From Isolated Stories to a Collective: Speaking Out About Misogyny in English Departments

There is always something unsaid and yet to be said, always someone struggling to find the words and the will to tell her story. Every day each of us invents the world and the self who meets that world, opens up or closes down space for others within that. Silence is forever being broken, and then like waves lapping over the footprints, the sandcastles and washed-up shells and seaweed, silence rises again.

Rebecca Solnit, “A Short History of Silence”


It’s not gonna get better if we’re quiet. We’re just gonna die quietly.

Interview participant

This article theorizes one aspect of the initial results of a qualitative empirical study of the ways women in U.S. college and university English departments experience misogyny and the effects of that misogyny on their personal and professional lives. While it may not come as a surprise that so many of us who work in English departments work in environments saturated with misogyny, what will come as a surprise, I think, is that there are women willing to talk about their experiences with misogyny, and that their willingness stems largely from a desire to reach those women who are not yet able to tell their stories. This might be surprising because English departments market themselves as spaces of equality and diversity, as dedicated to inclusivity and social justice, as committed to rooting out injustices like misogyny via such means as socially just, feminist, and critical pedagogies. We are some of the very people who teach students to recognize and fight back against social injustices like misogyny, so to acknowledge that it is happening among us faculty is to acknowledge, on some level, a failure. It is to acknowledge a failure on the part of the culture of academia broadly and English departments specifically, to recognize and to resist the norms of patriarchy among ourselves.1 Women’s desires to tell their stories of misogyny in English departments might be surprising, too, because patriarchy has taught us to self-police. One of the most important findings in what follows is that some women who shared their stories with me recognized the extent to which they pre-screened what they were about to tell me based on a metric they had internalized about what counts as misogyny. We saw a similar phenomenon in Gutierrez, et. al’s Presumed Incompetent; as Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. Gonzalez note in their introduction, many women declined to publish their stories in the collection because they “felt that their experiences, though personally challenging, had been relatively benign in comparison to friends and colleagues in other departments and at other institutions” (13). In what follows, we will see that telling a story of misogyny in an English department is not uncomplicated; for many, the process involves first overcoming the belief that what happened to us is just part of the way things work or even our own fault.

Though more extensive results from this study will be published at a future date, the data examined here are related primarily to the decision women in the study made to speak to me; in other words, because speaking about misogyny in a space like U.S. college and university English departments is considered in itself fraught, and because misogyny is what Kate Manne calls a “self-masking phenomenon”—“trying to draw attention to the phenomenon is liable to give rise to more of it” (xix)—the fact that thirty-nine women decided to speak to me about their experiences deserves consideration in its own right. I argue in what follows that it is the power of storytelling to challenge patriarchal norms in the crucial work of coalition building that persuades women to break the silence misogyny imposes. Indeed, the very fact that the stories themselves refuse to enact the work of care—the very work that women are obligated under patriarchy to perform—places their tellers at greater risk of more misogyny. Pointing to misogyny begets misogyny. The stories women told me refuse the norms of patriarchy. One of those norms is to remain silent. The very act of telling carries within it an understanding of the contingency of the telling, of the fact that another world exists in which this story is not told.

In the era of #MeToo and Kavanaugh, we in English departments, and writing studies especially, are just beginning to publicly share our stories of sexual harassment and bullying. Until very recently, we had more stories of bullying than we had of sexual harassment, and we still have incredibly few stories of misogyny that do not fall under the category of sexual harassment. In the last decade or so, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have begun asking questions about what constitutes a bully culture (Twale and De Luca) and how we might understand the causes of and learn ways to prevent bullying (Twale). In English Studies specifically, Cristyn L. Elder and Bethany Davila address the culture of silence that surrounds bullying in the academy and frame such abuse as a social justice issue as they examine the intricacies of bullying in writing programs. Importantly, Elder and Davila address the issue of riskiness in the introduction to their collection when they write, “When we issued the CFP for this collection, we were struck by how many people contacted us directly to thank us for taking on this work and often to express regret at not being able to contribute, given the possibility for retribution on their campuses” (4). Because of the large number of people who felt they could not contribute for fear of retaliation, Elder and Davila take the extraordinary step of including a blank chapter at the end of the collection, entitled “’I Can’t Afford to Lose My Job’: A Chapter Dedicated to All Those Who Found It Too Risky to Contribute.” The chapter is authored by Anonymous and the entire content of the chapter is “We reserve this space for them” (190).

In Sexual Harassment and Cultural Change in Writing Studies, Patricia Freitag Ericsson argues that it is our job “to make trouble for those who carry and spread this toxic disease” (viii), and she points out that “despite this field’s concern about a variety of social issues, a similar concern about sexual harassment has been sorely missing” (6). In her introduction to Composition Studies 2018 Where We Are section focused on #MeToo and academia, Laura Micciche characterizes the pieces to follow as

infuriating and depressing; we need them. We need more of them. Those of us who have been in the field of rhetoric and composition for a while now know stories of serial harassers whose careers flourish unfettered. We’ve heard stories passed discreetly among friends at conferences and in hallways. Yet the number of submissions we received for this section didn’t break double digits, and the majority of submissions came from those with the least power in our field: graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. Few addressed peer-to-peer violence and harassment, an open secret in the field (and in academia more widely).

In that Where We Are section, seven women share their stories of gendered violence, and only one, Anne Sicari, addresses the issue of peer-to-peer violence when she writes, “we need to reflect on our everyday practices, on how we treat our colleagues and students, and ways in which we perpetuate patriarchal ideologies regularly, without much thought” (201). Katelyn Lusher articulates what I imagine many of us once felt when she writes, “When I began grad school, I had a somewhat utopian belief that most professors were so ‘woke’ they couldn’t possibly subscribe to the misogyny I had felt in so many workplaces. What I quickly learned was that barely disguised sexism and harassment are as much a part of academia as conferences, publishing, and happy hours that go far into the night” (199). We are talking, as a field, about sexual harassment and bullying, but not about misogyny more generally, and when we talk about sexual harassment, we primarily talk about it in terms of breaches of the teacher/mentor and student relationship. I join these scholars to ask why we’re not sharing stories about misogyny more broadly between peers—faculty-to-faculty and graduate student-to-graduate student. 

This work matters because in our field, there is not a single scholarly consideration of women’s experiences of misogyny understood as the systematic punishment of women for not caring enough, for not giving enough; that is what this work contributes. Misogyny in English departments is not more important or more egregious than misogyny in other sites, but it warrants its own examination largely because we are supposed to know better.

But first we must have a better grasp of misogyny.

Misogyny: Enforcing Patriarchal Norms

I want to be explicit about how I am defining misogyny, and the best way for me to do that is to draw from the work that animates and motivates this work: Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. The commonplace understanding many people have of misogyny is as a psychological characteristic of individual people, usually men, who hate women—all women—simply because they are women. The problem with this naïve conception of misogyny is that it centers the experiences of the individual agent rather than the target of misogyny and it makes identifying misogyny all but impossible, as any individual man can point to the women in his life and claim to love them, thus negating the label of misogynist. This is an old story. Rather, the new story that Manne tells in her crucial work is that misogyny “ought to be understood as the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (33). To my mind, the most significant features of Manne’s theorization of misogyny are the following:

  1. In contrast to the naïve conception of misogyny, which targets women “because they are women in a man’s mind, where that man is a misogynist,” misogyny “primarily targets women because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a historically patriarchal one, among other things).” (64).
  2. Because misogyny is systemic and political, the best way to understand it is to examine women’s experiences of misogyny: “when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men…may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women—as a matter of deep psychological explanations, or indeed whatsoever” (59).
  3. Misogyny is differentiated from sexism by a matter of degree. Where sexism discriminates “between men and women, typically by alleging sex differences beyond what is known or could be known,” misogyny “will typically differentiate between good women and bad women and punishes the latter” (79). Where sexism should be understood as the “justificatory branch of a patriarchal order” (79), misogyny should be understood primarily as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations” (78).
  4. Those primary governing norms and expectations of patriarchy have to do with obligation on the part of women and entitlement on the part of men. Women are obligated to give and men are entitled to take, to receive. She is obligated to give feminine-coded goods and services such as attention, affection, care, moral support, admiration, loyalty, and respect. He is entitled to take these and to receive masculine-coded goods such as “leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, rank, and the markers thereof. Then there are the less tangible facets of social ‘face,’ pride, reputation, or standing, and the relevant absences—for example, the freedom from shame and lack of public humiliation, which are more or less universally desired but only some people feel entitled to” (113). The norms, then, are: Don’t ask for or take the kind of thing you’re meant to be giving, either to him or to society(emphasis added; 112) and Don’t ask for or try to take masculine-coded perks and privileges, at least as long as he desires them(emphasis added; 113).
  5. Should a woman violate these patriarchal norms—by failing to care enough, by failing to be attentive enough, by seeking attention for herself—misogyny will punish her with any number of down-girl moves: “to generalize, adults are insultingly likened to children, people to animals or even to objects. As well as infantilizing and belittling, there’s ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing or, alternatively desexualizing, silencing, shunning, blaming, patronizing, condescending, and other forms of treatment that are dismissive and disparaging in specific social contexts. Then there is violence and threatening behavior: including ‘punching down’—that is, deferred or displaced aggression” (68).
  6. Because misogyny is a self-masking phenomenon, “a misogynist social environment may but need not be the product of individual agents’ bigotry.” Rather, Manne explains that people may be responding, unknowingly, to their internal discomfort with the flouting of norms. “For some people, feminism in particular has profoundly disrupted their sense of the social order. The hostility they display to women who disrupt or pose a threat to gendered social hierarchies, say, is compatible with their being egalitarians in the abstract. They may nevertheless perceive powerful women who do not wield their power in service of men’s interests as abrasive and threatening. For that reason among others, a misogynist social environment may be partly the result of more or less well-intentioned people acting out of disavowed emotions, or exhibiting flashes of aggression that are not consciously experienced” (61). A misogynist social environment may flourish, in other words, in spaces like academia, where so many of us consider ourselves egalitarian but are also committed to gendered social hierarchies in ways we may not even be conscious of.
  7. Finally, because misogyny is the law enforcement wing of patriarchy, policing and punishing women who violate norms of giving and taking, misogyny is not restricted to men punishing women. Women who benefit from patriarchy will work to reinforce its norms as openly—or as covertly—as men.

Misogyny is perhaps best understood metaphorically this way: “like a shock collar used to keep dogs behind an invisible fence, misogyny, [Manne] argues, aims to keep women—those who are well trained as well as those who are unruly—in line” (Penaluma). One of the effects of Manne’s conception of misogyny is that we who examine its workings in different environments do not have to understand what motivates the people who do and say the things we characterize as misogynistic. What matters, instead, is that women are experiencing hostility for their violation of patriarchal norms that we would claim, when given the opportunity, are gendered and problematic. Yet we enforce them, knowingly or not. And we enforce them at the expense of creating working environments that value the contributions of all of their members, a goal I imagine many of our department mission statements reference in one form or another.

Methodology: Building a Collective

In the summer of 2019, I conducted thirty-nine interviews with women2 employed in English departments in colleges and universities in the United States. My goal in these interviews was to understand women’s experiences of misogyny in their departments, the effects of such misogyny on their work and personal lives, and the ways such a focus on women’s experiences of misogyny—as opposed to the usual focus on the psychology of misognyists themselves—might help those of us working in English departments specifically and the academy more generally see more clearly the way our everyday interactions reinforce patriarchal norms of obligation and entitlement. Of the thirty-nine women I interviewed, ten were doctoral students, five were assistant professors, eight were associate professors, eight were full professors, seven were non-tenure-track instructors, and one was an emerita professor. Twenty-two women identified their subfield as rhetoric and composition or writing studies, six as literature, six as creative writing, two as children’s literature, two as linguistics, and one as English and theater. Four women taught in a community college, ten in R-1 Doctoral universities, twenty in R-2 Doctoral universities, four in Baccalaureate colleges, and one in a HBCU.3 The average age of interviewees was 43. I did not ask interviewees to identify their race or ethnicity, though I did ask them to reflect on the extent to which they believed their race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and/or religion contributed to their experiences of misogyny in their departments. 

All participation in the study was voluntary and confidential; though I know participants’ names, the nature of this research demands that participants’ names and institutions be kept confidential. The data I examine in this article comes from participants’ responses to one question: “What made you want to be a part of this project and tell your stories?” Part of the reason I asked this question was that I learned from some friends before I began my research that they would have had a hard time conceptualizing their own experiences as misogyny even though by my definition, the experiences they shared with me certainly count as misogyny. But for the friends who shared these stories, their experiences didn’t seem extreme enough. There is a story we tell ourselves about misogyny: in order for an experience to count as misogyny, it must be extreme. How we define extreme, of course, is another story, but my friends’ comments called to mind Roxane Gay’s conception of “calloused empathy.” Having persuaded herself that being gang-raped at twelve years old wasn’t “that bad,” Gay explains that such a belief allowed her to “break my trauma into something more manageable, into something I could carry with me instead of allowing the magnitude of it to destroy me.” But there was another effect of persuading herself that her experience was not that bad:

Buying into the notion of not that bad made me incredibly hard on myself for not “getting over it” fast enough as the years passed and I was still carrying so much hurt, so many memories. Buying into this notion made me numb to bad experiences that weren’t as bad as the worst stories I heard. For years, I fostered wildly unrealistic expectations of the kinds of experiences worthy of suffering until very little was worthy of suffering. The surfaces of my empathy became calloused. (x)

I asked participants why they wanted to tell their stories in part because I wanted to understand the extent to which they, too, understood misogyny to encapsulate only extreme harassment and abuse. When we refrain from telling stories that we believe aren’t extreme enough, or are not that bad, we are doing a kind of caretaking work in that we are protecting men from having to understand the consequences of their actions. One of the masculine-coded goods patriarchy provides men, according to Manne, is freedom from feeling shame or humiliation (113), and by not sharing our stories, we ensure that those responsible for our experiences never need to know about our pain. They are protected.

But I asked that question also because I wanted to test my earlier theorizing of precarious narratives. In We Find Ourselves in Other People’s Stories, I draw on Judith Butler’s concept of precarious life and on Arthur Frank’s insight that “stories are formed from other stories” (“Tricksters” 186) to propose that all narratives are precarious because their “circulation relies fundamentally on social and political conditions, [their] structures and themes must be supported by what is outside itself. These are the narrative resources upon which we draw when we tell the stories of our lives” (emphasis in original 29-30). Narrative resources are the necessary plotlines, character types, cultural scripts, and so on, that we all draw upon when we tell any kind of story; we can see with this concept that narratives are socially dependent, “needing support from other people and other narratives lest they collapse” (29). Narratives, like lives, are differentially precarious. A narrative becomes particularly precarious when its support is in question; a narrative becomes more precarious when others do not tell the same kind of story or when others question the truth value of one’s story. If a precarious narrative requires support, requires propping up, then others sharing similar stories expands the possible narrative resources from which to create and share additional stories. As I write in We Find Ourselves

If access to stories offers opportunities to figure out who we are and who we can become because the stories we create for ourselves are dependent on those narrative resources, recognizing that narratives are precarious should encourage us to tell the stories that challenge dominant cultural scripts. Thus, telling stories is important not just because it is empowering or because it provides an opportunity for silenced voices to be heard or because it helps us develop form from chaos but because our stories and others’ stories are interdependent. They work together to help us figure out who we can be. (30)

And now, a few years later, I would add to this that our stories’ and others’ stories’ interdependence means that sharing a story of misogyny in the academic workplace makes it possible for others to share more stories of misogyny in the academic workplace. Stories create possibility. They tell us what happened but they also allow us to understand differently, in different terms and with different means of selection and evaluation (Frank, Letting 46) what is real, what is possible, what is “worth doing or best avoided” (Frank, Letting 3). 

The more stories told about misogyny in English departments, the less precarious each individual story becomes. From individual, isolated stories, we build a collective, and that collective becomes a rich site of narrative resources from which future storytellers can draw. Though each individual woman I spoke with told her stories only to me, she knew I was talking with others, and she knew that her story would join together with the stories of other women to form a collective, a collective that would accomplish significant social and rhetorical work that her story alone could not do. And it is this social and rhetorical work that, I argue, persuaded many of the women to push past the self-monitoring to tell their stories. 

In the rest of this article, I draw on women’s responses to the final question of my interviews4 to identify the kinds of precariousness women’s stories of misogyny are subjected to. I begin with Arthur Frank’s concept of narrative habitus as a way to bolster the concept of precarious narratives by arguing that the stories that are not part of our narrative habitus are more precarious and need more social support. I show how this narrative habitus that we all possess to some degree or another persuaded women in my interview project to share their experiences with me in order to contribute to a collective of stories. This collective challenges patriarchy’s demand that women care for men’s needs and shifts the focus to women’s needs instead. It is thus likely to be subject to more misogyny. I believe that many of the women I spoke with understood this from the start. I point then to three anticipated punishments interviewees articulated; my doing so demonstrates that our narrative habitus has developed with a tacit understanding of how misogyny functions. While the stories women told me are about punishment, their very telling was constrained by their tellers’ anticipation of being punished for telling.

Storytelling about misogyny in a patriarchy is never as simple as just telling; the very telling itself is constrained by the norms of patriarchy. When these norms are challenged, misogyny awaits to shock women back into place.

Narrative Habitus and the Powers of Storytelling

In Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology, Arthur W. Frank describes a narrative habitus as “a repertoire of stories that a person at least recognizes and that a group shares.” I want to highlight two characteristics of narrative habitus here. First, Frank writes that narrative habitus “is the feel for what story makes a good follow-up to a previous story, what story fits which occasion; who wants to hear what story when. A person’s narrative habitus enables knowing how to react when a story is told, according to what kind of story it is. Complementary to that competence, narrative habitus enables prediction of how others will react to a story that might be told” (53). Another way of saying this is that a person’s narrative habitus encompasses her body of narrative resources and that those resources inform our understanding of how a story will perform rhetorically. Narrative habitus is about anticipation. A second characteristic of narrative habitus that is relevant to this work is that “narrative habitus predisposes a sense of the right and fitting resolution toward which a half-told story should progress; it is the feel for what kind of narrative move leads to what next kind of move” (54). Frank continues, “People’s sense of how plots will probably go reflects and generates their everyday common sense of which actions lead to which consequences, whether in stories or in life. People’s habitus of expected plot completions is nothing less than their sense of life’s possibilities” (54). We know how so many stories will go. We have developed a finely tuned narrative habitus based on years of living in a patriarchy, so we know that when we begin to tell a story in which we have experienced some form of misogyny, we will be subject to some form of victim-blaming. We will be punished. We will be subject to further misogyny. Our stories, before we even share them, are precarious from the start.

But our narrative habitus tells us that there are powers to storytelling. We know, because we have experienced it before, how stories change us, how they shape and reshape our belief systems, how they function rhetorically to direct and redirect our attention. Of the social nature of storytelling, Frank writes,

Stories connect people into collectivities, and they coordinate actions among people who share the expectation that life will unfold according to certain plots. The selves and collectivities animated by stories then animate further stories: revising old stories and creating new ones—though whether any story is ever truly new is always contestable. Stories and humans work together, in symbiotic dependency, creating the social that comprises all human relationships, collectivities, mutual dependencies, and exclusions. (Letting, emphasis in original; 15)

Women knew they were involved in building a collective, one whose individual stories would be used to animate further stories, “revising old stories and creating new ones.” They knew that the work they were doing was part of something larger that had the power to do what only stories can do.5

One of the powers of storytelling that participants pointed to was simply the sheer breaking of the silence that has surrounded misogyny in English departments. One participant told me, “It is so frustrating to be part of a program that I love that performs inclusivity and yet does not always live up to inclusivity and in some cases flat out rewards misogyny and racism and all of the other isms. It is exhausting. So anything we can try to do to shine light on these practices I think has got to be good and helpful. It will be painful but it needs to happen.” Similarly, another participant said, “I think that the only way to stop this is to first acknowledge that it happens, so I feel like we have to share our stories and I feel like even one story, even if you don’t think it’s extreme, is important to share.” 

Related to the need to simply get the stories on record was the recognition that stories accomplish the important rhetorical work of letting others know that they are not alone. This message came up a number of times as a benefit of sharing stories of misogyny in the workplace. One woman noted, “I think it’s important to identify the sheer number of women who experience these issues and let other women know that they aren’t alone so that they might feel inclined to step forward and tell their stories.” This woman understands that one power of storytelling is that it begets further storytelling; one of the healing powers of knowing you’re not alone is that you may feel safe enough to share your own story. Another woman said, “I feel like saying, you can be in these awful, awful departments, but just leaving sometimes is best. Often I find that misogyny is like a toxic, abusive relationship—they want to hold you there. I want other people to know they’re not alone.” Both of these women’s recognition of the power of knowing you’re not alone is echoed in this participant’s words: “It’s like, when you’ve gone through this stuff, you think, who can do anything else to me, and if my story makes someone else go, that’s exactly what’s happening to me, then that’s great. Because we’ve got to get the stories out.”

I have long understood that one of the most important effects of storytelling is that it makes readers and listeners feel less alone, but it had been a long time since I had stopped to think about just what was so awful about feeling alone. Having been caught up in hearing so many women’s stories while working on this project, I had stopped feeling alone with my own experiences of misogyny, and I had momentarily forgotten how isolating my own experiences had felt for so long. Three women specifically shared with me their feelings of just needing to share their stories with someone—me—because they had felt so isolated during the experiences they described. One participant explained that her reasons for talking with me were multiple: “Part of it is because I know that I’m not the only person experiencing this stuff but the other part is that right now I don’t have anyone I can tell, you know?” Another participant recognized that being part of this project means that she is not alone: “I guess also to be part of something that acknowledges that I’m not alone. I think what’s scariest about this is how isolated it made me feel.” A third woman told me this:

I’ve wanted to tell people about this experience just because I felt so isolated and alone walking through this by myself. I just needed to tell somebody what happened. And I think sometimes people think, well, you’re just being too sensitive. The scope and gravity of it, at the end of the day, the scope and gravity of what can happen to people because of it, I just needed somebody to know. I will say, though, that I almost canceled fourteen times. I’ve been sweating this. I’m supposed to be able to handle this. Other people—it didn’t seem to upset them that I was going through this, so I should just be able to accept this. It makes me weak because I can’t.

Looking around your own department and seeing that others are not affected by the pain you are feeling, that others are not affected by misogyny in the same ways you are, can be incredibly isolating, and we all know that a sense of belonging is a crucial human need. One can hear, too, in this participant’s words, the internalized shaming as she characterizes herself as someone who should be able to handle the misogyny her department subjected her to once she became chair.

Related to participants’ desire for others to know they are not alone is their desire to help others avoid the kind of misogyny they’ve had to experience. One participant said, “I want to participate to show that it’s not just sexual harassment…. I wanted to talk about how a lot of the messages I’ve gotten have been couched in protection: ‘I care about you as a colleague, so I’m encouraging you to do this rather than that.’… In my experience of reading accounts like this, if I had been a graduate student and read an article like this, I think it would have been nice.” Another participant put her desire more directly: “There are moments when I look back at my history where something I have said has triggered an actual action and a change in somebody’s life for the better and that is what I am trying to do here.” Similarly, a third participant told me, “I also really, really want to believe that if you talk it can help people…. I want to believe that talking can help and I’m tired of it having to be me whispering to my undergrads, don’t take this professor, he treats women differently. I want it to be something more legitimate. I hope that this can help. I hope the right people read it and take it to heart.” 

Finally, one woman’s reasons for participating in this project pointed to the effects of our not sharing our stories with each other and with students:

It’s something that we have to be aware of and I do think that women in departments are constantly—at least I and my colleagues are—wanting to be supportive of students but at the same time, especially with female students, we want them to have a tough skin and the people who come to English departments are the people who are often looking for ways to talk about things that have happened to them. They want to do it in a way that captures their emotions, they want to be angry, they want to learn to express things, but they are constantly worried about the perception and evaluation of that work. We have a lot of creative writers and a lot of the involved students on our campus are that way—they feel inclined to write confessionally but they also don’t want to be considered reactionary and finding that balance is so hard for them especially. They’re twenty years old.

Our conversation continued, and we talked about her point that so many students come to English departments because they want to tell their stories, and it often becomes clear to them that we aren’t telling our stories. Asking our students to write their stories but refusing to share our own stories sends the message that we believe in the power of storytelling for them but not for us. As another participant said, “The graduate students can’t talk about it because they’re in such a terribly vulnerable position and they know if we aren’t talking about it, that we’re hiding something because they’re experiencing it and they don’t know why we’re hiding it.” Perhaps they do know why we’re hiding it; indeed, my data suggests that many graduate students are well aware of the ways patriarchy works to push all women down.

Additional Social Supports

In addition to the powers of storytelling, interviewees pointed to two other reasons for their willingness to share their stories with me. Recall that all narratives are precarious, that they require support from the social and cultural world, and that the more social and cultural support they receive, the less precarious they become. Participants pointed to two kinds of social support they felt for their storytelling: their own positioning as women who were in a safe space in their academic careers and a feeling of trust in me, their interviewer.

First, participants pointed to their own positions as women who were no longer precarious in terms of age or status in the university.6 One doctoral student told me that she felt comfortable sharing her story with me because “I’m in a very good place in my life where I’m able to reflect on this. I’m in a loving and supportive program. I’m not necessarily sure I would have come forward in my negative Master’s program experience.” Similarly, another participant pointed to her sense that she was in a good place: “I was thinking, for the most part, I have it okay. I’ve heard horror stories and the fact that I have an amazing department chair who lets me do the work I want to do and who helps me feel valued and the fact that she’s a woman helps with that. I know I could have it a lot worse. I’ll just put it that way.” One can hear, in this participant’s characterization of her chair as letting her do the work she wants to do, an understanding not only that that is not always the case in other programs, but also that women in academia do not have the default ability to do the work we want to do.

For other women, there was the sense that it took years to develop the kind of temerity that is required to be able to tell the stories they shared with me. “I’m at a point in my life that I think I have garnered enough strength and authority that I have a responsibility to be more vocal because I’m recognizing that I’m safer than I’ve ever been, particularly having just been promoted to full professor so if full professors can’t talk then, my god, who can?” one woman told me. Similarly, another participant shared with me that part of her reason for talking with me was job security:

Part of it is that I’m tenured and I have separated myself emotionally from the institution enough because the institution is so messed up that I do my work, I work hard, but I’m not working for [the institution]. I’m working for the students and I’m working as a researcher but I’m trying to keep my distance from other things. Partly it’s my power and partly I’ve been talking with people about this, especially at [my institution], with graduate students, for thirteen years now and I don’t see that it’s getting much better.

And then there was the woman who pointed to both job security and age when she told me, “I’m tenured and I’m over forty. And I’m done…. You’ve got to be a certain sort of pissed off and a certain sort of secure…. In graduate school, I probably would’ve been like, what are these women complaining about, and now I’m like, I have many complaints! Listen to my complaints!” Age factors importantly in one’s willingness to speak about mistreatment; the older one gets, it seems, the less willing one is to accept misogyny as simply part of how academia works. Finally, the length of time one has been experiencing misogyny in one’s department figures importantly in these women’s decisions to tell their stories; while one woman has been talking with others at her institution about these issues for thirteen years, another is just “done.” As another participant said to me, “Silence equals death. Sometimes we may not feel like we can talk and sometimes we can’t but when we get strong enough…. It’s not gonna get better if we’re quiet. We’re just gonna die quietly.”

Second, many women I spoke with trusted their audience. About a quarter of the women I spoke with were people I knew personally or professionally, and it turns out that my ethos or my reputation in the field was one of the reasons some of the participants felt comfortable sharing their stories with me.7 As one woman put it, she understood me as an outlet where “you’re not gonna be seen as someone who’s complaining. You’re not gonna be seen as someone who instigated it or that it’s your fault. Even though that’s the way we’re made to feel. I was definitely made to feel like I had acted inappropriately and this was my punishment for it.”

One participant told me she felt a “duty of care” to participate in the project because she had always had positive interactions with me. Another said that I seemed like “a real person, someone who is safe,” and that sentiment is echoed in how others characterized the ways they believed I would treat their data. “I’ll say on a personal level, I know you and I know you’re a good, qualified researcher and I trust that you would be responsible with my data and that kind of thing, so that of course makes me feel less worried about something getting out.” Another participant told me that she decided to participate because “I’ve known you so long and I know the honesty with which you’ll handle the project, so it’s wanting to participate in a project with someone whose scholarship I admire and value.” Another woman noted that she believed that “What I had to say would be used effectively and that I didn’t feel in danger. I have to say, if I just saw this from somebody that I didn’t know, I may not have done it because I would be scared that it wouldn’t be confidential or that they might identify me and I could get in trouble.” We hear the threat in these statements, the idea that a different researcher might not treat their words confidentially and they might, thus, be subjected to misogynistic punishment for having shared their stories. 

Anticipated Punishments

Manne points to a number of what she calls down-girl moves that often follow a woman breaking the norms of obligation and entitlement; she writes:

Girls and women may be down-ranked or deprived relative to more or less anything that people typically value—material goods, social status, moral reputation, and intellectual credentials, among other realms of human achievement, esteem, pride, and so on. This may happen in numerous ways: condescending, mansplaining, moralizing, blaming, punishing, silencing, lampooning, satirizing, sexualizing, belittling, caricaturizing, exploiting, erasing, and evincing pointed indifference.

Any one of these moves acts as a shock collar, shocking a woman back into place when she has strayed beyond her station. For the women I spoke with, a narrative habitus that suggests how others will respond to their stories of misogyny in English departments led to their identifying three anticipated punishments that they nevertheless risked in order to share their experiences with me. I outline these anticipated punishments in this section to emphasize the bravery and strength of the women I spoke with, and also to reinforce that telling stories is not the simple sharing of experiences. It requires forethought and risk, a savvy narrative habitus and an understanding that sharing stories toward greater awareness is only the first step toward change.

It is commonplace knowledge that those who speak out against abuse are treated just as harshly as, if not worse than, those who do the abusing in the first place. The experiences of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford are among the most glaringly obvious examples of this. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay, “A Short History of Silence,” points to this phenomenon:

One disturbing aspect of abuse and harassment is the idea that it’s not the crime that’s the betrayal but the testimony about the crime. You’re not supposed to tell. Abusers often assume this privilege that demands the silence of the abused, that a nonreciprocal protection be in place. Others often impose it as well, portraying the victims as choosing to ruin a career or a family, as though the assailant did not make that choice himself. (40)

Even more to the point than Solnit, though, is David Graeber in his essay, “The Bully’s Pulpit.” In working through the reasons why grade school kids stand by passively in the face of bullying, Graeber notes that one reason may be that they have “caught on to how adult authority operates and mistakenly assume the same logic applies to interactions with their peers.” Graeber continues, “The fates of the Mannings and the Snowdens of the world are high-profile advertisements for a cardinal rule of American culture: while abusing authority may be bad, openly pointing out that someone is abusing authority is much worse—and merits the severest punishment.” We know this story. It is part of our narrative habitus.

The first of these anticipated punishments is being labeled a gossip.8 Recall what Micciche writes in Composition Studies’ Where We Are Section: that gossip serves as a kind of protection among colleagues. She writes, “We’ve heard stories passed discreetly among friends at conferences and in hallways” (11). One interview participant told me, toward the end of our conversation, “I am concerned because as women we’re told our whole lives that what we do is gossip and I am a tattler. I still am a tattler. That’s a way of self-protection that the patriarchy is always trying to steal from us.” That nobody wants to be understood as a gossip is evident from the many sayings we have about those who gossip: snitches get stitches; you never look good trying to make someone else look bad; if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. What all of these sayings share in common is the belief that it’s the words themselves, rather than the actions they are describing, that are the problem when one person tells another about a third person’s wrongdoing. Characterizing testimony about misogyny as gossip minimizes that testimony in ways that harm the speaker because she is understood to possess little self-control. In addition, the person who is the subject of the so-called gossip becomes the victim of gossip as a kind of aggression, the result often being that sympathy may flow directly to the perpetrators of misogyny rather than to the victims in an example of what Manne has coined “himpathy.” 

