Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Rhetorical Shifts in What Happened: Pluralist Feminist Credibility Post-2016

While twentieth century US women’s rights advocates have a wealth of knowledge of the ways to establish coalitions across racial differences (Cole and Luna 96), feminist rhetorical scholars urge careful attention to how such strategies should not exclusively establish an individual’s virtues but motivate audiences’ long-term participation (Howell; Busch). Such knowledge emphasizes descriptions of joint decision making across social locations, the boundaries of allyship, and how leaders may use moments of failure to call in allies to continue resistance efforts. Feminist rhetorical scholars, Gwen Pough and Rebecca Jones open Peitho’s “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric” special issue with the reminder to “hold space for tension and nuance” because “ongoing protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition” (n.p.). To study the rhetoric of feminist coalitions, scholars are challenged to understand both traditional political movements such as political election campaigns and more “leaderful” grassroots collectives such as the 2018 Women’s March (“Women’s March on Washington Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles”). Hillary Rodham Clinton is a representative figure for this crucial line of inquiry, as someone Susan Bordo notes “for better or worse has represented a particular generation of feminists for decades,” whose rhetoric shows a remarkable shift regarding gender and race following her 2016 Presidential election loss among the Electoral College (187).   

It is tempting to interpret Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC)’s rhetoric as representative of white feminism. As a recent example, the sociologist Ashley Noel Mack interprets one of HRC’s tweets from her 2016 election campaign as an indication of the pattern of white women referencing intersectionality in ways that fail to acknowledge the term’s history connected to Black women. Following the 2016 election, HRC’s rhetoric is more complicated. Such shifts are worthwhile to examine because Clinton’s image—more so than her positions, policies, or history—has functioned as a rhetorical straw woman with media coverage focused on the pseudo scandal of her email server and far right conspiracies of her connections to QAnon (Bordo). Clinton’s sixth memoir What Happened is an especially interesting case study due to the ways book reviewers note the politician’s open feminist commitments, a remarkable observation given the book’s primary focus on correcting misperceptions surrounding Donald Trump’s election. In some moments, HRC employs the rhetorical practices coalition-oriented feminists call on for white allies to adopt. What is especially striking is a moment in the middle of the book in which the former Secretary of State describes her shared caregiver identity with Black women who lost children to police violence in ways that acknowledge structural racism. Clinton describes the Mothers of the Movement in ways that emphasize the life and death stakes compelling a group of Black women to trust her, despite significant risks of tokenization, denial, and unaltered conditions.  

In this article, I examine brief moments in HRC’s memoir What Happened where she deviates from the forms of credibility rhetoric scholars have noted throughout her political career. Through decades in national politics, HRC has represented herself as a detail-oriented “policy wonk” or as a Christian “Madonna” (Kaufer and Parry-Giles; Anderson; Campbell). In brief moments in What Happened, HRC uses a “rhetorical feminism” experience-based form of authority (Glenn). Through employing rhetorical feminism, HRC makes rhetorical space for the Black women-led advocacy group The Mothers of the Movement by emphasizing the “unruly” force of bodies at risk, and coalitions with those most at risk, as more central to a healthy democracy than partisan politics, and political press coverage (Alexander et al. 13). While HRC has received important critiques for representing white feminism, I attend to brief moments in her memoir that enabled book reviewers to label the book a feminist text due to shifts from expected presidential rhetoric into embodied knowledge, consciousness of sexism, recognition of shared caregiving responsibilities, and an acknowledgement of race and unequally shared risks among Black and white women. Attending to these shifts in HRC’s ethos can create the symbolic disruptions necessary to allow for the recognition of the Mothers of the Movement anti-racist, poverty, and gun violence coalition.  

A central challenge for feminist rhetorical scholars has been to focus on ways to resist appeals to a shared sisterhood that ignore racial differences or create false equivalencies among sexism and racism. Such post-second wave projects take on increased urgency in the context surrounding the 2016 US presidential election. As readers of this journal are aware, coalitions remain central actionable networks sustaining commitments to end sexist oppression in daily life and scholarly practices. Anti-racist feminists name the responsibilities white allies have to “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” that include reflexive engagement, embodied knowledge, interracial friendship, and scholarly practices that resist tokenization (hooks 1; Lugones). These commitments and corresponding rhetorical practices take on heightened urgency in the context of the 2016 election, which saw open displays of white supremacist rhetoric, increased racial violence, and massive protests. Within such a context, how can anti-racist feminist credibility strategies extend knowledge of coalition rhetoric and rhetorical scholars’ responsibilities?  

Feminist rhetorical analyses often focus on liberal and progressive causes. Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald note questions of how to include the rhetoric of women who supported conservative causes, such as temperance, present a significant challenge for scholars concerned with inclusive histories of rhetoric: to notice not all women have advocated for women’s rights. Examining uncomfortable appearing coalitions may create new knowledge of inclusive rhetoric, which Karma Chávez models through examining the shared pursuit of migrant rights among a Catholic Church and queer rights organization (133). HRC’s memoir is one such text that may provide opportunities to “strategically contemplate” our stances (Kirsch and Royster 656-9), as individuals and parts of this collective, in relationship to the rhetoric of those it is easy to dis-identify with, or distrust.  

Cheryl Glenn presents a useful differentiation among feminist rhetoric and rhetorical feminism. These conceptual labels provide a way to recognize different definitions of feminism and their corresponding purposes, such as a liberal concern with inclusion into workplaces or public life. In this liberal tradition, HRC’s rhetoric has gained recognition especially for her “Remarks to the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women” with the oft-cited “women’s rights are human rights” phrase (American Rhetoric). The politician’s rhetoric has often functioned as an exigency for conversations surrounding shifting gender norms and feminist responsibilities. Younger generations have engaged key critiques of HRC’s generation. The author and cultural critic Roxane Gay describes herself as a “bad feminist” to acknowledge a historical emphasis on elite white women’s concerns but suggests those with fewer privileges should not disassociate from expansive efforts to “believe in equal opportunities for women and men” that “can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us” (n.p.). It can be noteworthy to attend to Clinton’s text for the ways it contains some pluralistic possibilities not exclusively concerned with formal inclusion, smashing glass ceilings, or blindness to the significance of racism within women’s lives. Johnathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch urge more attention to the “unruly” force of bodies at risk as a crucial element of recent social movement rhetoric. Cheryl Glenn notes in the conclusion of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope the feminine counterparts of masculine rhetorical traditions may alleviate persuasion efforts that spread conspiracy theories, violence, and many pressing social inequalities. 

Rhetoric scholars identify a crucial shift following feminism’s second wave involves attempts to form connections among women’s rights and other social movements. Krista Ratcliffe in Rhetorical Listening observes speakers often do not want their various and overlapping social differences to prevent them from addressing issues that do not focus on their social differences (2; see also 25-6). Ritchie and Ronald highlight in their introduction to Available Means that due to the millennia of practices denying women access to education and public spaces, a throughline in women’s rhetoric is that women advocate for their presence as a prerequisite to address other issues (xvii). This requirement to justify one’s presence, can, at times, become an invitation to use one’s status and embodied presence as an asset. In the late twentieth century, Shari J. Stenberg and Charlotte Hogg emphasize the exclusion of women from powerful domains is perhaps more insidious because in many nations it is no longer formally written into laws (4) but prevalent in practices such as interpersonal violence, workplace sexual harassment, online doxxing, and economic inequalities.  

Some women may be able to act as if their gender is irrelevant to their lives or perhaps only prevalent once they attempt to ascend to leadership positions. Such a post-feminist position is often individually focused and ignorant, or in denial, of the pervasive inequalities shaping the practices of organizations and governments. It is tempting to place HRC and her rhetoric into such a position. Interdisciplinary scholars spend significant time developing a useful definition of coalitions as embodied human entities and ethical commitments among different groups. As embodied entities, scholars in political science note paying attention to coalitions is a useful way to read American politics, such as understanding the impact of the Democrats and the New Deal Coalition in the early twentieth century (Genovese and Han). Scholars in sociology often examine coalitions as alliances among multiple stakeholders often within government entities and nonprofit networks, as seen in Elizabeth R. Cole and Zakiya T. Luna’s qualitative research into the insights of US women in different grassroots activist organizations or Karama Chávez’s ethnographic description of shifting rhetoric among the queer-rights oriented Wingspan and the migrant-focused Coalición de Derechos Humanos nonprofit groups. Within these conversations, scholars offer definitions of coalitions as functional alliances among two or more groups working together on a common goal, often in pursuit of political, or otherwise institutional, change. However, these scholars often note such entities are often short term, more theoretical than functional, and often fail to alter the conditions that brought the group together.  

Feminists of color are key voices who point to the ways mid-twentieth century feminist and anti-racist movements had a tendency to overlook the specific needs of women of color. Kimberlé Crenshaw in “Mapping the Margins” points out the limited resources of domestic violence shelters resulted in turning away women of color (1245). Coalitional political goals can encompass everyday acts, which María Lugones notes can include asking a woman how she’s doing as her partner is arrested (2; see also “Hablando Cara a Cara”), and calls to resist racially exclusive practices within progressive organizations (see also Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”). Collectively, these conversations challenge a single identity-political focus.  

HRC’s rhetoric following the 2016 election is worthwhile to analyze due to her status as the first US woman to win the popular vote for president and because her image featured predominately in election coverage in ways that represent, at least in part, public perceptions of feminism. I find it worth attending to how, following the 2016 election, HRC’s rhetoric is more complicated than a straightforward read of whitewashing, or white supremacist feminism, due to the moments in which HRC’s feminist consciousness includes established pluralist features that acknowledge cultural influences, draw upon embodied knowledge, and listen to Black women. In this article, I focus on three chapters in HRC’s What Happened that center credibility and gender: “Get Caught Trying,” “On Being a Woman in Politics,” and “Turning Mourning into a Movement.” I conclude through considering textual moments of regrets and credibility earned through failure as potential central features of the rhetoric of coalition leaders. Studying these textual moments may contribute to knowledge of ethos as a central persuasive feature in contemporary memoirs and the study of feminist coalition rhetoric that requires alliances with unevenly shared risks and controversial allies (Mack and Alexander; Kelm).   

“This is a Story of What Happened.” (Clinton xv)   

Although Clinton notes her memoir “isn’t a comprehensive account of the 2016 race,” readers see many versions of the author throughout the book’s 500 pages that devote significant attention to the features that made the election depart from run of the mill partisan politicking (xv). The book fits well within the expectations of a failed presidential candidate’s tell-all with chapters devoted to thanking running mates, staffers, and voters; descriptions of policy proposals; a political origin story connected to family and faith; corrections of political press coverage; and a call for readers to engage within the institutions of public and community life. The text is also notable for the “Those Damn Emails” chapter addressing the pseudo scandal that dominated election coverage and the “Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians” chapter on electoral interference. Throughout, HRC names regrets that include her endorsement of the 1994 Crime Bill (204), her “put coal miners out of work” quip (263), and the “political piñata” of her email server (322).1 Throughout, HRC relies on her established forms of credibility. In policy wonk mode, HRC names multiple advisors and cites from public opinion polls. HRC also makes multiple religious references to her Methodist background, the Bible, and conversations with pastors. The memoir also presents a different type of credibility, which HRC’s writes as “now I’m letting down my guard” (xviii) to ponder: “You’ve read my emails for heaven’s sake. What more do you need? What could I do to be ‘more real’? Dance on a table? Swear a blue streak? Break down sobbing? That’s not me. And if I had done any of those things, what would have happened? I’d have been ripped to pieces” (122, emphasis in  orig.). 

What Happened has several chapters that examine the person who has been a politician to resist the caricature constructed by media coverage, political rivals, and disinformation campaigns. HRC responds to the frequent criticism that she has been a career woman without significant family attachments as she makes frequent references to her husband Bill, daughter and grandchildren, and mother. Clinton provides additional context and regrets for some of her well-circulated quotations, such as the1992 “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was pursue my profession,” in this case writing, “I hadn’t tamed my tongue” (118). Clinton complicates readings of her life as an establishment partisan career politician focused on identity politics and neoliberal economics out of touch with citizens’ needs to reverse unaffordable health care, preventable gun deaths, and unequally resourced schools. It is likely this combination of well-timed political insider knowledge and nothing left to lose reflexive moments landed the book accolades, such as Time magazine’s book of the year and a spot on The New York Times bestseller list. Reviewers praised the book’s exploration of gender, such as the reviewer Jennifer Senior who calls it a “feminist manifesto” (n.p) and National Public Radio’s Danielle Kurtzleben who calls the book “the embattled cry of the hyper-competent woman who desperately wishes the world were a meritocracy” (n.p).   

