Feminist Ethos and Global Food Systems Rhetorics on Campus

I think students have an incredible responsibility and are needed to shift universities who tend to be conservative with a capital C in terms of their bureaucratic structures and their ability to change. Students provide energy of contesting the status quo.

-Gabrielle, sustainable agriculture graduate student

In Rethinking Ethos, Kathleen Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones describe their approach as one that “acknowledges the dynamic construction of relationships within and across locations and between people as constituting knowledge and values. Ethos is neither solitary nor fixed. Rather, ethos is negotiated and renegotiated, embodied and communal, co-constructed and thoroughly implicated in shifting power dynamics” (11). Attending to ethos as negotiated and embodied is central in understanding how student ethos operates on university campuses. As Gabrielle comments in the epigraph, students are uniquely situated at their institutions to evolve its structures and practices. 

My research is motivated by investigating the productive rupture of university narratives about food. I locate these ruptures in competing discourses that define students as simultaneously both novices and experts, imagine campuses as purported locations of open dialogue, and buttress public universities’ claims about serving the public good. These competing discourses catalyzes the questions: what happens when students, specifically those who study food systems in their courses, ask their university to engage in public dialogue about university research on genetically modified (GM) food? How do students’ rhetorical strategies and their feminist interventions toward discussing how university research serves the public good threaten academic hierarchies and public universities’ commitment to the “feeding the world” myth?

Informed by a feminist ecological approach to ethos that highlights how rhetors have used location and relationships to access agency in their rhetorical practices, I center the rhetorical actions of three graduate students in this article by analyzing interviews I conducted with them.[1] These student-participants—Angie, Gabrielle, and Rivka—were all enrolled in an interdisciplinary sustainable agriculture program where they learned how power is distributed in food and agriculture research. I demonstrate for rhetoric scholars how the students’ ethos shaped their approaches to engaging audiences on campus and beyond. To do so, I analyze their efforts to learn about their university’s GM food research and host open dialogues about it. 

My purpose in this article is to illustrate and analyze the limits and possibilities for students’ ethos and rhetorical actions that question their university’s research practices. I begin with two literature reviews: one on global food systems development rhetorics and one on feminist ethos in rhetorical studies. I then describe my method and the context that prompted the student-participants’ questions about their university’s research before turning to my analysis of the interview data, divided into three contexts for ethos: 1. Asking questions on campus, 2. Hosting open dialog on campus, and 3. Engagement beyond the contemporary campus.

Ultimately, I argue that the student-participants crafted their ethos to invent rhetorical roles for themselves. These roles were informed by their feminist ideals and science- and social science-based expertise, enabling them to apply academic inquiry and feminist curiosity (Enloe) to their university’s practices. My analysis illustrates how the student-participants mobilized their status as students to gather information about the GM food research on their campus and attempt to foster public discussion about the research project since their land grant university purportedly serves the public good. I also analyze student-participants’ comments from the interviews on the impact of their gender to the ways they were interpreted and misinterpreted, showing that their ethos as students studying to be scientists and social scientists cannot be delinked from how their gender was read by audiences they encountered. Ultimately, I argue that the student-participants’ ethos was both scrutinized and made possible by their gendered, student status. 

Global Food Systems Development Rhetorics

Before we can fully understand feminist ethos in rhetorical studies, covering a selection of the extant scholarship on global food systems development rhetorics is necessary for context. My work follows in the feminist tradition of analyzing global food systems issues established by Eileen Schell, work that is invested in how agribusinesses enact top-down models of power that make living more vulnerable for already vulnerable populations. Schell shows how power shapes food infrastructure, creating “a system of trade that is unfairly weighted toward US interests” (“Vandana Shiva and the Rhetorics of Biodiversity” 44). Additionally, Schell illustrates how agribusiness’s “feeding the world” framing enables corporations to claim to solve starvation and hunger, but “the reality is that often [low-cost proteins] are dumped on international markets, preventing local farmers from selling their own products” (“Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). Such concerns resonate with the work of Rebecca Dingo and J. Blake Scott, who analyze how documentary film can showcase the systemic harms that world trade policies create for local food systems, specifically how policies that lead to U.S. powdered milk replacing Jamaican milk as the commodity consumed by Jamaicans bankrupted Jamaican dairy farmers.  

Concern about top-down power hierarchies that reflect Schell’s work also shape Mohan Dutta’s analysis of how hunger is situated systemically, related to “top-down development interventions carried out by state-based policymakers and program planners” that reflect nation-state agendas (238). Rhetoricians play a role in understanding this systemic disempowerment. As Andrew McMurry describes, critiquing “the disabling rhetoric of the mainstream food security discourse” (554-55) contributes to addressing the dire consequences of global food shortages, including taking to task persuasive “feeding the world” myths (Schell, “Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). 

GM foods also prompt concern. Because GM foods rely on the “transnational enterprise of scientists, regulators, corporations, producers, lobby groups, and other-than-human species,” (Gordon and Hunt 116) they thus get debated in ways that reflect science’s role in food systems, ethical issues regarding food justice and land use, alarm about corporate power, and scientific credibility (Hunt and Wald). Scholars in rhetoric address global food systems and the impact of industrial agriculture (Ryan; Wilkerson), as well as food systems issues such as food waste and colonization (Bernardo and Monberg; Cooks; Eckstein and Young; Gordon, Hunt, Dutta). Understanding the impacts and implications of such systems is important because of their tendency to “exploit human communities with seemingly wanton disregard,” (Young, Eckstein, and Conley 199) as well as food corporations’ disinterest in critically engaging the implications of food technologies they use (Broad 225). I thus contribute to these efforts to put forward “ethical and reflexive research practices that attend to…power dynamics, advocate for the sharing of knowledge in non-extractive ways and provide pathways for amplification that do not recreate inequalities,” joining other feminist rhetoric researchers with similar concerns (Gordon, Hunt, Dutta 6).[2]

Feminist Ethos in Rhetorical Studies

Scholars in rhetorical studies who have a feminist orientation to ethos inform my understanding of how rhetors persuade in patriarchal contexts. Such approaches draw on Nedra Reynolds’s notion of location as the space of a rhetor’s body, geographical location, intellectual position, and proximity to others (Reynolds 335-336, quoted in Ryan, Myers, and Jones 8). In addition, feminist ethos scholars point out the importance of location to relation (Ryan, Myers, Jones 9). Multiplicity is also an element of feminist ethos to which rhetoric scholars attend, including those working on environmental justice efforts, such as protecting clean water. Meredith Privott shows how Indigenous feminisms offer such understandings, drawing on Elizabeth Archuleta’s “indigenous feminist ethos of responsibility” to analyze the rhetorics of Indigenous women water protectors in the #NoDAPL movement (90, 98). Privott puts forward the idea that feminist ethos engages “multiple points of authority and agency drawn from both tribally specific worldviews and knowledge from indigenous women’s collective survival of and healing from colonial violence and trauma” (76). Paige Conley also understands ethos as multiple, “unmoored from any one, fixed identity” (188). 

Part of this multiplicity and fluidity is understanding ethos as collaborative and communal. In Laura Micciche’s description, “feminist constructs of ethos often emphasize collective identity and collaboration as significant to knowledge building and to the development of credibility,” a conception of ethos that revises the rhetorical tradition’s definition of ethos as embodied in an individual speaker or writer in isolation (175). Likewise, defying traditional rhetorical criteria and categories, including understandings of ethos, is part of how Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald describe the selections gathered in their volume that anthologizes women’s rhetorics as ethos that reflects multiplicity, including subversion, resistance, and difference (xviii). And feminist concepts of ethos also de-emphasize expertise in honor of learning. Julie Jung articulates this idea while describing Nancy Mairs’s work on Alice Walker’s writing: “feminist ethos [is] founded not on mastery but on something else—a willingness to go in search of” (25). 

Beyond attention to location, relation, and plurality, power as a structure that must be accounted for is another aspect of feminist ethos to which rhetorical scholars attend. Mary Beth Pennington, for example, analyzes the ethos of contemporary environmentalist Judy Bonds by showing how Bonds publicly acknowledges where she stands geographically and culturally as well as use the relationships in which she is embedded to effect change, “creating a dialogue in the process about the ways in which existing power structures obstruct change” (169). Bonds’s impulse relates directly to Gabrielle’s comment in the epigraph. Likewise, feminist ethos in rhetorical studies pays attention to how rhetors find themselves positioned in power structures, taking their understanding of subordinate status as a catalyst to “craft a viable ethos for participation in a dominant public” (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 4). Public power concerns rhetoricians, as they understand how publics and counterpublics are multiple and ever shifting. Thus, feminist rhetorical scholars who study ethos are especially attuned to how “women must understand that there are multiple publics and counterpublics and work to shift values determined by dominant publics” (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 9). 

Student ethos is demonstrated by the student-participants featured here as they center the stated mission of their university to serve the public good, asking their university to practice the values it ostensibly lauds, and they thus confront the dominant values the university supports in pursuing GM research. The location of student ethos is key to note for these student-participants who were not only located on a university campus, but also impacted by being students who are necessarily reliant on campus relationships with faculty and administrators. These faculty and administrators had the ability to amplify or silence the student-participants’ questions and concerns. Additionally, the student-participants’ ethos as scientists and social scientists was moored and unmoored from their student identities, yielding variable success for their strategies. They used their student ethos to seek answers on their campus about the GM food research underway.


My study’s feminist orientation to analyzing the student-participants’ ethos is built into the study design in multiple ways: by centering and elevating the perspective of student-participants who worked to engage their campus communities and administrative leaders; by applying feminist curiosity about who gets to be heard and understood on campus; and by making apparent the hidden, un- and under-archived, and ephemeral nature of students’ impacts on their campuses. I adapt the term “feminist curiosity” from Cynthia Enloe, who invites researchers to study globalization by looking to how it shapes women’s lives (3, 247, 353). Additionally, for this article I align with Lauren Rosenberg and Emma Howes’s concept of how representation of research participants is a feminist issue. As they write, “a feminist ethos of representation as a commitment to continually examining the ideological lenses we use, acknowledging our different (sometimes conflicting) subject positions, and allowing our research participants to shape the work itself” (77). To honor participants’ perspectives while I conducted this interview study, I followed in the feminist tradition of writing studies researchers who “participate in a reciprocal cross-boundary exchange” (Glenn and Enoch 24). I designed my interview study featured here to center student-participants’ perspectives and invited them to shape the work through the direction they took our individual interviews as well as their contributions to member checking. The ideological position informing my work here is that the student-participants’ ideas deserve to be understood by wider audiences, as they were perhaps not fully listened to by those in positions of power at their university.

My relation to the GM food research is important to describe. I first read about the student-participants’ rhetorical strategies related to their university’s GM food research after the events described in the analysis section of this article took place. I was not involved in the events, but rather read about them in newspapers and public blogs while studying food systems, university research, and feminist rhetorical strategies. My attention was prompted by a listserv email about the research, sent to a women in agriculture group to which I subscribe. After securing IRB approval for this interview study, I recruited the student-authors whose work I had read on the public internet. They were writing publicly about their university’s research and seemed willing to engage publics about these issues. I used snowball recruitment to contact other potential student-participants who held knowledge of this situation after initially contacting the student-authors writing publicly. Gabrielle, Rivka, and Angie agreed to do individual interviews with me, as they were all interested in contributing to greater knowledge-building about students hosting opportunities to learn about GM food research taking place on their campuses. I thus conduct this research as a humanities faculty member who is invested in cross-disciplinary knowledge exchange with experts in the social sciences and sciences, including students in such programs beyond my expertise.

I also contacted the lead food science researcher of the study to inform her of my interview study and ask her to speak with me. She did not reply. I did not contact other university administrators who fielded the student-participants’ questions at the time they were asking questions about the GM research study because their perspectives received a fair amount of coverage in news sources, and they have access to plenty of mainstream communication platforms that affirm their position. As a feminist rhetorician studying food and farming, I am not interested in how powerbrokers who have platforms persuade. I am interested in how those who are not enfranchised with power, such as students, persuade. That said, I realize one limitation of this study is that I am interviewing the “underdogs” and centering their marginalized perspective, which some readers will find to be incomplete. All person-based research is partial and only reflects the reality of those who consent to be interviewed. The IRB protocol mandate to maintain the anonymity of the university where the student-participants attended requires I not quote from published writing by university representatives. I invite other researchers who study global food systems rhetorics to take on the research regarding how university administrators strategize ways to limit or engage students’ participation in questioning university research related to GM foods, as it is beyond the confines of this study, which has the purpose of analyzing and expanding the student-participants’ ethos and rhetorical strategies. 

GM Food Research Context 

Barbara George asks: “What happens when public participants, particularly those who must navigate complex scientific and technical spaces, are able to more fully co-create knowledge about complex environmental risks in their communities? Might such literacies consider a more feminist, contextualized approach to knowledge making about environmental issues?” (255). These questions parallel the queries the student-participants posed to themselves and members of their campus community as they learned more about the GM food research taking place at their university by a food sciences faculty member, which I describe here. As public participants on their campus, they became invested in learning how the GM food research affected both the campus community on whom the GM foods under development would be tested—women students like them—and the communities off-campus who would purportedly eat the food being developed.

The context of the GM food study taking place on campus is important. The story begins in 2015 when Angie, a cisgender, heterosexual white woman currently living in the Midwest and working as a sociologist in academia, received an email with the subject heading “human subjects needed” from researchers at the university she, Gabrielle, and Rivka attended. The email’s purpose was to recruit participants to eat GM bananas for a research study and the email opened by contextualizing the research as alleviating widespread vitamin A deficiency in Uganda, where cooked bananas are a popular food. These bananas that research participants would eat for the study were genetically modified, meaning their genes were edited, to produce more beta-carotene. That beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A during digestion. The recruitment email specified that research participants need to be healthy female nonsmokers between the ages of 18-40, specifying that they would eat a diet provided by the researchers, have blood drawn, and be paid up to $900 total for their participation. Recalling her receipt of the email, Angie expressed regret that she did not consent to be a participant in the study, as doing so would have enabled her to gain more information about it, as a participant who would eat the bananas. When she initially received the email, she forwarded it to some of her friends, noting that this GM food research prompted a lot of questions, especially questions related to gendered global development and food systems. She wondered, “Why do we need a transgenic banana? Why are they only testing it on women these ages? Why are they paying people $900?” Angie asked around among her friends in the sustainable agriculture program to find out if anyone else received it, and only one had, so they assumed the email was sent to a random sampling of women students. 

Because of its focus on recruiting women only and its stated purpose of addressing vitamin deficiency in Uganda, Angie and some of her fellow students, including Gabrielle and Rivka, became curious about the banana study and its broader context. Their approach was collaborative and collective (Micciche) and they worked together to find out more. They began to research to try to discover other information about the study and ask questions, efforts that connect the student-participants’ concerns with those of scholars in our field (Gordon and Hunt 115). Their research quickly showed that the Gates Foundation had provided funding for the GM banana development, which also contributed to the student-participants’ concerns about how private funding sources can motivate university research. 

The student-participants’ concern and questions reflect and were informed by a wider context of resistance to Gates funding and the foundation’s interventions in African agriculture. For example, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and Community Alliance for Global Justice are two leaders of this critique. Recently, AFSA leaders Million Belay and Bridget Mugambe clearly state their position in the title of their op-ed, “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need,” detailing how Gates has long informed Africans that their agriculture is “backward and should be abandoned.” Belay and Mugambe show how African agricultural specialists themselves value agroecology, not technological intervention. As they chronicle, “the massive [Gates] resources…have had an outsized influence on African scientists and policymakers, with the result that food systems on our continent are becoming ever more market-oriented and corporate-controlled.” Likewise, in the open letter to Bill Gates that responds a New York Times op-ed (Wallace-Wells), a long list of food sovereignty and food justice organizations detail the inaccuracies and distortions of Gates’s claims, invite him to “step back and learn” from those who are farming in African contexts (Community Alliance for Global Justice/AGRA Watch, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa). The writers also request that publications like the Times, “be more cautious about lending credibility to one wealthy white man’s flawed assumptions, hubris and ignorance.” As they describe, centering Gates’s perspective puts at risk the very populations who are practicing agriculture in Africa, a context from with Gates is far removed. 

Beyond funding from Gates, the “feeding the world” trope also quickly surfaced in the student-participants’ research into the banana study. This persuasive metaphor enables multi-national corporations, as well as universities, to say that they help “save developing countries from starvation and hunger” and promote a rhetoric of concern and care for vulnerable populations across the globe (Schell, “Framing the Megarhetorics” 155). Such claims can justify colonial, top-down research design and practice that potentially disempowers vulnerable populations who may be made even more vulnerable by universities’ interventions in global food systems. The IRB recruitment email that Angie described, for example, opened by claiming that cooked bananas play a central role in the diets of people in East Africa, asserting that the genetically modified bananas have been developed to alleviate vitamin deficiencies of these populations. This recruitment email thus invites potential participants to engage in this charitable cause by being the first humans to eat these bananas. The student-participants’ questions arose from this framing and justification. In their research about the study, the student-participants could not find any evidence that these East African populations wanted this GM banana (or were collaborators in developing it), prompting curiosity regarding whether the banana study ignored or considered East African farmers’ and locals’ concerns about this food (George 256). 

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, my interest in this case is in the ways the students used their ethos, specifically location- and relation-based strategies, to learn more about the GM banana research project. The public information the students could gather about the study caused alarm and, as Angie stated, the project was justified with “language and narrative in the media about hunger and solving hunger and feeding the world and helping Africa that some of us think is very colonial, racist.” The students were motivated to learn more about the study, especially due to its presence on their campus, the location where women students would be eating these GM bananas. As they came together to question their university’s research project, Angie, Gabrielle, and Rivka used locational and relational feminist ethos strategies to ask questions and engage audiences, building their rhetorical action from their position as students, on their campus. 

Part 1: Asking Questions on Campus

In this section I analyze how students asked questions that reflected their curiosity and concerns. These student-participants counted on their ethos as curious students and researchers to be a pathway to knowledge and learning. Generally, students expect to be able to meet with faculty on their campuses, and, as the student-participants researched their questions about the banana study, they strove to rely on the local expertise of faculty and administrators conducting the study. The events described in this section show student-participants relying on their ethos in multiple and relational ways in order to ask questions, which occurred in the ways they attempted to and were able to meet with faculty and administrators.  

Rivka was able to meet with the lead food sciences researcher. Rivka holds a PhD in Soil Science and now studies the efficacy of sustainable soil management practices, while teaching introductory courses in soil and environmental science. According to Rivka, this meeting took place in the faculty member’s office, but the faculty member told Rivka that she was unable to provide further details about the study and was reticent to talk at all. Perhaps this researcher felt uncomfortable speaking with a then-student who was not enrolled in her classes or her program. In Rivka’s terms, the faculty member’s response was surprising. This faculty member insisted that she was only responsible for one small part of the overall study—measuring vitamin A absorption in participants’ blood that would be drawn for the study—and thus she was unable and unwilling to comment on the overall study. For Rivka, such a justification for not discussing the study showed an avoidance of systems-based thinking about GM food development and its implications for global agricultural development. Rivka’s ethos as both a science student studying soils on campus and her personal affiliation with conventional agriculture, via her in-laws’ farm, made her the best student to send in for this interaction, in her estimation:

The reason why I went to talk to [the lead researcher] was that I felt I could relate to pro-GMO [genetically modified organisms] folks better than the others. I think a world where GMOs are used safely and ecologically is a possibility, but the research just isn’t there yet. Also, my husband’s family owns a farm and they used to grow GMO corn. We also thought [the lead researcher] might be more willing to talk to a “soil scientist” rather than a “social scientist” or “sustainable agriculture” scientist. It seemed though that once we were seen wearing an activist hat, so to speak, some people couldn’t go back to viewing us as scholars.

Rivka’s description shows a rupture for relational student ethos in campus locations such as faculty offices, then, as her questions were not answered and considered potentially threatening. The boundary that Rivka identified between being a student-scholar and a student-activist was firm in this case, and she wagered that her identity as a scientist could traverse that boundary. 

Eventually, the dean of the agricultural college where the lead researcher worked agreed to meet privately with a few of the students who had been asking questions about the banana study. Angie attended this meeting, which she found to be rather unusual. She described how she was told she could not record the meeting, which she wanted to do so other interested students could later listen to the information shared in the meeting. In this extended passage she describes how the meeting proceeded and the reactions she and other students received from the administrators:

It was the most bizarre twilight zone sort of meeting in there. Because they were trying to tell us we didn’t understand science and trying to explain what science is, and [they said,] “We can’t believe that students in the [agricultural college] would be saying the things you’re saying.” We’re like, “Well, we’re just asking basic research design questions. We can’t believe you can’t answer them.” It was all this “feed the world” rhetoric, and at one point [the dean of the agriculture college] turned to me, and she said, “Have you ever even been to Africa and seen the starving children?” I said, “No, I have never been to Africa, but I have seen hungry kids. We have hungry kids in [our state]. I don’t have to go to Africa to understand that our food system’s broken.” …She was saying that she had [been to Africa and wondered,] Why would we refuse people a way to solve a hunger problem?

This meeting with administrators, in which the dean tried to frame the issues at hand in individual terms—such as by accusing Angie of not understanding hunger because she had not visited Uganda and looked at malnourished children—shows the administrator’s attempt to avoid the students’ actual questions, dismiss systems-based thinking, and instead enact a top-down, colonial dynamic for the research design. 

The administrators positioned the students as naïve and uniformed on the gravity of the problem that the GM banana study would purportedly solve. While the students were somewhat successful at even getting a meeting with senior administrators, the meeting showed how well the senior administrators could avoid students’ concerns and hope for transparency about research design and ethics. Throughout this interaction, the possibilities for student ethos to operate effectively in a dean’s office were not persuasive, as the students were positioned as threatening the status quo at the institution. 

This meeting also prompted comments from Angie related to the students’ ethos being interpreted as threatening. Her thoughts on this issue transitioned into addressing gender and gendered ethos specifically. She described her perspective by stating, “We’re not talking about bombing a building, throwing pig blood on anyone. We’re just asking questions. What if we were all asking questions? We’re not doing anything wrong.” Angie also mused that maybe hosting open dialogue on campus and being transparent about research practices was more threatening to the upper administration than any potential physical threat. As Angie said, “maybe that would have been less threatening to have done something to the [lead researcher’s] lab than to bring Vandana Shiva to campus and fill the [largest lecture hall on campus] with people to hear her.” Shiva’s identity as a well-known leader who questions globalization and persuades citizens across the globe to pay attention to the issue of biodiversity made her a fitting speaker for the students to invite, as her interest in prompting people to pay attention and ask questions aligned with theirs (Schell, “Vandana Shiva and the Rhetorics of Biodiversity” 32). The latter event is what the students did, hosting Shiva to foster open dialogue and conversation in public ways. Angie described the importance of practicing a student ethos that questions the institution’s practices and how doing so is not threatening:

You’re articulating [questions about the study] very well, and I hate to use this word because this is so gendered, too. We’re presenting a rational case. We weren’t being really emotional. I think people should be really emotional about these things, but it looks like nothing radical was my point. If you google [our response to the GM banana study] out of context, [and] you’re not part of the story, nothing we did looks very radical. 

Thus, to Angie and her fellow students, part of their surprise at the administrator’s reactions came from how they treated the students as though they were taking radical political action, not simply asking questions about food systems. The senior administrator, by invoking starving children, created her own emotional appeal that accommodated her avoidance of questions about the actual study taking place, positioning the students as uncaring and alienating them from the administrator’s framing of the institution as a benevolent entity. This strategy aligns precisely with the way that scholars who attend to global development rhetorics have predicted (Dingo and Scott 5), replicating persuasive development discourses that are mobilized by assumptions about the goals and effects of food development projects. 

Part 2: Hosting Public Dialogue on Campus

The student-participants planned and hosted a teach-in, an idea arising from their desire to create public opportunities for the research study to be discussed openly. At various times these terms were used by students to describe this event: panel, dialogue, teach-in. All of these terms reflect the rhetorical, location-based goals of the student-participants, to host a public discussion on campus that anyone could attend. Prior to this public conversation, the concerned students and upper administration had published op-eds and other articles about the study. In these written publications, student-writers relied on their relational student ethos to ask questions about their own university’s practices, inform public audiences about the study, and invite them to ask similar questions. However, writing op-eds and responses did not accommodate the type of interaction and learning that the student-participants hoped could take place. They wanted their land grant university to be a space where public discussions about research ethics can and should take place. They felt like two separate conversations were taking place in these written conversations and wanted to evolve the discourse, joining perspectives together for discussion. 