Women are disciplined very early to believe that what they are doing when they complain is not legitimate but rather gossiping or tattling. As one participant put it, “A lot of times self-regulation is something that women learn. It’s very insert-Foucault stage left. We learn it and then we monitor ourselves.” As a result, there’s a kind of pre-screening we go through even before we get to the point of complaint, a pre-screening that finds us editing out what we consider to be less egregious instances of misogyny. As another participant put it, “When I thought about, do I have any experiences, they all sounded really small, so I also felt like my experiences weren’t big enough or extreme enough to warrant being named misogynistic, but I also know better than that and when I started making my list and I thought about the totality of what those experiences looked like, I realized they were pretty big.” Another interviewee noted, when relaying a story about a specific person in her department, “This is where I feel like I’m just airing grievances,” a strong indication that she is accustomed to monitoring what she says for their likelihood of making her out to be a gossip.

Women recognize what happens to their words when they are characterized as “just gossips,” as evidenced by this interview participant, who said,

I appreciated being able to have the platform to tell the story, but I also want to think more about what it means for us to be told that we can’t—that we’ll be seen as just gossips or—I think the word that keeps coming up is retaliation and so I think in academia just like in lots of fields and businesses there’s this expectation that you’ll maintain this façade that everything is fine, that no one’s racist, that no one’s sexist, or any of those things.

This woman understands that being labeled a gossip has a rhetorical function, and that that function is to dismiss our testimony. Gossip, as James C. Scott notes, “almost by definition, has no identifiable author,” and its goal is typically “to ruin the reputation of some identifiable person or persons” (142). When women who testify to misogyny understand that they are at risk of being dismissed as mere gossips, they understand that they are seen as aiming to ruin individual men’s reputations rather than testifying to a systemic problem. They also understand that their own reputations are at stake, and it is here that we can see being characterized as a gossip as a down-girl move. Women know they are risking being down-ranked in terms of social status and moral reputation when they speak out about abuse.

But—need it be said?—women who testify to misogyny in their workplaces are not gossips. They are not tattletales. One woman told me that the very existence of this study gave her hope; she said, “I really appreciate that you’re doing this work….Just reading the description of your study made me feel validated, even if I never talked to you because I thought, this is a real thing. I’m not floundering in this void. Other people see that this is happening. So that was very important.” Other people see that this is happening. When we are made to believe that we are just gossips, we are also made to believe that what we are saying is not true, that it is not being witnessed by others. Being labeled a gossip is a form of gaslighting.

A second anticipated punishment identified by interviewees is being perceived as ungrateful for their hard-won jobs in a difficult academic job market.9 This is particularly difficult because, as Manne suggests, women are obligated to deliver feminine-coded goods such as gratitude and not to seem entitled to masculine-coded perks like security and respect. At a time when the value of the Humanities, generally, and English studies specifically, is questioned regularly both inside and outside of academia, the silencing of women can be expected to proceed apace. As one interviewee put it to me,

To basically say, “This is how it is,” even at a moment when we’re supposed to say, “Oh don’t say anything bad about English departments because they’ll cut us,” is exactly the kind of move that’s important because there are a lot of people all over the country who are working in these situations and who think they have to be—they have to not stand up because they may lose their job or they think they have to not stand up because their college will be closed otherwise, so I think there’s also this way in which, particularly in times of tight budgets, we’ve been pressed not to complain or not identify the things that actually keep us from being successful in our jobs.

I responded to her by saying, “Of all times, this would be a time when you would stay silent, when the humanities are in crisis, and so just sort of put your head down, do your work, hope that we can get the majors up and just continue to accept the misogynistic treatment and be happy you have a job.” Her response to me:

Be happy you have a job. I think this goes back to perpetrating these kinds of systems further into the future. That’s what you’re modeling for students: we don’t stand up for things because we want to protect our jobs. We’re in some way also raising generations of students who kind of think pretending nothing’s happening is the way to go. It’s almost like counter the mission of the humanities. You want to raise critical thinkers, but you just say, “Oh, don’t think about this. Don’t think about that. Think about that little thing that’s important here.”

There is so much to appreciate in this participant’s commentary on what it means to speak the truth in a time when doing so might be interpreted by others as ingratitude for the jobs we hold; I’ll highlight two significant points. First, I think her point about now being the exact time to point to the problems with misogyny, because the climate surrounding the humanities for so long has been austere, suggests that some of those who were willing to talk with me were willing to push past the narrative that to be grateful for one’s job is also to grin and bear misogyny in the workplace. Second, there is perhaps no phrase more ubiquitous in the humanities than critical thinking, but we do not often stop and articulate the appropriate objects of that critical thought; this interviewee’s point about our raising students to think about this little thing over here, but not this, not these crucially significant issues affecting us in the workplace, draws attention to the limits of our alleged critical thinking pedagogies.

Another participant who described harrowing experiences in her department said, “I don’t think people realize that getting a tenure-track position in the humanities is like winning the lottery…. I have to remember that for some people this would be a gift.” Even as she has just finished telling me about experiences that were scary and isolating, this participant told me, “I feel a lot of guilt for being dissatisfied. I try to talk myself out of feeling badly because other people would want [this job].” One can almost hear her reconciling the warring parts of her mind as she talks to me. She wants to tell me about her experiences; she doesn’t want to be seen as ungrateful, so she tries to talk herself out of feeling bad. This is one effect of the powerful narrative of a tight humanities job market; our narrative habitus helps us predict how the story will go.

Finally, the punishment anticipated by more women than any other,10 the end that our narrative habitus fills in for us when we imagine telling our stories of misogyny in our academic workplaces, is retaliation.11

Two doctoral students point indirectly to the possibility of retaliation, one when she says, “With two Title IX cases in the past year and a half, there’s not really a lot I can say that’s going to hurt me because I’ve said so many things,” and the other when she reflects on the possibility of not being able to have a career in the field. She says, “There’s also sort of being in this position where I no longer care that, like, it sounds horrible, if for some reason, I couldn’t have this career anymore, I would just move on because it’s been horrible anyway, and I would just find a way to carry on with my life.” Both students recognize that there is the possibility for others to hurt them, to damage their reputations or careers, but at the same time, both mitigate that understanding by contrasting it with either past or future scenarios in which they have or will survive academia.

Told from the start that all names and identifying information would be kept confidential as part of the research process, participants took comfort in the protection of anonymity. The discourse of retaliation is strong in this participant’s response: “This is anonymous too so it’s not like it’s going to affect me and I found out about it through my department, so I don’t feel like if they found out I participated there would be repercussions. I’m probably never going to apply for another leadership position after three times being shot down, at least not until I do some other stuff first, so I’m happy with my position. I like the job I have. I don’t feel like there will be repercussions for me doing this.” One gets the sense that this participant anticipates being found out, being caught, and having the protection of having learned about the project via someone in the department. Learning of the project via a department listserv is much less illicit, in other words, than learning of the project via social media. The listserv seems to sanction the project and sanction the storytelling.

Another participant interprets the anonymity of the project a bit differently. She says, “The maddening thing here is that there’s not anything any of us can actually do about it. I’m not even using his name here. And if I did, with the gender dynamic, the reality is that I’m the one who would be on the hot seat for being such a bitch to call so-and-so out.” As we saw above, another participant makes a similar point when she notes that “we’ll be seen as gossips or—I think the word that keeps coming up is retaliation” for naming a particular person at a particular place who is engaging in misogynistic behaviors. Recall that she said, “I think in academia just like in lots of fields and businesses there’s this expectation that you’ll maintain this façade that everything is fine, that no one’s racist, that no one’s sexist, or any of those things.” Maintaining that façade functions as a kind of protection against retaliation.

Sara Ahmed writes that “we are often encouraged to think of our careers as having an exteriority, as what you have to care for in order to have somewhere to go,” and the same participant who pointed to the need for a façade that “everything is fine,” told me that she knew if she talked with anybody outside her department about what was happening, she risked the stability of that career.

If I were to tell anyone outside my department, would that negatively impact my getting tenure if I stayed, would it negatively impact my ability to move up at this school? It just always felt like I was stepping out on that ledge, and I was going to hurt myself. I think I’ve been wondering more what it is we’re really protecting by doing that. I think by the time I left the last place, I had thought, do I care enough about being in this field and doing this very specific job that I would stay in a place where this was happening? Would I rather just leave if I can’t find a job somewhere else? I think that’s one of the consequences—how many women leave instead of dealing with it.

The potential for retaliation in the form of down-girl moves such as silencing, punishing, deprivation of advancement, diminished career prospects—all of these were understood in advance by many of the women I interviewed. All of these function for so many women—those who have stories but who chose not to talk with me—as prolepsis; they are, in Leigh Gilmore’s words, “a threat that prevents women from testifying” (7). They are the ending we anticipate.12

Toward a Collective

In Down Girl, Manne explains that even a woman’s belief that her story should be heard is subject to the norms of patriarchy, that such a sense of entitlement is a masculine-coded good that women should not seek. In a chapter devoted to parsing what it means to claim victimhood, Manne writes that,

if you claim victimhood, more or less explicitly, chances are (a) you’re not automatically being given what you need, in terms of sympathy and redress for moral injuries; and (b) you’re claiming to be entitled to the same, in ways that will be more salient for those not deemed to be so entitled, historically, but rather obligated to ensure that others entitlements are satisfied. (230)

When it is a woman claiming such entitlement, “it may stand out not because she’s claiming more than her due but because we’re not used to women claiming their due in these contexts. Women are rather expected to provide an audience for dominant men’s victim narratives, providing moral care, listening, sympathy, and soothing” (231). After sharing the story of D’Arcee Neal, a disabled Black gay man whose distressing experience on an airplane elicited not sympathy but aggression from public commenters, Manne notes that “drawing attention to one’s moral injuries in a public forum does not seem an especially good way to attract sympathetic attention, as a subordinate group member” (236). But perhaps sympathetic attention is not the goal, she writes. Rather, following Regina Ricci, Manne argues that “drawing attention to the ways in which one has been wronged as a subordinate group member may sometimes be the best, or even the only viable, way to foster solidarity with other people in a similar position” (238-9). Manne writes, and I agree, based on my experience interviewing these thirty-nine women, that “there is also significant value in the social support itself, as well as the prospect of enhanced pattern recognition” (239). This is what I am hoping will happen here, with this project, and this is what many of my interview participants seemed to understand already. It is not easy to tell stories about being the victim of misogyny in a workplace culture that is, on the surface, committed to inclusion and social justice. Indeed, telling these stories in a context in which misogyny has to operate under the radar carries more risk because that telling threatens, always, to expose our own failure.  

We live with a cultural narrative about what it means to be a victim; one is understood as passive and weak rather than agentive and strong. But Manne offers another way of thinking about what women are doing when they share stories of victimhood; she writes that, “One may be able to expose the people who made one a victim as bullies and aggressors, even if this cannot be relied on to redirect the usual flow of sympathy, which tends—like heat—to rise up the social hierarchy” (248). In this context, to expose our peers as those who have made us victims, though, is, as I mentioned earlier, to admit to a collective failure, thus raising the stakes of speaking out.

And the stakes, as I’ve demonstrated here, are high. The stakes are more misogyny, and women’s narrative habitus tells them this. We know this ahead of time. As one interviewee told me, “It’s pretty clear that many people are not going to tell their stories because other people are telling them not to. I know that just from my experience. I’m sure it’s happening. I’ve been told not to talk over and over and over.” Paradoxically, we possess a narrative habitus that tells us that stories about misogyny in English departments are precarious at the same time that we know that such stories are as common as dirt. They’re everywhere. People just aren’t telling them in print. Because to tell them is to break the norm that tells us that we are meant to be giving care to others, not asking for care for ourselves. Interestingly, though the stories women told me in the summer of 2019 did not do the work of caring for men and are thus subject to misogyny by the lights of patriarchy, they did do the work of caring—for women. As one woman said, “I’m sure there’s someone else questioning, well, what does this mean and how does this work and am I wrong, am I crazy?” Sharing their stories does both: it demonstrates care for the self and care for others. In sharing their stories, women contributed to a collective from which other women will soon be able to draw strength.

Some of that strength undoubtedly will come from the vulnerability my interviewees show. To return, here at the end, to where I began, I want to remind readers that it takes strength to push past the internalized misogyny so many of us have found ourselves experiencing. One woman told me, “I feel like I am kind of slowly acquiescing to that shock collar. I no longer want to have ideas at meetings. I sit in meetings and I’m so quiet. I just try to barrel through them.” And another woman told me about how she finds herself gaslighting herself about the things she’s experienced even though she knows better: “Even now, speaking to somebody that I know completely understands where I’m coming from, I find myself changing the situation from, I got fucked over in a program that wasn’t ready to actually take care of me to, this is my fault because this is a situation I created.” Telling stories of misogyny in English departments is just the first step; the next step is for others to hear them and do something about them. Because as empowering as building a collective is, as one woman told me, “I do still have little moments of being scared.”


  1.  I want to be clear that, as a member of said academy and as a member of an English department, I am complicit in misogyny. I am working to become more aware of the ways I differentiate between good women and bad women based on the extent to which they conform to the norms of patriarchy. And I am becoming more aware of the ways I try to conform so as to avoid the punishments that are likely to follow. This work began in my own experiences of misogyny, but it doesn’t end there; it stretched to include and try to understand the experiences of others who have had similar experiences.
  2.  Participants in the project included both cis and trans women. The call for participants asked for people who identified as women and who had experienced misogyny in English departments.
  3. While I am using the new Carnegie classification system to designate the R-1 and R-2 Doctoral universities and the Baccalaureate colleges, I believe it’s important to maintain the designations of community colleges and HBCU, as identified by interview participants.
  4.  In analyzing the data for this article, I separated out the responses to this final question and examined them separately from the rest of the interview data to determine what, if any, patterns emerged. I then categorized them based on codes such as gossip, job guilt, retaliation, and storytelling.
  5. Twenty-two of thirty-nine women pointed to the powers of storytelling as the reason they wanted to share their stories with me and, by extension, you.
  6.  Eight of thirty-nine women pointed to their own status or place in the university as a reason for being willing to speak with me.
  7. Seven of thirty-nine women named knowing me or knowing of my work as a reason for feeling comfortable talking with me.
  8.  Six of thirty-nine women pointed to being labeled a gossip as a means of feeling silenced.
  9. Three of thirty-nine women anticipated being perceived as ungrateful for their jobs as a means of being silenced.
  10. Eight of thirty-nine women mentioned a fear of retaliation for sharing their stories with me.
  11. We also see this fear of retaliation in the silences of Presumed Incompetent. As Harris and Gonzalez write, “a significant number of women decided not to contribute to the anthology for fear of retaliation. They believed they would be penalized for airing their home institution’s dirty laundry in public, and they were not prepared to become pariahs” (11).
  12. One might wonder why, if participants knew ahead of time that their names would be kept confidential, they would be worried about retaliation. This is a rational question. Retaliation is not a rational fear. What I mean by this is that we have been conditioned by patriarchy to believe that if we violate a patriarchal norm, we will be punished. Though names are not attached to the stories women told in this case, such ingrained fear is not so easily assuaged. I am here to tell you that women were afraid of retaliation and I think that this suggests that patriarchy remains remarkably successful in keeping that fear alive in women despite assurances from a researcher. That women went ahead and told their stories is testament to their selflessness and care for other women.

Works Cited

  1. Ahmed, Sara. “Warnings.” Feminist Killjoys, 3 December, 2018.
  2. Elder, Cristyn L., and Bethany Davila, Ed. Defining, Locating, and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace. Logan: Utah State UP, 2019.
  3. Ericsson, Patricia Freitag, Ed. Sexual Harassment and Cultural Change in Writing Studies. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse, 2020.
  4. Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  5. —. “Tricksters and Truth Tellers: Narrating Illness in an Age of Authenticity and Appropriation.” Literature and Medicine 28.2 (2009): 185-199.
  6. Gay, Roxane. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018.
  7. Gilmore, Leigh. Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives. New York: Columbia UP, 2017.
  8. Graeber, David. “The Bully’s Pulpit: On the Elementary Structure of Domination.” The Baffler 28 (July 2015).
  9. Harris, Angela P, and Carmen G. Gonzalez. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Ed. Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012. 1-14.
  10. Lusher, Katelyn. “Academic Spaces and Grad Student Harassment.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 198-199.
  11. Manne, Kate. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. New York: Oxford UP, 2018.
  12. Micciche, Laura. “From the Editor.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 10-11.
  13. Penaluna, Regan. “Kate Manne: The Shock Collar That Is Misogyny.” Guernica 7 Feb. 2018.
  14. Robillard, Amy E. We Find Ourselves in Other People’s Stories: On Narrative Collapse and a Lifetime Search for Story. New York: Routledge, 2019.
  15. Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.
  16. Sicari, Anna. “Centering the Conversation: Patriarchy, Academic Culture, and #MeToo.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 200-202.
  17. Solnit, Rebecca. “A Short History of Silence.” The Mother of All Questions. Chicago: Haymarket, 2017: 17-66.
  18. Twale, Darla J. Understanding and Preventing Faculty-on-Faculty Bullying. New York: Routledge, 2017.
  19. Twale, Darla J., and Barbara M. De Luca, Ed. Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

“On Display Eight Hours a Day”: Gendering and Racializing Clerical Work During the Early Cold War

Just Between Office Girls (JBOG), a chatty bi-monthly pamphlet for the clerical worker, promised loads of advice for women laboring in offices in the 1950s and 1960s. It warned young workers of the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. It offered meal planning and finance tips for the figure conscious worker on a budget. There were also exercise moves, oodles of fashion advice, and the ever-present warning not to be “that girl” who gossiped or showed up late and hungover. These short, cartoon-illustrated pamphlets were certainly not the first professional advice manuals for women. Yet, they circulated during a remarkable reshaping of the American labor force and economy. While dominant narratives insist that in the wake of World War II, the return of GIs pushed women out of factory jobs, the reality was far more complex. In fact, many women stayed employed due to both economic necessity and choice (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). Yet, scholars have tended to focus on women war workers in our narrative of women’s employment in the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the focus on large labor unions, in part because they left historic records, has also skewed the sample of workers under historians’ purview (see, e.g. Cobble, Dishing; Flexner; Foner; Gabin; Kessler-Harris).

Clerical work is one of the most gender-segregated industries of all and has been an archetypal female job for almost a century (England and Boyer 307). Discourses surrounding clerical work have sedimented over the course of the twentieth century and circulate archetypes of “office wives” or “sexy secretaries.” To that end, clerical work provides an often-overlooked arena for exploring the rhetorical lives of women workers in the United States during the early Cold War. As the U.S. reverted to a peacetime economy and women negotiated increasing pressure to return home to mother, I ask, in line with Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, how was women’s relationship to work framed? 

To answer that question, this essay explores the rhetorical processes that gender and racialize work. I analyze “work-related rhetorics” of socialization in the form of training manuals, which introduce workers to effective ways of doing their jobs and navigating their workplaces. Socialization discourses shape workers’ attitudes and perceptions of how to operate in organizational cultures (van Maanen and Schein 2). As Hallenbeck and Smith note, work training is an important element in women’s rhetorical lives (206). They urge rhetoricians to move beyond looking at how women develop agency in the workplace to identify themes in how gender and work are continually co-constructed (202). Building on their insights, then, I do not assume that clerical work is “women’s work,” but instead that it, like all work, is “historically situated, rhetorically constructed, [and] materially contingent” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201; see also Gold and Enoch). Scholars have identified several topoi that serve as rhetorical mechanisms for gendering work. As Jessica Enoch notes, constructions of place can accomplish this. The public, she explains, often genders professions by bringing them closer or farther away from the space of the home and from specific types of domestic work (184; see also Jack 286). In addition, time is a rhetorical practice that genders work, stipulating when and for how long tasks can be performed (Jack 286-288). Hallenbeck and Smith identify duty, education, and technology as recurring threads in the gendering of work (203). Yet, these topoi do not adequately explain clerical work during the Cold War. 

In this essay, I explore the disciplining of female clerical workers in Just Between Office Girls between the mid-1950s and early 1970s. I identify constitutive rhetoric, a care work frame, and embodiment as rhetorical processes that constructed clerical work in this historical moment. All three of these rhetorics were filtered through the gendered and racialized geopolitics of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Through consistent messaging that feminized clerical work, the pamphlets constituted a relatively passive labor force of white women disinclined to organize or protest and primed to consume. These messages served U.S. political interests during the Cold War by figuring white women as agents of racial capitalism. I offer this analysis with the goal of moving beyond understanding how labor organizers use rhetoric to reshape working conditions to exploring how rhetoric positions labor itself within hierarchies of social value. 

This case also identifies the performance of work and its rhetorical representation as a geopolitical struggle over citizenship, consumption, gender, and labor organizing during the Cold War. Just Between Office Girls branded clerical work as a safe, middle-class option for young, white women seeking income for consumption while waiting to marry. As they became interpellated into racial capitalism, white women were simultaneously subjugated according to gender and agents of white supremacy. By accepting their dictated role as white female consumer/workers, they may have perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the workplace. Framing clerical work as safe and middle-class allowed writers to trumpet the progress of (white) women, encourage them to pursue appropriate feminine interests (fashion and beauty) while protecting the office as a sphere for masculine risk and innovation, key Cold War battles. Paradoxically, then, the pamphlets served to make women at home in the office.

Just Between Office Girls represents one of a number of bi-monthly publications that circulated to offices across the country. Published by the Bureau of Business Practice, a renaming of the National Foreman’s Institute, this publishing company produced training manuals for industrial supervision before expanding its offerings to clerical work (“Finding Aid”). Throughout its long history, the Bureau of Business Practice’s clerical publications included the Better Secretaries series and Just Between Office Girls. The publication archive, held at the University of Maryland’s Special Collections, does not include circulation or print-run data. Nonetheless, the collection’s holdings illustrate the shifting nature of clerical work. For instance, Just Between Office Girls, which ended its print run in 1973, became the Office Guide for Working Women, a similar pamphlet, published from 1973 through 1976. The Office Guide for Working Women morphed into the Office Guide in 1976 and was published until around 1994. The Creative Secretary’s Letter began publication in 1992 and lasted at least until 1999. The names of these guides provide one clue as to the changing nature and perceptions of the clerical workforce, but also identify an industry-leader in clerical publications and a meaningful source for rhetorical analysis. As the pamphlets have not been digitized, I spent six days in special collections sifting through print copies. I comprehensively looked through each file in the Bureau of Business Practice archive containing clerical work pamphlets from 1958 to 1999, assuming that examining the whole run would better allow me to see patterns and changes over time in structure, tone, and general rhetorical strategies. As I skimmed, I took notes and photographs of articles that particularly described the duties of clerical work and outlined discipline for failing to perform them effectively. I then combed over my photographs and identified themes in how the pamphlets portrayed workers’ lifestyles, their work, and the office itself. I eventually consolidated my themes into the three primary strategies laid out here.

From here, I next explore the changing landscape of work during the early Cold War and its attendant geopolitical pressures. I then analyze the publications. I identify three themes that I take in turn: constituting a collective identity, framing work as care, and embodying femininity. The conclusion explores the implications for discourses of work and labor organizing.

Working Women and Washing Machines

Dominant cultural discourses socialize workers alongside training manuals. And these discourses have long associated clerical work with women. Even though what “women’s work” means has changed throughout history, that clerical work is women’s work was a stable and enduring idea throughout the twentieth century (England and Boyer 307). As organizations grew more complex after the Civil War, the need for clerical workers exploded (England and Boyer 311). Being able to pay women workers less was a bonus. The opening of educational opportunities to women ensured that the feminization of this work was largely completed by 1930 (Davies 5, 51). Compared to other women joining the waged labor force at the turn of the twentieth century, clerical workers were more likely to be white and native-born (England and Boyer 312; Davies 74), a demographic reality that fed the perception of clerical work as a suitable occupation before marriage. In fact, many argued that clerical work was effective training for a woman’s duties as a wife and mother (Davies 81; England and Boyer 313). As a result, clerical work’s link to respectable femininity solidified. Of course, the respectability of this labor also racialized it as white.

While Rosie the Riveter emerged as the archetype of women at work during World War II, clerical work could also be a patriotic calling. Public service posters encouraged women to be stenographers and file clerks in supporting the war effort (England and Boyer 318). Women workers were nothing new, and in fact 75 percent of women workers had labored for wages before the war began (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 276). WWII merely continued the trajectory of women entering the workforce. Of course, as women flooded into factories and offices, their acceptance as war workers depended upon the absence of men. Wartime did not undermine the idea of separate spheres for women’s and men’s work. Instead, men’s work and women’s traits momentarily aligned. Donning their overalls and tying up their hair in scarves, women poured into factories, being told that if they could bake cakes, they could load shells into bombers. By revaluing the alleged delicacy of the female body, wartime industry put their nimble fingers to work (Jack 290-1). Wartime propaganda almost exclusively targeted white women. When Black women were encouraged to serve the war effort, it was in laundry, cafeterias, and as domestic workers. Even during the war, then, Black women “were supposed to form a behind-the-scenes cadre of support workers for gainfully employed white wives” (Jones 237). This rhetorical maneuvering on the part of wartime employers, however, combined with the lack of attention to women’s issues on the part of newly powerful labor unions, allowed notions of the female worker/citizen to be easily eclipsed after the war. 

The idea that women willingly left wartime positions to return home is an oversimplification of a variety of historical forces, including union opposition to female work along with compelling economic need to stay in the workforce. The number of American women in the paid labor force did drop by about 2 million from 1944 to 1946, but it never again sank to prewar levels (Foner 395). While some women voluntarily left wartime positions, quit rates were highest in the lowest-paid jobs. Women were more frequently laid off or forced out of jobs where they had made the biggest gains—heavy industry (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 286-7). The war did not change the traditional division of labor by race, and tactics used to force white women out of the workforce were levied even harder against Black women (Jones 253-6). Moreover, public sentiment did not support women staying in the workplace, and less than one-third of women interviewed thought their sex should be treated equally with men when applying for jobs (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 298-9).  

Despite this, the 1950s saw more women entering the workforce and more of them opting to work full time. This was in part due to the changing social landscape. Americans married younger, stayed together longer, and had more children than their European counterparts (May 3). As new, white families flooded into the suburbs, consumer aspirations climbed in the form of appliances, cars, and even saving for children’s college. Keeping up with the Joneses required many women to work, and women were almost thirty percent of the labor force in 1950 and 35 percent of it by 1965 (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 301). Paradoxically, in this landscape, employment for married women was discouraged, but female consumption was hailed. As a result, as historian Elaine Tyler May writes, “It was unfortunate if a wife had to hold a job, on the other hand, it was considered far worse if the family was unable to purchase what were believed to be necessities for the home” (159). Women, then, went to work so that they could fulfill their role as consumers. The incessant promotion of capitalism undergirded what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls a “consumers’ republic,” “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption” (7). Thus, if women had to work, clerical work was attractive as an accepted female role despite far lower salaries than in wartime heavy industry (England and Boyer 322). By 1960s, one-third of all wage-earning women worked in the clerical field (Kessler-Harris, Out to Work 303). Race imbricated gender in work opportunity, of course. Black women had always been seen as working bodies, so there was no ambivalence greeting their workforce participation. If white women moved into clerical fields, in the 1950s and 1960s, Black women worked in institutional or household service. In fact, by 1950, sixty percent of Black working women were in service roles such as cleaning (Jones 234-5). It would take the slow implementation and enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for Black women to start moving into clerical fields (Jones 301-2). 

Despite the move into what could be considered more socially sanctioned roles, backlash accompanied white women into the office. Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham published Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, in response to their concerns about the postwar labor market and shifting gender norms. Working outside of the home, they insisted, was a call from “masculine strivings” (235). Indeed, “the more importance outside work assumes, the more are the masculine components of women’s nature enhanced and encouraged” (235). Framing femininity as a moral and familial obligation, Lundberg and Farnham’s arguments, while not universally supported, circulated broadly through the public sphere, earning refutation in Betty Friedan’s 1963 Feminine Mystique

Anxieties about women at work were significant not only to trade unions and lonely husbands, though. Gender was a weapon in the Cold War, and by the early 1950s, the United States had slipped seamlessly into battle with the Soviet Union. Propaganda extolled the American housewife in opposition to the Soviet working woman. Capitalism was all the more desirable because it gave white women time and commodities to pursue fulfillment as mothers and wives. Communism allegedly erased femininity, enslaving men and women equally to the Soviet state. Foreign correspondents proposed answers to the question “Why Russian Women Work like Men,” and described Russian women as “stolid” and “dowdy,” laboring as engineers, construction workers, and bus drivers because there were not enough Russian men to fill these jobs (Samuels 22). 

The Cold War struggle over the role of women even reached the highest levels. When then-vice president Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow in 1959 to visit the American National Exhibition, he touted not American technologies of war, but American technologies of domesticity. In “the Kitchen Debate,” Nixon emphasized how capitalism enabled the United States to ease American housewives’ burdens. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev snapped in reply, “We do not have the capitalist attitude toward women” (qtd. in May 21). Consumer choices, most often exercised by white women keeping house, became proxy for political freedoms championed by the American government. Without access to the booming suburbs and new shopping centers, however, Black Americans’ consumer choices were severely curtailed (Cohen 406-8).

The Cold War had a mixed impact on Black women. Anti-communism decimated the most progressive labor unions, including ones that had the best records on gender and racial equality (Jones 264). At the same time, racial prejudice and segregation in the Jim Crow South was a weak point in U.S. Cold War posturing, given that the Soviet Union was seen as a place of racial equality. As historian Mary Dudziak shows, the need to appear to be making progress on civil rights opened limited avenues for Black integration in the United States. Transnationally, the United States expanded its military presence across Asia in the name of promoting democracy and preventing communism’s spread. As Denise Cruz, Grace M. Cho, and Lisa Yoneyama explain, these imperialist projects had direct impacts on women of color across the globe. Thus, the centering of white femininity in Just Between Office Girls supported U.S. aims for global security and racial capitalism. While JBOG primarily centered the U.S.-Soviet conflict and a binary view of race, these ideas had broad, transnational resonance. 

In sum, then, the combination of exhortations to consume coexisted with praise for traditional gender roles. Economic pressure, however, sent women to work or provided strong incentive for them to remain in the workforce after the war. Thus, deep, gendered ambivalence greeted white women workers in the 1940s and 1950s alongside racialized discrimination that left Black women with scant employment opportunities. How did these gendered and racialized pressures frame the discussion of work itself? The next section begins an analysis of the Bureau of Business Practice pamphlets. 

Office Girls Unite: Constituting Collective Identities

Who was the “office girl”? Just Between Office Girls constituted her as young, white, unmarried, and defined in relation to the men around her. The pamphlets, then, used constitutive rhetoric to co-construct gender, race, and work. In Maurice Charland’s original iteration of the theory, constitutive rhetoric is the tool by which audiences come into being. Constitutive rhetoric paradoxically creates an audience and endows it with certain characteristics while simultaneously assuming such an audience already exists to be addressed (Charland 137). JBOG drew working women into this collectivity by homogenizing their identities while at the same time offering them entry to the Cold War consumers’ republic. 

Primarily, the pamphlets address working women as “girls,” as emphasized in the series title. Moreover, the address “office girls” identifies the audience with their work. It literally places them in their workplace. This address suffuses the pamphlets. Rarely are workers referred to as “women” or even “young women.” This rhetorical choice built the pamphlets’ overall chatty tone. More importantly, though, it sidestepped the controversial question surrounding whether married women should work. In referring to the audience as “girls,” the implication was that clerical workers were young women working until marriage compelled them to stop. As we have seen, society sanctioned unmarried women workers far more than married women or mothers in the workforce, especially in the 1950s. The term also had racial implications, emphasizing the whiteness of the intended audience. While white women may have seen the address as an attempt to build a casual community of young workers, for Black women, the term may have echoed language from the centuries of chattel slavery which indicated that Black women did not deserve being called “miss” and were too servile to be adult (Green).

The pamphlets also created this young audience of pre-marriage women and thus, acceptable workers, by crafting a chatty tone. The title constitutes the authors as members of the workers’ peer group, but perhaps with more experience. “Just between office girls” implied co-workers swapping tips among themselves. Moreover, most articles were written informally in the second person, addressed to “you.” “In a quandary about your fall and winter wardrobe?” asked a 1958 article. “Are you wondering whether you can buy anything without having it go out of style ten minutes after you walk out of the store? We don’t blame you” (“Let Sanity Follow Sack”). Such a tone built familiarity and good will between the reader and writer and presented the tips as an older sister looking out for her younger sister’s well-being. Likewise, advice about on time arrivals and general respect for others indicated that the writers believed that most of the women in their audience were beginning their first office jobs. A reliance on anecdotes, most obviously made up, also supported the chatty tone, as did the perpetuation of archetypes as discipline to office etiquette. Issues from the 1950s, for instance, included boxes entitled “I’m the gal” and then provided some “what not to dos.” “I’m the gal who really gets around,” proclaimed one example. “My phone rings all day long, and everyone in the office knows they’re calls for dates…And every morning I let ‘em all know what a big time I had the night before.” Not only did this perpetuate middle-class standards of sexual propriety; it also created a separate work sphere to which women had to be socialized to not let their personal lives interfere.