“’Why do you want to be President? Why? But, really—why?’” (Clinton 40)  

Throughout her text, Clinton is self-effacing about her gender, while subsequently describing consciousness of the challenges women face in politics. Clinton places herself in association with men. In an especially interesting comparison, Clinton names her husband Bill Clinton’s rags to riches story of growing up in poverty and Barack Obama’s immigrant background (111-2), two experiences that work well within an American dream cultural narrative of upward mobility. After naming the backgrounds of the two former Democratic party presidents, Clinton then describes her own rise from the Midwestern middle class to become the first woman presidential candidate for a major political party (see 111-112). As others have pointed out, Clinton has situated her political rise in relationship to Bill Clinton and Obama throughout her career (see Kaufer and Parry-Giles), which connects to the traditional strategy women cultivating authority through associations with men. In this tradition, Clinton’s strategic choice mitigates the risks associated with deviating from the tradition equating political authority exclusively with men.  

While Clinton establishes her credibility through connections to former Presidents Clinton and Obama, she dismisses her own lived experiences. HRC writes, “Few people would say that my story was quite so dazzling” and “We yearn for that showstopping tale—that one-sentence pitch that captures something magical about America; that hooks you and won’t let go. Mine wasn’t it” (112). And yet this self-effacing gesture then allows Clinton to include her own political personal narrative. Through writing her memoir outside of the purpose to win an election, HRC establishes an opening to name the contextual reasoning informing her actions.  

 Early in What Happened, Clinton devotes a chapter, “Get Caught Trying,” to explain her decision to enter the 2016 presidential race, a decision connected to critiques the politician received during the campaign, as well as what Ritchie and Ronald consider perhaps the unifying feature of women’s rhetoric (xxiv-v). Clinton adopts a position of reluctance to write “probably the most compelling reason not to run—was being a grandmother” (47, emphasis in the original). However, she continues to describe how after receiving encouragement from other politicians, including her husband Bill Clinton and then-President Barack Obama, she decided:  

In short, I thought I’d be a damn good president. Still, I never stopped getting asked, ‘Why do you want to be President? Why? But, really—why?’ The implication was that there must be something else going on, some dark ambition and craving for power. Nobody psychoanalyzed Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Bernie Sanders about why they ran. It was just accepted as normal. But for me, it was regarded as inevitable—people assumed I’d run no matter what—yet somehow abnormal, demanding a profound explanation. (40)  

While readers can interpret Clinton’s question regarding why she ran as one requiring an answer, in this context it can also function rhetorically, without a genuine and logical answer. Further, media and voter questioning of Clinton’s motivations reflects a deep tension between Clinton’s role as a family caregiver and politician. This tension extends to the historical requirement that women justify their right to speak or have political ambitions in ways that are not required for men, or the Democratic politicians Clinton names (see Ritchie and Ronald xxii). An impossible set of choices—campaigning but going against established political and gender norms in doing so—is one paradox Clinton continues to expand upon as she describes her decision not to foreground her gender in her campaign rhetoric.   

Clinton continues to position her political rise as the result of good timing rather than ambition. But Clinton does so in a way that momentarily breaks from the universal or culture-less assumptions María Lugones notes characterize exclusionary practices of “ethnocentric racist” feminists (43-4). Clinton provides readers with her origins as someone who grew up in a white middle class Park Ridge, IL community during a prominent point in history with changing norms enabling women to participate in a greater range of paid employment (113-114). Clinton writes:  

I never figured out how to tell this story right. Partly that’s because I’m not great at talking about myself. Also, I didn’t want people to see me as the ‘woman candidate,’ which I find limiting, but rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent. […] But the biggest reason I shied away from embracing this narrative is that storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one. (113-114) 

As in other moments in What Happened, Clinton desires to claim her experiences as a woman as a valuable rhetorical resource. At the same time, she resists claiming such a perspective due to her perception that her audience was not ready to vote for a presidential candidate who openly addressed her gender as a strength, a feeling conformed by political research (Bauer; The Pew Research Center). In the context of the 2016 election, naming one’s experiences as a woman would likely create a liability. Yet, despite Clinton’s rational decision to carefully represent herself in an acceptable way to her audience, during her campaign some voters still dismissed her as untrustworthy, unlikable, and unworthy of a vote.  

Clinton adds an additional complication to gendered logic through comparing the criticism she received to criticism of Barack Obama in such a way that begins to illustrate a shift in vision María Lugones notes is necessary for white feminist allies. As Clinton describes her response to criticism of her reserved oratory  during her campaign, she observes:  

People say I’m guarded, and they have a point. I think before I speak. I don’t just blurt out whatever comes to mind. It’s a combination of my natural inclination, plus my training as a lawyer, plus decades in the public eye where every word I say is scrutinized. But why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want our Senators and Secretaries of State—and especially our Presidents—to speak thoughtfully, to respect the impact of our words? President Obama is just as controlled as I am, maybe even more so. […] This is generally and correctly taken as evidence of his intellectual heft and rigor. (122)  

In this reflection, Clinton considers the ways her speaking style is not a deviation from American presidential norms. She answers her own question pondering why leaders cannot be respected for their planned-out speaking style. Clinton continues to justify her style through describing her professional background as a lawyer and public figure, and she considers this style may even be highly valued among political leaders. In an especially interesting twist, Clinton makes a direct comparison to President Obama to note a reserved style is far from a liability for him, but an asset. In doing so, Clinton accurately acknowledges the many racist attacks he endured, such as false claims of his lack of citizenship (see p. 6-7, 366-7, 414-5). However, Clinton does not explicitly consider Obama’s race in the above quotation, although her descriptions may indicate her awareness of the ways gender norms are different than racial norms, where Barack Obama, a Black man, did not receive the same criticism as Clinton, a white woman. It is through this implicit description of the different, yet related, effects of sexism and racism that HRC positions herself as capable of adopting a position as an ally for intersectional feminist efforts.

“Well, what would you do?” (Clinton 136, emphasis in the original)  

Although for most of the book Clinton separates her personal and political lives, in her “Sisterhood” chapters she describes how Clinton the presidential nominee and Clinton the woman blend. In a pattern fitting the second wave mantra the personal is political, I find Clinton resists a separation among her roles as a politician and citizen through naming her embodied experiences in a male-dominated profession that directs readers to challenges more significant than glass ceilings and salary negotiations.  

Clinton describes the significance of her gender within her political life through her embodied experiences. Through doing so, she begins to establish an ethos able to direct reader attention to gender-based violence at the core of many feminist movements. Ritchie and Ronald note women cultivate authority through describing their gendered bodies (xxi; xxvi-ii)—such as Sojourner Truth’s identification with her audience’s awareness of her skin color and the physical impacts of slave labor that made her body challenge Antebellum assumptions of women’s fragility. This is not to suggest Clinton engages a similar repurposing of embodied gender and racial norms from her standpoint as a twenty-first  century white woman. However, I find Clinton establishes agency through resisting an easy understanding of language divorced from speaking bodies.   

In the “Sisterhood” chapter, Clinton describes brief moments she experienced to show the stakes of pervasive sexual harassment. One key illustration takes place during Clinton’s description of the second national presidential candidate debate. Trump stood behind Clinton as she spoke. In response to this physical form of intimidation, Clinton describes her embodied reaction. She writes, “He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled” (136). This resulted in pondering two choices:

It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit Pause and ask everyone watching, ‘Well? What would you do?’ Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up, you creep, get away from me, I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.(136, emphasis in orig.)  

Clinton continues to explain why she chose the first option. “Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm—biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling while, determined to present a composed face to the world” (136-7). In these statements, Clinton refutes the critique that she didn’t react to Trump’s physical presence on stage. The rhetorical questions direct readers to consider the ways a calm reaction is not a natural one given the situation, and one Clinton herself considered resisting. In addition, Clinton names her embodied reaction to Trump’s breath. Clinton’s description of overlearning how to stay calm points out the ways her reaction is not natural in response to a physically threatening figure. Instead, Clinton’s statement highlights the intentionality around maintaining a calm exterior. Clinton’s descriptions of biting her tongue and digging her fingernails into her fist continue to show a schism between her calm facial appearance and her more expressive physical reactions. Her body tensed up, but she continued to present a composed face of rationality and politeness, one traditionally expected of politicians.  

The politician provides a further justification of her actions during the debate through connecting her embodied experiences to sexist and racist stereotypes. Clinton writes if she directly confronted Trump’s behavior, “he would have surely capitalized on it gleefully. A lot of people recoil from an angry woman, or even just a direct one” (137). Clinton’s decision to resist the public association of an angry woman to her observations of the public punishments faced by other high profile women including Coretta Scott King, Kamala Harris, and Arianna Huffington (137). Unlike earlier moments in Clinton’s text, here she establishes herself through associations with other women, a crucial shift in her identification. Through naming the connections among the negative public reception of women considered angry to white and Black women, Clinton implicitly directs reader attention to the ways Black women face additional barriers to their participation in politics. 

“[B]ut are we going to see any change? Are we going to see some action” (McSpadden qtd. in Clinton 180).  

While HRC seeks to enhance her public image as someone whose gender could be a political asset, by itself this does not challenge racism among women. I find a third form of HRC’s revised ethos illustrates the possibilities of a more complicated understanding of the politician as she writes of her association with the group the Mothers of the Movement, comprised of Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner) Lezley McSpadden (mother of Michael Brown), Lucia McBath (mother of Jordan Davis), and other primarily Black women who lost unarmed children to gun and police violence, many of whom spoke in support of Clinton during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. In this section, I find HRC positions herself within a more “leader-full” system (“Women’s March on Washington Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles”), one where Clinton’s election loss has a deeper significance than her career. Instead, the memoir can direct readers beyond the Clinton 2016 presidential campaign to the pressing needs to address the epidemic of gun violence as it intersects with violence against communities of color through a movement led by Black women.  

Throughout the chapter “Turning Mourning into a Movement,” HRC returns to the experiences of the activist group the Mothers of the Movement to illustrate the pressing needs for legislative reform to curb the United States’ high rates of gun violence that especially impact communities of color. Clinton opens the chapter with a description of the meeting she organized at a Chicago diner with some of the women who would later campaign for her at the Democratic National Convention as the Mothers of the Movement. Clinton mediates the experiences of the activists within her own bestselling memoir through quoting their words and using their experiences to illustrate the stakes of her failed gun reform policies. As the chapter continues, Clinton attempts to further situate herself for wide reader appeal through naming the support she won from police chiefs (177), her support for law abiding gun owners (187), and her recognition of the importance of guns within American culture (181). The Mothers activist group sought justice for their children, and in Fulton’s words, “We don’t want to be community activists, we don’t want to be the mothers of senseless gun violence, we don’t want to be in this position—we were forced into this position. None of us would have signed up for this” (qtd. Clinton 174). Clinton’s stakes were much more political than personal. Clinton describes the political power of the National Rifle Association lobbing campaigns as significant liabilities for Democratic politicians. However, these significantly different stakes reflect a key feature of feminist coalitions. As Bernice Johnson Reagon notes, matters of survival, life and death, are the most compelling reasons motivating women to find ways to work together across racial differences (357). In a similar way that a feminist ethos can reveal the rhetor’s context (Reynolds; Schmertz), the Mothers of the Movement’s engagement with the controversial white politician can direct readers toward the intersecting histories of US gun and racial violence. These textual moments can indicate the rhetorical and political failures directing HRC, and her readers, to coalitional movements, especially the Black women-led Mothers of the Movement.  

After Clinton describes the initial Chicago meeting, the politician positions her family within larger political structures. Clinton briefly names her racial subject position. She writes, “My daughter and grandchildren are white. They won’t know what it’s like to be watched with suspicion when they play in the park or enter a store” (176). This moment relies on a complex identification, one requiring Clinton share an identity as a parent and recognize the crucial racial differences among herself and her guests that significantly inform interactions in public spaces. Yet, perhaps more powerful than modeling her own racial subject position, Clinton directs readers to a more expansive form of accountability through implicating herself in the failure to implement gun and police reform legislation. Clinton notes the Mothers “had come to talk about what had happened to their kids and to see if I would do something about it—or if I was just another politician after their votes” (173). This self-recognition breaks from a white feminine position of assumed innocence or naivety about the reasons the Mothers would be inclined to distrust a white liberal politician. In the context of a political memoir from an unsuccessful presidential candidate, Clinton’s reflection takes on additional weight as a form of acknowledgment of the ongoing preventable tragedies she was unable to stop.  

This awareness becomes the starting place of a coalitional anti-racist feminist ethos as Clinton attributes a question she does not attempt to answer to Lezley McSpadden, a shift that demonstrates Clinton’s knowledge of the interconnections among Washington politics, the lives of the Mothers and other families, and her own failure to prevent future gun deaths. According to Clinton, McSpadden asked her, “Once again we’re around a table, we’re pouring our hearts out, we’re getting emotional, we tell you what we feel—but are we going to see any change? Are we going to see some action?” (180). While in majority of this chapter Clinton describes the recent history of gun policies and lobbies within national politics, Clinton provides no textual explanation to McSpadden’s call for accountability. Within the text, McSpadden’s question is visually set off by a double paragraph break functioning as an intentional pause for readers. While it may be possible to answer McSpadden with a yes or no, McSpadden’s question demands an answer in more than words and implicates Clinton as an unsuccessful presidential candidate. Through Clinton’s inclusion of this moment, there is the possibility of authority gained because of self-implicating failure with consequences beyond a single election.  