Gabrielle is a social scientist who studies climate, gender, and socially just agrifood systems and now directs a national program for women in agriculture for a U.S. nonprofit. She described the exigency for the teach-in event and students’ intentions to open up conversation about the biotechnology context of the research. As she said, “A lot of the narrative around the study was about ‘feeding the world’ and helping poor African women and starving babies and this sort of colonial framework, in my perspective, and it wasn’t really about [the question of:] are GMO’s the best solution to the problems that they’re seeking to solve?” The intention of the public dialogue was to address such questions. Gabrielle detailed how she and her fellow students designed the event. She said, “At the time, we tried to recruit a broad base of support from folks with different perspectives,” creating an intentionally diverse panel of experts who identify as pro-biotechnology as well as those who question it, and views in between. 

The students invited the lead researcher and the dean of the college that housed the lead researcher’s department, asking for their involvement or for representatives who could speak to their perspectives. Angie described their response: “They didn’t want to take part in our panel. Their claim was that they didn’t have any part in planning the panel, so they didn’t want to take part in it.” Angie recalled one brief moment when it seemed like they would participate, but they wanted to bring seven to ten people. The students responded by asking, “Would one or two from the [agricultural college] like to take part in this, talk about it?” The students’ goal was to have one or two experts from this college because they were aiming for a balanced panel that held different perspectives. Once the students asked for one or two people to come instead of seven to ten, they received a response that no one from the researcher’s lab or senior administration was coming. Like the op-eds in which the agricultural college dean praised the food science researcher and reified the status quo, this response to the panel invitation showed a lack of openness or investment in public dialogue that they did not plan. In the op-eds, according to Gabrielle, the students claimed that the university should be a place to have a dialogue about biotechnology and not shy away from controversial topics. The students called for a “reasoned approach,” in Gabrielle’s terms. She said, “We wanted to actually have a public conversation.” It was clear that the senior administration and lead researcher were not interested in having such a conversation unless they had planned it. Ultimately, none of the individuals who defended (and wrote op-eds about) the pro-transgenic banana perspective agreed to participate. The students went forward and hosted the teach-in.

The event took place on campus and featured a variety of perspectives. Experts included a philosophy professor affiliated with the sustainable agriculture program who does work on ethics and food. According to Gabrielle, he created space on the panel to ask what an ethical relationship with research looks like when it includes humans and the food system. And he led the attendees to discuss what are the ethical considerations that do not cut off research before it starts. Angie summarized his contributions as well. The students were asking questions such as: Why are university time, university faculty, and university students being asked to be take part in a study for which there is no response to how is this serving public good? And from Angie’s perspective this last detail really bothered people because, as the philosophy professor articulated, so many studies could be shut down because researchers may not yet know how they benefit the public good. While all academic research may not benefit the public good, as a land grant university, research conducted at this school purported to do so. 

Another panelist was a social sciences graduate student from Uganda. As Gabrielle described, “He brought his perspective having done community feeding programs and education around nutrition, his thoughts on the transgenic banana, because the focus of the banana [research study] was on Uganda in particular [and] because the banana is such an important nutritional food source. [It is] a staple crop that folks rely on.” Rivka recalled this student’s perspective on the panel as well and how significant it was to have a person with knowledge of Ugandan food issues as a speaker. Rivka described that this student had been “doing social work in Uganda with children who had malnutrition and he felt the banana wouldn’t help because the reason for the malnutrition was diarrhea.” As the Ugandan student described, the malnutrition was caused by parasites in the water, as Rivka recalled. So, an effort to increase nutrients, through biotechnology like the transgenic banana, may help a little bit, but the underlying problem was actually parasites and other diseases. Rivka summarized this Ugandan student’s point: Ugandans in affected communities need clean water and a water system that does not introduce pathogens. 

Overall, the students were able to host the public conversation, even if those most directly involved in the study and those defending the study most ardently did not attend. The students noticed, however, that a representative from the administration did attend as an observer. Gabrielle noted that this person, who works for the agricultural college administration, watched from the side of the room. He also showed up at a different event when students delivered a petition to the university president. This person’s presence signifies the university’s surveillance of the student event and administrators’ interest in knowing what happened at the event without participating in the public conversation or being subject to questions and discussion in a public forum. To read this occurrence as part of the context of student ethos shows the power of student ethos to gain attention from the university, even if administrators did not take on the participatory role in the public forum that the students hoped they would. In the end, their relational and location-based ethos as students who were able to hold a public conversation on campus that featured experts fulfilled its goal of engaging a transparent and open conversation on biotechnology, research ethics, and transparency. 

Another notable detail from that evening is that a pro-biotechnology scholar from a different American university delivered a lecture on campus that night. The student-participants questioned whether this was a coincidence or if the agricultural college deliberately planned this pro-GM food expert to speak on the same date and time as their event, a notion I cannot confirm but that seems plausible. Angie saw this event as both possibly coincidental but also likely an event the senior administration planned to have a competing event to attend and host instead of participating in their event. If Angie’s theory is true, the organizers of the lecture were intentionally propping up the expertise of a faculty member from a different institution that affirmed their institutional position over the open dialogue hosted by students at their own university. This competing lecture event could have also captured the attention of campus audiences interested in biotechnology, splitting the available audiences, and leading to fewer people in attendance at the students’ event. 

Part 3: Engagement Beyond the Contemporary Campus 

As the epigraph quotation from Gabrielle illustrates, she felt an obligation to engage with her campus and evolve her university beyond the status quo, helping it become the public good-serving institution it claimed to be. Public audiences took note and the students’ ideas gained traction off campus, which was validating. Angie said that she noticed on her campus that exercises in critical thinking were not active. She described the student-led actions to create spaces for critical thinking, which were supported by organizations beyond campus, such as non-profits and community groups who defend food sovereignty and food justice: 

As students together, we had to create that space [for critical thinking and discussion] together because it didn’t exist in our classes, it didn’t exist elsewhere on campus, and we were really hungry for it the more we found out. Then we were encouraged by local groups, by local communities, by national communities, and so we felt supported. I’d say we even felt encouraged. 

The off-campus encouragement validated the student-participants’ concerns and broadened the range of audiences paying attention to them, as people who are also concerned about biotechnology and food systems praised the student-participants for their critical thinking about their university’s research.

While this outside encouragement was motivating, the student-participants still found it essential to address the context of their campus and learn about the history of student engagement there so they could show that the questions they were asking were not new or extreme, but instead built on a campus tradition of students questioning the status quo. This evidence also gives historical credence to Gabrielle’s point in the epigraph. In this extended passage, Angie described the history they saw themselves continuing, enfranchised by a speech by a former university president:

We went back into the archives…and found President [X’s] speeches from the early 70s, late 60s to students when…students were engaging in political protest on college campuses. He was saying that the university should be a place for this. There was a speech that he gave on the [central campus] grounds to students who were protesting the war in Vietnam. He was saying…that the university should be a space for that and that it should always be a space for that, and that’s part of a university, defining what a university is. We would use that a lot [in relation to discussing the banana research]. It wasn’t that we were politicizing the university. The university has always been political. Different leadership at [our university] have taken different approaches to it. Instead of trying to silence it or quiet or attack it, saying students have this right. 

The students supported one another by using this university history, from the perspective of its highest administrator, to normalize students asking questions and interpreting their university as a space where political conversations take place.

Like Angie, Gabrielle addressed how political conversations should be normalized on contemporary college campuses. She said, “I think a university, if I had sort of my druthers, a university’s role would be to create as much space as they can for difficult conversations. For debates. For critiques.” These debates and critiques should include self-reflexivity, enabling institutions to question and consider their own role in delivering good research and science. Gabrielle continued, “[Universities] should be receptive to the critique of students. I think what happens often, is that institutions maybe, like pay lip-service to that but they don’t actually create a mechanism by which students can actually engage in that. I think they’re often seen as [temporary, as:] well, you’re going to be leaving. Or like, we’ll give you a little bit of recognition, but we’re not actually going to change how we do anything.” Because students’ presence on campus is time-bound, student ethos is seen as temporary and ephemeral, not substantial in position or longevity. 

The university’s reticence, in Gabrielle’s estimation, increased the public support they received. As she said, “Funny enough, that whole issue with the transgenic banana became more of an issue because the institution was so negative in their response to us. Because they wouldn’t participate in our teach-in. If they had come to the teach-in, and we had a good dialogue, I don’t know, it might’ve fizzled out.” 

As publics beyond campus heard about the students’ concern, some attention was not positive. For example, Angie used social media to amplify her perspective and the work of her fellow students, which put her in the position of facing criticism from pro-GMO activists and trolls. An open records request was submitted for her emails after she graduated, as the GMO lobbyist submitting the request suspected she and the other students were being paid to address the banana study, which they were not. Because Angie was a student at the time, practicing extracurricular student ethos to ask questions of her university, her student status meant the university did not have to hand over her emails, by law. As she communicated with the university lawyer who received this request, she learned more about the protected legal status students hold in these contexts. Facing this open records request, which was issued as a threat, also led her to think about how such open records requests are being weaponized against students and those questioning dominant publics in attempts to silence them. Another reading of the university’s refusal to turn over Angie’s emails could be that the university does support students who question university practices or at least uphold students’ rights to their protected status as students with email privacy. Overall, continued awareness of how students’ interactions with publics come with unanticipated consequences must remain as a concern, as such engagement can be threatening.

Conclusion and Reflection on Role of Gender

The complexity of student ethos cannot be over-stated, as its overlapping implications based on relationality, location, and multiplicity all played a role in the student-participants’ approaches and the outcomes of their actions. In reflective comments about the choices and strategies they used on campus, student-participants attended to the role that gender played, as women students were the most visible people asking the public questions, and what they may have done differently. Gabrielle wondered how differently they may had been interpreted if men in science programs had been the most vocal among concerned students. She noted that positioning a white man as a spokesperson has been a strategy for building ethos and gaining legitimacy, harnessing normative patriarchal ethos. Instead, as she said, the approach of the student-participants was “a more classically feminine role of creating dialogue.” They built their strategies, in Gabrielle’s description, as aimed to share ideas, communicate with one another, and develop goals together to create a more socially just research program at their university, reflecting feminist notions of ethos.

Because all the student-participants featured here graduated and moved on to careers where they use the interdisciplinary expertise fostered in their sustainable agriculture program, they continue to think about how their ethos operates in contexts beyond their campus. While their concerns regarding GM food development and research ethics now take different forms, they nevertheless draw upon lessons learned from their response to the GM banana study. Some of them advise students on campuses across the country on extracurricular activities related to public science, such as the movement to divest college campuses from fossil fuels. Angie, now a tenure-track faculty member, commented on how the women administrators at her alma mater held powerful positions that affirmed the status quo of the institution. She said, “Women have a lot to gain by acting in a patriarchal system in ways that are valued by the patriarchal system…That’s how you get tenure.” In her teaching and research, she continues to work toward supporting transparency and feminist, ethical research that serves the public good and invites public comment.

This study prompts further questions, including: How do individuals both on campuses and beyond educational institutions work toward better dialogue on GM foods and global food systems? The experiences of the student-participants here led them to distrust the administrators familiar with the banana study and disidentify with their university. Further, they began to question why the faculty teaching their food systems courses seemed disinterested or uninvested in addressing the implications of their university’s GM food research practices and interventions into global food systems since faculty did not vocally join the students in asking questions. Thus, faculty can take the student-participants’ perspectives to heart and consider why and how teaching and research can critically engage the food systems research underway on their university campuses. For example, in their conclusion of their study on scientific source credibility and goodwill in public understandings of GM foods, Hunt and Wald call for more research “to parse the different ways particular antecedents contribute to public responses to new biotechnologies” (983). These antecedents include attitudes toward food systems’ links to capitalism, government, and corporations, all which rhetoric scholars could locate on their campuses, in collaboration with students. Doing so can contribute to the growing work in feminist rhetoric and ethos related to food and agriculture, expanding methods that are collaborative and communal. As Micciche describes, “feminist methodologies [are] sensitive to situatedness, empathic connections to research subjects, and a view of knowledge as always partial and in process,” approaches that essential to our research, especially as the planet warms and food systems face new constraints and challenges (175).

Taken together, Angie, Rivka, and Gabrielle’s experiences illustrate how a feminist ecological ethos invites recognition of the impacts of contexts and relationships to shape how ethos is mobilized. Scholars engaged in global food systems rhetorics and feminist studies can teach cases like this one and invite their own students to draw implications from the student-participants’ experiences as well as continue to notice and address how GM food research on university campuses is framed and justified. The efforts of the student-participants featured here, informed by multidisciplinary approaches to sustainable food systems and ethical biotechnology food research, made the most of spaces and places where students can access information and communicate their perspectives on campus. Paying attention to students such as those featured here creates pathways for opening “new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relationships operating among rhetors, audience, things, and contexts” (Ryan, Myers, Jones 3). All three student-participants spoke about the broader question of what a university should be and how it should serve as a productive space to host discussions about food systems, a welcome space for student ethos applied in a wide range of ways. In every instance the students thought it was obvious and should be assumed that the university, as a place of learning, would host such conversations in open, public discussions. The students-participants’ stories help us to appreciate students themselves as deeply invested in prompting universities to be transparent in their research through consideration of students’ questions that center the public good. 

Works Cited

Angie. Personal Interview. 18 June 2018.

Archuleta, Elizabeth. “‘I Give You Back’: Indigenous Women Writing to Survive.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 18, no. 4, 2006, pp. 88-114. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20737352.

Belay, Million, and Bridget Mugambe. “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need.” Scientific American, 6 July 2011, 

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bill-gates-should-stop-telling-africans-what- kind-of-agriculture-africans-need1/. Accessed 18 January 2023.

Bernardo, Shane, and Terese Guinsatao Monberg. “Resituating Reciprocity within Longer Legacies of Colonization: A Conversation.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, 2019, pp. 83-93. Project MUSE, http://doi.org/10.1353/clj.2019.0020

Broad, Garrett M. “Plant-Based and Cell-Based Animal Product Alternatives: An Assessment and Agenda for Food Tech Justice.” Geoforum, vol. 107, 2019, pp. 223-6.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2019.06.014

Community Alliance for Global Justice/AGRA Watch, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. “An Open Letter to Bill Gates on Food, Farming, and Africa.” Common Dreams, 10 November 2022, https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/11/10/open-letter-bill- gates-food-farming-and-africa. Accessed 18 January 2023.

Conley, Paige. “Strategically Negotiating Essence: Zitkala-Ša’s Ethos as Activist.” Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, edited by Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones, Southern Illinois UP, 2016, pp. 173-94.

Cooks, Leda. “‘Save Money and Save the Planet’: The Rhetorical Appeal and Use of (Anti-)Food Waste and Rescue Apps During Covid-19.” Popular Culture Studies Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 2022, pp. 200-18.

Croft, Genevieve K. “The U.S. Land-Grant University System: An Overview. (No. R45897).” Congressional Research Service. Washington: Library of Congress, 29 August 29 2019. Updated 9 August 2022. Accessed 14 November 2022.  

Dingo, Rebecca, and J. Blake Scott, editors. The Megarhetorics of Global Development. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012.

Dutta, Mohan. “Narratives of Hunger: Voices at the Margins of Neoliberal Development.” Rhetoric of Food: Discourse, Materiality, and Power, edited by Joshua Frye and Michael Bruner. Routledge, 2012, pp. 238-53.

Eckstein, Justin, and Anna M. Young. “wastED rhetoric.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 274-91.  https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2018.1542502.

Enloe, Cynthia H. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. 2nd ed., U of California P, 2014.

Gabrielle. Personal Interview. 14 March 2018. 

George, Barbara. “Literacy, Praxis, and Participation in Environmental Deliberation.” In Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis, edited by Kristine L. Blair and Lee Nickoson. The WAC Clearinghouse; UP of Colorado, pp. 255-73.

Glenn, Cheryl, and Jess Enoch. “Invigorating Historiographic Practices in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.” Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Alexis Ramsey, Wendy Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa Mastrangelo. Southern Illinois UP, 2010, pp. 11-27.

Gordon, Constance, Kathleen Hunt, and Mohan Dutta. “Editorial: Food systems communication amid compounding crises: Power, resistance, and change.” Frontiers in Communication, 2022. https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2022.1041474 

Gordon, Constance, and Kathleen Hunt. “Communicating Power and Resistance in the Global Food System: Emerging Trends in Environmental Communication.” The Handbook of International Trends in Environmental Communication, edited by Bruno Takahashi, Julia Metag, Jagadish Thaker, and Suzannah Evans Comfort, Routledge, 2021, pp. 115-31

Hunt, Kathleen, and Dara Wald. “The Role of Scientific Source Credibility and Goodwill in Public Skepticism Toward GM Foods.”Environmental Communication, vol. 14, no. 7, 2020, pp. 971-86. https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2020.1725086

Jung, Julie. Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. Southern Illinois UP, 2005. 

Lacy, William, and Lawrence Busch. “The Changing Division of Labor Between the University and Industry: The Case of Agricultural Biotechnology.” Biotechnology and the New Agricultural Revolution, edited by Joseph J. Molnar and Henry Kinnucan. Routledge, 1989, pp. 21-50.

McMurry, Andrew. “Framing Emerson’s ‘Farming’: Climate Change, Peak Oil, and the Rhetoric of Food Security in the Twenty-First Century.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, vol. 19, no. 2, 2012, pp. 548-66.

Micciche, Laura. “Writing as Feminist Rhetorical Theory.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods & Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson. U of Pittsburgh P, 2010, pp. 173-88.

Otero, Gerardo. Food for the Few: Neoliberal Globalism and Biotechnology in Latin America. University of Texas Press, 2008. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/book/3155.

Pennington, Mary Beth. “Powerlessness Repurposed: The Feminist Ethos of Judy Bonds.” Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, edited by Kathleen Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones. Southern Illinois UP, 2016, pp. 150-72.

Privott, Meredith. “An Ethos of Responsibility and Indigenous Women Water Protectors in the #NoDAPL Movement.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 43 no. 1, 2019, pp. 74-100. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/720014.

Reynolds, Nedra. “Ethos as Location: New Sites for Understanding Discursive Authority.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 11, no. 2, 1993, pp. 325–38.

Ritchie, Joy, and Kate Ronald. “Introduction: A Gathering of Rhetorics.” Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), edited by Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald. U of Pittsburgh P, 2001, pp. xv-xxxi. Rivka. Personal Interview. 6 March 2019. 

Rosenberg, Lauren, and Emma Howes. “Listening to Research as a Feminist Ethos of Representation.” Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis, edited by Kristine L. Blaire and Lee Nickoson. The WAC Clearinghouse; UP of Colorado, 2018, pp. 75-91. https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2018.0056.2.04.

Ryan, Cynthia. “‘Get More from Your Life on the Land’: Negotiating Rhetorics of Progress and Tradition in a Neoliberal Environment.” Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy, edited by Eileen Schell, Charlotte Hogg, and Kim Donehower. Southern Illinois UP, 2012, pp. 52-71.

Ryan, Kathleen J., Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones. “Introduction.” Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, edited by Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones. Southern Illinois UP, 2016, pp. 1-22.

Schell, Eileen. “Framing the Megarhetorics of Agricultural Development: Industrialized Agriculture and Sustainable Agriculture.” The Megarhetorics of Global Development, edited by Rebecca Dingo and J. Blake Scott. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012, pp. 149-73.

–. “Vandana Shiva and the Rhetorics of Biodiversity: Engaging Difference and Transnational Feminist Solidarities in a Globalized World.” Feminist Rhetorical Resilience, edited by Elizabeth A. Flynn, Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady. Utah State UP, 2012, pp. 30-53.

Sohn, Eunee. “How Local Industry R&D Shapes Academic Research: Evidence from the Agricultural Biotechnology Revolution.” Organization Science, vol. 32, no. 3, 2020, pp. 675-707. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2020.1407

Wallace-Wells, David. “Bill Gates: ‘We’re in a Worse Place Than I Expected.’” The New York Times, 13 September 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/13/opinion/environment/bill-gates-climate-change- report.html. Accessed 18 January 2023.

Wilkerson, Abby. “Not Your Father’s Family Farm: Toward Transformative Rhetorics of Food and Agriculture.” Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite. Southern Illinois UP, 2017, pp. 119-31.

Young, Anna M., Justin Eckstein, and Donovan Conley. “Rhetorics and Foodways.” Foodways, Communication, and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 198-99. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2015.1013561

End Notes

[1] Per my approved IRB protocol, participants chose to either use a pseudonym or use their first names. Following IRB protocol for this study also necessitates not including any information identifying the institution where the research took place. All participants were given an opportunity to conduct member checking and write a brief biographical statement, which I include the first time I quote from their interview. I interviewed two of these students in person in 2018 and the other student over the phone in 2019.

[2] Such power dynamics include land-grant universities’ establishment by colonizing Indigenous land and their ongoing relationship to biotechnology research. The 2022 update to the Congressional New Service report on land-grants includes this passage: “Where did these millions of acres of public lands come from? Recent scholarship has explored the relationship between the public lands provided for the land-grant university system and the forced removal of Native people from their lands” (Croft 2). More can be done to address the violence through which land-grants were built. Related, land-grant priorities are shaped by the ways decreasing public funding for science has led to more industry funding, which has increased “from around 50% between 1970 and 2008 to less than 25% in 2013” (Croft 19). The relationship between industry and land-grant universities causes concern (Lacy and Busch; Otero; Sohn).


From Textual Subjects to Voracious Feminists: Rethink Constitutive Rhetoric


In the fall of 2020, I taught an undergraduate rhetoric course on women, gender, and sexuality at an urban research university. This course was redesigned based on a project completed at a diversity in teaching faculty seminar organized by the provost in 2018. I was a faculty fellow in the seminar. Working closely with teaching consultants, instructional designers, and liaison librarians, I revised the syllabus, enhanced course content, and created new classroom activities and assignments that reflected the current state of women, gender, and sexuality studies in rhetoric and communication studies. With a year’s preparation, I selected readings in the following categories: foundational writings by feminist foremothers, readings focused on the field of rhetoric, contemporary feminist advocacy in the U.S. and discourse of women around the globe. I compiled this reading list to expose students to materials that address the intersection of historiography, contemporary feminist advocacy and discourse of women around the globe so that students would have a grasp of the depth and scope of the rhetoric on women, gender, and sexuality. Upon the completion of my project, I sought to have this course designated as a general education course, particularly in the category of philosophical thinking and ethics, because I discovered that few courses in that category centered on women, gender, and sexuality. With the intention to reach a broad segment of students across the university, I endeavored to engage them in feminist and philosophical thinking and in the ethics of women’s rights, gender justice and equity.

This research was conducted in a unique context. The university is in a metropolitan area, which is progressive and democratic in its political views. The university administration upholds diversity and inclusion. Most students come from the vicinity of the university or from the East or West Coast. In addition, the composition of the student body is another factor to consider because most students were white from middle class backgrounds. They tended to express liberal or progressive views. For this reason, I selected the readings from university press publications and academic journals which were liberal leaning. If this course was offered at a university in another region with a different demographic, the learning outcome may be different.

I subsequently taught this class in the Communication Department in fall of 2020.[1] The Communication Department offered this course as an upper-level course and a general education (Gen Ed) course which satisfied the requirements of philosophical thinking and ethics, diversity, and global issues, as mentioned above. The class was cross listed with Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies

(GSWS) program at the university. The course’s final enrollment filled thirty-four of the thirty-five offered seats and attracted nineteen communication/rhetoric majors. The remaining students came from other humanities, social sciences, and science programs at the university. According to the demographic information volunteered by the students, twenty-one self-identified as White, three as Asian American, four as Latino, one as African American, two as Chinese, one of African descent, and one of Middle Eastern descent. With regards to gender, thirty-three students self-identified as women and one student as a man.

Drawing from my experiences designing and teaching this feminist-oriented Gen Ed Communication Studies class, this paper considers what is an effective feminist pedagogy for students who, as Elizabeth Bell and Kim Golombiski term it, are in a state of “between-ness” (295)—not stalwart feminists, but sympathetic to feminist ideas, as evidenced by choosing to take a communication studies class focused on rhetoric, women, gender, and sexuality. What would be a desirable learning outcome for such students? Is a perspective shift toward feminist values and practices considered a favorable consequence? Or are there specific pedagogies a feminist teacher might apply so that those in between students would have a desire to become feminist allies if not feminists themselves? 