Other cues in the stories supported the idea that this group of women was composed of pre-marriage workers. One article entitled “Memo: from the Boss” explicitly described Anne, who was leaving her job to be married. In the short story, her boss gave her a memo thanking her for her hard work and diligence throughout the years. “It was, she tells us, the best farewell present he could have given her.” Sanctioning the behavior of leaving work to be married, the story also undermined Anne’s identity as a professional by suggesting that appreciation was effective compensation for years of hard work. 

Another characteristic of the working girl, as per JBOG, was her role as a consumer. Again, because she was largely figured as young and unmarried, she was presumed to have at least modest income to spend. “We’re being wooed!” declared the August 10, 1959, issue. “Downtown stores no longer assume that women customers are necessarily full-time housekeepers. They know that many of them toil in nearby offices and factories, accounting for a great deal of shopping during lunch hours and after work. Accordingly, competition for the Office Girl dollar is brisk!” (“We’re Being Wooed”). JBOG was one avenue for women to learn about places to spend or invest their hard-earned dollars. Articles highlighted beauty and diet trends, recommended books on self-improvement, and provided decorating tips. While JBOG did not feature conventional advertisements, pamphlets did occasionally highlight new products. “If your [legs] are in need of a shape-up, here’s a new fun way to exercise them. Wear Scholl Exercise Sandals. All you have to do is start walking. They do all the work,” a 1969 article explained. It then detailed how these new sandals worked the legs and could be personalized (“A Sandal that Works While you Play”). JBOG assumed working women were naturally interested in fashion and beauty products. The admonishments to consume beauty products sometimes explicitly appeared amidst Cold War geopolitics. A 1960 article entitled “What, no Borsch Bath?” extolled “Thank heavens for the corner drugstore! Without it, we might have to fall back on the beauty treatments suggested by a commentator on a Moscow home hour radio broadcast. He advised listeners to banish dry hair by dousing it with sour milk, to banish greasy skin by slapping on a mixture of grated cucumber and vodka.” Articles like this subtly nudged single women to consume not just as part of their office duties, but also their duties as American citizens. The “corner drugstore” was a celebration of the choice of consumer products available to women in the capitalist United States. But this identity as consumer also racialized the office girl as white by assuming access to a bevy of products and childlessness as she consumed to fulfill her own desires. 

It was not until the mid 1960s that married women appeared as office girls. A March 15, 1965, article entitled “Memo from a Working Wife,” started the shift to seeing “married working girls” as a staple of offices. In fact, as the article pointed out, over half of the female labor force was married. The article provided advice for balancing the responsibilities of housekeeping, childcare, and waged labor. Expecting male resistance was one of the article’s points. “Men in general still feel woman’s place is in the home. We’ve got to accept this, and not be angered by their frequent failure to take our ‘careers’ seriously. Be glad they let us work.” Articles like this naturalized male resistance and trivialized women’s career aspirations with quotation marks. As the 1960s progressed, more articles appeared with tips about balancing child (and husband) care with a full-time job, but they were relatively rare, indicating a continued constitution of clerical workers as young and unmarried, an image that stabilized feminine identity while celebrating consumerism.  

JBOG also assumed that its audience was white, an assumption largely borne out by demographic data. Because clerical workers were often the faces of organizations, deep-seated racism prevented women of color from being hired until after the Civil Rights Act, and they did not approach parity with white women in offices until the 1970s (England and Boyer 326; Jones 302). Race or diversity are not mentioned until 1970, when an article entitled “Foot-in-Mouth Disease” appeared with the goal of helping working women be more tactful when “communicating with Negroes.” Diversity took backseat to efficiency and pleasantness when training office workers. Only when being able to communicate across diversity became an important office skill did it warrant inclusion. Of course, assuming office workers would need training in communicating this way also shores up the idea that these women were imagined white. Constituting a white audience allowed JBOG to bypass uncomfortable issues of workplace discrimination while using labor as an avenue for consumerism. Houses in the suburbs and consumption of goods were largely not open to Black Americans, and in the early 1950s, far more Black women were working as domestic servants than in offices. Comfortable, consuming, and glamorous women were far more effective in fighting the Cold War than meaningful conversations about race relations (see Dudziak).   

All in all, JBOG encouraged women to be proud of their collective identity as clerical workers and as women. Pamphlets frequently celebrated women’s accomplishments and encouraged working women to be proud of the general progress that their sex had made, admonishments that would have been far more credible for a white audience. The December 10, 1958, issue crowed, “How times have changed! Forty years ago, American women were not allowed to vote…If you don’t think women have come a long way, just take a look at a few facts for 1958. Women now have the say-so in spending 80% of all the family income. They are the beneficiaries of 80% of all trust funds. They own 70% of all the voting stock in corporations” (“It’s a Woman’s World”). While this focus on the economic reinforced women’s roles as consumers, the tone made clear that a generic sense of progress was worthy of collective celebration. The communal celebration would have been far more compelling to white women than to Black women, as many Black women could not say in 1958 that they could easily cast ballots. 

Taken together, the construction of the working woman in these pamphlets was overwhelmingly white, single, young, and inexperienced. As Michelle Smith notes, work-related rhetoric often seeks continuity—to make work not contradict femininity or marriage (187). So, too, did JBOG stabilize a female identity that made work continuous with feminine consumption patterns and with the general narrative of white, female domesticity that the United States used as a weapon in the Cold War. These workers were laboring until marriage and taking pleasure in the consumer goods U.S. capitalism made available to them. 

“The Care and Feeding of Bosses”: Performing Clerical Duties

So, what was a working woman to do? Being an effective secretary entailed building a host of skills. JBOG framed many of these as care work and emotional labor—the kinds of work that women were assumed to want to do naturally. Much as educational leaders regendered nineteenth-century schools into places for female teachers to nurture students instead of for male disciplinarians to mete out punishment (Enoch 52), so too did JBOG domesticate the work clerical workers did. Yet, pamphlets encouraged clerical workers to do invisible and uncompensated labor and did not recommend that they seek appropriate payment for it.

JBOG shared tips for typing, filing, writing business correspondence, and phone etiquette. Each issue had grammar challenges and vocabulary building quizzes to sharpen these skills. Yet, far more column ink was dedicated to interpersonal issues in the office. Indeed, dealing with the boss was one area where clerical workers needed to marshal their caring energies. In encouraging office workers to approach the boss with a gentle hand, they actively curried favor toward him (and it was always a him). Articles asked office workers to recognize that “You two have so much in common, you and the old so-and-so.” This 1958 cover article told a story of a secretary getting scolded for misspelling a word and feeling “hurt, anger, and self-pity” while the boss retreated to his office feeling badly for speaking so harshly (“You and the Old So-and-So”). Bosses appeared as sensitive and needing care from clerical workers. One short 1959 article entitled “Care and Feeding of Bosses Department,” provided tips that included not bringing up problems at the very beginning or end of the workday and attempting to solve problems before taking them to the boss. Thus, even in their most creative and valuable roles, clerical workers, as per this framing, performed care work. Women catered to the needs of male authority figures. 

Yet, this care work was professionalized in an extreme fashion. No office worker could ever perfect her role because the job entailed giving one’s all and going above and beyond. Part of this gendered advice included trying to anticipate the boss’s every need. The way JBOG talked about this element of clerical work sounded like housework. “Do some little extra jobs, and you’ll be extra valuable,” a March 15, 1964, article advised. It recommended airing out the boss’s office, dusting, straightening his desk, sharpening his pencils, and checking to see if his plants needed watering. “To do all this, you should beat your boss to work—which he’ll also appreciate” (“An Extra Touch”). Once again, appreciation was the compensation for extra labor, undoubtedly not spelled out in any official job description. JBOG assumed that working women would naturally find joy in doing this care work and see the boss’s appreciation as compensation enough. 

Caring could be taken too far if it slipped into flirting. As one reader wrote to the “What Would You Do?” column answering a letter about attracting “office wolves,” “From the cradle, the female is taught how to attract the male. In the office, this urge must be formed into a congenial and helpful attitude of service.” The reader then went on to encourage the advice seeker to make sure clothes were “well fitting but not too tight or short” and to avoid “‘flirty’ eyes or ‘suggestive’ inflections in voice.” Here, then, allegedly natural feminine tendencies toward flirting were channeled into gendered care work in the office and strictly disciplined before they became sexual. Fulfilling the office wife stereotype required creating an atmosphere of support and help. Thus, femininity had to be tamed to effectively dwell in the office. While sexual harassment of clerical workers was a significant problem and one that prompted some of the earliest organization attempts (Segrave), Black and white women would have experienced the disciplining of their sexuality in very different ways given the hypersexualization of Black women (Collins).

The duties of a clerical worker also required emotional labor that was deeply gendered. For instance, JBOG identified them as responsible for the overall emotional tone of the office. In the June 10, 1959, issue, readers met Sally who often felt like “an unappreciated slave.” Yet, the article admonished that “She isn’t aware of what her buoyant ‘good morning’ does to others, and how her warm smile gives a lift to even the biggest sourpuss.” “She’s Controller of the Office Atmosphere,” the article concluded, in capital letters. Another article, “The Great Stone Face,” admonished women to smile. “Too bad she doesn’t realize what a smile could mean to those around her…and to her own well-being. There’s nothing that takes so little effort, and pays off so well.” Thus, working women needed to perform gendered care work to lift the spirits of the office, regardless of their internal feelings. 

Emotional labor also became an area for discipline. When women acted too much like the boss, they undermined the emotional tone the office needed. While stories often extolled women’s value to their bosses and to the office, they were also continually reminded that they were not the boss and that their power was limited. Pamphlets emphasized that humility and feminine sweetness were office girls’ most valuable skills. One story, in the August 10, 1958, issue told the story of Gwen, who worked for Mr. Howard. When a print job came back messy Mr. Howard told her to handle it. After storming over to the print office and demanding a re-do, Gwen got her comeuppance. “Listen, kid,” the printer said, “even if I had goofed completely—that’s no way to tell me. You may work for Howard, but you’re not Howard. So don’t go around giving orders like a big shot. You’ll just make people mad, and what’s the point when you can get things done faster by being your own sweet self?” he asked. Gwen smiled through her tears and admitted that the printer was right. The story was aptly named “Embarrassment: It’s the price we pay for some lessons.”

Another facet of emotional labor that the working woman was to master was charm and sophistication. She was, as JBOG made clear, expected to be charming and sophisticated, but not too sophisticated, which might threaten the men. The general charm of the office girl required knowledge of current events. A December 15, 1963, article entitled “Are you a Sophisticate?” recommended reading a good newspaper regularly, reading a weekly news magazine, reading at minimum two books a month, looking at the world around one, and listening sharply for new ideas. “You’ll become a person others want to know better,” it emphasized. Working women were also expected to be “in the know” about the companies for which they worked, including what product or service was their biggest seller and the names of top officers. Thus, effectively performing charm and sophistication required resource expenditure to subscribe to newspapers and magazines and time outside of work to read them. Intangible and ephemeral factors like charm, however, could also provide an excuse for racial discrimination (Jones 304). 

The emotional labor of office work did not just involve caring for men and doing continual domestic work. It also required controlling one’s attitude toward the job, which could be monotonous. In a 1961 front-page article, JBOG introduced Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the husband-and-wife theater team. When asked “if they didn’t get bored during their long-run plays,” they instead said that they were never quite satisfied and continually tried to improve. “Monotony, then, has no place in their scheme of things. They say the same lines, move about the stage pretty much as they did the night before. But they don’t see a dreary sameness to their job” (“Another Day”). The implication was clear: working women were to see their jobs as opportunities for perfection. The analogical reasoning—comparing clerical work to acting—emphasized that performance was a duty. Many other articles admonished women not to be in too much of a rush to advance their careers. “Prove that you can do your present job as well as it can possibly be done, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind you. With efficiency, energy, and a pleasant attitude,” advised one article (“Good Luck–It’s a Giant Step”). Thus, rather than encourage capable women to push their boundaries, JBOG counseled patience, complacency, and a positive attitude. 

The power of a positive attitude was a common theme, encouraging women to wholeheartedly throw themselves into their work. “The Five O’clock Girls” were a foil for discipline and emphasized the importance of going above and beyond. “They’re the girls who leave at the stroke of five—and until then stay busy looking for an excuse not to work” (“The “Five O’clock Girls”). “So many girls try to do the minimum amount of work necessary to keep a job. They seem to set a goal that says ‘This is the amount of work I’m doing for the amount of money I’m getting paid.’ And they don’t do an iota more. In fact, sometimes it seems they spend more time and energy planning how to get out of work…than would have been necessary to have actually done the job,” bemoaned a January 1968 issue (“‘Don’t Work Too Hard…’”). A 1968 column advised women to look for the possibilities in their current job. “You probably don’t hate your job, but you may have lost interest. If this is your problem, why not do something about it?” It then advised perfecting the tasks, diving into the affairs of the firm, and even being nicer to co-workers so more stimulating interactions would occur at the office (“Bored?”). Thus, JBOG made clear that being a clerical worker required initiative and hard work. It required a drive to perfect small tasks without seeing them as monotonous. But such articles also fed the idea that work was for women without kids and family obligations because they should be staying late and coming in early. Indeed, the chatty tone hid the fact this advice asked women to do extra work for which they were likely not compensated. 

There was a fine line between taking initiative and aggression, as a November 1970 issue noted. Comparing clerical work to being pushy at a dance, the article concluded, “Guess which girl is going to get ahead faster. The girl who knows the difference between being enterprising and being aggressive, naturally” (“Initiative vs. Aggression”). Once again using argument by analogy, JBOG situated the duties of office work well within a feminine realm of experience. Thus, as always, feminine traits were to be on display in the office. Anticipating the needs of the boss and going above and beyond one’s stated job duties still required a light, feminine touch.

In sum, then, the duties of the clerical worker were clearly spelled out in JBOG. She was to master filing, typing, have a pleasant phone voice, and generally perform care work in the office. One of her main duties was exhausting emotional labor: she was to keep the office mood upbeat and overcome her own boredom. The office guides also emphasized the need to take initiative, anticipate needs, and always perfect one’s work. This counsel disciplined clerical workers to accept their roles without pushing for raises and promotions and to know their place as valuable, but circumscribed, employees. In its description of the duties, JBOG gendered clerical work as deeply feminine, often through analogical reasoning. It assumed that care and domestic work would be naturally appealing to women who would do it with a sense of pride instead of a desire for compensation. The next section considers embodiment in clerical work.

What Not to Wear to Work: Femininity and Fashion

The office pamphlets were unequivocal on the role of fashion in the office. Utilizing what Risa Applegarth calls “embodied epideictic,” the manuals codified the labor of femininity as another uncompensated component of clerical work. Embodied epideictic refers to “textual depictions of embodied behavior that invite or articulate an attitude of praise or blame” (Applegarth 130).  So often did JBOG provide diet advice, fashion tips, and beauty tutorials that these became parts of the job. It is also clear that JBOG operated from a racialized standard of beauty, prizing thinness, modest yet fashionable dress, and “natural” makeup.

JBOG framed a neat and pleasant office wardrobe as both an obligation and a transaction. It was something the office girl owed to her boss. “Your boss supplies you with a typewriter, files, and office machines. But there’s one important piece of office equipment he expects you to supply in return—an efficient, well-balanced office wardrobe,” noted one 1964 column, framing the wardrobe as an exchange between the boss and clerical worker (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Clothes were equipment for doing the job effectively—as important as typewriters, this analogy averred. Indeed, JBOG often relied on comparisons to make feminine habits seem like common-sense parts of the job.

Despite the fact that wardrobing was an essential facet of the job, JBOG emphasized that an office wardrobe need not be expensive. As a result, JBOG accepted the low pay of clerical work and instead of encouraging women to ask for raises, it taught them to economize and bargain hunt. Even stories that emphasized the significance of fashion and being well dressed took pains to note that fashion sense was more a matter of taste than money. “Far more credit is due the woman who, with a limited clothes allowance, always creates the impression that she is well-dressed. Her appearance speaks for her own good taste, her own knowledge of value, and her own sense of what to wear and when to wear it,” proclaimed a cover article on the October 10, 1958, issue (“On Being Well-Dressed”). This reminded women that being well-dressed was a duty, insinuated taste to be an innate feminine characteristic, and prevented women from complaining that their meager salaries inhibited their ability to be fashionable. A 1960 article featuring Sally, “the perfect office girl,” described her as someone who “doesn’t spend much on clothes, but she’s always neat and dresses in good taste. The gentleness and kindness that shine from her eyes give her a beauty that’s rare these days” (“The Perfect Office Girl”). Other articles advised women to buy a few expensive basics and then provided details on what could be picked up at “bargain basements” without looking too cheap (“It’s Your Money: Dress for the Job”). Fashion sense even became proxy for striving and effectiveness. One 1960 article advised “the girls who wear mid or high heels are usually the ones who want to improve and do a little better job each day. The girls who wear flats are usually the ones who don’t care—about their job or their appearance” (“Get off the Ground”). The epideictic messages were clear—neat, fashionable women deserved praise. 

JBOG also served up fashionable blame. It was rife with stories of working women who had been fired for appearing sloppy at work. One article from 1960 told of a worker who was a whiz at filing and efficient at work but was soon let go by her firm. The boss explained, “when she came for her interview, she was wearing a simple office dress. That was the first and last time I saw her look like a lady. From her first day on the job to the day I fired her, she wore sloppy sweaters and skirts and loafers, or shirts and skirts—not always clean—and a couple of times she came in wearing socks.” This boss noted that the secretaries in his office were “on display for clients and other visitors” (“Hired…and fired”). Articles like these echoed the idea that there was something ephemeral about a perfect clerical worker, and if sloppy dress could get one dismissed from a job, a snappy wardrobe became a duty like filing and typing. In fact, in this case, it was more important than being good at clerical tasks. The wardrobe also had to be appropriately feminine because, as the boss in this story emphasized, he needed the working woman to “look like a lady.” Thus, appropriately embodied clerical work behaviors were innately feminine. 

Illustrations in JBOG supported these themes. The “I’m the gal…” boxes from the 1950s included images of women putting on makeup at their desk or appearing sloppy, with socks falling down their legs or wrinkled skirts. While most articles did not include pictures, each pamphlet had at least one cartoon. When shown in their daily duties in these cartoons, secretaries wore blouses, knee-length pencil skirts, and heels. They always had white skin and fashionable, bobbed or curled hair. When cartoons poked fun at secretaries and presented them as clearly unqualified, dress often paralleled cartoon text. Unqualified secretaries showed up in cartoons at personnel desks in low-cut dresses and flashy jackets, as in an October 30, 1962, issue.

Alongside the idea that taste was an innate feminine trait came hints that pursuing appropriate office fashion and femininity was, in fact, work. It required self-reflection and analysis. For instance, one article advised women to “Be yourself. But don’t be ridiculous.” Not being ridiculous, it seems, required that office women “analyze your own face and body type. Then look the new styles over and choose those that do the most for you.” “You’re not Jackie Kennedy [or] Liz Taylor,” this 1963 article admonished (“Two’s a Crowd”). The office guides emphasized that being a good secretary was not just about innate beauty “No woman is looking as well as she could unless she’s well groomed,” an article called “Are you Making the Most of What You’ve Got?” explained. One 1966 article entitled “Plain Jane—or Lazy Jane,” noted that “We owe it to ourselves and to those around us to develop whatever attributes we have, and to make the most of them.” In short, consciously or not, the office guides encouraged women to do uncompensated labor in striving to be on trend with fashion and beauty but still office appropriate. And in hinting that these behaviors were labor, JBOG made them an area for discipline and possible dismissal. 

JBOG also took an epideictic approach to specific trends. The popularity of miniskirts in the 1960s prompted many columns warning women away from the style and urging them to select more timeless fashions instead (“Short Skirts Present Tall Problems”). A 1966 issue even told of working women in New York City who refused to sit down on the subway because their skirts were so short, they invited unwanted leers (“Skirting the Issue”). The pantsuit appeared in 1964, wherein it was roundly dismissed as “belong[ing] in the country—miles away from an office” (“Paris in the Office”). By 1970, many personnel directors had given their clerical workers permission to wear them as long as they took the same care they did with dresses (“The Midi”). “Before you decide the pantsuit is for you take a good look in a full-length mirror. Be sure you have the shape to wear pants to the office,” recommended another article (“More on Pantsuits”). Thus, as trends evolved, the message of JBOG stayed the same: the working woman must assess her strengths and select a feminine outfit that accentuated them appropriately. She must always embody tasteful femininity. 

As a side effect of the focus on femininity, JBOG naturalized difference between men and women. Articles continually reminded women that they were not men and suffered from many weaknesses. The January 10, 1960, issue told women that they were absent from work twice as often as men. After listing the various causes, the article then detailed how to beat the most common culprits. Feminine gossiping was often cause for discipline as a number of articles reminded women to use caution when disclosing information. A 1962 article entitled “What Men Expect,” noted that “women, more than men, permit clashing temperaments and personalities to create unpleasant situations completely out of proportion to reality; situations which demand solutions from some poor, bedeviled male boss. Women also have an ugly habit of worming confidences out of one another and then spreading malicious gossip.” The January 25, 1960, issue, for instance, noted “The wise girl keeps her mouth shut about other people’s business” (“What Not to Say”). The implication was that women always loved to talk and gossip. Thus, along with requiring embodied femininity through fashion and grooming, JBOG emphasized differences between men and women, which reified the idea that clerical work must be done by women.   

In sum, effective office work required a performance of embodied femininity through fashion and beauty habits that were deeply racialized. The implications were severe. Women were expected to spend resources and time performing this work outside of normal compensation structures. And for Black women, already earning the lowest wages, the work would have been both more extensive and more expensive as they fashioned their bodies to meet white, middle-class standards. Something else lurked in this embodied rhetoric, though. As historian Kathleen Barry shows in her study of flight attendants, throughout much of the twentieth-century, flight attendants were expected to perform a sexual availability based in glamour. Yet, in performing these duties in a seemingly natural fashion, women effectively undermined their claims to be actual workers with the right to organize for higher wages and better working conditions (121). In doing their jobs, they were performing gender, not labor. So, too, with clerical workers as the role was naturalized as female. The concluding section identifies other implications for this work-related rhetoric.

The Cold War Comes Home: Conclusions

This essay has examined socialization discourses geared toward clerical workers in the United States from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The pamphlets analyzed here sidestepped controversy over working women by hailing a primarily unmarried, white, and always female work force. They also framed clerical work as a work of care, catering to mercurial and sensitive bosses and made performing racialized femininity a key component of the job as they extolled uncompensated labor in the form of wardrobing and beauty rituals. In sum, this essay pushes past rhetoric’s traditional focus on the rhetoric of labor organizing to explore how labor itself gets gendered.

Accordingly, this essay identifies the significance of how the public talks about labor to understanding how work is valued and compensated. Historically, work deemed to be “women’s work” has been degraded and underpaid (Cohen and Huffman 443). And, without a doubt, JBOG constituted clerical work as (white) women’s work and made gendered traits and behaviors endemic to effectively doing the job. Moreover, the pamphlets defined beauty routines and fashion consumption as obligations for clerical workers. Ambiguous, gender-based work is often not seen as work at all and never compensated (Wichroski 34). In casting a certain charm and look as part of the job, the pamphlets also provided cover for discrimination as largely white personnel managers sought people who met their standards of appropriate attractiveness, disadvantaging qualified Black women seeking to move into clerical work from service fields (Jones 305). Only the 1964 Civil Rights Act would begin to change this. In short, JBOG obfuscated what actually counted as work and made clear that doing uncompensated labor was required. Doing so protected visions of clerical work as a white, middle-class occupation and perhaps made women unlikely to see themselves as workers with a potential buy-in for labor organizing. 

Likewise, though they encouraged bargain hunting, these pamphlets made clear that consumption was a part of the job as well. As a result, women’s identities as consumers seemed to overshadow their identities as workers even as they further racialized the job as white. Such a way of framing clerical work corresponded with Cold War discursive needs to praise female consumption and downplay work. As a result, here work and gender intertwined in the context of geopolitical struggle. Encouraging women to follow the dictates of the pamphlets not only served bosses seeking cheap productivity but also a government waging a propaganda war with the Soviet Union, where women worked in factories and at stereotypically male jobs given the lack of Russian men available to do these jobs. 

JBOG served capitalist aims on another level, too. Despite the fact that the pamphlets cultivated a chatty relationship between the authors and readers, JBOG did little to build relationships among clerical workers themselves. While it counseled mutual respect, warned about gossip, and encouraged clerical workers to welcome newcomers, it never provided collective solutions to office problems. Instead, individual striving, prepared and careful conversations with the boss, and going above and beyond were the keys to success. In its individualism, it rhetorically confirmed the arguments of major unions that women were uninterested in and too hard to organize (Feldberg 151). Of course, low pay and the fact that many were in the workforce temporarily did make women hard to unionize. Moreover, clerical workers were geographically separated in different offices, an extra challenge, especially as the need for large typing and filing pools waned (Feldberg 158; Ladd-Taylor 467). Large unions like the AFL-CIO did not bang down doors to organize clerical workers and often demurred when women asked them to send in organizers. This was partially because men benefited from gendered divisions of labor as jobs coded masculine garnered higher wages and more respect (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 39; Kessler-Harris, “Where Are” 97). Rhetorically, then, JBOG encouraged women to find power in femininity and patience, not in sisterhood or organization. Moreover, in making white women agents of racial capitalism, JBOG also perpetuated the exclusion of women of color from the office. 

Despite these messages, in the mid- to late 1970s, groups seeking unionization of clerical workers sprang up to resist. These women were motivated to increase their wages, but also to demand respect for their profession and to change some of the most outmoded gendered elements (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 31; Foner 480; Windham 154). They also sought more specific job descriptions to professionalize the work. By the 1980s, groups like 9to5 transformed notions of what bosses could fairly ask clerical workers to do. Clerical work groups in the 1980s could not solve all problems and the gains were mostly won by private, corporate secretaries and not the lower-paid women in typing pools, who were far more likely to be women of color (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 32). As the 1980s ended, about sixteen percent of clerical workers were unionized, comparable to the U.S. population as a whole, although the overall decline of unionization in the private sector that began in the 1950s continued (Cobble, “A Spontaneous” 33). In line with the professionalization of the field, JBOG softened its gendered language, becoming Office Guide for Working Women in 1973 and just Office Guide by 1976. Yet, even the Office Guide assumed clerical work was a feminine endeavor as the beauty, exercise, and fashion tips remained. The Guide continued to preach moderation, dismissing “militant feminism” in the office as a “big problem” in 1975 (“What Would You Do?”) Yet, it did continue to adapt, shifting away from beauty tips by the 1980s and even recognizing in 1984 that most clerical workers bristled at being called “girl” (“‘My Girl’ Won’t Do”).

As Kyla Schuller explains, rhetorics such as the ones in JBOG continue a long trajectory of seeing femininity as tied to whiteness, rhetoric that justified abusing the labor of women of color (qtd. in Arjini). Of course, the weaponizing of white femininity is not confined to history as can be seen in the wake of protests to support Black lives. On a material level, while some laws now exist to protect equal access to work, women of color are still clustered in the lowest paying jobs in the U.S. workforce. Data unequivocally shows women of color continue to be paid less than white women and white men (Gould, Schieder, and Geier). Clerical work represents just one scene where the rhetorical entwining of femininity and whiteness has lasting consequences.

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Justice for All: The Womanist Labor Rhetoric of Nannie Helen Burroughs

We are not less honorable if we are servants.
Fidelity to duty rather than the grade of one’s occupation is the true measure of character

Nannie Helen Burroughs (“The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” 326)

African American clubwoman and educator Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) was a significant labor leader and rhetorician. Burroughs was at the beginning of her labor organizing career when she delivered her speech “The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” in Atlanta, Georgia in 1902.1 She spoke to the Negro Young People’s Christian Congress, an audience of mainly Black educators, about domestic service reform and her plans to fight for equal pay and respect for African American2 women laborers. We argue that following her speech, Burroughs developed and employed a labor rhetoric that led to the formation of a historic labor union for African American domestic workers in 1921, the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE). 

Burroughs’s rhetoric was both unique and effective. It was based on womanist inclusivity and solidarity and ignited an organization that expanded the traditional labor union organizing model in significant ways. According to the premier womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (formerly Layli Phillips), womanism is a “social change perspective that is rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem solving in everyday spaces” (xx). Grassroots organizers have employed womanist values of egalitarianism to fight against injustices that impact disenfranchised communities. In this article, we trace how Burroughs put her womanist labor rhetoric into action to establish the first African American women’s labor union in the United States in her effort to dismantle systemic racial, class, and gender inequalities that disproportionately impacted African American women in the US labor economy.

Burroughs established the National Training School for Women and Girls (NTS) in 1909, with the support of the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), to provide a vocational and classical education for Black women so that they could pursue whatever career they desired. With a keen sense of the racial, class, and gender inequities in the labor sector, Burroughs knew that Black girls who entered her school would most easily find employment as maids no matter the level and quality of education that they received. Her curriculum, nonetheless, reflected her ambitious goal of charting pathways for Black women to enter professions that had been designated for European immigrant and native-born white women. Her school offered courses in domestic science, dressmaking, tailoring, music, language, Black history, poultry raising, missionary and social service work (“Training school to open”). Burroughs insisted on the importance of establishing a course of education to elevate the status of domestic work even in her earliest years of serving as secretary of the Woman’s Convention in Kentucky. Burroughs’s largest project, however, was elevating Black women’s status in the labor sector by professionalizing and dignifying domestic work through labor unionization and the domestic science curriculum at her school.   

Her labor rhetoric complicated the tradition of unionization in two unique and important ways. Firstly, she asserted the need for federal union rights for all laborers. It was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that the US government created a standard of collective bargaining to prevent industrial workers (barring both agricultural and domestic) from being exploited on the job (“National Labor Relations Act”). The NAWE was thereby fourteen years ahead of its time. Secondly, there were no unions available for Black women in the early twentieth century, nor had there been any prior. While Burroughs did not reach her unionization benchmark, she struck a match for a national Black women’s labor movement through her strategic writings that inspired her organizing one of the largest untapped labor markets. 

To be clear, historians have contested the idea that the NAWE (1921) was a labor union because it was not recognized as such by the federal government.3 We argue it is important to read the term “union” rhetorically through both Burroughs’s writings and practices to develop a new framework for making visible Black women’s labor organizing that is rendered invisible by the racial and gender politics of the archive and labor union practices.  Labor organizations and unions such as the AFL-CIO, primarily led by white male industrial workers, refused to integrate African American women’s national labor agenda into their own labor causes. A textual analysis of Burroughs’s writings charts her historic labor project beyond the politics of race and gender that shape historical memory, and creates a pathway for recognizing the NAWE as a labor union. We argue that the NAWE operated like a union, as many organizations do, long before accorded legal rights.

The womanist labor rhetoric of Burroughs was based on a philosophy that working-class Black women have power and deserve respect in their workplaces in the form of living wages and safe working conditions to be attained through member driven unionization. This rhetoric includes the development of a class consciousness that demands a critical analysis of wealth, poverty and social mobility. In this article, we trace how Burroughs put her rhetoric into praxis through her writing and grassroots organizing to form the first national Black women’s labor union of the twentieth century. The texts feature three main themes Burroughs addressed throughout her labor rhetoric. She believed a women’s labor collective (womanist principle of solidarity) would lead to social, political, and economic rights for Black women resulting in liberation from racial, class and gender inequities for the entire Black community.  We examine how Burroughs employed her audacious, progressive, and forward-thinking labor rhetoric through an analysis of three major texts: “The Colored Woman and Her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” (1902), “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” (1919) and “My Dear Friend” (1921).