McSpadden’s questions emerge from her lived experiences as she forms an appeal directed to the influential white politician. McSpadden’s challenge to Clinton to produce meaningful change for parents who lost children to unprovoked violence shows a level of rhetorical complexity Clinton herself rarely employs in her text. In keeping with a coalition’s focus on action, McSpadden’s rhetorical questions aim for more than awareness of violence but form a call to accountability from lawmakers. By including McSpadden’s words, Clinton connects readers to the ways women of color may creatively appeal to potential allies through shared identities as a way to point out significant social differences, a move Clinton demonstrates is possible as her inclusion of McSpadden’s words in the best-selling memoir may reach audiences who may not read the activist’s work (see McSpadden; McSpadden and LeFlore), or see the Mothers’ media coverage.  

Clinton’s choice to include such a complex call for accountability forms the starting place of an ethos in vulnerability or failure. While earlier in What Happened, Clinton establishes her authority in association with former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, here she establishes her authority in association with McSpadden. This brief, yet significant, moment illustrates a central finding from the social scientists Cole and Luna’s interviews with activists in the Global Feminisms Archive – that a crucial aspect of studying feminist coalitions centers on if or how identities should be forged through the alliance (75–76), which in this case required Clinton write of herself as someone who became committed to gun reform legislation due to devastating human consequences that disproportionately impact Black communities. Through this uncomfortable association with McSpadden’s unanswerable question of accountability, I suggest Clinton forms the starting place of a form of credibility calling for readers to cross racial divisions to end gun deaths.  

This credibility is perhaps most important to attend to due to what its inclusion suggests of the Mothers’ of the Movement. Clinton establishing her authority alongside Lezley McSpadden’s call for accountability can be read as appropriation or amplification. In either interpretation, the moment’s inclusion shows McSpadden trusted Clinton enough to meet with her, to speak rather than assume her words would  not be heard, and that the epidemic of gun violence and need for police reform were significant enough to risk engaging with the politician despite risks of denial, appropriation, or further harm. Clinton’s controversial reputation did not lead this group of Black women to disengage with her and may have required she alter her consciousness of state sanctioned harm and mass incarceration following the 1994 Crime Bill. Clinton’s inclusion of the Mothers of the Movement’s can provide a reminder of the necessity to risk allyship with those who show a willingness to listen to act on a hope that future tragedies can be prevented (see Taylor 189).


Throughout What Happened, Clinton seeks to revise her controversial reputation in an attempt to offer readers avenues to influence politics following her 2016 election loss among the Electoral College. Clinton is a complex figure, which she acknowledges in the text through noting her regrets, frustrations, and many privileges due to her wealth and status. In the “Get Caught Trying” chapter, Clinton situates her presidential campaign as emerging after receiving encouragement from the previous two Democratic presidents. The “On Being a Woman in Politics” section may help readers recognize patterns of assumed distrust, and embodied vulnerability for women in US politics. In the “Turning Mourning into a Movement” chapter, Clinton describes the Mothers of the Movement group that endorsed her, and required she recognize shared family caregiving responsibilities with crucial racial differences. These humanizing features are worthwhile to direct readers to of the moment political tensions, and, from a feminist perspective, shifts in Cliton’s rhetoric that include some anti-racist consciousness.  

Other rhetoricians who engage What Happened may find it beneficial to focus on Clinton’s frequent use of rhetorical questions or calls for readers to participate in formal institutions and grassroots movements to shape civic life. Throughout the text, Clinton uses questions to ponder the causes and aftereffects of the Trump election, with questions such as: “But what more could we do?” (351) and “How can we build the trust that holds a democracy together?” (431). In one trend, Clinton points out the US’ geopolitical divisions to ask, “How many shrinking small towns and aging Rust Belt cities did I visit over the past two years where people felt abandoned, disrespected, invisible? How many young men and women in neglected urban neighborhoods told me they felt like strangers in their own land because of the color of their skin?” (431). Further examining the function of HRC’s rhetorical questions may contribute to knowledge of the books’ “uptake” and circulation (Mack and Alexander). A related project may track the strategic shifts among the ways Clinton writes of her enduring faith in the US federal government in ways that consider the intersection among political deliberative norms and the “unruly” presence of bodies at risk in physical places and online spaces (Alexander et al.). There are also potential projects that consider HRC’s What Happened in relationship to potential shifts in the rhetoric of other contemporary high-profile women’s rights advocates.  

The members of The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric recognize the many contested definitions of feminism in theory and practice along with responsibilities to ensure rhetorical knowledge is not applied in situations that justify poverty, violence, or debunked conspiracies. This organization attends to the complexity of the contexts surrounding rhetorical situations that may involve acknowledging important moments of revision because of alliances formed across differences in race, social location, and political power. A careful negotiation among trust and skepticism is crucial to study feminist coalitions and their rhetoric. As we examine deeply uncomfortable rhetoric that initially appears as straightforward appropriation, we may more fully understand the central issues that have compelled individuals to trust each other, persuade those who appear immune to change, and hold onto trust in the benefits of solidarity. 


Thank you to Shari Stenberg, Stacey Waite, and the two anonymous reviewers for their generative feedback. 

Works Cited 

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Anderson, Karrin Vasby. “Hillary Rodham Clinton as ‘Madonna’: The Role of Metaphor and Oxymoron in Image Restoration.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 25, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–24.  

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Bordo, Susan. The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. Melville House, 2017. 

Busch, Megan J. “Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second-Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger.” Peitho Journal, vol. 24, no. 24, 2021, https://cfshrc.org/article/rhetorical-failures-and-revisions-in-the-second-wave-emerging-intersectionality-in-the-ethe-of-activist-zelda-nordlinger-1/. 

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1–20. 

Chávez, Karma R. Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. U of Illinois P, 2013. 

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. What Happened. Trade Paperback Sept. 2018, Simon and Schuster, 2017. 

Cole, Elizabeth R., and Zakiya T. Luna. “Making Coalitions Work: Solidarity across Difference within US Feminism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2010, pp. 71–98. 

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, 1991 1990, p. 1241. 

Gay, Roxane. “Why I Am A Bad Feminist: Author Roxane Gay on Being a Bad Feminist and How You Can Be One Too.” Buzzfeed.Com, https://www.buzzfeed.com/roxanegay/consider-me-already-knocked-off. Accessed 3 Feb. 2022. 

Genovese, Michael A., and Lori Cox Han. “Coalitions.” Encylopedia of American Government and Civics, 2nd ed., Credo Reference, 2017, https://search-credoreference-com.libproxy.unl.edu/content/entry/fofgac/coalition/0. 

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

hooks, bell. “Feminist Politics: Where We Stand.” Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Pluto Press, 2000, pp. 1–6. 

Howell, Tracee L. “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist, or, an Apologia for Embodied Feminism.” Peitho Journal, vol. 23, no. 4, 2021, https://cfshrc.org/article/manifesto-of-a-mid-life-white-feminist-or-an-apologia-for-embodied-feminism/. 

Johnson Reagon, Bernice. “Coalitional Politics: Turning the Century.” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983, pp. 356–68. 

Kaufer, David S., and Shawn J. Parry-Giles. “Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign Memoirs: A Study in Contrasting Identities.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 103, no. 1–2, 2017, pp. 7–32.  

Kelm, Sara. What a Way to Make a Livin’: Women Constructing Ethos in Contemporary Professional Memoirs. 2021. Texas Christian University, PhD dissertaton. repository.tcu.edu, https://repository.tcu.edu/handle/116099117/47953. 

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

Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Who Is ‘What Happened’ For? Maybe Hillary Clinton Most Of All.” National Public Radio, 12 Sept. 2017. 

Lugones, Maria. “Hablando Cara a Cara/Speaking Face to Face: An Exploration of Ethnocentric Racism.” Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, pp. 1–40. 

Mack, Ashley Noel. “Foreword: Intersectionality and the Colonizing Forces of Whiteness in Feminist Communication Studies.” De-Whitening Intersectionality: Race, Intercultural Communication, and Politics, edited by Shinsuke Eguchi et al., Lexington Books, 2020, pp. ix–xv. 

Mack, Katherine, and Jonathan Alexander. “The Ethics of Memoir: Ethos in Uptake.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 1, 2019, pp. 49–70.  

McSpadden, Lezley. “Opinion | Michael Brown’s Mom, on Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.” The New York Times, 7 July 2016. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/opinion/michael-browns-mom-on-alton-sterling-and-philando-castile.html. 

McSpadden, Lezley, and Layah Beth LeFlore. Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy & Love of My Son Michael Brown. Regan Arts, 2020. 

Pough, Gwendolyn, and Stephanie Jones. “On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric: An Introductory/Manifesto Flow…” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition, vol. 23, no. 4, Summer 2021, https://cfshrc.org/article/on-race-feminism-and-rhetoric-an-introductory-manifesto-flow/. 

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

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Senior, Jennifer. “Hillary Clinton Opens Up About ‘What Happened,’ With Candor, Defiance and Dark Humor.” The New York Times, 12 Sept. 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/books/review-hillary-clinton-what-happened.html. 

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Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2016. 

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Rereading Evelyn Cameron’s Photography and the “Exceptional Woman” Myth

A few years ago, our family trip for the summer involved a trek from New Jersey to Montana, in part to follow the “Montana Dinosaur Trail” from Billings 220 miles east through the towns of Miles City, Terry, and eventually Glendive, about a half hour from the border of North Dakota.1 The southeastern area of Montana becomes increasingly rural; towns such as Terry and Glendive have one main street running through the middle and populations hovering around 5,000 each. In each of these towns, we stopped at the local “prairie museum,” including the Range Riders Museum in Miles City and the Frontier Museum in Glendive. In addition, we stopped in Terry to visit the Prairie County Museum and the Evelyn Cameron Gallery. I knew nothing about Cameron other than a brief (and rather unexciting) blurb in the travel guide that suggested stopping in Terry: “Evelyn Cameron, a pioneer photographer, took spectacular pictures of Terry and the surrounding area during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of her photos hang in the Evelyn Cameron gallery, next door to the museum” (Walker 315). We stopped for a tour.  

The Cameron Gallery was a surprise and a delight to me. First of all, as a devotee of the Progressive Era but knowing little about the settling of Montana during this period (most of my work has revolved around the East Coast, since that is where I live and work), her incredible photos revealed much about what early Montana looked liked in the years just after their 1889 statehood. Second, I had never heard of this woman, who was minor British nobility and yet an immigrant to the Wild West. She sent away for a custom split skirt (and was nearly arrested for wearing it) so that she could more safely and easily ride astride across the plains to explore, hunt, and shoot but also to photograph neighbors, workers on the railroad, and immigrants newly arriving in the area (Cameron 830). In addition to her skirt and copies of her photographs (the original glass plates have been sent to the University of Bozeman for preservation and digitization), many of her journals have also been copied and transcribed and are available for study. Overall, I was carried away by the story of Cameron herself, who was left to do the physical and financial work to maintain their ranch by herself as her husband, a self-proclaimed naturalist who was more interested in the local birds’ nests than ranching, became increasingly ill and eventually died. While Cameron initially took up photography with the idea of assisting her husband’s work in writing ornithological articles, eventually she used it to supplement the ranch’s income.   

In addition to the fact that her photos were stunning, I loved the romanticism of it—woman riding by herself across the sweeping plains to take photographs in order to increase her income! Rugged individualist! Story of exceptional woman doing exceptional things with great scenery for a backdrop! I was in. My Easterner’s gaze, colored by popular depictions of the settling of the West (and even texts like Henry Nash’s Virgin Land), would undergo significant revision as I learned more about Cameron and women’s early work on the prairie. Indeed, much of what I learned as an outsider, many others, particularly those local to the area, may already know.  

The more I learned about Cameron, the more intrigued I became. After marrying naturalist Ewen Cameron in 1889, the Camerons honeymooned in Montana.  A half-sister of Lord Battersea, it was most likely a surprise to her family when Evelyn and Ewen permanently decamped to homestead in Montana in 1893 (Lucey 17). Initially, they hoped to tame wild horses to export to England as polo ponies; Evelyn herself did most of the work of capturing and taming them, but 40% of the horses they caught and trained died on the way to England (most from pneumonia), and the trip was a financial disaster (Lucey 41). Instead, they (mostly she) turned to raising a small herd of cattle, as well as farming and more female-gendered work. Ewen spent an increasing amount of time observing wildlife and writing poorly paid articles on his naturalist findings. Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns notes that, much like the polo horse adventure, Evelyn’s initial work did not allow her to survive financially either: “She took in boarders, sold her garden vegetables to other ranchers, raised chickens, sold eggs, churned cream, and sold the butter. None of these met her financial needs” (7). While she continued to do all of those things (and many others), it was eventually her photography work that paid the greatest dividend, work that both required and allowed her to take on greater agency and more diverse roles in order to meet an increasing financial exigence.   