For the purposes of this paper (and the class I teach), I define feminism as a movement to end gender inequality, as well as intersectional inequality including race, class, sexuality, and disability (Crossley).[2]
To achieve this end, feminists need agency to affect changes. Rhetorical scholars Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin uphold values of equality, immanent value, and self-determination in rhetorical practices (364). Foss and Griffin suggest that within feminist rhetorical acts, women may claim they are legitimate rhetors and enunciate subject matters they deem important. Yet, feminists do not fight a lone struggle but must engage all those who feel an affinity to it.

Many feminist teachers emphasize critical reflection and exchange, civic participation aimed toward progress in hope for a more equitable future (Glenn 126), critical engagement over mastery, and they may be influenced by feminist scholar Charlotte Bunch’s four-step pedagogical method: describing what exists, analyzing why that reality exists, determining what should exist, and hypothesizing about how to change what is to what should be (Bunch 251-253). This pedagogical approach has shaped generations of students into ardent feminists upon leaving the classroom, who subsequently joined the rank of their forebearers in the quest for women’s rights, gender justice and equity. Yet, I argue students transition to feminist positionality not only through textuality and identification but also rhetorical appeals—affective proof, invitational rhetoric and rhetorical listening. This recognition is based on a feminist reconceptualization of Maurice Charland’s constitutive rhetoric, which I discuss at length further below.

Important to this feminist rhetoric and communication studies class, feminist rhetorical scholars Lisa Ede, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford have argued for new ratios among logos, pathos, and ethos— women, gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability—be added to proofs, complicating the conventional wisdom of rhetorical theory (440). Feminist rhetorical practices stand in contrast to traditional rhetorical theory. While traditional rhetorical theorists often critique a “rhetorical situation” (Bitzer 217)—exigency rhetorical strategies, and resolution—rhetorical feminists insist on a critical theory of recasting rhetoric as a broad arena in which rhetors engage in a wide range of rhetorical behavior and demonstrate various rhetorical expertise and prowess (Royster and Kirsch 133). Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gisa Kirsch validate this feminist reconfiguration of proofs in their introduction of a new rhetorical feminist methodology. They contend that an interpretation of rhetorical artifacts is not final and conclusive but inclusive—as more elements are factored in, critical examinations can expand (Royster and Kirsch 19). In this perspective, inclusion of historical context, exigency, speech act, bodily experiences, and, more importantly, affect and emotion as extended objects of study leads to a richer understanding of rhetorical research and feminist approaches. In other words, a feminist rhetor persuades, motivates, mobilizes, and engages an audience beyond the singular goal of exigency resolution. Expanding further, Michelle Ramsey emphasizes the importance of context when analyzing feminist rhetors in various time periods. By attending to context, feminist scholars can articulate how society defines women, contest that definition and create a new form of public vocabulary (Ramsey 363). Charlotte Hogg demonstrates the importance of context in her analysis of conservative women’s rhetoric. She argues that rhetorical practices dismantle binary practices by “seeing or creating additional ones” (397). Likewise, David Gold analyzes how the binary vision of heroes and distractors impacted his students’ examination of rhetorical artifacts. He observes that his students “often seek heroes . . . They may have difficulty in moving beyond an either/or lens in contextualizing the figures they encounter” (Gold 162). And finally, Celest Condit proposes the notion of “gender diversity” as an alternative perspective which envisions gender and identity as mobile, multiple affiliations that are formed through discursive interactions (9). As Condit, Hogg, and Gold make clear, it is urgent that feminists seek alliances beyond the narrow confines of advocates and dissenters in order to facilitate cogent change. Taken together, these scholars show how there are alternatives to a dichotomy in examining public discourse and that a multi-angle, fluid interpretation reveals the complexity and richness of this object of study. In rhetorical studies, how to engage subjects who occupy the in “between-ness” and who do not immediately identify as feminists has merited little attention. To address this gap, my research draws from these aforementioned feminist rhetorical approaches alongside a feminist reconceptualization of Charland’s concept of constitutive rhetoric to examine, beyond the binary focus of feminist and non-feminist students, those students who occupy the in between. This study is an in-depth analysis of how students, who do not claim to be feminists but who support women’s rights, made a transition towards alliance with feminist thoughts and actions. As a result, I offer a feminist rhetorical analysis of how these in between students make the transition from being uncommitted to feminist values, to being receptive to feminist stances, and to becoming feminist allies. I argue rhetorical appeals of affective proof, invitational rhetoric, and rhetorical listening play central roles in transfiguring some students’ ideological orientations. In what follows, I draw from a qualitative study of my classroom to describe the strategies that have worked in a feminist rhetorical classroom, how the role of a feminist teacher enabled these alliances, the classroom’s successes, and the rich variety of feminist rhetorical pedagogical approaches employed in the classroom. 

Teaching philosophy

To begin and to foreground how I integrated feminist rhetorical concepts with a feminist reconceptualization of Charland’s theory of constitutive rhetoric, I demonstrate how my teaching philosophy was informed by the premises of several scholars. Likewise, because most students had not expressed their positions in feminism, I reflected on how to engage them in the concepts of my course. When teaching a first-year writing class, John Duffy argues that mutual trust and honesty are the key to effective learning—students attend to differences of opinion and respect those with whom they disagree. Second, based on my conversation with the faculty of Gender and Women’s Studies program at the university, I decided on a “student centered,” discussion-based format so that students had a shared agency and authority. My pedagogy also drew from Tina Chen’s notion of employing an “ethics of knowledge,” or not teaching students what to believe but helping students develop an ethical approach so that they make decisions that lead to belief (157). Chen’s approach echoes feminist and sexuality studies scholar Adrienne Rich’s vision of a superior university education in which the education is formed by “an ethical and intellectual contract between teacher and student […] that must remain intuitive, dynamic, unwritten” (610).  Rich reminds us that “we must turn to [that intellectual contract] repeatedly if learning is to be reclaimed from the depersonalizing and cheapening pressures of the present-day academic scene” (610).  Cheryl Glenn elaborates on the ways superior classroom practices are made possible. She states, “Rhetorical feminist teachers embrace educational values that respect personal experiences, and encourage active engagement and collaboration, values that are imaginative, often liberatory, and can diminish the assertiveness, competitiveness and hierarchy that have long held the rein in the academy” (140). The guidance of those feminist scholars and teachers provides the underpinning of my feminist rhetorical pedagogical practices: creating a classroom in which trust became the foundation of the classroom culture; building a community in which students respected, validated, and supported one another; facilitating multilateral and dynamic discussions; and adjusting when necessary.

To stay true to this pedagogical approach, my role as a feminist teacher was central. Royster and Kirsch use “possibilities” as a lynch pin to envision the liberatory consequences of rhetorical feminist practices in impact and outcomes (109). On rhetorical feminist pedagogy, they argue that a teacher has the privilege and power of helping students to liberate themselves as thinkers and language users to “set in motion a process of ‘casting bread on the water’ and creating circles of responses” (109). On feminist pedagogy, Lesley Barlett imagines a feminist teacher’s responsibility as “what we communicate to them, what we perform and what we hope will happen as a result of these performance.” (97). Feminist rhetorical classroom practices present a case study to support their premise—that some students redefine their self-location and take a path of personal growth that extends beyond the classroom. 

As a feminist teacher, I endeavored to facilitate such growth. I was not a mere observer but a facilitator who strategically guided the directions of students’ conversations. For example, as part of the learning outcome for the course, I strove to inform the students of a feminist positionality through engagement, reflection, community building and mobilization. Based on my conversations with the faculty of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Study at the university, I concluded that most of my students were different from theirs—not ardent feminists but middle of the roaders, in between feminist ideas and feminist allyship. I faced a challenge: how to expose these students to women and gender issues so that they would be more receptive to feminist stances. I decided on several learning objectives. First, students would be encouraged to believe they were agents of change. For example, they read course materials of how many women negotiated gender inequality in the workplace so that they saw that they had a stake in learning and understand how they could engage in activism upon entering the workforce. Secondly, students connected readings to their lived experiences so that they found learning engaging. For example, they learned about gender roles in relationships and marriages. When reading about how many women, though highly successful in their careers, were main caregivers in relationships or marriages, many students discussed how their grandmothers, mothers and other female relatives negotiated these challenges and how the students themselves had to mitigate these issues when they entered relationships or marriages. 

Next, students were motivated to engage in feminist acts. For example, I selected a reading about how hashtag activism had raised public consciousness for gender justice, #Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, which informed the students of #YesAllWomen, #SurvivorPrivillege, #WhyIStayed, #TheEmptyChair, #MeToo and #GirlsLikeUS. These readings triggered heated discussions. Many students talked about how they retweeted hashtag activism to extend the sphere of influence to their peers and society at large. This way, I encouraged students to be aware that they engaged in feminist acts. Seeking common ground and building a community made the classroom more than a place for academic learning. It was, as Penny Burke and Sue Jackson note, “a place learners found a sense of belonging” (45). Students belonged because they had a voice, and they could discuss topics that mattered to them. The learning objectives of engagement, reflection, and community building illuminate how an epistemic turn could occur.

As another example, when we discussed how to be allies with transgender people, students were willing to share their firsthand experiences. Many knew people from their hometowns who had gone through a gender transition and recounted the ways their towns, schools, and fellow students responded. I affirmed their observations and posed follow-up questions to prod them to think in depth so that they came to see the implications of their thoughts and connected their observations with active themes of transgender rights movements, showing them how they could be allies of change against the growing national anti-trans movement. In keeping with the global perspective of this class, I encouraged students to share what they knew about the transgender rights movements in places outside of the U.S. The students in the class from Columbia, East Africa, Morocco, and China all told stories about transgender issues in their home countries. As a feminist teacher, I wanted to draw out their feminist thinking and show them how they could become agents and allies against anti-trans structures. This sort of open dialogue and pedagogy that centralized feminist principles described above made it possible for me to create a classroom environment where feminist constitutive pedagogy could take place because I did not emphasize logic, reason, linearity, or causality but rather lived experience, dialogue, and affect. The next sections show how, due to a feminist reframing of constitutive practices in the classroom, students were able to move beyond the in “between-ness” of feminism and toward feminist allyship.    

Feminist Reconceptualization of Constitutive Rhetoric

Before moving on to show how feminist reconceptualization of constitutive rhetoric works in the classroom, I show how and why it is necessary to ground constitutive rhetoric in feminist rhetorical theories. Charland’s notion of rhetorical process signifies logic, reason, linearity, and causality, which amounts to what Larraine Code calls a “single undisputed norm,” (80) implicit in hegemonic rhetorical practices of “white, male, elite performances in public domains” (Dingo, Riedner and Wingard, 181). To complicate this model, rhetorical feminists argue that lived experiences, dialogue, and affect constitute an essential part of a rhetorical process. Glenn calls for an adjustment of rhetorical appeals so that emotion and experience balance logic and reason: “[Reshaping] the rhetorical appeals [includes] a reshaped logos on dialogue and understanding, a reshaped ethos is rooted in experience and a reshaped pathos values emotion” (149-150, italics mine). By reframing proofs, feminist rhetorical theorists take issue with theories such as constitutive rhetoric—conceptual realignment, the goal of rhetorical process, occurs not only through moral exhortations but also an ecology of dialogue, community building and emotional connection. Indeed, I argue that, in a feminist rhetorical classroom, trust, sharing and solidarity between the teacher and students and among students lead to an intended outcome. Affective proof, inviting speaking and rhetorical listening—an integral part of identification process—result in a paradigm shift in some students.

Feminist rhetorical theory reframes traditional rhetorical theory. Many theorists apply Charland’s notion of constitutive rhetoric to analyze rhetorically constructed subjects in political discourse. Charland’s work is influenced by several theorists of political discourse. First, Charland incorporates Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation as the key process in production of ideology (133). In addition, building on Kenneth Burke’s proposal in A Rhetorical of Motives, Charland identifies identification rather than persuasion as an efficacious rhetorical process. (134). Finally, Charland applies Michael McGee’s concept of the people, a rhetorical vision an ideologue uses to unify their subjects. An ideologue preconceives an outcome in which subjects visualize themselves as the people: a collectivity eager to join the vision held out by the ideologue. With those theoretical foundations, Charland’s constitutive rhetoric illuminates how a rhetorical subject transforms: through texts, then through identification, and, finally, through change. Change is not brought about by persuasion but through identification—an interpellation of subjects who enact what is ascribed in the text.

In Charland’s vision, textuality is the first step to create a rhetorically constructed subject. Charland explains the textuality of subjects: “We cannot accept the ‘givenness” of ‘audience,’ ‘person,’ or ‘subject’, but must consider their very textuality, their constitution in rhetoric as a structured articulation of signs” (137). Charland presents a case study to illustrate his point. He argues that Quebec sovereignty based itself upon the asserted and new existence of a rhetorically invented identity, “Québécois. That identity, and the collectivized people québécois, are interpellated as political subjects who undergo a process of identification. A subject is not persuaded to support sovereignty. Support for sovereignty is inherent to the subject position addressed by pro-sovereignty rhetoric (Charland 134).

Though constitutive rhetoric traditionally analyzes political discourses, I contend that it can be applied to a classroom setting. First, in some academic institutions in the U.S., teaching practices reorient students’ values and attitudes (e.g., diversity and inclusion) through the curriculum. A classroom is construed as a springboard in a student’s lifelong journey of ideological orientation. Second, in a feminist rhetorical classroom, students are immersed in feminist theories and values, with the expectation that they will be champions and advocates upon leaving the classroom. In this regard, a classroom is analogous to an ideological process in a large political setting. Thirdly, in a classroom setting, the praxis of constitutive rhetoric results in evidence-based, measurable, and quantifiable indexes, which in turn informs feminist rhetorical pedagogy of how teaching impacts students’ outlook both textually, through narrative hauling, and extra textually, through community building, affect and dialogue. Finally, this communication class of gender and women’s rhetoric met a big challenge. Due to a mix of beliefs–while a few students were staunch feminists, other students were uncommitted to feminist causes—the feminist teacher strove to influence those middle road students.

Constitutive rhetoric, through textuality, identification, and locus of action, is a useful basis, therefore, to analyze a rhetorical process in a classroom setting and observe how identification leads to a positionality shift. Contemporary rhetorical scholars continue to engage constitutive rhetoric. Thomas Farrell argues that, as an intersection of theory and practice, constitutive rhetoric is valuable in its emphasis on collectivity, audience, and identity in the sphere of human history (327). Katja Thieme uses Charland’s theory of audience positioning to analyze audience design in Canadian suffragist movements. Helen Tate counterargues the effectiveness of constitutive rhetoric in her study of a failed attempt by white lesbian feminists to form a feminist identity during second-wave feminism. In this perspective, constitutive rhetoric, with its focus on textuality, identification, and transformation, is pertinent to analyze positionality shift in rhetorical processes in diverse contexts.

Feminist Rhetorical Praxis

In examining each constitutive feature of the course, I critique Charland’s theory via the lens of feminist interventions. In the first class, students read Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Emma Goldman, and Simone Beauvoir. I attempted to accomplish threefold goals: 1) inform students of feminist foremothers’ historical stances, which would undergird discussions throughout the course of the semester; 2) have students trace the origin of empowerment to its continuation and shift in contemporary times; and 3) help students understand how histories of rhetoric has informed social changes in contemporary times. These goals fit into Nan Johnson’s model of social change of “articulation/definition, debate, institutionalization/cultural inscription and cultural upheaval, and back wave,” which could start immediately or decades later (qtd. in Glenn 139). By learning the historiography of feminist foremothers, students built referential points—appealing to a common frame of reference—which guided students’ perception of how feminist battles should be won. Feminist foremothers laid down the ideological framework of what position a woman should occupy in society: men were Self; women were Other who were subordinate to men in political, social, economic, and biological spheres; a woman’s struggle was overcoming being an Other and gaining equal footing with men. Reacting to the readings, one discussion question invoked heated responses from students: “Responding to Simone Beauvoir’s argument that a woman is an Other, how can you overcome being an Other?”

Students first identified the core value of feminism: overcoming being represented or positioned as an Other, as defined by Beauvoir. Students’ conception of overcoming an Other was to bring about changes in the real world. Their ideas were detailed: first, the students saw community as a source of strength. Several students argued that they should always back each other up. A student gave an example: if they saw another woman in an unsafe situation, they would not hesitate to come to her rescue. Furthermore, they advocated for an inclusive feminism—for women and men to be open to each other’s perspectives and seek common ground. Students saw solidarity, community and coalition building as building blocks of feminism, which would become the overarching themes in students’ shared outlook on feminism. Feminist pedagogy stresses a symbiotic relationship between identification and dialogue. Students “investigate their individual performances of self and voice, and they are ultimately invited to view and discuss those with their peers” (Gold 168).

The second referential point revolved around diverse perspectives on how to overcome being an Other—from the mundane to the noble. A student shared her perspective based on assignments she had completed for another class. When she read a fairytale, she interpreted the story as portraying symbolic values society placed on young girls: a woman could only have a blissful life if a prince charming had rescued her. She argued that such readings instilled in young girls the value that women were less worthwhile beings than men. Other students argued feminism should sprout from a more fundamental level—impacting youths in their formative years. Several students said that it was crucial to educate both girls and boys at an early age to instill in them feminist values and ward off the pervasive toxic masculinity, which Carol Harrington defines as “misogyny, homophobia and men’s violence” (345). Jennifer, an American student, noted:

By integrating early feminist education into academic curriculum among elementary and middle school students, young boys can learn the harmful effects of toxic masculinity and how to act in manners that do not perpetuate toxic masculinity. In doing so, society will establish inclusivity of gender equality and progression, which will teach boys and young men to recognize, reject and challenge simplified masculinity and to create cultural change.

Students’ statements reflected a cross section of their diverse interpretations of the core feminist value of feminism. Overcoming being an Other can be as mundane as a critical reading of a class assignment or as noble as reforming early and secondary education. Despite differences of opinion, however, students revealed they were unified in their attitude in feminism activism: every act, no matter how big or small, counted as advocacy. A feminist could either be a steadfast feminist or one who engaged in a single feminist act. Everyday resistance and grassroot activism became a referential point unifying students who began class in various positions along the feminist spectrum.

Forming Identification

In this section, I will discuss how identification—the crucial stage of the transformation—occurred when students were exposed to feminist narratives. Charland argues, “Ideology is material because subjects enact their ideology and reconstitute their material world in its image” (143). Charland argues that, once interpellated, a subject will transition from a textual to a real-life position and participate in the ideologue’s ideological vision.

Students assumed the identity of textual subjects—positions rendered in texts they were exposed to—when they were introduced to value-laden feminist narratives. I selected readings in Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution by Allison Crossley (2017). Students related the readings to their everyday life experiences, and how they participated in feminist acts as college students. They read “Where Have All the Feminists Gone?,” “The Bonds of Feminism: Collective Identities and Feminist Organizations,” and “Can Facebook be Feminist? Online, Coalitional, and Everyday Feminist Tactics.” Sample discussion questions included: “Do you agree with Crossley’s argument that feminists of your generation focus on inter and intra solidarity?” “Do you agree with Crossley’s argument that there is a collective identity among your generation of feminists?” and “Are you an everyday feminist?”

Though sharing similarities with millennials, students claimed they belonged to Generation Z. In the younger students’ view, feminism was alive and well but unique to their generation. One student noted they did not want to be labelled as mainstream feminists but was adamant about adopting their own distinctive approach to carry out feminist causes, seeing themselves as everyday feminists who believed feminism should start at the grassroots level and occur in everyday acts. They endorsed Crossley’s descriptions of college students equating clothing, verbal expressions, and daily interactions with peers as feminist practices. Positioned as everyday feminists, they were receptive to texts that connected their conception of feminism to lived experience.

In an identification process, engaging in narratives where subjects are exposed to rhetoric in oral or written forms become a protracted and extended  repositioning to feminist values and practices. Readers take up, negotiate, accept, resist, or ignore narratives (Guest 31). Transformation occurs when a reader “moves beyond a purely personal response toward a consideration of the [artifact’s] cultural and historical embeddedness, its broader meaning” (Kuhn 8-9). An ideological exercise, however, was not straightforward acceptance: students agreed with, doubted, or rejected values in the texts. It was the introspecting and critiquing that facilitated students’ progression to feminist positioning. In feminist theories, textuality entails not only self-knowledge but also activism and affect investment. Clare Hemmings describes epistemological knowledge, activism, and affective investment as critical stages: Empathy—extending one’s view beyond their subjective concerns and imagine the world through others’ eyes; agency—the ability to engage in acts of resistance; and affective resolution—willingness to be emotionally invested. Narrative hauling, wrought with critical reading, introspection, self-knowledge and affective investment, accounts for the positionality shift of some student to feminist stances.

Extra Textual Considerations

Identification is not a complete process without the underpinning of affective proof, invitational rhetoric and rhetorical listening. Charland’s process of interpellation is causal and linear. Yet, in this communication class on women, gender, and sexuality, I found that interpellation is more intricate—subjects are interpellated not only by the moral appeals but also the rhetorical ecology. As Kathleen Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones note, feminist ecological ethē open new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts (3). In this perspective, gendered experiences—understood through affective proof, invitational rhetoric and rhetorical listening—situate an identification process in nuanced and complex ways, leading to a full understanding of the synergy of a feminist rhetorical classroom.

Consider first the role of affective proof in identification. Affective proof—personal is the political, solidarity and community building (Campbell)—becomes an integral part of the identification process. Leslie Hahner explains how intricacies of affective proof impact the identification process:“affective components of rhetorical address constitute preferred identities, which render intelligible subjectivities and the modes of identification to become objects of desire. [The] privileged subject finds comfort and agency in the space of advantaged identities” (160-161). Affect in a rhetorical process counter-argues the emphasis of hegemonic practices on logos and reason, whereby women seek affective proof as ways to practice rhetoric—emotion, personal narratives, and solidarity are often preferred, desirable, and effective ways to communicate with one another and the public. In this communication class, students supported one another, creating a community through discussions. Throughout the semester, there was a warm and respectful classroom culture. Jack, a male student, discussed the impact of conversations on him:

I believe the class discussions we had are the most effective way to learn and understand the issues presented. Listening to the stances of everyday people and educated people made it so much more relatable. When we had the discussions, it allowed me to think of my mother, my sister and my girlfriend and it showed me a perspective that I was not listening to before. My vision for the future is simple: more conversations.

Jack’s comment revealed the synergy among speakers, listeners, and the environment of community building. On why women’s narratives are unique, Christiane Boehr argues that their voices “provide ways to explore how a person experiences the self in relations to surroundings, documenting the interplay of inner and outer world” (n.p.). The connection of the personal to the political is not lost on Jack. As a mindful and receptive listener, he resonated with these women’s personalized narratives and connected them to his own lived experiences and world view. In this perspective, the personal is the political model intertwines what Boehr refers to the “I-voice,” with the “You-voice,” in a “relational environment” in which women (in my class, including a man such as Jack) grew together (n.p.). Affective proof—dialogues, community and personal is the political—played a key role in the identification process in this communication class on women and gender.

Just as important as affective proof, identification occurred extra textually in relational ways. It was bilateral: speakers invited listeners to participate equally in the process. According to a record I kept, of the twenty-four students who attended this class in person, eighteen regularly participated in discussions. They listened to one another and took turns speaking their own minds or validating what their classmates had just said. Foss and Griffin note that “individual perspectives are articulated in invitational rhetoric as carefully, completely and passionately as possible to full expression and invite their careful considerations by the participants in the interaction” (367). To illustrate such invitational rhetoric, I include here a section of dialogue among a few students after I asked them to define feminism:

Olivia: I just wanted to go back to what Stacy was saying (who spoke previously) I really liked when she talked about equality in the workplace because it made me think of an experience that I had last September. I was in a math class and after the first class, the professor said I noticed there was only one other girl in class, so I just wanted to let you know that you can stay after class if you have any questions. One time, he made a comment that right now was a good time for a woman to be a math major because it was easy to get a job. They wanted diversity.

Denise: I agree a lot with what Olivia said. But I also want to add on that I feel like there is a disconnect of how some men think they can speak to women. They might mean well, but it comes out like, I know you are a girl. You are not as good as the rest of the class.

Lauren: Just going off what Olivia and Denise’s experience. I wish you had that hindsight, [saying], hold on, why do you think I am not up to it. It is everyday feminist ideas to point out to those who say such things to you.