There is still more work to be done to unveil the significance of the NAWE and Burroughs’s rhetoric for labor organizing today. The labor rhetoric of Nannie Helen Burroughs led to organizing workers not based on status, but within the same shared goal of justice for all. The project of unveiling Burroughs’s shadowed legacy of unionization has its challenges. In addition to the limitations of the archive, some of the NAWE records were destroyed due to a fire at its headquarters in 1926. Despite these challenges, we see Burroughs’s writings as providing a critical lens into the significant history of the organization. Her overarching goal was to address the struggles of Black women domestic workers in ways that would liberate the entire Black community from social, political, and economic oppression.

The Woman’s Words: Burroughs’s Womanist Principles

Black and white photograph of Nannie Helen Burroughs circa early 1900s. Burroughs is facing the camera but not looking directly at it. She is wearing a long sleeved dress, heart-shaped necklace, and floral headpiece.

Fig. 1. Photograph of Nannie Helen Burroughs circa 1900 and 1920. © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Burroughs recognized the need for a labor organization that firmly advocated for working-class Black women in an era of racial segregation and the absence of laws to protect Black women from labor exploitation. As a daughter and granddaughter of domestic workers,4 professionalizing domestic work and instilling pride in work was crucial to Burroughs. In her speech,“The Colored Woman and her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem,” Burroughs employed womanist principles to inspire the audience to recognize the importance of domestic service reform, “Negro women can bring dignity to service life, respect and trust to themselves and honor to the race” (329). The changes Burroughs sought were guided on the principle that African American women deserved fairness and equality at work.  Her address to the audience was guided by her womanist belief that women were the social and economic anchors of the community because domestic workers were a large workforce in the Black community and were the pillars of community organizations, schools, and churches. Women (working in solidarity with men) were thereby most capable of uplifting the race and guiding the Black community to empowerment. 

Burroughs began her speech by deconstructing the negative stigma associated with domestic service, making the argument that domestic workers and their labors were especially critical to the progress of the Black race. According to Burroughs, the labor issues confronting domestic workers were critical to all African Americans regardless of gender, occupation or class status, and those issues could be remedied through domestic science education. As she proclaimed, “The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because the hour in which we live demands it” (Burroughs 325). Her strategy of foregrounding the importance of domestic workers in a Black liberation movement was to deconstruct the negative connotations associated with domestic service.  Household employment was a labor niche that carried the racial stigma of slavery, even in some early twentieth century Black communities. She considered it significant to dismantle this stigma in order to achieve her goal of galvanizing community support for a labor movement that centered domestic workers. In her words, “When the nobility of labor is magnified, and those who do labor are respected more because of their real worth to the race, we will find a lot less number trying to escape the brand servant girl” (Burroughs 326). She offered three concrete solutions for elevating the status of domestic work in the eyes of employers: domestic science training, fair wages, and vacation time (Burroughs 329).

Burroughs put the womanist principle of community solidarity into practice not only in the speech, but through her strategic delivery of it. Her decision to travel, deliver and publish “The Colored Woman and her Relations to the Domestic Service Problem” in Atlanta, Georgia, with the Young People’s Christian Congress, reflected her belief that domestic service reform impacted a national audience, even future generational leaders. The more African Americans who did not work in household employment were educated about domestic workers’ struggles, the closer the entire community would come to forming a strong moral and political alliance across class lines for Black liberation. The Congress, speech and eventual publication share the same vision of timeliness: the question of African Americans’ freedom from the lingering chains of both slavery and Jim and Jane Crow segregation had to be answered to achieve justice for all. Burroughs traveled often, spoke at meetings, and published with the intention to reach a national Black audience and convince them to join her in fighting for justice for all through labor rights for Black women.  

“We have lived on promises”: Towards a More Radical Womanist Labor Vision

(Burroughs, “Divide the Vote or Go to Socialists”)

Burroughs’s polemic 1919 letter to the Baltimore African American editor entitled “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” was one of the most radical articulations of her labor rhetoric.5 While Burroughs could not legally vote (Black women in DC would be disenfranchised past 1920), by articulating that she had a vote, she demonstrated the political significance of Black women’s labor at the ballot box. Burroughs vowed to educate Black people, become more politically active, and work with Socialists to create a more just future for African Americans. She claimed that if the major political parties continued paying lip service then joining the Socialist party was the only option for African Americans “Until the two great political parties… declare themselves on the Suffrage, Labor and Lynching questions, the Negro should go to the Socialist party that has already declared itself for exact justice and equality and opportunity for all” (Burroughs, “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists”). Burroughs publicly exposed both the Republican and Democratic parties for their failure to fully address three key issues to African Americans: labor exploitation, lynching, and discrimination against women, citing the power of the African American female vote. 

As she declared to the paper’s African American readership: “We are going to stand for anything that is 100% American and oppose everything that is less” (Burroughs, “Divide Vote or Go to Socialist”). Burroughs’s urging African Americans to leave the party that liberated them from the institution of slavery (because it no longer served them politically) was an expansion of her other political work, which suggested the socio-political unity of Blacks based on Baptist principals of conservative fellowship. According to her, political parties had not taken Black economic interests seriously even though they relied on their votes. Therefore, Burroughs saw socialism as the salvation for African Americans because of its emphasis on equality in the labor economy. “Divide the Vote or Go to the Socialists” is where Burroughs demonstrated her radical ideas prior to her work at the NAWE. If whites were not going to join in solidarity for African American liberation, then African Americans would have to seek their own practical and hands-on solutions.

During the same year that “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists” was published, Burroughs  and her colleagues, Mary Church Terrell and Elizabeth Haynes Ross, attempted to organize with the National Trade Union League of America at the inaugural International Congress of Working Women (ICWW) meeting to forge a labor alliance between Black and white women laborers. They discovered that white labor organizations supporting socialist ideals lacked an analysis of class inequalities at the intersections of race and gender. The ICWW was uninterested in taking up the specific concerns of working-class Black women and they declined the opportunity to create a cross-racial partnership with them (“First Convention of International Conference of Working Women”). 

The ICWW meeting convened in Washington D.C with two hundred women in attendance, primarily white-Europeans and white Americans, to discuss strategies for combating the exploitation of women laborers across the world. Burroughs and her colleagues believed that this mass convening of working women in Washington D.C. was a critical opportunity for Black women to develop international alliances with white women labor organizations. They authored a petition including statistics and a detailed analysis of the labor exploitation of Black women laborers in the US economy, primarily highlighting the working conditions of Black domestic workers, “We, a group of Negro women, representing those two millions of Negro woman wage-earners, respectfully ask for your active cooperation in organizing the Negro women workers of the United States into unions…” (“First Convention of International Conference of Working Women”). The ICWW leaders rebuffed the petition. As labor historian Lara Vapnek argued, the ICWW prioritized their class and racial alliances rather than gender alliances by not forming a partnership with African American women (Vapnek 166).  The ICWW proceeded with an international conference without a focus on equal labor rights for women of all races and ignoring the working conditions of African American women detailed in the petition. Afterwards, Burroughs immediately began planning a labor union for Black women because no white labor organization in the early twentieth century was willing to join her cause.

NAWE’s Inception: “The hour has come for colored women in America to get together”

(Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”)

After failed attempts to unionize with white women, Burroughs formed a labor union for all Black women, with an emphasis on achieving domestic workers’ rights and the highest bargaining chip of all: a walk out by a single union. A strike is a collective decision as a last resort when all methods of collective bargaining at the table have been employed by the membership and are regulated by the NLRB (“The Right to Strike”). According to the NAWE Constitution, members had the right to strike if they were not granted stable employment, living wages, vacation time, death benefits and safe working conditions (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). Her call for a strike was especially daring because strikes or work stoppages provoke fear in employers who misunderstand the purpose of strikes in a labor movement, which is why strikes within floor to ceiling unions are uncommon.6 It was a bold strategy for African American domestic workers who could have easily been arrested for not showing up to work because of Jim and Jane Crow laws. By calling for solidarity and cooperation of all Black workers across gender and occupation, Burroughs was ahead of her time. Coalition politics rooted in solidarity were just beginning and weakened by the Taft Hartley Act of 1947, which federally banned solidarity-based strikes (“Taft Hartley Act of 1947”). Her approach was effective in creating not only a Black women’s labor union, but one that expanded the traditional labor union organizing model through coalition. Rather than solely galvanizing workers within the same occupation for labor rights, Burroughs and the NAWE organizers recruited workers from a variety of working-class and middle-class occupations to advocate for domestic service reform. 

Burroughs expressed her deepened womanist commitment to creating a Black women’s labor collective in her March 21, 1921, open letter entitled “My Dear Friend” published in the Washington Bee, an African American newspaper based in Washington D.C. that had covered Burroughs’s activist work since her teen years. The call for NAWE membership was a national woman centered communal one of inclusivity in the United States from every field. Burroughs took a personable approach to inspiring audiences to come together for a common purpose by beginning the letter in first person.  She reminded the readership of their shared union vision, exigency for a labor union by stating: “We want to enlist 10,000 women in the National Association of Wage Earners, who in turn will enlist another 10,000. We want women from every walk of life” (Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”). The use of armed service terminology alongside the specific numbers indicates her determination that this is not an optional call; it is a call to defend the rights of Black women everywhere. 

Burroughs saw herself as part of the women’s collective that she sought to create because never considered herself divided from working-class Black women. In the letter, Burroughs tied her belief in the power of women’s labor organizing to her racial uplift goals. According to her, the NAWE could improve the working and living conditions of the entire Black community by achieving nine goals for domestic workers (enclosed at the bottom of the letter). As Burroughs detailed, NAWE organizers collected dues; documented grievances; trained and placed employees; advocated for labor rights legislation; provided safe housing; started a uniform co-operative run for and by Black women; and opened a local office for community events and meetings (“My Dear Friend”).  

Within her letter, Burroughs simultaneously subverted and reasserted the classist and elitist philosophy of racial uplift. She argued both middle class and working-class women could uplift the Black race together through the womanist principle of women’s solidarity. According to Burroughs, middle-class and working-class Black women were social equals who contributed tremendous value to the Black women’s labor movement. She declared, “The women who are backing this organization are not misfits and failures, but are successful in the particular lines” (“My Dear Friend.”) In this sentence, she reframes the divisive language used to create class boundaries between Black women along employment lines. She called for both working-class and middle-class women to join the NAWE. “We want women from every walk of life– cooks and clerks, field hands and parlor maids, teachers and laundresses, dressmakers and charwomen, beauty culturists and factory workers, boarding housekeepers and training nurses business women and the army of unclassified toilers North, South, East and West” (Burroughs, “My Dear Friend”). Through her roll call of women from a variety of professions and regions, Burroughs made it clear that her purpose was to invite all women to the bargaining table. 

Black women laborers who had a deep understanding of achieving solidarity through racial pride and empowerment were central to Burroughs’s vision for racial uplift and community empowerment. She also believed that Black women of all creeds, colors, and levels of education could succeed in achieving labor rights without the full acceptance of white society. Thus, the fate of the Black community was in the hands of Black laboring women, and not the white community. The ethos underlying her push for Black women’s solidarity across class, region, and occupation was like that of formally recognized labor unions: an injury to one is an injury to all. At the end of the “My Dear Friend” letter, Burroughs reinforces and inserts herself into the power behind Black women’s collective solidarity organizing when she states that the women of the NAWE move in unison, that “they all want to climb together” (“My Dear Friend”). In closing, Burroughs ends with a note on her faith and belief in the Black community to recruit women workers to the NAWE. “They need your help, and they believe they are going to get it” (“My Dear Friend”). While a distinctly women’s labor union, the NAWE also welcomed Black male allies. Her closing is non-gendered, thereby, making sure that she employed the womanist principle of solidarity through welcoming the participation of both women and men in the membership drive. The expansive gender membership of the NAWE, which included barbers, insurance agents, pastors, and male professors, suggests that Burroughs sought to build a mass labor movement across gender and class status among Black laborers in the private and public spheres (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”).  

Shortly after “My Dear Friend” was published, Burroughs spoke at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, advertised as President of the NTS and NAWE, again proving her labor rhetoric had a national strategy (“Nannie Helen Burroughs at First Baptist Church”). Using both of her titles within the publication and no title of the speech itself, the author of the article documents Burroughs’s ethos within the lecture circuit as a community leader. Burroughs implemented womanist grassroots organizing principles within her own community of Washington D.C. first and moved outwards nationally to work towards her membership benchmarks by announcing the NAWE’s launch in three African American based publications. Burroughs nine points, located in the NAWE Constitution, were re-printed in 1924 by Competitor, Crisis and Opportunity, African American themed national publications released by Negro Press, National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and National Urban League (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). Her reasoning was to tie her national association headquarters to other national organizations of Black audiences to reach a diversity of backgrounds.

The inclusion and naming of both local and national community organizers such as Sadie T. Henson, Maggie L. Walker and Mary McLeod Bethune in the NAWE leadership publications was rhetorically strategic. Burroughs was interested in recruiting women from a wide range of Black organizations to join the NAWE, demonstrating her effective use of the womanist ethos of inclusivity and egalitarianism. Henson, community organizer and former truant officer in Washington D.C., is cited as the district president and Walker is cited as treasurer (“Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women”; “Wage Earners”). Walker served as the treasurer of the NAWE and was the first Black woman president of a “penny” save bank (“Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women”; “St. Luke Herald”). Walker advocated for mutual aid and death benefits for the sick and terminally ill through the Independent Order of St. Luke, influencing NAWE policies on death benefits. Like Burroughs, Bethune ran a school for Black women and girls in Florida. Both women believed education was tied to organizing Black women workers across the U.S.  

The intention of the dual leadership of Burroughs and Bethune through these organizations was to unite working- and middle-class Black women for the purposes of national Black labor solidarity. This race and class-based organizing through the NAWE was an extension of Burroughs’s initial 1902 labor vision. Her friend and colleague Mary McLeod Bethune was an active collaborator in the NAWE tying broader unionization and education of Black workers to her own political work in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Despite the NACW’s role as an unbiased advocate, Bethune used her position as President of the NACW to support the NAWE. As she explained, “That we most heartily endorse the work of the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Commission on Interracial Co-operation, the National Wage Earners’ Association among Women, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and all National Organizations whose purpose is to uplift” (4). Bethune believed that the NAWE should be led by women in coalition with other Black male labor organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters united together with the shared goal of better working conditions for African Americans. 

The coverage on Burroughs twice in The Connecticut Labor News (1921-1925) shows her labor rhetoric was effective, because it resonated even with the mainly white male union activist audience. Each piece paraphrases Burroughs’s nine points and states that her primary purpose for establishing the NAWE was to establish a living wage for three million Black women workers. “House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection” was published in March 1924 with a subheading “Open Headquarters in Washington and Elect Officers; May soon Apply for Charter in A.F.L.” The Connecticut Labor News acknowledges that Black women workers in the United States faced marginalization into lower paying positions, exploitation in their workplaces and that unionization was the way to produce good workers. Since the paper was produced by white union activists, they were surprised that wages were not the first of Burroughs’s nine points (“House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection”). The goal of good workers, stable and permanent employment with safe housing and fair pay were intertwined, reiterating that Burroughs believed the dignity of Black women workers was at the root of all her nine points. Burroughs stated:

Negro women wage earners are the only large unprotected labor group in America. Unorganized labor will be exploited and mistreated. An organized labor group gets fairer wages, better living conditions, greater respect and economic justice. Then, too, join a labor organization that functions properly, develops in the workers greater skill and general efficiency, pride of occupation and improvement in general conduct. The latter improvements are as important as the former considerations.

(“House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection”)

After failing to acquire a charter with the A.F.L. due to its sexist, racist and classist perspective on workers, and seeking the support of other Socialists sympathizers, Burroughs again spoke to The Connecticut Labor News in October 1924. In “Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground” Burroughs takes ownership for the independence of the NAWE and how African American women are setting the example for broad-based unionization across the United States:

Our women have had no standing with the AFL or NWTU League. Nothing has been done to improve the conditions of the Negro working woman. We must therefore, paddle our own canoe. A few colored women some months ago discussed the situation seriously and decided not to stop until we have organized all Negro working women into a labor union. The NAWE Inc. is the outcome of this conference.

(“Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground”)

The article ends by citing the NAWE’s gains of between five and ten thousand members (“Union for Negro Women Workers [sic] Gaining Ground”). Clearly, Burroughs was building membership of the NAWE through her broad-based publications not only with Black audiences. At the core of her publications was her labor rhetoric rooted in womanist solidarity and inclusivity for all workers. As she believed, until the most marginalized at the intersections of race, class and gender are free, no one is.

Weathered black and white photo of the National Association of Wage Earners headquarters, a large multistory brick building with trees planted in front. The photo appears to be taking during winter.

Fig. 2. Headquarters National Association of Wage Earners, 1115 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.© Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The NAWE flourished for a few more years, despite the Depression, debt, and a fire at the National Trade School for Women and Girls. Advertisements in the Evening Star for job placement (1924-1928) and accounting (1928-1931) shows the NAWE was still working for equity, seeking workers to represent and promoting their organizing efforts (see Appendix). The advertisements in the Evening Star targeted readers of the general D.C. newspaper rather than Black themed publications, because of the growing number of Black women laborers who were both seeking employment and housing in the city. Due to the constraints of the Depression, Burroughs founded another Black labor initiative called the Cooperative Industries in 1934. The industry was a mainly self-sustaining Black operation where workers accepted the communal and business responsibility for the welfare of their members by selling their profits and investing them back into their communities (“Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies”). 

While there are no publications directly quoting Burroughs about the cooperative, we see an expansion of her womanist labor rhetoric through her promotion of women’s entrepreneurship through a self-sustaining cooperative in the D.C. Black community. Many women who worked for the cooperative were unemployed domestic workers who wanted to labor outside of household employment. Workers at the cooperative provided services for Black and white D.C. communities as seamstresses, laundresses, bakers, cooks, nurses and clerks staffing a grocery store, with plans for a credit union, shoe repair shop and a broom factory (“Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies”). Burroughs and the cooperative sought to control the process and products of their labor in a world that denied Black domestic workers the legal opportunities to file for unemployment benefits or Social Security.

Reviving Black Women’s Labor Organizing History

In 2020, Burroughs would be disappointed that her vision still has not fully come into fruition. Domestic workers are prevented from unionizing due to restrictive provisions in the NLRA stating that they do not qualify as employees and do not deserve federal labor rights.7 They were granted a provision under the 1976 Fair Labor Standards Act to receive a minimum wage,8 yet it did not hold employers legally responsible for paying them one (U.S. Congress, United States Code: Labor-Management Relations, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-197). While we are a long way away from transforming household employment, Burroughs’s writings and labor organizing history are good places to start for envisioning and moving towards a collective women’s labor movement.

The NAWE effectively became a union even in defiance of a society that refused it the proper recognition. Burroughs and NAWE members organized along the same principles as a union, with the same foundational belief in the dignity of workers and their labor. As a co-founding organizer, Burroughs challenged dominant white hegemonic society through her writings and praxis. By advocating for full labor rights for Black women at work, Burroughs dispelled the stereotype of domestic workers as the lovingly submissive Mammy.9 She also created a labor organizing space for African American women in a society that was unwilling to accept them as skilled workers who deserved a living wage. Burroughs invoked and built an association that expressed the collective will of thousands of Black women and aspired to do so much more. 

The labor organizing work of Burroughs has been buried in the annals of history10 due to racism, sexism and anti-Black labor organizing bias. The NAWE records should be more widely discussed and the organization’s history should be upheld as an example to strive towards rather than one to forget. The Black women workers in Washington D.C. (plus the male and female domestic and agricultural workers from the NAWE’s 23 other chapters across the United States) would encounter barriers to achieving full labor rights today. In fact, many low-wage women workers in labor unions in the twenty-first century still do not have the majority of Burroughs’s nine points outlined in her “My Dear Friend” letter.

Labor rights are human rights, and a labor rhetoric demands visibility. Burroughs’s vision for the NAWE, rooted in the womanist principles of community, equality, and solidarity, propelled the association’s leaders to draw from women’s extensive community networks to recruit a wide-ranging union membership. Burroughs lit the match for transformative labor organizing through her effective rhetoric that inspired people to find common ground across their class, age, and regional differences. It is now up to all laboring women and their allies to continue fanning that flame in the movement for labor rights.


  1. This speech was re-published by education and religious scholar Kelisha M. Graves in Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959 (27-31). Graves’s purpose in re-publishing is to emphasize the timeliness of Burroughs and emphasize her contribution to theology.
  2.  We alternate between Black and African American for stylistic variety.
  3. The National Labor Relations (or Wagner Act) was not passed until 1935 (“National Labor Relations Act”). For a union to achieve recognition a community of interest signs authorization cards indicating a showing of interest, holds an election and elects a union by the member majority before it gains both state and federal certification (“National Labor Relations Act”).
  4.  Burroughs is cited as a janitor earlier in her career (Graves xxv).
  5.  See Graves for an edited and updated version (97-98).
  6.  Few strikes had occurred among domestic workers except for the 1881 washerwoman’s strike in Atlanta, Georgia.  Tera Hunter argues “Washing Amazons and Organized Protests” Black washerwomen were ready to give up their family income for respect at work prioritizing solidarity over division through punishment of scabs and a targeted media strategy (75-78; 91).
  7.  See Juan F. Perea, “The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the NLRA” for a reading on the discriminatory implications to the employee provision of the NLRA.
  8.  Domestic workers grassroots organizing began in New York with the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (“Department of Labor”). Similar bills to supply additional rights at work for domestic workers have passed in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.
  9.  See Hortense J. Spillers “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” for a reading on African American women, language and tropes.
  10. There is evidence in Burroughs NAWE supplementary texts in Box 308 at the Library Congress: “My Dear Co-Worker” (1921) and “The Way to Make Money” (1921) of a deep organizing model (“Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers”). If Burroughs released these papers, there might have been a greater understanding of her labor rhetoric.


Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “A Union Would Enroll Colored Domestics.” The Washington Post. November 18, 1924.
  • Bethune, Mary McLeod. “Program, Fifteenth Biennial Meeting. National Association of Colored Women,” August 1-6, 1926, The National Notes, vol. 28, no. 10, July-August 1926, pp. 1-4.
  • Burroughs, Nannie. “Divide Vote or Go to Socialists.” August 22, 1919. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988), p. 4.
  • —. “The Colored Woman and Her Relation to the Domestic Problem.” The United Negro: his problems and his progress Containing the Addresses and Proceedings of The Negro Young People’s Christian Congress, edited by John W. E. Bowen and I. Garland Penn, Luther Publishing Company, Atlanta, 1902, pp. 324-329.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen. “My Dear Friend.” The National Association of Wage Earners, Incorporated, Washington Tribune, March 26, 1921, pp.1-3.
  • —. MS. “National Association of Wage Earners.” Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. Box 308, Folder. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  • —. “National Association of Wage Earners.” Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. Box 309, Folder 1. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen, and Kelisha B. Graves. Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900-1959. University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.
  • Burroughs, Nannie Helen, and Elmer Anderson Carter, editor. “A Rather Inspiring Meeting.” Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, vol. 1-2, 1969, p. 382-383. National Urban League.
  • Department of Labor, New York State. Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
  • “Employment Ads.” Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 24 Sept. 1928. Page 32. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “First Convention of International Conference of Working Women.” Washington, D.C., International Federation of Working Women Records, Schlesinger Library, Folder 3.
  • “Headquarters National Association of Wage Earners, Rhode Island Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.” Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  • “Home Plans to Train Colored Domestics: National Association Opens Model Headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue–Is Unionized by Women.” The Washington Post. November 10, 1924.
  • “House Servants Organize Union for Own Protection.” The Connecticut Labor News. (New Haven, Conn.), 29 March 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • Hunter, Tera. To ‘Joy My Freedom’: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • “National Association of Wage Earners: Nannie Helen Burroughs.” Competitor. June 1921.
  • National Labor Relations Board. “National Labor Relations Act.” NLRB.
  • —. “The Right to Strike.” NLRB.
  • —. “What We Do.” NLRB.
  • “Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers.” The Library of Congress.
  • Perea, Juan F. “The Echoes of Slavery: Recognizing the Racist Origins of the Agricultural and Domestic Worker Exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act.” Ohio State Law Journal, 2011. pp. 95-138.
  • Phillips, Layli. The Womanist Reader. Routledge, 2006.
  • Richmond Planet, vol. XLI, no. 26 (Richmond, Va.), 17 May 1924. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “St. Luke Herald.” National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. vol. XXI, no. 37. 30, December 1922. MAWA 4482.
  • “Training School to Open: Negro Women to be Taught to be Domestics.” Evening Star, vol. 137. (Washington, D.C.), 17 Oct. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • United States Code: Labor-Management Relations, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-197. 1976. Periodical. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  • U.S. Department of Labor.” Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), U.S. Department of Labor.
  • “Untitled.” Opportunity, vol. 2, no. 24, December 1924, p. 383. 1 page.
  • Vapnek, Lara. “The 1919 International Congress of Working Women: Transnational Debates on the ‘Woman Worker.'” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 26 no. 1, 2014, pp. 160-184. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2014.0015.
  • “Wage Earners.” Washington Bee. April 7, 1917. vol. XXXVII, no. 45.
  • Weinberg, Sylvia. “Cooperation Theory Tested in Colonies.” The Sunday Star, no. 1710 (Washington, D.C.), 26 Dec. 1937. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  • “When Truth Gets a Hearing.” Ruth Wright Hayre Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, 1930. Temple University Libraries.

“There’s Just Something About Her”: The Lasting Influence of Anti-Suffrage Rhetoric on American Voter Attitudes

In November 2018, Sarah Elfreth made Maryland history as the youngest woman to win an election to the Maryland State Senate at age 30. But like so many other women who work to shatter the glass ceiling, Senator Elfreth ran into her fair share of sexist criticism. “[I was] incessantly criticized for being too young, being unmarried, and being childless. Apparently that combination made me wholly unqualified to serve in the Senate,” she shared during a June 2020 personal interview. “That was the most misogyny I faced in the entire campaign. When women say things like that, it gives men credence to say it” (Elfreth).

Erin Lorenz, a candidate for the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in 2020, shared a similar experience of voters needing to see her as a “traditional” woman. According to Lorenz, voters would ask “But what will you do?” upon learning that she would have to resign from her teaching job if she won. Because many of them looked visibly uncomfortable when she said that she would have to get another job, adding, “I’m getting married in April,” seemed to go over much more smoothly. “They definitely felt more relieved when they knew that,” Lorenz said. Unfortunately, after one hundred years of national suffrage, women like Sarah Elfreth and Erin Lorenz still encounter tired tropes of how women are regarded in the political arena. Women may have the vote, but their fight to be recognized as full political participants is far from over.

The centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020 gives us many opportunities to celebrate social progress. The new Turning Point Suffrage Memorial in Fairfax County, Virginia is a space for visitors to learn more about the Silent Sentinels, while the Library of Congress crowdfunded archival project, “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote,” has provided the public with ways to engage remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while enjoying these commemorations, we must be careful not to succumb to what University of Wisconsin sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer deem the ahistorical fallacy: the belief that past events like the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment “are too far removed to matter to those living in the here-and-now” (Desmond and Emirbayer 344). History is a continuum of connections, and individual instances of progress do not eradicate institutional sexism. There is still so much to learn, and so much to fight for.

My article argues that despite the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, the rhetoric that charged its opposition still persists when it comes to female voters and female political candidates. To reach this conclusion, I analyze the continuation of anti-suffrage rhetoric over the last century according to the colonial “Republican Mother” archetype, as well as Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s ambivalent sexism inventory, to establish six appeals of anti-suffrage rhetoric: appeal to respectability politics, appeal to spite, appeal to family, appeal to male structural power, appeal to women as overly emotional, and appeal to unique gender roles.  Finally, I share my own recent data from political canvassers on the negative rhetoric surrounding female voters and female candidates, examine the ways in which voters’ comments both echo and diverge from sentiments made one hundred years ago, and establish a seventh rhetorical appeal for the twenty-first century.

Citizenship by Proxy: The Republican Mother

As was the case when black men were legally denied the vote before the passing of the 15th Amendment, definitions of citizenship lay at the heart of the women’s suffrage question. If women did not have the vote, were they full citizens of the United States? And if they were not full citizens, was the goal of the anti-suffrage movement to reserve citizenship, as Elaine Weiss sardonically observes in The Woman’s Hour, “by right of a certain shape of genitalia”? (40)

Rosemarie Zagarri describes the notion of a separate brand of citizenship for women, to be practiced within the boundaries of what is “natural” and therefore appropriate for their sex, as a “broad, long-term, transatlantic reformulation of the role and status of women” in her essay, “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother” (Zagarri 193). European philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Lord Kames lay the groundwork for how Americans eventually conceived of women’s relationship to the family unit and to society more generally. The latter’s assertion that women’s “relationship to their country is secondhand, experienced through husbands and sons,” was particularly influential in the formation of the “Republican Mother” archetype, as it carved out a specific path of political influence that American women could exercise in lieu of suffrage (Kerber 196). In his 1806 essay, “Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” Benjamin Rush insisted that “[women] should not only be instructed in the usual branches of female education, but they should be taught the principles of liberty and government; the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them” (qtd. in Zagarri 206). By learning about politics in America without any first-hand involvement, women would be able to perform a kind of citizenship by proxy. They could shape the character of men and boys, and by extension, contribute to a more moral society.

Relatedly, the Republican Motherhood ideal is also an illustration of benevolent sexism. Defined by Peter Glick (Lawrence University) and Susan T. Fiske (now Princeton University) in 1996 as one of the two “prongs” of the researchers’ ambivalent sexism inventory, benevolent sexism is the lesser-known cousin of hostile sexism that masquerades as kind and complementary. According to Glick and Fiske, this kind of sexism is comprised of attitudes “[that view] women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g. helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure)” (Glick and Fiske 492). A contemporary example of benevolently sexist behavior would be a man telling a woman that the catcalls she gets while walking to work are “just compliments,” and that she should “smile more” so as to appear inviting and amicable. Such comments focus on praise while undermining female agency. The woman is harassed, her male friend assures her, because she is just so beautiful, and urges her to sacrifice her comfort to maintain the social order.

For its time, the argument that women should exercise influence over their husbands and sons could be read as progressive and even feminist. But the resulting Republican Mother archetype shaped American conventional wisdom in benevolently sexist ways, and defining women by their sexual and moral purity became grounds for anti-suffrage activists to keep them out of political life. “It was, suffrage opponents explained, because they held women in such high esteem that they denied them the vote,” Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder write in A Century of Votes for Women. The authors additionally note that such rhetoric often turned from flattering to frightening once women disobeyed the rules: “An anti-suffrage cartoon presented women with a choice: Reject the right to vote and retain the safety and happiness of the home, or obtain the vote and accept the degradation of the ‘street corner’” (Wolbrecht and Corder 33-34). Left with no middle ground between the home and the street corner, a space that implies poverty, prostitution, and general debasement, women would surely be scared into silence.

The Rhetoric of the Antis: Benevolent Sexism Turns Hostile

The benevolent sexism inherent in the Republican Mother archetype is an example of what Glick and Fiske deem “protective paternalism,” a method of preserving women “as wives, mothers, and romantic objects…to be loved, cherished, and protected” (493). As in the previously mentioned anti-suffrage cartoon, benevolent sexism is often exposed as a cover for hostile sexism once women respond in a way that rebukes the existing social order. The real threat of physical violence that women face while being harassed on the street, for instance, exemplifies how quickly a flatterer can pivot and become an attacker.

It is worth noting that some anti-suffrage rhetoric, usually from individual speakers, did remain benevolently sexist without turning hostile. Many female anti-suffrage activists of the early 20th century revised their former position that women should keep exclusively to the home as more women became active in social clubs and other community organizations. Mrs. J.B. Gilfillan, president of the Minnesota Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, clarified her evolving stance in 1915:

Anti-Suffragists are opposed to women in political life, opposed to women in politics…We believe in women in all the usual phases of public life, except political life. Wherever women’s influence, counsel, or work is needed by the community, there you will find her, so far with little thought of political beliefs…The pedestals they are said to stand upon move them into all the demands of the community. (qtd. in Thurner 40)

Gilfillan subtly frames her position as one that allows women more freedom than they had previously been accustomed to. “We believe in women in all the usual phases of public life” suggests variety of choice as well as eased restrictions, and the words “except political life” may resonate as a fair compromise. Gilfillan’s use of the word “pedestal” is also apt, as pedestals are symbolic of benevolent sexism. Putting women on a metaphorical pedestal first for their “natural” roles as wife and mother, then as a beacon of “political neutrality and nonpartisanship,” is a way of praising them for adhering to boundaries (Thurner 41). To sell the idea further, President Josephine Dodge, the founder and first president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, argued that women actually held more power by not being able to vote. She employed respectability politics by urging women to get “the best results from lawmakers by working with them for the common good, not dividing along party lines” (Miller 453). Catharine Beecher pushed women to use “moral persuasion” on male voters instead of voting themselves, another proper way to “create less conflict” (Miller 451). Gilfillan, Dodge and Beecher all used benevolent sexism to persuade by framing less power as more power. By spinning legal limitations as an opportunity for women to realize their unique gifts of “moral persuasion” and “working for the common good,” anti-suffragists were able to frame the absence of the vote as necessary.