While I may never have heard of her, Evelyn Cameron was not a remote figure during her lifetime within her own community—Cameron’s photography became well known, although mostly to the locals in Eastern Montana.After her death in 1928, however, she seems to have faded into oblivion, and the circulation of her work ceased. In 1978, while researching women settlers in the area, historian Donna Lucey was shown Cameron’s collection of nearly 2,000 glass plate photos by beloved Cameron family friend Janet Williams, who had stored them in her basement (where they were miraculously still intact, given that they were highly flammable and stored with Cameron’s old guns and live ammunition) (Lucey x).  Cameron took shots of railroad workers, day laborers, and new settlers who had just moved to the area and wanted to send photographs of their new life back to home.  In addition, she took hundreds of photos of friends and neighbors, who, like Cameron, were often single women. Lucey was able to convince Williams to not only share the story but also to donate these valuable finds to the Montana Historical Society, where they are now housed.    

Lucey’s work was part of a larger movement, beginning in the 1970s, to develop a body of work regarding the contributions of women to Western settlement (see Jordan, Jeffrey, Stoeltje, and Myres, for example). Scholars such as Joan Jensen and Darlis Miller, as early as 1980, encouraged historians to take a multicultural approach to this work in their essay “The Gentle Tamers Revisited.”  Despite this move (and much continued work in the decades after), scholars like Susan Lee Johnson noted that an “overdetermined” relationship between “that which is Western and that which is male” continues to persist (497). In part, Johnson explains, while a “small mountain” of research has been produced about women in the West, it has largely remained unincorporated into mainstream history, instead relegated to separate chapters in the Western history books or separate conference panels: “Most mainstream scholars…leave the questions of gender to women’s historians, who are usually women historians” (497). Much in the same way that Victorian depictions of women keep the “angel in the house” alive at the expense of large bodies of working and working-class women, more popular depictions of women in the West continue to reinforce the notion, which I initially held as well, that they were rare and mythical creatures. This leaves scholars with the continual project of attempting to shift Western women’s history from an essentialist project, where women are layered on top of extant history, to a more radical one, that continues to enforce and reinforce the notion that women are indeed embedded in that history.   

The more I looked at Cameron’s images, read her diaries, and read primary and secondary sources about the homesteading movement in Montana, the more my own vision of Cameron in her surroundings began to shift as I grappled with my own sense of the “exceptionality” of women in the West that I had been trained on versus the reality of their lived experience. I realized the multiple ways in which both Cameron’s work as a photographer, as well as the images she produced, contribute to the more inclusive notions of gender and the settling of the American West that scholars have long called for. In particular, her photographs of life on the prairie in Montana between 1894 and 1928 do much to interrupt popular embedded concepts of gendered work by showing diverse work and life roles of women in “settling” and homesteading on the prairies.  


 How do viewers “read” the work of a person such as Cameron, particularly if their gaze, like mine was initially, is focused on her as exceptional? Particularly, how do we read her photographs within a sense of the American West as a continually defined male space (what Brigit Georgi-Findlay terms the persistent “frontier myth” of “solitary, innocent (male) heroes” (5))? Cameron’s work can be read most usefully through a trio of lenses: to start with, Jason Barrett-Fox’s idea of cold kairos, followed by his concept of Medio-Materialist Historiography (MMH), and then Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s theories of critical imagination and social circulation.   

Cold kairos serves as an overall frame (as well as an explanation of her lack of circulation) instead of a direct method for focused reading. Barrett-Fox defines cold kairos as “the material ability to mediate feminist critiques, acts of consciousness-raising, or stories of survival that could—or, in many cases, had no choice but to—lay dormant for huge spans of time…resting in the uncertain hope that a future audience might be willing and able to receive them” (Barrett-Fox 41).  Cameron’s lack of social circulation for many years (a concept that will be explored in greater detail later) meant that there were no “readings” of her materials for nearly half a century. In addition, cold kairos now allows for reading of Cameron’s work as what Barrett-Fox terms “survival-feminism”—agency that Cameron took on as a result of financial (and perhaps emotional) need (Barrett-Fox 31).   

Barrett-Fox’s concept of Medio-Materialist Historiography (MMH) and Royster and Kirsch’s concepts of critical imagination and social circulation, however, provide a more focused method for the majority of my readings of her work.  As part of an MMH reading, Barrett-Fox notes that several qualifications must exist, chief among them the original creator’s use of some form of “inscriptional technology” and their “facility with a particular medium,” (48) in this case defined through Cameron’s photographs. Next, “another facet of a likely candidate would be the quality with which she manipulated her chosen media and how those manipulations coincided with particular messages, critiques, or other, less overt demonstrations of (distributed) rhetorical force” (48). Importantly, in Barrett-Fox’s imagining of MMH, the material creator may not be intentionally creating feminist material, but instead is responding to the constructed circumstances (social, historical, economic) of their own lives (31).    

MMH and critical imagination/social circulation may seem like an odd mashup; however, they each have features that allow them to converse with one another. Cameron’s “demonstrations of (distributed) rhetorical force” are easily put into conversation with feminist rhetorical scholars of the American West as well as Royster and Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices. In this case, Royster and Kirsch’s concepts of strategic contemplation and social circulation are essential to reading Cameron’s work as both repeating but also reframing the myths and archetypes of the American West.  Strategic contemplation asks readers/viewers to think critically and contemplatively about sources. This, as Royster and Kirsch note, works well “when the ecologies of person, time, and space stretch beyond anointed assumptions about the ways and means of rhetorical performance” (21). Cameron can thus be read in terms of her images’ rhetorical performance, one which moves beyond “anointed assumptions” about the West long before scholars attempted to record the roles of women from the area (21).    

Kirsch and Royster’s concept of social circulation, in turn, asks readers to make “connections among past, present, and future in the sense that overlapping social circles in which women travel, live, and work are carried on or modified from one generation to the next and can lead to changed rhetorical practices” (23).  Cameron’s images lend themselves to both of these.  Women’s work in the West was known by those women to be difficult, dirty, and non-gendered. It is, however, our reliance on the frameworks that came after these women that leads popular accounts to reflect largely gendered participation (“civilization” vs. “conquest”) of women in the settling of the West. This piece will examine the oft repeated gendered mythology of the American West and the role of women in the newly developing field of photography before turning an eye to Cameron’s photographs in order to understand the ways in which Cameron used “visual appropriation” (Fleckenstein) and the manipulation of expectations for her images to reinscribe our views of women in the West. Next, I will discuss the ways in which the depression of their social circulation (creating Barrett-Fox’s “cold kairos”) has contributed to this gendered mythology and the ways in which a rereading and closer contemplation can serve as a corrective.    

The American West as Masculine/Masculinized Space 

Perhaps nowhere in history is the “exceptional woman” myth more prevalent than in long established histories and popular depictions of the settling of the Pacific Northwest and territories such as Montana. From the adventures of Lewis and Clark (and the token woman on the voyage, Sacagawea) to Custer’s Last Stand and the Battle of Little Bighorn, the history of the “settling” of the Pacific Northwest and the ranching of cattle and roping of horses has been one that has involved images of men, conquest, colonial violence, and rugged individualism. Indeed, Cameron’s own role as a settler clearly participates in this colonialism while at the same time challenging its narrative as a masculinized pursuit.  

Johnson observes that “the construction of a masculine West was part and parcel of a larger late nineteenth-century ‘crisis of manliness’ in the United States…” rather than a reflection of reality (497). Henry Nash’s 1950 Virgin Land continues this masculinized archetype of the West, where men were mythic and heroic and worked to “subdue the continent” (Nash 37). Nash adds to the notion that the conquering of the West involved strong men, conquering their surroundings in order to “civilize” them (both “taming” the land but also enacting colonial violence by destroying the buffalo and the Native American cultures they found). Readings such as Nash’s, taken as lore, have hardened that version of Western settlement for readers and remain difficult to dislodge, even when audiences are continually presented with contrary evidence.  For example, despite their significant participation in activities such as hunting and exploration, Karen Jones notes in “Lady Wildcats and Wild Women” that many women involved in this Western history have continued to be written about as “reluctant pioneers and gentle tamers,” who were imagined to leave the hardest and most rugged work to their menfolk while they attempted to bring culture to their newly civilized surroundings (37-38). As a result of these frameworks, which have been repeated in history books and popular culture, stereotypes and embedded histories of the American West remain largely male and masculine. As Jordynn Jack points out in “Redefining Rhetorical Figures through Cognitive Ecologies,” tropes such as “The American West” are “ecological and embedded” ways of helping us to make meaning (2).   

How do we then build on a body of extant scholarship but also continue to chip away at these tropes, to recognize settler colonialism, but also to mainstream a more comprehensive and inclusive view of the West? To start, the unique history of British social class behaviors disrupts some embedded ways of thinking about women in the West. In many ways, the Camerons’ background as minor nobility actually prepared them well for parts of living in the American West. Like many of the peerage, they had to been raised to ride and to shoot. While in general the British hunted for sport and not for food, the Camerons both grew up as accomplished horse people and were avid hunters (Lucey 10). In addition, by the time that the Camerons arrived in Montana for their honeymoon in 1889 with an English cook and a hired guide (Lucey 9), many British landed gentry had treated trips to the West as yet another site for safari and exploration, bringing with them varying degrees of servants and supplies (Pagnamenta 18; 97). And Evelyn Cameron’s class and “good breeding,” combined with her ability to ride and shoot, “conferred a sense of superiority on the female adventurer that often made the crossing of gender boundaries less problematic” (Jones 41). In addition, Cameron’s upbringing meant that she spoke French, German, and Italian, all of which later helped her navigate her way professionally as immigrants from those countries arrived in the area (Stearns 7). 

Given the persistent paradigms of women in the West, it is still possible, especially for those of us who grew up with the more popular masculinized version of the West, to fall into the trap of creating a “female frontier” for them, imagining them doing exceptional and difficult but still gendered work, the confines of which they did not breach (Jones 38). In this version, their presence continues to be the exception rather than the rule. This is another embedded ecology that requires intervention. Sarah Carter, in Montana Women Homesteaders, notes that women in the West were “everywhere.” For example, in addition to women who arrived with their spouses, her research found that in Yellowstone County, Montana, between 1909 and 1934, 18% of land patents were issued solely to women, “who together claimed more than 150,000 acres” (24).6 Many came alone; others came to homestead with relatives or intended spouses, increasing their land holdings by filing singly but with other family members on adjoining plots, or with intended spouses prior to their marriages (Carter 32). They also had social room to behave in ways that violated social norms in other geographical areasAs Casey Ryan Kelly notes in “Women’s Rhetorical Agency in the American West: The New Penelope,women saw moments where “material structures are open to restructuration and reinterpretation” (227) and used those moments to act. However, publications such as Nash’s (which are still taught in graduate programs in History and American Literature) reinforced the idea of women conforming to social norms, except perhaps for a few rugged individualists who did not conform to either gender or social norms and can be relegated as “exceptional” (such as Sacagawea, Annie Oakley, or Calamity Jane). Popular culture has assisted in this limited view. For example, while the Ingalls family never lived as far west as Montana, embedded tropes have led otherwise unfamiliar readers/viewers to imagine early Western women as figures like those depicted by “Ma” Ingalls—solitary, often isolated women, doing “women’s work,” such as milking, making butter, making bread from starter, gardening, raising children, and bringing a moral and civilizing force to the wilderness. Such images create a picture of solitary women on solitary ranches doing solitary (and certainly gendered) work.   

This is not to say that women in the West did not perform such gendered work. Indeed, scholarship about women’s presence in the West shows the ways that many women both enacted versions of being a “taming force” while still breaking the confines of traditional behaviors.  As Andrea Radke notes in “Redefining Rural Spaces,” while many of these women were living in the harshest of conditions, they still sought to bring culture and refinement to their domestic spaces. Their adaptive behaviors included “access to material goods and literary culture, and the performance of civilizing manners and behavior that represented ‘proper’ Euro-American civilization” (227). Photos taken of women in clean dresses, hair done and jewelry on, or photos of families near a piano or pump organ, were often seen as evidence that the Wild West was not so wild, and that women’s presence there contributed to this domestication (227). While men are described throughout the popular literature as “taming” the West, women are charged with then “domesticating” and “civilizing” it. Many, of course, did both.  

This embedded thinking can be and often is exclusionary and creates a “part-whole” thinking that can allow us, in cases like Cameron’s, to continue to read her photographs as exceptions rather than commonplace because it better suits our popular cultural frameworks. Applegarth comments on the danger of exceptionalist discourse as having “limited the significance of women’s performances of professional competence by treating even widespread performances, across myriad public and professional spaces, as aberrations, exceptions to a norm of absence, invisibility, and unsuitability” (533). This leaves readers still at risk of reading Cameron’s images as exceptional, regardless of our training to do otherwise. Indeed, the few tropes typically presented and re-presented of women settling in the West (homesteaders’ wives, for example), are present in many of Cameron’s photos. But so too, are the multiple other roles that we may think of as exceptional instead of commonplace. Neighbors and dear friends to the Camerons, Janet and Mabel Williams, for example, arrived with their brother and parents in 1907, each staking a land claim in order to create large holdings for the family (Lucey x). The Buckley sisters, Mabel, May, and Myrtle, on the other hand, ran a ranch with their mother since their father was routinely away for “roundups and other ranch business” (Lucey 54). These working women, as Cameron’s images will show below, do not fit popular tropes but were common rather than exceptional, and exemplify the gender-inclusive frameworks of Western history presented since the late 1970s.  

