Selvedge Rhetorics and Material Memory

Donna Haraway and Sharon Traweek teach us that when we tell stories these are performative…there is no important difference between stories and materials. Or, to put it a little differently: stories, effective stories, perform themselves into the material world—yes, in the form of social relations, but also in the form of machines, architectural arrangements, bodies, and all the rest.” – John Law, “On the Subject of the Object” 

Introduction 

Peitho readers who work with fabric materials are likely aware of the “selvedge,” the final edge of a bolt of fabric that is both warp and weft that keeps it from fraying. Selvedges, coming from “self-edge,” represent a moment in material making in fabric production that is finite and finished. It is true that most often selvedges are thrown away, the edge of a bolt of fabric that is not like the rest. It provides information like manufacturers’ names, dye runs from light to dark known as color registrations (or more colloquially “traffic lights,” as that is what they resemble), or particular pattern numbers or designers’ names. Yet each of these, I argue here, also functions accretively as a textual addition to the fabric itself. These throwaway pieces have been used contemporarily by fabric workers of all sorts as a way to repurpose and make use of scraps and often take contemporary forms as rag rugs, quilts, handbags, pillows, placemats. Rather than focus on selvedge repurposing, however, instead I focus on the ways that selvedges can reveal a particular life to the material that allows materials themselves to point a researcher towards interesting questions, histories, connections, and recoveries.  Selvedges, as material-rhetorical practices, advance our ability to affectively think-with objects as a way to engage with material feminism in service of social justice work. 

Material Practices and Accretive Methods: Theoretical Framing 

The notion that the material is central to the life of feminist recovery work is not new. Indeed, to “read” fabric as I do in this short piece brings together insights put forward by feminist scholars, rhetorical scholars, new material and posthuman scholars, decolonial scholars, and scholars doing work at the forefront of crafting and maker communities. In her Key Concept Statement, “Material,” published in Peitho in 2015, Elizabeth Fleitz details the centrality of material practices, bodies, material conditions, objects, and spaces to women’s rhetorics. Since Flietz’ statement was published, an abundance of work has pointed attention to this emergent commonplace. This is evidenced by scholarship that has examined material-rhetorical rendering of the vibrant networks that surround both objects and identity politics.  

Such examples of this scholarship abound: Sarah Hallenbeck’s  work on bicycles as “active creators and shapers of new arguments” surrounding women’s bodies in the nineteenth century (198); Minahan and Cox’s examination of cyberfeminist roots of the “reclaiming of feminine craft” through Stitch’nBitch clubs (Minahan and Cox 10); and Kirtz’s reconsideration of collaborative fiber arts movements that examine textiles as data storage are all models of the intertwining between feminism and the material. Working with textiles in particular offers up a re-materialization of making, considering that contemporary mass industrial sewing practices dematerialize those who labor to create them—primarily women and girls working in the textile industry (see in particular Propen; Cloud). To that end, it is my aim to join not only in ongoing conversations around fabric and textile-oriented scholarship that engages making (see, for example, Shivers-McNair), quilting (see Arellano), and feminist material objects (see Goggin, Sohan), but also to join scholars like Iris Ruiz and Sonia Arellano in participating in productive calls to engage with tactile and haptic rhetorics to contribute to alternate ways of knowing that might better “facilitate knowledge production in positive ways for marginalized people” (151).  As they assert, and as Arellano extends with her conception of feminist-materialist Quilting as Method (QAM), quilting in particular materially joins intellectual and creative labor, resulting in different kinds of knowledge production (Ruiz and Arellano 158). Peripheral materials such as selvedges, literally marginal to quilting, can contribute in small but significant ways to thinking about feminist material-rhetorical practices and the histories they invoke. I aim to showcase here how one example of textile making can engage in processes of reclamation—not of the histories of migrant laborers, as Ruiz and Arellano do—but of women and girls who disappear in recounting traditional history of the textile industry in contemporary documents, such as those that appear on websites and in marketing materials. 

This turn to craft as revealing important intersections between material, agency, power, and ethics is captured by Leigh Gruwell’s Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialism, in which she turns to craftivism in particular to demonstrate the relationships between material, women, and political life. Craft, she argues—and more specifically, the agency that craft exerts on makers, technologies, artifacts, and relationships—serves to “illuminate the interdependence of materiality, power, and rhetorical action” (6). Thus, to engage seriously with scholars working in areas of both decolonial and new material theory, revisiting our methods and widening our approach to materials can be a careful extension of this line of thinking. 

I have argued elsewhere that examining an artifact not just as part of a system of things or a mediator of knowledge allows for “tactics for invention which emphasize networks over discrete discursive elements” (Clary-Lemon, “Museums”). Such a framework allows for an examination of the depth of textual circulation and emergent contexts, both present and past. I have also argued that materials themselves—like finding aids in archives—play a major agentive part in shaping our research questions and methods (Clary-Lemon, “Archival”). In other words, to borrow from Law’s epigraph, I’ve found it central in these cases to examine how stories perform themselves into the material world. In both cases I have found Vicki Tolar Burton’s notion of rhetorical accretion, adapted into a research method, particularly useful.  

Burton defines rhetorical accretion as “the process of layering additional texts over and around the original text” (547). Much as an oyster builds up accreted layers of nacre over an irritant to create a pearl, or the way layers of light gather around a black hole to create a luminous disk, allowing us to infer its existence, examining discursive-material artifacts like fabric selvedges in this way give us both a starting place and a methodological grounding to our analyses. We might read accreted layers around an object, like a fabric selvedge, that are myriad:  material (in the makeup of cotton, dye, and shuttle loom machinery), tactile (in the making and touching of a fabric project), affective (in our feelings as we engage in making or engage in research recovery), discursive (in the layers of new text, meaning, or context we discover), cultural and historical (in situating materials in a particular place and time), and social and embodied (in recognition of the relationships which make up the making and examination of the project). A scholar performing a material analysis might take any one of these layers as a way in to feminist recovery work. In the remainder of this piece, I forward an accretive analysis of one  particular selvedge in a single quilt square. 

Affective and Embodied Domains: Selvedge Meaning-Making 

To situate this discussion, I turn to the social, embodied, tactile, and affective domains of a selvedge project, and later turn to its historical and cultural traces. It begins with a 12-selvedge quilted square that was pieced and sewn by my mother, Ramona Mattix (see Figure 1). The amalgamated quilt square is made of twelve individual selvedges. While this short article examines only one selvedge in the square, it should be noted that there are countless ways that a researcher might examine such an artifact: 

Figure 1: 7×7 Quilted Selvedge Square Made from 12 Fabric Selvedges. Image description: a square of fabric selvedge strips. The strips are neutral colors (white, tan, beige, black) on top, with a colorful print strip toward the middle containing a line of 14 hearts, each in a color from the print, and more neutral selvedge strips in the bottom half in animal print. The lines of text on the selvedges read (from top to bottom) “Edwards of NORTHCOTT www.northcott.com,” “Timeless Treasures ® For Hi-Fashion Fabric,” “© All Rights Reserved PATT # WILD-C 2047,” and “Cranston Print Works Co. Printed in the U.S.A. www.cranstonvillage.” The rest of the URL is cut in order to fit the square

As I looked closely at each selvedge and used these pieces as an impetus for research, additional layers of rhetorical meaning emerged: company names and websites (“northcott.com”); copyrights and registered trademarks (©, ®); pattern numbers (“PATT # WILD-C 2047”); designers’ names (Judy & Judel Niemeyer”); and color registrations showing the numerical order in which the dye was applied to the fabric (“traffic lights” and rainbow hearts). While it is true that any number of these discursive details might be found, for example, in print documents—online advertisements, sewing or pattern booklets—my point here is to focus attention on the material itself. These are our finding tools of fabric archives, and a testament to material-discursive arguments.  

Any number of these clues might be taken up to “read” fabric in particular ways to understand the textual amalgamation and accreted rhetorical layers that make up this one, re-pieced square, yet it’s also important to note the research value of affectual proximity—what Solberg defines as “the intellectual and emotional investments and orientations that drive a researcher’s choice of topic” (67)—or what Sara Ahmed more eloquently describes in her article “Happy Objects,” as how we are “touched by what we are near” (30). Fabric—and those who work with it, bring it close, create with it and give it as gifts of love and labor—constructs a particular affectual proximity. I am close to this 7×7 inch square of fabric because I am close to my mother, and those proximities have relationally and affectively shaped my choice of research design. It affects why I sit writing this piece today, why I’m connecting it citationally to others the way that I am, and exerts a kind of “craft agency” (Gruwell 7) on me that both points me toward its most discursive bits, and allows for historical analysis to come.  As a rhetorician, I am drawn to the most discursive selvedge in the square, the bottom strip which reads “Cranston Print Works Co.,” which points me to a textile manufacturer located in Cranston, Rhode Island, and to a particular small piece of recovery work, which the next few pages reveal. 

Historical and Cultural Traces: Fabric as Archive 

Scholars doing work in the area of women’s labor history and early industrialization, particularly in New England, will be somewhat familiar with the role that the “Lowell Mills” of Massachusetts played in the American Industrial revolution. It gave rise to the “mill girls,” rural women who would move to cities to work in textile mills but had to spend most of their income on boardinghouse fees. These histories gave rise to some of the first female workers’ unions in the United States in the late 1840s. However, before the Waltham-Lowell power loom methods were adopted in Massachusetts, placing the entire process of textile manufacturing under one roof, there was an industrial precursor. That precursor existed in Rhode Island with the emigration of Samuel Slater from England in 1789. Slater, known as “Slater the traitor” in the UK for developing new spinning and carding techniques stolen from Richard Arkwright in England, owned many small mills (known later as “Slater Mills”) all over Rhode Island, one of which, the Old Green Mill, later became the Cranston Print Works Company (“Our History”). 

We collectively know that textile manufacturing has long been a feminized workplace of questionable safety.  The Rhode Island Slater mills, like the Cranston Print Works Company, show us a similarly problematic historic backbone to our love for warp and weft. Gail Fowler Mohanty notes that “the introduction of spinning, roving, and carding mechanisms in the late 18th century served as a catalyst for changes in workshop management” (5) and used spinning frames, namely the Arkwright model that Slater imported, with which to do so. The Rhode Island mills often relied on “hand-spun cotton, woolen, or linen warp” (6), and thus different parts of the carding, spinning, and weaving processes would take place in different locations, unlike large-scale manufacturing offered by the power loom. These two models manifested a long-seated rivalry between the Rhode Island and Massachusetts systems: the industrial water-powered mills in Massachusetts which had the capacity to run the power looms by women under one roof, and the smaller, dispersed cottage system of the Rhode Island mills. Thus in order to employ factory labor to run the various new machines in the Rhode Island system, Slater’s brainchild was to employ child labor, particularly children living in poverty between the ages of 7 and 12 working 12-16 hours a day, six days a week with a forced “Sunday School” on the 7th day (Tucker 22).  

The Slater Mills, and in particular the Cranston Print Works’ historical evolution from them, draws our attention from the common narrative of women working in large textile factories and instead toward rural poor children given room and board in lieu of wages and forced to attend religious school. Although histories of the industrial revolution suggest farm children were raised on hard work (see Simonds, Stearns), they were not in any way raised for exploitation. Like other histories of trauma and abuse that become paved over and sanitized in favor of master narrative of progress—Slater has been called the “father of the Industrial Revolution”— histories of capitalism and industrialization tend to tout the revolutionary nature of the power loom in manufacturing without actually touching a story of sending a seven-year-old child to work, often through the night, operating dangerous machinery. 

Of course, this system became untenable as families complained about the lack of wages and the treatment of their children, which included whipping and other corporeal punishment. Thus, Slater turned to what is now deemed the “family system” of labor, a deeply patriarchal system dependent on the notion of a male householder who “owns” familial women and children. Under the village, or “Rhode Island System,” a rather sanguine “Early Industrialization in the Northeast” open-access U.S. History text has this to say: 

…families were hired. The father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children. Instead of being paid in cash, [often] the father was given “credit” equal to the extent of his family’s labor that could be redeemed in the form of rent (of company-owned housing) or goods from the company-owned store.  

Such compensation in the family system is represented by Figure 2, taken from Edith Abbot’s “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America,” which she culled from an 1815 manufacturing memorandum book from Poignaud and Plant Papers. 

Figure 2: Compensation from the Family System (Abbot 28) Image description: a written table of salaries for each member of a family. One section of the table is a list of salaries of a man and his children. The family members’ names, ages, and relations are written on the left side of each line, and a series of dots separates the person from the salary amount. The top section reads: Himself $5.00, His son Robert Rier, 10 years of age 0.83, Daughter Mary, 12 years of age 1.25, Son William, 13 years of age 1.50, Son Michael, 16 years of age 2.00. Underneath Michael’s salary is a line and the total for the family, 10.58. The bottom section reads: His sister, Abigail Smith 2.33, Her daughter Sally, 8 years of age 0.75, Son Samuel, 13 years of age 1.50. Underneath Samuel’s salary is a line and the total for Abigail and her children: 4.58.

While men were valued the most highly, they did not work alongside their children, but rather, negotiated terms of their employment and collected their wages (Tucker 22). In supplanting manufacturers’ discipline for fathers’ and husbands’, as Tucker notes, the Slater system “sought to strengthen patriarchy, not challenge it” (22). In 1817, ten years after what is now the Cranston Print Works Company opened, the Niles Register (a weekly national magazine of some import) noted that “the work of manufacture[r]s does not demand able-bodied men…but ‘is now better done by little girls from six to twelve years old’ (qtd. In Abbott 24). Because of the Slater village system, Rhode Island led the nation in child labor throughout the 19th century.i It should be noted, too, that before child labor laws were introduced, these children were whipped and slapped for failure to perform or for falling asleep in their 12-14 hour workday (which was often followed by household chores and evening school), often worked without access to bathrooms, and were not allowed to sit down while working (Tucker 23; Abbott 33). [1] 

Layers of Fabric, Layers of Meaning: A Conclusion 

So what impact does such a discursive-material rhetorical reading have on feminist rhetorical work? In part, it is central to recover the difficult histories of labor and who is affected by those untold stories that rest in materials in order to work against simple narratives of progress. The Cranston Print Works Company has a history, as all industrial textile mills do, that is obscured today. Its current company website lauds Slater’s life and work, highlighting words like “expansion” and “innovation;” yet a different story is made available by a particular kind of affective proximity to the material and an accretive research process. It also helps us recover specific directions for reconsideration of women’s histories and marginalized communities that add to our already existing rhetorical histories of labor mills and women’s work (see Propen; Cloud). Although many are familiar with contemporary and historical connections between the poor conditions of textile work and the living conditions of women (at least in the late 18th century and early 19th century) women had far more comparative agency than those who remain the most invisible and vulnerable in the histories of textile work: children, particularly those living in poverty, or, by the 1840s, immigrant children. What working with textiles and materials in the form of selvedges may allow us is a tactile entryway into a history of an industrial colonization of families and an extension and solidification of a dominating patriarchal system that preyed on the defenseless: children raised to be both obedient and deferent to those they trusted.  

My point is not to suggest that an examination of every selvedge, or every scrap, or every craft might necessarily lead to such recovery work. Still, the possibility of material agency’s exertion on rhetorical work—even in the smallest of artifacts—is nonetheless one worth reconsidering.  When we research such traces, such object-stories, we are brought closer to suffering, to outrage, to deep sadness. As Ahmed suggests, we are “moved by things” (33). What material-rhetorical research allows is an account of such movement; an account of how we might generate a small window into connecting present and past in the spirit of feminist recovery and reconsideration. In urges us to consider differently the layering together of subject and object, to ask complex questions of our research processes. For example, how might we use contemporary or historic selvedge fabrics as starting points to trace not only the histories of child labor in a patriarchal system, but the emergence and decline of textile manufacture as they responded to women’s rising power in production? How might we imagine selvedge and other fabric research as part of what might bring us closer to other recovered histories: of cotton dust into lungs, the affects of chemical carcinogens in dyes, of bodies maimed by roving frames? How might we use material to pay closer attention to bodies, material conditions, spaces, and women’s rhetorics? And how might this kind of research help us understand that there is no important difference between stories and materials? It is central to recover in these fabric archives the bodies who have labored to produce them. 

End Note 

[1]An 1831 Friends of Industry report chronicled that of 4,691 children working in cotton factories in New England, 3,472 of them were from Rhode Island (Abbott 30).  

Works Cited 

Abbott, Edith. “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 15-37. 

Ahmed, Sarah. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and  

Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51. 

Arellano, Sonia. “Quilting as a Qualitative, Feminist Research Method: Expanding Understandings of Migrant Deaths.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 2022, pp. 17-30. 

Burton (Collins), Vicki Tolar. “The Speaker Respoken: Material Rhetoric as Feminist Methodology.” College English, vol.  61, no. 5, 1999, pp. 545-73. 