The anti-suffrage advertisements found in newspapers and magazines were not so benevolent; in fact, they were quite hostile. Women were forced to choose whether they wanted to be virtuous housewives who left the voting to their husbands or greedy, unsexed barbarians who failed to know their place. The rhetoric in these advertisements performs the dual functions of threatening women who step outside of their proper sphere of influence while playing on men’s fears of losing structural power.

President John Adams’ notion of “petticoat government” influenced many anti-suffrage advertisements, which depicted women as nags, bullies, and literal hens corrupted by their newfound power at the polls (Weiss 29). One cartoon, titled “America When Feminized,” features a hen with a “Votes for Women” sash stepping out of her coop, directing the rooster to “Sit on [the eggs] yourself old man, my country calls ME!” The caption immediately below reads, “The more a politician allows himself to be henpecked the more henpecking we will have in politics,” followed by, “A vote for federal suffrage is a vote for organized female nagging forever” (Weiss). The postcard is certainly meant to horrify its male readers. But because it leans heavily on argumentum ad odium—an appeal to spite—female readers would also be justifiably repulsed at the thought of themselves as hen-like. 

Image is a postcard with the text "if you love your wife and much less your life get out and get under." Underneath the text is a living room with two signs on the wall: "Bless this house" and "votes for women." There is a woman holding a rolling pin menacingly while standing over a man lying on his back on the floor.

Fig. 1. “Get Out and Get Under.” Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive, Feminization of Men Collection.

An anti-suffrage postcard from the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive at the University of Northern Iowa depicts a woman physically dominating her husband and threatening to strike him with a rolling pin (Fig. 1). Here, a traditionally female domestic household item is weaponized to emasculate a man: what was previously a tool of service (providing meals) is now a symbol of tyranny and disorder. On another postcard from the same collection, a woman yells at her husband to clean while pointing urgently to a newspaper with the headline, “Votes for Women” (Figure 2). The husband cowers sheepishly in the corner, and neglected teapots appear to boil over behind him while the caption reads: “Puzzle—Find the Head of the House.” A puzzle, indeed, and a clear appeal to prescribed gender roles. The postcard insists that reversed roles for men and women would be a disaster for the entire household, as the man appears frightened and unable to carry the burden of domestic labor that is, oddly enough, supposed to be enjoyable and fulfilling for his wife. 

Image is a postcard that shows a woman bending down to pick up a paper that reads "votes for women." Behind the woman is a table, and there's a man, presumably her husband, crouched behind it looking at the woman with a scared facial expression.

Fig. 2. “Puzzle – Find the Head of the House.” Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive, Feminization of Men Collection.

Hostile sexism in anti-suffrage rhetoric also characterized women as too fragile and unstable to be entrusted with the vote. “Innate physical weakness made white women unfit for the rigors of the electoral competition,” Wolbrecht and Corder explain, “and unable to defend the republic against threats” (34). John Jacob Vertrees, who mentored anti-suffrage activist Josephine Pearson in her fight against Tennessee’s ratification, played on the related stereotype women as innately emotional in his 1916 pamphlet, To the Men of Tennessee on Female Suffrage. He argues in the pamphlet that “a woman’s life is one of frequent and regular periods marked by mental and nervous irritability, when sometimes even her mental equilibrium is disturbed” (qtd. in Weiss 39). Vertrees directly appeals to the idea that women are “too emotional” by citing women’s character flaws, not their positive attributes, as just cause for keeping them out of the voting booth. Anti-suffrage activists also used women’s anger to deem them “too emotional”; in other words, women’s aggressive pursuit of the vote caused their worth to diminish. “When you hand her the ballot, you simply give her a club to knock her brains out,” one Nashville reverend preached. “When she takes the ballot box, you’ve given her a coffin in which to bury the dignities of womanhood” (Weiss 32). The metaphors of violence and death are no accident here. They are a veiled threat, and an eerie foreshadowing of the jailing and torture of suffragist protesters. 

By the time the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916—four years before national suffrage—the sexist rhetoric surrounding women in politics was overtly hostile. When Jeannette Rankin of Montana won her seat in the House of Representatives, reporters painted her as “a cheap little actress” prone to “sobbing,” who needed to be “forgive[n] for her election” (Walbert). Rankin’s challenger, Jacob Crull, was so distraught over his loss that he downed a bottle of muriatic acid. But rather than characterize Crull’s action as hysterical, the newspapers published ledes like, “The sting of defeat—administered by a woman.” The message was clear: Jeanette Rankin was responsible because she dared to take a male politician’s place (Walbert). America’s first female representative needed to be punished for stepping out of her natural role, just like the women clamoring for suffrage.

Repurposing Anti-Suffrage Rhetoric for the 20th Century

After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, the general expectation in America was for women to show up to the polls in droves. This was not the case. Roughly one third of eligible female voters turned out for the 1920 election compared to almost 70% of their male counterparts. The gender gap continued for some time: although women’s participation surpassed 50% in the 1936 election, men’s participation rose to a record high at about 75% (Wolbrecht and Corder 70-71).

Why the low turnout? Voting was entirely new to women and as a historically oppressed group, they were vulnerable to voter suppression efforts. “Voting is habit forming; turnout in the past increases the probability of turnout in the future,” Wolbrecht and Corder maintain. “Those who have been systemically denied the opportunity to develop the habit due to disenfranchisement are disadvantaged in the future.” Data showing that significantly more women turned out to vote in states without restrictive election laws supports this theory (76-77). For women of color, the road to enfranchisement has been even more fraught. Native American women could not vote until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, and Chinese-American women were barred from the vote until 1943, when the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act lifted the ban on Chinese immigration to the United States that had been in effect since 1882. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 deemed racial discrimination unconstitutional after decades of Jim Crow laws that explicitly targeted black voters, though the fight for free and fair elections continues today as gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, and overt conflicts of interest suppress racial minorities. Women as a demographic continue to be targeted in voter suppression efforts today (“Voter Suppression”). Exact match requirements across multiple documents mean that married, divorced, and transgender women are at risk for being turned away because of name changes. Women in states without early voting will also have less of an opportunity to get to the polls on Election Day, as women still carry the bulk of household labor and childcare (Germano). 

Voter attitudes about what was and was not appropriate for women in public life also remained deeply internalized after suffrage. In 1920, 9% of women who participated in a Chicago survey on non-voter behavior stated that they did not “believe” women should vote and/or stated that their husband objected to women voting (Wolbrecht and Corder 78). Little had changed by the time Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet conducted their research on Eric County, New York voters during the 1940 election. The trio analyzes voting behavior in their 1944 book The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign and note that responses from women that trivialized suffrage were not uncommon. Some of these responses included “Voting is for the men,” “I think men should do the voting and the women should stay home and take care of their work,” and “I never will [vote]…a woman’s place is in the home…Leave politics to the men,” signaling a strong adherence to appeals to family and to unique gender roles (Lazarsfeld et al 49). The rhetoric here echoes anti-suffrage sentiment and Republican Motherhood concepts of citizenship. Women who were dismissive of their right to vote held to hard and fast rules about the appropriateness of women in political life. Voting was not only “for” men exclusively; it was unbecoming for a woman who had other “work” to take care of. Though the hostile sexism is apparent here—Keep Out!it is warranted by benevolently sexist ideas about what a woman is and is not “naturally” suited for. And notably, even though female anti-suffragists in the 1910s advocated for women’s participation in the public sphere so long as this participation was not political, the women quoted in The People’s Choice specifically called for women to remain “in the home” where “their work” was. 

Republican Motherhood ideas persisted mid-century, enjoying a revival as what Betty Friedan now famously termed “the problem that has no name” in The Feminine Mystique. However, because women were attending colleges and universities in greater numbers, repurposed anti-suffrage rhetoric found a new audience among graduates. During his 1955 commencement address at Smith College, Adlai Stevenson II urged each woman to “inspire in her home a vision of the meaning of life and freedom,” echoing the citizenship by proxy ideas of the Republican Mother archetype. He also stressed the importance of never letting educational or professional pursuits overshadow domestic duties in an appeal to family. “This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap,” he explained. “I think there is much you can do…in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation than that” (qtd. in Friedan 57). In a culture obsessed with adherence to gender roles, where male columnists joked freely that problems could be solved “by taking away women’s right to vote,” Betty Friedan worried that speakers like Adlai Stevenson II would persuade women to normalize the extinguishing of their own voices (11).

Unfortunately, Friedan was more correct than she may have known at the time. During the 1960s and 1970s, women were having less children and becoming parents later in life, pursuing more college degrees, and holding more jobs outside the home. They were also making progress through legislation like the Title IX Education Amendment in 1972 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 (Wolbrecht and Corder 131, 135). Enter Phyllis Schlafly, who held that “feminism has been a catastrophe for the people it was meant to help,” (qtd. in Storrs 144). A fierce opponent of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly spent much of her recruitment efforts on housewives. Suddenly, an antifeminist activist was encouraging women to use their vote as well as their voice—but only as long as they pledged to undermine women’s equality.

Schlafly frequently appealed to housewives by injecting benevolent sexism into her rhetoric: for instance, by framing opposition to the ERA as a defense of women’s rights rather than an impediment to progress. “The ERA takes away the right of the wife to be supported by her husband,” Schlafly argued on a Good Morning America segment in 1976 where she debated Friedan. She considered her position to be defending “the real rights of women…the right to be in the home as a wife and mother” in the same way that anti-suffrage advocates Gilfillan, Dodge, and Beecher persuaded women that they actually had more power without the vote (“Phyllis Schlafly debates”; Gregorian). She also invoked the hostile sexism of anti-suffrage advertisements by characterizing feminist women as unattractive, hostile, and mannish. “Men should stop treating feminists like ladies,” Schlafly argues in a column entitled “Feminists on the Warpath Get Their Men,” “and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be” (Schlafly). 

Photo of Barbara Mikulski and Linda Chavez at the 1986 Maryland Senate Race debate. Both women are smiling and appear to by laughing as the clasp each other's hands in a gesture of support and triumph.

Fig. 3. Barbara Mikulski and Linda Chavez at the 1986 Maryland Senate Race debate.
Reproduced from J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press.

This hostile rhetoric was weaponized as female candidates for office became increasingly common in the latter part of the twentieth century. The race in Maryland to fill Charles Mathias’ Senate seat in 1986, for example, came down between Reagan staffer Linda Chavez and Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski (Fig. 3). The former quickly advertised herself to Maryland voters as the right kind of woman for the job: conventionally attractive, calm under all circumstances, and a devoted wife and mother. In short, Chavez performed gender in a “ladylike” way that did not come across as threatening to a male political establishment. Mikulski’s primary campaign had certainly prepared her for sexist attacks from Chavez—both of her Democratic challengers were male and frequently painted themselves as “less dogmatically liberal and less aggressive” than their female counterpart (Sheckels 79). Chavez’s attacks went deeper, focusing on Mikulski’s hiring of a publicly Marxist feminist aide named Teresa Brennan. This “embracing of [a] radical anti-male Marxist feminist such as Brennan,” Chavez claimed at an October 1986 press conference, “was a symbol of what Mikulski had done and would do on Capitol Hill.” Chavez’s mailers, which featured “a grotesquely over-painted pair of very red lips” and read, “Kiss Your Traditional Values Goodbye,” implied that Mikulski’s radical feminist ideas and suspected homosexuality would dismantle traditional notions of male structural power in politics and, by extension, the family (84-85). Furthermore, it echoed the anti-suffrage advertisement idea that feminist women are angling to become men. As Theodore Sheckels writes, Mikulski had to reframe her liberal views and single status in a nurturing way in order to appeal to family and tradition:

In response to the accusation that she was anti-male, Mikulski quipped that her father and nephews and uncles and “the guys down at Bethlehem Steel” would be surprised to hear that. In response to the unvoiced accusation that she was a lesbian, Mikulski jokingly referred to herself as “Aunt Barb” and talked about how, in many families, one daughter became the maiden aunt who took care of the aging parents. She was that maiden aunt, but now she was taking care of not her mom and pop but the voters of the state of Maryland. They were her family; she was their “Aunt Barb.” (Sheckels 85)

Barbara Mikulski’s “Aunt Barb” alter ego successfully refashioned the Republican Mother trope for the late 20th century, appealing to voters with a deeply maternal role meant to overshadow any gossip about sexual orientation. Mikulski could lead the state of Maryland in the Senate while looking after her parents and her surrogate children—Maryland voters—thereby utilizing all of her talents. She smartly leveraged voters’ traditional desire for a nurturing woman in order to make history in a male-dominated arena.  

Chavez’s strategy to paint Mikulski as dangerously “anti-male” was effective in more conservative parts of the state like the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland, but ultimately, “Aunt Barb” handily won her election and went on to serve in the United States Senate for thirty years. The combative rhetoric surrounding (and sometimes wielded by) women in politics, however, did not disappear. 

How Do Contemporary Voters Feel About Women in Politics?

I spent several months canvassing door-to-door for Senator Elizabeth Warren during her 2020 presidential campaign. The responses from voters were generally positive: male and female voters alike expressed enthusiasm for Warren’s dedication to rebuilding the middle class and fearlessness in spite of Donald Trump’s efforts to bully her. However, enough voters reacted negatively to Warren’s gender that I occasionally felt discouraged. Some voters scoffed at the idea of a female president or suggested that Warren would be better suited “in a supporting role.” Others hovered tentatively, fearing that our country is not ready for this kind of progress.

Reviewing the tenets of Republican Motherhood and past examples of anti-suffrage rhetoric, I wondered about contemporary echoes like those I had encountered in my own travels. I considered that women who ran for office during the 2018 midterm elections had won a record number of congressional seats and that Congress has become substantially more diverse during the tenure of Donald Trump, a president known for his litany of crude and offensive comments about women and people of color (Bialik). The contrast could not be starker. What kinds of rhetoric were canvassers hearing from voters in this environment? And were the women they spoke with emboldened to vote?

First, I sorted the anti-suffrage rhetoric discussed in this paper into six categories that utilized both hostile and benevolent sexism. These categories are as follows:

  1. Appeal to respectability politics: the notion that women should “go along to get along” as expressed by Josephine Dodge.
  2. Appeal to family: the notion that a woman’s family must come before any career or political aspirations, as expressed in criticisms of Sarah Elfreth.
  3. Appeal to women as overly emotional: the notion that men act on rationality while women act on emotion, as expressed in criticisms of Jeannette Rankin.
  4. Appeal to male structural power: the notion that women in power will emasculate men, as expressed in anti-suffrage postcards where men cower to women.
  5. Appeal to traditional gender roles: the notion that women have “unique gifts” that justify their belonging to the domestic sphere, as expressed by Catharine Beecher.
  6. Appeal to spite: the notion that feminist women are “hens,” “angry and mannish,” and other undesirable associations, as expressed in Linda Chavez’s criticism of Barbara Mikulski.

Then, in February 2020, I sent out a brief online survey to eleven female and four male canvassers who had volunteered to share their experiences for the purposes of my research. Every respondent indicated that they have canvassed for female candidates, and the vast majority have canvassed for candidates at multiple levels of government. The female candidates most respondents reported canvassing for were Hillary Clinton for President (8), Elizabeth Warren for President (5), and Sarah Elfreth for Maryland State Senate (8). Others included Barbara Mikulski for Senate and various female candidates for state delegate, mayoral, and county council positions. Though the respondents have mostly covered ground in Maryland, some noted that they have gone door-to-door in other states to include Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Alabama, Louisiana, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, and California. 

It is important to note that the sample of this survey is small and in no way speaks for larger patterns. I was most interested in not the size of the sample, but in evaluating the fifteen respondents’ qualitative, anecdotal data on the rhetoric that voters currently use when engaged by canvassers. My questions focused on two kinds of rhetoric: voters’ thoughts on the role of women in the electoral process, and voters’ thoughts on women as political candidates.

When canvassers were asked if a male household member ever tried to prevent them from speaking with a female household member while she was home and available, ten out of fifteen answered, “Yes.” The most common behavior from male voters that respondents mentioned was refusing to call a particular female voter to the door even though she was home and on the canvasser’s list. Other behaviors listed included speaking on a female voter’s behalf, preventing an interested female voter from coming to the door, lying about a female voter’s party affiliation (canvassers are equipped with partisan voter registration information), and abruptly interrupting an ongoing conversation between the canvasser and a female voter. “I remember one guy who walked over while I was pleasantly speaking to his wife,” Claire*1 wrote. “[He] gave me the finger and kicked the door shut with his foot.” Respondents noted hearing phrases from hostile male household members that included, “You don’t need to talk to her,” and “Don’t you worry about who she’s voting for.”

Additionally, when the canvassers were asked if “a female voter ever deferred to a male household member in a way that suggests he speaks for her,” eight out of fifteen questionnaire respondents answered, “Yes,” that they picked up on sexist power dynamics while talking to voters. “A woman stated that she wasn’t sure who she was voting for because her husband hadn’t told her yet,” wrote John*. Other explicit comments that respondents noted from female voters included: “I have to consult my husband,” “I vote the way my husband votes,” “It’s a family decision,” and “I’ll have to ask my husband who we’re voting for.” These responses bear an eerie resemblance to the previous selections from Lazarfeld et al’.s The People’s Choice. Though some of the women interviewed for Lazarfeld’s 1940 research advocated for women to abstain from voting altogether, the women quoted here advocated for their own political participation so long as it reinforced their husbands’ views. In both instances women appear to be abiding by respectability politics, playing a supporting role while leaving the ultimate political decisions to men.

Nine out of fifteen survey respondents indicated that they heard overtly sexist rhetoric from male voters while discussing female candidates. The criticisms that respondents shared included: “Women are too emotional,” “She’s just not likable,” “There’s just something about her,” “America isn’t ready for a woman,” “What happens if she’s on her period?” “She’s too inexperienced” (often said about female candidates who had objectively more experience than their male counterparts), “She’s not attractive,” “Other countries won’t respect us if we have a female leader,” and “Women are caring by nature—could a woman really command the armed forces?”—the latter two comments being direct appeals to women as “too emotional” and better suited for more nurturing environments. Respondents cited electability as a common concern among voters, e.g. “I don’t think a woman can win.” One of the respondents, Nathan*, campaigned all over the country for Kamala Harris during her presidential candidacy. “Men seem to be more cagey about copping to sexist attitudes when approached on the doors,” he said. “I approached a voter about Kamala Harris who explicitly said that the senator wouldn’t be ready to lead the armed forces because of her gender. I pointed out that Harris had previously run California’s Department of Justice—a police force larger than most nations’ military forces—and although he didn’t have a counter-argument, he held to his views that a woman just wouldn’t be capable.” 

The argument that a woman cannot handle being in charge of the United States military was notably reported by multiple canvassers. This comment is a clear appeal to male structural power, as the military has strong masculine connotations. Most of the overtly sexist comments (such as regarding women not being able to command the military and women getting “irrational” because of their periods) were reported by male canvassers, which could suggest that men with sexist attitudes feel more comfortable relaying such comments to other men.

While nine survey respondents shared that they had heard sexist rhetoric from male voters, eleven stated that they had heard sexist rhetoric from female voters. Deborah* shared that in her personal experience, “This seems to happen more frequently than men, to be frank.” Some of the comments from female voters mirrored those of male voters, namely, “America isn’t ready,” “She’s inexperienced,” and “A woman can’t win.” Rachel* observed that among female voters there were “still worries that a woman couldn’t win the seat, but from a place of worry more than a place of defensiveness as men usually do.” But many other remarks from women were overtly hostile. According to the canvassers, several female voters stated explicitly that they “just don’t like female candidates.” Paula* shared that female voters often criticized a particular female candidate’s “attractiveness, voice, friendliness, attitude” and that some went so far as to call the candidate a “bitch” in an appeal to spite. Nathan called instances of internalized sexism at the doors “beyond depressing,” writing, “statements like, ‘A woman just shouldn’t be president’ have come up from women several times.”

A New Kind of Sexist Rhetoric in Politics

Even though their stories of sexism were thankfully not representative of the majority of doors they knocked, the small pool of canvassers surveyed shared enough rhetoric to indicate that gender-based discrimination and internalized sexism are still prominent issues. Furthermore, the appeals of this rhetoric aligned strongly with the tenets of anti-suffrage rhetoric. “I’ve had men and women ask how my husband and children felt about me running for office,” Paula wrote on what it was like to canvass for her own campaign. “I found most men MORE supportive than other women…one woman even asked if it was fair to my pets.” Like Barbara Mikulski, Sarah Elfreth, and Erin Lorenz, Paula was criticized by voters for not seeming “family-oriented” enough, or for not appearing to prioritize her family over her political aims.

Much of the rhetoric that respondents shared was a modern reworking of anti-suffrage or post-World War II ideas about women’s roles. The criticisms directed at Paula for campaigning while female echo Landon R.Y. Storrs’ analysis of sexist rhetoric during the second red scare, when married mothers who pursued careers and other passions were accused of “selfishly indulging material desires or unwomanly ambitions”—a direct appeal to tradition and family (Storrs 135). “I’ll have to ask my husband who we’re voting for,” is a startling example of women erasing their own voices in the political sphere and similarly, “I vote the way my husband votes,” gestures at an effort to maintain a gendered status quo. This rhetoric also suggests a household sexism that makes its way into the polls. If the husband controls the “family vote,” the family vote will probably not be going to female candidates. 

Instances of benevolent and hostile sexism reported by the canvassers were not associated with one gender or another. Men and women are capable of being benevolent and hostile, albeit in their own ways: while men were more likely to project their hostility onto the canvasser (slamming the door; giving the finger), women called female candidates derogatory names, criticized their superficial elements like attractiveness and voice, and made blanket statements about “not liking” female candidates in general. These instances of women tearing each other down, difficult as they are to read, are part of a longstanding tradition in America to drive women away from positions of power. “Female officials faced a nearly irresoluble double bind,” Storrs writes about sexist attitudes in the middle of the 20th century, “because normative constructions of femininity were incompatible with the wielding of power and expertise” (Storrs 142). Glick and Fiske’s 2011 update to their original work, entitled “Ambivalent Sexism Revisited,” similarly enforces the idea that benevolent sexism (abbreviated below as “BS”) and hostile sexism (abbreviated below as “HS”) are two sides of the same coin, upholding a system of reward and punishment for women:

Ambivalent sexists were not “mentally conflicted,” rather, their subjectively positive and negative attitudes reflected complementary and mutually reinforcing ideologies…at least as ancient as polarized stereotypes of the Madonna and Mary Magdalene. BS was the carrot aimed at enticing women to enact traditional roles and HS was the stick used to punish them when they resisted. One emphasizes reward and the other emphasizes punishment (hence their differing valences) but both work toward a common aim: maintaining a gender-traditional status quo. (532)

If the hostile sexism of today looks relatively similar to that of the past, what about benevolent sexism? It persists, certainly. But it looks quite different from the way anti-suffrage activists appeared to glorify women, urging them to use their unique and special talents to explore avenues other than politics. Now, benevolent sexism looks a lot like fear and deflection. “America isn’t ready,” voters say. “What if a woman can’t win?” Rhetoric like this suggests that even though voters would be personally comfortable with a female president, they hesitate because the rest of the country may not feel the same way. The Atlantic’s Moira Donegan calls these attitudes “sexism by proxy,” or “voter masochism disguised as pragmatism” (Donegan). By basing their decisions on what they suspect others will do, voters create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anti-suffrage rhetoric has certainly found new life in the one hundred years since national suffrage became the law of the land, and is enjoying a revival during the Trump presidency. The 2020 Republican National Convention featured speaker Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned pro-life activist who tweeted in May 2020 that she “would support bringing back household voting.” When asked to clarify, Johnson responded that “[i]n a Godly household, the husband would have the final say” (@AbbyJohnson). Just as Phyllis Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, women like Abby Johnson continue to uphold the patriarchal status quo in the interest of “Making America Great Again.” But while appeals to male structural power are continually reintroduced to mainstream America, a new appeal has emerged that could be called an “appeal to pragmatism.” When voters declare that “a woman can’t win” the presidency or that “America isn’t ready” for female leadership, they are doing their best to sound rational and impartial. “I’m not sexist,” they argue, “but my neighbor is.” Or more broadly and abstractly: “America is sexist.” The appeal to pragmatism continues in the tradition of undermining women, but unlike other more brash appeals, it is insidiously self-defeating. The only way to curb it, along with other sexist fallacies, is to identify them as such and work toward citizenship for women in the fullest sense of the word.


  1. * indicates a pseudonym.

Appendix A: Survey Protocol

February 2020 via

  • Question 1: What kinds of political campaigns have you canvassed for? (Check all that apply.)
    • Federal
    • State
    • County
    • Municipal
  • Question 2: In what areas have you canvassed? (List as many states, counties, and municipalities as apply.)
  • Question 3: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a male member of the household ever tried to prevent you from speaking with a female member of the household while she is home/available?
  • Question 4: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a female household member ever stated that a male household member does not want her to vote or has tried to prevent her from getting to the polls?
  • Question 5: In your experience canvassing door to door, has a female voter ever deferred to a male household member in a way that suggests he speaks for her? (e.g. “My husband makes those decisions,” “I’ll have to ask my husband,” etc.)
  • Question 6: Have you ever canvassed for any female candidates?
  • Question 7: Have you had any experiences with male voters expressing overtly sexist feelings about a particular female candidate or female candidates in general?
  • Question 8: Have you had any experiences with female voters expressing overtly sexist feelings about a particular female candidate or female candidates in general?
  • Question 9: Have you had any experiences with male voters reacting POSITIVELY to female candidates in general/more female representation in government?

Works Cited

“An American Orphan”: Amelia Simmons, Cookbook Authorship, and the Feminist Ethē

Food Network host Ree Drummond, in the introductory section of her cooking blog The Pioneer Woman, welcomes readers saying “My name is Ree. Howdy! I’m a desperate housewife. I live in the country. I’m obsessed with butter, Basset Hounds, and Ethel Merman. Welcome to my frontier!” Cheerful and friendly, she writes in a conversational style that invites readers into her kitchen and her life as a wife and mother of four children. Simultaneously, Drummond is a television personality, businesswoman, wife, mother, cook, blogger, rancher, as well as former big-city girl. In short, she is relatable and trustworthy to a wide variety of audiences. Her various identities all play a role in her ethos construction as that chatty friend anyone would love to have. After all, who better to rely on for good recipes than a rancher’s wife?

While the popularity of Food Network and cooking blogs continues to hold strong, it is important to note that this focus on ethos construction in the authorship of cookery texts is not new. Authors have been writing their expertise into their recipes for centuries. Women authors, in particular, have found creative ways to establish their trustworthiness and claim a voice in a public space that would otherwise be unfriendly to their sex. Writing two centuries earlier, Amelia Simmons performs a similar type of rhetorical move in developing her ethos as an author. Simmons, author of the bestselling 18th-century cookbook American Cookery, offers the earliest example of American ethos construction by a cookbook author. I argue that Amelia Simmons uses what might be interpreted now as a feminist ethē (as defined by Ryan, Myers, and Jones in their 2016 collection Rethinking Ethos), as she, by speaking from her marginalized position, disrupts assumptions regarding who can be an expert. Studying Simmons’ use of identity statements, orphan trope, morality statements, and sentimental narrative style, she uses her writing to craft her expertise and claim a space for herself in the culinary tradition. This article works to uncover Simmons’ rhetorical moves and argue for their value in a feminist context. After detailing the publishing history of American Cookery, reviewing relevant scholarship on cookbooks, and providing historical background about what little is known of Amelia Simmons, I analyze how Simmons uses what would today be considered a feminist ethē to establish the trustworthiness of her cookbook.

A Revolutionary Text

Published in 1796 in Hartford, Connecticut, American Cookery’s claim to history is that it is the first cookbook purported to be American, illustrating a thoroughly American way of cooking as separate from British traditions. Only 47 pages long, cheaply bound and without a cover, this little book went on to have over a dozen printings between 1796 and 1831, with many more pirated versions (Lowenstein). It was the best-selling cookbook in the new Republic until Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife of 1824 claimed the title (Hess ix). The fact that it was the first to claim a unique American identity makes American Cookery a valuable part of American history and American culinary history. The Library of Congress recognized it as one of the 88 “books that shaped America.” Cookbook scholar Janice Longone calls its publication “a second revolution–a culinary revolution.” But what was so revolutionary about it?

Only two decades after the Republic’s founding, America was still finding its way as a culture. Up until American Cookery’s publication, the only cookbooks available in the new world were republished versions of British bestsellers. This remained true even during and after the American Revolution; even though colonists railed against being ruled by the British, they still wanted to eat like them. Some of the most popular were Markham’s The English Hus-wife of 1615 and Glasse’s The Art of Cookery of 1747. The closest any cookbook had come to creating an American food culture was Eliza Smith’s 1727 volume The Compleat Housewife, republished in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1742. This book attempted to adapt its recipes to an American audience by merely deleting the British recipes that could not be replicated in America due to ingredient availability. While moderately helpful, American cuisine still had a long way to go.

In many ways, Simmons’ American Cookery is revolutionary, more than just its claim as the first American cookbook. It did more than merely delete British ingredients or plagiarize British recipes (though it did that too, which was a common practice at the time and not one that held a negative connotation like today).1 Simmons took ingredients native to the Americas and explained how to use them. She shared practices that were common to home cooks and domestic workers at the time, formalizing the practice in print. One notable first was the substitution of cornmeal (in the text called “Indian corn” or “Indian”) for English oatmeal in several recipes, such as johnnycake (see Fig. 1).

Image is recipe for Johny Cake or Hoe Cake and reads: "Scale 1 pint of milk and put 3 pints of Indian meal, and half pint of flower—bake before the fire. Or fcald [sic] with milk two thirds of the Indian meal, or wet two thirds with boiling water, add falt [sic], molaffes [sic] and fhortening [sic], work up with cold water pretty ftiff [sic], and bake as above."

Fig. 1. Recipe for “Johny Cake” from American Cookery (1796, Albany printing).

While johnnycake had already existed in England, this was a new variation on the recipe. Turkey and cranberries, both native to the Americas, were included for the first time in a recipe. Other native produce, such as the frost grape, a Native American introduction, and the long pepper (today called the cayenne pepper), appeared in recipes. The American Citron, a smaller, bland precursor to the watermelon, brought to North America from Africa through the slave trade, has a recipe (see Fig. 2). 

Image is a recipe for The American Citron and reads: "Take the whole of a large watermellon (feeds excepted) not too ripe, cut it into fmall [sic] pieces, take two pound of loaf fugar [sic], one pint of water, put it all into a kettle, let it boil gently for two hours, then put it into pots for ufe [sic."

Fig. 2. Recipe for preserving “American Citron” (watermelon) from American Cookery (1796, Albany printing).

For food historians, possibly the most significant part of the cookbook is the use of pearl ash (elsewhere called pot ash) as an easier, time-saving chemical leavening agent in quickbreads, as baking powder was not invented until 1843 (LaRue). This use of pearl ash helped to popularize the ingredient in the new world for several decades, despite its reported metallic aftertaste (Walden 40). Simmons’ cookbook also introduced new words into the American lexicon: “slaw,” taken from the Dutch word “sla”), as well as “cookie,” adapted from the Dutch “koekje” (Hess xi).

Image is the cover of "American Cookery." It is yellowed and weathered looking, with only traditional typewriter text.

Fig. 3. Cover page of American Cookery (1796, Hartford printing).

