular forum for storytelling did not emphasize these roadblocks and realities as much as other spaces may, because it was guided and structured in a conference setting. More investigation into how the discursive and material realities of these women interact is needed to fully understand their relationship with their bodies, and with shame. 

Reflections on Narration, or What to Do with Complicated Feelings 

This is the moment in my analysis of this case study where I would typically turn to the ways that the women in the Braving Body Shame conference are, even if incidentally or accidentally, reinforcing harmful body discourses that ultimately undermine their goal of escaping the sticky ties of shame. I would point out their emphasis on individualism and how that emphasis does not question the larger structures at play in their conception of shame. In other words, I would make the critical turn. However, I want to resist this urge, as it does not accomplish what I want to do—to meet the women where they are and grapple with their experiences as they see and describe them. 

Within this case study, the women saw the narration of their affective experiences as part of their process of overcoming shame. These practices, particularly the creative and public expressions of shame, are inventional and generative practices that could potentially allow others to engage with their experiences of shame. What this research has illuminated is the generative potential of shame for the individual that scholars may miss if they focus too much on the structural formation of shame at the onset. Feminist tenets remind us that the personal is political, but perhaps we have lost sight of the truth that the political, likewise, is personal. Political structures impact people on a personal level just as personal experiences reinforce structures. 

These women have come to know themselves as socialized subjects through their personal experiences with shame. The participants of the Braving Body Shame conference saw focusing on the individual as the beginning of their move outward, but it was rarely the final move in the undoing shame. They start blogs, recruit other women to the cause, and see their interpersonal engagements as changing the structures they see themselves existing in. If scholars stop at critiquing the personal, we risk missing a wide breadth of generative, empowering practices. 

This is not to say that the women have fully overcome shame, particularly because shame exists as a cultural phenomenon separate from the bodies that experience it. “Shame discloses without resulting in a corresponding cognitive understanding of what is disclosed” (Bartky 85). Scrutiny toward the cleanly aligned narratives presented in the conference is fair, as shame rarely plays out as neatly as presented here. But these processes of overcoming resist the kind of unbound shame that results in harm and helplessness and maintain a sense of hope and agency. As Mann notes, “the futural, the promissory dimension is paramount” (413). We need a space for levity and hope within our scholarship, even in the face of difficult affective experiences. 

The Braving Body Shame conference shows that there is more work to be done in feminist rhetorical scholarship to more fully capture affective experiences, particularly those that exist within complex structures. None of this is to say that the structural critiques feminist rhetorical scholars engage in are not important, but I challenge scholars to continue to find ways of grounding their analysis in the experiences of women as characterized by women, so as to not flatten complex affective experiences. It is worth taking the time to ask: How are participants identifying with our analyses? How can we work to allow women to feel and express empowerment individually and collectively and do the essential work of critiquing the larger structures at play, especially when these goals are seemingly at odds? 

This case study offers one way of dwelling with this tension, though further research needs to be done on the material infrastructures at play in people’s relationships with their bodies. The participants repeatedly pointed to the compounding material effects of their multiply marginalized bodies. More scholarship needs to turn to the lived experience of people of color, disabled, and chronically ill people to understand how, as feminist scholars, we can reconnect the personal to the political. More broadly, we should ask who is served when we obey the academic impulse to critique. As Shannon eloquently framed it, “if you start undoing all of those ties and you haven’t set something else up, you’re gonna leave somebody lost and floating alone in a really scary world” (00:31:22-00:31:31).  

End Notes

[1]Scholars have shown how fatness and shame reinforce one another. For instance, Amy Farrell has looked at the material impacts of shame when experienced by fat women, and Esther Rothblum and Janna Fikkan offer a broad analysis of the impacts of weight bias and the work happening in fat studies. Jeannine Gailey also discusses explicit moves from fat shame to fat pride. 

[2]Within conference proceedings, the hosts only used their first names. The full names of the conference hosts are available online, but in this essay I follow the naming conventions of the conference. 

[3]There were paid options for additional resources, but the bulk of the material and all of the interviewers were available for no cost. 

[4]The concept of overcoming is a complicated one. Both disability scholars, like Ellen Samuels, and queer theorists note that overcoming is often associated with triumph narratives that render queer and disabled bodies incomplete. However, this was a theme of the conference—I both acknowledge the harm of overcoming discourses and seek to engage with the conference participants’ own language. 

[5]I attempted to contact the hosts of the conferences both via email and social media. Since the first conference, two of the hosts have also left. The information and interviews were public, as well. 

[6]For Heather Adams, shaming is “a lingering experience of femaleness” tied to the social relationship between femininity and modesty (585). This is not to say that men do not experience body shame, just that the links between the ideal female and shame as a policing mechanism are very strong. This being said, body shame is increasingly experienced by men in the 20th and 21st century, and shame within the gay male community is a growing area of study. For more on this subject, see Jonathan Alexander’s work on counter-discourses of shame and Erin Rand’s work on queer shame. 

[7]Health at Every Size, or HAES, is a size acceptance group that promotes health not focused on weight. It is a branch of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/content.asp?id=19 

Works Cited

“About Health at Every Size.” Association for Size Diversity and Health. 2020. https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/health-at-every-size-haes-approach/ Accessessed October 17, 2022 

Adams, Heather Brook. “Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood and Shame.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 40, no. 1, 2017, pp. 91-110, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07491409.2016.1247401. 

—. “ The Feminist Work of Unsticking Shame: Affective Realignment in the 1973 Edition of 

Our Bodies, Ourselves.Peitho, vol. 21, no. 3, 2019, pp. 580-98, https://cfshrc.org/article/the-feminist-work-of-unsticking-shame-affective-realignment-in-the-1973-edition-of-our-bodies-ourselves/. 

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2004. 

Alexander, Jonathan. “Narrating Sexual Compulsion: Gay Male Writing Beyond Shame.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 2., no. 1, 2015, pp. 37-60. 

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Duke UP, 2018. 

Bartky, Sandra.  Shame and Gender. In Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. Routledge, 1990. 

Bradshaw, John. Healing the Shame that Binds You: Recovery Classics Edition. Health Communications, Inc., 2005. 

Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin, 2015. 

—. “The Power of Vulnerability.” TedxHouston, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en. Accessed May 18 2021.  

Cizmar, Kristina. The Little Book of Shame: What Shame Really Means, and How to Shift from Low Self-esteem to Empowering Self-Acceptance. Emote Promotions, 2015. 

Farrell, Amy Erdman. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. NYU Press, 2011. 

Fikkan, Janna L., and Esther D. Rothblum. “Is Fat a Feminist Issue? Exploring the Gendered Nature of Weight Bias.” Sex Roles, vol. 66, no. 9-10, 2012, pp. 575-92, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0022-5 

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995. 

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal. The Case Study As Research Method: A Practical Handbook. Les Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2010. 

Gailey, Jeannine A. “Fat Shame to Fat Pride: Fat Women’s Sexual and Dating Experiences.” Fat Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 114-27. 

Hallenbeck, Sarah. “Toward a Posthuman Perspective: Feminist Rhetorical Methodologies and Everyday Practices.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, vol. 15, 2012, pp. 9-27. 

Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an “Ethics of Hope and Care.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 34, no. 4, 2015, pp. 391-408, https://doi.org/10.1080/07350198.2015.1073558. 

“Home” Braving Body Shame. https://www.bravingbodyshame.com/ Accessed 17 October 2022. 

“Interview with Amanda Lacount.“ Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online.  

“Interview with Ashley Seruya.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 28 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Georgie Peters.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 28 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Ivy Felicia. ” Braving Body Shame Conference, 25 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Katie McCrindle.” Braving Body Shame Conference,  01 March, 2020, online 

“Interview with Nia Patterson.“ Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Shannon Kaneshige.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online.   

“Interview with Sophie Raniere.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 27 February, 2020, online.  

“Interview with Toni.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 27 February, 2020, online. 

Johnson, Erica L., and Patricia Moran. “Introduction.” The Female Face of Shame, edited by Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Moran, Indiana UP, 2013, pp. 1-18. 

Mann, Bonnie. “Femininity, Shame, and Redemption.” Gender and the Politics of Shame, special issue of Hypatia, vol. 33, no.3, 2018, pp. 402-18.  

Rand, Erin J. Reclaiming Queer: Activist and Academic Rhetorics of Resistance. U Alabama P, 2014. 

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012. 

Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, 2017, https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i3.5824. 

Smith, Michelle. “‘Indoor Duties’ in Utopia: Archival Recalcitrance and Methodologies of Lived Experience.” College English, vol. 80 no. 6, 2018, pp. 517-38, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26773399. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” Gay Shame, edited by David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub, U of  Chicago P, 2009. 49-62.  

Stenberg, Shari J. “‘Tweet Me Your First Assaults’: Writing Shame and the Rhetorical Work of #NotOkay” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, 2018, pp. 119-38, https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2017.1402126. 

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research, Design and Methods. 3rd ed., vol. 5. Sage, 2003. 


Global Mobility and Subaltern Knowledge: A Transnational Feminist Perspective on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

This article examines the effects of global economic disparities between states on the production and reception of popular contemporary writings by Iranian women. Focusing on works by Iranian women in diaspora as staples in multiculturalist education geared toward worldly Western readers, this article re-reads Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis through a transnational feminist framework to contextualize the historical struggles that inform the enthusiasm for this work[1]. As part of a larger pattern of diaspora writing by Iranian women, Persepolis is meant to convey the culture and character of Middle Eastern people to Western audiences who wish to engage, in good faith, in multiculturalist exchange across distance and difference. Falling short of this promise, however, Persepolis is laced with subtle Eurocentric rhetoric presenting as class bias, Islamophobia, and appeals to ‘white feminism’[2]. While diaspora writings by Iranian women are widely read with enthusiasm for their apparently progressive offerings, a transnational feminist reading can highlight how global and local syncretism can, in this case, increase misunderstanding and bias rather than create knowledge about distant peoples. Far from removing this work from study, however, Persepolis should be re-read for the critical insight it can provide into the vagaries of multiculturalism and the inequities that persist in the aftermath of European colonialism and its globalizing markets. Despite being a popular text in American and European higher education, Persepolis is a class-inflected work read as class-neutral by a readership that attempts to address global colonial inequalities through narrative discourse without paying enough attention to the historical struggles that create them. To address some of these misconnections, a transnational feminist re-reading can provide insight into how global market dynamics between states can influence literary production and audience reception. In sum, despite being an exemplar of work that signifies the humanist and anti-racist bona fides of the academic humanities and women’s studies, Persepolis is distinctly Islamophobic and Eurocentric in ways that implicate economic class within nations and market dynamics between them as historical struggles are translated into neutral narratives of migration and exile. 

What happens when American academic institutions, motivated by progressive values, wish to encounter Middle Eastern subjects as a pathway to becoming more worldly readers (Fisk 44)?[3] Marjane Satrapi, along with others like Azar Nafisi and Azadeh Moaveni, are best-selling Iranian women authors in the economically dominant, or Western, world. Their works often appear in college writing classes and feminist rhetorics anthologies: “in the U.S. alone, Persepolis appears on about 250 university syllabi” (Chute 137). Why is there such enthusiasm for this work among Western readers when it is banned in Iran? Perhaps the popularity of these stories suggests a preference on the part of Western readers for narratives that feature characters whose differences are buffered by resemblances – in this case, class and its attendant ethnic and religious features. In other words, in Persepolis, we are faced with a literary figure who is different, to be sure, but the difference in question is a kind of “difference within sameness,” or difference that is palatable (Iranian) but not excessive (Muslim) (Puar 25)[4]. 

Analyzing this work at the nexus of literature on one side and economic and historical struggle on the other to “foreground the concerns of people who have been the most marginalized in social and cultural life,” can tell us a great deal about how global literature, rather than uniting distant people, provides citizens of similar geopolitical status a way of exchanging discourse across national borders in an act of solidarity that can reify the very processes of hegemony that reading such literature is seen as subverting (Stone-Mediatore 128). With Persepolis, global literature provides a cathartic release for educated, liberal readers benefitting from uneven political and economic arrangements that, ultimately, allow them to profit from the consequences of colonialism. To understand these transnational entanglements, it is important to recognize how historical, political, and economic structures influence the shaping of migration narratives. For example, the Iranian diaspora is largely homogenous. Hailing from the Northern provinces, often light-skinned, and often members of the middle or upper classes, Persepolis gives a reading of the 1979 revolution that glosses over the anti-colonial and egalitarian elements of this event suggesting that certain ideological alliances, informed by class and ethnic status, influence this perspective (Parrillo 121). Asking why this memoir is so popular among Western readers means recognizing that the audience it addresses is similarly composed of market-dominant ethnic elite readers who come across Persepolis in college language and women’s studies classes[5]. In such venues, connection across difference is seen as an antidote to the unequal economic dynamics between first and third-world countries[6]. However, instead of creating the kind of ‘bridge building’ that addresses these distances, Persepolis does the opposite and solidifies class alliances across national borders under the auspices of literature and women’s studies.  

Recalling that migration is informed by specific colonial processes unfolding within specific colonial zones of influence, the connection between anti-Islamic sentiments and classist attitudes in Persepolis provides insight into how global and local syncretism can create disconnect rather that unity. Recalling that current members of the Iranian diaspora, who are often categorically opposed to the 1979 revolution and Islam, are composed of distinct Iranian classes and attendant ethnic groups suggests that the anti-Islamic consensus in these writings is tied to a perspective that is informed by market-dominant ethnic elite status. Let it be stated, immediately, that the failures of the Islamic revolution are legion and that the current regime in Iran is corrupt in countless ways, but the revolution did attempt, through popular consensus, to meet the promises of a modern, democratic republic in ways that even drew the attention of embittered Western philosophers like Michel Foucault, who met with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978[7]. In the spirit of re-reading Persepolis as a graphic nonfiction text firmly situated within history, this study reviews several examples of Islamophobic rhetoric present throughout the text and concludes with a counter-text by Babak Anvari engaging the same themes as Satrapi’s memoir (the effects of the Islamic revolution on the lives of Iranians and especially on the lives of women) without reifying Eurocentric ideological paradigms. Anvari’s Under the Shadow presents serious challenges for comparison as a film being contrasted with a graphic novel; however, both texts focus on the same historical moment and explore similar themes all in distinctly visual terms making them sufficiently tied together to warrant comparison. With these elements in mind, the following examples of Eurocentric rhetoric in Persepolis suggest that the creation and consumption of popular diaspora writing by Iranian women indicates a discursive alliance between market-dominant ethnic elites communicating across national borders. 