Clary-Lemon, Jennifer. “Museums as Material: Experiential Landscapes and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Enculturation, vol. 20, December 2015, http://enculturation.net/museums-as-material  

—. “Archival Research Processes: A Case for Material Methods.” Rhetoric Review vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 381-402. 

Cloud, Dana L. “The Null Persona: Race and the Rhetoric of Silence in the Uprising of ’34.”  Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 2, 1999, pp. 177-209. 

“Early Industrialization in the Northeast.” U.S History, OpenStax College. OSCRice University,  7 May 2014. http://pressbooks-dev.oer.hawaii.edu/ushistory/chapter/early-industrialization-in-the-northeast/  

Fleitz, Elizabeth. “Material” Key Concept Statement. Peitho, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 34-8, https://cfshrc.org/article/material/. 

Goggin, Maureen Daly. “Visual Rhetoric in Pens of Steel and Inks of Silk: Challenging the Great Visual/Verbal divide.” Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004, pp. 87-110. 

Gruwell, Leigh. Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics. Utah State UP, 2022.

Hallenback, Sarah. “Objects, Material Commonplaces, and the Invention of the ‘New Woman.’”  Rhetoric, through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, U of Alabama P, 2016, pp. 197-211. 

Kirtz, Jaime Lee. “Textiles and Technology: Needlework as Data Storage and Feminist Process.”  Feminist Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman and Lisa Rhody, U of Illinois P, 2022, in press. 

Law, John. “On the Subject of the Object: Narrative, Technology, and Interpellation.”  Configurations, vol. 8, no. 1, 2000, pp. 1-29. 

Minahan, Stella, and Julie Wolfram Cox. “Stitch’nBitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 5-21. 

Mohanty, Gail Fowler. “Experimentation in Textile Technology, 1788-1790, and its Impact on  Handloom Weaving and Weavers in Rhode Island.” Technology and Culture, vol. 29, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1-31. 

“Our History.” Cranston Print Works Company. 2019. http://cpw.com/sample-page/  

Propen, Amy D. “‘I Have Sometimes Seen the White Cloth Winding over the Rollers … And I Have Thought it Beautiful’: Reading the Mill Girls’ Narratives as Artifacts of Material Rhetoric.” Material Culture Review, vol. 77 78,  2013, pp. 107-122. 

Ruiz, Iris D., and Sonia C. Arellano. “La Cultura Nos Cura: Reclaiming Decolonial Epistemologies through Medicinal History and Quilting as Method.” Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions, edited by Romeo García and Damián Baca, NCTE, 2019, pp. 141-68. 

Simonds, Christopher. Samuel Slater’s Mill and the Industrial Revolution. Silver Burdett, 1990. 

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Westview, 2013.  

Solberg, Janine. “Googling the Archive: Digital Tools and the Practice of History.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, vol. 15, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53-76.  

Shivers-McNair, Ann. Making, Marking, Mattering: What We Can Learn about Writing, Rhetoric, and Technology from a Makerspace. 2017. U of Washington, PhD Dissertation.  

Sohan, Vanessa Kraemer. “But a Quilt is More: Recontextualizing the Discourse(s) of Gee’s Bend Quilts.” College English, vol. 77, no. 4, 2015, pp. 294-316. 

Tucker, Barbara M. “Liberty Is Exploitation: The Force of Tradition in Early Manufacturing.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 19, no. 3, 2005, pp. 21-4. 

Review of What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture.

Larson, Stephanie R. What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape Culture. Penn State University Press, 2021. 

For the past five years, we have lived in what some have termed the ‘Me Too era,’ a large-scale recognition of sexual assault and harassment and the people who perpetrate it. Stories of actors, politicians, journalists, and others with considerable power have garnered considerable media coverage and national debate. Situating her work within these high-profile cases and the carceral feminist logics that fuel them, Stephanie Larson makes an astute point: despite all of these events, we still lack adequate means to discuss and theorize rape culture. What It Feels Like makes a crucial contribution to this ongoing conversation by illuminating how mainstream discourses about rape culture work to contain the stories, feelings, and bodies associated with sexual violence. Connecting to the larger ecology of scholarship and activism focused on rape and sexual assault, Larson suggests that in order to effectively confront rape culture, we must first properly recognize and value the embodied accounts of rape victims. To do so, Larson offers the term ‘visceral rhetorics,’ which describes how the body responds to words or actions with “thick, material, bone-deep, gut-felt sensations” (14). She seeks to re mind scholars that bodies are more than just a site of rhetorical invention; rather, bodies – in the most material sense – play a critical role in the felt experiences of rhetoric. In the same vein as feminist rhetorics’ historical attention to women’s silenced voices, Larson examines how women’s bodies, as well as their affective and rhetorical capabilities, are suppressed by rape culture. Working from this point of understanding, What It Feels Like is an essential read for those committed to disrupting rape culture.  

In Chapter 1, Larson begins by establishing the existing frameworks for theorizing sexual violence, with particular focus on which bodies are able to be recognized within these frames. She traces historical constructions of social norms surrounding sexuality and sexual violence by examining the Meese Commission, an undertaking of the Reagan administration meant to determine the impact of pornography on modern society. Analyzing letters written to the commission by concerned citizens reveals palpable fears regarding threats to the nuclear family structure, the correlation between pornography and male violence, and the state of female sexuality in the US. Larson asserts that, more broadly, the commission exposed desires to protect the systems of inequity that undergird the neoliberal nation-state, proliferating instincts to blame vulnerable people for the violence they experience, including sexual assault. She then draws a connection between the Meese Commission and the 2018 confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, showing how white supremacy, masculinity, and heteronormativity continue to be protected and upheld at the expense of those victimized by these structures. Larson’s read of the commission reveals that national conversations around rape and sexual assault are constantly shaped by “a desire to contain the nation-state and its neoliberal imaginary” (27). This section provides the historical context and inherited legacies that shape the modern intimations of rape culture discussed further on.  

In Chapter 2, Larson explores the bystander discourses prevalent on college campuses by examining two rape prevention campaigns, It’s On Us and 1 is 2 Many. These campaigns are significant because they emphasize male action and responsibility in combatting rape and sexual assault. In doing so, they decenter the lived experiences of real rape victims, instead invoking cultural conceptions of the archetypal victim: a “heterosexual, college-aged, cis, white, able-bodied, US American, middle-class, educated woman in need of protection from a male body and male gaze” (58). Thus, to analyze these campaigns, Larson employs a methodological approach she terms ‘patriarchal spectrality.’ She explains that, just as ghosts may be present but unseen, “rape victims and perpetrators, too, are absolutely there but unable to be heard or seen as clearly due to the modes of vision that inform US rape prevention discourses today” (60). Larson shows how prevention programs and other public discourses surrounding sexual violence may erase rape victims even as they seek to save them or bring them justice. Discussing victims in hypothetical terms or only platforming stories that align with the larger narrative of rape culture enables audiences to erase bodies that do not fit the archetype based on their identity and/or actions. Larson connects this to a historical precedent, describing the United States’ legacy of permitting and facilitating sexual violence against Black women, a legacy that is still not recognized on a national scale. With this in mind, productive future discourses must attend not only to what is there, but what is silenced, excluded, and made invisible. Following Jacqueline Rhodes’ call for a critical feminist rhetoric, Larson asks readers to more effectively disrupt rape culture by recognizing the specters of patriarchy and critically imagining what has been strategically left out of the conversation.  

Chapter 3 focuses on rape kits and the role they play in shaping public perceptions of victim testimony. Larson begins the chapter with a brief narrative that quickly gets at the heart of the matter, recounting the story of a woman who endured a rape kit exam after being raped on her college campus. The woman waited a year and a half for the kit to be processed and another six months for her perpetrator to be found guilty, even though she “knew and named him from the beginning” (86). Larson uses this story to illustrate the perceived power and importance of the rape kit, even in cases when the assailant need not be identified using DNA evidence. Extending onto recent discussions of the rape kit backlog, Larson interrogates the rhetorical function of medico-legal tools, arguing that the way rape kits are employed serves to silence victims and create public distrust in visceral testimony. Examining legislative responses to the rape kit backlog, Larson identifies three major problems: the proliferation of the archetypal rapist as a stranger with a violent criminal history; the emphasis on scientific innovation over victim testimony; and the implementation of rape kits to logically assess a victim’s visceral experience. All together, Larson asserts that rape kits and other medico-legal tools “partake in conditioning publics not to believe victims,” most especially when these tools are treated as more credible than first-hand accounts (89). Throughout, Larson weaves in rape victims’ accounts of both the violence they endured and the additional trauma and discomfort of the rape kit exam, providing examples of how visceral rhetoric conveys the deeply-felt sensations and emotions connected to sexual assault. While acknowledging the usefulness of rape kit technology, Larson holds space for the way rape kit exams can further harm victims by attempting to sanitize their feeling bodies and curtail rhetorical means of describing their experience. Drawing connections to the use of police body cameras, Larson points to a troubling trend where technology is used to fix deep-seated issues rather than confront the culture that produced the conditions. She encourages us to wonder “what it might mean to listen to an individual’s account of what has been done to their flesh…especially when that body is in pain” (111). 

In the next two chapters, Larson begins to answer that question by identifying instances of visceral rhetorics within protests. In Chapter 4, she examines the public performances of two high-profile rape victims who sought to push back against rape discourses and protest the inadequacies of their institutional proceedings, constructing what she terms ‘visceral counterpublicity.’ These embodied performances challenge narrow definitions of rape, ones that prioritize male anatomy and action, by offering visceral experiences of rape and encouraging felt experiences of the accounts. Drawing on the work of Jenell Johnson, Larson argues that affects, like the ones shared through these performances, may disrupt publics in the same way they may construct or coalesce them. She first analyzes the victim impact statement read by Chanel Miller during the trial of Brock Allen Turner. Through this letter, audiences may understand Miller’s experience through her own recollection and from her own perspective. This visceral account of violation centers her embodied experience, offering a different perspective compared to how Turner’s lawyers focused on delineating between rape and sexual assault. Larson then examines the work of Emma Sulkowicz, best known for their performance art piece in which they carried their dorm mattress around Columbia University in protest of the university’s response to their reported rape. Larson focuses on Sulkowicz’s piece Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol (or This Is Not A Rape), a video that seemingly shows the reenactment of a rape while simultaneously assuring the audience that the actions they are watching are consensual. This performance calls upon the audience to “grapple with the experience of rape beyond the discursive assertion that violation did not occur,” invoking the lived experiences of victims whose rhetorical accounts are denied by powerful institutions (131). In these instances, Larson asserts, Miller and Sulkowicz “expose threatened bodily boundaries and encourage affective responses” by giving their audiences the means to understand rape as something experienced, not just theoretically defined (122). Larson connects their work to other modern forms of protest that highlight the body, including athletes kneeling during the national anthem and the use of the phrase “I can’t breathe.” Through these visceral counterpublic tactics, audiences may better understand instances of violence, even when those in power seek to deny them. This in turn creates greater opportunity to recognize harm done to any body—especially marginalized bodies—rather than only acknowledging discourses that are safely contained.  

Chapter 5 explores another tactic of public disruption by focusing on #MeToo. Beginning with Tarana Burke’s original concept of the Me Too Movement as a part of Just Be Inc., Larson discusses the phrase’s viral moment, describing the now-famous tweet by Alyssa Milano that sent #MeToo out into the digital world. Temporally aligned with the emerging allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag caught on overnight and rapidly constructed a new site of protest for victims and supporters. Larson theorizes the body of #MeToo as a form of megethos, which took the shape of a feminist list. Using the functionality of the hashtag, audiences could read one tweet after another, experiencing the magnitude generated by these brief messages as a “bone-deep, felt assurance” that sought to disrupt normative discourses regarding rape culture (138). Larson points out #MeToo’s success compared to previous hashtags and online campaigns, as it gained considerable traction beyond Twitter and beyond the digital sphere entirely. Not only did the magnitude adequately convey users’ experiences of rape culture, but it also invited audiences to feel these tweets in a visceral way, change their previous beliefs about rape culture, and be moved to action. In closing, Larson acknowledges that #MeToo was intrinsically linked to white female celebrities and fueled by the public disclosure of trauma. Thus, she prompts us to look deeper at both historical and contemporary contexts to find useful protest tactics within the #MeToo movement, ones that may be reconfigured to operate in more nuanced and intersectional ways. Returning to an idea introduced in the preface, Larson reflects on the “methodological hope” offered by #MeToo, which “must not be hastily or uncritically idealized but constantly interrogated” (154). 

At times, I wished this book approached the issue of sexual assault and harrassment from a more intersection perspective; however, perhaps one of its strongest arguments is that how we address rape culture on a national scale is not intersectional. As Larson explains, her consistent use of ‘woman’ functions “not to ignore femmes, queer women, people from trans or nonbinary communities, or men, who most certainly experience rape and sexual assault, but rather to acknowledge a public obsession with focusing solely on cis, white women in predominant rape prevention discourse” (10). By examining the subject matter through governing structures that have emerged from the oppressive foundations of the US, Larson reveals how this focus on certain victims with privileged identities has come to control all aspects of conversation regarding rape. As someone who perfectly fits the description of the ‘archetypal victim,’ this research moves me to reflect on my own positionality and work to dismantle harmful structures meant to protect me and others like me. As Larson makes clear, until we reckon with the normative approaches to rape culture that function to contain bodies and maintain the nation-state, we will always lack adequate methods for rape victims outside of the archetype to be seen and heard, thus perpetuating rape culture for all.  

What It Feels Like offers a new entry point for understanding rape culture by examining its function in everyday contexts—legal, medical, institutional, public—and how it works to suppress the visceral rhetoric of rape victims. Nearly five years after the phrase ‘me too’ gained widespread cultural significance, we are still searching for new and meaningful ways forward, and Larson’s scholarship is a much-needed contribution to that endeavor.  

Review of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake

Miles, Tiya. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake. Random House, 2021. 

Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake has been widely acclaimed on the national scene: All That She Carried is a National Book Award winner; it was celebrated through reviews in the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review, and New York Times. Miles’ book has garnered even more praise from figures like Brittany Cooper, Jill Lepore, and Michael Eric Dyson. In this review for Peitho, we join the chorus in agreement that All That She Carried is a remarkably compelling book on so many fronts. Our purpose for this review, however, is to draw attention to how this book speaks to and invigorates the concerns of feminist rhetoricians and feminist historiographers of rhetoric and to mark it as one especially suited for our classrooms, for we believe the book has so much to say to us and our students as we pursue our investments in Black women’s history, historiography, and public memory; questions of intersectionality and power, as well as archival methods and methodologies, not to mention our interests in rhetoric’s relationship to textiles, materiality, foodways, and spatial rhetorics. Indeed, we (Erin and Jess) taught this book in an undergraduate feminist theory course in fall 2021, and we spent the semester dwelling on the impactful and moving messages this book had for us and our students. We thus use this review to shine light on All that She Carried for Peitho readers; it is a book that has the potential to deepen and direct the work we do as scholars, teachers, and students.  

The focal point of Miles’ book is a textile sack that Rose, a Black women enslaved in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1850s, created for her daughter Ashley upon their horrific separation when Ashley was sold at the age of nine at a slave auction. Miles explains how, in anticipation of the auction, Rose prepared this “emergency pack” for Ashley—one that should be read as “a mother’s prescient act of provision” (30). Ashley’s sack exemplifies the radical imagining that Black women, especially mothers, must have used in such times of despair in which they had to hope for their child’s safety and survival in the face of almost certain violence. Against all odds, Ashley and the sack Ruth prepared for her survived, and in All That She Carried, Miles tracks the passage of this heirloom to Ruth, Ashley’s granddaughter, who embroidered onto the sack these words: 

My great grandmother Rose 

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when 

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina 

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of 

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her 

It be filled with my Love always 

she never saw her again 

Ashley is my grandmother 

Ruth Middleton 

1921 (5) 

All That She Carried is a meditation on this maternal and generational relationship between Rose, Ashley, and Ruth, in which Miles explores the contents of the sack and their meaning as well as what the contents reveal about enslavement, survival, maternal love, and the preservation and persistence of Black women’s stories and their history. This is a book about love, trauma, resilience, and hope, but All That She Carried is also about the inventive archival and historiographic strategies Miles leveraged to tell these women’s stories.  