Beyond the text’s revolutionary firsts in ingredients and language, it is, more importantly, rhetorically revolutionary. Simmons, adapting models of ethos to fit her own needs, uses a variety of strategies to become a trustworthy author. Her most curious ethos construction is on the title page (see Fig. 3), where she identifies herself, the only place in which Amelia Simmons is named in the text. She calls herself “Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan.”2 It is a simple appositive phrase, yet so curious in terms of a rhetorical move. On first analysis, it is not immediately clear what her upbringing has to do with cooking. However, it was clearly a calculated move, as Mecklenburg-Faenger argues in her study of the Charleston Receipts Junior League cookbook, “cookbooks encode information about how their compilers see the world and their places in it” (213). In narrative elements like these, Tippen notes that cookbooks demonstrate their authors’ rhetorical moves (17). Simmons’ use of the “American Orphan” identifier was just one of her choices that she hoped would lead to audiences trusting her and her expertise. Additionally, orphan status enables her to distance herself from any non-American heritage, making it easier for Simmons to claim an all-American identity, just like her cookbook. Further, orphans were often domestic servants at this time; thus, the position lent itself to a certain level of credibility in the kitchen. Through her narrative elements, Simmons constructs ethos that I claim could be identified today as feminist, even while writing in the early days of the Republic.

Cookbook Authorship and Ethos

Writing the first American cookbook, Simmons begins composing the history of American cookbooks, which can offer insight on American culture at the time. Laura Schenone, in her 2004 book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, notes, “food opens a window that we can look through” (xv). This is a useful metaphor to consider the value of food. Certainly, it is much more than sustenance. Food helps us identify our culture, our community and ourselves. Scholars can study foodways—habits of others—to gain insight on cultures outside of their own. As a digest—pun intended—of food culture, the cookbook is an excellent primary resource through which to view one’s own culture and others. Karen Hess uses Janus as a metaphor to describe the cookbook’s rhetorical value, as the text looks both back and forward at once: a cookbook records culinary practice at the time of its writing, and it also influences cooking to come (xii). As a set of instructions, cookbooks are, at their most simplistic, a practical text (Collings Eves 280). But if we look further, we can see a story (Bower 2). Writing in PMLA, Susan J. Leonardi explains that a cookbook’s stories are more complex than the average linear narrative: they are embedded, layered discourses (340). While they are “gap-ridden” (Bower 2), asking the reader to fill in the gaps with her own knowledge, they are also “a narrative which can engage the reader or cook in a ‘conversation’ about culture and history in which the recipe and its context provide part of the text and the reader imagines (or even eats) the rest” (Floyd and Forster 2). Indeed, recipes demand exchange, and even “exist in a perpetual state of exchange” (Floyd and Forster 6). Leonardi notes that “Even the root of recipe—the latin recipere—implies an exchange, a giver and receiver. Like a story, a recipe needs a recommendation, a context, a point, a reason to be” (340). The ability of this genre to be a window on culture as well as a conversation about culture lends the text a space in which the author can establish her own voice, expertise, and ethos, even while remaining inside a patriarchal paradigm. In her book Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote, Janet Theophano asserts that cookbooks are “opportunities for women to write themselves into being” (9). Cookbooks, as well, are sites where women and minority writers can dispel stereotypes and establish their own voice. As a window on culture, cookbooks allow a space for marginalized voices to be heard, listened to, and above all, trusted as a knowledgeable source for cooking. The cookbook, as a cultural text, is ripe for analysis as a space for ethos construction.

There is a growing body of scholarship surrounding rhetorical analyses of cookbooks, particularly feminist rhetorical analyses, which add further credibility to the value of this subject as an area of study. Lisa Mastrangelo, writing about community cookbooks, describes them “as rhetorical artifacts that reveal much about their communities” (73), as a lens that readers can look through to understand more about the author and her context. Reading Simmons’ text, we can gain insight on her values and the values of the community around her. Even years before feminism, cookbooks illustrate how women used rhetoric to advance their message. As Mecklenburg-Faenger explains, studying cookbooks can provide scholars of women’s rhetoric “opportunities to reaffirm the presence of women’s rhetorical activities even in historical periods when women’s rhetorical performances in the public sphere were discouraged, devalued, or diminished” (213). Abby Dubisar, in her study of peace activism cookbooks, argues that these texts can “teach feminist rhetoricians the potential of domestic genres to promote activist causes and frame political identities” (61)—thus, cookbooks can do much more than simply tell us how to cook a meal.

The trustworthiness of an author is a major factor on the success or failure of a cookbook. When choosing a recipe, the reader wants reassurance up-front that the person writing it knows that the recipe will work, and that it will be worth the effort. Ever since its origins as an oral culture, the act of recipe sharing has centered around trust. Originally, recipes were asked for from women who were trusted to be good cooks, who could be guaranteed to provide a quality recipe. They were women known personally to the receiver, whether a family member, neighbor, or friend. This role of ethos is more important now that recipes have moved from an exclusively oral, shared culture between friends and family members, to a public forum where most recipes are written by people the reader will never meet, in mass-produced cookbooks or online. The cookbook constructs the writer’s ethos for the audience. One would be unlikely to choose a cookbook if the author were perceived untrustworthy. If the audience can trust the speaker, then her argument is that much more powerful. Now that the personal connection of recipe sharing is removed for modern cookbooks, today ethos is even more of a factor when determining whom to trust. As such, the cookbook is a useful text to analyze an author’s rhetorical moves regarding their credibility.

In 1796, when American Cookery was published, the rhetorical space of the American cookbook was fraught with difficulty—not only did the author need to assure readers of the text’s quality, but she also needed to claim an American ethos—one that did not yet exist, at least not in printed form. While the new Republic had existed for two decades by this point, there was no formal recognition of a distinctly American food culture. Colonists quickly learned the art of adaptation, as many English ingredients were not available in the Americas, while other, unfamiliar ingredients were plentiful. They also benefited from the Native American’s knowledge of the land, adapting their knowledge to the colonists’ tastes. Still, American food culture was nonexistent, but there was finally an author ready to take on this challenge: Amelia Simmons.

Amelia Simmons: Claiming Feminist Ethē

Simmons, as an American and as a woman, is in a challenging position. Writing the first book of truly American recipes is difficult enough, but to claim that expertise in a public forum as a woman is more difficult, as she is already in a marginalized position. Oddly enough, to address this challenge, she mentions her upbringing as an orphan (and an American one). Wilson notes that Simmons seems to have a “preoccupation” with her orphan status, bringing it up more than once in the text (20). Simmons doubles down on her marginalized status, marking herself as an orphan on the front page and reminding us of her status. She names herself in the preface as “a poor, solitary orphan.” Usually, highlighting one’s marginalization, especially as it has no obvious link to the book’s content, would not seem to be an effective use of ethos. However, there is more to this ethos construction than appears at first glance.

Feminist rhetors have developed an alternative model of ethos to describe how women and other marginalized groups gain the goodwill of their audience. Coretta Pittman, observing that Aristotle’s model of ethos is caused by deliberate choice, points out that black female rhetors are not positioned to freely make their own choices, or to engage in speaking in a public forum, as an Aristotelian model assumes (49). As Pittman argues, “Western culture has appropriated a classical model of ethos to judge the behavior of all of its citizens. However, not all of its citizens can be judged by the same standards. The legacy of racism, classicism, and sexism in American society marked individuals associated with undesirable groups” (45). For instance, a woman writer in 18th century America can exhibit as much “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill” (Kinneavy and Warshauer 179) as she would like, but she cannot do anything to control her gender, skin color, or economic status, all of which play a large role in who listens to her and how seriously she is taken. These bodily and cultural constraints also play just as large, if not larger, a role than her own speech.

Nedra Reynolds describes how feminists like Adrienne Rich, bell hooks and others explicitly locate themselves in space to establish ethos. Their identity, and character, is developed through their body’s location in space, both literal (placement of body) and figurative (position in social realm) (326). It is useful, then, to consider the marginality of an orphan in tandem with the marginality of a woman writing in 1796. In identifying herself as an orphan, she claims the margin as her location to establish ethos. While Simmons did not use the term “feminist” to describe herself, as it did not exist in the 18th century, her action of claiming the margins as part of her identity could today be interpreted as feminist. No matter their origin, feminist rhetors exist in the margins, and as such take the margin as an advantage, with bell hooks naming the margins as a “location of radical openness and possibility” (209). Instead of a traditional Aristotelian framework, feminist rhetors have shifted to one that can account for interrelationality, materiality, and agency: a model that, in their eyes, is more accurate. Similarly, Reynolds notes that “ethos […] shifts and changes over time, across texts, and around competing spaces” (326). According to Johanna Schmertz, ethos, for feminism, is not fixed or determined, but instead is a series of “stopping points at which the subject (re)negotiates her own essence to call upon whatever agency that essence enables” (86). 

In a 2016 collection titled Rethinking Ethos, editors Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones argue for a feminist ecological approach to ethos formation–one which considers the entire ecology of a given rhetorical situation. As they claim, there is no singular women’s ethos; thus, they use the plural term ethē. They study ethos “with the acknowledgment that it is culturally and socially restrictive for women to develop authoritative ethē, yet acknowledg[e] that space can be made for new ways of thinking and artful maneuvering” (2). This model, a model of feminist ecological ethē that Ryan, Myers, and Jones promote, helps to describe the complexity of multiple relations operating and changing in response to others (Ryan, Myers, and Jones 3). Ryan, Myers, and Jones claim that their work “reconsiders ethos to offer a feminist ecological imaginary that better accounts for the diverse concerns and experiences of women rhetors and feminist rhetoricians” (5). The authors observe that “[W]omen can seek agency individually and collectively to interrupt dominant representations of women’s ethos, to advocate for themselves and others in transformative ways, and to relate to others, both powerful and powerless” (3, emphasis in original). Simmons’ rhetorical moves can be interpreted as a feminist ethē in this same way, as she, by claiming and speaking from her marginalized position, interrupts dominant impressions of how women can be considered experts. By sharing her story, Simmons advocates for herself as a successful woman and encourages other women, particularly those who are in her same economic and/or familial situation. Furthermore, Simmons frequently uses narrative elements to relate to other women, not only as a way to build herself up as an expert but to use herself as a case study: if she could do it, you can too. Simmons uses several rhetorical moves to adapt to the multiple interrelations of her rhetorical situation, considering her position as orphan, as uneducated, as a domestic servant, as an American, and as a woman. All of these are positions which, particularly in the nascent years of the Republic, are all marginal. Simmons claims the margins, not only speaking from there but also emphasizing her location there as a way to connect to readers.

However, outside of her one cookbook and its revisions, there is little else to establish Simmons’ existence, making scholars and critics question her identity, and even the ethos of the text itself. Cookbook author and editor Andrew Smith claims that it is a pseudonym, based on the lack of evidence that Simmons ever existed (Bramley). However, considering her status as an orphan, uneducated, domestic servant, the fact that Simmons is not mentioned elsewhere is not surprising. If she had not had this incredibly lucky break to publish her work, she would not have been remembered for posterity at all, alongside millions of other working-class women. Food historian Karen Hess argues that Simmons is from a Dutch heritage, considering the Dutch-language influence on her recipes and language use, described earlier (xi). Hess places Simmons in the Hudson River Valley, a logical assumption: while her book was published first in Hartford, it was then published exclusively through presses in New York state, such as Albany, Troy, and Poughkeepsie (xi). In any case, the only mention of Simmons is within this text. Other than what she tells us, that she is a working-class American orphan, the reader must infer anything else. This act of invoking meaning on historical rhetors is inherently problematic, in particular with modern terms such as “feminist,” as discussed in Michelle Smith’s review essay on feminist rhetorical historiography. Any claim made about the author’s intentions, feminist or otherwise, is complex. While Simmons didn’t use the term herself, there is insight to be gained from viewing her rhetorical moves through a feminist lens. Simmons presents a layered rhetorical approach to presenting her authority in this text in multiple ways: through identity statements, the orphan trope, morality declarations, and a sentimental narrative style to establish this feminist ecological ethē.

Ethos Construction: Identity Statements

Julie Nelson Christoph, writing about ethos as constructed by pioneer women diarists, observes how statements of identity are used frequently in women’s writing (670). Establishing and re-establishing who a woman is allows her to claim expertise, by placing herself in the context of an identity marker. Simmons, taking the “orphan” moniker, isn’t alone in her use of these descriptors: studying title pages of the female-authored cookbooks between 1796-1860 listed in Eleanor Lowenstein’s 1972 bibliography, these identity statements are used frequently.3 The nonstandard style of writing titles and naming authors that was used during this period is informative about the ways in which these women authors went about claiming expertise in a public forum. In fact, many women authors chose not to identify themselves at all. Even though women authors accounted for about 70% of cookbooks at this time (not counting new editions or reissues),4 the most common identity statement (at 33%) was by an anonymous identifier, such as using a gendered prepositional phrase to identify the author, without using her name. Some examples of this are “by an experienced housekeeper,” “by a lady of Philadelphia,” “by a Boston housekeeper,” or “by an experienced lady.” These authors prefer to establish their credibility through relatable identifiers—the assumption is that the reader would be more likely to trust a “housekeeper,” who would have the expertise of daily work, or a “lady,” who would have the authority of class to support her. Locating the author in the new world also lent credibility of being American and using a city name would afford the status marker of being in a large metropolitan area.

The next most frequent identifier for women (at 23%) was using their full name only, such as “Mrs. Mary Randolph,” “Caroline Gilman,” “Mrs. Lettice Bryan,” “Elizabeth F. Lea,” among others. The lady’s formal title was most often used as a marker of class, though occasionally it would be left off, particularly if the author was well-known. However, some of these full names may have still been pen names, as the likely fake name “Priscilla Homespun” indicates. Sometimes the full names would also include other information, such as “Susannah Carter, of Clerkenwell,” another attempt to lend credibility through location. Minimizing the author’s originality or role in the creation of the text was occasionally used, such as the participle phrase “compiled by,” as in “compiled by Lucy Emerson.”5

Used less frequently at 16% was the use of titles, not first names, for women authors, such as “Mrs. [Lydia Maria] Child,” “Miss Leslie” (referring to fiction writer Eliza Leslie), or “Mrs. [Hannah] Glasse.” Other times, the author’s title and last name was used in the title of the cookbook itself, such as “Miss Beecker’s domestic receipt book.” This was another way class markers were used to build the ethos of the author.

Below this at 15% was using job descriptions alongside the author’s name for women authors. Some examples were “Mrs. Mary Holland, author,” “Miss Leslie, author of Seventy-Five Receipts,” “Mrs. Child, author of the Frugal Housewife,” and “Eleanor Parkinson, practical confectioner, Chestnut Street.” This use of job title is a departure from how women authors were normally represented, as these titles are a marker of economic power, even from a marginalized class position.6

Without a doubt, the most curious of all these identity statements is Amelia Simmons’ “an American orphan.” Her confidence in claiming on the title page, and then reasserting in the preface and conclusion, this marginalized identity—even as it has no link to cooking expertise—is initially confusing. Why would someone want to doubly marginalize themselves, particularly in a situation where she wants to be seen as an expert? Her confidence appears to rewrite the script on assumptions about marginalized groups—one can be a woman, a domestic worker, and an orphan—and still be a published expert. Walden interprets Simmons’ orphan identity statement as her ability to turn a perceived weakness into a strength, relying on the readers’ lack of knowledge (and therefore assumptions) about her and her lineage:

She is unknown as an author, and, as a servant, she has no particular authority—or even autonomy—to claim her work as her own. Yet she turns this lack into a source of power in its own right by suggesting that her unknown origins and lineage represent the new republic she seeks to construct, both physically and ideologically, through her recipes. (37)

Even if the reader cannot relate to Simmons’ childhood, she can respect her for demonstrating such a quintessentially American value of pulling herself up by her bootstraps, coming from nothing and turning into a success, solely through hard work.

Ethos Construction: The Orphan as Literary Trope and Rhetorical Move

The orphaned child protagonist has been a frequent literary trope for centuries, and Simmons takes advantage of this familiarity in her text as another way she establishes ethos with the reader. The vision of an abandoned, desperate child pulls the reader into the story through sentimentality. Notably, Henry Fielding’s 1749 bildungsroman The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling traces the rise of the titular character, an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother, who is raised by a kind, wealthy pair of siblings. In the novel, Tom’s illegitimacy is a permanent mark on his identity, closing many doors along the way. His orphan status is the major complication of the novel, and it turns out to be something he can never overcome. Tom’s concluding happiness is due more to luck than rising status—indeed, it is his lack of any known lineage that motivates much of the book’s conflict, proving that the orphan trope is ripe for dramatic exploitation.

Similarly, many young protagonists begin their stories as an orphan, or are orphaned early on. From Bronte’s Jane Eyre, to Jane Fairfax in Austen’s Emma, to Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations, orphans are a frequent character type, used for dramatic or sentimental effect. Writer Liz Moore explains the usefulness of orphan characters in this way: “The orphan character—especially one who is an orphan before the novel begins—comes with a built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict” (para. 8). The lack of a stable family has often been a source of conflict in storytelling, even today. One cannot discuss orphans in contemporary literature without mentioning Harry Potter, for instance. To be an orphan means to go against the most commonly-held values of society: the strength of the family unit. Orphans lack stable role models; indeed, most fictional orphans are quickly taken in by others and struggle to find their way in society without guidance. Thus, the dramatic impact of an orphan’s rise to success is greater, as it is hard-fought (and, to the writer, “fictionally useful” (para. 11) as a story arc, according to scholar John Mullan). Moore notes of her own choice in writing orphan characters, “For me, at least, writing about orphans is a way to write through the terror of being alone in the world,” thus making the orphan’s struggle a universal one. In an orphan’s story, the reader experiences more highs and lows as the character starts from nothing and struggles to achieve greater. The orphan’s journey from outsider to accepted makes their character type a “useful trope for novelists to think about what it means to become a subject” (König 242).

Similarly, Amelia Simmons plays up her orphan status as a way to engage the reader, impressing upon them her lifelong struggle to overcome her low birth. Simmons portrays herself as a success story. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps despite the odds and intends to serve as an inspiration for others to work hard. In her preface to American Cookery, Simmons writes that it is exactly her character, her ability to develop an appropriate ethos, that is a large part of her success:

It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary orphan, that while those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely upon character. How immensely important, therefore, that every action every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity, and that every movement meet the approbation of the good and wise. (5)

Simmons knows the importance of constructing an effective ethos to achieve her goals. While the “regulation” she writes of in the above excerpt implies a belief in the fixed, Aristotelian model of ethos that she must live up to, her openness in writing about such marginal subjects as her low status, orphan identity, and struggles as an independent woman demonstrates a use of ethē. Simmons claims these marginal identities as her own, disrupting the usual representation of women in this time period and instead embraces a more complex approach to her character development that allows her to advocate for and relate to other women, whom she hopes will achieve as much as, or even more than, she did.

By sharing her story, Simmons portrays herself as a symbol of inspiration to other women. She does not get into details about her own origins, only referring in general terms to her tragic, low origin. It is worth noting, however, that she may be using the orphan trope to distance her identity from any non-American heritage. If she does not know her origins, it is much easier to claim an all-American identity, further impressing on her readers the authentic American-ness of her text. Simmons only makes vague reference to her origins in her preface, mentioning how she was forced into domestic work due to her low status. In fact, low-status women seem to be her target audience, as indicated by this disclaimer: “The Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics” (3). Simmons expects that other domestics like her, or those who expect to become a domestic servant, will be the most likely to use this cookbook. She sees it as a women’s survival manual. This text is not one that, like many of today’s cookbooks, can be leisurely browsed, while enjoying the descriptions and illustrations of food, fantasizing about one’s ability to recreate these meals at home. It is a workbook, meant to help women get on their feet and become a success—like this American orphan.

Ethos Construction: Morality Statements

Simmons additionally develops her ethos through her use of morality statements. Her references to morality imply her own values, which line up with common beliefs of the time. If nothing else, these morality statements are Simmons’ most successful attempt to relate to her reader and show how much she is like them, no matter her childhood experiences. As Simmons explains in the preface, the purpose of this text is to prepare women for “doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society,” aligning domestic work with virtue and reasserting the value of hard work. She also criticizes women who ignore tradition and only pay attention to fads, saying “I would not be understood to mean an obstinate preference in trifles, which borders on obstinacy,” and argues the value of “those rules and maxims which have stood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character.” Her statements connecting female virtue with domestic work anticipate the later Victorian era “cult of domesticity” that privileged women as the moral center of the home. Skill in the kitchen was often a measure of women’s moral worth—which complicated the argument that cooking was a skill to be learned, since morality was believed to be inherent (McWilliams 393). That issue would be handled later in the Victorian era, during the cooking reform movement, that encouraged formal training in cooking and standardized and simplified the cooking process, taming the kitchen for young women who had never learned how to cook but were expected to do so.

In these value statements, Simmons implies her belief that expertise in cooking is a virtue, and as such essential to becoming a good woman. She also conflates the female character with tradition. For instance, only a good woman would know to use the already-established cooking methods rather than experimenting with fads. Through both her identity statements and her morality statements, Simmons negotiates her ethos with her readers, proving that while she may have come from a marginal upbringing, she still holds claim to mainstream values. Her marginalization of herself works to make a point about the complexity of identity. Simmons upends readers’ assumptions about her, demonstrating how much she and the reader have in common, even though the reader may not think so at first glance.

Ethos Construction: Sentimentality

Finally, Simmons builds her ethos within a sentimental narrative style. Even though it might initially seem curious that she mentions her upbringing as an “American orphan,” she can get away with it because she uses it to seek pity from the audience and thus garner more attention than the average, more relatable identity statement would. While sentimental narrative did not reach its peak in popularity until novels of the mid-19th century (Uncle Tom’s Cabin being a famous text in this style), Simmons again anticipates this style, using it to her advantage and setting herself up to be pitied.7 She emphasizes the tragedy of her orphaned experience in the preface, noting her lack of choice in her employment as domestic servant. While she is sharing her sad tale of growing up, Simmons still comes back to her expertise–implicitly claiming her expertise was gained through her struggle. She positions herself as wise primarily because she lived through this lonely existence, and praises independence as key to her salvation: “the orphan […] will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own” (3). Simmons notes that this independence is essential, as an orphan has no one else to guide her. Simmons presents herself as unfailingly honest, even within this sentimental style. For all the praise she gives herself for her bootstraps mentality, she also recognizes her limitations. In the preface, she reminds the reader that “she is circumscribed in her knowledge,” implying a lack of education, not surprising for a working-class woman of the time (5). She again reminds readers of her deficit in an extra preface added to the revised and corrected second edition, asking the reader who finds fault with her recipes to remember “that it is the performance of, and effected under all those disadvantages, which usually attend, an Orphan” (7). In her discussion of the rhetorical power of sentimentality, Coretta Pittman uses author Harriet Jacobs as an example of the rhetorical impact of sentimental narrative; Pittman describes how Jacobs defines her authority through exposing her marginality by narrating in sentimental form, proving that sentimental style is rhetorically useful to gain credibility with the reader (55). Through this sentimentality, Simmons succeeds in gaining the goodwill of her readers. Her style heightens the pathos of her situation, encouraging the reader to first pity her, then be in awe of her strength. Even if the reader had never experienced domestic work or was never orphaned, she understands universal human experiences of being alone or having one’s reputation be questioned. This is exactly what Jane Tompkins in her book Sensational Designs claims is the usefulness of sentimental narrative—that it helped women claim power; it helped them define themselves and claim status in a public forum (160). Though the reader may view this narrative as over-the-top today, Simmons is able to relate to the reader of her text on a personal level. Simmons uses this style to claim her identity and her values, knowing it will speak directly to other women and help them relate to her, trusting her expertise in the process.

Conclusion: American Cookery as Melting Pot

When asked why American Cookery is still considered a major American cookbook, scholars argue that this text was the first to blend British and American cultures together (Hess xv). It brought native American ingredients together with British methods to create a new melting pot of a food culture. This “melting-pot” metaphor is timely; while the metaphor is normally associated with the early 20th century, it was used much earlier, appearing in print as early as 1782,8 making it entirely possible that Simmons was aware of the idealistic assimilation of cultures as a benefit to the new world. This synthesis of cultures mirrors Simmons’ ethos construction as well; negotiating her location as American, as an orphan, as uneducated, as working-class, and as a woman, with her position as author of this text, a nationwide bestselling cookbook. Through her use of identity statements, the orphan trope, morality statements, and sentimental narrative style, Simmons effectively develops what might be termed today as a feminist ethos—or, more accurately, ethē, to identify for the first time in print as both an American and as a trustworthy cook. Even as Simmons blends together her various identities, she resists assimilation. Instead, her use of ethē in this context operates as an interruption, as someone with multiple marginal identity markers gains enough of a voice in American print culture to become a bestselling author. Similar to Food Network star Ree Drummond navigating her varied identities through her blogging, Simmons is able to negotiate multiple relations existing in this rhetorical situation, as she simultaneously presents herself as having multiple identity markers of woman, orphan, working class, and uneducated. For the first time, Simmons establishes an ethos that is recognizable to modern audiences, one that accounts for multiple identities and negotiates all of them with the audience: ethē. She composes an American ethos, demonstrating through her narrative that one can come from a poor childhood, grow up doing manual labor, and still become a bestselling author, all through hard work and the right attitude. This is the quintessential “American Dream,” demonstrating the potential for success in the new Republic. This myth that American Cookery perpetuates feeds Simmons’ own ethos, as well as the ethos of her new nation. The text, to use Hess’s Janus metaphor, looks back and forward at once, looking back to record and claim a narrow (white, upper-middle-class) definition of American foodways, and looking forward to influence that narrow cultural definition for years to come. Thus, through this ethos construction, Simmons is able to claim a space for herself to speak within the public sphere and lay the groundwork for generations of female cookbook authors to come.


  1. Despite her efforts to build ethos with her readers, it is important to acknowledge that Simmons herself engaged in questionable authoring practices. Simmons plagiarized individual recipes and entire sections (the Syllabubs and Creams section in particular) from Susannah Carter’s 1772 bestseller The Frugal Housewife (Beahrs). While this practice of copying recipes was common, every copied British recipe Simmons uses undercuts her claim to be an “American” cook. In fact, a close look at the recipes of American Cookery shows that for the most part, English methods and trends are used to such an extent that it is still more English than it is really American (Hess xv). For instance, her patriotic “Election Cake” and “Independence Cake” in the second edition is a play on British baking trends, re-named for an American audience (Hess xiv). For all its claim to originality, American Cookery is still English at its heart, with only a veneer of American. This use of English foodways traditions still helps Simmons claim her expertise, though, as readers can more readily identify with those familiar recipes and have a touch of nationalistic pride for the American spin she puts on them.
  2. Across the thirteen reprints of American Cookery, the title page identity statement changes a few times. In 1808, 1814, 1819, and 1822, the edition lists the author as “an American orphan,” or just (in the case of the 1831 edition) “an orphan,” without her full name (Lowenstein).
  3. Using Eleanor Lowenstein’s 1972 bibliography, between the years 1796—1860, each entry was coded for gender and for identity statements. Coding for gender involved either identifiable gender (whether by first name, title, or personal pronoun) or implied or likely gender (such as reference to “housekeeper” being likely female). For the small percentage of texts (less than 1%) where gender was unidentifiable, those were left out of the results. Only female gendered entries were considered in this analysis. Coding for identity statements involved any descriptors regarding the author’s knowledge, expertise, work history, publication history, or personal or professional life. So as to not skew the results, only the first publication of each cookbook was considered; repeat entries and new editions were ignored.
  4. Out of 103 total cookbook entries surveyed between 17961860, 72 were written by women and 41 by men. Only women authors were analyzed in this study.
  5. In the case of Lucy Emerson, the phrase “compiled by” is also honest: Emerson’s 1808 New-England Cookery plagiarized everything but the title from American Cookery.
  6.  Not surprisingly, they are also most similar to male cookbook authors’ identity statements. The majority of male cookbook authors’ identity statements (58%) were the use of job descriptions alongside a full name, such as “Thomas Chapman, wine-cooper” and “Samuel Child, porterbrewer, London.”
  7. The orphan-made-good trope was a familiar one in sentimental fiction, banking on the pathos of the marginalized, abandoned child to tell a coming of age story where the orphan, left to his or her own devices outside of the familial system, is allowed to be upwardly mobile due to the lack of family connection (Walden 37-8).
  8. The melting-pot metaphor was first used in 1782, in Letters from an American Farmer by French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in his description of American identity: “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of man” (Crèvecoeur).

Works Cited

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  • König, Eva. The Orphan in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: The Vicissitudes of the Eighteenth-Century Subject. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
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  • McWilliams, Mark. “Good Women Bake Good Biscuits: Cookery and Identity in Antebellum American Fiction.” Food, Culture & Society, vol. 10, no. 3, Fall 2007, pp. 389-406.
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  • Reynolds, Nedra. “Ethos as Location: New Sites for Understanding Discursive Authority.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 11, no. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 325-338.
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The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty: An Embodiment of Postracial Rhetoric

In response to women’s growing dissatisfaction with the representation of the female body within media and advertising, Dove commissioned a global study in 2004 to get a better understanding of the relationship between beauty and self-esteem. The study concluded that 57% of the 3,200 women across 10 countries surveyed believed that “‘the attributes of female beauty have become very narrowly defined in today’s world’” (Etcoff et al. 27) and 75% indicated that they “wish the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape and size” (43). Based on these survey results, Dove launched its Campaign for Real Beauty (CFRB) in 2004 to “widen” the definition of beauty from the perception of physical attractiveness to confidence, acceptance, and pride, among other qualities (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In 2005, Dove initiated its “most iconic” phase of the CFRB with a series of ads featuring the “real bodies and real curves” of six, non-professional models (“The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”)—in other words, no digital re-touching of their photographs was allowed.1

Through these ads, the company lauded itself on initiating a “global conversation” revolving around beauty stereotypes and bodily perceptions (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”). In its 16-year history, the CFRB has published a number of viral ads and videos in TV spots, on YouTube, and on its social media pages with body-positive messaging featuring young girls and women of all ages. This decade-plus long campaign has largely been met with overwhelming success. It has been credited with being “on the natural beauty train long before many brands were even thinking about it” (Brown) and (in)directly influencing other brands such as Nike’s “Big Butts” and “Thunder Thighs” ads (Associated Press) and Victoria Secret’s “Love My Body” campaign (SheSpeaksTeam). The CFRB won PRWeeks “Best U.S. Campaign of the Past 20 Years” award (PRWeek Staff) and Ad Age’s top spot in the 15 best ad campaigns of the 21st century (Neff). Unsurprisingly, it has been profitable, too, increasing Dove’s sales from $2.5 to $4 billion within its first ten years (Dasher and Zed). 

However, some scholars analyzing the campaign are hesitant to extend praise just yet. Some point to the irony of a campaign celebrating women “just as they are” while using its models to promote a firming cream (Brodbeck and Evans; Howard; Stevenson). Others critically evaluate the relationship between feminism and corporate culture (Murray), arguing that the campaign is an example of “feminist consumerism” or a “corporate strategy that employs feminist themes of empowerment to market products to women” (Taylor et al. 124; Johnston and Taylor). Consumer responses echo this skepticism, contending that “Dove’s version of feminism lacked transformational potential because it encouraged a solipsistic focus on the self, rather than making connections between personal problems and the social organization of society” (Taylor et al. 135). Many female consumers also believe that the Dove models’ “deviant” bodies are still significantly fitter than the average American female body (Scott and Cloud; Postrel). These “deviant” bodies are also able-bodied ones (Heiss). 

Despite this range of scholarship, little work has thoroughly analyzed the relationship between race and gender with the CFRB. Thus, I argue that without fully considering the intersectionality of gender, race, and weight stigma, Dove’s feminist consumerist message does little to challenge Western, White beauty norms.2 I use postracial rhetoric to examine how the text and visuals of the CFRB gloss over and homogenize the racial and ethnic differences of the models in an essentializing discourse that reflects a universal approach to “beauty” without thoroughly considering how cultural differences affect various notions of beauty (Johnston and Taylor; see also Bordo, xxii). Postracial rhetoric stems from postracialism, or the “claim that we are, or are close to, or ought to be living outside of debilitating racial reference” (Goldberg 15),” whose origins are frequently attributed to Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency (Adjei and Gill; Teasley and Ikard; Paul; Temple). By focusing on Dove’s use of a postracial rhetoric, my analysis accomplishes two goals. First, it develops current critiques of the campaign that do not thoroughly address its relationship with race and gender. Second, it takes up discussions of postracial rhetoric that largely circulate outside of rhetorical studies and situates them in a feminist, embodied, rhetorical context by articulating major components of this rhetoric and explaining how they apply to the depictions of Black, female bodies in the CFRB.3 While my analysis primarily focuses on how Black women’s bodies in the campaign are read, I also discuss how the bodies of other women of color are largely absent from the advertisements as well. 