Islamophobia in Iranian Women’s Diaspora Writing: The Case of Persepolis  

While Persepolis is part of a larger pattern of texts written by Iranian women in diaspora, it is noteworthy both for its prominence in literary and feminist studies across the United States and for its graphic representation of the lives of Iranians, especially its women. It is important to emphasize the visual nature of this work since Islamic practices and philosophies are known for their habits of concealment and covering (including various Islamic head coverings), a tradition that continues to baffle, and fixate, Western viewers who long to uncover the Middle East. Especially its women. In an example of pandering to this tendency, the visual representation of Iran in Persepolis, notably, begins with a chapter ominously titled The Veil[8]

Figure 1: Page 3 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The figure includes a black and white illustration of a woman’s face cropped out of sight except for the right eye illustrated next to the words “The Veil” in all capital letters.

With this opening move, Satrapi introduces the 1979 Islamic revolution using the politically charged and often orientalist image of the veil. Considering the intended audience, whose imagination is undoubtedly saturated with assumptions about women, gender, and Islam, Western readers are introduced to the Islamic revolution in a familiar iconography that likely evokes certain ideas in the minds of Western readers about fundamentalism and clashing civilizations[9].

Figure 2: Page 6 of Persepolis. The figure includes a black and white illustration split in half and featuring a young girl in the center. Directly above her there is black text on a white background. On her right side, her hair is uncovered, and she wears a white long-sleeved shirt. Here, there is a black background with images of white gears, a ruler, and a hammer. On left side, her hair and body are covered and against a white background there are black geometrical, floral shapes.

Folded into this opening move, Satrapi goes on to present two sides of herself from a child’s perspective as she reflects on the revolution. On one side she is unveiled and surrounded by a ruler, a hammer, and gears implying modernity and on the other side is veiled and surrounding by ornate, geometric shapes indicating religion/tradition. She remarks, “I didn’t know what to think about the veil, deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde (6).” The implication is that veils and religion are non-modern (a refusal to progress forward into the present) and that religion/tradition lacks any world-making potential. The implication being that to be unveiled is to be measured, rational, and decidedly modern, while to be veiled is its opposite. The articulation we encounter here, of modernity and religion as two discrete and mutually exclusive categories, is not an innocent or facile rendering but, in fact, indexes a profound Eurocentricity (Asad 14; Can Non-Europeans Think? Dabashi 222). Aside from this, the reduction of the Islamic revolution into a mere matter of religious sentiment or cultural motivation erases the more urgent material conditions and anti-colonial resistance that was far more central to the founding of the republic than head scarves. As part of a larger pattern of stories written by market-dominant ethnic elite Iranian women who write for their Western counterparts in highly legible terms, Satrapi’s illustration of tradition and modernity smacks of civilizational discourse and, in ways that will be outlined further, attempts to humanize Iranians by excising their connection to Islam. 

As a graphic memoir, Satrapi’s account presents the thoughts and feelings of a child caught in a revolutionary moment. As such, historically precise portraits cannot be expected from such an account. However, Satrapi does declare in the preface of Persepolis that this is an attempt to clear up misconceptions about Iranians: “writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists (1).” While precision cannot be expected of a work of art, the representation of events in this memoir outlines a specific goal: to dispel misconceptions about Iranians and, as it turns out, their relationship to Islam. Persepolis is one striking example of a multiculturalist work read for its ethos of so-called bridge-building and its promise of unity a “contact zone”; however, a reading focused on class reveals the workings of political economy in the shaping of the Islamic revolution and its transnational links to the international politics of the American academy (Pratt 8)[10]. In other words, Persepolis is an example of a discursive, class-based alliance between the “global coalition of dominant groups” that exist in both First and Third-World contexts (Prashad 278). One striking example of this appears in Satrapi’s use of Western popular culture to convey the similarity of Iranians to the West against the dissimilarity of Muslims to the same. To understand this attempt at strategic union through strategic separation, it is important to contextualize the historical moment out of which the Islamic revolution emerged: the Cold War. As scholars have noted, the triumph of the war against the Soviet agenda marked the beginning of the rise of an elite class of citizens in former colonies and semi-colonies who acted as agents of colonialism for personal gain (Class and Nation Amin 136; Al Ahram Dabashi 44; Prashad 278). In the case of Iran prior to the revolution, the United States and Britain influenced the formation of a social order composed of middle and upper-class Iranians who benefited from the colonial presence and were thus unsurprisingly more receptive to the culture of the West compared to other classes who saw their situation worsen after the arrival of British and American trade[11]. Satrapi’s aim in this work to dispel harmful views about Iranians by invoking the so called wrongdoings of a few extremists camouflages the important class-based struggles that informed the revolution and undoubtedly resonates with her target audience who are barraged with media rhetoric about presumed Muslim extremists[12].  

Again, though the Islamic revolution failed on many grounds, the material dynamics between Iran (and similarly suited Third-World nations) and the British and American corporations that ruthlessly exploited its natural resources are often glossed over by Iranian women writing in diaspora[13]. The argument outlined suggests that class interests inform Satrapi’s account of the Islamic revolution in a memoir rightly praised for its gorgeously illustrated graphic depictions of an important historical moment. However, the popularity of Persepolis and its status as the foremost text depicting Iran as “an ordinary Iranian girlhood” obscures some important elements involved in the revolution indicating “an association of social interests” between the dominant groups of disparate nations in the name of literature and feminism (Chute 136; Quijano 166)[14]. In both the memoir and its film adaptation, the 1979 revolution is illustrated as a takeover by bearded goons and veiled, serpent-like revolutionary women targeting American pop culture. In an example of pandering to elite, Western reading audiences, such imagery says little about the targeting of such icons and what that has to do with economic imperialism and, instead, illustrates these events as random bursts of anti-Western sentiment. In this case, Western audiences seek connections with Iranians based on their mutuality (never their difference) and based on their mutual consumption of American popular culture products. There is no discussion as to why these commercial products ended up in Iran and other Third-World nations in the first place. Again, while precision cannot be demanded of a work of art the consistent concealment of economic class dynamics, and Western corporate trade within Iran, as well as its translation outside of Iran suggests a pattern. Namely, categorically anti-Islamic narratives from homogenous diaspora spaces do not dispel harmful misconceptions about Iranians; instead, they displace harmful ideas about Iranians onto Islam and Muslims.  