The students supported, expanded, and validated their classmates, acting like what Nina Lozano- Reich and Dana Cloud refer to as “materials equals” (222). Dialogue and mutual respect are the precondition of an invitational rhetoric. Students respected one another as they sought common ground, validated one another’s thoughts, and fully explored a topic they deemed important. The classroom culture of sharing and community reinforced students’ outlook on feminism. Furthermore, the invitational mode of speaking encouraged by feminist pedagogy allowed students to “contemplate their standpoints as speaking subjects not just in the classroom but beyond: in society writ large” (Gold 169). 

The multilateral relationships between the teacher and students and among students facilitated the metamorphosis of their self-knowledge. Kathleen Yancey notes, “We learn to understand ourselves through explaining to others. To do this, we rely on a reflection that involves a checking against, a confirmation, and a being of self with others(11, emphasis in orig.). Sally Chandler describes the organic relationship between self and others: we are “observing the responses of other selves to one’s own words to gain a greater insight into one’s own identity” (19). Consider a student, Maria’s view on intergenerational feminism:

Before taking this class, I viewed older feminists as exclusionary and unwilling to accept new ideas. Through our discussions, I now understand that intergenerational feminism is an inherent and important critique of both past and present feminism.

Discussions enabled Maria to develop insight that the younger generation of feminists carried on the baton of feminists of previous generations. When feminist issues were examined in diverse angles, Maria reorganized her own framework. In the ecology of a feminist rhetorical classroom, students internalized feminist values and beliefs through multilateral learning, intellectual and emotional connection on their own and distinct path to a feminist orientation.

Feminist theorists further see nonverbal gestures as part of transformative process. Head nodding and body language also register as participation (Chandler 22). Listeners do not need to participate in audible conversations for silence to become increasingly “full, not void, of meaning” (Summers-Bremmer 652). Extending beyond physiological descriptions, feminist rhetorical scholars argue that listening is a conscious and radical performance. In his eloquent analysis of Audre Lorde, Lester Olson argues that listening is “active.” As a “complicit,” “a listener momentarily uses a speaker’s term for communication” (447). To illustrate Olson’s argument, take a listen to when two students exchanged their thoughts on gender equality:

Stacey: I feel like the goal of feminism is making sure that the sexes are equally valued. Female sex is less valued, and people just look down on it.

Denise: Some people view women as not equal to men. The biological women can bear children, but biological men cannot. I think women should be celebrated for (bearing children) and not getting punished for taking time off.

The exchange between Stacey and Denise validates the notion of rhetorical listening. Their communication was enthymemic: They shared the same premise that women and men ought to be equal. When Stacey made the claim that they were not viewed equal, Denise acknowledged her premise, supplied an example, and proposed a course of action. Stacey and Denise’s tacit understanding of each other validates Krista Ratcliffe’s notion of rhetorical listening as speakers and hearers “acknowledge both claims and cultural logics” (33).

The interplay of affective proof, invitational rhetoric and rhetoric listening sheds lights on the dynamic of a feminist rhetorical classroom. Identification occurs not only through narrative hauling—the project of traditional rhetorical theory—but also an ecology of dialogue, community building and emotional connections, the hallmarks of feminist rhetorical praxis. In this regard, feminist rhetorical theory reframes the traditional rhetorical theory.

Locus of Change

In an identification process, the locus of change is the goal. Charland notes, the subject “must be true to the motives through which the narratives constitute them, and thus which presents characters as freely acting toward a predetermined and fixed ending” (141). I argue, however, that in a feminist rhetorical classroom, Charland’s designation of a path from a textual subject to a social agent was not a straightforward and clear-cut path for all subjects. For some students who self-identified with the ideological causes, the interpellation process enabled them to reassert their personality. Alice, a Chinese American student, who claimed herself as a staunch feminist, asserted that feminism was not a one-size-fits-all movement and should represent all women’s voices. She noted:

It is crucial for us to address racist tendencies. Minorities lack representation in feminism because of its white centric ideologies. Feminism can contradict minorities in intersectionality, class, and culture. In the twenty-first  century, where America is the most demographically diverse country, we must do a better job of spreading awareness to recognize different disparities and giving minorities a platform in the feminist movement.

The classroom culture of collective thinking and learning gave a minority student such as Alice a public space to air her opinion. Her voice contributed to the diversity and complexity of critical reading of feminism. It was a teachable moment for other students—the majority of whom were white—to learn about a different first-hand perspective. When students were white and from the middle and upper middle class, they demonstrated a yearning for “universality” and “oneness.” Learning about the lived experiences of students on the margin opens alternative approaches to critical reading of feminist text (Lu 444).

For students such as Alice, this class solidified their feminist positionality. For other students, however, the transformation was more subtle—a perspective shift resulting in receptivity and openness. Jack, a male student, reflected on the impact of this class on him:

As the only man in the class, I often found myself having to put myself in others’ shoes or having to work to see alternative perspectives. In doing so, I found myself understanding issues that I had never understood before. Furthermore, I found myself flung into issues that I did not even know existed or had never taken up the time to research. Some of the most interesting topics to me in the class were the topics of women and men, the relationship that plays out between the sexes. As a man, and as someone with a strong group of diverse male friends, seeing both of their perspectives and women’s perspectives on some of the same issue fascinated me.

As a cisgender white male, discussions, community, and affect dislodged Jack from his privileged position of gender and power by reframing his conception of gender equity—seeing other genders and sexualities as occupying an inseparable space in his previous males only network. On feminist agendas to seek a united front, how do we define Jack’s new ideological orientation: is he a feminist coalition or an alliance? Why does the temporal distinction matter? Lisa Albrecht and Rose Brewer give an answer: while a coalition refers to “groups or individuals that have come together around a particular issue to achieve a particular goal,” alliances function through a “new level of commitment that is long-standing, deeper and built upon more trusting political relationships” (3-4). As a feminist “alliance,” Jack no longer feels a disconnect but an affinity to feminist causes. Furthermore, by making a commitment to attune to gender and sexuality issues, he underwent a paradigm shift. Jack’s story signifies how the rhetorical appeals of a feminist rhetorical classroom—dialogue, community, and affect—result in a conceptual realignment to feminist stances. On the notion of self-development, as envisioned by feminist teachers, students such as Jack emerged as “fully conscious, fully speaking, unique, fixed and coherent self… the voices of students can be continually negotiated and developed” (Gold, 170).

While Jack’s positioning to feminist orientation is evidential of a preconceived learning outcome, it tells a story about what feminism on some college campuses is about: it is not a lone battle fought by stalwart feminists but one that includes all those who are inclined to be alliances. As our students envision it, feminism should be open to all genders and sexes, including men: dialogues are important, and seeking common ground and forming alliances are crucial. If some men have become open minded, receptive, and willing to listen to and engage in conversations, it is a substantive gain for a feminist cause. A feminist movement lifts women and all other genders and sexes, men included.


Charland’s model of constitutive rhetoric signals identification as the key element to interpellation. Identification occurs when subjects step away from textuality to become social agents, as imagined by ideologues. Once becoming social agents, subjects act upon doctrines ascribed in the narratives. Constitutive rhetoric inherently points to reason, logic, linearity and causality, as predicates of hegemonic rhetorical practices.

In contrast, in a feminist rhetorical classroom, the identification process is more complex and nuanced. Reconceptualized rhetorical appeals—affective proof, invitational rhetoric, rhetorical listening—positioned students to feminist stances. Moreover, the path to interpellation was multidirectional: For feminist-minded students, the learning process is one of solidification of their identity. For other students, however, it is a perspective shift—becoming more open to feminism and feeling a desire to engage in conversation with different viewpoints. Rhetorical appeals of a feminist rhetorical classroom—affect, dialogue, community, and solidarity—result in interpellation of subjects in complex and multivariant ways.

For Other Faculty

I have the following thoughts for faculty who plan to teach a similar course. First, early in the semester, I encouraged students to define what constituted a feminist. Most students envisioned themselves as an everyday feminist—either staunch or in performing a single act. Building such a referential point unified students in different spectrums in their shared outlook on feminism, creating a community of positive learners. Students believed they had a stake in learning. Second, I focused on connecting readings with students’ lived experiences so that they were both learners and teaching resources. For example, students read about and discussed hashtag activism and realized they engaged in feminist acts when they retweeted hashtag activism. Thirdly, I endeavored to create trust between the teacher and students, and among students, created a positive feedback loop in which students spoke, listened, and validated one another resulting in active and collective participation and engagement. Next, I strove to engage all students—female students, the one male student, students with global roots, and international students. I encouraged all of them to speak. Such an inclusion made conversations rich and interesting. Finally, when I found out about the ideological leaning of students—staunch feminists, sympathizers, and non-feminists—I focused my energy on and made a commitment to motivate the middle of the road students, those who were willing to listen and participate in discussions. This pedagogical approach resulted in transitioning those students to feminist alliances.

I will offer this course in the spring semester of 2023. I intend to make the following changes: first, I will use inclusive languages when addressing the diverse gender orientations of college students in contemporary times. Second, I plan to add sequenced writing assignments, a

decision informed by feminist pedagogical theories. Elspeth Probyn argues for “experiential” and “analytical” learning so that students theorize self as a double entity (21). Experience can testify to an “immediate facticity of being in the society” (21). But experience can be used to analyze the material conditions and posit ways to change those conditions (21). By incorporating analytical learning, students will elevate from experiential to analytical learning to theorize and conceptualize their understanding, as Charlotte Bunch envisions, to determine what should exist and hypothesize about how to change what is to what should be.

As more communication departments and other programs offer courses on women and gender topics, feminist teachers will face challenges on how to impact those students who have not yet taken a feminist stance and are middle of the road students. Therefore, these teachers need to engage that group of students and strive to move them to a feminist orientation. I hope my research serves as a touch stone to initiate further discussions on this important topic.


Weiming Gorman would like to thank Dr. Rebecca Dingo for her unwavering support for this project. She would like to extend appreciation to Dr. Nancy Small. Under her guidance, the essay showed significant improvement.  She wishes to thank Drs. Brent Malin and Lester Olson for their suggestions on an earlier draft. She also received extensive feedback from and wishes to thank Dr. David Marshall and the participants in his graduate writing seminar, Piper Corp, Reed Schenck, Tim Barr, and Max Dosser.  

Work Cited

Albrecht, Lisa, and Rose M. Brewer. Bridges of Power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances. New Society. 1990.

Barlett, Lesley E. “Performing Critical Generosity in the Feminist Classroom.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 28, no. 2-3, 2018, pp. 92-104.

Bell, Elizabeth, and Kim Golombisky. “Voices and Silences in Our Classrooms: Strategies for Mapping Trails Among Sex/Gender, Race, and Class.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 27, no 1, 2004,  pp. 294–329.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory; A Reader, edited by John Lucaites, Celest M.  Condit, and Sally Caudill, The Guilford Press, 1999, pp. 217-25.

Boehr, Christiane. “The Praxis of Listening in Feminist-Relational Research.” Peitho, vol. 23, no. 3, 2021. https://cfshrc.org/article/recoveries-and-reconsiderations-the-praxis-of-listening-in-feminist-relational-research/

Bunch, Charlotte. “Not by Degree: Feminist Theory and Education.” Quest: A Feminist Quarterly, vol. 5, no.1, 1979, pp. 248–60. 

Burke, Penny J., and Sue Jackson Reconceptualizing Lifelong Learning: Feminist Interventions. Routledge, 2007.

Campbell, Karlyn K.  “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron.” Communication Studies, vol, 50, no. 2, 1999, pp.125–37. 

Chandler, Sally. “Reflective Discourse in the Classroom: Creating Spaces Where Students Can Change Their Minds.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 15, no. 1, 2004, pp.16–33. 

Charland, Maurice. “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, no. 3, 1987, pp. 133-50. 

Chen, Tina. “Towards an Ethics of Knowledge.” Melus, vol. 30, no. 2, 2004, pp.157-73. 

Code, Lorraine. What Can She Know? Cornell UP, 1991.

Condit, Celeste M. “In Praise of Eloquent Diversity: Gender and Rhetoric as Public Persuasion.” Women’s Studies in Communication. vol. 20, no. 2, 1997, pp. 91 116.

Crossley, Allyson D. Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution. New York University Press,  2017.

Dingo, Rebecca, Rachel Reidner,  and Jen Wingard. “Toward a Critical Transnational Feminist Rhetorical Methodology.” Peitho,  vol. 20, no. 2, 2018.

Duffy, John. “Post-Truth and First Year Writing.” Inside Higher Ed, 7 May 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/05/08/first-year-writing-classes-can-teach- students-how-make-fact-based-arguments- essay#:~:text=When%20writers%20make%20an%20assertion,evidence%20to%20suppor t%20that%20claim.&text=While%20the%20culture%20of%20post,healthy%20considera tion%20of%20other%20views. Accessed April 2021.

Ede, Lisa, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford.  “Border Crossing: Intersection of Rhetoric and Feminism.” Rhetoric: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, vol.13, no. 4, 1995, pp. 401-41.

Farrell, Thomas B. “Rhetoric in History as Theory and Praxis: A Blast from the Past.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 4 no. 14, 2008, 323–36.

Foss, Sonia K., and Cindy L. Griffin.  “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric.” Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetoric: Landmark Essays and Controversies, edited by Lindal Buchanan and Kathleen J. Ryan, Parlor Press, 2010, pp. 362-80. 

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018. 

Gold, Alexandra. “Not Our Regularly Scheduled Programming: Integrating Feminist Theory, Popular Culture and Writing Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 26, no. 2-3, 2016, pp. 156-78.

Gold, David. “Teaching Feminist Rhetorical Practices: Beyond Recovery in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Peitho Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 161-67.

Guest, Carly. Becoming Feminist: Narratives and Memories. Springer, 2016.

Hahner, Lesly A. “Constitutive Intersectionality and the Affect of Rhetorical Form.” Standing in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Perspectives in Communication Studies, edited by Karma R. Chávez and Cindy L. Griffin, SUNY Press, 2012, pp. 147-68. 

Harrington, Carol. “What is Toxic Masculinity and Why Does it Matter.” Men and Masculinity, vol. 24, no. 2, 2021, pp. 345-52. 

Hemmings, Clara. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Duke UP,  2011.

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

Johnson, Nan. & Johnson, Gavin P. “Teaching critical analysis in times of peril: A rhetorical model of social change.” Peitho, vol. 22, no1, 2019.

Kuhn, Annette. Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. 2nd ed.  Verso,  2002. 

Lozano-Reich, Nina, and Dana Cloud.  “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, 2009, pp. 220-26.

Lu, Min-Zhan.  “Reading and Writing Differences: The Problematic of Experiences.” Feminism and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Gesa E. Kirsch et al., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, pp.  436-446

Olson, Lester C. “Liabilities of Language: Audre Lorde Reclaiming Difference.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 84, no. 4, 1998, pp. 448–70. 

Probyn, Elspeth. Sexing the Self: Gendered Position in Cultural Studies. Routledge, 1993.

Ramsey,Michele E. “Addressing Issues of Context in Historical Women’s Public Address.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004, pp. 352-76. 

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Rich, Andrienne. Reclaiming Education. U of Chicago P,  1977.

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

Ryan, Kathleen, Nancy Myers,  and Rebecca Jones. Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2016.

Summers-Bremmer, Eluned. “Waving, Not Drowning: Personal Narratives, Feminist Pedagogy, and the Gesture in Psychoanalysis.” Feminist Studies, vol. 3, no. 27, 2001, pp. 643–77.

Tate, Helen. “The Ideological Effects of a Failed Constitutive Rhetoric: The Co-Option of the Rhetoric of White Lesbian Feminism.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 28, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–31.

Thieme, Katja. “Constitutive Rhetoric as an Aspect of Audience Design: The Public Text of Canadian Suffragists.” Written Communication, vol. 17, no. 1, 2010, pp.36–56.

Yancey, Kathleen B. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Utah UP, 1998.


[1] Due to the pandemic, this course was offered remotely and recorded. After submitting my request to use students’ writings and short excerpts of transcripts without revealing students’ identity in my research, I received a clearance from IRB (Institutional Review Board) at the university. I also obtained the written consent of the students to use their work—their term papers—in this study. I chose these research materials to reflect the interface between rhetorical feminist pedagogy and students’ engagement, the dynamic of a feminist rhetorical classroom, and students’ subsequent perspectives shift toward feminist causes. The subsequent discussion of theoretical framework elucidates feminist rhetorical classroom practices.

[2] On the first day of the class, I asked students to share why they took this course. They gave a variety of reasons. A few said they were feminists and wanted to take a class on women, gender, and sexuality. Some communication majors said that the Communication Department had not offered a course on women, gender, and sexuality in recent years and that they wanted a course with this focus. But more than half of the students took the course because it satisfied the University’s General Education requirement of philosophical thinking and ethics.


Economies of Rights: Transnational Feminism and the Transactional Structure of Rights

Recalling that discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women in the service of their countries and of humanity. 

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (resolution 34/180) 1981

The irreducible imbrication of all claims to human rights within the force field of global capitalism requires us to rethink the understanding of normativity that is the basis of currently existing human rights discourse. 

Pheng Cheah, Inhuman Conditions (149) 


This paper draws on transnational feminist rhetorical methodologies to trace the rhetorical relationship between women’s rights and the economic imperative that underwrites the project of human rights.[1] This multipart argument turns on several questions: on what and whose terms are gendered rights being determined and made normative? How does that normative discourse contribute to the operations of power that both construct and undermine women as rights-bearing and rights-claiming subjects throughout the world?[2] And, foundational to these questions: how are different kinds of violence recognized (or not) as legal violations

These questions are vital to women’s rights as human rights in particular because until about the mid-nineties, despite the existence of the 1967 Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the UN’s “Decade for Women” from 1975-1985, violence against women was not considered a human rights violation through most of the twentieth century. Instead, gendered violence was framed as “women’s issues” or more problematically, “domestic issues,” categorized outside the purview of the state and saturated by Global North definitions of domesticity, heteronormativity, and gender. These “domestic issues” were, paradoxically, codified as beyond the reach of the state by individual rights, including the right to privacy, which had the unintentional effect of largely removing gendered violence from the legal reach of international human rights law (see Bunch, Sullivan). 

Thus, despite the decades of conversation on women’s rights, the discourses surrounding gendered human rights in legal, rhetorical, and narrative discourses have traditionally addressed gross human rights violations that interrupt the perceived state of normalcy while frequently neglecting less acute but sometimes more pervasive human rights abuses, including women’s rights and gendered rights occurring in the so-called private sphere. As Donna Sullivan argues, “the challenge is not to shift focus away from gross violations of civil and political rights by the state, but, first, to broaden the normative framework to include the abuses suffered by women that do not fit this paradigm” (127). 

In the first half of this article, I start by examining the Greek history of the rhetorics of economy to articulate how deeply intertwined the notion of rights and economy are, not just in terms of how economy founds the language of rights, but also vice versa, in terms of how eudemonia and the language of rights founds Ancient Greek rhetorics of economy. I then trace the economic rhetoric surrounding the mainstream emergence of women’s rights as human rights through discourses operating in the Global North that are widely viewed as historically central to the normative international women’s rights movement, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (hereafter CEDAW) and speeches by Hillary Clinton. This tracing is informed by the robust literature of transnational feminism and transnational feminist rhetorics from the last several decades (for example, see Grewal and Kaplan, Mohanty, Chowdhury, Mahmood, Dingo, Hesford, Lyon, and Yam to name a few). As Rebecca Dingo argues in Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing, rhetorical methodologies help us understand how the rhetoric of women’s rights travels across discursive networks, becoming reframed and coopted to fit development agendas as it mainstreams (2).[3] Taking up this methodology, I offer that the normative discourse of international women’s rights has always been tied to discourses of development and framed in economic terms. As it flowed through rhetorical networks, this hegemonic relationship became the primary justifier of women’s rights as human rights in the transnational mainstream. This first section ends with a reading of the structure of rights that demonstrates the ways in which women’s rights were always already embedded in a transactional economy of rights. 

I am not the first to address the rhetorical relationship of women’s rights to neoliberal economic discourse (see Dingo, Jensen and Hesford, Grewal and Kaplan, Brown and more). For example, in Networking Arguments, Dingo traces this rhetorical logic of predicating women’s rights on economic value and development rhetorics through speeches given by mainstream international spokespersons like the president of the World Bank. Additionally, Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan as well as Wendy Brown offer important critiques of women’s rights and neoliberalism. Building on these and other scholars, I offer a complimentary reading of this networked discourse but framed explicitly through the lens of human rights theory. I suggest that this rhetoric of economic development was not so much coopted by economic justifications as it traveled across rhetorical networks, but rather that the language of rights originated through economic terms steeped in colonial logics, extractive politics, and unequal development structures. In other words, women’s rights as human rights cannot escape the originating premise of the economies of rights—it became part and parcel of the project of women’s rights the moment women’s rights were named human rights. Recognizing this logic as a founding premise in women’s rights as human rights is an important step in understanding how to conduct advocacy, activism, and structural critique from a transnational feminist rhetorics analytic that seeks to expand the notion of women’s rights despite its origins. 

In the second half of the article, then, I turn to narrative and theories in human rights and literature to analyze the ways in which transnational cultural production both legitimates and potentially remakes the normative discourse of what Inderpal Grewal calls the human rights “regime” (Transnational America 1). I argue that Wendy Law-Yone’s novel The Road to Wanting offers a transnational feminist perspective on this underlying logic in the relationship between women’s rights, human rights, and global capital in the sex-trafficking industry.[4] The novel imaginatively depicts a nuanced subject of gendered rights who cannot transcend the normative and gendered hegemonic rhetoric of global capitalism in human rights. However, through depicting a kind of transnational feminist rhetorical solidarity, the novel complicates the economic structure of rights and the tropes of passivity and victimhood that continue to mark the legal discourse of trafficking and gendered rights discourse, even as it does not deny the foundational role that this economic imperative has in women’s rights. Human rights are legitimated by narrative.[5] This article uses a rhetorical methodology to examine how literature as cultural production both constructs and potentially remakes human rights discourse. Ultimately, I argue that the novel offers an alternative model of women’s rights as human rights born out of a feminist solidarity that is formed because of the economy of rights, not in spite of it. 

Economies of Gendered Rights

The term “economy” as it is used in this article comes from the Ancient Greek, οἰκονομία (oikonomía) and is often translated literally as household or estate management based on oikos (household) and nemein, or “management and dispensation” (Leshem 225). What was once a way to describe the relationship between means and ends in household management and eudemonia, or the pursuit of the good life in abundance, has now become a vernacular term largely divorced from the ethical and defined by a transactional framework concerned with the distribution and consumption of goods and services in a framework of scarcity (Leshem 226). However, the Ancient Greek usage is interesting for this argument since it has gendered and political implications: one of the first recorded usages of the root of oikonomía is in a sixth-century poem by Phocylides in which the poet recommends marriage to a woman who has good “oikonomis,” or work ethic (Leshem 227). Perhaps the most enduring relationship that carries forward to the contemporary notion of economies and rights is the connection between the home (including the family as well as slaves), property, and the polis. In fact, the word “estate” in Ancient Greek is oikoi. During Aristotle’s time, the discourse of oikonomía became much more commonplace and extended beyond household or estate management to philosophy and the political sphere so much so that the term came to be used to describe the “rational management” of everything from the marketplace to bodily functions (Leshem 228). This historical trajectory of the term oikonomía/economy has bearing on the argument that follows because it exemplifies not only the ways in which the discourse has foundations in patriarchal systems but also, relatedly, in the notion of estate management, including slave ownership and the heteronormative familial unit that founds the polis, the same building blocks of human rights discourse. I use the language of economies to signal this history as well as the more contemporary transactional definition that signifies the unequal global and transactional movement of media, bodies, knowledge, etc. across borders—what Arjun Appadurai calls global “scapes” (296). To speak of economies, then, is to speak of concepts that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Simultaneously, to speak of the economies of rights in rhetorical terms, then, is to speak of the ways in which human rights have always been understood within systems, rhetorical networks, and mobilizations of local and global capital, a concept that I will elaborate further. 

The epigraphs that frame this argument offer insight into the normative relationship of global economies to women’s rights as it manifests in transnational sex trafficking, and the challenges and potentialities of transnational feminism as an approach to mobilizing women’s rights. The first epigraph is from the preface of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly as an international bill of rights for women. It was entered into force in 1981 and has been ratified by 189 states.[6] This particular passage quoted above from CEDAW’s preamble demonstrates the ways in which the convention is framed by a prefiguring economic premise. Discrimination against women, it argues, damages the ability for women to contribute to the “political, social, economic, and cultural life of their countries,” which in turn damages countries’ “growth and prosperity” (CEDAW). As Donna Sullivan, Charlotte Skeet, and others argue, since the latter half of the twentieth century, this instrumentalization of women’s rights in economic terms has been foundational to the normativity and mobilization of women’s rights, particularly in “developing” nations or the global south.