Women’s work in the West can’t be imagined as a monolith either. The work of women in Montana did change, even in the years just after the Camerons arrived. While the Camerons settled after the landscape had been forcibly cleared of most native inhabitants, initially they were surrounded by other English-speaking immigrants (including other British) who had moved to the West. Most of them homesteaded and kept large gardens as well as horses or cattle. As time went on, though, the immigrants in the area included more Germans, Italians, Russians, and Irish. The way they made their living changed, and thus, women’s work also changed. Cameron herself was aware of the ways in which this change had manifested itself. Writing “The ‘Cowgirl’ in Montana” for the generally British audience of Country Life in 1914, Cameron defined the cowgirl not as a dairy maid, but as the “feminine counterpart of cowboys—riding in similar saddles, on similar horses, for the purpose of similar duties, which they do, in fact, efficiently perform” (829). These women, according to her, were “accomplished in the incidental work of branding cattle, breaking horses, and throwing the lasso” (830). As time went on and the work in the area changed, the immigrants changed to include “Russo-Germans” and they began what Cameron terms “dry-farming” (cultivating crops without irrigation) (831). Her characterization of the women in particular conveys a sense for the difficult work that these women took on as well as her respect for them.  

The female members of the Russo-Germans who have swarmed over the prairie like ants take outdoor work even more seriously than the cowgirls whom they replace. Russo-German girls in their teens successfully perform every kind of farm labour, and may be seen ploughing from daylight to dark, sacking and hauling grain, haymaking, or driving up the cows on their great draught colts, ridden bareback. (Cameron 831)

While the work in Montana changed as more people moved in to settle, the fact that women’s work was gender diverse did not.    

Women in Photography 

If women’s typical work in the West has created conflicting moments in depictions of the West (or moments to ignore altogether), I wondered about the place of women in professional photography during this same time period. Since, as Lucaites and Hariman observe, photographs “shape and mediate understanding of specific events and periods,” how is this transformed if women are involved (38)? While the women in Cameron’s photographs might or might not be doing traditionally gendered female work, photography itself was seen as an acceptable realm for women to either “dabble” in or even to make a living from. While Cameron used dry glass plate photography methods instead of film, Kodak’s photography marketing helped to usher in support for the female photographerTheir development in the 1880s of the “Kodak Girl” (similar to the Progressive Era Gibson Girl) also shows the melding of the independent woman and the angel of the house. Kodak’s “Kodak Girl” imagined “the modern woman was fun-loving and independent. She now felt free to go out and explore the world—and she was taking her Kodak camera with her!” (“The Kodak Girl”). As the angel of her house, she also became responsible for making sure that as “responsible mothers and wives, they would ensure that all key moments were duly captured” (“The Kodak Girl”). Where women could not afford cameras and their associated costs, those with the means used photographers like Cameron to record such moments. Indeed, many of the photographs that Cameron took were meant to document such family life and were sent home by new immigrants to show family back home their new environs (Lucey 163).

Photography was seen as more than a hobby, though. An 1897 article in Ladies Home Journal by Frances Benjamin Johnston details the acceptability of photography as a new profession for women. In “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera,” Johnston notes that under carefully planned circumstances such as understanding local supply and demand and advertising carefully, professional photography could be a lucrative profession for women. However, Nicole Hudgins’ research, primarily in England and Europe, reveals that while photography was often seen as acceptable for women, it was often in the context of unskilled work—women were more likely to work as “relatively low-paid helpers in the studio (as retouchers, mounters, and receptionists” rather than as camera and/or darkroom operators (163). In reality, Evelyn Cameron was not concerned about whether or not society felt her photography was an acceptable practice. Early on, she discovered that she was a talented photographer and that it was an efficient and effective way to supplement her income. She also developed and refined her business acumen as she continued, leaving local advertisements for her photography services at the Fallon and Terry post offices, including a poster with sample prints and a price list (Lucey 160; 157). Cameron used the post office as a “nerve center” to collect and leave messages regarding her photography services (Lucey 156). While an initial attempt to set up a photography studio in town folded after six weeks, her communication system using the post office seemed to work well. She then used her kitchen for a darkroom, processing photos at night, which eliminated the need for a studio and darkroom space separate from the house (Lucey 122).  

In the end, Johnston’s vision of the female photographer thus remains more conservative than what Cameron enacted. Johnston imagines a woman working in or even owning a studio with an accompanying darkroom. This would be a suitable locale, separate from her home sphere, for portraits taken with customers arranged in front of static backgrounds (Johnston). Carrying her photography supplies for miles while riding astride through the badlands, meeting transient workers at the railroad tracks, climbing out onto rock ledges and into canyons, and developing photos in her kitchen may not have been seen as the womanly work that Johnston imagined. Overall, though, the actual work of photography was deemed acceptable for women at this time. And photograph she did. While in many instances as we read history, we must critically imagine roles in ways that require us to extrapolate substantial information, Cameron’s photos instead provide proof for those moments.

Evelyn Cameron:  Photographer 

Cameron began her photography in 1894, when a lodger, a Mr. Adams, offered to teach her amateur photography. She did not initially choose the popular Kodak film cameras available at the time. While there is no record of her first camera model, she chose instead to work with dry-plate glass photography (Lucey 122). By 1895, she wrote to her mother-in-law “It is very fascinating work but it requires a lot of practice” (Lucey 122). She was able to quickly get that practice as friends and neighbors requested photos. After experimenting briefly with a Kodak film camera and finding the tone and clarity disappointing, Cameron ordered a No. 5 Kodet that could be used with either plates or film. Lucey describes it as a “moderately priced folding camera, fitted with a Bausch & Lomb shutter” (123). It was also a heavy camera to transport—9 pounds without the tripod or the extra glass plates (Lucey 131). Eventually, she switched to a 5×7 “Graflex with a German-made Goerz lens” (Lucey xi). While initially she sustained some losses as she experimented with her methods, Cameron was eventually able to use her photography money to substantially contribute to her income. An undated sign with sample photos advertised her services at 25c each, $1.75 per half dozen, and $3.00 for a dozen. By 1904 she was charging $5 for albums with two dozen pictures, which were often purchased as family keepsakes or to send back home (Lucey 160). While in 1899 she recorded a loss of $4.92 in her diaries (Lucey 156), within five years she was successfully photographing locals and local work, including photographing work on the railroad (primarily by Italians). She had also come to the notice of railroad executives who bought photos in order to advertise the local geography to potential homesteaders (Lucey 163). Lucey points out that as a photographer with facility in four languages, Cameron “was probably one of the few people who could always move freely from one immigrant group to another” (Lucey 164)

Cameron’s Photos and “Women’s Work”  

Cameron’s images can be divided into four major types—portraits, photobooks, naturalist photos (often used to illustrate her husband’s work), and depictions of everyday local life. Cameron certainly focused on many of the men in her world—ranchers, miners, and railroad crews. While her photos show many “typical” images of women inside (or outside) of their homes, upon closer examination, however, they do not simply reveal token women. Instead, working against the popular notion of “men taming the west,” Cameron’s photographs repeatedly show local women responding to, as Barrett-Fox notes, the social, historic, and economic needs in their lives through their work on the land (31).  Indeed, Cowgirl scholars identify ranch women of the early West as falling into the categories of “trailblazing figureheads [and] resourceful adapters” (Henneman 155).  Henneman’s “resourceful adapters” result in Barrett-Fox’s “survival feminists” (6). Cameron’s work to keep the ranch going and to attempt to turn a profit involved an impressive list of tasks:  she “chopped wood, dug coal, tended a huge garden, raised chickens, milked the cow, branded, dehorned, and castrated cattle, broke colts, skinned and butchered animals both wild and domestic, cooked, baked, and scrubbed pots, pans, clothes, floors, and walls with no hired help and little to no help from her husband” (Hager 4). To this, of course, she added professional photography. Like Cameron, most settler women did not typically involve themselves in non-traditional ranch work out of a sense that they were blazing the trail for future women. Instead, it was a pragmatic matter of financial survival for many of them.   

In addition, in a factor that would likely be a surprise to scholars such as Henry Nash, many of the women, including Cameron, truly enjoyed the work they did. One of the most often quoted passages from Cameron’s diaries in the secondary sources that I read was her description of such work. She wrote “Manual labour is about all I care about, and after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden” (Lucey xii).  And yet, even sources that talk about how much fulfillment she got from doing such work include pushbacks against it. In “Under the Big Sky,” for example, after listing the above daily entry from Evelyn’s diary, the authors comment “Ranch life was not all drudgery” (68). Yet nowhere from Cameron’s descriptions do we think that she viewed it that way. Hard, valuable work, yes. Drudgery, no.  

Donna Lucey’s expectations of the difficult work that Cameron did were initially similar. She writes:  

The fact that Evelyn was female, British, and well born led me to expect that her diaries would be a chronicle of exasperation with the drudgery and boredom of the frontier, animated only by lofty contempt for the crude American frontiersman.  I found the opposite: a woman who was thrilled by the independence, the rigors, and the dangers of pioneer life. (xii)   

In reality, Lucey’s initial perception is born from conscribed expectations of turn of the century American women as well as from embedded tropes of the American West.   

As previously mentioned, it is worth noting that many of Cameron’s photos do show women in typical and gendered roles. They wanted to show their families that they were succeeding, not making social waves, in their new environments. Much like any current photographs, they also wanted to show the best side of their new lives rather than the difficult and dirty parts. As a result, many of her subjects dressed well and showed either their belongings or their houses in the photographs that Cameron took of them. The image of Fanny Wright below shows exactly what people outside of the area typically expected to know about women in the West. She is welldressed, and heavy textiles adorn the floor and the top of the piano. The fact that there is a piano shows that she is a woman of means and culture. She has pillows and curtains, and the walls are adorned with what the Montana library identifies as a painting of “Al Wright on horseback.” Lastly, she is reading a book, showing her as both literate and cultured. The image reflects Jones’ concept that many people considered women in the West as civilizing influences. The image of Wright conforms to this, and visually reassures viewers that women in the West were civilized and discerning—proper women, doing proper work.  

A seated woman holds a pillow and a book on her lap as she poses to the side of a piano

Figure 1: Fanny Wright reading in her living room, 1905.

Circling back to Jones’ notion that many women in the West were continually read as “reluctant pioneers and gentle tamers,”  many families wanted to show their relatives back home a grander, easier version of their lives than what their reality most likely involved (37). Figure 1 exemplifies one of the many photos that Cameron took for newcomers to preserve a record of their new lives.  

However, while many of Cameron’s images show traditional home and family images with women in traditional roles, an additional group of them show work that viewers like myself, raised on pop culture notions of the West, would typically think of and associate with Montana—the work of roping cattle and working with horses.  In Figure 2, Evelyn Cameron is on a horse and has captured a cow; Ewen Cameron is branding it. From my own perspective, this image didn’t unsettle my expectations of Western history too much at first glance. Viewers like me might critically imagine that this is a photo of a wife helping a husband with typical ranch work. And yet, a closer look reveals that while Evelyn Cameron appears to be wearing a skirt, she is instead sitting fully astride her horse and her skirt is “split”—it looks like a skirt, but is instead really more of a gaucho. As well, while she is wearing a white top, the sleeves are rolled up and her arms are bare and tanned. Lastly, she is wearing work boots. Mentally, however, viewers with associations like my initial ones might dismiss the gendered nature of this by claiming that Ewen Cameron is clearly doing the “harder” work of branding the cow. While this photo piques our interest and begins the potential process of contemplation, we might be able to dismiss it as a potentially unique situation, and not really “that” different. As the MMH framework helps us to read, the rhetorical implications of this sends a specific message that is not particularly disruptive of many embedded ecologies of women in the West

A woman wearing a split skirt sits astride a horse while a man brands a cow that she has roped

Figure 2: Ewen and Evelyn Cameron Branding Cow

A woman wearing a split skirt sits astride a horse while another woman brands a roped cow

Figure 3: Mabel and Janet Williams Branding Cow

Figure 3’s image of the Williams sisters, in much the same pose as Evelyn and Ewen Cameron, however, forced my own strategic contemplation of women in the West to expand past stereotype and required me to at least begin to reject popular embedded notions of roles of women in the West. Both women are active in this photo. Both are gendered in the sense that they appear to be wearing skirts, but the rider reveals that this is also a split skirt. The rider’s pose astride the horse is also “masculine” (like Cameron, the Williams found sidesaddle both inconvenient and dangerous for this type of ranch work). Both wear hats (to keep off the sun) and work boots. As well, one wears heavy work gloves. But the fact that both participants in this traditionally depicted male activity are female forced me to reimagine the roles of these women in Montana. While Cameron is simply intending to record her neighbors (and friends) at work, this manipulation of my thinking changed the message and its distributed rhetorical force  as I tried to imagine this as a space for many women, and not just for a few (Barrett-Fox 48). This can be a jarring experience for the viewer, though, and one that they might reject. As Risa Applegarth comments, “the embodied occupation of spaces where women haven’t been [or, as I would argue, we haven’t imagined them being,] draws startling attention to unspoken prohibitions against women’s bodies entering such spaces” (543, emphasis original). Or, if they do enter such spaces, viewers might try to make the reading safer for themselves and imagine that they do so in limited ways, as exceptional cases. Hariman and Lucaites follow this in visual rhetorical terms as the “individuated aggregate” “whereby the population as a whole is represented solely by specific individuals” (38). If viewers aren’t used to seeing other individuals representing what popular culture has led us to believe is the “correct” representation, the experience can be jolting. Rhetorically speaking, Janice Rushing draws on Lloyd Bitzer’s work as she prompts that this is an exigency to the myth of Western settlement, commenting, “Exigencies can be societal conditions or institutions that threaten one or more aspects of the myth” (17). In this case, the exigency does not change the myth, but requires viewers to work harder to try to create a rereading, or even a new version of the myth, or to somehow excuse the presence of these women. And yet, photo after photo from Cameron shows women doing this type of work, further contributing to Johnson’s “mountain of evidence” regarding women’s roles in the West while simultaneously contributing to a framework that locals likely already know.   