Figure 3: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The first frame is illustrated in black with two figures etched against this background. One is a salesman wearing a long black coat carrying contraband and stating “110 Tumans” in response to a young Marji who stands beside him asking, “how much?” Above them, a line of text reads, “I bought two tapes: Kim Wilde and Camel” in all capital letters. The second frame illustrates this same scene with a young Marji departing with a set of tapes


Figure 4: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The frame on the left illustrates Marji walking down a street in Tehran with a text box above her head reading. “We’re the kinds in America…whoa” in all capital letters as a group of revolutionary guards (women) clad in Islamic veils advance upon her, pointing. The second frame shows Marji apprehended by the women while she looks into in the direction of the audience. A text box at the top of the second frame reads “You! Stop!” uttered by the guards accompanied by another text box at the bottom of the frame reading, “They were guardians of the revolution, the women’s branch. This group had been added in 1982, to arrest women who were improperly veiled. (Like me, for example).”


Figure 5: Page 134 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The frame on the left contains a cassette with a tape being inserted accompanied by a text box at the top of the frame stating, “I got off pretty easy considering. The Guardians of the revolution didn’t find my tapes.” The second text box illustrates Marji dancing to the music from the cassette with a text box at the bottom of the frame reading, “to each his own way of calming down.” A text bubble in zigzag shape at the top of the frame reads, “We’re the kids in America…whoao.”

The above images show a young Satrapi searching for contraband, like a fugitive, dodging Islamic revolutionary guards and their seizure of such goods. In former colonies and semi-colonies, consumption of Western media, like skin bleaching, is imbricated with class and economic dynamics informed by global colonialism which, in the case of the Middle East, is also very often connected to patterns of religious belief. In Iran, post-revolutionary measures taken to rehabilitate native culture to rebuild Iran after the ravages of colonial theft are illustrated as random acts of Islamic authoritarianism. Such a depiction, in all its dramatic pathos, will resonate with an audience who will react positively to the image of a young Iranian girl yearning for American popular culture goods as if the scene is untouched by colonialism and its structures of harm and gain. In this example of an Iranian girl opposing “extremism” by resisting an Islamic boogeyman, the echoes of Islamophobic and Eurocentric rhetoric emanate in the undue focus on culture and religion—a position that parallels the famous ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis that has been thoroughly discredited for its obscuring of economic and political forces that underlie regional tensions[15].   

While Satrapi’s illustration of ominous revolutionary women and their bearded male counterparts working to eject Western consumer products from the Islamic republic provides one view of this pandering, another perspective appears in Robert E. Looney’s Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution. In this version of events, Western collusion with Iranian ruling classes, and the instability it produced, led to conditions of scarcity whereby “two-thirds of the agricultural population,” according to Looney, “faced poor nutritional intake” (45)[16]. The second perspective suggests that this revolution, like many revolutions, was about bread and not women’s veiling practices or popular culture. When brutal monarchies are overthrown in Iran or even places like Haiti, for example, the story is not so aspirational as when one would find such revolutionary stories in French or American history. There is little sympathy for popular uprisings and expressions of the democratic will of a people when the people in question are defending their sovereignty in the language of Islam and when they are placed in a global racial hierarchy consonant with economic and political self-determination, or in this case, the lack thereof[17].

Satrapi’s account does not provide anything close to a nuanced perspective of why Iranians took to the streets in droves to overthrow a colonial puppet regime and shatter the iconography associated with it. What she does provide is a look at the revolution from the eyes of an ethnically elite Iranian residing in France, in Satrapi’s case, and addressing audiences in former colonial centers where her memoir continues to garner enthusiasm (Ansari and Parillo 122). Yet again, class tensions within Iran and larger colonial dynamics outside Iran inform the anti-Western sentiment seen during the 1979 revolution and the smashing of Western consumer products. Despite seriously glossing over these important details explaining why American popular culture is banned in Iran, Satrapi does make some brief comments about the rigid class systems motivating the revolution. For example, in the chapter titled “The Letter,” Satrapi chronicles her housekeepers love affair with her neighbor’s son who, Satrapi says, “like most peasants, […] didn’t know how to read and write (35).” The figure in question became Satrapi’s family servant when she was just eight years old and is caught breaking across class lines in this chapter.  

Figure 6: Page 34 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains five frames in black and white with capital letters. The top left frame has an image of a young girl with an arrow pointing to her stating, “her,” “this is Mehri.” The second figure illustrates a scene in rural Iran featuring Mehri’s parents handing over Mehri to Satrapi’s family as a servant. The third frame shows a young Mehri looking after an infant Satrapi. The third shows the same scene in a playground. The last scene shows Satrapi and Mehri sitting at a table eating with a text box stating, “she always finished my food.”

At a certain point, the maid is caught carrying on a flirtation with the neighbor until Satrapi’s parents find out and put an end to the relationship saying, “in this country, you must stay within your own social class (34).  

Figure 7: Page 37 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains two frames. The one on the left shows Marji speaking with her father in her bedroom as they discuss class dynamics. Her father says, “you must understand that their love was impossible.” The second frame shows Marji and her father disagreeing about the inflexible nature of class lines in Iran with two text boxes: one from Marji stating, “why is that” and one with her father’s response, “because in this country you must stay within your own social class.”

Explaining the importance of maintaining rigid class lines in Iran, this scene illustrates the issues resting at the heart of many revolutionary struggles: inequality and exploitation. While one generation reinforces these class divides, a young Marji questions them, providing readers a glimpse into another very different story buried in the iconic memoir—one that is not captured in the idea of dispelling myths about Iranians by denouncing the ‘wrongdoings of a few extremists.’ 

While recognizing how the Islamic revolution in Iran, and popular stories about it, are informed by economic class dynamics, both within and between nations, it is important to also note that ethnicity, and especially religion, are deeply inflected by class in the context of many Middle Eastern countries and communities. Iran, like many places in the contemporary world, is a region influenced by contemporary racial classifications systems and what Rey Chow calls the “ascendency of whiteness” (Puar 200)[18].

Figure 8: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure depicts seven characters at a grocery store in a moment of tension. The figure furthest on the left states, “Southern women are all whores” while a retreating figure in the center states, “it’s terrible what you’re saying.”

An example of this appears in the chapter titled “The Jewels” describing an interaction in a grocery store in the northern city of Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war when Southern Iranians fled the war to find shelter in the North. Like many nation-states, Iran is populated by different ethnic groups, and Southern Iranians are viewed as darker skinned than their Northern counterparts. In this scene, the statement “anyway, as everyone knows: ‘Southern women are all whores,’” is made with all due rhetorical force conveying the kinds of internal ethnic and class hierarchies that persist, always, in reference to European colonization (93). These conceptions of ethnicity, tied to class, do not disappear in diaspora spaces. For instance, the ethnically ambiguous term “Persian,” at best used to hide the more Islamically charged “Iranian” and at worst tied to a notorious Aryan discourse, is sometimes used by Iranians who strategically support the idealization of whiteness[19]. It is important to note the manner in which class, ethnicity, and religion shift and mutate across borders and distances to reappear, later, in economically-dominant host nations (mired in their own racial dynamics) only to form unexpected alliances in literary and feminist attempts to address borders and distances. What follows is a fusion of power, based in class status, across national borders and between market-dominant ethnic elites who are educated enough to recognize their own dominant status in the global colonial order of things and what that means for far-away others (Fisk 179)[20].   