Throughout the book, Miles comments on the research methods she uses to stitch together the lives of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth. Her reflections are immediately noteworthy to historians in our field, as Miles considers what she calls “archival deficit” (18) and “archival diminishment” (18)—archival realities in which the lives of enslavers are recorded while there is little traditional documentation of enslaved people’s, especially enslaved women’s, lives. Miles counters such deficits by employing creative archival practices that draw on the “Black feminist historical methods” of scholars such as Nell Irvin Painter and Marisa Fuentes–methods that “refuse to abandon Black women to the discursive abyss” (17). Miles especially takes up Fuentes’ practice of “reading archival documents ‘along the bias grain,’ which refers to the angled line across a swath of fabric where a natural give already exists” (300). Like Fuentes, Miles uses a “diagonal reading of documents [that] looks beyond what seems straightforward and feels for the stretch in the scholar’s materials, the leeway that more likely reveals hidden interiors and obfuscated realities” (300). Important too is what Miles “counts” as an archive. True, her historiography draws from “traditional” archives such as those at the College of Charleston and Schlesinger libraries as well as the Avery Research Center and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, but most critically, Miles also sees Ashley’s material sack as an archive unto itself: Miles “seek[s] out the actual material—the things enslaved people touched, made, used, and carried—in order to understand the past” (17).  

Feminist rhetoricians will no doubt discern echoes in Miles’ research strategy as it resonates with the work of scholars such as Chery Glenn, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and Gesa Kirsch. Glenn has similarly documented the necessity of “reading [materials] crookedly and telling it slant” (8), while Royster and Kirsch call feminist rhetoricians “to account for what we ‘know’ by gathering whatever evidence can be gathered,” but then to employ both critical imagination and strategic contemplation to look “between, above, around, and beyond this evidence to speculate methodologically about probabilities, that is, what might be true based on what we have in hand” (71). Additionally, Miles’ investment in the material artifact of the sack and the contents within it connects to the methodological work of feminist rhetoricians such as Sonia Arrellano, Maureen Goggin, and Vanessa Sohan. Miles’ work throughout the book invigorates these scholarly conversations about the relevance of the material, as she argues, “things become bearers of memory and information, especially when enhanced by stories that expand their capacity to carry meaning” (13). Miles zeroes in on the importance of textiles, asserting that if the “materials being researched are textiles, [then] stories about women’s lives seem to adhere with special tenacity,” this is especially so with fabrics, Miles asserts: “because of their vulnerability to deterioration and frequent lack of attribution to a maker, [fabrics] have been among the last kinds of materials that historians look to in order to understand what has occurred, how, and why” (13-14). 

Of course, the most significant aspect of Miles’ research method is her employment of these inventive strategies to recover the lives of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth, to trace the journey of the textile sack, and to unpack its contents. In Chapter 1, “Ruth’s Record,” Miles begins with the story of finding the sack-–a story similar, Miles suggests, to an “episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow” (30). Almost twenty years ago in 2007, the sack was found by a white woman shopping at an outdoor flea market near Nashville, Tennessee. Interested in the message embroidered on the sack, the woman tracked the sack to Middleton Place–”once the home of the famous wealthy Charleston slaveholders Henry Middleton and Mary Williams Middleton and now a nonprofit organization” (31). Miles then relays how curators researched and displayed the sack not only at Middleton Place but also at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As Miles describes the “allure” of Ashley’s sack (36), she also reflects on the “complicated dynamics of race in processes of museum collecting, philanthropy, and stewardship” (37). Miles concludes this chapter initiating her investigation of the sack’s journey, starting in South Carolina in the 1850s at the “scene of the crime–the sale of a child away from her mother” and investigating how this crime was “shaped by the environmental, economic, political, and social conditions that precipitated it” (42). 

Miles dedicates Chapter 2 “Searching for Rose” to recovering Rose’s life and story, and here the question that drives her investigation is, “how, in this seaport city [of Charleston]. . ., do we go about finding one unfree woman?” (61). In describing her search, Miles explains that the only way to discern Rose’s archival trace is by identifying her name in the records of those who enslaved her: “We can trace unfree people through the changing of lands” (67) and their “lists of possessions” (69). The key to finding the Rose Miles is looking for is “her love for a child named Ashley” (65). Searching for these names together brings Miles to a Charleston slave owner named Robert Martin whose list of enslaved people includes both names. Miles’ critical reading of Martin’s records offers other clues to Rose’s identity: his holdings reveal that Rose’s monetary value was $700, and Miles deduces that this high price could be because of her sexual appeal to slave holders like Martin or because of her talent as a seamstress or cook. As Miles searches for Rose in Martin’s materials, though, she steps back to consider what this method signals, writing “It is madness if not irony that unlocking the history of unfree people depends on the materials of their legal owners, who held the lion’s share of visibility in their time, and ours” (58). While this method offers insights about Rose, Miles asserts that this “default” method is “one we must resist,” and we must do so because “not one record in the Martin family papers describes Rose or the life she lived. Her cares and kindnesses, fears and frailties, fade behind a wall of silence” (77). 

In Chapter 3, “Packing the Sack,” Miles describes the exigence for Rose to prepare the sack for Ashley: the death of their slaveholder, Robert Martin, and the and the sale of his “possessions,” which included Ashley. To Miles, Rose’s decision to make the sack for Ashley “highlights an essential element of enslaved women’s experience[:] Black women were creators, constantly making the slate of things necessary to sustain the life of the family” (102). As she meditates on Rose’s preparations, Miles employs a historiographic strategy she relies on throughout the book: when the specific details that attend to Rose, Ashley, or Ruth fall away, Miles consults the lives, records, and writings of their Black women contemporaries. In this chapter and elsewhere, Miles makes use of the writing of figures like Harriet Jacobs, Eliza Potter, Elizabeth Keckley, Melnia Cass, and Mamie Garvin to speculate about the possible experiences of the three women in her study 

Miles centers attention in Chapter 4, “Rose’s Inventory” on the tattered dress included in the sack as a way to understand the importance of this item within Ashley’s archive. Delving deeply into enslaved women’s access to clothing in a subsection titled “The Language of Dress,” Miles explores dress as a “form of social communication” and explains how dress and fabric within enslavement “signified who owned others and who could be owned” (133). Miles articulates as well that Black women’s limited control over their dress signaled their lack of access to the propriety and safety white women often enjoyed. Ultimately, Miles reads the inclusion of the dress in the sack as Rose’s “insist[ence] on Ashley’s right to bodily protection and feminine dignity” (131). This chapter would clearly be of interest to rhetorics of dress and appearance as the concerns raised here speak to the work of scholars such as Brittany Hull, Cecilia Shelton, Temptaous Mckoy, Carol Mattingly, and Jennifer Keohane. 

In Chapter 5, “The Auction Block,” Miles reads the horrific separation of Rose and Ashley through the lens of the economics and spatial rhetorics of Charleston that underwrote and relied on “a set of power relations that structured human exploitation along racial lines for financial gain” (164). Miles considers how the “pseudo-militarization of the public space” structured the lives of unfree people (170), as their lived experience and mobility was determined by high-walled homes and watchtowers as well as the “punishment center” that was the Workhouse (172). Miles goes on to imagine Ashley’s experience during the slave auction, considering not only the trauma of being separated from her mother but also the probability of sexual violation that most enslaved women and girls experienced when being sold. Miles writes, “Ashley must have been gathered up in this squall of the Martin household transformation, after which her mother, Rose, was lost to her. But what can this kind of senseless, existential break have meant for a real, living child?” (183). The horror Miles writes is too much to bear; the “distance of time” is the only factor that can “operat[e] as an emotional shield” (191).  

Chapter 6, “Ashley’s Seeds,” mines the importance of the pecans in Ashley’s sack. Miles describes the decision for Rose to include these food items as “what Black feminist theorists Stanlie James and Abena Busia call a ‘visionary pragmatism’” (193). The nuts that Rose packed for Ashley were not only practical in terms of feeding her, but they were also a symbol of Rose’s hope in Ashley’s health and growth. Chapter 6 also makes clear the significance of pecans within southern Black culture and foodways, seeing this as an opportunity to consider Black people’s access to foods like pecans and the cooking culture they crafted for themselves. Miles ends Chapter 6 with two kinds of feminist rhetorical practices. First, through critical imagination, she offers a picture of what the pecans might have signaled for Ashley: ”The loose, oblong nuts felt smooth in Ashley’s palms, the sound of their jangle in the sack a soothing and muted music. . . reminding  her that she was loved despite being cast off, her own and every enslaved child’s private apocalypse” (216). Second Miles provides several pecan-central recipes that enslaved people would have made, such as pecan pie, pecan crisp cookies, pecan wafers, and nut butter balls. With these recipes, Miles offers an alternative way to experience history, readers can not only read history, but they can taste it.  

Important to note as well that within this chapter is an insert of Miles’ collaborative visual essay with Michelle May-Curry titled “Carrying Capacity.” This essay situates Ashley’s sack within the fiber arts and textile tradition by making connections to Black women’s artistry evidenced in other seed sacks, quilts, dresses, and hair art. The authors remind readers that, as a textile, Ashley’s sack is yet another example of the ways Black people have used the fiber arts to stitch together themes of family and ancestral ritual” (n.p.).  

The final major chapter “The Bright Unspooling” re-emphasizes the difficulty of tracking the descendants of enslaved people as Miles attempts to find throughline from Ashley’s separation from Rose in 1850s Charleston to her granddaughter Ruth and the embroidered message she left on the sack. Miles locates Ruth in Philadelphia in the 1920s as her archival trace emerges in sources such as the social pages of the Philadelphia Tribune. Miles uses these artifacts to flesh out an understanding of Ruth’s experience and especially focuses on Ruth’s ability and choice to embroider her family’s story on the sack. Ruth’s embroidery indicates her craft, of course, but Miles argues it also suggests an assertion of middle-class “respectability for Black families” (251) and an “eloquent rebuttal” (253) against the prejudice that Black women experienced in 1920s America. Miles’ focus turns towards the storytelling function of Ruth’s embroidery, and Miles surmises that storytelling “may have become a way for Ashley, as well as Ruth, to move beyond the constraining role of a victim and take up the empowering stance of a witness” (231). Miles continues, “To tell the story of one’s own life is to change that life, as telling is an action that can revise one’s relationship to the past” (231).  

All That She Carried concludes with a reflection on Miles’ historiographic practice titled “A Little Sack of Something: An Essay on Process.” Here, Miles returns to the research questions that propelled the book forward: “what is the story of this cloth? Who were the mothers and daughters that touched it? What compelled Black women to struggle in defense of life in a system that turned mere existence into hardship? How did they maintain their will across generations in bleak times? And what can Black women’s creative response to the worst of circumstances teach us about the past and offer us for the future?” (299). Feminist historiographers will find great value in the research narrative Miles offers that ranges from learning about the sack for the first time—when she “lost [her]self in their waves of grief and oceans of meaning” (295)—to the advice she received from other scholars, and from the theories that enabled her to read the sack in difference ways to the serendipitous events that shaped her research.  

We hope this review conveys how much feminist scholars of rhetoric can learn from Miles’ complex, provocative, and moving book. On so many levels, All That She Carried can enrich the conversations we find central to our field. We want to conclude by underscoring the pedagogical value of and possibilities for this text, as we encourage readers to consider bringing this text into their classes. There is no doubt that All That She Carried resonated powerfully with our students. In projects that built from Miles’ book, they took the opportunity to further research Black women’s experiences, explore their own families’ stories of loss and survival, pursue questions of archival complexity, and enact their own unique forms of archival engagement. All That She Carried can thus be just as important for our scholarship as it is for our teaching. 

Works Cited

Arellano, Sonia C. “Quilting as a Qualitative, Feminist Research Method: Expanding Understandings of Migrant Deaths.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 2022, p. 17-30. 

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois UP, 1997. 

Goggin, MaureenDaly. Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. Routledge, 2017. 

Hull, Brittany, Cecilia Shelton, and Temptaous McKoy. “Dressed but Not Tryin’ to Impress: Black Women Deconstructing Professional Dress.” Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019. 

Keohane, Jennifer. “‘The Most Important Dress in the Country’: The Rhetoric of Glamour in the Smithsonian’s ‘The First Ladies.’” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 40, no. 3,  2017, p. 270-288. 

Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate [ing] Dress: Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois UP, 2002. 

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

Sohan, Vanessa Kraemer. Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance. U of Alabama Pt, 2019. 

SCUM Manifesto as a Rhetoric of Domination

You are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. -bell hooks 

Feminism has brought me language, liberation, and purpose. That’s not to say it doesn’t come with challenging questions and contradictions. Feminism continues to be a contentious ideology, within and beyond feminist discourse. If we are to understand and embody feminism as a politics of equity, I believe we need to sort out some baggage. This article responds to Sarah Ahmed’s call to think about feminist futures by tending to legacies of feminist pasts. For rhetoricians, reflecting on historic texts from a contemporary feminist viewpoint can create the space to consider how rhetorical and communicative choices align with or contradict the values of an ongoing movement. In this analysis, I consider the implications of positioning Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto as representatives of feminist resistance in contemporary critical feminist discourse. In what follows, I argue that this feminist rhetorical analysis of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto [2] reveals ethical pitfalls for a rhetoric of feminist resistance. By enacting compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, the manifesto reproduces a rhetoric of domination that confirms, rather than challenges, the power of hegemony (Foss and Griffin). Solanas’ attempt to transpose oppression and dominance on the gender binary does not actually change the conditions of the social apparatus. Rather, it maintains violence and sexism as key organizing functions of society. This attempt to subvert the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination–she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices. 

I come to SCUM Manifesto as a budding scholar interested in the space between feminism, femininity, and popular culture rhetorics. In contemporary mainstream media, Valerie Solanas has resurfaced as a feature and a historical reference in popular culture. Solanas was first immortalized in I Killed Andy Warhol, a film by Mary Harron first screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and shown again at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016. Lena Dunham played Solanas on an episode of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Cult (2017), entitled “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” where her character served as a plot device to expose the continued presence of feminist rage in the sociopolitical climate. Swedish author Sara Stridsberg published Valerie: or, The Faculty of Dreams: Amendment to the Theory of Sexuality (released in English in 2020), a historical fiction novel inspired by Solanas, preceded by a play entitled Valerie Jean Solanas for President of America (2006). Goodreads.com features SCUM Manifesto at number 81 in the list of top 100 “Best Feminist Books” among authors like Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, George Eliot, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Publishers continue to profit off of the manifesto with a celebratory tone. Avital Ronell’s reconsideration of the text was published by Verso Books in 2004, bringing SCUM into conversation with Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” (written in the same year) and Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech. AK Press published a version introduced by Michelle Tea in 2013 as “classic is a call to action.” Despite the fifty-year time lapse, Solanas continues to surface as an icon in contemporary feminist resistance efforts. 

As a result of her notoriety, SCUM[3] Manifesto has had a tumultuous rhetorical life, translated for global readership, heralded by some as and condemned by others. Valerie Solanas’ life was characterized by a series of extremes: She was abused by her parents and grandparents, became a truant, and had a child taken away by social services all before graduating high school (Latson; Ott). Carrying her traumas, she earned a psychology degree with honors from the University of Maryland and pursued some graduate school (Latson; Ott). Clearly, she was a person with intellect, ambition, and grit. If SCUM wasn’t complicated enough in its message, it was further complicated by Solanas’ attempted murder of Andy Warhol one year after its completion[4]. The attempt was informed in part by Solanas’ suspicion that Warhol was planning to plagiarize a screenplay she’d asked him to produce entitled Up Your Ass (Pruitt). Solanas’ message, tone, and her steadfast ownership of it had a polarizing effect on the Women’s Liberation movement and shaped the Radical Feminist Movement[5] (Fahs).  

Radical feminism became a social movement that advocated for a radical reconstitution of society and the elimination of male supremacy in all socioeconomic contexts. According to Ellen Willis, a prominent radical feminist activist and theorist, radical feminists understood society as inherently patriarchal. The objectives of radical feminism were to abolish patriarchy by pressurizing 1) capitalism as an institution and 2) the sexual objectification of women as a social norm. Tactics to reach the objectives included raising public awareness about issues such as rape and violence against women and to challenging the concept of gender roles so that anatomical differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis). With this in mind, this article comes from a question of values: How do strategies of communication affect the alignment of the message with the shared values of a social movement? What happens when the message is distorted by rhetorical choices? I believe it is important to check in with historical figures and artifacts as society learns (and unlearns). This practice is important for conscientious reproduction of rhetorical praxis and for determining how we construct a critical feminist lineage (Ahmed).  

I make a critical choice in my engagement with SCUM Manifesto by choosing to analyze it at face-value. That is, in a sea of satirical uptakes of the manifesto, this response operates from the perception of Solanas’ attempted assassination of Warhol, an influential male artist, as proof of her dedication to the beliefs represented in the document. If critics dismiss this event (perhaps in a case of “life imitating art”), it is possible to make arguments for the manifesto as a site of resistance through rhetorical tropes such as parrhesia and diatribe (Kennedy). Ahmed herself has appraised SCUM as a feminist snap, as an affective manifesto that draws power from its own literalism. But what’s missing from the analysis of language, form, and rhetoric within Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto is a sense of accountability from a feminist perspective—rather than the heterosexist, patriarchal dismissal of Solanas’ power and rage. On the contrary, this analysis is necessitated precisely because of Solanas’ powerful and influential rage, a rage that need not be undermined or diluted by layers of perceived irony and satire.  