This rhetorical move in the preamble that puts women in service to the nation (as opposed to the converse) brings to mind Gina Heathcote’s argument about the ways in which preambles to UN security council resolutions have “deployed feminist-derived messages as a normative weapon” by ignoring the transnational feminist histories, origins, and protests behind the law. What used to be a space to establish the legal antecedents to a current resolution, she argues, became in the 1990s, a space to establish normative groundings through references to “soft law” like the Beijing Platform to Action and other “non-legal text that invokes values, agendas, and justifications for the resolution” (Heathcote). The preamble therefore now functions more like a rhetorical premise without exposition that generates its own exigence by flattening the history of localized feminist activism and presenting the current opportune moment in ways that do not align with the diverse “temporal and geographical range of transnational feminist activism, which…is the true preamble to women, peace, and security” (Heathcote). Under this logic, the preamble to CEDAW can be viewed as a premise that (re)calls a referential past into being. In calling into being the conditions against which the convention is working, it actually establishes and solidifies the normativity of those conditions of violence while simultaneously inaugurating them as a violation. In this case, the particular quoted section of the preamble articulates the ways in which “discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity,” establishing the context of the violence, gendered discrimination, as a violation of human dignity. In the same moment, it establishes that violation as an “obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries” that “hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family” (emphasis mine). In other words, women’s full development and potentialities are always already “in the service of their countries and of humanity” such that if discrimination against women prevents their full participation in the economies and development of their nation, then rights must be granted for the prosperous good of society, the nation, and therefore of humanity. Even as the preamble to CEDAW establishes gendered discrimination as not only violence, but also a violation, it does so via its relationship to economic development of the nation. 

This reading of the epigraph from CEDAW provides rhetorical context for the normative discourse of women’s rights as it is exemplified by one of the most neoliberal spokespersons for women’s rights as human rights: Hillary Clinton. I examine Clinton’s speeches during her political career as exemplary of a normative discourse of rights because she was a prominent mainstream voice in the Global North for women’s rights in the late 20th century and early 21st century and because her speeches demonstrate how pervasively the logic underwriting that normativity becomes tied to global capital over time, especially in the networked, mainstream discourses circulating at an international and UN level. 

In 1995, then First Lady Hillary Clinton, in front of thousands at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, declaimed that “women’s rights are human rights.” Although transnational feminist activists had been lobbying for decades for women’s rights, the 1995 Beijing Conference at which Clinton delivered her famous speech is widely recognized as marking the moment in which women’s rights were geopolitically articulated as and recognized as human rights. Clinton’s speech is both pedagogical and performative of the rhetorical framework articulated in CEDAW whereby women’s rights gain legitimacy through their instrumentalized relationship to global capital via alignment with heteronormative familial prosperity and national economic growth. 

Clinton states in her 1995 speech, “What we are learning around the world is that, if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish.” Clinton bases her ethical and logical appeal for women’s rights as human rights by justifying them as in service to the family, and thus the nation. In fact, the Programme of Action published after the first UN International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 articulated a 20-year course of action based upon the relationship between “population, development and individual well-being,” predicating economic well-being on women and their access to family planning, education, and maternal health. By this logic, when women’s rights are violated, all human rights are violated and therefore, women’s rights are (and provide the foundation for) human rights and conversely, human rights are women’s rights. Through this framework, Clinton draws on and mimics existing normative structures of rights as declared in the UDHR. The enthymemic structure of the UDHR, articulated by Joseph Slaughter in Human Rights Inc., slides from “human” to “individual” to “person (before the law)” as it maps onto the bildungsroman enlightenment narrative, forming the family and community as the building blocks of the nation-state. This same logic was taken up by the U.S.’s 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, in which women’s roles were tied explicitly to individual responsibility and then family. As Dingo articulates it, the act “argues that to prepare women for a postindustrial, neoliberal economy” women must be “responsibility caregivers inside the home through the institution of marriage and more productive workers outside the home through paid labor” (5).   

Thus, by 2010, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her remarks at the 15th Anniversary of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) with the statement that “women’s health is essential to the prosperity and opportunity of all, to the stability of families and communities, and the sustainability and development of nations,” she was trafficking in well-traveled discursive territory when she justified women’s rights as human rights for their value to the nation and the economy, not on their own terms. This speech in particular argued that granting women the right to contraceptives and other basic reproductive justice and health contributes positively to population control as well as the basic subsistence level and economic standing of families. In doing so, Clinton draws extensively on the language of economic capital: 

In the Obama Administration, we are convinced in the value of investing in women and girls, and we understand there is a direct line between a woman’s reproductive health and her ability to lead a productive, fulfilling life. And therefore, we believe investing in the potential of women and girls is the smartest investment we can make. It is connected to every problem on everyone’s mind around the world today (emphasis mine). 

In the fifteen years that elapsed between the 1995 Women’s Rights and Human Rights speech and the 2010 ICPD speech that centered women’s interests as an issue of economic development, the function of women within the normative discourse of universal rights widened from the family, to the nation, to the global economy. This rhetorical logic of justifying women’s rights as human rights based not only on their role in the economic prosperity of their families and their nation, but also in neoliberal terms on their role in the global market, echoes the bildungsroman of the UDHR and had by then become normative enough to be rhetorically effective when speaking to an international audience. 

As presidential candidate in 2016, Clinton’s platform was partly predicated on what she called her “historical activism” work on women’s rights. In 2017 at a speech titled “Women’s Role in Peace and Politics” given at the Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, Clinton evolves the narrative that women’s rights are human rights and ups the stakes of the relationship by linking this economic role to securitization. Referencing her 1995 speech she states: “we thought back in the ‘90s that we needed to do more to elevate the rights and opportunities of women and girls on every level—obviously, education and health and economic opportunity, but also to unleash the potential for involvement in ending conflicts, in creating more secure environments for all people to live in and thrive… A rising tide of women’s rights lifts entire nations” (“Women’s Role in Peace and Politics”). Thus, in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century as women’s rights became normative under the heading of human rights – from the 1990s with the advent of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) and the first International Conference on Population and Development (1994) to Clinton’s speeches during the 1995 Beijing platform for action, and subsequent Conference on Population and Development (2010) to the Millennium Development Goals and current Sustainable Development Goals— the logic underwriting women’s rights was always already tied to and predicated on economics. 

The second epigraph for this argument is a passage from Pheng Cheah’s Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights that theorizes this fundamental grounding of human rights in global capitalism. As Cheah argues, “Globalization touches the core of what it means to be human” (“Humanity” 1552), because discourses of rights are always already “contaminated” by global capital (Inhuman Conditions 146). Therefore, in order for the subject to be recognized as a person before the law within the global capitalist regime out of which rights emerge, the subject must be legible economically—this becomes the foundation for the concept of a person before the law. In fact, “contamination” might not even be the most appropriate word since this implies an uncontaminated form of rights that predates this economic structure when it is established that the individual foundations of human rights and legal personhood were designed first to protect the exploitative practices of the transnational corporation Dutch East India Trading Company. As Slaughter argues, “The ‘human’ of human rights is not simply given…Historically, the legal category of ‘person’ precedes the ‘human’ of human rights; juridically, the legal category of the ‘person’ carries certain rights and duties that precede the individual, that (perhaps) await activation in – or occupation by – the human” (“However incompletely” 275). We know that corporations have legal personhood, but Slaughter’s argument points out that the colonial charter and transnational corporations like the Dutch East India Company were granted legal personhood as subjects of rights well before people were and well before what we now know as human rights came into being. In other words, “corporations, and especially the colonial charter companies, were recognized as international persons in advance of the human beings they ostensibly served” (“However incompletely” 280). Thus, the foundations of rights as attached to sovereign individuals outside of exploitative capitalist structures is a convenient fiction perpetuated by the UDHR and subsequent legal frameworks. However, this is not to say that these discourses are unsalvageable. 

Women’s rights as human rights comes of age in the latter half of the twentieth century and the first few decades of the twenty-first century within normative discourses of human rights by assuming a legal personhood predicated on a fictional liberal notion of the ideal sovereign subject. In reality, this legal category of personhood that is tied already to neoliberal global economic structures and humanitarian aid, while perpetuating this fiction by ostensibly working toward an ideal of sovereign subjectivity, in fact undermines this fiction through the unequal structure of rights.[7] In this equation, as Cheah defines it, the Global South functions as participants in the global capitalist system through their response to the Global North’s model by calling upon global capitalism as the vehicle for development and seeking to compete on the North’s grounds, in particular through NGOs (Inhuman Conditions 166). Ironically then, despite the fact that the rights of the disenfranchised in the Global South are used as justification both for and against economic development (in the case of sanctions as penalties for rights abuses), as Cheah says “it is the disenfranchised who are caught in the aporetic embrace between a predatory international capitalism and an indigenous capitalism seeking to internationalize” (Inhuman Conditions 164). 

This economy of rights perpetuates the unequal structure of rights and white saviorism, including what Gayatri Spivak refers to as “white men saving brown women from brown men” (“Can the Subaltern” 93), what Makau Mutua calls the “savage victim savior model” (201), and what has come to be known as the “white savior industrial complex” (originally coined by Teju Cole in The Atlantic in 2012). As Mutua argues, human rights are deployed and humanitarian aid mobilized through an operational and “damning” metaphor of savages, victims, and saviors (hereafter SVS metaphor). In this metaphor “the predominant image of the savage…is that of a Third World, non-European person, cultural practice, or state” (216). Culture itself, Mutua argues, is ultimately figured as the savage and Global North NGOs, academics, and governmental aid organizations are figured as saviors who must step in to save victims from their own savage culture (220-221). The treatment of women and children in particular is utilized as evidence for the savagery of the culture and thus justification for intervention on humanitarian terms by the Global North. For example veiling in Iraq and Afghanistan, rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and sex trafficking in South Asia have all been used as humanitarian justifications for interventionist and political ends.[8] Of course, this is not to deny the very real violence and disenfranchisement perpetuated by the state in these circumstances, but read alongside Mutua’s metaphor, one can see the ways in which violence against women and children in these contexts is capitalized on as a justification and cover for alternate interventionist reasons that carries forward colonial histories.[9] As Elora Halim Chowdhury argues, Mutua’s SVS metaphor and this structure of rights “helps us understand the discourse of human rights as a space for the systemic creation of concepts, theories, and practices that reinscribe inequalities even after the dismantling of formal domination with the end of colonial rule” (xvii). While this SVS metaphor of rights that feeds the structure of rights and the white savior complex might be best framed within the context of humanitarianism rather than human rights politics, I argue that in fact it suggests the instrumentalization of human rights as a value of exchange that establishes fixed subject positions on both sides with gendered implications. 

This section has demonstrated the multiple ways in which economies underwrite women’s rights as human rights as a rhetorical justification and “original contamination” (Cheah) as well as the ways in which that logic is predicated on gendered notions of subjectivity tied to problematic heteronormativity and Enlightenment fictions of personhood and sovereignty. It also identified the economic structure of rights in which the Global North, the Global South, and NGOs trade on rights discourses, capital, and, as I further exemplify, gendered bodies. Thus, to return to the guiding question of on what and whose terms are women’s rights being determined and made normative, then, it follows that this normativity rests in no small part on the rhetorical premise that women’s rights are just good economic development and securitization policy.

Therefore, given that the normative discourse of women’s rights cannot deny its emergence out of and location within global capitalism and economies of rights, then it follows that it is important to interrogate the limits and possibilities of that normative discourse in gendered terms for the most precarious and vulnerable. As Cheah reminds us, we must ask, “not…whether universal human rights exist…Instead we should focus on the nature and limits of the normative claims being made by various actors…when they appeal to human rights within the theoretical framework of established human rights discourse” (Inhuman Conditions 148). In the following section, I situate this conversation within coming-of-age fiction emerging out of the discourse surrounding sex-trafficking and alongside a discourse of women’s rights that is always already embedded in neoliberal economies in order to articulate some of the limits and affordances of the economies of gendered rights. I turn to the literary form of the bildungsroman here because it is both pedagogical and performative of a subject of rights that cannot transcend the hegemony of global capitalism as it mimics the narrative arc of the UDHR. If the discourse of rights is both pedagogical and performative, then the literature that emerges from that discourse is also pedagogical and performative. In this case, the fiction provides a space beyond the law to imagine the potentials of feminist solidarity within this transactional economy of rights. I argue in the following section that Law-Yone’s novel constructs a nuanced and complex subject of rights that re-envisions transnational feminist solidary not just in spite of, but rather because of the economies of rights.

The Road to Wanting, Economies of Rights and the Human Rights Industrial Complex

“Ready at last. I am not afraid” begins The Road to Wanting by exiled Burmese novelist Wendy Law-Yone. The book opens as the main character, Na Ga, prepares herself for suicide while waiting in the fictional frontier town of Wanting on the Chinese side of the Chinese-Burma border for her handler to smuggle her back across to Burma.[10] The novel is structured as a series of flashbacks while Na Ga is waiting in Wanting. The present tense of the novel finds her discarded by her American erstwhile savior and lover, Will, who, after rescuing her from a refugee camp in Thailand where she was being held with other sex workers, has sent her back to Burma via China when he decides to marry an American woman. The Road to Wanting depicts the relationship of the gendered subject of rights to the larger forces of global capitalism via the economic imperative that underwrites those gendered rights. I argue that the text remakes the normative victim narrative surrounding sex trafficking and sex work that often perpetuates a global, gendered, transactional economy of rights predicated on a humanitarian “giver” of rights and an agent-less “receiver” of rights (Spivak, “Righting Wrongs”) and in doing so, ultimately offers a form of transnational feminist solidarity that mobilizes economies of gendered rights. 

The Road to Wanting portrays the sex-trafficking triangle between Myanmar, China, and Thailand in the latter half of the twentieth century, during the time that Myanmar was under control of the military Junta. I examine the novel for the ways it takes up yet resists normative narratives surrounding the conditions of sex trafficking and sex work and the ways it depicts the economic imperative that underwrites gendered rights. However, the text complicates the narrative of passivity and victimhood that the legal discourse of sex trafficking too often requires. Instead, it mobilizes a model of transnational feminist solidarity, albeit ambivalently as it leaves this promise open-ended. It critiques the human rights industrial complex and the narratives of victimization in sex trafficking by taking into account the complexities of gendered rights that are always already underwritten by neoliberalism, rather than trying to work against this embeddedness. Said differently, I argue that Law-Yone’s novel offers a model of transnational feminist solidarity within the economic imperative underscoring women’s rights as human rights, and an agency that accounts for its founding logic in the economies of human rights. I do not mean to imply here that The Road to Wanting serves only as an allegory for the ways in which human rights are embedded in global economic structures and the narratives of victimhood surrounding the global sex trade. I do mean to argue that as a text originally written in English coming out of normative discourses, Law-Yone’s narrative at once participates in this normativity while simultaneously speaking back to it. As such, rather than being allegorical, the text is performative and pedagogical. In this way, I echo Leslie Bow’s materialist reading of Law-Yone’s other fictional work when she argues it “suggests a fictive solution to an ongoing historical conflict in Burma” (“The Gendered Subject of Human Rights” 41). 

Wendy Law-Yone has described The Road to Wanting as a novel about a young woman who moves from tribal existence to modernity within the course of a lifetime (“Beyond Rangoon” 194). As a bildungsroman—the enabling fiction for human rights discourse according to Slaughter—the novel’s chronology traces Na Ga’s coming-of-age from her childhood in a fictional, minority “hill” community called the “Wild Lu” through her experiences of being trafficked into Thailand to her decision to return to her hill community at the end of the novel. Throughout much of this movement, Na Ga is defined in economic terms and by her lack of agency. The novel’s title and central metaphor have Na Ga constantly wanting or desiring rather than acting or doing. She is first trafficked when she is sold by her parents to an abusive village-headman’s wife. The sale is meant to ensure Na Ga’s survival in the dire economic circumstances of her indigenous community partly caused by the trade sanctions imposed by the Global North. After this experience she is taken to the capital where she serves an American family who treats her like a second daughter. This section of the narrative is defined by her desire to join the family when they return to America. After the family flees back to the US following a nationalist Junta crackdown, the narrative describes Na Ga wanting to leave her work in a rural factory. It is the desire to leave that leads to her being trafficked by a broker to Thailand and into sex work. Eventually she is given a “pink slip” with her freedom, but the novel implies that Na Ga remains in the industry before being detained in a police raid. She is taken by the police to a relocation and repatriation camp on the Burmese border, arguably a kind of sanctioned trafficking itself, where she is once again “rescued,” this time by Will, an American who works for the International Committee for Repatriation (ICR). Will fetishizes Na Ga because she is an indigenous “Wild Lu.” The narrative describes her feeling pressured into leaving with him and “blindly” signing the release papers. As her sponsor, Will removes her to Bangkok where she serves for ten years as his companion and lover. Many of the flashbacks describe Na Ga wanting her American savior Will to not leave her and marry his American girlfriend, wanting to commit suicide in China, and finally, wanting to leave Wanting. Na Ga’s most active decisions as a character lead to a scene in a restaurant when she steals a baby in an attempt to make Will stay with her and, finally, when she returns to Burma. 

The narrative of the passive victim has come to define the discourse of sex-trafficking, particularly in the overlap between the economic and the moral. As Wendy Hesford, Juliette Hua and Holly Nigorizawa, and others argue, this narrative draws from and mobilizes a kind of problematic feminism predicated upon universalizing women (particularly third-world women) as oppressed and exploited victims needing to be rescued from all sex work, even consensual sex work (Hesford, “Kairos” 147), or conversely, as individualized and essentialized within certain “backward” cultural contexts (Hua and Nigorizawa 404), neatly setting up the SVS metaphor. Thus, since women are considered the lynch pin for familial, national, and global economic success, they also become the subject (and the site) to be freed and saved by those with rights from the trappings of what is seen as backwards, patriarchal culture. As Hesford argues, the politics of representation in antitrafficking campaigns is predicated on victimization narratives that garner “sympathetic visibility” for the women and children who are represented as “objects to be seen and then rescued” (Spectacular Rhetorics 126-130). I argue that the novel resists this narrative of passivity and victimhood surrounding global sex work. However, rather than replace it with an agentic narrative that suggests an individual sovereignty, personhood, and the ability to resist the economic structures that govern not only the industry, but also the rights discourse that protect women from it, the text instead draws attention to the ways in which Na Ga is trapped on both ends as a pawn in transnational global economies of sex work and rights. 

When Na Ga’s brothel is raided in Thailand she is taken with several women to the border of Thailand and Myanmar while the women await deportation and repatriation— sometimes to a worse fate than that which they left. The women recognize the ways in which the label of “victim” by international aid organizations and human rights instruments strip them of agency: 

“Names!” Thaya yawned. “I used to think names were important. But if you worry about names in a place like this, you’ll end up in a lunatic asylum…Are we DPs, displaced persons? Or are we just common refugees? Or are we IDPs, the internally displaced? Are we IIs, illegal immigrants – or LMWs, legal migrant workers? Or are we, God forbid, TVs – trafficking victims?” 

“Well, why don’t they just call us what we are?” said another voice from further down the bamboo platform. “Whore 24681, Whore 24682 and so on?” (163) 

These legal descriptors that define subjectivity echo Hannah Arendt’s description of the fundamental paradox of the stateless in which arrest by the state actually grants subjects more rights as a person before the law (286). The women recognize their liminal positionality within the economic structure of rights and legal discourse better than any of those offering aid might. It is not surprising that they describe trafficking victim as the worst legal status even though that should be the designator that receives the most aid. This disconnect between the legal instruments of rights and the actual practice of promoting and claiming rights leads Upendra Baxi to the conclusion that “the violated peoples know, in their lived and embodied experience, the ways in which the reality of their suffering remains unnamable,” and “the many ways in which the concreteness of their everyday suffering remains unrelated to human rights texts” (8). Baxi’s argument that the “moral” language of rights is exhausted aligns with my larger claim here that to deny that the discourse of rights operates within a neoliberal human rights marketplace where multinational corporations are considered human and where the state is in the business of protecting capital rather than rights, is to ignore the reality of rights. 

Part of the complexity of the discourse surrounding sex work and transnational sex trafficking is that categorizing women as victims in all sex work, even consensual sex work, has the double effect of universalizing women across the world under the category of exploitation based upon sex. While antitrafficking campaigns capitalize upon and construct this universalization so that even legal prostitution or self-employed, online porn content creators become something to save women from, ultimately, this construct flattens the contextuality and complexity of women’s localized lives, depicts them as “radically naïve” (Hesford, Spectacular 130), and reduces their ability for agency within exploitative systems, which is always contextual and subject to localized structures of power.[11]
This is akin to the universalizing gestures of western feminism under the oppressions of patriarchy regardless of local operations of power and constructions of gender, and it “does not account for how the economy structures sexual desire and the demand for commercial sex work” (Wilson cited in Hesford, Spectacular 132). The scene in which Na Ga is saved by Will activates the trope in the economy of rights described earlier in which a privileged giver of rights (Will and the humanitarian institution he works for) saves a receiver of rights (Na Ga and the other sex workers), often by attempting to “modernize” them. Will’s infatuation with Na Ga’s indigenous ethnicity illustrates this very dynamic. However, when considered within the context of the arc of the narrative, Law-Yone actually undermines several of these normative discourses. 

Na Ga lives with Will for 10 years, during which she refuses to let him play the role of savior through modernization. For example, when he first sees Na Ga, he begins speaking to her in her indigenous language, a language she doesn’t speak because she was removed from her home village at a young age. When they return to Bangkok together, she insists on continuing to serve him even when they become lovers. She leaves the house as little as possible and turns down opportunities for education, refusing to let him forget the neoliberal interventionist strategy and the transactional structure of rights upon which their relationship is founded. Most disconcerting to Will, however, is that Na Ga reverses the universalizing and objectifying gaze by staring at Will in an attempt to understand “his kind.” At the breakfast table, while he sleeps, and in moments she knows he isn’t watching her, she “studied him as a means of shedding light on the unknowable, unspeakable traits of all men” (178). 

When Will decides he wants to marry his American girlfriend, Helen, Na Ga understands this as a threat to her futurity and stability. In a final conflict, Na Ga tries to embarrass Will for leaving her while he is at dinner with Helen and friends by showing up with a baby-for-hire since Na Ga assumes Will is marrying Helen to have children. The plan backfires spectacularly after Na Ga almost smothers the baby and she fails to generate the crowd’s and the reader’s sympathy. This scene further destabilizes and remakes the narrative of passive victim upon which the savior can project their desires in the rights industrial complex and exposes the instability of her positionality as subaltern within the larger global discourse of rights. 

Shortly after this scene, in a thinly veiled metaphor for the structure of rights, as Na Ga is leaving Thailand for China and ultimately Burma via the smuggler that Will has arranged, Will gives Na Ga a “nest egg” to make up for his guilt in forcing her into the very fate from which he saved her in the first place: “I caught the look on his face as I took it out and counted it. The look of a man who seeks atonement by over-tipping” (14). In counting it, Na Ga is not only drawing attention to the structure of rights but also emphasizing it as the economic transaction that it is. In this scene, Na Ga represents the site upon which the liberalizing versions of western feminism and the problematic structure of rights in terms of neo-imperial interventionist strategies converge.

Transnational Feminist Solidarity and Economies of Rights

The previous section demonstrated the ways in which The Road to Wanting offers a recognition of the structure of rights and the refusal of the passive “victim” of rights in an economy of rights that, although purporting to do good, perpetuates the disenfranchisement of the vulnerable. In this section I argue that the novel also offers a version of transnational feminist solidarity that is not mobilized by universalizing rights discourses nor does it deny the economic foundations of women’s rights as human rights. Instead, Law-Yone offers a version of transnational solidarity through feminist sisterhood that mobilizes economies of gendered rights in service to the most vulnerable.