Satrapi’s conjuring up of a foreign friend to help assuage anxieties about inter-state conflicts and exploitation is asymmetrically mirrored in American foreign policy which, as David Harvey notes, is so often in the business of conjuring up a foreign enemy during times of domestic tension (Applebaum and Robinson 94). As noted, the fleeing ruling classes in pre-revolutionary Iran now reside in America as minorities and hold a palpable and categorical anti-Islamic attitude toward not just the Islamic Republic but Islam as such (Ansari and Parillo 122). Some of them even collaborate with the Department of Defense and call, publicly, for open warfare against the Iranian regime[21]. The economic undertones that shape these tensions are left unexplored since they point inevitably to past and present colonial policies by British and American corporations and the governments that back them, as well, it should be noted, as the constituents who benefit from these arrangements. Class elements are left unexplored, however, as both Persepolis and other bestselling works by Iranian women consistently focus on clerical authoritarianism in highly legible terms (veils and facile remarks about modernity and traditionalism) as they address Western reading audiences[22]. An example of this appears in one scene involving the hospitalization of Satrapi’s uncle, who tries to get official permission to leave the newly formed Islamic republic for medical reasons. In this scene, his wife is enraged at finding her former domestic servant who, because of the Islamic revolution and its reordering of classes, is now dictating the life and death of the formerly upper classes: 

Figure 9: Page 121 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains three frames featuring five characters. Marji, her parents, her aunt, and a hospital administrator. The first and second frame shows a conversation between Aunt Firouzeh and the administrator in which approval for foreign travel is denied. The third frame illustrates the family, minus the administrator, reviewing this result with outrage.

Contempt for the lower classes, and a sense of their having a rightful place, is sharply apparent in Aunt Firouzeh’s frustration, which is informed by attachments to an Iranian economy arranged by British and U.S trade agreements dividing Iranians along class lines[23]. As such, Satrapi’s account of the revolution does not present “Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” as subheadings have suggested but rather illustrates “an association of social interests” between the dominant groups of disparate nations in the name of literature and feminism (Chute 136; Quijano 166)[24]. 

The argument outlined suggests that Persepolis provides an example of how global literature, under the auspices of multiculturalism, can obscure certain, perhaps more unsavory, differences while accentuating other, more palatable ones: that is, by presenting a class-inflected historical moment as class-neutral. In this case, as other scholars have noted, this version of events is linked to different and contending versions of global mobility—who can move across national borders and who cannot—and the colonial market dynamics which enable or enclose those movements. As Maboud Ansari notes, most Iranians in diaspora are “upwardly-mobile, ethnically homogenous Iranian emigres who are the demographic majority in the West” (Ansari and Parillo 121). Recalling that in Iranian and other Middle East contexts, patterns of Islamic and secular belief often run parallel to economic class standing meaning that Satrapi’s narration, as a diaspora Iranian, is fittingly anti-Islamic.

Critical Responses to Persepolis: Class, Culture, and Revolutionary Struggle. 

Immigrants and diaspora subjects do not automatically populate universities and literary environments with progressive values. Instead, they can sometimes reinforce imperial power and bias through discursive alliances centered around class interests. While these elements are apparent in Persepolis itself, they are also echoed in secondary readings of Satrapi’s work by critics who invoke it to confirm what they suspected all along: that the conflict in Iran is not yet another instance of the United States strong-arming Third-World nations into conditions of production and exchange that vastly favor the United States. Instead, they would suggest that the conflict in Iran has much to do with amiable cultural exchange being thwarted by Islamic fundamentalists. In “Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,” Typhaine Leservot remarks, “Western products and cultural references abound in Satrapi’s Iran. Marji, her character, listens to popular western music, wears western-style clothes, goes to parties, and […] rebels against her parents and society like any western teen” (115). Evidently, to see Iranians as human, we must “highlight how westernized Iranians are (ibid).” Ignoring the economic relations behind the presence of the Western consumer products she lists, and what they ultimately point to (imperialism), Leservot goes on to make the case for Occidentalism as an underexplored analytic framework[25]. We are left to wonder how Leservot approaches contemporary Middle East/U.S relations in her position as director of “Muslim Studies” at Wesleyan University. In a similar focus to that of Satrapi, Leservot’s emphasis on culture and religion obscures the relations of exchange and inequality that create the kinds of crises she is rightly exploring in this work[26].   

Despite its success in describing the time in question in striking illustrations, Satrapi’s account of the 1979 revolution inspires simplistic readings about this event which land on familiar Eurocentric and Islamophobic ground. Despite an admirable attempt to reflect on important topics, Mary Ostby, like Leservot, reviews the “stereotype-defying” memoir as an exemplar of diversity and indeed cites Leservot to argue that the crisis leading up to the revolution was not anti-colonial in nature, “contrary to any notion of the Islamic revolution as a historical rupture, Iranian culture is the product of mutually constitutive contact in which it both shaped and was shaped by other cultures—both Western and non-Western (570). In what Elysium realm is any nation of the Third-World, in this case Iran, engaged in “mutually constitutive contact” is a mystery considering historical facts indicating otherwise[27].  The impulse to screen the realities of colonial theft and meddling between vastly unequal states may be rooted in a yearning for connection, or even a yearning for atonement, tied to the realization of one’s own position on the benefiting side of the colonial divide. The intention fails it promise, however, as indicated by critical readings that are congruent with Satrapi’s account of the revolution captured in her framing in the preface about the difference between Iranians and “a few extremists.” 

Perhaps no other critical response is as intensely filtered through a Eurocentric lens as Gloria Steinem’s endorsement on the back cover of the text, hailing Persepolis as having “the intimacy of a memoir, the irresistibility of a comic book, and the political depth of a conflict between fundamentalism and democracy.” It is important to note that Steinem, a famous feminist author, was once a paid employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose notorious campaigns against Third-World governments and economies are well-documented and critiqued[28]. Steinem’s characterization resonates with the way global literature is read and written by often dominant economic and ethnic groups across national borders who communicate across distances and unite, ultimately, around class interests[29]. In this case, Eurocentric rhetoric in Persepolis “capture[s] the interplay of market dynamics, power relations, and social forces that cut across borders,” in contrast with the multicultural ethics and feminist values such works are meant to convey (Appelbaum and Robinson 21). In sum, telling tales about ethnic ‘others’ in humanities and women’s studies classes across the United States has the effect of obscuring—not disclosing—what ‘others’ are like. As global economies continue to orbit around colonial relations of exchange, and global politics are shaken by the conflicts these relations produce, global literature and feminist rhetoric (inadvertently) disguise the effects of uneven development in ways that point toward religious and cultural differences rather than material conditions.  