Manifestos and Rage 

Sara Ahmed suggests the concept of a feminist snap as a requirement of feminist praxis—that feminists must utilize their rage to enact social change. “From a shattering,” she writes, “a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection” (183). In other words, affinities may emerge from a snap. According to her, the snap may manifest as a willingness to snap bonds that no longer serve, a site of feminist work where the violences of experience become visible, and a form of optimism without attaching specific future outcomes (194). “We snap. We snap under the weight; things break. A manifesto is written out of feminist snap. A manifesto is feminist snap,” says Ahmed (255). Feminist movements have procured manifestos for the cause since the suffrage movement (Campbell 1989). If there was ever a time for Solanas to procure SCUM, it was the 1960’s, a time where manifestos were a main mode of feminist communication.  

As a rhetorical genre, manifestos are commonly recognized as a declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of their creators. Other radical feminist texts include the New York Radical Feminists’ “Politics of the Ego: A Manifesto,” “Redstockings Manifesto,” and Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto for Revolution.” Interestingly, these examples are representations of a collective with a specific mission. Solanas’ individual enactment of the manifesto genre embodies a neoliberal, phallogocentric style of the manifesto misaligned with a satirical reading. With SCUM’s references to the status quo situated in 1967 U.S. society, principles for a new distribution of power pertaining only to women, and protocol for enforcement including murder of the non-compliant (Solanas 14), Solanas chose a form that would forward her ideas as social action (Miller).  

With Solanas composing in a genre used to inscribe patriarchy into society since the 1600’s, I note that her writing may be constrained by the genre of the manifesto itself–including the often hyperbolic tone that the genre engenders. Kimber C. Pearce argues that “generic appropriation” may constrain feminist rhetoric “to the prior discourse of the patriarchy to which they were opposed” (307). She uses generic appropriation here to mean “making over and setting apart” as one’s own substantive, stylistic, and situational rhetorical form (307). Through the notion of generic appropriation, I recognize that Solanas’ language may have been shaped by the conventions of the manifesto even if her intention was to diverge from them. In turn, Solanas makes an attempt to subvert the genre, yet employs rhetorical devices that preclude her intention to resist. While I recognize this aspect of generic constraints, they should not be cited as a means to see all rhetorical artifacts in a positive (or redeemable) light. It is important to listen beyond any shocking assertions in order to identify how the artifact functions as a product of patriarchy.  

As a feminist, I can understand how and why SCUM came into existence and recognize its power. In Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soraya Chemaly’s points to a commonality among women who experience rage: They have faced the phenomena of open dismissal and pathologization of their anger[6]. When men display anger, it reaffirms gender norms and traditional assumptions of masculinity—business as usual. What typically follows is rewards: men gain power from reproducing these assumptions of masculinity, often despite the effect of their anger on others. It follows that when women express anger, they transgress gender norms (defying the agreeable object role historically assigned to women), resulting in powerlessness. Feeling powerless is distressing, conditioning women against expressing their anger in the future and toward a mode of communication that prioritizes the comfort of others. Clearly, something has to change. This is the reason that feminist rage, along with feminine rage in general, needs to be visible and appreciated as a justified human reaction. Texts like SCUM provide rich ground to examine the presence of such feeling but, as a reader, I’m left wondering what I am supposed to take away from the text in terms of next steps for feminist activism. As a rhetorician, I have concerns about alienating potential allies and inspiring hatred.  

With a compassion for the personal and historical context in which Solanas authored SCUM, it is useful to frame the manifesto as an Ahmedian feminist snap. Solanas had endured long-spanning and varied trauma that shaped her perception of the world—and created within her a burning rage. As Ahmed states, ​​ “A [feminist] snap is not a starting point, but a snap can be the start of something” (194). Often met with violent consequences, physical or otherwise, women have come to understand the costs of displaying anger and are compelled to reconstitute, disregard, redirect, or minimize it. As an embodied experience, anger takes up cognitive real estate and will manifest in bodily reactions such as short temperedness, discontent, and an impairment of overall health. This “anger feedback loop” is often a direct implication of unacknowledged social injustice (Chemaly). All one has to do is wait for the…SNAP.  

Rhetoric of Domination   

As feminists, we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin reveal hermeneutic and ideological boundaries that limit the possibilities for rhetorical feminism (331). They understand Aristotelian rhetoric, or rhetoric-as-persuasion, as a conscious intent to change others, which is centered on competition and dominance. A rhetoric of domination constitutes patriarchy, where “some people are less valuable than others” (335). According to Foss and Griffin, patriarchy does not recognize inherent worth in people; value must be “earned, achieved, or granted” and is measured “only in relation to some outside standard” (336). That is, one’s adherence to the unwritten rules of belief, attitude, and behavior that constitute civility in patriarchy shapes the perception of the already raced, sexed, and gendered subject[7]. Critical to the functioning of patriarchy is a hierarchical structure that controls and oppresses ways of knowing and ways of being in the world (335). Foss and Griffin characterize a rhetoric of domination with four primary rhetorical strategies that “confirm the power of the system” (336): Compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal. In what follows, I define and trace these rhetorical strategies to expose the way Solanas builds a rhetoric of domination in the SCUM Manifesto.  

While I explore the use of all four rhetorical strategies in the composition of the text, I do not believe they are all equally deployed or equally impactful. Rather, my goal is to thoroughly demonstrate a multitude of pitfalls that Solanas succumbs to in the making of the manifesto and the implications of uncritical subversion. It is also worth mentioning that this analysis does not take issue with the presence, the guiding light, of rage. After all, as Soraya Chemaly writes, “Anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.” This analysis hinges on a difference between leveraging rage toward patriarchy and condemning all male-presenting persons. It is possible to assess each instance of male subjugation as a critique of patriarchal values. However, without maintaining patriarchy as an institution that prescribes power dynamics between the genders, one would find themselves, as Solanas has, forwarding eugenics under the guise of a feminist snap. Feminist criticism hinges on an understanding of patriarchy as a cultural hegemony responsible for the systemic oppression of non-males[8], not simply an intentional and individualized domination of women (Becker; Freedman; Offen).  

Compliance 

Foss and Griffin define compliance in a rhetorical context as “acquiescence to the requirements of the system” (336). In other words, a compliant rhetor judges and responds to a rhetorical situation on the basis of patriarchal standards. In her attempt to persuade readers to join the SCUM movement, I identify argumentum ad hominem as one stylistic technique through which compliance operates. By personally attacking the interlocutor on the basis of perceived character, this technique represents compliance with patriarchy because it functions on the basis that there is a “better” sex and that there exists a male essence. Solanas’ attacks on her opposition preclude a possibility for her manifesto to embody the feminist value of equity by disenfranchising the entire male population through a definition of maleness as an irreparable, non-human condition.  

Argumentum ad hominem[9] (Greek; “argument to the person”) has a long history in the rhetorical tradition. While there are various forms that this device can take, such as circumstantial or tu quoque, the form of relevance to this assessment of the SCUM Manifesto is defined by Graciela M. Chichi as the abusive type. She writes, “the…‘abusive’ variant of the ad hominem-fallacy, which is a dialogue move, but not an argument” consists of a personal attack on the interlocutor (334). It is particularly striking that this rhetorical choice is not regarded as an argument, rather as a baseless attack on the opposition based on their perceived character or social group; in this case, the opposing argument is not considered at all (Chichi 342). Solanas may have relied on argumentum ad hominem as a persuasive strategy because she could not identify an argument that all individual male-presenting persons make. Rather than refer to patriarchy, an identifiable system of oppression, she essentializes “male” as the source of female oppression.  

There are several identifiable instances of argumentum ad hominem in the manifesto, especially in the introductory sections. Within her attacks, I identify exaggerated statements (hyperbole), that I imagine Solanas used to enhance her “argument.” However, rather than enhance her point, I argue that her employment of hyperbole in conjunction with argumentum ad hominem serves to essentialize her opposition (in this case, males). From a contemporary feminist standpoint, this move undercuts her credibility as a feminist rhetor and aligns her with a system that does not recognize inherent value in all beings. Solanas writes: 

The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection of tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can’t relate to anything other than his own physical sensations. (1)

In this section, she begins to describe the consequences of the “biological accident” that are males (1). Rather than defining “maleness” as a socially-constructed and performative identity category, she writes that “maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples” (1).   It follows that her language in this passage would be constructed through the negative, or a lack, save for the use of the adverbs “completely” and “entirely.” I hear these adverbs as hyperbolic hinges for her prescribed constituents of maleness. If her manifesto was written as a response to patriarchy, she would be able to define it as a hegemonic power structure. However, since her manifesto is an opposition to all male-presenting persons, she binds herself by this definition that does not account for intersectional manifestations of personhood, a core value of contemporary feminist praxis—and one that applies to men!  

While intersectionality (Crenshaw) entered feminist discourse about twenty years after she wrote the manifesto, it is also useful to point to the way she bound herself in the context of radical feminism. Intersectionality conceived as theory, methodology, heuristic, or all three, has unleashed an astoundingly fertile and interdisciplinary archive of feminist critical inquiry at this new standard. Deborah L. Rhode’s “Feminist Critical Theories” identifies two central commitments addressed across feminist analytical frameworks: 1) They seek to promote equity between sexes and 2) they seek to identify the fundamental social transformations necessary for full equity between the sexes. Both Freedman and Rhode underscore values that, as Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin say, construct a feminist rhetorical theory which “challenge[s] the reality the system has created” (336). Rhode’s exploration is useful for contemporary feminist rhetorical analysis because her study was constructed to “underscore the importance of multiple frameworks that avoid universal or essentialist claims and that yield concrete strategies for social change” (619). By bringing together frameworks that maintain validation of subjectivity and recognition that identity comes from a matrix of systems, Freedman and Rhode’s thinking inform this study as an exigence to yield useful principles for intersectional feminist research that grapples with activism and social movements.  

If one objective of the radical feminist movement was to challenge the concept of gender roles so that genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis), a biologically-determined understanding of maleness serves to reify the position that sex and gender are genetic predispositions that determine personalities. With Solanas basing her argument on males as a biological accident from the beginning of the text, she continuously relies on the binary of female-male that, along with the normalization of gender roles and compulsory heteronormativity, is imbricated in patriarchy. Thus, I argue that the basis of her argument reifies the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society. This compliance results in a failure to resist patriarchy and capitulates to anti-feminist rhetoric. 

Manipulation 

Foss and Griffin define manipulation in this context as a delusion of control when a rhetor believes they are not complying with the system, but still accept the system’s terms, unspoken rules, and values. In other words, a manipulative rhetor will attempt to redress the conditions of the system to suit their needs or desires. In this case, I identify dehumanization as a rhetorical device through which manipulation operates in the manifesto. For example, equating a person or population to pests, deadly animals, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons would qualify as dehumanization (Szilagyi). By shifting a focus away from systemic inequity and oppression, onto males as non-human succubi, Solanas’ message preys on the reader’s capacity to empathize with male-presenting persons. Dehumanizing rhetoric employs terms that interpolate different groups of people as any number of non-human beings that have a particularly negative connotation.  

In SCUM, Solanas graduates from using animal metaphors, to genocide, and finally to eugenics as a means for social change. For example, Solanas writes: 

He is trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes, and is far worse off than the apes because, unlike the apes, he is capable of a large array of negative feelings—hate, jealousy, contempt, disgust, guilt, shame, doubt—and moreover, he is aware of what he is and what he isn’t. (1) 

In this passage, she makes the case that men are not apes because they possess a self-awareness and a nuanced emotional capacity. In general, this kind of rhetoric supports the diminishment of boundaries between verbal abuse and physical abuse by influencing the way people think and act toward each other. In fact, she draws comparisons between male-presenting persons and apes at three separate occasions throughout her manifesto. In some cases, she utilizes the metaphor to draw physical comparison; in other cases, she employs the metaphor to illustrate a minimized IQ. Another animal-based metaphor she takes up is comparing male-presenting persons to dogs at two occasions in her work. At one point, she writes: 

Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy. (12) 

In this passage, she crosses the line from dehumanization to genocide. This statement blatantly forwards the superiority of one sex over the other as a way to disenfranchise that “lesser” sex. With one sex having the right to live over the other, Solanas frames genocide as an advisable path toward revolution. Implicit in this passage is the notion that this genocide would come from a place of compassion and charity. By laying out the groundwork that men are sub-human, she begins to reduce the ability for the reader to relate to the “apes” and “dogs” to which she refers. This manipulative language aims to deceive the reader from their own morality in order to justify SCUM’s agenda.  

Eventually, Solanas moves away from animal metaphors and speaks in terms of degeneration, referring to deterioration that can only be prevented through the eradication of the invasive actor (Szilagyi). Solanas posits: 

As for the issue of whether or not to continue to reproduce males, it doesn’t follow that because the male, like disease, has always existed among us that he should continue to exist. When genetic control is possible— and soon it will be—it goes without saying that we should produce only whole, complete beings, not physical defects of deficiencies, including emotional deficiencies, such as maleness. Just as the deliberate production of blind people would be highly immoral, so would be the deliberate production of emotional cripples. (12) 

In this passage, Solanas discusses the birth of male babies in terms of pathology, with eugenics as a viable cure for the degeneration of society. However, male presenting persons are not the only population implicated in the statement. By stating that “whole, complete beings” are the only ones with a right to life, she negates the worth of disabled persons. Solanas has demonstrated that she does not believe in the immanent worth of all people, and this section shows that she does not believe in a person’s right to life either. By devaluing subjectivities that stem from a diversity of lived experiences, Solanas aligns herself with patriarchal notions of abstract objectivity and ableism. In short, arguing for eugenics separates this work from artifacts that represent feminist ideology.  

Rebellion 

Foss and Griffin define rebellion in a rhetorical context as a refusal or challenge that counterproductively serves to harm the rebel, rather than the system (336). In Solanas’ endeavor to persuade readers that males are worthy only of extinction, I identify calls to violence as one way rebellion manifests in this particular case. In her attempt to justify genocide and eugenics, Solanas contradicts her own stance against violence that she frames as a rudimentary male stimulant. Throughout the manifesto, Solanas spends time condemning men for their obsession with violence as a phallocentric compensation for the sexual satisfaction they cannot attain as “incomplete females” (1). She writes: 

The male’s normal compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets it off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a ‘Man’. Since he has no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, proving his manhood is worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own—his own life being worthless, he would rather go out in a blaze of glory than to plod grimly on for fifty more years. (“War” 2).  

Since males are aware that “men are women and women are men” (2), Solanas argues that they are motivated to prove their manhood and choose violences as a means to do so. In protest, she frames compassion and relatability as valuable characteristics, which prevent the need for violence toward the self or others. Solanas argues that women are superior to men largely in part for their emotional competency, which I hear as an essential understanding of an affective female, or feminine, disposition. At any rate, SCUM forwards that males are “completely physical” (1) without these characteristics and seek to “get off” as a compulsory response to avoid passivity and their true womanhood (2). Her unproductive subversition of maleness and femaleness serves to reify the subjugated, subordinate, and inferior position of femaleness in the system of patriarchy. Thus, violence is a defense against the desire to be female. 

Later in the work, Solanas writes:  

The male is eaten up with tension, with frustration at not being female, at not being capable of ever achieving satisfaction or pleasure of any kind; eaten up with hate—not rational hate that is directed at those who abuse or insult you—but irrational, indiscriminate hate… hatred, at bottom, of his own worthless self. Gratuitous violence, besides ‘proving’ he’s a ‘Man’, serves as an outlet for his hate and, in addition—the male being capable only of sexual responses and needing very strong stimuli to stimulate his half-dead self—provides him with a little sexual thrill. (“Hatred and Violence” 11) 

In this section, she identifies “indiscriminate hate” born from self-loathing as the root of “gratuitous violence.” Throughout the manifesto, she juxtaposes the male or incomplete female to “groovy chicks” whose “function is to relate, groove, love and be herself, irreplaceable by anyone else” (5). I problematize her binary by extrapolating that if groovy chicks love themselves, then there is no need to turn to violence as an outlet for hate. If groovy chicks believe they are irreplaceable, then they won’t feel the need to “go out in a blaze of glory” (2). If her differentiation between male women and female men is based in self-worth, SCUM’s rebellion as a destructive killing mob collapses the opportunity for female empowerment outside of a patriarchal structure by adopting tactics that undermine her own categorical identifications. Of the revolution, she writes: 

SCUM will keep on destroying, looting, fucking-up and killing until the money-work system no longer exists and automation is completely instituted or until enough women cooperate with SCUM to make violence unnecessary to achieve these goals, that is, until enough women either unwork or quit work, start looting, leave men and refuse to obey all laws inappropriate to a truly civilized society. (15) 

In SCUM, she advocates for a completely automated society so that women won’t have to spend time doing mundane tasks. Yet, her calls to violence enact rebellion as a strategy of the rhetoric of domination. After spending the first thirteen pages establishing the frailty of males for their institution of violence as a means to compensate for their own passivity, she turns to those who would be her followers and asks them to take up the same contemptible violence to create a utopia. Turning “patriarchy” into “matriarchy” may seem like feminist revolution, but the power dynamic lives on through a patriarchal mode of communication that hinges on sex and gender roles. Based on the enactment of rebellion, I argue that taking up Solanas and SCUM as models for feminist resistance distorts the principles that guide contemporary feminist praxis.  