According to Tamara Ho, Law-Yone is the first exiled Burmese author to write in English and thus, “introduced into the Anglophone literary frame Burmese immigrant characters who negotiate language as a tool of oppression and as a means of resistance” (666). In The Road to Wanting, however, Law-Yone uses language less as a means of direct resistance for her characters and more metatextually as a means of slippage, drawing attention to the relationship between the subject and the structures that construct and confine that subject. Although the book is written in English it is unclear what language the narrative voice speaks.[12]
The fluidity of meaning as it relates to language leads to some of the more entertaining and insightful passages that describe failed communications in Burmese, Chinese, English, and Thai. For example, Na Ga thinks how strange the term “nest egg” is: “(Now there’s a term that’s never made sense. How is it that the same word can mean ‘savings’ as well as ‘tricking,’ for doesn’t a nest egg, in English, also mean a trick egg, a lure for a hen to come and lay more eggs in that selfsame nest?)” (13). The English language is depicted throughout as a tricky and ambiguous construct in which the very thing that it provides is, at the same time, a farce. In fact, Minzu, Na Ga’s friend in Wanting and the person who saves her from killing herself at the start of the novel, calls English “Anguish” throughout. This reference to multiple meanings of nest egg also serves as an unmistakable metaphor for the ways in which human rights discourse and global capital functions, in that often what is actually being traded doesn’t tangibly exist, but can still function as a lure for further investment. It also depicts the challenges of translation across borders, not only between languages as Na Ga navigates her translingualism, but also in the ways in which the normative discourse of rights gets translated not just linguistically but also in different discursive locations and across different global markets. While the language of global capital and human rights as represented by English attempts to regulate, control, manage, and make stable, the language of the novel attempts to destabilize, disrupt, deregulate, and make fluid by pointing to moments in which meaning is not fixed, especially in English.[13]

After an exchange with a male desk clerk that Na Ga can’t understand, a young girl Minzu who also works at the hotel addresses Na Ga as “big sister” (Ma Ma) and Na Ga understands her perfectly: “‘Ma Ma! Where you go? I worry. I bring you tea…you not there’” (49). It is through Minzu’s hailing and recognition of Na Ga as “big sister” that the foundation is formed for the possibility of a transnational feminist solidarity. The juxtaposition of the male clerk, who remains unintelligible to Na Ga and the reader, with Minzu the young girl employee, who Na Ga and the reader understand implicitly, suggests that this solidarity is predicated on being understood as an intelligible transnational subject.

Naming is a device that Law-Yone uses to express the relationship of subjects to language and the larger forces of both national and global discourses. For example, Na Ga stays in “The Friendship Hotel” in “Wanting” China. Na Ga’s name means something ostensibly insignificant—when pronounced as Nah Gah it means “ears-that-stick-out,” and when pronounced N’gah it means “the serpent-dragon” (60)—however the name Na Ga is symbolic for its lack of meaning. According to the fictional indigenous Lu tradition, a person does not find out their “real” name until they are old enough to have it drawn out of a name seed by their mother. Since Na Ga was sold by her family at a young age, she was never told her real name and so goes by a provisional one that is effectively meaningless. This no-name is symbolic of subaltern positionality.[14]

 It is the disenfranchised that are most affected by the embeddedness of rights within a discourse of global capital, often because it forces them to mobilize under a heading of collective identity that is constructed as outside of or against capitalism. This collective identity only gains epistemological purchase based upon an assumption about the preexisting indigenous subject, which paradoxically must be performed anew as one recognized by rights discourse (Cheah 172). Na Ga, however, suggests that this solidarity can be gained through transnational sisterhood. If the normative discourse in which CEDAW is embedded posits a heteronormative notion of the nuclear family, then Na Ga remakes this notion through her relationship with Minzu. The name Minzu can be loosely translated into “ethnic group” in Chinese. The relationship between Minzu and Na Ga represents a sisterhood that is not tied to normative national discourses on either side of their transnational solidarity. Structurally, the key moments and flashbacks in the novel that propel Na Ga through the coming-of-age narrative are framed by positive encounters with Minzu. For example, Minzu interrupts Na Ga’s suicide attempt, she enables Na Ga to have her first deep sleep in a long time, which signals a turning point in Na Ga’s decision to return home, and she takes Na Ga swimming where Na Ga finally feels healed of her many wounds. It is in her discussions with Minzu that Na Ga finally finds the kinship that she has been desiring that is equal in its transactional nature. 

In a twist towards the end of the novel, the reader comes to understand that Law-Yone has named the Wild Lu after the Burmese word for human. This link becomes explicit at the very moment in which Na Ga finally claims her heritage as Lu and decides to return home to Burma. At the end of the novel, Na Ga receives a posthumous note from her trafficking handler confessing his identity as also Lu. When alive, Mr. Jiang had denied his Lu identity in the face of discrimination and subordinated it to the larger cause of the insurgency against the Burmese state. Mr. Jiang’s confession that they are of the same people, the Lu, prompts Na Ga to claim her indigenous identity but in relation to the larger construct of what it means to be human within a structure of rights:

“Mr Jiang…is a Lu!” I howl.

Minzu says, “A Lu…yes, indeed.”

“No! A Lu!” I am shouting to be understood, to emphasize the right tone, not 

the tone for the same word that means ‘human being’ in Burmese. “I mean a Wild Lu!”

“A Lu. A Wild Lu.” She is still using the tone for ‘human being’, but I know it 

is only her accent now, I know she follows my meaning. 

“But I, too…” I am beating my chest to make sure she understands – beating it too, to stop myself tearing out my hair. “I, too, am a Lu! I am a Lu! I am a Wild Lu…and I didn’t know another Lu in front of my face!” (245) 

The confusion in the pronunciation of the fictional ethnic identity of Lu with the Burmese word for human being is in keeping with the actual meaning of Lu in Burmese. Lu is widely translated in Burmese to mean human or human being. What Na Ga is grieving here is not the fact that she didn’t recognize Mr. Jiang’s ethnic identity, but that she didn’t recognize his humanity in relation to her own. If we re-read the passage by inserting “human” into the place of “Lu,” the passage takes on a radically different meaning. This textual moment in which the universal human subject is conflated with the individual and indigenous subject is also a conflation between solidarity rights (both gendered and indigenous) and individual rights.

The final scene of the novel depicts Na Ga crossing the Chinese/Burmese border. Minzu tries to come with her, calling to Na Ga in the liminal space between the two borders: 

“But who will look after you?” she says, sounding quietly practical now. I point in the direction of the Mizo and the Shan. “They will.”

“No, I mean like a…like a…sister.”

“You will,” I say. “But first you have to learn English, or better Burmese, so we can write to each other. Or I have to learn Chinese. What do you think is best?”

She considers this seriously, then says, “Anguish.”

“Minzu, I have to go now. I have to go.”

“But you’ll come back, Ma Ma?”

I mustn’t lie to her, I mustn’t make any promises I can’t keep. (261)

The final lines of the novel depict Na Ga and Minzu attempting to communicate but not quite connecting “Never mind…I am trying to mouth the words and semaphore at the same time. I’ll tell you later! Then I turn and cross the line” (261). 

The solidarity between Minzu and Na Ga signifies a friendship and sisterhood that belongs in the liminal space—it is not tied to normative national discourses nor is it a kind of sisterhood that is founded upon a kind of second-wave, global feminist, liberatory discourse that ignores the structural inequities involved in any kind of border crossing. Rather, it is predicated upon a promise of transnational solidarity that may never be realized. It is akin to the notion of friendship articulated by Chowdhury and Philipose in Dissident Friendships: Feminism, Imperialism, and Transnational Solidarity wherein “to get to friendship, we would have to unravel our assumptions and clear the colonial and racial debris from our perceptual apparatus to see intimately and to become personal” so that “in friendship, then, is our resistance to the divisive and fragmenting lies of structural power; the seeds of global compassion, generosity, empathy and love; and the foundation of a world that works on behalf of life” (3). This notion of transnational solidarity also echoes Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s concept of transnational feminism as something that is defined by “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities…feminist solidarity as defined here constitutes the most principled way to cross borders” (Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders 7). However, Minzu and Na Ga also remake Mohanty’s definition of feminist solidarity since theirs works within the framework of global capital while Mohanty’s is fundamentally opposed to capitalism. Although a solidarity that operates outside of global capitalist structures is the utopian ideal, Na Ga’s friendship with Minzu in the most unlikely of locations suggests that transnational feminism must not ignore the economies of rights if it is to also promote human rights. 

The novel represents a nuanced and complex subject of rights: one who at first seems only recognizable within the structures of neoliberal globalization and human trafficking, but who ultimately finds a kind of transnational feminist solidarity that complicates the economies of rights through gendered solidarity. At the end of the novel, standing between borders, the main character Na Ga turns toward Burma and her indigenous subjectivity while still keeping open the promise of transnational solidarity predicated upon a poststructuralist feminist promise. Leaving open this communication with the promise of the future recalls Wendy Brown’s suggestion that feminism should be predicated upon “[a] utopian imaginary that has no certainty about its prospects or even about the means and vehicles of its realization” (“Feminism Unbound” 115). It is this promise that can underwrite the discourse of women’s rights as human rights as they are embedded in and intertwined with global capital. Because “gender…cannot be liberated in the classical sense, and the powers constituting and regulating it cannot be seized and inverted or abolished” (Brown 112), both the feminist movement and human rights discourses, as discourses of critique and activism simultaneously, are both mourning a revolutionary promise predicated on an Enlightenment logic that never really existed. Recognizing the ways in which both discourses are always already embedded within and constructed by global capitalist structures of power that are subjugating is useful since it realigns the goal paradoxically toward a pragmatic normativity that cannot exit outside of the economy of rights. 


Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Theory, Culture & Society. vol. 7, 1990, 295-310.  

Arendt, Hannah. “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man.” The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951. 266-298.

Baxi, Upendra. The Future of Human Rights. Oxford U.P., 2006. 

Bow, Leslie. “The Gendered Subject of Human Rights: Asian American Literature as Postcolonial Intervention.” Cultural Critique. No 41, 1999, 37-78. 

Bow, Leslie. “Beyond Rangoon: An Interview with Wendy Law-Yone.” MELUS, vol. 27, no. 4, Dec. 2002, 183.

Brown, Wendy. “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics.” Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton U.P., 2005. 98-115.

Brown, Wendy. “Human Rights and the Politics of Fatalism.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, No. 2/3, Spring/Summer, 2004. 451-463. 

Bunch, Charlotte. “Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Toward a Re-Vision of Human Rights.” Human Rights Quarterly 12. 4 (1990): 486-498.

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” The Atlantic, March 21, 2012.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (resolution 34/180) 1981.

Cheah, Pheng. Inhuman Conditions: On Cosmopolitanism and Human RightsHarvard U.P., 2006.

–. “Humanity in the Field of Instrumentality.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 5, 2006, 1552-1557. 

Chowdhury, Elora Halim. Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing Against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh. SUNY Press, 2011. 

Chowdhury, Elora Halim and Liz Philipose. Dissident Friendships: Feminism Imperialism, and Transnational Solidarity. U of Illinois P. 2016. 

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” The Promise of AmericaEd. S. Borrowman and E. White. Pearson, 2001. 

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. “Remarks on the 15th Anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development.” 2010. 

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. “Women’s Role in Peace and Politics.” Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. 2017

Dingo, Rebecca. Networking Arguments: Rhetoric, Transnational Feminism, and Public Policy Writing. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012. 

Dingo, Rebecca and J. Blake Scott. “Introduction.” The Megarhetorics of Global Development. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012. 

Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms. Duke U.P. 2005.

–. “‘Women’s Rights as Human Rights’: Feminist Practices, Global Feminism, and Human Rights Regimes in Transnationality.” Citizenship Studies, vol. 3, no. 3, Nov. 1999, 337–54.

Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan. Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. U of Minnesota Press, 1994. 

Goldberg, Elizabeth Swanson and Alexandra S Moore. Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature. Routledge, 2012.

Hesford, Wendy S. Violent Exceptions: Children’s Human Rights and Humanitarian RhetoricsOhio State U.P, 2021.

–. Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, FeminismsDuke UP, 2011.

–. “Kairos and the Geopolitical Rhetorics of Global Sex Work and Video Advocacy.” Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Ed by Hesford, Wendy and Kozol, Wendy. Rutgers University Press, 2005. 146-172.

Hesford, Wendy and Kozol, Wendy. “Introduction.” Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation. Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Heathcote, Gina “Protesting the Preamble: the UN Security Council and the dilution of feminist activism.” OpenGlobalRights. August 19, 2020.

Ho, Tamara. “Representing Burma: Narrative Displacement and Gender.” PMLA, vol 126, no. 3, 2011, 662-671. 

Hua, Julietta and Holly Nigorizawa. “US Sex Trafficking, Women’s Human Rights and the  Politics of Representation.” International Feminist Journal of Politics. vol. 12, no. 3-4, 2010, 401-423.

Jensen, Tim and Wendy Hesford. “Staging the Beijing Olympics: Intersecting Human Rights and Economic Development Narratives.” Eds. Rebecca Dingo and J. Blake Scott. The Megarhetorics of Global Development. U Pittsburgh Press, 2012, 121-146.  

Leshem, Dotan. “Retrospectives: What Did the Ancient Greeks Mean by ‘Oikonomia?’” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 30, no. 1, Jan. 2016, 225–38.

Law-Yone, Wendy. The Road to Wanting. Vintage Books, 2010.

Lyon, Arabella. Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric, and Rights. Pennsylvania State UP, 2013.

Mahmood, Saba. The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2005. 

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke U.P., 2003.

–. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Third World Women  and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Indiana U.P., 1991, 61-88.

Mutua, Makau. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal, vol. 42, no. 1, 2001, 201-245.

Oliver, Kelly. Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. U. of Minnesota P. 2017.

Parikh, Crystal. The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature. Cambridge UP, 2019.

Schaffer, Kay and Sidone Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of RecognitionPalgrave MacMillan, 2004.

 Slaughter, Joseph. Human Rights, Inc: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law. Fordham U.P., 2007.

–. “However incompletely, human.” The Meanings of Rights: The Political and Social Theory of Human Rights. Eds. Costas Douzinas and Conor Gearty. Cambridge U.P, 2014, 272-297.  

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Righting Wrongs.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2/3, 2004, 523-581.

–. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Harvester, 1993.

Sullivan, Donna. “The Public/Private Distinction in International Human Rights Law.” Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. Eds. Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper. Routledge, 1995, 126-134. 

Skeet, Charlotte. “Globalization of Women’s Rights Norms: The Right to Manifest Religion and ‘Orientalism’ in the Council of Europe.” Public Space: The Journal of Law and Social Justice. vol. 4, 2009, 34-73. 

Thurlow, Crispin. “Speaking of Difference: Language, Inequality and Interculturality.” The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication. Eds. Thomas K. Nakayama and Rona Tamiko Halualani. Blackwell, 2010.

United Nations Programme of Action A/CONF.171/13/Rev.1

Yam, Shui-Yin Sharon. Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship. Ohio State UP, 2019.


 [1] I use the term transnational because it designates the very literal crossing of borders without evacuating the political and economic.

 [2] As Wendy Brown articulates it, if human rights “reduce suffering, what kinds of subjects and political (or antipolitical) cultures do they bring into being as they do so, what kinds do they transform or erode, and what kinds do they aver?” (“Human Rights” 453).

 [3] See also Rebecca Dingo’s and J. Blake Scott’s Introduction to The Megarhetorics of Global Development for an articulate discussion of why rhetorical methodologies are so important for critiquing the normative and hegemonic doxa of discourses like human rights by “examining the vectors of power that can be found in the contexts behind these rhetorics” (2).

[4] This novel, published in 2010, was written prior to Myanmar opening to global trade and relations after the Military Junta relinquished power and therefore prior to the mass atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya. Although this article focuses more specifically on a different kind of gendered violence in the region, that context is ever present in my reading of the structure of rights.

[5] See Joseph Slaughter’s Human Rights Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law for more on this legitimating link between human rights and narrative. For more on the relationship between human rights narrative circulation, see Kay Schaffer and Sidone Smith’s Human Rights and Narrated Lives. For more on the conversation on human rights and literature see Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg and Alexandra S. Moore’s edited collection Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature and Crystal Parikh’s edited collection The Cambridge Companion to Human Rights and Literature.

[6] The US is a signatory, but has still not ratified CEDAW, although this does not stop the U.S.’s mobilization of women’s rights language in service to its own economic and international relations ends.

[7] I use the term “structure of rights” following Gayatri Spivak’s argument in “Righting Wrongs” (2004).

[8] See Kelly Oliver’s Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention and Wendy Hesford’s and Wendy Kozol’s Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation for articulations of human rights and women’s rights as an alibi for military and humanitarian intervention, as well as Wendy Hesford’s Violent Exceptions: Children’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Rhetorics, which details the ways in which children are deployed as vulnerable subjects to justify humanitarian intervention.

 [9] It is worth noting here that it is particularly women’s rights and children’s rights that tend to activate the Global North’s humanitarian response as alibi for interventionist tactics, rather than gendered rights, including transgender rights and LGBTQIA+ rights.

[10] I refer throughout this project to both Myanmar and Burma interchangeably, utilizing Myanmar when referring to contemporary events and Burma as it is described in the novel since that is the language that the novel utilizes. 

 [11] In the case of trafficking, as Hesford argues, the transnational mobilization of this discourse also creates strange bedfellows of transnational feminists and international women’s rights activists with anti-immigrationists and anti- sex-worker, anti-pornography advocates (Spectacular 125)

[12] Often Na Ga clarifies when her dialogue is in English and/or Burmese making the reader question what language her narrative voice speaks.

[13] As Crispin Thurlow argues, not only is English the standard language of business and transnational corporations, but it is also used as an instrument of regulation for “evaluating, controlling and managing not just ‘products’ but also the people who ‘make’ them” (6). Thurlow uses the examples of call centers in which workers are “policed into particular ways of speaking” (6).

 [14] The indigenous group to which Na Ga belongs is intended to represent the smallest minority group in Burma. Law-Yone is clear that she based the fictional Lu on a real Burmese minority group called the Wa, but chose to construct a fictional tribe rather than name the Wa. Law-Yone says, “I don’t name the Wa in my novel; I don’t want to appropriate a culture. I want to respect it; I want to use it as a template” (Bow “Beyond Rangoon” 194).

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

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

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

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

Contextualizing the TMSG  

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoricizing Meeting Minutes  

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

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

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

Inventing Club Identity and Values 

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Counterpublic Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privileging Local Civil Rights History 

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating Rhetorical Situations  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Rhetorically  

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

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

Works Cited 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Feminist Methodological and Theoretical Frames 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Mentoring as Starting Point 

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

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

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

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

Reflective Practice from Feminist Locations 

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

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

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

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

Reflection Toward Coalition, Persistence and Power   

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

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

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

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

She continued:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Moments for Agentive Practice and Perspective 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Our Conversations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited 

 Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, Duke University Press, 2017. 

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 2012.  

Blair, Kristine L., and Lee Nickosen. “Introduction: Researching and Teaching Community as a Feminist Intervention.” Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis, edited by Kristine L. Blair and Lee Nickosen, UP of Colorado, 2018, 17. 13-17.

Boris, Eileen, and Annalise Orleck. “Feminism and the Labor Movement: A Century of Collaboraiton and Conflict.” New Labor Forum: A Journal of Ideas, Analysis and Debate, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, 2011, n.p.  

Combahee River Collective Statement: Black Feminist Organizing in the Seventies and Eighties. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1986. 

Concannon, Kelly et al.. “Crafting Partnerships: Exploring Student-Led Feminist Strategies for Community Literacy Projects.” Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis, edited by Kristine L. Blair and Lee Nickosen, UP, 2018, 73. 155-73.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. W. “Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-discrimination Doctrine, Feminist theory, and Anti-racist Politics.” 1989. Framing Intersectionality: Debates on a Multi-Faceted Concept in Gender Studies, edited by Linda Supik et al., Taylor and Francis, 2012, pp., 25–42. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315582924-10 

Davis, Angela. Women, Race and Class. New York Random House, 1981.  

Dixon, Elise Page. Making as World Making: What the Lesbian Avengers can Teach about Communcal Composing, Agency, and World Building. 2020. Michigan State University, PhD Dissertation.  

Ebert, Teresa. Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire and Labor in Late Capitalism. U of Michigan P, 1996.  

Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. PM Press, 2012.  

Federici, Silvia. “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint.” In the Middle of the Whirlwind. www.inthemiddleofthewhirlwind.wordpress.com Accessed 24 Feb 2023. 

George, Diana, editor. Kitchen Cooks, Plate Twirlers and Troubadours: Writing Program Administrators Tell Their Stories. Boynton, 1999.  

Gindlesparger, Kathryn and Holly Ryan. “Feminist Fissures: Navigating Conflict in Mentoring Relationships.” Peitho Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, 2016, pp. 54-70.  

Harding, Sandra. G. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Routledge, 2004.  

Heinert, Jennifer and Cassandra Phillips. “Transforming the Value of Gendered Service through Institutional Culture Change.” Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 255-78.  

 Hill-Collins, Patricia. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, edited by Sondra Harding, Routledge, 2004, pp. 103-27. 

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” The Applied Theatre Reader, Second Edition, edited by Tim Prentki and Nicola Abraham, Routledge, 2021,   0-6.  https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203891315-22

Kabeer, Naila. “Gender, Equality, Economic Growth and Women’s Agency: the ‘Endless Variety’ and ‘Monotonous Similarity’ of Patriarchal Constraints.” Feminist Economics, vol. 22, no. 1, 2016, pp. 295-321. 

 Kynard, Carmen. “Administering while Black: Black Women’s Labor in the Academy and the ‘Position of the Unthought.’” Black Perspectives on Writing Program Administration: From the Margins to the Center, edited by Staci M. Perryman-Clark and Collin Lamont Craig,  NCTE, 2019, pp. 28-50. 

Lorde, Audre, and Adrienne Rich. “An Interview with Audre Lorde.” Signs, vol. 6, no. 4, 1981, 713–36. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173739. 

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984. 

McFarlane, Bruce. “Defining and Rewarding Academic Citizenship: The Implications for University Promotions Policy.” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management2007, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 261-73 

Mohanty, Chandra. T. Feminism Without borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing SolidarityDuke UP, 2003. 

Nicolas, Melissa. “Ma(r)king a Difference: Challenging Ableist Assumptions in Writing  

Program Policies. WPA: Writing Program Administration vol. 40, no. 3, 2017, pp. 10-22. 

O’Meara, KerryAnn. “A Career with a View: Agentic Perspectives of Women Faculty.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 86, no. 3, 2015, pp. 331-59. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2015.11777367 

paperson, la. A Third University is Possible. U of Minnesota P, 2017.  

Payne, Michelle. “Administration, Emotional Labor, and Gendered Discourses of Power: A Feminist Chair’s Mission to Make Service Matter.”  Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol, 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 308-33. 

Ratcliff, Krista and Rebecca Rickly, editors. Performing Feminism and Administration in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Hampton Press, Inc, 2010.  

Ribero, Ana Milena, and Sonia C. Arellano. “Advocating Comradismo: A Feminist Mentoring Approach for Latinas in Rhetoric and Composition.” Peitho Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 255-79. 

Riedner, Rachel. “Where are the Women?: Rhetoric of Gendered Labor in University Communities.” Literacy in Composition Studies. vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 122-30. 

Riedner, Rachel & Mahoney, Kevin. Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance. Lexington Books, 2008. 

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40. doi:10.2307/358272 

Schell, Eileen. “Is it Worth It to ‘Lean In’ and Lead? On being a Woman Department Chair in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.” Peitho Journal: Special Cluster on Gendered Service in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, vol 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 308-33. 

 Smith, Dorothy. E. “Women’s Perspective as Radical Critique of Sociology.” The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, edited by Sandra Harding, Routledge, 2004. pp. 21-2. 

Stenberg, Shari J. Composition studies through a feminist lens. Parlor Press, 2013. 

 VanHaitsma, Pamela, and Steph Ceraso. “‘Making It’ in the Academy through Horizontal Mentoring.” Peitho Journal, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211-33. 

Wells, Jennifer. “Review: WPAs Across Contexts and Thresholds.” College English, vol. 81, no. 6, 2019, pp. 542-88. 

Wilding, Faith. Faith Wilding’s Fearful Symmetries, edited by Shannon R. Stratton, Intellect Bristol, 2018.  

Wooten, Courtney Adams, Jacob Babb, and Brian Ray, editors. WPAs in Transition: Navigating Educational Leadership Positions. Utah State UP, 2018.  