 That does not mean that society at large accepted these women’s place within the myth or read against the myth in any sustained way. For instance, word spread of the Buckley sisters, who were also frequent subjects of Cameron’s photographs.

Three women sit astride horses. There is a roped cow laying down in the middle of the three.

Figure 4: Buckley girls with roped cow


Figure 5: Mabel, May, and Myrtle Buckley Roping Horse

Figure 5: Mabel, May, and Myrtle Buckley Roping Horse

The work that the Buckley sisters completed was received as so unusual outside of their Montana community as to make them spectacle: “Carnival managers tried to hire the sisters, and they were invited to perform for Theodore Roosevelt, but they declined” (Lucey 54). While shows regarding the Wild West were popular at the time, the Buckley sisters considered their work part of their professional and personal lives, not a matter of show.  

We can contrast the work of the Buckley girls and their sense of themselves in Figures 4 and 5 with the photographic work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, who was mentioned earlier. Johnston wrote extensively about the feminine qualities that women could bring to photography, and in particular, portraiture. Johnston, in seeing certain roles for women in photography, worked within Victorian virtues and argued for a space for herself within them. However, Cameron’s photos read well beyond this. She is not attempting to live within Johnston’s confines, but rather to document what she realistically saw and lived every day. Barrett-Fox’s MMH readings allow us to think about the rhetorical work of Cameron’s photography as a mediation of her world. Cameron strategically uses her chosen medium in order to manipulate her message: the very existence of her photographs shows her willingness to take on agency for herself and reimagine her role while she presented outside viewers reimagined roles of the women who lived and worked around her (Barrett-Fox 48). Her disruptive message of the popular myth of American women in the West is that women could and did do the work of men on the Montana prairies. They expanded their own roles far beyond “civilizing forces,” (or beyond Royster and Kirsch’s “anointed assumptions”) and they not only were good at such work but also enjoyed it. Cold kairos allows us to say that these are feminist messages—women were participating in this world despite repeated attempts of scholars and historians (such as Nash) to write them out of it or of Wild West shows to write them in as spectacle. Viewing these photos through a mediated gaze allows viewers such as myself to move beyond the pop culture or even Nash’s reading of the West to create scholars’ desired multi-layered roles of women’s work in the West

The Erasure of Evelyn Cameron 

Laurie Gries notes that the concept of circulation can be seen “in terms of spatiotemporal flow as well as a cultural-rhetorical process” (3). In part, the notion of actual physical social circulation explains why nobody recognized Cameron’s work, much less her inclusion as part of the women in the Western narrative, for many years. Kristi Hager notes that after Cameron’s death, her photos were really only seen in private family albums (10). In addition, Hager also observes that the circulation that most famous photographers achieve, with gallery showings, publicity, and reprints, was never a part of Cameron’s career (10). And, in 1928, the time of Cameron’s death, Hager points out that “the general public was not yet nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of dry land farming” and other facets of early Montana life, making her images of less interest at the time (Hager 10). All of these factors contributed to the lack of social circulation and the development of cold kairos surrounding Cameron’s work.   

In addition, Cameron’s photographs moved from being public and locally available for sale to private upon her death. Janet Williams, who inherited the Cameron’s ranch and all of the Cameron belongings, was particularly reluctant to share them. Donna Lucey, who initially put Cameron back into circulation in the late 1970s, only learned of Cameron by accident when she was researching the history of women pioneers. As Lucey recalls, “a curator at the Montana Historical Society in Helena mentioned that there was an old farm woman in the eastern part of the state who was hoarding a cache of glass-plate negatives made by a woman during the frontier days. The owner had deflected all efforts by the historical society to view

it” (Lucey ix). Eventually, Williams allowed Lucey to view the collection, and upon her death, it was donated to the Montana Historical Society. But by then, the photos had largely been out of circulation for approximately 50 years, waiting quietly for their kairotic moment.  

The social circulation of these photos also explains, in part, their silence after Cameron’s death. Social circulation asks us to think about “where our research originates, where it travels, and how it connects communities, generations, and different locations” (Royster and Kirsch 105). Indeed, during her own life, Cameron’s collection of photographs circulated in conscribed ways. While she initially had photographed homesteaders, most of whom had moved from the East Coast of the US, her work changed as immigration patterns changed; she began to photograph newcomers to the area, including Russian and German immigrants and Italian and sometimes Greek railroad workers (Lucey 163). But these photographs, while prized by the families, again did not circulate where they might have gained Cameron notoriety and fame as a photographer. Instead, many of the photographs stayed local in family photobooks. Some of the photographs circulated away from Montana—but primarily to go back “home,” and home was often Germany, Russia, Italy, etc. They do not seem to have circulated outside of the Western US in ways that would create a large enough ripple, leave a lasting impact, or intervene in larger audiences’ thinking about the settling of the West.  

It was only after Lucey’s discovery of the photographs in 1978 that Cameron’s work developed a more national circulation, and even that has taken some years to accomplish. Lucey’s books, as well as both popular and scholarly articles/books about Cameron, have helped to increase her circulation. The online collections of both The Montana Memory Project and the Evelyn Cameron gallery continue to increase this circulation, making access to some of her photos globally available. Lastly, the development of the Evelyn Cameron Gallery, opened to the public in 2005, has given Cameron a professional gallery space for exhibitions and sales of reprints. Digital technology has, of course, increased her circulation in ways that were not available to her in her lifetime. However, during her life, the rhetorical impact of Cameron’s photographs was limited not only by their locale but also in the more private, family-based ways in which they circulated (either in Montana or overseas).   


Ann George, Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick, writing about women between the World Wars, argue that “While a successful individual showed what one woman could do, multiple examples did not suggest what women in general could do, nor did they dislodge larger cultural beliefs about what women should do” (11, emphasis original). But the large groups of photographs indicating women’s work that Cameron provides also do not show what women must and did do, both in order to survive, and in order to simply do what needed to be done (and, perhaps, to safely do work that they enjoyed). In this sense, Cameron’s visual embodiment of 1900 Montana through her lens (literally), asks us to embrace the distributed rhetorical force of Cameron’s images and continue the work of feminist Western historians to emphasize the place for women’s bodies—as photographers, as ranchers, and as women doing independent work. If, as scholars like Johnson claim, we must continue to reinforce the idea of women in Montana at the turn of the century in order to disrupt popular conceptions that exclude them, we must read and reread them into the landscape. In order to continue the inclusive history of the West that scholars have been emphasizing since the late 1970s we must continue to reimagine our rhetorical interpretations of women’s presence. Particularly for outsiders raised on the popular culture myth of the masculine West, we must, instead of making them exceptional, reinforce that their active participation in the very historically male depiction of life on early homesteads and ranches was commonplace, and that they themselves rejected the notion that it was spectacle. In this case, however, the lack of social circulation of her images after Cameron’s death meant that her work was excluded from this project—it did not help to “normalize” the space so that other women could participate in the life of ranching, cattle work, and horse work, without continuing to be portrayed in popular depictions of the West as exceptional.    

Barrett-Fox’s concept of MMH is connected to ideas of women’s places and women’s work. Workplaces “provide women avenues to address and negotiate the ever-present production and negotiation of gender (among other kinds of power)” (13). Was the work of these women, and Cameron’s work in photographing them, exceptional? To my mind, of course. They did work that I could not imagine doing, in a landscape that was harsh and unforgiving. But to simply celebrate their individual exceptionalism is to ignore their story of community and the sharing of reenvisioned roles that is brought to life by Evelyn Cameron’s amazing photography.   

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Walker, Carter. Moon Montana: With Yellowstone National Park. Moon, 2015.   

The Quest for Meaningful Work: Enacting New True Woman Values via Epideictic Rhetoric

“. . . her development of strength need not detract from her womanliness or make her one degree less lovable. She will be less dependent but more companionable. Her work itself is becoming more and more adapted to her own tastes and her ability to perform it, and it is a duty imposed on all who have the power to advance her interests to unite by word and deed in clearing away all false ideas of the true woman’s position in the world” (Rayne 16). 

With the number of occupations for women increasing in the late nineteenth century, Martha Louise Rayne recognized a strong link between self-fulfillment and meaningful labor.  In What Can a Woman Do or Her Position in the Business and Literary World, Rayne, a nineteenth-century American journalist, invited readers to learn about rewarding occupations that offer more than a paycheck and mindless domestic toil. Rayne’s emphasis on independence and personal satisfaction evokes images of the New Woman, a nineteenth-century feminist ideal that contrasted with the True Woman.  

Barbara Welter clearly defines True Womanhood via traditional nineteenth-century ideals: “The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues—piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. . . Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power” (Welter 152). Whereas the New Woman starkly contrasts with the True Woman: “Tethered to the professional woman, the educated woman, the club woman, and the political woman, the figure of the New Woman represented virtues at odds with the cult of domesticity: secularism vs. piety, sexual freedom vs. purity, independence vs. domesticity” (Patterson 2). Based on New Woman’s ties to independence and public space, Martha Patterson identifies numerous types of New Women: “suffragist, prohibitionist, clubwoman, college girl, American girl, socialist, capitalist, anarchist, pickpocket, bicyclist, barren spinster, mannish woman, outdoor girl, birth-control advocate, modern girl, eugenicist, flapper, blues woman, lesbian, and vamp” (2). The New Woman examples imply a power to choose, speak, travel, and challenge authority.   

Considering the differences between the two ideals, Rayne avoided alienating her audience, specifically those aligned with True Womanhood’s values. She promised women readers the occupations within her work foster “strength” and “independence” while affording women the ability to maintain their “womanliness” and lovableness (16). Wedged between two contrasting ideologies when promoting rewarding occupations for women, Rayne appeals to a broad audience by reconceptualizing the working True Woman. She challenges the either/or dichotomy of the New Woman and True Woman by rhetorically melding the two ideologies forming what Nancy Myers refers to as the New True Woman. The New True Woman “blends and modifies social expectations about women’s respectability with the individual woman’s need and desire to engage in meaningful work” (Myers 43). The New True Woman labors for more than her family. She serves the public as well as strives to perform meaningful work. Laboring within a domesticated workspace, she solidifies her connection to domesticity while engaging in meaningful work to attain “financial independence” and “self-fulfillment” through her “resourcefulness” and “critical thinking” (Myers 43). 

To persuade readers to enact New True Woman’s values in their quest for an occupation, Rayne utilizes epideictic rhetoric to educate her readers in What Can a Woman Do or Her Position in the Business and Literary World. In this paper, I argue that Rayne blends True Woman and New Woman values to promote the working New True Woman. Through my analysis of Rayne’s work, I demonstrate that she utilizes the New True Woman’s values of resourcefulness, critical thinking, and self-fulfillment as a basis for educating or guiding readers’ conduct through praising and blaming.  