Withdrawal 

Foss and Griffin define withdrawal in this context as a separation between rhetors and information and/or resources vital to their freedom or survival (336). In other words, a withdrawn rhetor will remove herself from company that can benefit her well-being or the success of her message. In this case, Solanas embodies this rhetorical strategy in two ways: 1) by choosing not to address a feminist audience in her manifesto or aligning herself with a community, and 2) through her rejection of feminist aid during her trial for attempted murder. However, I must say that, both of these choices align with Foss and Griffin’s feminist rhetorical principle of self-determination in decision-making. While she made the decision for herself as to who would represent her and how she would represent her ideas, her choices manifest as a withdrawal that adds to the rhetoric of domination she built in her manifesto. 

Intriguingly, Solanas did not frame her manifesto as feminist. For example, the only appearance of the term “feminist” in the manifesto is in it’s antithetical form. Solanas writes, “‘Great Art’ proves that men are superior to women, […] being labeled ‘Great Art’, almost all of which, as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men.” In the construction of this passage, she refers to anti-feminists as “them” and aligns herself with “us,” which may be interpreted as “the feminists” or as “groovy chicks,” the latter of which she addresses repeatedly throughout her piece. While creating a new profile of womanhood is not explicitly anti-feminist, she implicitly denies association with feminists and creates an abstract category for the kind of women who are fit for the SCUM revolution.  

At the time of Solanas’ arrest, Ti-Grace Atkinson[10], then the president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), partnered with Flo Kennedy to form Solanas’ defense team in the Warhol case. Atkinson and Kennedy offered to take Solanas’ case despite instruction from Betty Friedan to distance herself from Solanas to avoid “connecting violence and feminism” (Fahs 577). Friedan declared, “desist immediately from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas. Miss Solanas’ motives in [the] Warhol case [are] entirely irrelevant to NOW’s goals of full equality for women in truly equal partnership with men” (Pan). While Friedan became a controversial figure in her own right, she saw a danger in responding to Solanas as a soldier for the feminist cause. From jail, three months after her arrest, Solanas wrote to Atkinson,  

I know you, along with all the other professional parasites with nothing of their own going for them, are eagerly awaiting my commitment to the bughouse […] I want to make perfectly clear that I am not being committed because of my views or the “SCUM Manifesto” […] Nor do I want you to continue to mouth your cultivated banalities about my motive for shooting Warhol. Your gall in presuming to be competent to discourse on such a matter is beyond belief. In short, do not ever publicly discuss me, SCUM, or any aspect at all of my care. Just DON’T. (Pan) 

Clearly, Solanas had no interest in aligning with feminist leaders of her time.[11] These choices represent withdrawal because her rejection of legal counsel showed that she would rather risk conviction than accept free aid that may grant her freedom. However, Atkinson felt compelled to aid Solanas despite her initial refusal because “[Solanas] had done something appropriate to the feelings [women] were all having. She was fighting back” (Fahs 576). Here, Atkinson refers to the affective undercurrent of rage that maintains a presence in resistance efforts. Although, I am pressed to argue that not all resistance can be characterized as feminist resistance.  

Conclusion 

Despite her initial inclination to help Solanas get through her trial, Atkinson inevitably cut ties with Solanas. In an interview with Breanne Fahs, Atkinson said that Solanas’ interpersonal nature was to “dominate and abuse you and she was very manipulative” (578, my emphasis).[12] At least Valerie Solanas is consistent. At any rate, Atkinson’s ruminations on her time with Solanas and on the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s reflects the core of my argument in this study. When Fahs asked Atkinson if she felt that Solanas was a feminist; she answered a simple “no.” When asked to elaborate, Atkinson said: 

She’s part of my archive, but I don’t think of her as part of my feminist archive. 

She was a glitch, a mistake. The fact that she keeps coming up, you could say that means we as women, as feminists, yearn for some violence, or somebody to fight back, and she looked like she was fighting back. (Fahs 579; my emphasis) 

In her own words, Atkinson describes phenomena that wove SCUM into the tapestry of feminist history. Solanas was fighting back, but she wasn’t fighting a fight in the name of feminism. Her anger and her resistance gave the impression of a fight inspired by the feminist movement. By sacrificing the principles of feminist ideology, Solanas maintains a rhetoric of domination that becomes another cog in the wheel of systemic violence.  

This research responds to the call to extrapolate theoretical principles from the practices of women to suggest alternative ways of viewing rhetoric from specific historical periods and engaging with it from a contemporary standpoint (Colman). Revisiting artifacts with a tumultuous rhetorical life, such as SCUM, can help us reflect on the kind of legacy we want to create. In her interview with Breanne Fahs, Ti-Grace Atkinson shared: 

Later, I kept seeing people who were interested in Valerie and who responded with a kind of excitement. I asked this one woman, “Why does she attract you?” because I realized she really wasn’t interested in deep feminist questions. She said, “Well, she seems to have some panache, some style about it; you know, she shot somebody.” In a way I have to say that was probably what attracted me too. I was filled with rage and I thought it was somehow appropriate to “just shoot them all!” It certainly seemed deserved, but it was a misreading of what was going on. (Fahs 580) 

 As this exchange shows, Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto are lightning rods, stirring interest in change (to say the least) for five decades—and are prone to “misreadings”. Clearly, her commitment to her beliefs and demonstration of rage draw an audience to her. But as Atkinson observes, the excitement the rhetor and her rhetoric engender are not necessarily for the benefit of feminism. Working to eschew the trap of patriarchal rhetoric does not mean that feminist rhetoric should be left only with civility on one hand and confrontation avoidance on the other. In fact Nina M. Lozano-Reich & Dana L. Cloud point out that power imbalances in economic, political, and social context make these options quite difficult to adhere to (221). However, the question of audience becomes increasingly important here. Solanas is writing (in part) to an audience of females (based on her use of “we” and “females” throughout the manifesto), to bring them together to create the maleless utopia she illustrates. This subversion of the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination—she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices. This is the hinge from which this assessment comes.  

This analysis sought to unpack SCUM Manifesto by thinking through its claims with a contemporary feminist lens, resting on the notion that the affective undercurrent of anger and rage instantiated an alignment between Solanas’ rhetoric and the historical moment. Seemingly by virtue of kairos, this particular manifesto has been imbricated in the iconography of second-wave feminism and the radical feminist movement. This alignment misrepresents the ideological principles of equity that feminism seeks to generate. This misalignment adds to the symphony of observations that that the metaphor of feminist “waves” does a disservice to the understanding of the history of feminism. Lumping all woman-centered activism of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s into the “second-wave” of feminism represents all resistance efforts as a unified phenomenon. However, feminism is not an umbrella for all rhetorics of resistance and positioning it as such serves to distort the personal and political goals of a feminist ideology. In fact, this may be one of the only acknowledgeable examples of “reverse sexism,” which, without the backing of a system of institutional power, isn’t even a recognized prejudice in social justice discourse (Bearman).  

By reproducing a rhetoric of domination through the rhetorical strategies of compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, Solanas confirms, rather than challenges, the power of cultural hegemony over meaning-making (Foss). For one, the basis of her argument complies with the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society—the reductive heteronormative ideology remains so when the sexes are reversed. While setting up her version of the binary, she employs hyperbolic language to dehumanize male-presenting persons in the effort to justify genocide and eugenics. However, reproducing linguistic violence as a condition to meet a desired end traps her message in the rhetoric of domination and separates her work from the trajectory of feminist resistance—and pits populations against each other. In other words, not all resistance should be thought of as feminist resistance if it forgoes feminist commitments in the in the process. If there is any takeaway from this particular manifesto for feminism, it is to maintain feminist integrity by avoiding assimilation to patriarchal rhetorics of domination.   

Future Research 

As alluded to earlier, this analysis is but one addition to the various readings of SCUM, and I suspect that many more will continue to emerge. Thinking ahead, what might we also gain from a distanced reading that considers affect and not pure intention? An interesting approach might be to analyze the manifesto as through a rhetoric of queer aesthetics. In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam writes that “the queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (88). Failure gives an idea of what may not serve the cause, information that may ultimately aid in long-term or alternative successes. More information allows for critical decision-making and a reduction of risk. Deemed failures give an idea of what certain choices look like, what they reflect, and they demonstrate the parameters of a discourse community. These facets present the opportunity to reproduce the results or to shift direction. Solanas’ manifesto can be read as a failed feminist resistance because it capitulates to patriarchal rhetoric.  

A productive outcome from engaging with SCUM as a feminist rhetorician lies in its potentiality as a model by which one may appraise the imbrication of patriarchy in a seemingly anti-patriarchal text. This type of rhetorical failure of resistance is productive only when we are able to, as Ahmed writes, “accept our complicity,” “forgo any illusions of purity,” and “give up the safety of exteriority” (94). There were and there are versions of feminism that condone that “the elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy” (Solanas). That’s to say that we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. How can we advocate for a more just future if we don’t question the lineage of the feminist standpoint? The failure is productive in that it gives us a location from which to critically curate a feminist rhetoric of accountability.

End Notes

[1]See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.

[2]See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.

[3]Solanas denied that SCUM was an acronym, rather that it refers to the hierarchical position women held in society (scum of the Earth). However, there has been speculation that it stood for the Society for Cutting Up Men.   

[4]When I approached this project, I had a few assumptions regarding uptake, especially that Solanas’ reputation would have become a terministic screen for interpreting the possibilities in the manifesto (rhetorical and otherwise); the screen could come from an understanding of Solanas as a heroine who embodied her beliefs or as a murderous paranoid schizophrenic who needed medical help.

[5]Apparent in the staunch stance against males as oppressors; a desire for more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy; and stance against sex work. 

[6]This norm is experienced by and is commonly understood among different kinds of women, despite unique experiences of those multiply-marginalized.  

[7]Civility has been used as a form of racial, sexed, and gendered discipline. Examples include patriarchy’s framing of women as hysterical and unfit to participate in a public forum, to colonialism’s address of BIPOCs as uncivil savages, to heteronormative understandings of LGBTQIA+ sexualities as deviant. In each case, the idea of civility is reserved for the dominant class and is symbolically and materially unavailable to othered populations. For more on civility and inequality, see Cloud and Lozano.  

[8]With particular favor toward white, cisgendered, and able males. 

[9]Argumentum ad hominem ranks second-to-last in Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement just above “name-calling.” 

[10]While Atkinson’s relationship to Solanas helps me ground my argument in a historic context, I am compelled to disclose that she is an author of the “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender’” statement. Written, signed, and circulated by Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), this statement 1) argues for the exclusion of women who have undergone M>F transition from “RadFem” conferences and 2) undermines the validity of gender theory. Atkinson is cited in this article because her affiliation with Solanas during her trial makes her first-hand account a relevant perspective for the purposes of this article. 

[11]It is important to note that these leaders represented the women’s liberation movement, from which radical feminism derived.

[12]I can’t help but be amused by the coincidence in word choice here. 

 

Appendix A: Summary of SCUM 

SCUM Manifesto begins by urging “groovy chicks” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and eliminate the male sex” (1). Then follows with a theory that males are deficient females through an identification of the Y chromosome as an incomplete X chromosome. It follows that the biological deficiency manifests in emotional incompetencies such as a lack of emotional intelligence and personal passions. Since males lack empathy and are unable to relate to anything or anyone, Solanas reads them as narcissists who cannot feel anything outside of their own physical sensations. She continues through a subverted Freudian analysis of “pussy envy” (which I discuss later), and posits that males spend their lives attempting to become female and overcome their inferiority. Due to the biological, emotional, and social inadequacies of the male sex, she identifies twenty-two socio-economic shortcomings of male-centered social systems (patriarchy, but never names it as such).  

The manifesto is broken into sections as follows: War; niceness, politeness, and “dignity;” money, marriage and prostitution, work and prevention of an automated society; fatherhood and mental illness (fear, cowardice, timidity, humility, insecurity, passivity); suppression of Individuality, animalism (domesticity and motherhood) and functionalism; prevention of privacy; isolation, suburbs and prevention of community; conformity; authority and government; philosophy, religion and morality based on sex; prejudice (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.); competition, prestige, status, formal education, ignorance and social and economic classes; prevention of conversation; prevention of friendship and love; “Great Art” and “Culture;” sexuality; boredom; secrecy, censorship, suppression of knowledge and ideas, and exposés; distrust; ugliness; hate and violence; and disease and death. She uses these sections to justify the elimination of the male sex. In order to accomplish these goals, Solanas proposes that a revolutionary vanguard of women be formed. This vanguard is referred to as SCUM, which “criminal disobedience” in order to destroy the system. The manifesto ends by describing a female-dominated utopian future in which, without men, violence will be rendered obsolete.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sarah. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017. 

Bearman, Steve, et al. “The Fabric of Internalized Sexism.” Journal of Integrated Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1, 2009, pp. 10-47. 

Becker, Mary. “Patriarchy and Inequality: Towards a Substantive Feminism.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1999, no. 1, 1999, pp. 21-625. Web. 

“Best Feminist Books (2243 Books).” Goodreads, 24 June 2008,  www.goodreads.com/list/show/62.Best_Feminist_Books 

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “Gender and Genre: Loci of Invention and Contradiction in the Earliest  Speeches by U.S. Women.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 81, no. 1, 1995, pp. 479-95.  

Chemaly, Soraya. Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. Atria Books, 2018. 

Chichi, Graciela Marta. “The Greek Roots of the Ad Hominem-Argument.” Argumentation, vol. 16, no. 3, Aug. 2002, p. 333, doi:10.1023/A:1019967112062.  

Collins, Patricia H. “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas.” ​Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-20. 

Colman, Felicity. “Notes on the Feminist Manifesto: The Strategic Use of Hope.” Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 14, no. 4, 2010, pp. 375-92.  

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, no. 1, 1989, pp. 139-67. 

Fahs, Breanne. “Ti-Grace Atkinson and the Legacy of Radical Feminism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 2011, pp. 561-590. Web. 

Foss, Sonja K., and Cindy L. Griffin. “A Feminist Perspective on Rhetorical Theory: Toward a Clarification of Boundaries.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 56, no. 4. 1992, 330-49. Web.

Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine, 2003. Print. 

hooks, bell. “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body | Eugene Lang College.” YouTube, uploaded by The New School, 7 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJk0hNROvzs 

Kennedy, Kristen. “Cynic Rhetoric: The Ethics and Tactics of Resistance.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 18, no. 1, 1999, pp. 26-45. 

Latson, Jennifer. “Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas: Why She Shot Him.” Time, Time, 3 June 2015, time.com/3901488/andy-warhol-valerie-solanas/. 

Lozano-Reich, Nina M. and Dana L. Cloud. “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, 2009, pp. 220–226. 

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, 151-67.

Offen, Karen. “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach.” Signs, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988, pp. 119-57. Web. 

Ott, Tim. “Valerie Solanas: Learn About the Woman Who Shot Andy Warhol.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 1 Mar. 2019, www.biography.com/news/andy-warhol-valerie-solanas-shot. 

Pan, J.C. “Thrasher Feminism: Valerie Solanas and Her Enemies.” Dissentmagazine.org, Dissent Magazine, 2014, www.dissentmagazine.org/article/trasher-feminism-valerie-solanas-and-her-enemies 

Pearce, Kimber C. “The Radical Feminist Manifesto as Generic Appropriation: Gender, Genre, and Second Wave Resistance.” Southern Communication Journal, vol. 64, no. 4, 1999,  307-15.

Pruitt, Sarah. “Andy Warhol Was Shot by Valerie Solanas. It Killed Him 19 Years Later.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2018, www.history.com/news/andy-warhol-shot-valerie-solanas-the-factory. 

Rhode, Deborah L. “Feminist Critical Theories.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 41, no. 3, 1990, pp. 617-638. 

Solanas, Valerie. SCUM Manifesto. Olympia Press, 1967. Stridsberg, Sara. Valerie, Or, The Faculty of Dreams: Amendment to the Theory of Sexuality. 2019.

Szilagyi, Anna. “Dangerous Metaphors: How Dehumanizing Rhetoric Works.” Dangerous Speech Project, 9 Mar. 2018, www.dangerousspeech.org/dangerous-metaphors-how-dehumanizing-rhetoric-works/.  

“Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag.” American Horror Story: Cult, created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, performance by Lena Dunham, season 7, episode 7, 20th Century Fox Television and FX, 17 October 2017. 

Willis, Ellen. “Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism.” Social Text, vol. 9, no. 10, 1984, pp. 91-118. Web. 

Yogmaya Neupane: The Unknown Rhetorician and the Known Rebel

Yogmaya Neupane (1860-1941) was a feminist, activist, rebel, and political and social thinker in Nepal. As a thinker and an activist, she organized people and initiated awareness against stereotypes, superstitious religious practices, the caste system, child marriage, discriminatory treatments of women, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth, among other issues. During the early 1900s, Nepal was ruled by Ranas, whose regimes are considered to be the dark period in the history of Nepal; their rigid adherence to Hindu systemic discrimination had perpetuated superstitious religious practices such as Sati— the practice of immolating the wife into the pyre of the husband after the husband dies. Yogmaya established Nari Samiti, the first women’s coalition in Nepal, around 1906 to fight against the injustices and discriminations against women, such as the practice of Sati (Aziz, Hutt, Yadav). Nari Samiti became a viable medium to officially pressure the governmental system which was exerting autocratic power. Through political activism and social awareness approaches, she forced the then government to eradicate the system of Sati from the country.  

But a system of Sati was not the only trial of Nepalese women during that period. Women and girls in Nepal during the 1900s were considered second-class citizens: they were secluded from political and legal rights and subject to polygamous marriage and widow discriminations. In addition, child marriages were prevalent practices, which were legally and morally sanctioned under the Hindu legal system (Muluki Ain 1854). Yogmaya fought for “alms for righteous governance”—a system of government based on justice and truth, in her words (Aziz 59). After spending more than thirty decades on activism and revolution, when she discovered that Ranas’ systems of autocracy were adamant about secluding women and other marginalized castes, she decided to sacrifice her life to threaten the government. Because murdering a Brahmin or forcing a Brahmin to take her life was considered a sin in Hindu philosophy and was also punishable by the Nepali civil code (Muluki Ain 1854), she used the threat of ending her life as a resistance technique to shake the government. Being from a so-called pious Brahmin family, whose harm was considered as harm to God, she used her embodiment to threaten the government and political system.  She arranged self-immolation by fire in 1938 along with 204 followers, but she was instead arrested and put in prison. After spending more than three months in prison, she again marched for self-immolation, this time in the water. On July 5, 1941, she threw herself into the river Arun, where she died. Sixty-seven of her followers also followed her path and jumped into the Arun. 

Before dying, Yogmaya had composed Sarvartha Yogbani, which includes her teachings and philosophies. Even after her death, most of her living followers regarded her book as their fundamental tenet. In the Yogbani, she denounced the caste system, subordination of women, economic disenfranchisement of working-class people and appeals for establishing justice. It is an enriching resource for social activists, philosophers, and writers. However, the book was banned in Nepal until 2000. Not only were her activities considered blasphemous by misogynist patriarchal values, but she was also vilified as a prostitute, wayward, mad, and crazy by the patriarchal norms. As a result, official Nepalese history did not account for the name of Yogmaya even after half of the century of her death. After the death of Yogmaya, Nepal went through great political reformations and enjoyed a vibrant period of democracy that was largely critical of the Rana regime, the legacy of the eradication of the Sati system from Nepal remained credited to Rana rulers, and the erasure of Yogmaya was perpetuated. This is to say, regardless of the political system that was in power, females have continued to be politically marginalized while Yogmaya’s contributions have failed to be realized in official history. While there were records of Yogmaya’s existence, nonetheless, the records of her contributions were “burned for fuel on some chilly winter nights” (Aziz 68).  

Remembering Yogmaya 

As a young girl growing up in Nepal, I heard about the system of Sati before I “heard” about Yogmaya, who had forced the government to ban it. I first learned about the system of Sati in the Nepali Literature class around seventh grade. When my Nepali literature teacher, a bold and vocal woman, talked about the custom of burning women in the pyre of their husbands. Goosebumps came all over my body. For the first time in my childhood years, I became afraid of being female. I became afraid of being female before I realized I am a female.  Even scarier was to think about my grandmother, my mother’s sister, and other women whom I had seen without husbands throughout my life. How did they escape that fate after their husbands died?  That day after school, I went straight to my mother’s sister’s home, who used to live a couple of houses away from my parent’s home. I asked my mother’s sister, who was born in the early 1900s, was married at the age of seven and became a widow at the age of nine, “हजुर चै सति किन नजानुभको ?” translated in English as “why did you not go Sati?” Her response was, “They did not ask me to”.  Who did not “ask” her? Who would have had the power to force her to Sati and, in contrast, who emancipated her? Did she know 

Like Yogmaya, my mother’s sister was married at the age of seven to a boy who was nine. She was allowed to live in her parents’ home until she reached the age when she could do errands herself. But when she was nine, her husband, along with most of his family members, died due to the cholera epidemic. She became a widow at the age of nine for a husband she barely knew. Although my mother’s sister did not have to go Sati, she sacrificed her whole life for the husband who died when she was only nine. She never wore colorful clothes, never went to public places without accompanying the male family members and lived a secluded life. The reply that I got from her, “They did not ask me to”, becomes meaningful only now as I am strategically contemplating the life she lived alongside the life and contributions of Yogmaya. I realize that my mother’s sister was not forced to go to Sati only because of Yogmaya’s contributions. Did she know that she and many like her were fortunately absolved from duty of Sati because of Yogmaya? Most probably not!  

My mother’s sister wanted to believe, like my schoolteacher, that she was absolved from her duty of Sati by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (1901-1929), on 8th July 1920.  Her generation was raised to doubt that an average Nepali woman like herself could be courageous enough to challenge the patriarchal structure. And it was hard to imagine the ramifications of doing so.  Since repressive erasure of Yogmaya’s contributions past almost three generations and the oral history about her was limited to women in the Arun River Valley only, it was discomforting for the women of my mother’s generation to challenge official narrations (Connerton; Hamilton,and Shopes). It took my entire school years and even prior years at the university to convince myself that what my schoolteacher told me was only a version of official history.  

Context for Feminist Rhetorical Recovery 

Others have tried to research Yogmaya before me. Yogmaya Neupane has been extensively studied from anthropological, sociological, literary and historical perspectives. In anthropological and sociological study, Yogmaya and her works are considered rebellious and revolutionary, aiming to bring social change (Aziz; Hutt). First among them is an ethnographic account produced by Barbara Nimri Aziz, whose work is iconic in studying and recovering the story of Yogmaya as a rebel. Aziz’s work is revolutionary also because she compiled the collections of her poems in her book Heir to silent Song Two Rebel Women of Nepal, which would otherwise be banned by the government. Yogmaya is also portrayed alongside the Hindu mythic figures and her works have largely been analyzed from a Hindu Vedic perspective (Neupane, Bhandari, Shrestha). In addition, feminist and historians like to date her social movement practices as some of the first feminist movements in Nepal representing her as a first feminist (Yadav, Lama, Karki, Shrestha). Similarly, in most of the literary references to her, such as in works by home-grown writers such as Uttam Prasad Panta and Lekhnath Bhandari, she is highlighted as a literary figure and her poems as radical.  As Michael Hutt opines in his critical analysis of the “forcible forgetting” of the history of Yogmaya in “nationalist and teleological history” (Hutt 383) and the recent narrativist revival of her in ahistorical accounts and studies, literary studies of Yogmaya were a prominent factor for her recent revival in Nepal. Referring to Uttam Prasad Panta’s article on the literary contributions of Yogmaya, at one point, he recognizes that literary identification of her was the safest way of seeking public recognition —”an initiative that enriched the literary pedigree of the national language and identified new icons to enhance the kingdom’s Hindu identity that? would not be frowned upon” (Hutt 349). However, even critical research such as this represents her as a female ascetic, political revolutionary, feminist, and literary artist only. Although historical, sociological, anthropological, feminist and literary methodology have immensely contributed in establishing and recovering her works and contributions, which would have been erased, lost, forgotten and repressed. But looking at the past and reconstructing it in a crude academic fashion may not be enough for recuperating feminist rhetorical practices, let alone rewriting the feminist contributions in the history. In the case of Yogmaya, her recovery efforts have largely been concentrated in recovering her rather than recovering her practices—consequently, erasing the revolutionary practices of her along with a large number of her followers whose contributions were equally important. In addition, recuperating efforts may require us to theorize her practices; in another words, redesigning her practices as what decolonial feminists want to call “praxis” (hooks)  

A Transnational Feminist Rhetorical Practice for Recovering Yogmaya 

I want to add one more historiographical account along this line: Yogmaya is the first female rhetorician of Nepal. Reading anthropological and historical research on Yogmaya, while providing greater possibilities, was still generally reductive, reading more like a fairytale for women of the democratic era to believe that a woman could jump into the river for a greater good, let alone burning into the pyre of a husband following the traditions. Based on the description of her in the first half of the essay, I want to reiterate 1) the initiative that she took for female liberation, 2) her teachings and philosophies in Sarvartha Yogbani, and, finally 3) her embodied resistance through the practice of Jal Samadhi (mass immolation in water) expounds her rhetorical skills and strategies. For me, these feminist principles rest on how I envision my locality through the feminist rhetorical perspective, for instance, imagining critically into questions such as what forced Yogmaya to jump into the river? Or what saved my mother’s sister from being Sati? In this case, imagining critically means to rhetorically envision local feminist efforts of Yogmaya by examining the history lived by her and women like her, further pondering rhetorically into the reason she chose her rhetorical practices or the reason she chose a particular rhetorical practice. However, this is a complex endeavor given that it invites more questions than answering one. For example, the question that made me numb was what am I to write about a woman who flowed herself into the thundering Arun River, never to return, for a cause which was then called fanatical? What am I to say, about a woman whose history was never talked about and even forbidden in my culture? Legacy is not a word that was made to suit her in history; she was ostracized, defamed, and vilified. Further, the history writers cleansed, dumped, forbade, and erased her. Opening her story is like excavating a memory that has now become a myth. Ashes were rare things, and an archive is impossible for her archaeology. In fact, the effort to recover the feminist rhetor in the culture where rhetoric is yet to be defined in western academic terminology is an innovative process for the reason that it helps in designing a new methodology or employ the foreign methodology in a new way.  

To begin this recovery effort, I contacted Barbara Nimri Aziz, who pioneered Yogmaya among scholarly circles. I scheduled a couple of meetings with her, which she affirmed and appreciated with intellectual wit. In our first phone conversations, she recalled her 1980’s visit to Nepal— where Yogmaya had lived, preached, and performed her resistance and protest in the 1900s. She had visited the place nearly forty years after the death of Yogmaya. In our extensive phone conversation, she shared that it was like finding her own foremothers’ stories. Being a daughter of Arab immigrants, she found her affinities and shared values as soon as she discovered Yogmaya’s contributions. In her book, Heir to Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, she writes “I didn’t imagine in Nepal I might find activists similar to Mother Jones and Sojourner Truth… How could a woman raised in America and England, even though she was of Arab origin, imagine she might find her true ancestors in Nepal?” (Aziz 28) 

When Barbara visited Nepal, she met Manamaya, the pupil of Yogmaya and a respondent in Barbara’s research who is also, along with a number of other followers, used to reciting the verses from the book Sarvartha Yogbani. This recitation was private, and Barbara writes, “I noted how, when either Manamaya or Bhaktini Aama sang [them] for me, they did so in the privacy of their small dwellings, and at night” (Aziz 39). But those brave followers of Yogmaya wanted the message to be spread and the story to be heard by all the people. So, Manamaya invited Barbara into her small hut one night and handed the book which she had wrapped in a cloth-like “sepia brown booklet” and kept inside the bed mattress (Aziz 39-40). In my research process, when I was searching for the original book of Yogmaya and asked Barbara about it she wrote me, “The entire set of available Yogbani is included as an appendix to my book Heir to Silent Song: Two Women Rebels of Nepal. It represents the only written collection yet available of Yogbani. Such a treasure to be given to me in 1981 to share with all. These conversations between Barbara and me, two feminist researchers distanced by generation and nationality but made closer by rhetorical ethos— the ethos of care and humility— helped me to engage in a compassionate argument, collaborative practice, and negotiation. At one of our conversations, she explicitly advised me that a Nepali woman should study and explore on Yogmaya. Perhaps, while saying this, Aziz listened to Patricia Sutherland who advises that the feminist methodology of primary research is garnered from women’s primary experiences. It encouraged me to commemorate my position as a researcher and to navigate my gendered and transnational experience. 

This authentication of Yogmaya as a rhetorician was possible through juxtaposing my narrative, which explored and discloses attachment, about how the history of Yogmaya was deleted from the public narrative. For doing this, I have relied extensively on feminist rhetorical practices to weave my personal experience of Yogmaya and the women’s issues she advocated for with my recovery of her rhetorical work. The gap of nearly a half-century after her death (the anniversary of which elapsed without mentioning her name), wherein the country went from the autocratic system of Rana to democracy, and from a British system of the monarchy to a quasi-Chinese system of federalism, was possible to recuperate through decolonial feminist methodologies that debunk traditional objective methodological practice ( Bizzel’s ‘function of emotion,” Royster’s “storytelling and telling history,” Kirsch and Royster “critical imagination, strategic contemplation, and social circulation,” Sutherland “primacy of gendered experience,” Enoch “local narrative,” Garcia’s “community listening”). Employing these methodologies was challenging because it helped in closely examining the research around her, requiring answers in regard to coherence in translations and interpretations. For example, in Aziz’s works one of her bani (verse) from Sarvatha Yogbani is translated as “Though I am the one who is despised by society, and discarded I have to prove my innocence” (Aziz XV). The original verse was “ भगवन हैन, समाजले तिरषकार धृणा गरेको नारी हु ।“ (Aziz 57). The question that one can raise in the translated version is: did she really believe that she needs to “prove” her innocence?  As feminist researcher in Nepal, Kumari Lama, notes,  

Yogmaya develops immense rebellious feelings towards discriminatory Brahmanic social values since her young age. She executes her dissenting characteristics very gracefully in her life. She challenges Hindu religious authority eloping with a man she loves despite being a child-widow. Undoubtedly, her elopement exhibits her resistance as well as her strong punch against patriarchal authority that incarcerates women’s freedom. (Lama 18) 

Reading the above translations (rather mistranslation) of her bani alongside the examination of her feminist practice gives the dual picture of her feminist efforts as someone who wants to “prove” her innocence to the social practices against which she had relentlessly fought. I find the translation problematic, an inaccurate version of how she was, in contrast to how she was interpreted.  In fact, if this would have been translated by any Nepali feminist, they would translate it along the lines, “I am the one who is despised and discarded by society, God I am not”. Given that original translations if kept intact would seriously counter all her sacrifice and contributions, it is also important to examine the way an inaccuracy in translation represents another kind of erasure. 

Secondly, examining her rhetorical practices helps in authenticating feminist praxis in Nepal within the larger spectrum of global feminist practice. Until now, answering the question in regard to feminist praxis in Nepal is hard since one has to either rely on western feminism or the feminism in the border.  Even growing up outside of the West, I heard of Yogmaya long after I was introduced with Simone De Beauvoir, Helene Cixous, Betty Friedan — however, the feminist movement led by Yogmaya preceded them. In fact, Yogmaya’s contemporaries were suffragists in the United States. With a deep sense of humility, before writing this paper, I contemplated all those dormant periods of my academic life—periods when I used to feel that the feminist revolution is western conduct and periods when I lived in oblivion, with the assumption that the Sati system was eradicated by the Ranas in Nepal— When reading canonical scholarship in feminism and rhetoric, I would think of Beauvoirian ideas from the perspective of my mother’s sister, and sometimes even Spivak and hooks from the perspective of Yogmaya. Meanwhile, Indian feminists, close to home, even the one who decried the western feminist portrayal of “Indian Suttee” (Narayana) are as distant as any other western feminist given that Nepali feminist fought different battles and employed different resistance principles (Mohanty; Spivak). In Yogbani, Yogmaya criticizes the structure of patriarchy and systemic inequality. She diatribes against the caste system, corruption, Brahmin value, and huge economic disparity among people. In one of her bani, she declares her denouncement of caste by saying,  

Before I owned a caste 

Belonging to the Brahmin clan. 

Now look, I have no caste. 

Ho, I chucked it there in the hearth (Aziz 60) 

In the above lines, Yogmaya declares the renouncement of her Brahmin caste. Symbolically, her practice of renouncing caste, is a denunciation of entire Brahminism which has played a vital role in exerting power politically, socially, and economically. Her rhetorical tool of anti-brahminism bespeaks about her feminist praxis which distinguish her from feminist across culture. Similarly, her relentless appeals to dharmarajya (Alms for righteous government) shows that her resistance praxis are borne locally. Below, she decries government corruption and appeals for restorations of justice. She says, 

Kill the corrupt; behead the thief. 