Yancey, Kathleen. B. “Defining Moments: The Role of Institutional Departure in the Work of a (Feminist) WPA.” Performing Feminism and Administration in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, edited by Krista Ratcliffe and Rebecca Rickly. Hampton Press, Inc., 2010, pp. 143-59.  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Rhetorics of/as White Feminism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Whiteness in Rhetorical Studies 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erma Bombeck’s Humor and Rhetoric 

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

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

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

Unremarking #1: A Singular Representation 

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

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

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

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

Unremarking #2: Obfuscating the Stakes 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Unremarking #3: Individualism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Works Cited 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Student Writings; Finding Kate Hansen 

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

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

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

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

Combining Genre Studies with Archival Work 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing Kate Hansen’s Course Papers 

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

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

Remaining Within Genres 

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

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

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

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

Pushing Against Genres 

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

Challenges in Completing Writing Tasks 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Genre Imitation in an “Exercise in Letter Writing” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Beyond Genres 

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

Writing Beyond Genre in “An Experiment in Artistic Observation”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Beyond Genre in an “Oration” 

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

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

Miss President, ladies and gentleman [sic]:-  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited 

Applegarth, Risa. “Personal Writing in Professional Spaces: Contesting Exceptionalism in Interwar Women’s Vocational Autobiographies.” College English, vol. 77, no. 6, 2015, pp. 530-52, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44077485. 

Bales, Dane G., Polly Roth Bales, and Calvin E. Harbin. Kate Hansen: The Grandest Mission on Earth from Kansas to Japan, 1907-1951. University of Kansas, Division of Continuing Education, 2000. 

Bastian, Heather. “Capturing Individual Uptake: Toward a Disruptive Research Methodology.” Composition Forum, vol. 31, 2015, https://compositionforum.com/issue/31/individual-uptake.php. 

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Southern Illinois UP, 1987.  

—. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century Colleges and Universities. Southern Illinois UP, 1984 

Bordelon, Suzanne. “‘Private Letters’ for Public Audiences: The Complexities of Ethos in Louise Clappe’s The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018 pp. 1-13, https://doi.org/10.1080/07350198.2018.1395267. 

Bokser, Julie. “Inventing the Lady Manager: Rhetorically Constructing the ‘Working Woman.’” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-23, https://cfshrc.org/article/inventing-the-lady-manager-rhetorically-constructing-the-working-woman/. 

Carr, Jean Ferguson, Stephen L. Carr, and Lucille M. Schultz. Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Southern Illinois UP, 2005. 

Comstock, Eward J. “Student Discipline and Development at Harvard in the Late Nineteenth Century.” In the Archives of Composition: Writing and Rhetoric in High Schools and Normal Schools, edited by Lori Ostergaard and Henrietta Rix Wood, U of Pittsburgh P, 2015, pp. 185-205. 

Connors, Robert J. Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. U of Pittsburgh P, 1997.   

—. “Dreams and Play: Historical Method and Methodology.” Methods and Methodology in Composition Research, edited by Gesa Kirsch and Patricia Sullivan, Southern Illinois UP, 1992, pp. 15-36. 

—. “Rhetoric in the Modern University: The Creation of an Underclass.” The Politics of Writing Instruction: Postsecondary, edited by Richard Bullock and John Trimbur. Boynton, 1991, pp. 55-84. 

Devitt, Amy J. “Genre Performances: John Swales’ Genre Analysis and Rhetorical-Linguistic Genre Studies.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol. 19, 2015, pp. 44-51, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2015.05.008. 

Donahue, Patricia, and Gretchen Flesher Moon. Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition. U of Pittsburgh P, 2007.  

Enoch, Jessica. Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students, 1865-1911. Southern Illinois UP, 2008. 

Fitzgerald, Kathryn. “The Platteville Papers: Inscribing Frontier Ideology and Culture in a Nineteenth-Century Writing Assignment.” College English, vol. 64, no. 3, 2002, pp. 273-301, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3250735. 

—. “The Platteville Papers Revisited: Gender and Genre in a Normal School Writing Assignment.” Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition, edited by Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon, 2007, pp. 115-33. 

Freadman, Anne. “Anyone for Tennis?” Genre and the New Rhetoric, edited by Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway, Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1994, pp. 43-66.  

—. “Uptake.” The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre, edited by Richard Coe, L Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko. Cresskill Hampton Press Inc., 2002, pp. 39-53.   

Garbus, Julie. “Vida Scudder in the Classroom and in the Archives.” Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition, edited by Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon, 2007, pp. 77-93. 

Gold, David, and Catherine L. Hobbs. Educating the New Southern Woman: Speech, Writing, and Race at the Public Women’s Colleges, 1884-1945. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. 

Griffin, Clifford S. The University of Kansas: A History. Lawrence, The U. P. of Kansas, 1974. 

“Guide to the Kate I. Hansen Collection.” Kenneth Spencer Research Library. University of Kansas Libraries, 2016, https://archives.lib.ku.edu/repositories/3/resources/3223. Accessed 1 Aug. 2021. 

Hansen, Kate. “An Experiment in Artistic Observation.” 7 May 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Description of a Library Chair,” 30 Apr. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Brief-Making.” 21 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Brief-Making.” 23 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Brief-Making.” 25 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Briefs.” 11 Apr. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Briefs.” 19 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Briefs.” 27 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Briefs.” 4 Apr. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Editorial and News Paragraphs.” 25 Feb. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Letter Writing.” 9 Mar. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Exercise in Outlines.” 9 Feb. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “One Student’s Directions for Cultivating Cabbages.” 23 Apr. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Oration.” 28 May 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Some Advantages of Eight O’Clock Classes.” 14 Feb. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “The Greatest Need of the University of Kansas.” 16 Feb. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. “Two Games of My Schools Days.” 25 Apr. 1900. MS. PP 19, Box 5, Folder 30. Personal Papers of Kate I. Hansen, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

Kane, Margaret. “Advanced English Composition” Course Notes. 1 Feb. – 31 May 1899. MS. PP 23, Box 1. Margaret Kane Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

Kill, Melanie. “Acknowledging the Rough Edges of Resistance: Negotiation of Identities of First-Year Composition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 2, 2006, pp. 213-35, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20456935 

Kitzhaber, Albert R. Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850–1900. University of Washington, 1953. 

Lowry, Elizabeth. “Electric Girl No More: Nineteenth-Century Technofeminism, Constructions of Physical Strength, and Scientific Expertise.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019, pp. 380-403, https://cfshrc.org/article/electric-girl-no-more-nineteenth-century-technofeminism-constructions-of-physical-strength-and-scientific-expertise/. 

Lueck, Amy. “‘Classbook Sense’: Genre and Girls’ School Yearbooks in the Early Twentieth-Century American High School.” College English, vol. 79, no. 4, March 2017, pp. 381-406, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44806093. 

Mannon, Bethany. “The Life of the Female Mind: Hester Mulso Chapone and the Gendered Rhetoric of Experience.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 43-60, https://cfshrc.org/article/the-life-of-the-female-mind-hester-mulso-chapone-and-the-gendered-rhetoric-of-experience/. 

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, pp. 151-67, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335638409383686. 

Ostergaard, Lori, and Henrietta Rix Wood. In the Archives of Composition: Writing and Rhetoric in High Schools and Normal Schools. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015. 

Peters, Brad. “Genre, Antigenre, and Reinventing the Forms of Conceptualization.” Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments, Alternatives, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom. Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997, pp. 199-214. 

Popken, Randall. “Edwin Hopkins and the Costly Labor of Composition Teaching.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no.4, 2004, pp. 618-41, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4140665. 

—. “The WPA as Publishing Scholar: Edwin Hopkins and the Labor and Cost of the Teaching of English.” Historical Studies of Writing Program Administration: Individuals, Communities, and the Formation of a Discipline, edited by Barbara L’Eplattenier and Lisa Mastrangelo, 2004, pp. 5-22. 

Regaignon, Dara Rossman. “Anxious Uptakes: Nineteenth-Century Advice Literature as Rhetorical Genre.” College English, vol. 78, no. 2, 2015, pp. 139-61, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44075104. 

Reiff, Mary Jo, and Anis Bawarshi. “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition.” Written Communication, vol. 28, no. 3, 2011, pp. 312-37, https://doi.org/10.1177/0741088311410183. 

Rohan, Liz. “Service-Learning at the Northwest University Settlement, 1930-21, and the Legacy of Jane Adams.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, 2018, pp. 24-42, https://cfshrc.org/article/service-learning-at-the-northwestern-university-settlement-1930-31-and-the-legacy-of-jane-addams/. 

Russell, David R. Writing the Academic Disciplines: A Curricular History, 2nd ed. Southern Illinois UP, 2002.  

Schultz, Lucille. The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools. Southern Illinois UP, 1999. 

Sharer, Wendy B. “Genre Work: Expertise and Advocacy in the Early Bulletins of the U.S. Women’s Bureau.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1, 2003, pp. 5-32, https://doi.org/10.1080/02773940309391244. 

Simmons, Sue Carter. “Radcliffe Responds to Harvard Rhetoric: ‘An Absurdly Stiff Way of Thinking.’” Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write, edited by Catherine Hobbs, 1990, pp. 264-92. 

Skinnell, Ryan. Conceding Composition: A Crooked History of Composition’s Institutional Fortunes. Utah State UP, 2016. 

University of Kansas. 1899-1900 Course Catalogue. 1899. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

—. Enrollment card, “Kate Hansen.” 1899. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

University of Kansas Department of English. 1899-1901 English Bulletin. 1899. TS. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence. 

Wardle, Elizabeth. “‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 765-89, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40593429. 

Wolfe, Marion. “Women and the Way: The Contradictory Universalism of Protestant Women’s Foreign Missionary Societies in the Early 20th Century.” Peitho, vol. 22, no. 1, 2019, https://cfshrc.org/article/women-and-the-way/.  

Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study Methods and Women’s Lived Experience 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narratives of Overcoming 

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

Overcoming Shame Through Private Acts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Shame Through Relational Acts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrating Shame as Inventional Practice 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Narration, or What to Do with Complicated Feelings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] See note 9. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Afary, Janet, and Kevn B. Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. U of Chicago P, 2010. 

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University UP, 1992. 

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012. 

Amin, Samir. Class and Nation: Historically and in the Present Crisis. Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1980.  

Amin, Samir. “The World without Bandung, or for a Polycentric System with No Hegemony.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 7-11, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14649373.2016.1151186 

Ansari, Maboud. “Iranians in America: Continuity and Change.” Rethinking Today’s Minorities. Edited by Vincent N. Parillo. Greenwood Press, 1991. 

Appelbaum, Richard P., and William I. Robinson. Critical Globalization Studies. Routledge, 2005. 

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford UP, 2003. 

Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Indiana UP, 1993. 

Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia UP, 2010. 

Dabashi, Hamid. Brown Skin, White Masks. Pluto Publishers, 2011. 

Dabashi, Hamid. Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Books, 2015. 

Dabashi, Hamid. “Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire.” Al Ahram Weekly, June 2006. Issue No. 797.  

Ferguson, A Roderick. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. U of Minnesota P, 2012.  

Fisk, Gloria. Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature. Columbia UP, 2018. 

Garavini, Giuliano. The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century. Oxford UP, 2019. 

Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz. Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution After the Enlightenment. U of Minnesota P, 2016. 

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House, 2011. 

Grosfoguel, Ramón. “Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality.” Transmodernity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, https://doi.org/10.5070/T411000004.  

Hudson, Michael. Finance as Warfare. World Economics Association, 2015. 

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22-49. 

Klapcsik, Sandor. “Acculturation Strategies and Exile in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Journal of Multicultural Discourses, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp. 69-83. 

Leservot, Typhaine. “Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s PerséPolis.” French Forum, vol. 36, no. 1, 2011, pp. 115-30. 

Looney, Robert E. Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution. Pergamon Press, 1982. 

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. “The Crisis of the University in the Context of Neoapartheid: A View from Ethnic Studies.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self- Knowledge, vol. 10, no. 1, 2012. 

Mignolo, Walter D., and Madina V Tlostanova. “Theorizing from the Borders.” European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 9, no. 2, 2006, pp. 205-21. 

Mignolo, Walter. “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 57-96, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-101-1-57.  

Moallem, Minoo. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, U of California P, 2005. 

Moaveni, Azadeh. Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. Public Affairs, 2005. 

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random House Trade Paperbacks,  

Ostby, Marie. “Graphics and Global Dissent: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Persian Miniatures, and the Multifaceted Power of Comic Protest. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 132, no. 3, 2017, pp. 558-79, https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2017.132.3.558. 

Prashad, Vijay. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New Press, 2007. 

Pratt, Mary L. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 2008 

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke UP, 2007.  

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America.” International Sociology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2000, pp. 215-32. 

Ribero, Ana Milena. “Acceptable Heterogeneity: Brownwashing Rhetoric in President Obama’s Address on Immigration.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1-7. 

Root, Robert. “Interview with Marjane Satrapi.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, vol. 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 147-57. 

Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine how we See the  

Rest of the World. Pantheon Books, New York, 1981. 

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.  

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. 

Stone-Mediatore, Shari. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 

Yajee, Sheel B. CIA Operations Against the Third World. Criterion Publications, 1985. 

Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza. “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the ‘Aryan’ Discourse in Iran.” Iranian Studies: Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies, vol. 44 no. 4, 2011, pp. 445-72, https://doi.org/10.1080/00210862.2011.569326. 

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




“This Seismic Life Change”: Graduate Students Parenting and Writing During a Pandemic

As a parent and a doctoral candidate, I often tell people that I never imagined going back to school for a Ph.D., but if I had, I could not have dreamed that it would be my fourth or fifth priority (in the best of times), behind tending to my full-time faculty job, my daughter, my husband, my aging parents, and other obligations. And while I feel my life and teaching experiences have benefited me tremendously as an older returning student, I find myself wishing fairly often that I were younger, less encumbered, and that more of my life and my time were focused on my studies, as I see in some of my classmates. Instead, frankly, my doctoral work is something I have to fit in around other things and people that demand my attention. For instance, if I plan to study one evening and my daughter is sick,[1] I abandon studying. If a work crisis pops up, I attend to that instead of writing a paper for class. This has been even more the case since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interruptions and competing priorities are literally in my line of vision at all times now. Although I hesitate to admit it here, my writing—both for my job and graduate work—has fallen even further down the list of priorities as I worry about my daughter’s isolation, the possibility of my husband being furloughed or laid off, our elderly parents’ immune systems, and my own sanity. Due to these limitations, my approach to such work has changed drastically and my standards for it have dropped, hovering now somewhere between “don’t embarrass yourself” and “just get it done.” I suspect this is the case for many graduate students—particularly those with children at home. Our ability to focus, broadly, is simply not what it was ten months ago for so many reasons.

Just a few months into the pandemic, I read an article in The Washington Post, in which two parents—both academics—tracked their child-related interruptions. They wrote of a 3-hour period of tracking: 

Looked at one way, the situation appeared manageable: Over the course of three hours, the parent on duty was interrupted for a little over half an hour in total, meaning they got almost 2 1 / 2 hours of work time…But that time didn’t come in two clean chunks: The parent was interrupted 45 times, an average of 15 times per hour. The average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time was three minutes, 24 seconds. The longest uninterrupted period was 19 minutes, 35 seconds. The shortest was mere seconds. (Edwards and Snyder) 

The same article referenced a study that found it can take 20 minutes for a person who has been distracted from their work to come back to focus (Brumby et al.). Again, the longest uninterrupted work time for this particular writer was 19 minutes and 35 seconds.[2] Theoretically, my partner and I split our day around childcare, each taking either a morning or afternoon (pre-nap or post-nap[3]) working session while the other partner watches our daughter. Because she is two years old,[4] there is little to no independent time for her—unless we count watching TV on the couch while we sit next to her, trying to work or attend Zoom meetings. In reality, there has not been a single block of time without interruption in ten months.[5]

And it’s this experience that has led me to my research here. I ask: In what ways, if at all, are the experiences of graduate students who are parents different from the experiences of non-parent graduate students, particularly regarding home life and writing since the start of COVID-19?[6]  

The “Incompatibility” of Parenting and Graduate Writing 

The pandemic has, of course, changed every aspect of life for most people, from social gatherings and travel to parenting and public health overall. In higher education, the changes are just as drastic, and of course, for graduate students, in particular, educational challenges are heightened by all aspects of life outside of the classroom—even the virtual classroom.[7] Most graduate students work in addition to their studies—many full time. In “normal times” graduate student stress is well documented (see “Grappling with” and Puri). And during the pandemic that stress is increasing rapidly, ultimately developing for many into more substantial mental health issues. A study out of University of California at Berkeley reports that “32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder” during the early months of the pandemic (Chirikov et al. 1). The study also notes, of course, that certain populations are much more likely to feel these effects—and they include caregivers in this set of specific populations. Caregivers in another study noted that they were most in need of “general coping” mechanisms (Fitzpatrick et al. 1088).[8]

B. S. Russell et. al conducted a study early in the pandemic about caregiver burden during COVID, finding that the impact of long-term and/or undefined periods of quarantining for families has the potential to “lead to unprecedented impacts on individuals’ mental health” (672). They write, “parents must actively plan new caregiving, work, and education routines, potentially compromising time to tend to their own emotional experience and self-care” (672).[9] Graduate students, then, must “actively plan” these new tasks into their days while also attending to their own educational routines.

We can assume that graduate students who are also parents make up a significant percentage of the overall graduate student population, although no recent data is available on this number. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, twenty-two percent of undergraduates are parents, and I think it stands to reason that this number is likely higher among graduate students, who are on average older (ASCEND); the average graduate student age is thirty-three (Who Graduate Students Are | Graduate Mentoring Guidebook | Nebraska).

Parenting during graduate studies or in a full-time academic job has always been fraught. While mothers in academia have done important work in making these complexities visible and noted, these have mostly been through narratives, and straight, white-middle class mother narratives at that (Rose). Few data-driven studies have examined the nuances and challenges of parenting while working as an academic, but it’s clear that finding time, energy, and focus particularly to write at all is extremely challenging in most cases, to put it mildly. Graduate student parents have always reported completing much of their studying and writing for school at night and on the weekends (Sallee 406). They also report spending less time on coursework than they would like or feel obligated to due to competing childcare demands (Sallee 406), particularly as quality childcare has always been out of reach for on graduate students’ salaries/stipends (Springer et al. 447; Theisen et al. 53). Candice Harris et al. write “Family is perceived by some to be invisible in academia,[10] although women often perceive motherhood to have a considerable impact on their academic career, as the amount of work required to be a successful academic can only be done when one is without children or other responsibilities” ( 709).

What we do know is that there is an underrepresentation of graduate student mothers in Ph.D. programs and some have referred to this as a social justice issue (Kulp 408). Alessandra Minello, Sara Martucci, and Lidia Manzo point out that “the beginning of an academic career is marked by a prolonged period of precariousness, one which typically coincides with a woman’s reproductive period” ( 2). Mothers who have a doctoral degree are also are not as likely to come from top-ranked programs or to publish scholarly work (Kulp 410). One study of parents in academia, centered around identity and performance, quotes a mother remarking on her colleagues and academia at large: “There is still an assumption that a parent can separate themselves from their children and come to work…especially a very young child…they just have to turn the switch off and I don’t think you can” (Harris et al. 712).[11] Amanda Kulp writes that “Graduate school is a critical period for Ph.D. earners to collect the kinds of resources they need to compete for tenure-track jobs, and parenting a child during graduate school can put stress on graduate students in their efforts collect these resources” (410).

For mothers working in STEM particularly, concerns around gender inequality that have always existed have now risen too. A “new motherhood penalty” places further distance between mothers and their non-mother and male colleagues in STEM, particularly, although certainly also those in other fields (Staniscuaski et al. 724). Kristen Springer, Brenda Parker, and Catherine Leviten-Reid found that  

there are few formal institutional supports tailored to the needs of graduate student parents; there is limited knowledge on the part of faculty regarding supports that may exist for graduate students with children; and departments accommodate graduate student parents on a flexible,[12] case-by-case basis. All three serve to create a message that children are not a standard feature in the lives of doctoral candidates. (441)  

Motherhood in academia[13]—whether as graduate students or faculty members—has always had to be strategic choice (Harris et al. 709). Springer, Parker, and Leviten-Reid write, “being both an academic and parent is quite incompatible in practice” (436)—and they were writing pre-pandemic.
It’s no wonder, of course, that Minello, Martucci, and Manzo  in their very recent, very powerful study on the pandemic and academic mothers report that academic work is (still) “incompatible” with full-time parenting (2). I think most parents would admit that when they are parenting young children, it can be very difficult to be fully focused on work, even when their child is not physically in their presence. And now, they are fully in our physical presence at all times. For all parents, of course, both household work and childcare commitments are overwhelmingly up.[14] Although much has been rightly made of women disproportionately taking on caregiver loads, one recent study found that there was a much bigger gap in researcher productivity between those who have children and those who don’t than between genders (Breuning et al.). It’s worth noting that they also concede that, just the same, “women will be worse off when the dust settles from the pandemic” (Breuning et al. 2). It’s parenting more than gender, even, that makes keeping one’s head above water as an academic during the pandemic nearly impossible.

When it comes to expectations for research and publishing, some institutions are beginning to make concessions for faculty, but graduate students seem to be on their own (Guatimosim). Early studies suggest that “the global pandemic is quite likely to influence scholarly productivity during this period and in the months, and possibly years, to come” (Breuning et al. 2).[15] Reporting on a study of Canadian graduate students, Christine Ro notes that “Just over three-quarters of the 1,431 respondents report that the pandemic has ‘notably’ impeded their ability to conduct research.” 44 percent of those graduate students worry that the pandemic will impact their chances at completing their degree (TSPN). I have to believe that this sentiment is common beyond the bounds of this study.

Further, some argue that “writing needs concentration and inspiration that cannot be constrained into a limited time of the day” (Minello, Martucci, and Manzo 7). Very few studies have looked at the experiences of graduate student writers (Henderson and Cook 49), but even pre-pandemic, graduate student writing is a challenge. Brian Henderson and Paul Cook report that “a significant gap exists between what graduate students know and what they are expected to know” (49). And of course, different fields are going to hold and manage expectations very differently. For instance, in engineering, graduate students, “often struggle to learn to write under high-pressure conditions” (Berdanier and Zerbe 138). Such conditions are typical in many programs. Catherine Berdanier and Ellen Zerbe write:  

…it is interesting that most students do understand that writing is a knowledge- transforming process, while still struggling with the trifecta of perfectionism, procrastination, and writer’s block. Leveraging writing strategies to overcome some of these issues, such as accountability structures, timed writing sprints, and time management techniques can be housed within a broader discussion of learning-to-write and writing-to-learn as a graduate student in the process of becoming a member of a discipline, calling to mind academic literacies theory. (133) 

One might reasonably assume that writing expectations, especially towards professionalization, are more explicitly understood by graduate students in writing studies, but even in this discipline, Henderson and Cook’s work  shows us that writing studies graduate students still feel they need clearer expectations (63). As we think about parenting, graduate students, writing, and the pandemic, we see a number of connections and crossovers, and yet, we don’t yet see any scholarship about parents who are graduate students writing during the pandemic. 

Population and Data Collection

The research that follows draws from a larger data set collected by graduate students in a research methods class[16] at George Mason University. This IRB-approved (IRB 1557945-1), mixed-methods project included a survey and a limited number of interviews, conducted via video conferences due to the pandemic. All survey participant and interviewee identifying information has been made anonymous, per our IRB approval. The survey contained 27 questions, and a call for responses was distributed nationally, primarily via professional and academic listservs and social media. Due to the listservs we had access to, a high percentage of the respondents were in programs related to English or writing studies (68% of nonparent and 55% of parent respondents were in a writing and rhetoric or related program). However, a variety of other disciplines were represented, including, for instance, information systems, art history, Russian studies, law, consumer behavior and family economics, and genetics, just to name a few. Degrees being pursued included M.A., M.F.A, J.D., and Ph.D. Of 397 survey responses, six were single parents and fifty-three noted that they lived with a partner or spouse and their children, making a total of fifty-nine parents who answered the survey and 275 nonparents. An additional sixty respondents chose not to answer the question of who they live with, and so the answers from these participants were disregarded for the purposes of this inquiry. The total number of survey respondents I looked at, then, was 336. Of those, fifty-three percent of nonparents were still in coursework, and sixty-one percent of parents were still in coursework. Of both nonparents and parents, the vast majority of respondents were in Ph.D. programs and M.A. programs. 

The interview contained sixteen open-ended questions. The interviewees were drawn from survey respondents who indicated that they were willing to be interviewed. In the interviews, only four of the twenty-five interviewees mentioned having children, a smaller percentage than replied to the survey, presumably because parents have less time to spare to volunteer to be interviewed.  