My analysis of Rayne’s work builds on the definition of epideictic rhetoric’s education function. Although many definitions of epideictic hinge on Aristotle’s notion of praising or blaming a person or thing, I focus on contemporary epideictic rhetoric centered on the “conduct and values within communities addressed or invoked” (Sheard 771). Grounded in its etymological definition of “showing forth, of display, of demonstration, of making known, of shining,” epideictic rhetoric shows forth “shared values of a community. These are the values the epideictic upholds, the foundation from which a rhetor can praise or blame” (Moe 436). In the context of education, Peter Wayne Moe observes that rhetors engage in “seeing what shared values in the community are troubling and then resisting them, rewriting them even, through praise and blame” (Moe 452). Utilizing Moe’s description of epideictic rhetoric’s education function as a framework for my analysis, I attend to the resistance of True Womanhood values in the first half and focus on Rayne’s use of epideictic rhetoric as a way to rewrite True Woman’s values in light of New True Woman’s values.  In the second half, I demonstrate the enactment as well as challenges to New True Woman’s values exhibited by the labor of nineteenth-century boardinghouse owners, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s and Julia Wolfe in domesticated workspaces.  

Resisting True Womanhood’s Troubling Values  

For Rayne, True Womanhood’s values imposed troubling restrictions on women as its emphasis on domesticity intertwined with the separate spheres ideology that refers to “the idea that men and women operated within separate spheres as a result of inherent physical and mental differences” (Amnéus 10). Regarding physical differences, women’s ability to give birth automatically linked them to the domestic spaces, meaning private homelike spaces for them to nurture others and perform domestic labor while men’s primary role as providers established their position within public spaces, places of commerce and competition. However, in connection to mental differences, Aileen Kraditor notes that the Industrial Revolution “broadened the distinctions between men’s and women’s occupations and certainly provoked new thinking about the significance and permanence of their respective ‘spheres’” (9). With many women lacking the education or skills needed to apply for new technologically advanced jobs and being tied to the domestic spaces due to childcare, men automatically became ideal candidates for jobs within public spaces as many moved from working alongside their wives on the family farm to working in factories. Thus, the divide between men’s and women’s labor widened, leaving women in the home as men pursued work in public spaces.   

While the Industrial Revolution’s role in separate spheres ideology makes it appear that all women remained nestled in domestic spaces, numerous lower and lower-middle class women worked in public spaces as unskilled factory workers, maids, cooks, and seamstresses. Lower-class women’s presence in public spaces prevented them from completely fulfilling the expectations and ideals associated with the domestic sphere tied to True Womanhood: “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152). 

Discouraging many women from entering occupations outside of homemaker and limiting them to household drudgery’s monotonous work, True Woman’s long-standing values prove difficult to resist due to women’s social status and reputation tethered to domesticity. Gerda Lerner interpreted True Womanhood “as a vehicle by which middle-class women elevated their own status. ‘It is no accident,’ Lerner wrote in 1969, ‘that the slogan ‘woman’s place is in the home’ took on a certain aggressiveness and shrillness precisely at the time when increasing numbers of poorer women left their homes to become factory workers’” (qtd. in Kerber 12). True Womanhood’s values, entrenched in the separate spheres ideology, function as an ideal for white middle and upper-class women. 

In resistance to True Womanhood’s troubling values, Rayne recognizes the connection between True Womanhood’s values and women’s lack of financial independence, especially lower-class women, widows, and unmarried women. Rayne criticizes True Womanhood values’ punishing ties to social class as she declares, The day has gone by when a woman who enters any pursuit of industry loses caste (12). She precedes to define her audience as well as pinpoint specific groups of women suffering as they cling to domesticity to uphold their social standing: 

There are true womanly women, who may not have another opportunity of making themselves a home, for whom providence has furnished no mate—women who are denied marriage, or who prefer a life of single independence to taking up with one lame offer; or, it may be, they are already married, but have no taste or strength for domestic work, and prefer to bear the mutual burden in their own way. There are other women who have time from the duties and obligations of housework to earn a little pin money, and turn an honest penny, for their own profit. (Rayne 14)

Rayne identifies True Womanhood’s ties to domesticity and social class as a barrier that prevents married women from earning supplemental income, discourages impoverished single women from working, and forces those with a distaste for domestic labor to continue their household drudgery. In each scenario, women fear that they will lose their social standing and, as a result, they sacrifice their financial stability and contentment derived from engaging in meaningful labor.  

Laying blame on True Womanhood’s values, Rayne’s epideictic rhetoric “invokes shared values as a basis for promoting a vision of what could be” (Sheard 766). From impoverished single women to wealthy married women desiring extra spending money, each group values financial stability and self-fulfillment. Amidst Rayne’s disapproval of True Womanhood’s domesticity tied to caste, readers imagine what their lives could be like if they discarded the false belief that their social standing rested on whether they labored in a public or domesticated workspace.  

Prompting readers to dispel their false beliefs and imagine enriching their lives through meaningful labor, Rayne conveys epideictic rhetoric’s efficacy. Sheard infers, “Its [epideictic’s] efficacy depends today as it did in antiquity on kairos or ‘exigency’ in the broadest sense (not just ‘occasion’ of discourse, but what makes the occasion what it is—the critical convergence of time, place, and circumstance, including audience’s needs, desires, expectations, attitudes, resources, and so on)” (771). The dilemma of choosing between maintaining their social status and working plagued middle and lower-class women as separate spheres ideology and True Womanhood’s values flourished during the Industrial Revolution. However, for some, particularly single women, the only choice was to “work or starve” (Rayne 14). Considering the urgency to help women, What Can a Woman Do or Her Position in the Business and Literary World informs women of meaningful occupations and serves as a guide for their conduct in the workplace. Rayne’s work fulfills their needs and educates them on the values that lead to fulfilling work while avoiding missteps.  

However, Rayne’s epideictic rhetoric utilizes working women’s missteps to guide readers’ conduct. Rayne observes,  

The number of incompetent women who attempt to conduct a business they know absolutely nothing about, is almost incredible, and they work harder, to make ignominious failures, than the educated woman does to succeed. But in one sense they are themselves educators; they are many of them pioneers in the work they have chosen, and their mistakes serve as warnings to other women who, armed with their energy, added to a practical knowledge of business in its many details, will accomplish all that they failed to do. (15) 

Pioneers’ successes and failures help advance Rayne’s New True Woman’s values through praise and blame. Although Rayne never references specific pioneers, their performances in workspaces help reify New True Woman’s values. The next section dedicated to resourcefulness and critical thinking showcase pioneers’ behavior. Rayne references the working women’s behavior to rewrite community values through praise and blame as she promotes New True Woman’s values of resourcefulness, critical thinking, and self-fulfillment that potentially lead to financial independence and contentment.  

Rewriting True Womanhood’s Values to Promote New True Woman’s Values 

In the sections dedicated to New True Woman’s resourcefulness, critical thinking, and self-fulfillment, I demonstrate Rayne’s use of epideictic rhetoric to educate readers through praise and blame as well as persuade them to enact New True Woman’s values.  

Self-Fulfillment in Domesticated Workspaces 

With numerous chapters dedicated to discussing domesticated workspaces, Rayne praises domesticity in advising women to pursue occupations such as boardinghouse keeper, beekeeper, engraver, and cook where their business is an extension of their home and labor benefits the public as they pursue their interests. Similarly, the book’s illustrations reinforce domesticity amidst advocating for diverse occupations to promote women’s financial independence. For instance, a squirrel, tree branches heavy with leaves, and a farmhouse surround the table of contents. Its domestic imagery praises domesticity while the chapter titles showcase numerous occupations that persuade readers to create their own domesticated workspaces.  

However, within the chapters, Rayne resists the notion of conflating women’s labor for her family with laboring for the public in a professional capacity. In a chapter dedicated to keeping boarders, Rayne praises separating work from family life: “In the best boarding house the landlady is never seen, except when business requires her. She has her own room, which is also her office, and boarders go there to see her, engage board, pay bills, or make complaints” (270). The boardinghouse keeper ideally functions in a professional capacity and interacts with boarders in the professional space of the office instead of the domestic spaces in the home.  

  Similarly, Rayne praises dressmakers who separate their business from the domesticated parts of the home: “And, above all, let her keep her domestic troubles and the wrangles of her workroom out of sight, and as separate from her business life, as she would the bread and butter of the nursery from her customers’ silks and satins” (218). Such advice emphasizes the importance of the physical separation between the home and business through the illustration of keeping a nursery’s physical objects away from work-related materials. Separation yields a sense of fulfillment in labor performed in a professional capacity for those outside of the family.  

Critical Thinking and Resourcefulness  

In the chapter “Dressmakers and Dressmaking,” Rayne blames dressmakers for their failure to utilize critical thinking to advise customers.  

I presume there are three dressmakers out of every twenty-five who present the appearance and manners of ladies to their customers. The dressmaker we most frequently meet with, even in the highest grades of the profession, is a dilapidated looking woman, dressed haphazardly in a cheap, ill-fitting costume, who has nothing in her own appearance to suggest a single idea of what her work is. Instead of being interested in her customers’ wants, she begins a doleful story of how one girl is sick and another has left her in the middle of the season, without giving warning, or relate her own domestic troubles, or the remissness of some of her customers. When she finally gives her attention she brings in an armful of French fashion papers, and asks the customer to select something, instead of selecting and suggesting the styles herself, and the lady, who wants her new dress stylishly and fashionably made, goes away with no idea of what it is to be, and with no confidence that the dressmaker knows any more about it than she does. (217-218)

Although the poorly attired dressmaker complains about the struggles in her personal and professional life, when she turns her attention to customers, she takes on the role of a servant as she presents the customers with the French fashion papers and waits for their selection. The dressmaker fails to place herself in the position of a fashion expert. Instead, she views the customer, who is more than likely a middle or upper-class woman, as an expert in matters of fashion. They possess the ability to pay for her services, so they have the power to choose a dress according to their personal taste without any interference from a working-class dressmaker. Instead of being a fashion expert, the sewing professional transforms into a present yet invisible servant as she takes measurements, makes alterations or garments to satisfy her clients, and toils endless hours. 

Rayne’s critiques highlight epideictic’s rhetorical potential to initiate change. Sheard extrapolates, “Often enough, negative images of what is or could be provide powerful incentives for change” (770). Such negative images illuminate dressmakers’ lack of critical thinking in terms of analyzing their own clothing’s messages or failure to think critically by sharing their expertise with customers. The negative images censure the dressmakers’ conduct in showing readers what not to do.  

To reinforce critical thinking’s value and provide an incentive to change, Rayne praises dressmakers’ artistic qualities aligned with critical thinking:  

She must have the artist’s eye to judge the effects of color, the sculptor’s faculty for form, that she may soften the outlines, turn the figure to the best advantage, and arrange the drapery in harmonious folds. She must know history in order to take from different epochs particular details suitable to various styles of beauty, and to be sure of making no mistake in the matter of accessories; and she must be a poet, to give grace and expression and character to the costumes. (217) 

Drawing on the skills of artists, sculptors, historians, and poets, the dressmaker uses critical thinking, imagination, and skill to create dresses designed to fit the unique curves of each woman while offering her customers dresses that are in tune with current fashion trends. Dressmakers break out of their servant roles as they engage in self-making as well as making others through their fashion advice and garments. Bodies wearing their garments serve as a reflection of the creator, a woman with the power to shape reputations and combat or promote oppressive fashion trends. 

Other works, similar to Rayne’s What Can a Woman Do or Her Position in the Business and Literary World echo the New True Woman’s emphasis on critical thinking. Frances Willard, Helen Winslow, and Sallie White’s Occupations for Women: A Book of Practical Suggestion for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women touted critical thinking’s important role in women’s sewing professions when describing an unnamed milliner’s creative process: “When a customer orders a bonnet or a hat I make a mental picture of it; photograph it, as it were, on my brain, dwelling intently upon it until its image is so indelibly stamped on my memory that I cannot forget it, and can exactly reproduce it” (392). The milliner relies on her mind’s eye to hold the image as she works to recreate the hat or bonnet. However, her work goes beyond imitation or reproduction. Her original designs stem from a creative process as well. When asked where she obtains her designs, the milliner provided this response: “Literally everywhere. I go to the theatre as much to see the women’s headgear as to watch the play. In architecture, in groupings of statuary or single chiseled figures, in pictures, on placards, and posters, in the way fences are built, in everything my eyes fall upon . . .” (393). The mental work required for design and creation overlaps with subjects commonly taught in universities, for she obtains her designs from art, theatre, and architecture. Lines, shapes, colors, and textures of everyday objects serve as fuel for her imagination and creation. Her everyday outings become research for potential projects. 

Also, sewing professionals, particularly those who owned and operated their own businesses, employed their mental faculties to make important business decisions. With more women entering sewing businesses and cities growing, business owners “had to remain cognizant of the changing shopping patterns and economic geography. They had to consider the best and most lucrative location for a business given what one could afford to pay in rent” (Yohn 412). Based on past and current experiences, women proprietors predicted areas of future growth and decline. They used their mathematical skills to determine their weekly and yearly budgets in order to see whether it is worthwhile to move to a new location. Also, to ensure their success, they developed communication skills to reach out to those who could help them accomplish their goals: “They also had to maintain personal and social collaborations and relationships with family, friends, and neighbors that resulted in labor and or financial support. And they had to forge the business alliances that ensured them access to products that would continue to attract loyal clientele” (Yohn 412). Proprietors’ access to labor and material goods depended on their continued contact with community members. As they came in contact with suppliers, they engaged in negotiations for the best prices. Their livelihood rested on critical thinking that helped them problem solve in an unstable marketplace filled with competition.  