Judge with virtue, eliminate lies. 

When our charioteer arrives, truth will reign. 

And smash kings and courtiers too. (Aziz 68) 

Finally, recovering and rewriting the rhetorical practice of feminism in the global south requires deep personal reflections alongside bringing the solidarity amongst the feminist across borders. As a Nepali woman, I grew up listening to the tale of my mother’s sister. When I listened to Barbara and her ethnographic account, it overlaps with listening to my mother’s sister along with my personal reflections to my own contemplative witness of her life that I saw as a kid. The collage of listening and mindful contemplation allowed me to think ‘dialectically and dialogically, to use tension, conflict, balances, and counterbalances as critical opportunities” (Krisch and Royster 652). In another word, listening to Barbara layered and broadened with listening to my mother and her sister, which became more viable when I collaged what Romeo Garcia calls community listening.  For me, community listening is listening to my mother’s sister, whose experiences were relational if not akin to the subject in question, made me feel that these women have stories to tell which I can never find in the history books. Through the practice of collaging, merging, and juxtaposing of different methodologies into one, I find that in a uniquely transnational situation like this one, methodological experimentation and conflict necessitates and procures recoveries and reconsideration of feminist rhetoricians. In another word, in the course of this research, I often intersect Garcia’s community listening and Sutherlands’ advice for negotiation and collaboration, and subsequently look to these methods from Kirsch and Royster’s idea of critical imagination and strategic contemplation; examining alone through one of these techniques deeply hinder (and sometimes limits) the possibility of reestablishing Yogmaya, whose rhetorical history lies under the teleological history of Nepal, the false lesson that was “asked” to transfer to me through my school teacher, and perhaps in the anecdote of my mother’s sister. 

**Acknowledgement: This paper went through the several phases of thinking, thinking the “thinking,” researching, writing, and revision. This work would not have been possible without the valuable comments and feedback from my mentor, Amy Lueck, associate professor at Santa Clara University, in all these phases of writing.

Footnotes

  1. In Nepali language, Sati is referred as both noun and verb. While using it as a noun, usually, during the time of Sati system, a woman would become Sati after their husband died. In that case, like widow, women would be referred as Sati. Sati is also used by referring to a practice, a verb. While, in both of these usages, “S” is capitalized.  
  2. I prefer to use the word Nepali (नेपाली) to Nepalese while referring to the people from Nepal. Nepali is directly derived from Nepali language, where it is called. In contrast, Nepalese is a word refer to people from Nepal usually by the British.  

Works Cited 

Aziz, Barbara Nimri. Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal. Center for  Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), 2001. 

—. Message to Asmita Ghimire, Messenger, 16 August, 2020. 

—. Yogmaya & Durga Devi: Rebel Women of Nepal. Mandala Book Points, 2020. 

Bhandari, Lekhnath. “साहसिक सुधारक” [Courageous Reformer]. Kantipur, 2013. 

Bhandari, Lekhnath.“ त्य पहिलो विद्रोहिणी योगमाया” [Yogmaya, the First Woman Rebel], 2057 B.S, 34–39. Asmita Publication, Nepal.  

Bizzell, Patricia. “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make?” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, 2000, pp. 5-17. 

Chapagain, Ninu. “प्रसिद्ध कवि योगमायाको ल्याकन[An Evaluation of the Progressive Poet Yogmaya]. In सामाजिक जागरणमा महिला विद्रोहको प्रस्थान [The Starting Point of Women’s Rebellion in Social Awakening], edited by Lekhnath Bhandari, 2003: i–ix. Kathmandu: Vivek Sirjansil Prakashan. 

Connerton, Paul. “Seven Types of Forgetting.” The Present Word Culture, Society and the Site of Literature, edited by John Walker, Routledge, 2017, pp. 150-65. 

Enoch, Jessica. “Changing Research Methods, Changing History: A Reflection on Language, Location, and Archive.” The Best of the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals 2011, Parlor Press, 2013, pp. 119-49. 

García, Romeo. “Creating Presence from Absence and Sound from Silence.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, pp. 7-15. 

Hamilton, Paula, and Linda Shopes, editors. Oral History and Public Memories. TempleUniversity Press, 2009. 

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. 1994. Routledge, 2014. 

Hutt, Michael. “The Disappearance and Reappearance of Yogmaya: Recovering a Nepali Revolutionary Icon.” Contemporary South Asia, vol. 21, no. 4, 2013, pp. 382-97. 

Karki, Govindamansingh. “समाजसुधारक योगमाया” [The Social Reformer Yogmaya]. Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan (B.S. 2069). 

Karki Niharika, Neelam. Yogmaya. Sangri-La Books, 2018. 

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 640-72. 

Lama, Kumari. “Yogmaya and Durga Devi: Different Modes of Resistance to Patriarchy.” The Outlook: Journal of English Studies, vol. 12, 2021, pp. 16-23. 

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.”Feminist Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 61-88. 

Narayan, Uma. “Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism.” Hypatia, vol. 13, no. 2, 1998, pp. 86-106. 

Neupane, Dipesh. Amar Jyoti Yogmaya. Kathmandu, Yogmaya Foundation, 2018. 

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Shrestha, Mathura Prasad. “योगमायाबिर्सिन नसकिने/ बिर्सिन नहुने एक ीरांगना.”[Yogmaya: Unforgettable Rebel] सामाजिक आन्दोलनकी अग्रणी तथा कवि : योगमाया, edited by Matrika Timsina et.al., Nepal Adhyan Kendra, (B.S. 2057): 175-178. 

Shrestha, Tina. “The Life and Work of Yogmaya Neupane: A Representation of a Historical, Non-Secular and Political Subject.” Social Sciences in a Multicultural World, edited by K. N. Pyakuryal, B. K. Acharya, B. Timseena, G. Chhetri, M. Uprety, and D.P. Chapagain, Kathamandu, SASON, 2008, pp. 206-18. 

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Editors’ Introduction

It has been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world and left no community untouched. As we are sure our readers are all aware, we are reminded each day that this pandemic lingers. Just this past month, COVID deaths in the US reached over one million and staggering rates of inflation continue to impact the world’s most vulnerable, making it even more difficult to make ends meet. More locally, as Peitho’s editors, we have seen how the pandemic has deeply affected our journal as well. It often takes a good two years to develop a cogent argument supported with research and theory, to draft, seek feedback, and rewrite and a year or more to have a manuscript reviewed and to revise. We also know that, although not all feminist scholars identify as women, that women across the globe have carried the weight and have been some of the most affected by the pandemic. Due to the timetable of scholarly publication, we’re concerned that we will continue to see the effects of the pandemic on women’s scholarship for another year or more to come. We also know that queer, non-binary, and trans scholars as well as scholars of color have had to live through the pandemic alongside continued violence against them and their communities. Likewise, as Peitho Winter 2022 author Jessica McCaughey detailed in her essay on how the pandemic impacted graduate student writing production, due to increased responsibilities at home and outside the home in the form of various sorts of care work, women have not been able to complete the amount of work that they had been able to pre-pandemic.  And sadly, our journal has felt the effect of these events in the form of a low number of submissions. As a result, this issue is a bit shorter than the past issues. We have no articles to offer. However, we are proud to publish a small set of robust Recoveries and Reconsiderations and book reviews.  

We want to point out that we hope that our readers are moved —and supported— to write and publish soon. There is so much for us as feminists to write for and against: 

  • The recently leaked Supreme Court memo that would effectively end Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion demonstrates how feminist intervention is direly needed. Access to abortion, safe birth control, and safe birthing practices and technologies are all socially and racially just practices, and striking down Roe v. Wade may compromise all these things. Communities of color have already been the most impacted by abortion restrictions.  
  • The nomination and confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court is a long overdue event in United States history. We chose a photograph of her for the cover of this issue to laud her as a superlatively accomplished jurist and to insist on more recognition for more Black women. 
  • Men with guns have committed mass shootings with horrifying frequency: 14 May 2022 – a man murdered ten people in a grocery store in Buffalo, NY. 15 May 2022 – a man murdered one and injured five others at a church in Laguna Woods, CA. 24 May 2022 – a man murdered 21 people, nineteen of them children, at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. 1 June 2022 – a man murdered four people and then took his own life at a medical building in Tulsa, OK. Gun policy and mental health, like everything else, are feminist issues.  
  • In the Gulf South and east coast, hurricane season 2022 has just begun, and on the west coast, wildfire season has just begun. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are facing deadly heat waves. Residents are simultaneously dealing with the real trauma of climate disasters from the last several years and dreading what will come next. Climate crisis is a global, feminist issue. 

As scholars of rhetorics and feminisms, we may decide to do research and writing about abortion rights, Justice Jackson (and the racialized sexism she endured during her confirmation hearings), mass shootings, or climate disasters. Even if we study other topics, however, this news is still happening around us as we research and write, and that matters. It’s important to us as editors to acknowledge this. Current events are part of the material conditions of writing, as well as of teaching and learning, just as personal, health, and family situations are. 

The authors who contributed to the Spring 2022 issue have worked during this turmoil, and we are proud to present their articles. “Selvedge Rhetorics and Material Memory” by Jennifer Clary-Lemon is a surprising look at how much history and narrative is embedded in the smallest objects, in this case selvedges, which are the edges of bolts of fabric, which have information about the design and the company that made the fabric. Those who have worked with wallpaper may know that selvedges appear on some wallpaper rolls as well:  

Figure 1. Detail of wallpaper selvedge from a roll of wallpaper from Clancy Ratliff’s childhood home. Image description: a print that resembles a woven basket in shades of beige, light tan, dark tan, and black. Below the print is a beige space. On the left side, in capital black letters, is the word TRIM. On the right side is a bar of color in the light tan shade, as well as three squares side by side. The left square is in the light tan shade with a beige number 1 in the center. The middle square is the dark tan shade with a beige number 2 in the center. The right square is black with a beige number 3 in the center.

Using a fabric selvedge as a point of entry and rhetorical accretion as a methodological guide, Clary-Lemon reveals a feminist historical narrative about the textile industry and its abuse of women and children. Her article helps to open a space for studying fabric archives.  

Asmita Ghimire’s article “Yogmaya Neupane: The Unknown Rhetorician and the Known Rebel” shares the story of Yogmaya, a feminist activist in Nepal during the early 1900s. When women in England and the US were pushing for the right to vote, Yogmaya and her coalition, Nari Samiti, were fighting on behalf of women and girls in Nepal, to end discrimination and abuses including Sati, the immolation of widows after their husbands’ deaths. Ghimire interweaves personal narrative, research, and conversation with a senior scholar, Barbara Nimri Aziz, the primary scholarly authority on Yogmaya to reconsider Yogmaya as a rhetorician as well as a feminist activist.    

Rachel Molko’s article “SCUM Manifesto as a Rhetoric of Domination” analyzes Valerie Solanas’s rhetoric as feminine rage. In 2022 (and for many years prior) we don’t take Solanas seriously as a feminist writer, but Molko reconsiders SCUM Manifesto using Ahmed’s idea of a “feminist snap” and analyzing it as an expression of rage. While it attempts to make an earnest argument about patriarchy and gender, it fails to do so and instead replicates domination, that of women over men. Molko uses her careful reading of Solanas to reflect thoughtfully about feminist accountability. She offers those familiar with SCUM Manifesto a new take on it, and others an opportunity to encounter it for the first time.  

Our book reviews provide a preview of two very important books about severe traumas. The first is Erin Green and Jessica Enoch’s review of All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles, a monograph about one family heirloom that demonstrates much about history, race, research, archives, and more. Rachel Smith Olson reviews What It Feels Like: Visceral Rhetoric and the Politics of Rape by Stephanie R. Larson, an exhaustive analysis of rape culture in recent years in both public discourse and legal contexts.

Review of Digital Black Feminism (Knight Steele 2021)

Why I get these tweets off?

“Digital Black feminists also wrestle with shades of gray. Like hip-hop feminists before them, digital Black feminists work to reconcile economic and sexual freedom for themselves with community interests that may conflict with their individual needs. However, instead of hip-hop as a driving force, the “gray” for digital Black feminist praxis is deconstructing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture.” (Steele 10)

In 2009 I created my first Twitter account from my Nokia brick phone. I had to go to the web browser to make an account and this was before apps were even a thing. As I started college, I began to use Twitter for web (this is tweeting from the Twitter website in your web browser) and the text to tweet feature to stay connected with my friends back home and those I was meeting on my college campus. When I got my first iPhone I downloaded the Twitter app and it was history from there. The Black Twitter counter public allowed me to stay up to date with arguments on $200 dates, be aware of police brutality happening in Ferguson, and information on natural hair products to keep my curls poppin’. As an avid user of the internet from Myspace to Twitter, I found community in these digital spaces. Now that I am a doctoral student who is unpacking what feminism looks like for me, I needed a feminism that allowed me to embrace my digital lifestyle. Catherine Knight Steele’s book Digital Black Feminism gave me the language and foundation for a feminism that allowed me to combine Black feminist values with my love for digital spaces. Steele’s work has influenced my scholarship since I was a master’s student in Maryland. I found that her work talked about digital spaces in a way that felt familiar to me. Digital Black Feminism does the same thing. It allows me to be in that “gray” area she speaks about in the text that allows me, as a Black woman, to call out and clap back at “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy within digital culture” (Steele 10) and to create, embrace, and honor my Blackness in online spaces. 

What is Digital Black Feminism

 “Digital Black feminism insists we centralize Black women in our definition of and history of digital technology. Digital Black feminism is a mechanism to understand how Black feminist thought is altered by and alters technology. Digital Black feminism suggests we attune our gaze to Black women because they potentially provide the most robust site of inquiry as digital scholars interested in digital communication’s capacities and constraints” (Steele 15).

Digital Black feminism centers the voices of Black women and how they use technologies. Steele’s text talks about the technologies that Black women have used dating back to slavery. She opens the first chapter by explaining how these technologies impacted how Black women lived their lives as enslaved women.  By opening the first chapter this way, she is solidifying the Black woman’s contribution to technology and confirming that we do indeed know how to be technologically advanced and that it didn’t just start with the worldwide web. Her examples of the many technologies that Black women have used, as a reader, made me feel powerful. It affirmed, for me, that Black women belong in these conversations about technology and how our years of using and creating technologies influence how we use spaces like Twitter or blogs now to mobilize, organize, educate, and build community. As an extension of black feminist theory, Steele uses digital black feminism to debunk the idea that Black women are not included in technology as an “intentional practice” (Steele 15). She asserts that by not aligning Black women with the intentional practices of technological innovation it continues to center white men as the ones who are the creators and responsible for the foundations of technology. 

Steele’s creativity shines through this text as she uses the beauty shop as a metaphor for “an analytical tool to understand the relationship between Black women and technology”. Through this metaphor, she explains in detail the ways Black discourse, in this instance, opens folks up to the technologies of Black hair care. She believes that Black women’s hair maintenance can be seen as a “road map” for centering Black women’s financial independence. It also serves as a space to create communities of color that have desires to understand the technologies of hair. I found this interesting because it made me think of how there was a natural hair boom on sites like Youtube and blog spaces. Steele also brings in blogs to solidify this metaphor. Her explanation of these technologies offline and how they transfer skills to online spaces made it easy, as a reader, to see the impact Black women have on technology.

In addition, she also talks about how online spaces and communities create a safe place for Black women and nonbinary folk. Black women are using online spaces to not only talk about their entrepreneurial ventures but also to push back against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. The clap backs are strong, backed by many Black women, and will quickly remind you that you’ve crossed the wrong one. Black women are using these spaces, according to Steele, as places for liberatory practices as well. 

A Feminism that INCLUDES Me

“I intend to send up a flare to those who study and report on digital culture about the glaring absence of Black women in their work. For those studying online harassment and trolling, algorithmic bias, and digital activism, Black women must be included in your work.” (Steele 156)

Digital Black Feminism influences my current work and future work in a few different ways. Firstly, Steele’s many definitions and examples of digital black feminism allow me to situate not only my work but myself in this type of feminism. It is inclusive of all of my intersecting identities as a Black, queer, and disabled woman who uses social media regularly as a space to create community, learn about new things, and clap back when people try to disrespect Black women. “The importance of digital communication and technology in the lives of Black feminists today cannot be overstated. As a site of thought generation, community formation, and economic advancement, digital tools and culture have changed how Black women (and all people) interact with the world ” (Steele 60). Secondly, Steele’s work is a foundational text for digital humanities scholars. She is setting the groundwork for scholars to build upon her assertion that digital black feminism is personal AND public. Meaning that it requires “intention and care around methods and ethics” (Steele 155).  She challenges scholars to think and be mindful about who they cite and how they cite when it comes to talking about these digital spaces. By her starting the conversation on ethics, I believe, that it will implore other scholars in this discipline to consider their ethical and moral compass when it comes to this type of work. “I take caution in whom I cite, which tweets or stories I share, and how much personal information shared in other digital forums I repeat in this text. Countless people participated in the dialogue in the blogosphere and on social media that shaped digital Black feminism. In this text, I choose to cite and publicize the work of those who through their public writing, signal a willingness to enter the public discourse on issues of race and gender.” (Steele 156) Throughout the text, she cites many writers, scholars, and contributors to digital spaces which helps the reader understand more of the genealogy of digital black feminism. 