Mental and Physical Health 

 Physical and mental health has been a major concern during the pandemic, for reasons that span the stress and isolation and the closing of gyms and the complexities of exercising with social distancing in place to issues of lost wages, the illness and death of family, civil unrest, and so many other factors. Approximately half of each group reported major or moderate impacts to physical health during the pandemic.[17] Of the survey respondents, fifty-four percent of parents stated that they have accessed health and/or wellness resources during the pandemic, compared to thirty-nine percent of nonparents. Interestingly, more nonparents reported major or moderate impacts to mental health, seventy-two percent compared to parents at sixty-two percent. Parents reported a slightly higher impact than nonparents on work-life balance (eighty-three percent to seventy-four percent), but both groups reported major impacts here in high numbers. Only fourteen percent of nonparents expressed high impacts from caretaker expectations, compared to fifty percent of parents, although this fourteen percent reminds us that “caretaking” takes many forms. Several survey respondents and interviewees mentioned drastic life changes and particularly strict quarantining due to elderly or immune-compromised relatives that they cared for.[18]
Parents in interviews also talked quite a bit about the lack of “alone” time they experienced[19] due to balancing graduate work, childcare, and, usually, also a job, all within the confines of their home: 

My biggest thing is just childcare, and I mean that has really been the big shift for me […] while both kids are understandably in the middle of the meltdown because we’re in a pandemic and they haven’t seen their friends, and I’m just sitting there thinking, like, [this would] be so much easier if they were in school every day. You know, like I could get a little time to myself. So that’s really the biggest the biggest one for me. (Anonymous Interview Participant 28) 

Ironically, they also, sometimes in the same breath, discussed the challenges of isolation:[20] 

The isolation was definitely like a struggle, especially without the childcare that—I already—I am an introvert, and I do kind of recharge by having alone time. But even I was kind of starting to hit my limit on the amount of hours a day and days a week that I could spend with only an eight month old to talk to (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

They[21] are with their[22] children every second, but never with colleagues. Such issues of space and home, of lack of access to offices, classmates, and colleagues, while central to these conversations about sanity, don’t even touch on the limits these situations place on gaining access to feedback or even casual what-are-you-working on conversations, which most scholars I think would agree are often incredibly valuable to our work.


Productivity is, of course, a major concern for any graduate student, but for parents during the pandemic, such concerns are certainly heightened. Interestingly, Figure 1 below, which charts perceptions of productivity since the start of COVID-19, shows us that parents and non-parents alike are struggling to similar degrees; exactly forty-four percent of each group perceived that they are less productive since the start of the pandemic. We don’t, of course, have data on whether these perceptions are accurate and/or the degrees to which productivity might have suffered.  

Figure 1: The first pie graph, titled “Productivity of Parents,” shows that almost half note that they have been “Less Productive” during the pandemic. In the second pie graph, titled “Productivity of Non-parents,” that pie slice is slightly smaller. Interestingly, the “Parents” graph also shows that a slightly larger percentage stated they were “More Productive” during the pandemic than non-parents.

 Related to this question of productivity, in answer to the question, “Is there anything else about your graduate writing life during the COVID-19 pandemic that you think is important for us to know?” perhaps unsurprisingly, most parents who responded to the survey wrote about having their kids home with them, and the toll twenty-four-hour care and home-school  supervision took on them and their work. Representative responses include:

The hardest, most difficult aspect for me is that public schools are closed, so both of my kids are at home full time and it’s impacting my time to get both work and school done. I teach a 5/5 load at the university where I’m a full-time lecturer, plus am taking graduate coursework, and the original plan is that my kids would be in school. This really threw a wrench in things! (Survey Participant 244) 

 My situation feels a little unique in that I was a full-time caregiver of two children from March-September. My boyfriend’s children moved in with us and I had to manage them for the duration of the spring semester and all of summer during a research fellowship. My writing process and workflow changed dramatically due to being a full-time parent.  (Survey Participant 7) 

Keeping up with the demands of family and work mean my graduate writing is significantly diminished. (Survey Participant 19) 

…not a whole lot got done, because my days were devoted to just trying to keep track of a crawling infant and keep him happy and kind of keep on top of stuff. (Anonymous Participant 3) 

We see that for these caregiving graduate students, writing “changed dramatically” as the hours of each day being allocated previously to writing were now necessarily devoted to the work of caring for kids. And no wonder; if a parent works an eight-hour day and commutes, the average toddler likely spends around nine hours in daycare each weekday, and school children are often gone somewhere in the range of seven hours. Those seven to nine hours are now time that parents need to feed and supervise their children. Even high school students, who require less “supervision,” require time and attention during the day from their caregivers. As one respondent put it, “[my writing] is more impacted by the fact that my daughter is at home all of the time since high school is not meeting face to face; her mental state and her ability to work at home colors my ability to work at home” (Survey Participant 289). To keep up productivity, these parents have to find writing time elsewhere.[23]  

In the limited number of interviews from parents, we found that external childcare was a topic of concern that related to many questions. The narratives from these interviews reinforce how much graduate student parents rely upon safe, consistent childcare and schooling for their children in order to write and work. Some representative comments included: 

So actually, the biggest [challenge] is childcare. I have a 10-year-old, and I have a four-year-old. And so when I originally signed up for my Ph.D. program, I was like, oh, now is the perfect time, right? Like my four-year—in Fall 2020…my four-year-old will be going into preschool, so will be in school for like four hours a day, five days a week. My 10-year-old is going into fourth grade. He’s in school for eight hours a day. My eighty-year-old grandparents come up twice a week and they spend the night with us, and they take care of the kids […] I can take two classes no problem. And then COVID happens. (Anonymous Participant 12) 

For the first six months of the pandemic, we had my partner’s kids here with us full time, and I needed that flexibility to get through the summer, and my summer work, because I had to take care of them during the day, like watch what they were doing, like make sure they’re alive and fed, and have things to do […] I went through this seismic life change of becoming a full-time guardian, and going online, like the same week. (Survey Participant 7

Childcare was probably the single biggest issue. I think if my son had still been able to go to daycare through everything, even if I couldn’t go to the library, even if I couldn’t go pick up materials, I could have still gotten a decent amount done. Maybe had a little bit of a lapse in productivity. But that was the—the single biggest one is just you can’t—with one that little—you can just sit, you know, you can’t even say like, well, go play in your room for a little while. It’s like, you’re eight months old, you’re into everything. And it’s just a constant, kind of keeping track of him (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

Managing home school is a particular concern[24] for many of the interviewees as well: 

I went from like, oh, I have this three-hour block of time where I can just write and write and write and write to like now I’m like, alright I get a 20 minute burst, and then my older son gets locked out of Zoom and I have to run in there and help him and then I come back and do another fifteen minute burst and then […] there’s no boundary right now, and it’s just a very different space to be in to try to get work done. (Anonymous Interview Participant 11) 

Nonparents, on the other hand, wrote about a variety of other issues that affected their writing productivity: including isolation, anxiety, a lack of focus, increased screen time, challenges of remote collaboration and remote teaching, the less-than-ideal physical spaces they have to write in, and uncertainty about the job market. We might assume that these were concerns shared by the parents, but that childcare and parenting concerns simply took precedence.  

Access to Campus Services and Campus-community Opportunities 

One of the most illuminating sets of data in this survey regarding parents relates to access to campus services and other on-campus opportunities for graduate students. Figure 2 below illustrates parent and non-parent responses when asked to rate the degree to which COVID-19-related changes in such services and opportunities have impacted their reading and writing work. 



Figure 2: Horizontal bar chart demonstrating that for all categories non-parents reported a higher impact on their reading and writing processes by a lack of access to services. The chart is titled “Rate the degree to which changes to the following campus services and campus community opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted your reading/writing process as a graduate student. The chart shows non-parents (in blue) were most impacted by library access at 60%, advice from peers at 55%, faculty office hours at 45%, and meeting with faculty outside of office hours are 45%. The charts shows parents (in orange) were most impacted by advice from peers at just above 40%, library access at just above 35%, meeting with faculty outside of office hours at 30%, and faculty office hours at just under 30%.

We can see that parents were less effected in every single category above. This chart shows us that parents were then, presumably, taking less from such campus services to begin with. And yet, interestingly, of nonparents, thirty-seven percent explicitly said they felt supported as a graduate writer by their “institution, department, program, and/or campus community,” compared to fifty-five percent of parents—perhaps because they have the time to access such support.[25

Insights for the Future 

 In May of 2021, a photo of an MIT professor went viral after he purchased a crib for his office to support his graduate students with babies or small children (“Mass. Professor Goes Viral After Putting Crib in Office to Help Grad Student with Infant Daughter”). He was praised, but then, quickly, commenters shifted to lament the lack of large-scale, systemic help for parents in general, and graduate students in particular.[26] As we see in the literature above, mothers who are graduate students suffer in uncountable ways. They’re disadvantaged as students and if we measure success by what kind of job they’re able to land post-graduation, such disadvantages and lack of support will continue to impact them throughout the rest of their career.[27]  

This data and these insights from this study aren’t likely to change much about our current situation or the larger one; there’s no vaccine buried in them, and there’s no rhetoric to make millions of COVID-deniers start wearing masks.[28] But if nothing else, it’s my hope that part of what comes out of this study and others like it is that both parents and non-parents alike can recognize both these systemic issues and the enormous toll COVID-19 is taking on our work. And I hope that advisors and the faculty overseeing these students and programs can too. Well over half of the participants in both data groups reported major or moderate impacts to their mental health since the start of the pandemic,[29] and as we’ve all experienced in some way or another, the other challenges and tragedies of life don’t stop just because we’re stuck at home. Elderly family members still have heart attacks. Work is still busy. The car still breaks down.[30] The stresses of life are already high for most of us, in particular graduate student parents.  

And while I hate to generalize, I believe that most of us would assume such dilemmas affect mothers more than fathers. Right now, more broadly, women’s unemployment is far outweighing the unemployment of men (Ruppanner et al.)—almost certainly as this relates to motherhood—and I imagine only time will tell, too, how many graduate programs, also disproportionately of women, are interrupted or fully stopped due to childcare, as we might assume from a recent census piece (Heggeness and Fields). It’s crucial that we change expectations, educating on what life is like for parents right now so that we lose fewer of them through the “leaky pipeline” but also so that our writing can measure up to our peers.   

In one of my favorite interviews, a graduate student told me that her kids were grown, but that the two who were college-aged were at home with her due to the pandemic, rather than away in a dorm, as they’d all expected. She told me that they’ve been keeping her in line, and even reading her work and offering her feedback on her papers.
Unfortunately, of course, this is a rare case. As the data shows, most graduate students—parents or not—are struggling in any number of ways.[31] But they were also struggling before the pandemic, as so much of the scholarship I explore above shows.

To that end, finally, I’m most interested in this data as I believe that it tells us something larger about graduate students who are also parents during “normal” times. As I look back to Figure 2 above, I’m struck by how graduate students who are also parents operate, write, and work differently than non-parent graduate students. As we see, parents reported being less affected by the loss of every single type of in-person campus and program-related resources that had disappeared during the pandemic, from faculty office hours to services for grad writers from other offices or departments. Again, this suggests to me that these parents have been less reliant on such services and support even pre-pandemic. I am a parent in a Ph.D. program, but during my M.A. and M.F.A., I was not a parent. I can say with certainty that I spent more time on campus with faculty and peers and that I took advantage of my university’s additional graduate student support much, much more during my time enrolled in these earlier programs. Without children and working as a teaching assistant, I had the time to; my graduate work was my priority. In my Ph.D. program, however, even pre-pandemic, nine times out of ten I deleted emails advertising workshops, talks, and other opportunities for graduate students. I felt I had little time to spare—even for often seemingly very worthwhile activities—and even if I did feel like I had the time, I often couldn’t bear the thought of asking my partner to do dinner/bath time/bedtime alone yet another night of the week beyond the evenings I attended class.[32] It feels crucial to me that institutions find ways to better accommodate other graduate students in similar positions.

I think that seeing all of this should allow me to simply give myself a bit of a break.[33] Truthfully, the tension between wanting to go easier on myself as a parent, student, and employee, and the still very real deadlines and responsibilities are in many ways irreconcilable—and to me this data suggests that this was the case even pre-COVID. But it’s my hope that even if graduate students are largely “failing” at writing, we can better accept our limits and the limits imposed by the pandemic—but also the system as a whole.[34] Because it seems clearer than ever that the system(s) aren’t going to change for us. 


[1]Or overly tired. Or missing me. Or hungry for something different than her dad knows how to make. Or interested in taking a walk. Or sitting in the backyard eating popsicles.

[2]It’s probably worth noting that it took me four days to simply get through this brief article.

[3]Since initially writing this, she’s stopped napping. STOPPED NAPPING ALL TOGETHER no matter how long we stroke her hair and talk in quiet voices and get her up early and schedule pre-nap quiet time.

[4]Now three, likely four at the time of publication. Look, it’s a pandemic and a I have a toddler, so yeah, fully researching, writing, and revising this thing has been a long process.

[5]Make that 19 now!

[6]Other than, you know, nonparents probably sleep and occasionally watch Netflix and likely have clean-ish hair and don’t find a slice of bell pepper at the bottom of their cold, cold coffee mug at noon when they finally finish it.

[7]And obviously high schools. And middle schools. And elementary schools. And don’t even get me started on the unexpected shame of having the only toddler who won’t sit still for Zoom story time in April 2020, despite me literally bribing her with snacks. And it’s a screen! Why isn’t it captivating like all the screen-based garbage that she can’t look away from?

[8]But what would that even look like right now? We don’t have the hour for therapy, even those of us lucky enough to have insurance. And if we did, every therapist I know is booked up because everyone is falling apart. What other strategies might I be attempting to employ? Last week my daughter tried a Sesame Street deep breathing exercise at a particularly rough moment. But I wouldn’t call that a long-term solution…

[9]And by “self-care” we’re rounding down now to teeth brushing. 

[10]To put it truly as mildly as possible.

[11]And the thing is, I really try. I apologized to my professor so hard and so many times the night I had to leave a Ph.D. seminar because my husband called to tell me the baby had spiked a 104-degree fever and had thrown up in every room of the house in the hour since I’d left. The shame of it, leaving class to go to the Emergency Room.

[12]Flexible? Says who?

[13]Or, you know, ANYWHERE. 

[14]It was a few months into the shutdown when I calculated the number of meals and snacks I made, plated, and cleaned up after weekly for my toddler during the pandemic, and I no longer have that number because I can’t find anything in this mess of a house, but it was a lot.

[15]And after this, will we ever look at how just parenting in normal times impacts “productivity” when compared to non-caregiver colleagues?

 [16]I mean, obviously I couldn’t have planned this, gotten IRB approval, recruited, and developed the study materials alone. My role in collecting the data wasn’t huge. Even analyzing the data felt like an insurmountable task most nights as I looked with bleary eyes at my Excel sheets after bathing this kid and reading six books and sitting with her until she fell asleep in the dark without actually falling asleep myself. 

[17]I actually would have guessed parents would be in better shape at this point because we’re always chasing the kids to save them from death in the street and chasing them to wear them out so they’ll sleep and chasing them because the neighbors would for sure think she’s too small to be five houses down alone on the sidewalk.

[18]Can you even imagine caring for a toddler AND an elderly parent in your home right now? (Surely some of you can and are!) For that matter, I only have ONE kid! How am I even complaining?

[19]That’s not necessarily true for me. I did a lot of crying alone in the bathroom while my daughter watched Bluey.

[20]Never alone and also isolated feels right on target.



[23]And in my home and many others, “elsewhere” means after bedtime.

[24]Sweet Jesus, I can’t honestly even imagine.

[25]“Perhaps,” but, you know, definitely because of this. After working all day and being away from my kid, and knowing I have to be in a classroom again at 7:20 p.m. for a graduate seminar, I’m not going to skuttle over to campus early to check out the resources at the Random Campus Opportunity.

[26]We see versions of this all the time; the professor with a student’s baby strapped to his or her back is another recurring example.

[27]It’s not within the scope of the research here to consider the cost and quality of childcare in the U.S. during “normal” times, and yet, of course, it’s relevant. In most areas of the country quality childcare is nearly outside of the range of possible for homes with two working parents. What happens when one of those parents is bringing in only a pittance of a graduate student stipend?

[28]Or, now, as I revise this in late Fall 2021, convince these people to get the vaccine because COME ON, SERIOUSLY I STILL GOTTA BE WORRIED ABOUT THIS KID GETTING COVID. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.

[29]More migraines. More panic attacks. More insomnia. More decision fatigue, driven by “Are we being too cautious or not cautious enough? Which is worse—that she’s getting super weird from lack of socialization or that her friends who went back to school might be exposed?”

[30]You still forget the milk. Your in-laws still need you to be sure to call Aunt so-and-so because she’s ill. A peach milkshake still spills all over the car.

[31]As a person who’s been lucky to only really rarely struggle with focus and “buckling down and getting to work” in my pre-pandemic endeavors, and as a student and employee who takes quite a bit of pride and identity stake in my ability to be productive, my life during the pandemic, here at home, a virus raging outside and a two year old/ three year old raging inside, my struggle to focus isn’t just a frustration; it’s becoming a spark to a larger depression brought on by feeling as though, well, what is the point? My rational brain is quick to remind me that, of course, work and productivity don’t equal value and there’s a pandemic and also my child is alive and fed, so that’s a win, and yet, I struggle, like so many of my peers. I hope that this data and analysis allows me to lower the bar lower for myself. I want to demonstrate, at least inwardly, that I can’t possibly meet those same standards I was meeting pre-pandemic. And of course, it’s worth noting, realistically, no one can, with or without kids; this data shows that everyone is struggling.

[32]During the pandemic, I don’t even open these emails; I just hit delete. And I have to believe I’m not the only one.

[33]But not, you know, really. Many months after initially drafting this, the guilt I feel is stronger than ever about the ways I’m failing my daughter.

[34]And the system is fucked. I mean, not just the academic system, although, yeah, for sure that is. But the SYSTEM-system is fucked, and that’s clearer than ever to anyone who wants to see it. Whether you clean houses or run a museum or grow flowers or wait tables or analyze stocks, if you are a mother, your life and time were never your own, but they are even less so now. As I write work on this revision, I am sitting on the toilet next to the tub where my daughter is soaking off a 102.5-degree fever. On a work day. And a school day. On day six back to daycare after 18-months home. There is no system in place that works for me, a working mother and graduate student, so earlier today I taught my class virtually, and the two quiet hours I had marked off to work on my dissertation evaporate into the steam of the humidifier while I soothed her. It will be all right, I tell her, but long-term, I’m skeptical. I imagine this little creature as an adult woman with her own child, with goals, even with a partner who does their fair share—and still, run ragged and exhausted by the tension between this drive and the lack of support.

Works Cited 

Anonymous Interview Participant 3, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020.

Anonymous Interview Participant 11, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020. 

Anonymous Interview Participant 12, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020. 

Anonymous Interview Participant 28, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020

ASCEND, The Aspen Institute and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Parents in College By the Numbers” 2020. https://iwpr.org/iwpr-issues/student-parent-success-initiative/parents-in-college-by-the-numbers/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020. 

Berdanier, Catherine, and Ellen Zerbe. “Quantitative Investigation of Engineering Graduate Student Conceptions and Processes of Academic Writing.” 2018 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (ProComm), IEEE, 2018, pp. 138-45.  

Breuning, Marijke, et al. “The Great Equalizer? Gender, Parenting, and Scholarly Productivity during the Global Pandemic.” Political Science Education and the Profession. APSA Preprints, 21 July 2020, https://preprints.apsanet.org/engage/apsa/article-details/5f16fc5660b4ad001212f977. 

Brumby, Duncan P., et al. “How Do Interruptions Affect Productivity?” Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering, edited by Caitlin Sadowski and Thomas Zimmermann, Apress, 2019, pp. 85-107.  

Chirikov, Igor, et al. “Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” U.C. Berkeley SERU Consortium Report, Aug. 2020. escholarship.org, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw. 

Edwards, Suzanne M., and Larry Snyder. “Perspective | Yes, Balancing Work and Parenting Is Impossible. Here’s the Data.” Washington Post, 10 July 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/interruptions-parenting-pandemic-work-home/2020/07/09/599032e6-b4ca-11ea-aca5-ebb63d27e1ff_story.html. 

Fitzpatrick, Olivia, et al. “Using Mixed Methods to Identify the Primary Mental Health Problems and Needs of Children, Adolescents, and Their Caregivers during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Oct. 2020. pp. 1082-93

“Grappling with Graduate Student Mental Health and Suicide.” Chemical & Engineering News, https://cen.acs.org/articles/95/i32/Grappling-graduate-student-mental-health.html. 7 August 2017. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020. 

Guatimosim, Cristina. “Reflections on Motherhood and the Impact of COVID 19 Pandemic on Women’s Scientific Careers.” Journal of Neurochemistry, Sept. 2020, pp. 1-2.  

Harris, Candice, et al. “Academic Careers and Parenting: Identity, Performance and Surveillance.” Studies in Higher Education, vol. 44, no. 4, Apr. 2019, pp. 708-18.  

Heggeness, Misty L., and Jason M. Fields. “Parents Juggle Work and Child Care During Pandemic.” The United States Census Bureau, 18 Aug. 2020, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/08/parents-juggle-work-and-child-care-during-pandemic.html. 

Henderson, Brian R., and Paul G. Cook. “Voicing Graduate Student Writing Experiences: A Study of Cross-Level Courses at Two Master’s-Level, Regional Institutions.” Graduate Writing Across the Disciplines Identifying, Teaching, and Supporting, edited by Marilee Brooks-Gillies, et al., The WAC Clearinghouse, 2020. 

Kulp, Amanda M. “Parenting on the Path to the Professoriate: A Focus on Graduate Student Mothers.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 61, no. 3, 2020, pp. 408-29.  

“Mass. Professor Goes Viral After Putting Crib in Office to Help Grad Student with Infant Daughter.” MIT Department of Biology, 21 May 2021, https://biology.mit.edu/mass-professor-goes-viral-after-putting crib-in-office-to-help-grad-student-with-infant-daughter/. 

Minello, Alessandra, Sara Martucci, and Lidia K. C. Manzo . “The Pandemic and the Academic Mothers: Present Hardships and Future Perspectives.” European Societies, Aug. 2020, pp. 1-13.  

Puri, Prateek. “The Emotional Toll of Graduate School.” Scientific American Blog Network, Jan. 2019, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-emotional-toll-of-graduate-school/. 

Ro, Christine. “Pandemic Harms Canadian Grad Students’ Research and Mental Health.” Nature, Aug. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02441-y. 

Rose, Jeanne Marie. “Mother-Scholars Doing Their Homework: The Limits of Domestic Enargeia.” Peitho, vol. 22, no. 2, 2020, https://cfshrc.org/article/mother-scholars-doing-their-homework-the-limits-of-domestic-enargeia/. 

Ruppanner, Leah, et al. “COVID-19 Is a Disaster for Mothers’ Employment. And No, Working from Home Is Not the Solution.” Phys.Org, 21 July 2020, https://phys.org/news/2020-07-covid-disaster-mothers-employment-home.html. 

Russell, B. S., et al. “Initial Challenges of Caregiving During COVID-19: Caregiver Burden, Mental Health, and the Parent–Child Relationship.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 51, no. 5, 2020, pp. 671-82.  

Sallee, Margaret W. “Adding Academics to the Work/Family Puzzle: Graduate Student Parents in Higher Education and Student Affairs.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, vol. 52, no. 4, 2015, pp. 401-13. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2015.1083438. 

Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker, and Catherine Leviten-Reid. “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 30, no. 4, Apr. 2009, pp. 435–57. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X08329293. 

Staniscuaski, Fernanda, et al. “Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Mothers.” Science, vol. 368, no. 6492, 2020, p. 724. 

Survey Participant 7, Sept. 2020. 

Survey Participant 19, Sept. 2020. 

Survey Participant 244, Oct. 2020. 

Survey Participant 289, Oct. 2020

Theisen, Megan Rae, et al. “Graduate Student Parents’ Perceptions of Resources to Support Degree Completion: Implications for Family Therapy Programs.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 46-70. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/08952833.2017.1382650. 

Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN). “COVID-19 Graduate Student Report.” Toronto Science Policy Network. https://tspn.ca/covid19-report/. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020. 

“Who Graduate Students Are.” Graduate Mentoring Guidebook, UNLN. https://www.unl.edu/mentoring/who-graduate-students-are. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020.