While diasporic spaces do hold promise, it is important to be aware of the adverse consequences of transnational migration when diasporas are often shaped by race and class differences and borders selectively filter welcome and unwelcome entrants. The forces that enable the movement of international students are very different from those that enable the movement of other kinds of migrants with other stories to tell. These differences can manifest in especially harmful ways when considering the intensity of economic differences between First and Third-World states. This is not to suggest, however, that global inequalities have surpassed North/South binaries, or that wealth and power are not concentrated along the same old colonial lines. This does suggest, however, that established colonial patterns have fissured into elaborate subdivisions, feeding into new and emerging alliances between market-dominant ethnic elite writers in Third-World countries and their market-dominant ethnic elite reading audiences in Western contexts. In these cases, well-meaning readers end up simply looking back at themselves in a yet another example of subaltern speech unrealized. In sum, the emphasis on culture and religion erases the fingerprints of colonialism—which mark the contemporary crises facing both Iran and the Middle East as well as the larger Third-World in a global economic system that continues to orbit around past and present theft of resources and military domination. In this vein, the subtlety of Satrapi’s anti-Islamic rhetoric has gone unnoticed by audiences and critics and academics who repeat her Eurocentric biases in their readings of this famous memoir. Against these readings, the following section provides a counter-text that addresses the consolidation of power by the authoritarian clerical faction in Iran while folding this assessment into a critique of ongoing colonialism and its effects on Iranian social development.  

Lessons in Feminist Criticism: Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow.  

While primarily responding to economic imperialism, the Islamic revolution also intervenes in a global media climate dominated by Western knowledge and representation. Few would deny that the Islamic revolution fell short of its many promises, but it did succeed in shifting consumer-producer relations between the West and Iran in the domain of media and film. Iranian films have become a major player in the world of global cinema, doing the much-needed work of demonstrating that other regions of the world do, in fact, think, “the anti-Western politics of the post-revolutionary Islamic state enabled a reversal of the filmic flow, which used to move from the West into Iran, so it now moves out from Iran” (Moallem 27). It is important to note that it is precisely the Islamic, anti-western, censorship laws enacted by the post-revolutionary regime, and their insistence on films drawing material only from local sources, that has decentered the Western gaze and its attendant political, economic, and epistemic hegemonies. 

Having discussed the subtle Eurocentric rhetoric underlying critiques of Islam in popular and academic writing by Iranian women, I now turn to a counterexample of feminist critique addressing similar issues as those of Persepolis (the rise of masculinist, clerical Islam among other post-revolutionary failures) in a film titled Under the Shadow. A 2016 Iranian diaspora film written and directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow is a horror story set in the immediate aftermath of the revolution during the height of the Iran/Iraq war. Set in Tehran, Under the Shadow critiques Islamic veiling laws enacted after the revolution. The shadow, in this case, refers to both mandatory veiling and continued colonial interference in Iran which destabilizes Iranian sovereignty in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war. This film successfully weaves anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal critique together by situating the problems of this age into a story about a haunting featuring an entity from Islamic theology known as djinn. The djinn in this case is presented in an Islamic veil, or chador, that reflects anxieties about the role of religion, spirituality, and native consciousness in a society forced into modernity by a violent and dominating power[30]. Post-revolutionary anxieties about the role of religion in society are a common theme in this film which features the arrival of the demon (djinn) immediately after an American bomb punctures the roof of an apartment building where the main characters live. In other words, the arrival of the djinn reflects both the contemporary spiritual crisis haunting Iranian social consciousness and the colonial forces that shape them.  

Under the Shadow opens with Shideh, a young mother, learning that her university appeal process has been denied and that she is barred from attendance because of her political activism during the Islamic revolution. Shideh, a revolutionary who remains in Iran after 1979, sits across from a cleric and arbitrator who tells her, in harsh and uncompromising terms, that she will not be admitted to university. In a scene showcasing the multivocal character of the revolutionary movement (two different and contending revolutionary actors find themselves on opposite sides of the newly born Islamic republic), Shideh is excluded from university, perhaps, it is implied, because she is a woman. This critique repeats in other, subtler, examples of misogynistic thinking presented throughout the film. For example, Shideh’s landlord accuses her of failing to lock a garage door, implying that because she is the only women in the building who drives a car, it must be her negligence causing the problem. Later on, Shideh’s husband makes a vague claim about how Shideh is neglectful of their daughter, Dorsa, and should behave in a more conventionally motherly fashion. Under the Shadow portrays the many faces of sexism in a society that questions woman’s competence in every area of life, whether private or public, and maps the contradictions and absurdities of patriarchy while also depicting how these sexist views are informed by, and multiplied by, incessant colonialist meddling. 

In this sense, the film draws on, and therefore affirms, indigenous theologies and mythologies to perform a dual critique of patriarchal versions of Islam and always/already patriarchal colonialism. The missile, which initiates the haunting, does not detonate and, in the ensuing chaos, Shideh’s daughter, Dorsa, tells her mom that she saw an apparition. Once the missile is removed, it leaves a rupture in the ceiling. This becomes the place of entry and exit for the djinn who initiates a campaign of fitna against Shideh and Dorsa. The Islamic notion of fitna, referring to civil strife, originates in the first civil war in the history of Islam, the one that erupted soon after the death of the prophet (PBUH), and is an event which continues to haunt the Ummah through ongoing Shia/Sunni tensions[31]. It is important to note that the Iran/Iraq war broke out two years after the Islamic revolution when Saddam Hussain made territorial claims on Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, aided by the Reagan administration, which armed both Iran and Iraq during this conflict—a textbook example of fitna—prolonging and amplifying a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Iraqis. Paralleling the fitna that the Reagan administration stirred between Iran and Iraq, the djinn hides Dorsa’s doll and starts telling Dorsa that her mom has taken it away. The djinn also hides Shideh’s workout cassette, which Shideh later finds in the garbage, implicating Dorsa as the only other person in the house. The sowing of fitna, or civil unrest, in this household alludes to the strategic and calculated fitna imposed on Iran and Iraq by the Reagan administration and, thus, performs a double-edged critique of patriarchal imperialism from outside and sexist bias from within. While Under the Shadow critiques sexist oppression in post-revolutionary Iran by focusing, in some sense, on the private sphere, it folds the narrative into a larger social and historical event, showcasing the impact of imperialist intrusion on internal social development.  

As the djinn’s aggressions escalate, Shideh flees her home forgetting to wear the now-mandatory Islamic veil. She is promptly picked up by revolutionary guards and sent to jail where she is reminded of her main duty in life by yet another cleric: to guard her modesty. They send her home where Shideh, pushed back into the private sphere, returns to an escalated haunting; the djinn takes her daughter Dorsa. Shideh throws herself into the attack, creating, perhaps, the most visually striking scene in the film where the protagonist is shown drowning in the fabric of an Islamic veil. This heavy-handed symbolism makes a clear statement about women’s struggles in the Islamic republic while avoiding critiques that center and justify Eurocentrism and, perhaps most importantly, acknowledges the influence of colonialism. Anchoring its critique in native ideas and mythologies, this diaspora film, despite not being under censorship by the Islamic Republic, nonetheless avoids the kind of Eurocentric critique we see in Persepolis. In its very title, Under the Shadow, suggest a dual-critique of internal sexism and external patriarchal imperialism highlighting how women’s situation in post-revolutionary Iran is always informed by both: the shadow is a demonic entity haunting the splitting of society into public and private spheres; the shadow is an American-made missile sold through Israeli channels. When placed into conversation with a work like Under the Shadow, Persepolis can provide a great deal of insight into the many layers of complexity that inform U.S/Middle East relations and thus meet the promises of cosmopolitan liberalism with much greater force than as a stand-alone text.