The goal of Digital Black Feminism is to continue to empower Black women to use these many technologies and to feel like true contributors to the advancement of these technologies. Steele states that “Understanding the joys and labors of Black women, their fight for liberation, and their complicity in systems of capitalism is very complicated. Digital Black feminism is complicated, but perhaps this sheds light on why this inquiry is necessary” (Steele 157). Black women are necessary to the mobilization of these many technologies and we, all of us, use these digital spaces. Steele does not believe in re-traumatizing Black women for the sake of research and I believe that her text makes that clear. I am excited to think of these ethical implications as I embark on expanding my own research and adding to the foundational work of digital black feminism. Steele’s Digital Black Feminism has made me, as a novice Digital Black Feminist, feel seen, heard, and excited to use this framework to create new and innovative work. Although I tend to look at violence online, Steele’s work has encouraged me to consider what Black joy is in this digital space and how I can incorporate the beauty of Black digital discourse into future work. 

Review of Lynching (Ore 2019)

Lynching: Violence, Rhetoric, and American Identity. By Ersula J. Ore. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019. Pp. ix–xx + 175, acknowledgments, author’s note, preface, notes, index. $30, paper)

As I wrote this, Bloomington, IN was in the midst of cultural unrest surrounding what even the news media recognized as “an attempted lynching” in an incident perpetrated against a Black man on July 4, 2020. Having read Ersula Ore’s text, I could viscerally witness the civic justifications of the white, male perpetrators against a body representing a cultural other in the filmed discourse on social media. Even as reports have been made public, the language of the legal documents lays bare the performance of denying agency to a Black, male victim while simultaneously alleging charges against him as an aggressor for attempting to engage in mediation. In July 2021, charges were filed against Booker for being the assailant, and the case continues to remain unresolved. This represents what Black Feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw has identified as an intersectional collapse of race and gender as a motive for integrating injustice into regular practice, potentially obscuring one or both. As she says, “Black men and women live in a society that creates sex-based norms and expectations which racism operates simultaneously to deny; Black men are not viewed as powerful, nor are Black women seen as passive” (156). Thus discourse and acts of lynching is not just a threat of bodily violence against a race but can also serve as the regularization of legislative justification, strengthening an us/them supremacy against the archetype of threat to White, patriarchal order.

From cover to close, Dr. Ersula Ore’s Lynching provides a harrowing revelation of racialized violence, one enacted through language that functions through an us/them dialectic, reducing some peoples—some bodies—to the status of lesser humans. Situating foundational concepts from Kenneth Burke’s scholarship to frame the historical trajectory of anti-blackness in America, Ore constructs a rhetorical frame with which to interrogate critical race relations as discursively entangled in the American demos. Given this historic political trajectory but also our current moment of reinvigorating social justice movements, this text is not just theoretical, but imminently informative in terms of everyday racism and discursive anti-Black violence. Beginning in an embodied tell-all, Ore’s Preface and Postscript emplace her within a compelling anecdotal account of the effects of her own racial targeting, based in hierarchical justification for dehumanizing racial bodies as sub-human. Detailing a prolonged account of warrantless detention and the juridical ramifications that followed, Ore’s personal narrative creates a context for the exploration she engages. In text and in body, then, Ore performatively demonstrates how Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification can inform our understanding of language as an everyday structure of oppression. This recouperation of well-known rhetorical scholarship answers Lisa Flores’ 2018 call for more racial rhetorical criticism can be deployed through firsthand accounts, cultural history, and current political contexts.

To build her anecdotal experience into American society, Ore’s approach employs discourse analysis to show how language doesn’t just say things: it does things. One of her first examples makes this point clear in the way that—in legal proceedings—a sentence that affirms the killing of a person has lighter social connotations than convicting someone of murder. Ore uses the contrast to focus on how racially motivated dehumanization is discursively performed by calling a lynching a “killing” rather than a “murder,” metonymically resisting a diverse citizenry as lynching “became rhetorically constitutive occasions in which American civic identity was affirmed through antiblack violence” (19-20). By limiting both the social and legal definitions of what constitutes lynching, Ore argues that a black victim can be denied agency of victimhood through legislation while simultaneously being inscribed with the agency of aggressor through social mediation. And yet, deploying the term lynching in the present can serve as a linguistic memorial that metonymically links current black violence to historical acts and justification.

Chapter one calls upon the dialectic made possible in the Burkean concept of identification as merger/division, demonstrating that the basis of American identity ensured a violent rebuke of British rule that was recast onto a black citizenry. As a “call to communion,” lynching further functioned historically as a way to distinguish “those who belonged from those who did not [belong],” uniting both perpetrators of the acts and its spectators through epideictic rhetoric that “instructed citizens… while simultaneously maintaining and reproducing white supremacy as the democratic norm.” Ore explains how a national narrative of a “citizen race” was constituted through this codification and enactment of lynching as a form of communion: a “doing of citizenship.”

Chapter two advances the civic education of lynching as an image of epideictic rhetoric—a symbolic gesture of how “separate but equal” is enacted to separate “them” citizens who were out of place from both polity and vitality. Ore shows viscerally how lynching provides “political iconography that inculcates citizens to the practice of white democracy by way of modeling antiblack violence as a customary, natural, and revered practice of white civic identity” (56). As a resistance, such imagery was also reclaimed and reframed by anti-lynching activists to inscribe alternative lessons of racial terror and black death, as in the case of the anti-lynching efforts of Crisis, the Chicago Defender—particularly in the historic fervor surrounding Emmett Till.

Chapter three shifts the epideictic discourse into a modern context of museum curation, offering spaces to see and experience division and resistance by strategic tactics of alternative messages. Ore uses instances of historical and present dehumanization of black persons as ritualized transformation of black bodies into Burkean “equipment for living” in the progress narrative of the American polity. As a performative answer to the invective of, Crenshaw “…If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem. Together, we’ve come together to bear witness… to move from mourning and grief to action and transformation.” (Crenshaw 2019). Crenshaw’s original article about intersectionality emphasized the elision of Black women in the default collapse of Blackness as a masculine threat—which as Ore’s analysis rehashes is a primary driver of lynching.

However, though I contextualize the story of Vauhxx as intersectionally justified by his assailants and public discourse, I want to avoid re-covering an elision of feminine attributes—particularly since the allegations against him resulted from his attempt at civil discourse which has been characterized as “entrapment” and “provocation” since Black males are not allowed in hegemonic narratives to be “soft spoken.” Just as Ore explores how anti-lynching activists transformed visuals into an antiracist civic lesson, her rhetorical analysis of the discourse of lynching allows us to label and acknowledge the intersectional violence of our present cultural narratives against Black bodies.

In similar Burkean fashion of language as symbolic action, Ore rounds out her analysis with “Lynching in the Age of Obama,” This fourth chapter situates the historic trajectory of embodied and symbolic lynching in the presidency of Barrack Obama as further rhetorical divisions of “one of them” who had to constantly account for his blackness. Analyzing discourse around the Obama presidency and the symbolic acts of lynching performed during his presidency, her culminating analysis demonstrates the symbolic interactions of the polis with discursive and symbolic antiblackness reified the nation’s present expulsion of blackness as “out of place” in the American imaginary. More than just dynamic political debates, the everyday nature of such discourse shows that lynching discourse is not just reserved for instantiations but rather it is ingrained in the national narrative that mobilizes the us/them dialectic.

Ore concludes her analysis aptly by depicting how white supremacy operates through suppression of anti-black sentiments. Shifting back to her own anecdotal experience of systematic oppression, she explains how her own perpetrator was entwined in legislative forms of signifying black bodies as a scourge in contrast to white bodies as effectively in need of correction. Juxtaposing herself and another black victim with a non-black suspect stopped by the officer who arrested her, she exemplifies how discursive and legislative lynching is systematically ingrained in the present enactment of American citizenship through anti-Black policing.

Ultimately, Lynching provides a topical frame in which to deconstruct how historical oppression of black bodies is presently legitimated to sustain a national sense of an “us” citizenship through discursive and legislative violence against “them.” In the spaces between her words, one can hear the echoes of Achille Mbembe’s necropower in the way discourse repeats the sentiment of letting live while threatening to make die. Also, the embodied aspect of discourse rings of George Lakoff’s Political Mind in how describing racial bodies as lower can neurolinguistically program the delineation of white bodies over non-white subjects. And returning to the bookend of an uncertain outcome, Ore’s own account evidences the ongoing subjugation of them humans from us humans with no hope of unification.

As a discursive analysis, Ore’s account is compelling, vivid, and multimodal in showing the ways that lynching has continually transformed through American culture, recursively transforming the culture itself. It’s no wonder why this was the winner of the 2020 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award since it performs the intertextual linkings of indisciplinarity. Complicating notions of who counts and is counted in “we the people,” Lynching is not a pessimistic reading of historical progression, but a consciousness raising effort that troubles the progress narrative of what is past/passed.

After reading the text myself and sitting with my own understanding of the stories and analysis it contains, I had the gracious opportunity with my program cohort to join a Zoom call and talk to the author herself. As Dr. O expounded upon the contextual decisions and constraints around the publishing decisions, I realized exactly how much ontological persistence is involved in speaking truth to power. I was reminded of Robert Reid-Pharr’s description of the constraints of Black American autonomy: “…Within even the most rigid social hierarchies there nonetheless exist those many folds, tears, points of peculiarity and funniness that might be put to the service of both master and servant, man and woman, white and black.” (Reid-Pharr 2007) It helped me realize that this is not just a message to be understood, but also a telling to be circulated widely.

As a restituation of rhetorical framing, Ore’s project opens up engagements with interdisciplinary critical race scholarship—particularly afropessimist thinkers like Sadiya Hartman and Frantz Fanon. Additionally, the historiographical work of Ibram X. Kendi would contextualize the broader historical movements of black identity in America to the present. With Ore’s thorough contextualization of the rhetorical foundations of lynching, it provides a solid foundation for extension in these directions, so I would urge more exploration of where it can be taken up next.

Works Cited

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, 1989, p. 139-168. HeinOnline.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual. NYU Press, 2007.

Remembering bell

My friendship with bell hooks began in 2005, after bell moved to Berea, when we worked together to organize the 2006 summer conference for NCTE’s Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.  Some 80 educators ended up participating in “Writing for Reconciliation,” and my time with bell planning and enacting the successful three-day conference forged a strong friendship.   

Through the next years, bell visited my classes in writing, autobiography, literacy, and sustainability.  And we regularly spent time together, talking.  Our friendship was fed by our shared sense of the importance of spirit in education, our interestingly-related Southern girlhoods, and especially our love of reading and writing. 

bell was a consummate writer.  Writing was the way she knew the world.  She wrote every day, early mornings, in hand, on a pad or in a notebook.  Her fingers, long and slim, seemed made to hold a pen. “Writing is my passion,” she writes in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, which she said was her favorite among her nearly 40 books. “Writing has been for me one of the ways to encounter the divine,” she writes. “Seduced by the magic of written and spoken words in childhood, I am still transported, carried away by writing and reading.”  

bell was also a voracious reader, regularly reading—really reading—several books a day.  She owned neither television nor computer; books overflowed her shelves, sitting in stacks on the floor near her reading sofa.  I often lent her books I was eager to read, knowing she’d have finished with them well before I could get to them.  bell loved having favorite words of other writers in her heart and voice.  She memorized and recited poems, making the words her own.  I remember especially the pleasure she took in saying Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,”  the way her voice caressed Hughes’ words.  To celebrate her birthday each year, she invited friends to read to her their favorite poems. 

bell was in the world by means of words, comfortable on a stage in front of thousands.  She was at home in the world, walking a path of connection, noticing and speaking to everyone, bringing a sense of home to others.  Though she thrived on exchanges with others, she was a person of great interiority, creating around herself an aura of repose.  She was able to be; she did not have always to do.   

For bell, writing was a place of sanctuary, a place where healing comes because the writer is bearing witness, as she wrote in reflecting on the 2006 conference in a piece published in JAEPL, the Assembly’s journal.  At the conference’s closing session, bell invited us to write to explore a reconciliation we all must make—a reconciliation with our own deaths.  Sharing our writings created a powerful connection, she wrote.  “Late into the night I could hear the mutual give and take of our words—the sound of deep listening.  They entered my dreams like a kind of music—luring, inviting me to sleep with the certainty that death will one day surely come.  And that when it does I can call out, greeting death tenderly—with complete reconciliation” (“Writing for Reconciliation” 1).

I believe that bell achieved that reconciliation in her death, surrounded by family and friends, knowing she had loved and was loved.  I miss her dearly, her words, voice, presence, spirit, her aging beauty.  “Hello, friend,” she often greeted me.   

Hello, “Ms. bell,” my friend.  Hail and fare thee well.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work. Henry Holt, 1999. 

—. “Writing for Reconciliation.” The Journal for the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Writing, vol. 13, no. 3, 2007, p1.  

An Open Letter to bell hooks

Dear bell hooks, 

I pray that you rest now. Finally. For rest is a difficult feat- as a feminist activist, as a woman, a woman of color.  

As students of Gender Studies, although we were introduced to your writings only now, reading them gave us the air of conversing with a pen pal on the other side of the world – physically distant, but emotionally intimate. 

For you write from the heart, you write from experience. You forefront your experience, your location in theorising, instead of abstracting it – the term “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” gave so many of us the vocabulary to locate our oppressions and to leverage our lived experiences as valuable forms of knowledge.  

Before I moved to Gender Studies, my disciplinary training lay in International Relations and Political Science. As an early-career scholar and student of color located in the developing world, in studying these disciplines, a lingering feeling remained – of being small and insignificant in front of all the grand eurocentric theories and theorists that felt beyond my control and agency, so far removed that how could I make a difference. You taught me that the answers laid in unravelling my location, right where I was. Your approach of “theory as a liberatory practice” made theory accessible. Not just that, it provided me the language to articulate and name my oppressions, and locate how I engage with them. It provided a bridge for lived realities, for those eroded to the background – nuts and bolts in the grand machinery, invaluable, but invisibilized, to find space in knowledge formation and production. In theorizing and visibilizing the experiences of your self, your community and location, you gave others courage to do the same, and for that we are grateful. 

Your journey, from growing up in a racially segregated US South, to finding writing as an emancipatory tool, to the accomplished author and activist you left the world as, illuminates the possibility and joy in healing from pain. Encouraging looking within, granting ourselves power, celebrating our accomplishments, while being aware of the ways “interlocking systems of domination” are designed to make us feel inferior, aspiring to be something that we are not – the internalized patriarchy, racism, casteism. My journey, as a young woman, hurting, feeling encaged, in neo-colonial, neo-liberal patriarchies that operate even in overtly democratic egalitarian spaces towards one that recognized the intersections of various structures that made me feel not good enough, no matter my achievement, and the awareness that this brought in the way I could self-determine my worth and heal in the way I now engage with these structures in my lived reality. 

One of the outcomes of that journey in understanding the intersecting systems at play, was the need to do so within a framework and not let it be a solitary exercise. And that emancipatory, liberating space was found for me, as for you, in the classroom. Entering the Gender Studies classroom created a safe space for the diversity of our experiences and connected our individual realities and locations to broader frameworks.  

Thank you for centering democracy, participation and presence in pedagogy, rather than hierarchy in teaching. The other day we were analyzing your seminal work on “Oppositional Gaze” in class and each of us brought our layers, beyond the original text – from queer, disability, caste, religion, neurodivergent and so many other perspectives that propounded the meaning of the term. It was possible because each of us was able to put our lens to the term, which would not have been possible in a linear pedagogy that negated our presence. 

One of my friends, a PhD research scholar, who is now discovering the joy of teaching, found the classroom a space for subversion and transgression, in an increasingly stifling discourse in familial and community spaces she has to live in, and finds power, in her capacity as the teacher, to transform the hierarchical and gendered way family conversations and community discussions take place. 

You may not be with us physically, but your words have immortalized you. Rest now, for you have been heard. Rest peacefully, for the flame that your works have sparked in our minds, in the ways that we engage with the everyday, in seeing experience as a critical category, each in our own realities and locations, will keep your legacy alive.  

Thank you, for making us feel less alone about our oppressions, agencies and locations, for feeling seen and validated in the face of multiple oppressions that serve to deny your existence to erasure is one of the key leverages in negotiating power. 

Sincerely, 

Abhiruchi