I begin by reviewing scholarship about postracialism from ethnic and racial studies, Black studies, communication, and rhetorical studies. Given this range of interdisciplinary research, I define what I mean by a “postracial rhetoric” and synthesize prior discussions about postracialism into its four key components: A postracial rhetoric normalizes Whiteness, disregards the material realities of race(ism), eschews diversity, and is performative and embodied. This last point positions this analysis of Dove’s postracial rhetoric within embodied, feminist rhetorics that advocate for “an ethical reading of bodies and recognition of bodies as people—not objects” (Johnson et al. 40). Through examining the CFRB advertisements, viewers’ responses to them, and the models’ statements about their participation in the campaign, I describe how Dove enacts a postracial rhetoric that allows the company to both foreground White bodies and reproduce historical, stereotypical imagery of Black bodies across its ads. By claiming diversity without also acknowledging the history of racialized depictions of (female) bodies of color, Dove does not engage in anti-racist efforts but instead “asks us to focus our views on visible triumphs associated with racial difference” and ignore “obvious instances of discrimination” (Cobb 413). Considering Dove’s reputation as being at the forefront of shaping beauty advertising, this oversight is troubling indeed. 

Defining Postracial Rhetoric

I begin this section by outlining my use of a “postracial rhetoric” to situate this term within the scope of embodied, feminist rhetorics. I do so because references to postracial rhetoric outside of rhetorical studies often either do not clarify their understanding of rhetoric or carry connotations of rhetoric as “‘empty talk,’ or even ‘deception’” (Herrick 1).4 Although approaches to rhetoric within the discipline can vary, I adopt Dolmage’s definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3). I have selected this definition for several reasons. First, it includes a focus on the body as Dolmage adds that “we should recognize rhetoric as the circulation of discourse through the body” (5). His emphasis on the body corresponds to how embodiment informs rhetoric given that “the physical body carries meaning through discourse about or by a body” and that such meaning “can be articulated beyond language” (Johnson et al. 39). Second, Dolmage’s definition is grounded in disability studies, which is complementary to feminist theory considering shared concerns about “the politics of appearance,” “the relation between femininity and embodiment,” “the commercialization of health and fitness” and “the ideology of normalcy,” among others (Garland-Thomson 1559). And third, the definition’s attention to power and the body aligns with feminist rhetoric, “a set of long-established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (Glenn 3),5 and one of its goals to “make all bodies and the power dynamics invested in their (in)visibility visible” (Johnson et al. 39). 

With this rhetorical framework in mind, I understand postracial rhetoric to mean the circulation of textual, visual, and bodily discourses that (in)directly suggest the eradication of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. I do not posit this understanding as postracial rhetoric’s “true” definition as it, much like rhetoric itself, can have multiple interpretations. I am also by no means coining the term, but I do outline what I have gathered to be its main components from prior scholarly discussions about postracialism that are largely outside of rhetorical studies and do not always explicitly define their approach to a postracial rhetoric.

Postracial Rhetoric Normalizes Whiteness

On the premise that racial preference is on the decline, postracial rhetoric promotes a universal message of equality and, consequently, an idealized version of society in which Whiteness is unraced and therefore the default (Temple; Klinenberg; Teasley and Ikard). Various iterations of this rhetoric “‘in effect proclaim that whiteness is normative’” (Walker and Smithers qtd. in Gunn and McPhail 20). In the context of media and advertising, a postracial rhetoric can homogenize (i.e., “smooth out all racial, ethnic, and sexual ‘differences’” (Bordo 24)) and normalize (i.e., create “models against which the self continually measures, judges, ‘disciplines’, and ‘corrects’ itself” (Bordo 25)) Western, White representations of beauty. It is critical, then, to acknowledge that these representations “have dominance, and not to efface such recognition through a facile and abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity,’ ‘difference,’ ‘subversive reading,’ and so forth” (Bordo 29-30). By advancing a racially unmarked, “normal” culture at the expense of others, postracial rhetoric is an “an outsider-imposed identity discourse” (Temple 51).

Postracial Rhetoric Disregards the Material Realities of Race(ism)

The assumption that the United States has “overcome” race with the election of its first Black president “renders invisible the material realities of ‘race’” (Teasley and Ikard 412). This assumption is quickly proven false by the very same “daily realities of racialized bodies [that] suggest that racism is still pervasive in the United States” (Adjei and Gill 142). By “material,” I refer to Bordo’s definition (which itself is influenced by Marxian and Foucauldian perspectives), which is “the ‘direct grip’ (as opposed to representational influence) that culture has on our bodies, through the practices and bodily habits of everyday life” (16). Collins likewise emphasizes the contributions of material, lived experiences towards Black feminist thought, which is “situated in a context of domination and not as a system of ideas divorced from political and economical reality” (288). Not only does postracial rhetoric gloss over the present-day, material impacts of race(ism), it conveniently forgets or ignores the history of racial inequalities that is embedded within current race relations in the United States. 

Postracial Rhetoric Eschews Diversity

In believing that “African-Americans have finally achieved racial equality,” postracialism is an “assimilationist term” that downplays Black cultures in favor of “mainstream White behaviors and orientations” (Temple 46). As such, its rhetoric “expresses a desire that African-American identity and heritage practices decrease, rather than increase” (46). Postracial rhetoric also goes hand in hand with a color-blind rhetoric that uses terms like “fairness, open access, and equal opportunity” (Holmes 26) and in so doing causes “social inequalities [to become] invisible” (Collins 26). What is ultimately valued is a homogenous (i.e., White, heteronormative) culture.

Postracial Rhetoric is Performative and Embodied

Understandings of race(ism) do not occur in a vacuum, but are bound up in cultural symbols: “the language of racism is masked within the language of culture” (Adjei and Gill 144). These symbols are not only linguistic ones, but visual as well. Considering how bodily features (e.g., skin tone, hair, body shape, etc.) and gestures all carry cultural weight, Cobb notes that “postracial imagery unevenly assigns concepts of visibility to performances of racial identity” and that “postracialism [can be] treated as performative and as a thing to be embodied” (412). Put another way, bodily features and gestures are not race-neutral. Sherrell describes how the need to keep Whiteness unraced and therefore “invisible” (148) appropriates embodiment by requiring Black bodies to “simulate whiteness and white embodiment in white institutions and spaces” (142). Modifying one’s behavior, mannerisms, and features becomes a survival tactic with the knowledge that “merely being noticed by whiteness has led to violence against, and death of, Black bodies” (150). In response, Sherrell proposes “embodied filtering,” a “means of titration of experience,” that counteracts encounters with racism with bodily rituals (e.g., restorative actions such as applying lotion, massaging one’s skin, and making selective clothing choices) that promote connections to one’s Black community and ancestry (151-152).  

With the exception of the last one, most of these components of postracial rhetoric operate primarily within the realm of textual language. Cobb, though, situates this rhetoric in a visual context through explaining the paradox of how “Blackness is rendered hypervisible as a symbol in a post-race United States; yet, it is also made invisible in terms of its own social and cultural relevance” (407). With its history of racial caricatures (that intermingle with discriminatory visual imagery of other racial identities), portrayals of Black bodies remind us that “there is never a culturally neutral ground for racial depiction—no place where our representational contexts have taken a reprieve from old ways of knowing race that create enough distance for the postracial to occur” (418). We cannot simply “forget” these historical caricatures when looking at images of Black people (and others of color) just as we cannot use an election of a Black, male president to treat the history of racial injustice in the United States as “one long, bad dream” (407). In the following sections, I use postracial rhetoric as an analytical lens to examine how Dove’s textual, visual, and paralingual discursive practices reveal the power dynamics embedded in its representations of race and reproductions of White beauty norms in the CFRB. My analysis takes up Cobb’s argument that we must be as critically conscious of “our approach to visuality” as we should be with “our idea of raciality” (419).

Postracial Undertones to Dove’s Definition of “Real Beauty”

In the now-iconic ads that the CFRB launched in 2005 (see Fig. 1), “real women with real bodies and real curves” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”) in white underwear strike confident poses daring to expose “curvy thighs, bigger bums, [and] rounder stomachs” (Fielding et al.). Clearly “real” in this context means bodies that are not “retouched, airbrushed or altered in any way” (Fielding et al). Both components—featuring “real women” in the ads and depicting them as they are in “real life”—make up two out of the three vows for “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”—the third being to “help girls build body confidence and self-esteem” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). The third vow also refers to the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which has “has educated over 20 million young people in body confidence and self-esteem” over the last 10 years (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). 

Image is an advertisement from The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge. Six racially diverse women are posing together and smiling. Large text to the right of the women reads: "curvy thighs, bigger bums, rounder stomachs. What better way to test our firming range?"

Fig. 1. Ad from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

The “real beauty” behind “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’” is an example of postracial rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the dominant ideology of Western female beauty rooted in histories of colonialism and enslavement. To achieve its “utopian” mission (Nayak 427) of eradicating racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice, postracialism supports eliminating race since “it is a false, dangerous and consequently indefensible category” (Paul 703). Race is absent from Dove’s vow to “never” use professional models since they “reflect a narrow view of beauty” and instead embrace the belief that “beauty is for everyone” by using “real women of different ages, sizes, ethnicities, hair color, type or style” (Dove, “The ‘Dove Real Beauty Pledge’”). While race (physical characteristics) and ethnicity (belonging to a social group with the same nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language) arguably overlap with one another, the two are not synonymous. “Hair color, type or style” might be a roundabout way of suggesting race, which reflects a lack of critical consciousness about the social construct at best and an active disengagement with it at worst. In any case, the explicit omission of race from Dove’s definition of beauty is significant since it allows the company to participate in the “abstract celebration of ‘heterogeneity’” (Bordo 30) without recognizing, interrogating, and addressing the racial dynamics within Western beauty standards.

Although a “cultural creation” (Smedley 5), race still has (in)direct material impacts whether invoked or not. Put simply, abandoning race does not erase racism. Shying away from the concept risks promoting the belief that “racial invocation inherently produces racist inevitability” (Goldberg 114) despite the fact that “racisms establish, set in place, and extend races, not the reverse” (115). Anti-racist efforts can instead adopt a both/and approach—i.e., acknowledging a preference for Whiteness while still insisting on “equality for all in the face of ongoing racial reference” (121). In this section, I argue that Dove does the opposite by setting the tone for a postracial rhetoric through its early CFRB ads that center on White bodies and white imagery. The Black women in these ads are forgotten by Dove’s marketing team whose decision to have the models wear white underwear evokes conceptions of the “pure”, White, female body as contrasted to the body of the exotic Black Other. Such a choice reflects how “visibility is fundamental to race relations” (Cobb 418) and, when combined with the oversight of the few Black women chosen to be among the CFRB’s inaugural models, signals Dove’s lack of awareness of its own postracial rhetoric. 

A “Whiter” Approach to Beauty

Despite Dove’s claims of contributing to a “wider definition of beauty” (Dove, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”), the advertisements themselves are still largely dominated by White, toned women. Results from focus groups of 40 female participants suggested that these women largely viewed the models as having “conventionally beautiful skin, hair, and eyes” (Taylor et al. 132). “Imperfections” such as “cellulite, rolls, body hair, dreadlocks, tattoos, bumps, scars, blemishes, prostheses, and stretch marks” were also mentioned as missing from the ads; the inclusion of dreadlocks in this list implies that physical features typically associated with Black bodies are excluded from implicit, White norms of “conventionally beautiful” standards. Some of the Black and Latina participants noted that “Most of the models are light skinned people, not really dark-skinned” and the Muslim participants commented that the absence of hijabs reflected little diversity in terms of religion (133). Most of the non-White women in the focus groups felt that “Dove’s version of diversity did not challenge hegemonic beauty norms based on white ideals, nor did it address the racism that underpins myriad beauty practices and expectations” (133). These sentiments highlight Dove’s superficial approach to diversity that implies postracial, homogenous assumptions of beauty. The company further compounds the danger of these assumptions by using a minimally diverse group of “real” non-professional models to uphold its claim of equalizing perceptions of beauty.

Any potential gains from the diversity present in the ads are undercut by the CFRB’s marketing team. During a roundtable discussion with the Ogilvy marketing team behind the campaign’s launch, Linda Scott gives this story:

One thing that was brought to my attention just last week that I had not noticed before—a friend and a colleague of mine, Jason Chambers who is a professor at the University of Illinois, was in town last week and he’s African American. I told him that I was having this meeting and he says, “Oh, you know, I would really like to know…That campaign didn’t have any Black women in it. Why is that?” And it was the first that I had ever—I’m embarrassed to say—the first time I had thought about it. (Fielding et al.)

Dennis Lewis, Creative Partner at the London branch of Ogilvy, responds that Dove has “always been multi-racial and multi-cultural,” but then must retrieve physical pictures from the campaign to confirm the existence of Black models. Alessandro Manfredi, the Global VP of Dove Masterbrand and Deodorants, begins to list different phases of the campaign that had “it” (i.e., Black models) while remaining uncertain about the promotional campaign video, “Little Girls.” Scott adds that she is “pretty sure” “Little Girls” has Black models and suggests that Chambers might have been thinking of the 2005 ads as the phase lacking diversity (Fielding et al.). 

And yet, the 2005 ads do have two Black models—Syleste Molyneaux and Jane Poku (see Figs. 1 and 2). What is especially concerning about these ads is not just that there are only two Black models within a campaign meant to “widen” the definition of beauty, but that the roundtable discussion demonstrates what hooks describes as “dehumanizing oppressive forces, forces that render us invisible and deny us recognition” (35). The admission of race as an afterthought plus the scramble to provide evidence of the presence of non-White bodies both convey how Whiteness is normalized within an ad series claiming diversity and highlight Dove’s unconsciousness of its own postracial rhetoric. 

These actions also undercut the appearance of agency in Molyneaux and Poku’s individual advertisements that include their names and statements about the campaign. On the one hand, these women’s participation in the CFRB is an opportunity for them to advocate their own narratives about their bodies, diversify the representation of women in the media, and be positive role models for Black girls who often do not see versions of themselves in beauty ads. On the other hand, Molyneaux and Poku’s body-positive narratives are not their own while being open to editing by Dove and its marketing team. Black women’s empowerment (and, in this case, individual views and collective consensus on what “beauty” is) strives to be autonomous: “When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so” (Collins 125). Because this empowerment must resist knowledge production tied to objectification, commodification, and exploitation (Collins 308), Black women’s agency becomes constrained in a beauty campaign claiming good intentions but still profiting from their bodies.

Material Constructions of Racialized Beauty Norms

One consequence to Dove’s exclusion of race from its definition of “real beauty” is the failure to identify and respond to racialized conceptions of beauty and their material impacts and, in so doing, renew them. Historically, Black women’s bodies have been objectified to facilitate and justify their economic, political, and sexual exploitation, which is reflected in the “controlling images of Black womanhood” (Collins 111) such as the mammy, “the faithful, obedient domestic servant” (80), and the jezebel or “whore, or ‘hoochie’” (89). This objectification also reinforces “long-standing notions of Black women’s sexuality” (238) and acts as a ballast against which the ideals of White beauty are defined. One example of this objectification in the CFRB is the white underwear that the models are consistently photographed in. The Ogilvy team made the decision for the models to wear white underwear during the shoot since they wanted the women “to look confident and feel sexy,” instead of being cast as “sex icons” (Fielding et al.). “Plain” white underwear, instead of lingerie, would draw the audience’s attention to the women’s skin and “loveliness” (Fielding et al.). The choice of white underwear to convey these impressions ultimately relies on implicit, historical associations with lingerie, which have connections to the exotic Other of the Black body. 

Image is an ad from Dove's Campaign for Real Bodies. A Black women wearing a white tank top and underwear stands to the side, with her head turned toward the camera, smiling. Text to the side of her reads: "I like to wear clothes that are, I would say, figure hugging."

Fig. 2. Ad from Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty.

A notable instance of a Black woman’s body being used to constitute notions of Black female sexuality and White femininity was the exhibition of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”), a South African Khoikhoi woman, in England in the early 19th century. Enslaved by a Dutch farmer after her family was killed in a commando raid, Baartman (although illiterate) allegedly signed a “contract” to work as a domestic servant for William Dunlop, an English ship surgeon (Parkinson). Dunlop instead put Baartman on display across England to present her large buttocks (steatopygia) and elongated labia (known popularly as the “Hottentot apron”) as a “‘scientific curiosity’” (Davie). The speculations from Europeans about these features serve as one example of the association of Black women’s sexuality as “animalistic, lustful, and deviant” (Fields 613) that was contrasted against White bodies, white lingerie, and sexual purity (612). Black lingerie functioned “as a racial masquerade akin to Blackface that allowed women, especially white women, to express, and their bodies to convey, the eroticism attributed to Black women via a safely contained and removable Black skin” (612). Conversely, covering Black women in white underwear against a white background—Poku’s clothing is so indistinguishable from the background that the two blend together, leaving only fragmented sections of her Black skin (see Fig. 2)—suggests a restriction and control of “unclean” Black female bodies in relation to the White ideal of “pure” beauty.

These historical constructions of White purity whose counterpoint is the Black Other are embodied and visually conveyed via the white undergarments the models wear against the white backdrop. As Johnson et al. note, “All bodies do rhetoric through texture, shape, color, consistency, movement, and function” (39). They assert that “the body also carries signifying power” (40), which connects to Collins’ point that the concept of White femininity needs an Other who is recognized as embodying the opposite of these values (77). As Collins puts it, “within the binary thinking that underpins intersecting oppressions, blue-eyed, blonde, thin White women could not be considered beautiful without the Other—Black women with African features of dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and kinky hair” (98). In this binary, Black women always remain outside of Western, White notions of beauty that also impact other non-White racial groups (98). Although this long-standing binary is embedded within the visual elements of the ads and the portrayals of the models’ bodies, viewers can nonetheless perceive how this visual rhetoric “confirm[s] an ideology of compulsory beauty for women”—i.e., the “idea that all women…should strive to be beautiful” (Taylor et al. 132, 128). The media, among other predominately White institutions such as government agencies and schools, have a role in perpetuating “controlling images” of Black women which retain their power so long as the stereotypes they rely on remain unnoticed (Collins 111, 125). As noted in the following section, Dove’s pattern of racial insensitivity only continues in later ads of the campaign.

“Tone Deaf” Ads and Racialized Soap Advertising

At first glance, the inclusion of non-supermodel bodies within Dove’s CFRB strikes a positive note. Research in fat studies6 posits that “there are very few opportunities for fat women (or, for that matter, any woman who is not exceedingly slender) to view favorable reflections of herself in mass media” (Fikkan and Rothblum 587). Fikkan and Rothblum argue that it is not enough for feminist scholars to explore how cultural expectations of svelte female figures can cause “every woman [to] feel badly about her body,” but that they must also acknowledge that “because of the pervasiveness and gendered nature of weight-based stigma, a majority of women stand to suffer significant discrimination because they do not conform to this ever-narrower standard” (588). Even if the campaign was to include more diverse body types, this representation would need to be more systemic across beauty advertising to effect social, transformative change about the perceptions of female bodies (Bissell and Rask 664).

Moreover, companies like Dove also need to be attuned to intersections of weight stigma, race, and gender within their advertising. Because of research showing Black women to be more likely than White women to perceive fat bodies positively (Hebl and Heatherton; Hebl et al.; Molloy and Herzberger), it has been speculated that most Black women reject the White ideal of beauty that by definition does not include them, which allows them some buffer from its effects (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Nevertheless, Williamson contends that it is erroneous to “suggest that all ‘non-Whites’ live sequestered in isolated communities, free from dominant cultural influence” (68). While Black women may dissociate themselves from White mainstream culture, this does not necessarily mean that they are “immune” to poor body image and eating disorders (Thompson 558).  Racial discrimination can also outweigh weight discrimination for Black women considering that White women still benefit from racial privilege despite their body type (Fikkan and Rothblum; Saguy). Factors such as poverty, violence, heterosexism, and mental health must also be taken into account when considering the relationship between Black women and their weight (Wilson).7

Merely adding non-White bodies to beauty ads without also critically considering the social, cultural, and political dimensions of weight stigma only demonstrates a half-hearted attempt at challenging established beauty norms. Such an attempt is further weakened by repeated visual gaffes that replicate historical, racial caricatures of Black bodies. In the rest of this section, I outline how more recent CFRB ads do not fare much better than the earlier, iconic phase in terms of successfully representing diversity. While the original firming cream ads from 2005 could have included more women of color, each one did have her own ad with her name and a statement about her body listed. This recognition is not present in the newer iterations of the campaign from the 2010s that minimize the presence of non-White bodies, give White women more of a platform to speak about their bodies, and evoke historical, racialized soap advertising. In so doing, these ads take up a postracial rhetoric that presents homogenous depictions of beauty and normalizes Whiteness. This rhetoric also forgets or ignores the material realities of race(ism) through visual, embodied performances that repeatedly carry the implicit message that White skin is “pure” and “clean” while Black skin is “dirty.”

Erasure of Non-White Voices

While the 2005 CFRB ads made a nod towards including the bodies and voices of women of color, even this minimal commitment to diversity diminished with the 2013 launch of Dove’s documentary-style YouTube video, “Real Beauty Sketches.” This video has two versions: One is six minutes and 36 seconds and has received over 10 million views and the shorter, three-minute video has received over 69 million views at this time of writing. The videos reflect the outcome of a “social experiment” (Dove, “Real Beauty Sketches”) in which several women spend time with a fellow participant before individually describing their facial features to an FBI forensic artist, Gil Zamora, who—separated from them by a curtain—sketches their responses. Next, they detail their partner’s appearance as Zamora—still unable to see them—illustrates their portrayal. Whereas many of the women describe themselves as having freckles, crow’s feet, or dark circles, they are considerably more flattering when detailing the features of their partners. The two sketches are then hung side-by-side and Zamora invites each woman to view them. All of the women agree that the stranger’s description is more “gentle” than their own and confess that they have “some work to do” in appreciating their own beauty.

Despite the viral success of the video, several critics mention that “Real Beauty Sketches” still does not challenge the fact that beauty—whether “ideal” or “real”—is still held as the standard that women are expected to measure themselves against and use as a benchmark for self-esteem (Rodriguez; Keane; Friedman). Although a full critique of this video extends beyond the scope of this article, the one major criticism of the video that I want to highlight is its lack of diversity. Watching the video, it is immediately clear that the participants are “lovely, thin, mostly white women” (Fridkis; Stampler). Of the group, the ones who get the most speaking time (and are named) are all White women. In fact, the individual stories of three of these women—Melinda, Florence, and Kela—are filmed in short, one-minute videos as part of the series. While these women openly share their insecurities about their physical appearance, Adamson argues that the video only targets “first world pain” and does not problematize the “‘narrow cultural perception of beauty’” it purports to be challenging.

Even though two Black women are shown being sketched by Zamora, they each only speak one line. The first (unnamed) woman describes herself as having a “fat, rounder face” while the second woman, Shelly, mentions that she gets more freckles as she ages. (Interestingly enough, while Shelly is named in the shorter version, she appears without a name tagline in the first, longer version of the campaign video). A Black man is briefly shown describing one of the participants as having “very nice blue eyes,” but he too is given no name. Towards the end of the video when the final sketches are revealed, the White women are often shown standing beside their portraits while explaining their reactions either to Zamora or to the viewers via narration. For a moment, the camera peeks over Shelly’s shoulder as she stares at her sketches and there are flashes of other women of color looking at their own. However, none of these women are shown giving commentary about their experiences. One of the final scenes shows the lights going out over Shelly’s sketches while she is not present. One blogger sums up the situation with: “Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds” (jazzylittledrops). Thus, it seems that as Dove’s CFRB evolves, even the minimal, though significant, active participation from women of color promoted in the original ads becomes further reduced.

Image in an ad for a Dove product, Dove VisibleCare. Three women stand in front of two large images of skin. On the left, "before," the skin looks dry; on the right, "after," the skin looks moisturized. The women are standing in order of skin color, with the darkest skin color to the left and lightest to the right.

Fig. 3. Ad for Dove VisibleCare product.

References to “impure” Black skin

In a campaign that omits race from its understanding of “real beauty,” it is perhaps unsurprising that its few models of color are forgotten and/or delegated to the background; in fact, Dove’s ability to authentically portray women of color, especially Black women, within the CFRB has consistently been fraught. In 2011, Dove was criticized for an ad that implied its soap could make dark skin lighter and cleaner (Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”) (see Fig. 3). In the ad, a Black model striking a “‘sassy’” pose (much like Poku in Fig. 2) is positioned in front of a “before” image while more “demure,” light-skinned models are standing closer to an “after” image (Edwards). With this positioning inferring that the body wash is “strong enough to turn a black woman white,” Dove’s PR firm, Edelman, released a statement claiming that “‘All three women are intended to demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit” and that “We believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages and are committed to featuring realistic and attainable images of beauty in all our advertising” (qtd. in Nolan, “Dove Body Wash”). 

Despite this statement, Dove faced yet more backlash in 2017 concerning a three-second video the company posted on its U.S. Facebook page in which a Black woman removed her dark brown top to reveal a White woman in a pale top underneath. Although the White model repeated the same action to be replaced by “a racially ambiguous woman,” this act did not undo the suggestion of “anti-Blackness of the first series of images” (The Race Card). For some critics, the Black woman to White woman transition evoked the Pears’ 1884 soap advertisement that depicted a Black child scrubbed white after washing (The Race Card; Conor). Others referenced the 1901 Nulla Nulla soap advertisement that featured an illustration of a Black woman with both stereotypically exaggerated features and a bib that said “dirt” being hit on the head by a spoon that was surrounded by the tagline: “Knocks Dirt on the Head” (Conor). Taken together, these critiques link the CFRB to the racialized history of soap advertising in the United States and across the world, which illustrated how “primitive, unclean, and ignorant” Black skin could be “corrected” after using soap that would turn the consumer into a “‘beauty,’ as opposed to the ‘beast’ she once was” (Rooks 29). Dua states that the proliferation of “tone deaf” ads and corresponding hashtag #boycottdove suggest that “Dove has lost control of its narrative.”

Amidst this response, Lola Ogunyemi, the Nigerian model in the video, published an editorial in The Guardian defending it. She asserts how she “jumped” at the opportunity to “be the face of a new body wash campaign” and in so doing, “represent my dark-skinned sisters in a global beauty brand,” since this occasion “felt like the perfect way for me to remind the world that we are here, we are beautiful, and more importantly, we are valued.” Ogunyemi’s defense of Dove, along with the Ogilvy marketing team forgetting about Molyneaux and Poku’s involvement in the original CFRB ads, convey how “Black women’s lives are a series of negotiations that aim to reconcile the contradictions separating our own internally defined images of self as African-American women with our objectification as the Other” (Collins 110). With respect to embodiment, Sherrell describes the struggle to reconcile “stories [of] Black bodies as vile, dangerous, subhuman, and of no value except for consumption by whiteness” with “the narrative my body also knows—of brilliance and resistance and humanness and beauty and agency” (149). When applied to Molyneaux, Poku, and Ogunyemi, these negotiations suggest how Dove’s Black models must navigate the “dialectic of oppression and activism” (Collins 16) with respect to advocating positive messages about Black bodies while also participating in a campaign that profits from their bodies. They also illustrate how these models can be complicit in Dove’s postracial rhetoric while also trying to contribute to more heterogenous representations of beauty.


As this analysis has demonstrated, Dove’s 16-year message of “real beauty” is a postracial one that assimilates racial and ethnic differences to White beauty norms and reproduces and modernizes centuries-old racial caricatures through the claim of equalizing beauty standards. These caricatures have historically functioned to render “a notion of racial difference as visible, and thus, controllable” (Cobb 410) and their presence in the CFRB shows how adaptable a textual and visual postracial rhetoric can be in a digital age. This rhetoric is also an embodied one considering how a series of minimally diverse, racially insensitive ads asks its audience to “consume a number of postracial moments over the terrain of the Black body” (409). Although the focus here has largely been about the depiction of Black bodies, the impacts of a postracial rhetoric within beauty advertising can be extended to other races and ethnicities as well. With its failure to learn from past mistakes, Dove reinforces the “thoughtlessness” or “Arendtian sense of failing to exercise reflective (and by extension self-reflective) critical judgement” (Goldberg 111) of racisms present within postracial rhetoric. This lack of awareness is significant when Dove’s “real beauty” message is already suspect when tied to financial profit; it becomes more insidious with repeated inferences of White purity and “dirty and impure” Black skin (The Race Card).

By outlining the characteristics of a postracial rhetoric and applying them to the textual, visual, and paralingual elements of Dove’s CFRB ads, this analysis contributes to feminist rhetorics which, among other aims, uncovers and challenges White, male, and Western hegemonic discourses and promotes diverse and inclusive ones (Royster and Kirsch 44). Feminist rhetorics unpack the “the nature, scope, impacts, and consequences of rhetoric as a multidimensional human enterprise,” with multidimensionality referring to engagement across multiple boundaries (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, status, and geographic sites), genres, material conditions, and other means of producing rhetorical knowledge (42). Likewise, my reading of the Dove CFRB ads considers the dimensions of gender, race, and weight stigma embedded within discourses about beauty within the genre of beauty advertisements. These dimensions call attention to an often implicit, but still pervasive postracial rhetoric that is by no means an “empty” one; on the contrary, it supports and produces unconscious, uncritical understandings of race that perpetuate the simultaneous historical discrimination and erasure as well as the objectification, commodification, and exploitation of Black bodies. Furthermore, this intersectional perspective not only reveals both resistance to and complicity in the power dynamics of Western discourses about beauty, but also situates these discourses in a “broader transnational context” (Royster and Kirsch 54), especially when it comes to beauty advertisements aimed at international audiences.

On the one hand, Dove is not alone when it comes to doing damage control over racially insensitive ads. In 2017, Nivea pulled an ad for its “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant that featured a woman sitting on a bed, her back to the camera, and her long, dark brown hair cascading down a white outfit above the tagline, “WHITE IS PURITY.”  This ad, supported by White supremacist groups who stated, “‘Nivea has chosen our side’” (Tsang), followed the controversy of the company’s 2011 Nivea for Men ad showing a groomed, Black male model holding the head of his former self with an afro and beard with the tagline, “Re-civilize yourself,” across his body (Aronowitz). The 2017 ad, posted to Nivea’s Middle Eastern Facebook page, reflects how marketing language for skin-whitening beauty products varies globally, with ads across South, Southeast, and East Asia associating whiter skin with confidence, attractiveness, and marriageability whereas ads in North America promote similar products that “‘brighten’” skin and help it to become more “‘radiant’” (Koul). The difference is not that North American audiences are “less racist” or “less obsessed with whiteness as the highest form of beauty,” but that they are more concerned about “appear[ing] racist” (Koul).

On the other hand, the thoughtlessness of Dove’s postracial rhetoric is also evident in the company’s disengagement with its own relationship to a global skin lightening market. Koul’s claim about the desire not to “appear racist” might explain some consumer reactions to Dove’s muddled attempts at aligning itself with protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by White Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.8 The company participated in #BlackoutTuesday on June 2, 2020, which began in the music industry as a “proposed day of reflection” and rapidly evolved into a social media movement during which individuals and other brands posted black squares across Instagram and other platforms (Coscarelli). While some people posted messages of thanks for Dove’s support, others called attention to Dove’s affiliation with its parent company, Unilever, which sells skin-whitening products like Fair and Lovely in over 40 countries (Conor). When Dove tried to deflect the accusation by stating, “we do not sell skin lightening products” (Dove, “@roberta.camara”), one commenter responded with, “of course you can say you don’t make skin lightening products. Explain your relationship with Unilever” (cassilla927). What these consumer critiques allude to is that Dove’s “real beauty” message “seems skin-deep when it fails to penetrate into the pores of its parent company and its subsidiaries” (Conor).