Rayne’s praise for the New True Woman’s critical thinking, backed by readers’ exposure to similar texts, persuades readers to challenge the devaluation of the cerebral in women’s physical labor. Occupations such as dressmaking permit women to physically labor, a type of labor considered as inferior to jobs requiring mental labor. In The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, Mike Rose acknowledges the misconceptions attached to physical labor: “It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain” (xv). Although nineteenth-century women workers do not come to mind in Rose’s picture of muscled arms, women’s confinement to a domesticated space coupled with their confinement to physical tasks illustrates their devalued positions and intelligence. As Rose points out, sadly few connect physical labor to the idea of “competence,” for competence involves a mastery of “special terminology,” “movements of the body,” and “knowledge of tools and devices” (xviii). Women’s confinement to domesticated workspaces and physical labor reinforced social understandings of women’s work as nonessential and inconsequential. Thus, Rayne praises critical thinking in an attempt to reconceptualize labor in domesticated workspaces. 

Enacting New True Woman’s Values 

To showcase working women enacting New True Woman’s values, I highlight two examples below: Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) and Julia Wolfe (1860-1945). Although I cannot attest that Rayne’s book published in 1893 influenced Pleasant and Wolfe, their work exhibits New True Woman values as well as highlights financial independence derived from those values.   

I selected Pleasant and Wolfe to demonstrate that New True Woman’s values are shared amongst diverse groups. Pleasant and Wolfe’s differing characteristics such as African American/Caucasian and urban/rural highlight New True Woman’s widespread appeal and attest to epideictic rhetoric’s power to rewrite or revise True Womanhood’s values.  

Mary Ellen Pleasant 

Mary Ellen Pleasant, an African-American boardinghouse owner, uses the home as a site for education and intellectual activity. Pleasant, also known as “Mammy Pleasant,” works as a domestic servant for Milton S. Latham, a senator, prior to owning her first boardinghouse. Acquiring a boardinghouse after leaving her domestic servant position, Pleasant embraces her ties to domesticity as she continues her physical household labor.  

However, she transforms her domestic servant identity tied to True Womanhood by developing a professional ethos through a “cerebral representation of herself” (Berthold 112). Pleasant utilizes the boardinghouse as a launching pad for acquiring property and wealth. Being well acquainted with Senator Latham and other government officials through her work in Latham’s household, she soon attracts the wealthy and powerful to her boardinghouse’s central location in San Francisco in 1869: “Her property was strategically placed—near City Hall, the opera, and the largest gambling house—to attract the city’s political and financial elite . . . Pleasant’s forays to the markets, banks, shops, and courts could be easily observed from the city center, as could the galas and meetings that took place at 920 Washington” (Hudson 56).  

When hosting elite clientele, Pleasant’s boardinghouse becomes a site for audience analysis and all physical objects within the boardinghouse become texts open for interpretation.  Subversively, Pleasant acquires information about her clientele as well as valuable investment information: “These men frequented her boardinghouses and revealed information—financial and social—that Pleasant used to increase her own wealth and status. Pleasant’s use of seemingly private space to further her enterprise may have played on the assumptions that white men had about African Americans and ‘help’ in general: that domestics would not understand financial affairs” (Hudson 59). However, while attending to her domestic duties in the boardinghouse, Pleasant attentively listens and applies the financial tips to her life, for “she invested in gold, silver, and quicksilver (mercury) mines” (Hudson 59). The profits from investments that Pleasant acquired allow her to purchase other boardinghouses and further transform her San Francisco boardinghouse into an elaborate establishment.  

By embracing the role of a domestic and motherlike figure in her interactions with patrons in her boardinghouse, Pleasant soon learns “the needs of the most successful investors of the day: the Bonanza Kings and their compatriots, who demanded elegant establishments in which to conduct their business” (Hudson 59). Through listening to their conversations, she understands the need for “extravagant fare, including not only food, but also linens, laundry service, and china” (Hudson 57-58). Extravagant furnishings and food ensure that her boardinghouse matches the furnishings of an upper-class home, surroundings quite familiar to her wealthy clients.  

Through her commitment to domesticity within the boardinghouse and her resourcefulness, she acquires wealth to improve her own social standing as a financially independent woman as well as engage in the self-fulfilling work of improving the social standing of other African Americans. During the Reconstruction Period, racism prevented many Black Americans from obtaining employment, so Pleasant hired an “extensive staff of black workers” (Hudson 58). Likewise, Pleasant invests her money and efforts when she “challenged the streetcar companies” in court who discriminated against African Americans (Hudson 55). Pleasant’s work as a domestic servant, boardinghouse proprietor, and social justice advocate foregrounds her intellectual labor and underscores her identity as a financially independent New True Woman engaging in meaningful work.  

Julia Wolfe 

Like Pleasant, employing the home as a site for intellectual labor, Julia Wolfe, owner of the Old Kentucky Home boardinghouse in Asheville, North Carolina and Thomas Wolfe’s mother, used her boardinghouse as a means of financial independence and self-fulfillment. Engaging her body and mind, Wolfe utilizes her role as boardinghouse keeper to make time for intellectual pursuits.  

Through critical thinking and resourcefulness, Wolfe constructs an “ethical autonomy” through her ties to boardinghouse’s domestic space while employing her boardinghouse as a means of unofficially separating from her husband and reducing her childcare responsibilities to develop as professional (Myers 43). Kraft describes the family’s separate living arrangements: “When Julia moved into the house she named ‘Old Kentucky Home’ the family split, since W.O. was unwilling to leave Woodfin Street. Julia took Tom while her second daughter, Mabel, stayed with her father. The other children ‘were left floating in limbo,’ picking up one meal at the boarding house and another at Woodfin Street, sleeping wherever they happened to be at bedtime” (65). The boardinghouse enables Wolfe to free herself as much as possible from her husband W.O. who was known for “his occasional drunken violence” (Kraft 67).  While Wolfe does not shun motherhood, motherhood does not consume her identity. Her identity as a businesswoman emerges as the children roam back and forth between the Old Kentucky Home and their father’s house on Woodfin Street, somewhat freeing Wolfe to focus on her business.     

The boardinghouse business provides fuel for her to engage in intellectual labor in terms of land prospecting, a skill she learned from her father. Through her profits as a successful boardinghouse owner, Wolfe continues to invest in land. Wolfe states, “I had foresight about what Miami Beach was going to be, and I bought property after property” (Norwood 188). On another occasion, she discloses her success in increasing her profits: “I picked up a property and paid $10,000 for it. I sold that in forty-five days for $16,000. It was gambling, and I turned it in too soon. Everything I touched, someone else wanted it in less than no time” (Norwood 189). When investing in properties, she does not rely on W.O. or her sons for advice nor does she rely on them for property development. Remaining in a domestic setting, Wolfe uses the boardinghouse as a site to educate herself about building as well as negotiating with contractors. With the boardinghouse serving as a site for money management education, she skillfully exhibits her thriftiness in her negotiations with carpenters:  

Well, I built a house on that lot. I planned it and ordered every piece of lumber that went into it. The carpenters said, “She is the stingiest girl—she has measured everything to the square inch and doesn’t allow any waste.” I said, “I don’t mean to have any waste.” I was twenty-one or two then. I hired the carpenters by the day. You know how a house used to be built. I wanted a steep roof, and I built it with the idea that I would take the roof off and raise the house another story later on. I made a broad hall down the front. When I ordered the sheathing that’s put on the rafters they said, “Even to the sheathing she’s calculated to the square foot,” and I said, “I don’t expect you to waste any.” They said, “Suppose a piece splits?” “Send it back and get a good one,” I said. When the logs were cut there would be a point, and they squared the lumber and there was a little scrap at the end. That wasn’t counted in your bill. It was measured from where it measured square. They said, “Maybe we’ll have a wheelbarrow full of scraps.” I said, “I’ll throw it over the fence for Mother to burn in the stove.” Nothing was wasted . . . (Norwood 9-10). 

She hires workers, oversees the carpenters, calculates the lumber needed, repurposes excess or scrap lumber, and speculates that a steep roof would allow her to add to the house in the future. Wolfe’s knowledge, thrift, and negotiating power set her apart from women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to her ability to utilize the domestic space of her boardinghouse as a moneymaking operation to fund other projects. Learning from her previous projects and negotiations, she continues to educate herself about property investment and development. 

Challenges to Enacting New True Woman’s Values 

Although Pleasant and Wolfe enacted New True Woman’s values and reaped the benefits of financial independence and self-fulfillment, it is worthwhile to note the challenges Pleasant and Wolfe encountered when presenting New True Woman’s values. Despite Pleasant’s and Wolfe’s resourcefulness and critical thinking that led to their financial independence, they faced what Joanna Russ terms “denial of agency” (20). Russ explains denial of agency by providing an example from her personal experience. She recalls an exchange with a male colleague who comments on her position as a writer and musician: “. . . I was told at a writer’s party by a male colleague that I was a wonderful writer who ‘did not write like a woman’ and that—pianistically speaking—I had a man’s ‘reach’” (23). Her colleague denies Russ agency as a woman writer. His comments signify only a man could write or play well. According to her colleague, the skill and intellect needed for such endeavors correspond with men’s abilities.  

Applying Russ’s denial of agency to an undercutting of New True Woman’s values, I now turn to Pleasant to further illustrate the denial of agency. Some scholars maintain their doubts about categorizing Pleasant as an entrepreneur as they question how Pleasant acquired a boardinghouse soon after leaving her domestic servant position. Assuming her previous employer is behind her success as opposed to her resourcefulness, some scholars pose the following questions: “‘Could it be that some Latham money financed her or was he just unusually generous with wages?’ asks author Lloyd Conrich. Or, he wondered, did Pleasant blackmail Latham?’ Perhaps Pleasant did blackmail Latham with secrets she learned in his home. It is just as likely, however, that Pleasant saved her earnings and chose to move into her own home” (Hudson 56). Scholars’ questions imply Latham is behind Pleasant’s success. Additionally, the fact that scholars question how Pleasant obtains the funds to become a boardinghouse owner suggests the underlying expectation that she would continue her ties to domesticity. To ensure her connection to domesticity, her contemporaries call her “Mammy Pleasant.”   

Similarly, few, including Wolfe’s family, approve of her financial independence. Kraft astutely observes, “Feeling a long pent-up need to make money, partly because of her lean childhood in the Reconstruction South, partly because her husband was an alcoholic and, as a provider, more lavish than reliable, she set her sights on the boardinghouse at 48 Spruce Street” (65).  Financial constraints of the time period and her husband’s failure to provide for the family force Wolfe to rely on the real estate skills her land prospecting father taught her. Deviating from women of the time period, Wolfe invests herself into a role that will support the family, even though the role as a businesswoman does not satisfy her family’s and society’s expectations aligned with True Womanhood. In fact, some people paint Wolfe as a masculine figure. As Norwood visits the Old Kentucky Home to learn more about Thomas Wolfe, he describes his conversation with Wolfe: “She drew a step closer and thrust her index finger in the masculine gesture familiar to all who have met Eliza Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s first two novels” (3). A simple description of a masculine gesture hints at Norwood’s as well as Thomas Wolfe’s perception of a woman lacking motherly qualities. Her pointing suggests a certain strength and authority that men see as uncomfortable and foreign. Sadly, this troubling masculine view follows Wolfe to the present as she is known only to the world as Thomas Wolfe’s mother. Her masculinity, penny pinching ways, and lack of a full investment in motherhood leave a troubling legacy.  

Wolfe’s family as well as Norwood deny Wolfe agency in ignoring her entrepreneurial acts of managing and investing. Instead, the family aligns Wolfe’s success, like Russ’s mentioned above, with her masculinity. Her entrepreneurial endeavors distance her from her motherly roles tied to home and family. By Wolfe reframing the boardinghouse’s domestic space as a site of intellectual activity involving investments and money management, her family denies Wolfe, a woman entrepreneur, agency and instead claims her agency originated from her masculinity.  

Call for Action 

Despite challenges in enacting True New Woman’s values, these values’ relevance extends from the nineteenth century to the present as women continue to seek fulfilling work. I challenge Peitho readers to study past and current women rhetors’ epideictic rhetorical practices to uncover changing values with each new generation and to identify troubling values worthy of resistance and rewriting.  


Works Cited 

Amnéus, Cynthia. A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati’s Golden Age 1877- 1922, Texas Tech UP, 2003.   

Berthold, Michael. “Not ‘Altogether’ the ‘History of Myself’: Autobiographical  Impersonality in Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.” American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, Jun.  1999, pp. 105-119.  

 Hudson, Lynn M. The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in  Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. U of Illinois P, 2003.  

Kerber, Linda K. “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History.” The Journal of American History, vol. 75, no. 1, 1988, pp. 9-39. 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.  

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[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. 

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 [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.   

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

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.  

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