This article presents Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis as a case study illustrating how literature produced by Iranian writers in diaspora is often read as an exercise in progressive, liberal education served with good multicultural intentions. Reading Persepolis, instead, for what it says about the structure and function of international migration vis-à-vis global colonial markets can tell us a great deal about how religion in the Middle East is always imbricated with ethnicity and class—and how that manifests in diaspora spaces. This, in addition to the increasingly securitized regulation of who gets to cross borders and what kinds of stories get to be told about border crossing, can provide readers with lessons in feminist criticism and the misunderstandings and distances that can occur regardless of good intentions[32].

Despite the anti-Islamic consensus in Iranian women’s writings, and its ties to class and ethnicity in the Middle East, readers of such works continue to view difference and inclusion in purely visual terms lacking the depth of analysis that can come with attention to historical context (Sara Ahmed 173). In the case of Iranian diaspora writings and scholarship, and in recognition of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and its failures, it is important to note that migratory flow from the global south does not inherently reduce inequity, but in a seemingly paradoxical move, can sometimes strengthen it. In Satrapi’s work, important class differences, always tied to market-dominant ethnic status, dictates transnational movement. These differences are not readily visible to someone unfamiliar with class-based (and thus ethnic and religious) stratification in Iran and its specific manifestations during the time and place in question. In Satrapi’s border-crossing, we see how certain kinds of migrant interaction with host nations differs based on economic or citizenship status—an international student traveler vastly differs from a humanitarian entrant, for instance[33]. These differences in kinds and categories of migration express the carefully managed nature of borders and how population control mechanisms influence art and literary culture without the awareness of readers and critics. Arguably, in the case of Persepolis, global literature serves as a platform on which dominant groups form communicative alliances across national borders and assuage shared anxieties about their own complicities in benefiting from an uneven global market. As a reward for such effort, and in the case of authors like Satrapi, safe passage is granted to certain kinds of migrants while enclosure prevents the entry of others. In addition to serving transnational economic alliances, national borders also serve the ongoing alliances of power within the United States in favor of ruling ethnic groups by avoiding tipping the demographic scales too far in the direction of minoritized peoples whose perspectives might disrupt the contemporary American social order.  

In this vein, proponents of anti-racist and, of course, feminist teaching and learning concerned with the ongoing effects of racialization may read this literary text for the subtle Eurocentric rhetoric apparent in it to study what kinds of structures it reflects. What I suggest in this article is not to abandon this work—quite the contrary—what I suggest is that we update our reading of this text with counter examples like Under the Shadow to shed further light on the political and historical dimensions of how a story like this comes to be told in the first place. As scholars of world literature note, readers now have unprecedented connection to the writings of peoples in distant regions, but understanding has not caught up at the same speed of connection. With certain geopolitical updates in mind, we can read Persepolis for its expression of the cultural politics of globalization and the complexities presented in the figure of the migrant writer.  

End Notes

[1] ‘Western’ in this article is consonant with my use of the term ‘Third-World,’ stressing the vast economic differences between, broadly speaking, regions of the world separated by the divisions created in the wake of the ‘age of discovery.’ For further elaboration, please see note number 6.  

[2] My usage of Islamophobia is aligned, broadly, as “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force” (Oxford 2020). 

[3] Gloria Fisks’s 2018 Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature outlines the persistent misunderstandings created by a literary readership attempting to build connections across differenceUltimately, Fisk argues that there is a great deal of bad faith thinking involved in these attempts leaving almost nothing knowledgeable for readers of such works. 

[4] In her work, Terrorist AssemblagesJasbir Puar describes the workings of the necropolitical carousel operating in the modern world today and argues that one distinctive feature of this machinery is the “careful management of difference” where “what little acceptance liberal diversity proffers in the way of inclusion is highly mediated by huge realms of exclusion: the ethnic is usually straight, usually has access to material and cultural capital (both as a consumer and as an owner), and is in fact often male. These would be the tentative attributes that would distinguish a tolerable ethnic (an exceptional patriot, for example) from an intolerable ethnic (a terrorist suspect) (25). Ana Ribero makes a similar argument about acceptable heterogeneity in her characterization of “brownwashing rhetoric” used in national addresses by Barack Obama “to placate liberal allies, garner the Latin@ vote, and posit a humane national image, while it disguises continued discriminatory tactics against racialized undocumented migrants” (1).

[5] My usage of the term “market-dominant ethnic elite” refers to the emergence of a class of economically dominant Third-World citizens who reside in economically dominant or Western countries—countries which are wracked with their own internal ethnic politics rendering the presence of seemingly non-dominant ethnic individuals or groups into a kind of currency. For example, many American universities hire international students who are seen as injection of pluralism on campus. Because of how wealth and power are currently distributed across nations, however, these are the market-dominant ethnic elite members from their respective nations.  

[6] I use the term “Third-World” deliberately in its non-alignment and Bandung spirit. For a biography of the short-lived Third-World project, see The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad and “The World Without Bandung, Or “For a Polycentric System with No Hegemony,” by Samir Amin. In addition, my use of the term ‘western’ is synonymous with the term first-world and invokes the same mapping of power and wealth cited in the sources above.  

[7] Foucault visited with Ayatolla Khomeini during the early revolutionary period and developed his ideas about “political spirituality” based on what he saw on the ground in Iran. He did not, however, publish those writings which remain obscure in academic circlesBehrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s very recent work, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment covers these writings and notes that Foucault was inspired by “the revolutionary subjects in the streets of Tehran [and] the possibility of a transformative politics one can exercise outside normative conventions of the Enlightenment […] in response to his critics, he insisted that the manner in which the revolution was lived must remain distinct from its success or failure” (189). Please note: another author, an Iranian woman and academic named Janet Afary, has commented about this event and her take is consonant with the same Eurocentric and Islamophobic line in Satrapi’s thinking. 

[8] The “veil” is a blanket term used in the West to describe various forms of spiritually informed dress used by Muslim women—and sometimes men. There are various types of veiling practices informed by various interpretations of Islam. These include not only clothing practices but also states of mind and choices in conduct. In the West, however, the “veil” continues to be depicted in simplistic, sensational, and decidedly orientalist terms.  

[9] I am referring to Samuel Huntington’s infamous “clash of civilizations” thesis in his book of the same title. He argues that conflicts of the post-cold war arena will be primarily cultural conflicts between the so-called East and West—a view that erases the undeniable economics and political (colonial) dynamics in East/West relations. See “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993.

