Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack. Parlor Press, 2019. 332 pages. $34 paperback, $65 hardcover, $19.99 Adobe eBook.
Considering the title and essays in Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, evokes for me, a scholar of nineteenth century American rhetoric, images of Margaret Fuller hosting her Boston gatherings. These famous meetings were held over six consecutive years, known as “Conversations.” They brought women—each having bought a season subscription to attend—together to discuss feminist concerns in the spirit of equity, eminent value, inclusivity, deep listening, and self-determination. These conversations helped shape feminist thought in the United States as many attendees went on to become leaders in the movements for abolition and suffrage. It was a remarkable moment in history that paved the way for modern iterations of feminist collaboration, like this edited collection of feminist ideas in praxis.
The provoked intimacy inherent in the book’s title isn’t coincidental; many of the nineteen authors overtly gesture to one another as ideological foremothers, professional mentors, and friends. This collaborative work, the newest installation in the Lauer Series of Rhetoric and Composition, was in fact motivated by the twentieth anniversary of Cheryl Glenn’s 1997 influential text, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance, which published “the first continuous history of rhetoric inclusive of women” (3). This collection joins a celebrated body of scholarship reforming and protecting feminist rhetorical history, including Andrea Lunsford’s (1995) Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, and more recently, Lisa J. Shaver’s Reforming Women: The Rhetorical Tactics of the American Female Moral Reform Society (UP Pittsburgh, 2018). The simultaneous backward and forward attitude of Retellings distinguishes it among projects to recover silent voices because it connects the rhetorical past with projections of rhetorical studies and pedagogy. That is, each contributor acknowledges Glenn as a catalyst to her own work, but then explores what implications their combined work has for future research and classroom implementation in remarkably practical ways. Over two decades later and moving into the future, Retellings asks readers to consider “What do we do now?”
Collectively, the book’s facility is in asking this question in a way that summons individual possibility, converting the question into, “What do I do now?” Reframing the question offers powerful invitation for readers to consider the ways they may implement the rhetorical
strategies modeled by the contributors as if they, too, are part of the conversation.
This convivial invitation isn’t accidental; Shirley Wilson Logan describes her vision of Retellings as the “go-to-text for teachers and researchers” (qtd. 5) wanting real ways to “attend to all that is yet to be done” in both rhetorical recovery and fresh scholarly investigations. The authors of Retellings expect their work to be catalytic, like Glenn’s, in a generative sense. For example, Krista Ratcliffe discusses in Chapter 3 “the war-on-women” in political campaigns. She works not only to identify the rhetorical problem but also recruits readers to solve it through rhetorical silence and listening.
Like Ratcliffe, all the contributors are quick to admit that their work is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but merely the next step on the path to future discovery and resolution. For example, in Chapter 9, Cristina D. Ramirez takes an introspective look at her own scholarly approach to the archives of Mexican women’s writings in response to “Glenn and Enoch’s  insistence on locating and revealing ourselves within our research” (163). In this way of extending past rhetorical conversations with current responses, the collaborators bridge the past and future of rhetorical history, theory, and praxis.
Ramirez’s essay is an example of how contributors extend what Glenn recovered in 1997, creating an ongoing conversation and one that Retellings captures in four sections or “four inventional nodes” (6). I like the maker-sense of these divisions because of the creative interplay
between feminism, rhetoric, composition, research, and teaching it all. The first section includes essays by Shirley Wilson Logan, Krista Ratcliffe, Brigitte Mral, and Berit von der Lippe discussing feminist concerns of modern politics around the world. Section two addresses identity studies with essays by Rosalyn Collings Eves and Jean Bessette. The third section discusses feminist methods and methodologies with contributions from Heather Brook Adams, Cristina D. Ramirez, Wendy B. Sharer, and Anita Helle. And the fourth section focuses on the “feminist rhetorical commitment to ‘paying it forward’ through teaching and mentoring’” (5) with essays by Elaine Richardson, A. Abby Knoblauch, Sonja K. Foss and Karen A. Foss, and Michelle Eble and Lynée Lewis Gaillet.
Each chapter of Retellings evidences the ongoing work to reimagine the study of rhetoric and composition through a feminist lens, with selected chapters illustrating this point. In Chapter 2, Logan reminds us that historic feminist rhetoricians faced challenges similar to those women face today, using “the same rhetorical strategies” we see being employed by “present-day transnational feminist rhetoricians” (20-1). It’s a dynamic story of rhetors creatively using the best available means of persuasion with limitless potentialities for understanding and invention. For example, the creative application of place as a rhetorical resource is Eves’s focus in Chapter 6. She explicates how the nineteenth century Utah poet, orator, and community leader, Eliza R. Snow, resisted female marginalization by using the metonymic trope of “Zion-as symbol” (110) to identify Mormon women as “spiritual beings with extraordinary potential” (111-12). Demonstrating how place can function “as a powerful vehicle for group identification (112), Eves extends Glenn’s 1997 work by recovering women’s position in rhetorical history in calling attention to Snow’s strategies for authorizing her feminist message.