[10] First, Mary Louise Pratt coins this term (contact zone) to describe the complexities of disparate cultures attempting to establish understanding and connection in her work, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation

[11] Leila Ahmed describes this pattern of social stratification that follows Western commercial activity in the region, “The lower-middle and lower classes, who were generally adversely affected by or experienced no benefits from the economic and political presence of the West had a different perspective on the colonizer’s culture and ways than did the upper classes and new middle-class intellectuals trained in Western ways, whose interests were advanced by affiliation with Western culture and who benefited economically from the British presence” (147). While Ahmed is describing events in Egypt during the British occupation, this pattern, she notes, has repeated in many Middle Eastern societies “in one way or another” and influences a discourse that still informs our understandings of gender in the Middle East today (130).  

[12] For a summary of key events leading up to the Iranian Revolution, please see Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations, page 75, titled, “Tehran.” This chapter describes the emergence of an elite Iranian class (secular and Euro-imitating) in the aftermath of trade consolidation by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the forerunner of British Petroleum). In addition, as noted in Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World the American media landscape is saturated with deceptive representations of Islam and Muslims suggesting that any discussion of the region or Muslims risks breathing further life into this harmful rhetoric.  

[13] Like many regions in the Third-World, British and American corporate interests dramatically re-shaped the destinies of entire nations while British and American governments either stood by tacitly or actively engaged in maintaining these interests. In the case of Iran, the British enabled William Knox D’Arcy’s brazen theft of Iranian oil and American business interests motivated the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh. For one small glimpse into this history, please see The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century by Giuliano Garavini. 

[14] Hilary Chute remarks, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which made its first appearance in the United States in an explicitly feminist, antiracist context in Ms. magazine in 2003” was initially intended to circulate under the title “Persepolis: Tales From and Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” (136). 

[15] See note 9. 

[16] For an in-depth look into how austerity and income inequality influenced the revolution, see chapter 3 of Robert E Looney’sEconomic Origins of the Iranian Revolution, titled “Developments in Agriculture.”

[17] The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 was a secret agreement between France and Britain, with the agreement of Russia, to carve up the remains of the Ottoman empire into zones of colonial influence. 

[18] Puar is drawing extensively on Rey Chow’s work on the ambiguous concept of ethnicity in the contemporary world in her famous book The Protestant Ethnic and Spirit of Capitalism. 

[19] For a study of Aryanist discourse in Iranian home and diaspora communities, please see Reza Zia-Ebrahimi’s “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the ‘Aryan’ Discourse in Iran.” 

[20] Two remarks: First, attending to the formation of a transnational elite does not refute the reality that (in some sense) wealth and power are still concentrated along so-called first-world and Third-World lines—those disparities continue to this day as evidenced by ongoing imperialist aggression against Iran and the larger Middle East by the United States. However, economic realignments and transformations in the world require us to switch from the analytic units currently in use to recognize that there is a first-world within the Third-World and a Third-World within the first-world. And second, recognizing how Third-World elites interact with, and reinforce, power in elite first-world spaces can tell us a great deal about misguided notions of ‘diversity’ currently operating in the academy today. For a reading of these misunderstandings, please see Roderick Ferguson’s The Re-Order of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference 

[21]Masih Alinejad is a prominent Iranian diaspora writer and outspoken activist for women’s rights based in the U.SShe, like Azar Nafisi, is seen moving through Department of Defense circles in an approach to women’s liberation that places her alongside Mike PompeoFor a discussion of these partnership, please see the following source on the official American Embassy Website https://ir.usembassy.gov/secretary-pompeos-meeting-with-iranian-womens-rights-activist-masih-alinejad/In addition, please see Hamid Dabashi’s chapter, “The Comprador Intellectual” in Brown Skin, White Mask for a view of this tendency among Iranian women writers (44).  

[22] Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran are vastly popular memoirs by Iranian women whose handling of the Islamic revolutionary project is biased, one-sided, and categorically opposed to any aspect of this on-going project. 

[23]Another example of Satrapi’s classist views appear in the following interview with Robert Root: The basic culture is not that the woman is nothing—Iran is not Saudi Arabia—the women, they are educated, they are cultivated, they work. You have women who are judges, they are doctors, they are journalists, they work. So, these women, when you tell them that their witness doesn’t count as much as that of the guy who is going to wash the windows even if she is a researcher in nuclear science or whatever […] (Root 151). 

[24]Hilary Chute remarks, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which made its first appearance in the United States in an explicitly feminist, antiracist context in Ms. magazine in 2003” and was initially intended to circulate under the title “Persepolis: Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” (136). 

[25]Ignoring the relations of exchange between dominant nations and the nations that often supply them with resources is an irresponsible move for any researcher or educator considering the increasingly serious consequences of these relations. For instance, the G-7 (Canada, France, U.S, U.K, Germany, Japan, Italy), own more than half of all the world’s wealth and extract much of it from Third-World nations, “In 1970, when the third-world project was intact, the sixty states classified as “low income” by the World Bank owed commercial lender and international agencies $25 billion. Three decades later, the debt of these countries ballooned to $523 billion […] over the course of three decades, the sixty states paid $523 billion in principle and interest on loans worth $540 billion” (Prashad 277). 

[26]These would be figures such as David Graeber and Michael Hudson whose works examine global financial structures and argue that the U.S Dollar and contemporary monetary systems function as a mechanism of warfare against many nations. Please see Hudson’s Finance as Warfare (2015) and Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years 

[27]Again, like many nations of the Third-World, Iran was pulled into colonial relations of exchange that could easily be described as theft. For a summary of these relations please see Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations and Robert E. Looney’s Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution 

[28]Please see Sheel B. Yajee’s CIA Operations Against the Third World, 1985. 

[29]xxix Similar arguments appear in the works of decolonial scholars (such as Walter Mignolo, Ramon Grosfoguel, and Anibal Quijano) whose analysis of colonialism often surpasses national borders as a useful unit of analysis. 

[30]The chador is a covering that conceals the entire body, except for the face, and is worn within or outside the home. The home chador is usually made of colorful and floral fabrics and is the veil of choice during prayer. The outdoor chador is normally all black or navy blue and it almost always worn by women in public service. The djinn in this story appears in a home chador, further emphasizing the enclosure of women into the private sphere in the aftermath of the revolution.  

[31]‘Peace Be Upon Him’ is invoked by believers who speak the prophet’s name. 

[32]Recognizing how anti-racist and feminist intentions can subtly serve homogenizing processes, the failures of liberalism are highlighted, again and again, by scholars of postcolonial, and especially, decolonial studies, “diversity is a concept that can have some usefulness […] but it must be properly situated alongside other less ambiguous concepts and within an emancipatory and decolonial rather than liberal framework” (Samir Amin “The World Without Bandung” 17; Maldonado-Torres 99). 

[33]Because Satrapi’s migration experience is, “limited to institutions (hotels, resorts, schools, businesses) that isolate them from having to deal with the local culture in a substantial way and on its own terms” it is highly specific to particular economic classes despite being presented as ‘an ordinary Iranian girlhood’ (Klapcsik 71). 

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Under the Shadow. Directed by Babak Anvari, performances by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi, Wigwam Films 2016.