This re-envisioning of feminist rhetorical practice is further developed in Sharer’s Chapter 10, which reminds us that not only does the story need retelling (because of recovered omissions from rhetorical histories and the ongoing addendums with history in the making) but it
also needs retelling by different voices. Berit von der Lippe enlists different voices as she responds in Chapter 5 to Sharer’s invitation by considering the female “presence as agents [of] change” in traditionally male-dominated war narratives (68) thereby transforming these stories “into peaceful ‘feminist’ protection scenarios” (69). Likewise, in Chapter 11, Helle embraces and extends feminists’ “injunction to ‘stand at the border’ of rhetoric and feminism, to ‘gain new perspectives’ on a deeply gendered site of embodiment, stigmatization, silence, and cultural production” as she examines the archives of breast cancer narratives (203).
In an ongoing effort to broaden feminist work and cross boundaries of privileged perspective, Sharer writes that “embracing, publishing, and circulating scholarly texts that invite collaboration, that forward the research process rather than present a research product, and that enable broader participation in professional publications is…essential” (184). Again, this argument is made more compelling because Retellings itself is just such a collaborative process, illuminating points of entry for readers to enact the methods retold in its pages. It is implied that readers will apply, test, and refine these methods—making Retellings, then, just a snowflake on an iceberg of possibility.
Four essays in Retellings are especially adept at modeling Sharer’s call for collaborative research and publication. Included in these is Mral’s Chapter 4 on gendered power relations in Nordic countries which is translated from the original Swedish into English by Judith Rinker Öhman. Modeling teamwork is the introductory Chapter 1 written by three authors: Enoch, Jack, and Glenn. In the final section, addressing feminist teaching and mentoring methods, two chapters are co-authored.
Among these is Chapter 14 wherein Foss and Foss reiterate the need for retelling the rhetorical story from different perspectives. They focus on nurturing individual agency and claim that it is through an individual paradigm shift that societal change can occur—especially change in harmony with feminist principles antithetical to a rhetoric of domination. This theory is particularly empowering since it emphasizes self-determination as a first step to affecting grand societal change. This, again, emphasizes the value each reader brings to Retelling’s project as they are intricately part of this envisioned social reform. Such pedagogical theorizing doesn’t end on the page but translates clearly to the classroom. Whether that is in a composition classroom or a biology classroom, Foss and Foss say that it doesn’t matter since the “strategies for changing reality” (269) are the same and can be applied to any discipline.
This fourth section offers practical applications for in-class activities and assignments. In Chapter 12, Richardson models Black and Hiphop feminist pedagogy hoping to show how marginalized girls can “tease out issues of equity and humanity in a critical womanist manner” (242). This section’s essays often end with self-reflexivity, “a core tenet of feminist rhetorical pedagogies” (249), and are offered as real sources of inspiration for instructors seeking to achieve Knoblauch’s call in Chapter 13 to prepare “the next generation of teacher-scholars to do the same” (260) thereby enacting the reciprocal aspect of feminist ideology.
While each section in Retellings is diverse and fresh in its rhetorical analysis, I am partial to Part 4 because of its pay-it-forward, real-world application emphasis. This is a moment when I felt caught up in the energy of Retellings and personally invited to “make a difference in the lives of [my] colleagues and students” (13). Additionally, as I read the convivial account of progressive mentor networking by The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (The Coalition), officially held since 1990 at the annual CCCC meeting, I experienced a kairotic pleasure which had me dreaming of a future year; as were many people, I was disappointed to miss the 2020 and 2021 rendezvous due to Covid-19’s interference. As I read and reviewed Retellings, Eble and Gaillet’s colorful recounting in Chapter 15 of The Coalition’s origins, mission, and activities as a model for creating feminist mentoring networks fed my isolated self with hope for better times ahead. Again, visions of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” danced in my head—I would have bought a ticket. The two gatherings felt very connected across time and space. I want to attend. I hope to attend to all that Retellings conjures in my mind and makes feel so incredibly possible and vital.
Hope is what Retellings is all about. Perhaps best articulated in Chapter 7, Bessette writes about the hope to “‘will’ change in the present” (118). She relates the story of the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ “‘archivettes’” and their work to “revise the historical narratives that have erased, criminalized, and pathologized lesbians.” Or maybe Adam’s Chapter 8 is the book’s hallmark of hope. Her essay literally begins with, “I hope…” (139). Adams responds to Glenn’s Unspoken (2004) in examining the “ethical quandaries” of working with participants in a discussion of institutionalized silence potentially masquerading as protection “that might run counter to feminist ways of knowing and doing” (141).
This commitment to changing the present permeates Retellings and nurtures hope that “discursive power (feminist rhetorical agency, no less) can bring people together to imagine new modes of being, or even to understand the ways our linguistic and embodied practices keep us apart” (7). Ultimately, this collection is historically valuable, immediately relevant, and effectively contributes to the “empowering [of] members of the network as scholars, teachers, and agents of change” (14), inviting all who want to join to be part of the ongoing conversation while showing them ways in which to make their contribution a reality.