Other replies to Dove’s black square post correspond to a larger criticism of #BlackoutTuesday, which was seen by some as a way for both individuals and brands to perform allyship without making consistent efforts towards addressing and reforming systemic, institutionalized racism. As Tariro Mzezewa, a Black travel reporter who participated in a discussion about #BlackoutTuesday for the Style section of The New York Times put it, “they post, but with no real intention of listening, learning, donating, protesting or helping beyond the post. The post makes them feel like they’ve done their part” (The New York Times). Some reactions to Dove’s black square reflect similar skepticism with one commenter remarking, “Nice post and all but are there any actions taking place towards the cause?” (x.vivii.xix, “Nice post and all…”) Dove’s answer to posts like these (including ones pointing to its relationship with Unilever) was to refer to its newest campaign, Project #ShowUs, which curates stock photos from women and non-binary individuals to “offer a more inclusive vision of beauty to all media & advertisers” (Dove, “Project #ShowUs”). Although well-intentioned, this campaign arguably boosts Dove’s profit margins more so than anti-racist efforts, as indicated by x.vivii.xix’s reply: “If you’re only mentioning those [initiatives] attached to the Dove name it’s more like a PR move with the benefactors being your stock holders and not actually the cause at hand” (“@dove that’s nice”). 

Ultimately, this exchange between Dove and its online audience reveals the limitations of advancing genuine, systemic change within the context of feminist consumerism. Consumer responses show how Dove’s “corporate cosmetic approach” fails to adopt an authentic feminist approach to disrupting White beauty ideals that would “challenge beauty norms, include women across the color spectrum, enable women to resist using skin lighteners, affirm diversity in skin tone, and honor the range of embodied existence” (Taylor et al. 133). Instead, its various ads hinge on the notion of “compulsory beauty” that centers more on individual improvements (through purchasing Dove’s beauty products) versus participating in collective social justice movements (Taylor et al. 128, 134). This understanding of beauty is also largely not self-generated by women, particularly Black women and others of color, considering the requests on Dove’s black square asking the company to provide numbers on how many Black women number among its executives. Still, women acknowledge that campaigns like Dove’s are “‘better than nothing’” and that “ethical consumption” or “making social and environmental change through targeted purchasing” is possible to some degree (Taylor et al. 140).

Dove’s feminist consumerist approach to tackling hegemonic beauty expectations also does not align with the goals of Black women’s empowerment, which include ensuring their autonomy, valuing their self-definitions, and “fostering social justice in a transnational context” (Collins 309). To truly challenge intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and weight stigma, empowerment must go hand-in-hand with self-definition that can be used to “replace controlling images” of Black women (111). As Collins states, “ceding the power of self-definition to others, no matter how well-meaning or supportive of Black women they may be, in essence replicates existing power hierarchies” (40). Littlefield agrees, arguing that a forum is needed in which to have conversations about Black female and male stereotypes in the media and that “an attention to community education that educates young Black women, Black men, and the overall community is the only context that will have any meaning for social justice” (683). Self-definition is a vital component in creating “alternative modes of ‘making it’” (Littlefield 683) for not just Black women, but for all marginalized groups. In identifying these alternative definitions to “beauty” beyond corporate ones, we as consumers can move beyond considerations of how companies like Dove are “losing control” of their postracial narratives towards recognizing and acting on the ways we respond, resist, and contribute to them.


  1. The truthfulness behind this statement has been contested. In the May 12, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, Pascal Dangin, “premier retoucher of fashion photographs,” described “retouching” the photos of Dove’s ProAge campaign “‘to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive’” (qtd. in Collins, “Pixel Perfect”). He later clarified that his changes were “limited to color correction and dust removal” (Nolan, “Dove Denies New Yorker Hypocrisy Allegations”).
  2.  By intersectionality, I refer to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of the “intersecting patterns of racism and sexism” that Black women often experience (1243). Nash has argued that this concept lacks a clear definition and methodology, uses Black women as “prototypical intersectional subjects,” and obscures whether intersectional identities can be claimed by all or the “multiply marginalized” (4, 9). However, Collins’ articulation of a matrix domination that refers to “how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized” (21) and is connected to a Black feminist epistemology offers a wider applicability of intersectionality and a method of studying it.
  3. In this article, I capitalize “Black” to signify “not just a color” but also “a history and the racial identity of Black Americans.” I capitalize “White” because “to not name ‘White’ as a race is, in fact, an anti-Black act which frames Whiteness as both neutral and the standard” (Nguyễn and Pendleton). Because I am examining the involvement and representation of cisgender women in the CFRB, I acknowledge that this analysis does not include the full spectrum of gender identities. Non-binary and transgender people also experience erasure and discrimination in (beauty) advertising, but a full discussion of these particular experiences is beyond the scope of this article.
  4. For instance, Paul calls postracialism “an empty rhetoric” at best and at worst “the insidious denial of continued racism” (702).
  5. Similar to Glenn, I capitalize Other here and in the rest of the article to signify “an individual or group who has been or is being marginalized from another, that is being ‘othered’” (Jackson II and Hogg 527). Collins adds that Black women’s “objectification as the Other denies us the protections that White skin, maleness, and wealth confer” (276). Collins’ observation often applies to other non-White racial groups as well.
  6. Like Fikkan and Rothblum, I “use the term ‘fat,’ as it is descriptive, whereas the term ‘overweight’ implies unfavourable comparison to a normative standard and ‘obese’ is a medical term with its own negative connotations” (576).
  7.  Although further discussion of these intersecting factors is outside the scope of this article, more scholarship is needed about the relationship between Black women, their weight, and their mental health as weight stigma not only influences who is (and is not) included within definitions of “beauty,” but also who is (and is not) considered “at risk” for body disorders (Beauboeuf-Lafontant; Williamson; Ofosu et al.; Thompson; Root). 
  8. At the time of this writing, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and manslaughter with respect to Floyd’s death (Associated Press). Nearly two weeks before Floyd’s death, Louisville police officers acting on a no-knock warrant forced their way into the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, and shot her several times, killing her (Oppel Jr. & Taylor). Subsequently, calls have been made to include attention to Taylor’s death to raise more awareness about police violence against Black women (Ryan). 

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Toward Trans Rhetorical Agency: A Critical Analysis of Trans Topics in Rhetoric and Composition and Communication Scholarship

For those of us writing and teaching in the discipline, rhetorical studies can sometimes feel like a stubborn area of inquiry. Change occurs at a glacial pace. As a case in point, though the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies came into formation over thirty years ago, it took twenty-odd years for trans perspectives and trans theorizing to breach the recalcitrant archives of rhetorical studies. Indeed, the fraternal twin disciplines of rhetoric & composition and communication have only begun to see the rise of something that might be called transgender rhetorics within the last five years.

We define trans as a disidentificatory relation to the dyadic, cissexist, and faulty assumptions of sexual dimorphism, which include: the insistence that there are only two “true” sexes, male and female (Malatino, “Situating” 79); the assertion that doctors have the authority to gender infants based upon a cursory glance at infants’ genitalia (Fausto Sterling 59); the position that gender and sex are both immutable and mutually inclusive and the insinuation that medical and governmental institutions1 have the ultimate authority over each person’s sex/gender (Salamon 171-194, Assuming).

Throughout our2 essay, we use the shortened version trans as an intentional move to hold space for a range of gender expansive people—who may identify as trans, transgender, and/or transsexual, and who move through the world as men, women, nonbinary people, agender people, and other non/gendered positionalities (Rawson and Williams 3-4). To varying degrees and with uneven resources, those who fall under the trans umbrella shed the sex/gender combination designated (or assigned) to them at birth and go on to live their lives as a sex/gender (or, in some cases, in the absence of sex/gender or in the in the abundance of sexes/genders) that aligns with who they know themselves to be (Reif Hill and May 12-13). Though the term has in recent years “gone global,” we also note that trans is a Western concept. Other cosmologies of gender not only currently exist but also predate a Western European cosmology of gender—which itself was invented as a tool of colonial domination (Aizura et al. 309, DeVun and Tortorici 519-520; Driskill 46-48, Asegi; Lugones 743-751).

As two scholars of trans rhetorics—a multiethnic, white, queer, trans, neurodivergent, nonbinary professor of rhetoric & composition and a white, cisgender, gay professor of communication—we find ourselves cheering for the “arrival” of trans rhetorics while also tempering our enthusiasm with caution. While we celebrate our fellow colleagues who have labored to bring trans theories and perspectives into conversation with rhetorical studies, we are also hyper-aware that the institutionalization of trans studies has taken place within a context where the radical potential of trans critique has increasingly become absorbed and appropriated as a commodity.

Indeed, in a previous collaborative essay, in which we reflect on our shared experiences as faculty advisors for LGBTQ+ student organizations, we join scholars like Nicolazzo (4) and LeMaster (155-158, “UnBecoming”), who worry about the way trans people become props in the corporate university’s diversity and inclusion initiatives (Spencer and Patterson 300-301, “Abridging”). Commenting on an adjacent vein of institutional violence, Keegan (5-10) and Benavente and Gill-Peterson (25) reflect on the meteoric rise of trans studies as a discipline, which women’s & gender studies and LGBT studies programs seem eager to absorb while continuing to marginalize the contributions and exploit the labor of trans studies scholars, especially multiply-marginalized and Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) transgender people.

This kind of marginalization extends to how trans topics and trans people are treated in published scholarship. Trans studies scholarship, in fact, finds its origins with commentary from scholars like Stryker (8-9) and Hale (n.p.), who question the ways cisgender scholars (frequently operating in queer and feminist studies) deployed the trans person as the object lesson of gender trouble—all the while denying trans people the agency to speak for themselves. Even as scholars of trans experience have reclaimed the authority to theorize for themselves, scholars like Ivy (168-171), Patterson (146-151, “Entertaining”), and Nicolazzo (4-5) lament that otherwise promising scholarship risks being crowded out by reductive hot-takes, which continue to be published with an unfortunate enthusiasm. As Malatino observes, the inclusion industrial complex doesn’t so much care how trans people are talked about, nor does it particularly care about the expertise (and lived experience) of the people writing and teaching about trans topics; it only matters that trans people are talked about (407-408, “Pedagogies”). Far from its warm and fuzzy overtures, inclusion is often a violent process for those who are on the receiving end of inclusion.

We wish it were possible to share a triumphant and exceptionalist but! when it comes to the sub-discipline of trans rhetorics…but we can’t. While it is true that we delight in the prospect of trans theory’s arrival in rhetoric & composition and communication, we share (alongside our colleagues in the interdisciplinary field of trans studies) similar feelings of exhaustion, and even anger, that the march toward trans inclusion in rhetorical studies has emerged in such a way that we face the real risk of crowding out the voices, theorizing, and activism of actual trans people. Indeed, part of our motivation for writing this critical literature review is to attend to both the promises and perils of how the journals/presses in our two fields have, thus far, communicated a vision of trans rhetorics. However frustrated we may feel, like our trans studies colleagues Benavente and Gill-Peterson, we return to the promise of trans studies—as a discipline uniquely rooted in activism, in anger as a vehicle for critique, in embodied knowledge as theory and, above all else, in centering and amplifying actual trans people (27).

As rhetoricians, trained to understand the power of words to shape life chances and trained to value the rhetorical agency of marginalized communities speaking for themselves, it is our hope that the best parts of our rhetorical tradition might join forces with the promise of trans studies to amplify, celebrate, support, and learn from trans scholars—especially multiply-marginalized (multimarg) trans scholars. It in this spirit that we engage in a critical review of the published literature in transgender rhetorics.

Critical Literature Reviews as a Genre

Critical literature reviews offer readers a retrospective of where a field has been—highlighting its patterns and trends and illuminating its silences—while also forecasting opportunities for future work. In offering a critical literature review of trans rhetorics, we borrow from an already existing genre of critical literature reviews in feminist and LGBTQ rhetorics/communication; such valuable reviews have been authored by Alexander and Banks (“Sexualities, Technologies”), Alexander and Gibson (“Queer Composition(s)”), Alexander and Rhodes (““Queer: An Impossible Subject”), Alexander and Wallace (“The Queer Turn”), Cox and Faris (“An Annotated Bibliography”), and Dow and Condit (“The State of the Art”). We are grateful for our colleagues’ labor because they’ve provided us a set of coordinates that have made our own mapping of transgender rhetorics possible.

We have chosen to zero in on transgender rhetorics for two reasons. First, the T (trans) in these LGBTQ communication/rhetoric literature reviews is often silent, in the sense that these reviews almost exclusively feature scholarship about cisgender LGBQ people (Spencer “Introduction” xiii). Second, some of the critical lit reviews mentioned above operate under the assumption that trans epistemologies are implicitly covered under their “queer” review of rhetoric and composition and communication. Such literature reviews have the (unintended) consequence of erasing the distinctly trans rhetorical contributions of their colleagues. Mindful of these tendencies, our literature review highlights specific contributions of trans rhetorics, which have too often been marginalized within a cis-centric framework.

In what follows, we examine emerging trans rhetoric scholarship in the following four areas:

  1. popular culture,
  2. trans activism,
  3. trans rhetorical pedagogies, and
  4. trans rhetorical methodologies.

On the whole, our responses to this body of work are complicated. While we celebrate the trailblazing achievements of trans rhetorics scholars who have rightly drawn important distinctions between queer and trans rhetorical theories and methods, we would feel remiss if we didn’t mention that, among the published literature, we also identified narratives that circulate inaccurate, stereotypical, and appropriative ideas about trans people, trans experience, and trans rhetorics. We will discuss these victories and missteps in each of the sections that follow.

Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Representation in Popular Culture

Media criticism, broadly understood, seeks to make an argument about potential ways to understand texts such as films, television series, and news coverage (Dow). Academic critics have an interest in the politics of representation, the implications of those politics, and why it matters. As such, academic critical arguments about representation (and the politics of representation) come to more hesitant and nuanced conclusions, especially as contrasted with cheerfully optimistic headlines like Time’s declaration that 2014 constituted a “transgender tipping point” (Steinmetz). The media industry, of course, relies on maintaining hegemony. For example, uncritical celebrations of shows like Orange is the New Black (for including a trans main character portrayed by a trans actor) or Glee (for representing all manner of difference, from race, to gender identity, to sexual orientation) can overlook the serious liabilities of those representations. And, indeed, critical trans theorists repeatedly caution against conflating corporatized mediated “visibility” with an increase in life chances for marginalized trans people. Reflecting a critical awareness of the political economy of the media, E. Tristan Booth calls visibility “a risky prospect, particularly with respect to groups that are easily exploited for commercial purposes” (“Queering” 191; see also, Fischer Terrorizing 1). Scholarship that demonstrates the precarity of visibility in popular culture tends to focus on

  • trans icons (famous trans people),
  • ordinary trans people (depicted in reality television), or
  • fictional trans characters.
Representations of Trans Icons

Research on trans icons often focuses on how the news media cover stories related to gender identity, including thirteen books and articles in our review. John Sloop’s work on Brandon Teena showed how media accounts of Teena’s case policed gender and gender identity carefully, referring to Teena as deceptive and over-relying on biological markers of identity (55). More recent analyses of trans folks in the news have examined the cases of Gwen Araujo (Barker-Plummer 710), Chelsea Manning (Cloud 80; Fischer Terrorizing 29), and queer and trans activists (Spencer and Barnett 141) and arrived at similar conclusions to Sloop’s: over and over again, news stories reify harmful and limiting binaries of sex, gender, sexuality, and gender identity and posit an essentialist connection between sex and gender, dismissing people’s actual identities (not to mention decades of feminist, queer, and trans scholarship).Gayle Salamon’s “Passing Period” analyzes the court transcripts from the Brandon McInnery murder trial, in which witnesses for the defense frame Letishia/Larry King’s gender-nonconformity as a form of sexual harassment toward McInerney—which ultimately “forces” him to murder King (195-200). Salamon argues that this line of defense misconstrues the actual sources of cishetero outrage: (1) that cishetero people are afraid to examine their desire to look at TGNC people and (2) that TGNC people have the audacity to move through the world “without a sufficient sense of shame” (200).

Visual representations, too, can work to undercut trans identities in news outlets. Jamie Landau (“Reproducing” 178) found that audience reactions to images of Thomas Beatie (popularly called “the pregnant man”) preferred photographs where Beatie appeared with his wife in what looked like a more conventional heterosexual family; in an image where Beatie appeared alone, audiences often denied Beatty’s pregnancy, instead asking if he had a beer belly or illness. Richard Mocarski and colleagues (249) made a similar argument about Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars: while some trans activists celebrated Bono’s inclusion on the show, production choices such as song selection and costume functioned to police Bono’s identity.

A related problem emerges when we consider sourcing in news reports. Jamie Capuzza’s work (“Improvements” 82; “Who Defines” 115) asks whom news organizations authorize to speak for or on behalf of trans people. Capuzza calls for journalists to seek out the perspectives of trans people directly in articles about gender identity. While groups like GLAAD exist to monitor the media and advocate for better reporting and representation, even GLAAD’s resources present challenges. Mary Alice Adams contends that the GLAAD media guide for transgender reporting draws on stereotypes and logics of trans criminality and victimhood by focusing especially on how to report about crimes that involve trans people. Therefore, in the GLAAD media guide, transgender people “occupy a precarious position, always already implicated as aggressors or objects of violence—not only in the parlance of mainstream media stereotypes, but also in the framing of the very guidelines that purport to offer advice to those media” (183). Sometimes media seem to pick up some of the slack. Capuzza (“What’s in a Name” 102) found that one of the major news stories in the days following Chelsea Manning’s coming out centered on meta-reporting—news organizations’ monitoring of each other’s language choices—including how to name Manning and what pronouns to use.

Other trans icon scholarship focuses less on media coverage and more on trans icons themselves. The danger with such an approach, of course, lies in the potential for scholars to reproduce the harms they ought to critique. Serkan Gorkemli uses visual rhetoric to examine visual representations of LGBTQ gay Turkish icons. Gorkemli judges a transwoman pop artist’s appearance on her album cover as inadequate because of her gender identity:

However, the Turkish audience knows that Ersoy is a male-to-female transsexual who is not a biological woman, but rather is performing such womanhood, which might undercut the sex appeal of the picture for some and thus possibly the commercial appeal of the album for a mass audience. (Gorkemli)

Gorkemli asserts that Erosy is actually a man pretending to be a woman, one of the oldest, most tired, transphobic stereotypes; moreover, Gorkemli imposes this interpretation on Erosy’s gender expression and gender identity, where the writer’s job ought to be interrogating such gender disciplining. If, for instance, Gorkemli had evidence that Turkish viewers rejected Erosy’s gender identity or gender expression, Gorkemli ought to have presented that evidence and critiqued the transphobia inherent in such interpretations. Instead, Gorkemli pronounces himself judge and jury of Erosy’s gender identity and from that vantage point offers a pronouncement about the efficacy of her gender expression.

Gorkemli is not alone in irresponsibly writing about trans icons. In a passing reference to Caitlyn Jenner, philosopher Rebecca Tuvel (now infamously) deadnamed Jenner and then problematically attempted to analogize Rachel Dolezal’s claim of “transracialism” with arguments about transgender identity. We also note that both of us have reviewed for journals and have recommended rejection or substantial revision in cases where authors sensationalize trans icons, exemplify an inappropriate level of focus on a trans icon’s body, genitals, or surgical status, or traffic in transphobic stereotypes rather than identifying and critiquing them. We hope other reviewers will do likewise, but even better: we wish people would stop writing this way in the first place.

Given the recent visibility of Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner, the newsworthiness of students’ suing their schools over discrimination or restroom access, and the spate of transphobic bathroom bills passed or discussed in various U.S. states over the last couple of years, we have every reason to believe trans icons will continue to garner popular and academic interest. We see nothing innately wrong with scholars’ interest in trans icons, but we urge all scholars writing about trans icons especially to avoid superficial, stereotyped engagement and instead write about trans icons respectfully and in a way that reflects careful and thoughtful engagement with trans studies scholarship. We also urge scholars not to celebrate the visibility of monied white trans folks as representative of some new wave of trans acceptance while violence against trans people of color, poor trans folks, and other multiply minoritized trans folks proliferates (Fischer, Terrorizing 85).

Representations of Everyday Trans People

Fourteen books and articles in our review considered representations of everyday trans people. Sensational representations have dominated genres such as daytime talk shows for decades, but even more recent portrayals traffic in stereotypes and transmisogyny, as Paul Lester (148) notes in his comprehensive analysis of visual rhetoric and gender identity (see also, Capuzza and Spencer 215). Television’s reliance on visuals troubles the genre of scientific documentaries, too, as Booth (“Provisional” 123) points out. Medical shows that feature episodes about gender affirming surgeries falter in their name and pronoun use, often using the correct names and pronouns only when a subject’s body most seems to match social expectations for the person’s gender. Media such as the reality series I am Jazz and the documentary Raising Ryland invite considerations of the implications of cultural definitions of childhood for understanding and translating trans identity to normative audiences (Owen 95).

In contradistinction to the hegemony of media content produced by huge industries for profit, for everyday trans people and media, social media seem to offer the most hope. Joshua Trey Barnett (“Covert” 161), for instance, argues that Joshua Riverdale’s blog about his transition process functions pedagogically in that it teaches viewers about the transitioning body’s evolution over time (a substantial improvement from the sensationalized emergence narratives of daytime talk shows, for instance). As such, Barnett argues, Riverdale’s blog addresses and constitutes a counterpublic online (see also, Cavalcante, “I Did it All Online” 109; Eckstein 24). Similarly, Dame (23) sees Tumblr as a space of trans folks to find community online, while Nuru (281) shows how offers space for queer and trans people to share coming out stories (see also, Goltz 131; Kellinger and Levine 85). The Internet, of course, is no panacea. Disciplinary regimes manifest in various ways, from anonymous comments to official and structural injustices such as Facebook’s “Real Names” policy, which, by requiring members to post using only their given, legal names, systematically disenfranchised trans people (MacAulay and Moldes 6). Moreover, Horak (572) shows how transition vlogs and other trans YouTube presence presumes a kind of universal Whiteness. While Mia Fischer (Terrorizing 117) celebrates the online activism of advocates for the release of CeCe McDonald, she also demonstrates the continued importance of showing up for physical protests in the project of trans worldmaking. Linking trans icons and everyday trans people’s representations in media, the spectre of visibility seems always to excite scholars on the one hand and, with more force, invite caution on the other. While visibility helps to resolve the problem of symbolic annihilation, the type and force of representation always matters, too.

Representations of Fictional Trans Characters

Analyses of fictional characters have reached similar conclusions about visibility, including in eight chapters and articles we reviewed. Driskill connects dominant-culture erotic stereotypes of Black Americans and American Indianas all the way back to their colonial roots in chattel slavery and settler-genocide (“Stolen,” 57). As a response to this legacy of racism, sexual, and gendered trauma, Driskill forwards the practice of writing healing erotica that rejects the toxic colonial logic that “non-dichotomous genders are a sin” and that views sexuality as “illicit, shocking, shameful, and removed from any positive spiritual context (“Stolen,” 54).

Gust Yep, Sage Russo, and Jace Allen (“Pushing”) posit transing as an analytical tool that “examines how gender is contingently assembled and reassembled with other structures and attributes of bodily being such as race and nation” in order to “unpac[k] underlying relations of power within specific cultural, geopolitical, and historical contexts” (70). Yep and colleagues (“Uniquely”) apply this analytical tool in their close reading of the television series Glee, analyzing episodes that feature the character Unique, a fat Black woman. Yep et al. argue that the series regularly polices Unique’s gender and racial identity, such that her identities are “regulated to maintain White heteropatriarchical hegemony” (69). Yep, Russo, and Lescure’s (“Pushing Boundaries”) analysis of Ma Vie en Rose finds creativity possibility in the character Ludo; while a transphobic society disciplines Ludo’s gender expression, Ludo nonetheless rejects hegemonic boyhood masculinity, providing “space for endless possibilities of gender performances” (56).

Other media texts seem to offer progressive representations of trans identities, but academic critics’ enthusiasm for such ostensibly forward-thinking films and TV shows have limits. Cavalcante (“Centering” 85), for instance, argues that film reviews and other paratexts for TransAmerica militate against the film’s more affirming message. Similarly, Patterson and Spencer (“What’s So Funny” 78) found that children’s animated films permit expressions of gender nonconformity, but only for characters who occupy normative White bodies and end up in heterosexual romantic pairings by the time the credits roll. Other analyses have focused not on films about gender identity, but ways of reading films that nevertheless reveal truths about trans lives. For example, Spencer (“Performing” 112) offers a transgender critical lens as a way of reading films not ostensibly about gender identity in his rhetorical criticism of The Little Mermaid. Lucy Miller (“Becoming” 140) turns her attention to films that employ cross dressing as a plot device, reasoning that cisgender audiences with no other frame of reference for trans people may use films like Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire to fill in the gaps. These films rely on what Miller (“Becoming” 133) calls farce because the characters’ “trans” identities persist only long enough to solve the problem that required cross dressing in the first place; the characters always return to a cisnormative (and usually heteronormative) life by the end of the film, with the trans identity primarily serving to inspire laughter on the part of the audience.


In addition to the admonitions we offer above about writing that focuses on trans icons, we hope rhetorical critics of the media will continue to attend to increasingly diverse trans representations in film, television, news coverage, and online media platforms and applications. Shows like Shameless, The Fosters, Good Trouble, Sense8, and Faking It seem to be breaking new ground in representing diverse gender identities, and we encourage more critical attention on both mainstream and alternative media that feature especially nonbinary characters, agender characters, and subjects whose gender identities lie outside of Westernized, colonial language structures. We also encourage rhetorical scholars of trans studies to consider trans-produced media, such as Internet cartoons or video channels that do not rely on the financial backing of large corporations. Analyses are at their best when they go beyond the uncritical celebration of visibility and engage carefully with the complex implications of various representations and their politics. Additionally, we call for analyses that consider gender identity on its own terms, not as a metaphor for something else or in a way where the critical gaze somehow reproduces objectifying tropes from the media analyzed.

Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Activism

Scholarship in rhetorical studies lends itself to the analysis of social activism and activists, particularly their strategies of argument and embodied resistance, whether radical (calling for major structural change), liberal (advocating for inclusion in the status quo), or assimilationist (fitting into current social structures unobtrusively) in approach. Our review included twenty-six articles, chapters, and books about activism. A number of studies of trans activism have critiqued interventions that ignore structural and institutional inequalities (Cram “Angie” 411; Driskill “Decolonial” 57; Johnson “Cisgender” 135; Pritchard “This is Not” 278). Authors like Driskill and Pritchard examine the phenomenon of horizontal oppression within trans communities and how that influences trans activism. For example, Driskill recounts an instance where their submitted proposal to host a workshop at a trans skill-share festival was rejected by organizers on the basis that Driskill’s proposal didn’t seem “hands-on” enough and that Driskill’s target audience wasn’t viable because they didn’t anticipate many indigenous people to attend the event (“Decolonial,” 60-61). In rebuttal, Driskill responds to organizers that “there are few skills more important to First Nations people and other people of color than to find ways to survive the continuing destruction of our peoples and the continuing occupations of our homelands” (“Decolonial,” 63). In a similar vein, Pritchard’s case study of a Black trans activist examines the complicated rhetorical moves she had to make to address white trans people’s resistance to discussing racial disparities within the trans community. Pritchard interprets his participant’s decision, when speaking with white trans community members about race, to first begin with a discussion of classism as “a rhetorical strategy that is keenly aware of the ways the legacies of racial injustice operate in the United States, but particularly in an interracial coalition for transgender rights” (287).

Studies of trans activism also often critique statist violence, such as policing and federal detention practices that disproportionately harm Latinx and Black trans folks (Chávez 1; Johnson 228). E Cram’s (“Angie” 411) analysis of the murder trial of Angie Zapata reveals not only how the legal system relies on cissexist and essentialist assumptions about bodies but also how activists can resist the normalization of state violence by using visual imagery to counter messages of disgust and trans panic.

Other articles consider activists’ responses to the transphobic violence in contexts like the military (Barnett and Hill 584; Morris and Nakayama vii), airport security screening (Magnet and Rodgers 101; Spalding 460), restroom access (Adair 464; Booth and Spencer 209; Fischer “Piss(ed)” 397; Spencer “Bathroom” 542; West “PISSAR” 156), death row (Campbell and Holding 199), religion (Spencer “Coming” 187; Spencer “Nashville” 1), sports (Fischer and McClearen 1), student organizations (Meyer 499), and navigating trans microaggressions in everyday interactions (L. Miller, “Disciplining” 133). For instance, analyses of activism in response to the spate of transphobic bathroom bills in various state legislatures in the late aughts have revealed a number of activist strategies for trans worldmaking. Fischer (“Piss(ed)” 397) considers the performance art of Cassils as a biopolitical response to legislation of bathroom access, given that Cassils uses their own urine and collected and preserved urine of others in the installation.[1] Spencer (“Bathroom” 543) too invokes the concept of biopolitics in his analysis of activists’ creation and circulation of memes that oppose or purport to oppose transphobic legislation.

Research into activism about gender violence has recently worked to center trans lives more in discussions about violence prevention and response. In their book-length analysis of the politics and practices of consent on university campuses, Kulbaga and Spencer show how advocates for sexual assault prevention education frequently create programs that rely on and reproduce gender binaries, often excluding trans students entirely (51). Related, Hsu brings into high relief the failures of the #MeToo movement, whose reliance on “the perfect victim” marginalizes (or silences) the accounts of state-sanction gender-based violence as experienced by people of color, queer people, trans people, poor people, disabled people, and incarcerated people (271).

Other research on trans activism has focused on community building among genderqueer people (Barnett and Johnson 677), the role of new technologies in facilitating trans worldmaking (Sunden), and the importance of histories and traditions of social protest (Hundley and Rodriguez 35). On the whole, rhetorical studies of trans activism have focused on trans activists and strategies more than on trans-antagonistic modes of argument. These studies, then, point us more often to styles of resistance and worldmaking than to the direct critique of transphobic or essentialist arguments.


Studies of activism under the auspices of rhetorical criticism overwhelmingly focus on activists in U.S. contexts, and this holds true for studies of activism related to gender identities as well. Scholars in area studies, history, cultural studies, and transgender studies more broadly have begun to explore the rich range of gender expressions and identities around the world, including the activist impulses that engage in creative worldmaking work to carve out space that life might flourish more fully. Rhetorical studies scholars in rhetoric & composition and communication have much to add to these conversations and must break out of the narrow lanes that keep our focus primarily on Western contexts. Of course, we should do so in a way that centers local voices and experiences rather than imposing Western vocabularies and epistemologies in a neocolonial fashion.

Moreover, scholarship on trans activism is at its best when it looks beyond the loudest voices and most visible faces of trans activism. Trans people who face multiple forms of marginalization have crafted space for more livable existences in myriad ways that may remain invisible to scholars of public discourse if our gaze always lingers on the most mainstream sources and toward the center of power operations. How can scholarship about trans activism listen more closely to those voices and attend more carefully to the quiet interpersonal and community-based rhetorical worldmaking that enriches and enables meaningful trans life?

Analysis of Scholarship on Trans Issues in Educational Spaces

As a disciplinary lens, trans rhetorical pedagogy offers educators valuable insights: it addresses gender identity as a classroom (and sometimes campus) topic, it centers the experiences of trans (and other gender expansive) students and educators, and it illuminates our stubborn fixation on cisnormativity in our thinking and writing. Below, we will consider thirty-three trans pedagogical contributions across the following four areas:

  • gender identity as a classroom topic,
  • trans topics in student writing/composing,
  • trans educators’ experiences in the classroom, and
  • cisnormativity in educational settings.
Gender Identity as a Classroom Topic

Sixteen articles in our lit review consider gender identity as a classroom topic; these articles can be distinguished from one another by the degree and manner in which they explore transness in the classroom. Capuzza and colleagues (“Transing” 107) offer a range of strategies for centering trans lives in communication courses ranging from introductory-level courses to upper-division seminars in gender communication. Communicating a hands-off approach, two authors discuss their attempts to include transness as one of many perspectives that relate to a course theme. In his course on autobiographical writing, for example, Consiglio includes Les Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, drawing students’ attention less to trans content and more to how zie crafted hir autobiography (72). Spieldenner takes a similar approach in his themed course exploring gendered and sexual norms in pornography. Among the pornography Spieldenner includes in his class, he incorporates a unit on trans porn, asking his students to analyze the production’s setting, casting choices, gendered gaze, and target audiences (218). Not only do both of these pieces make a space for trans perspectives but they also communicate a willingness to include material cisgender students may find challenging (Consiglio 72, Spieldenner 219).

Taking a more direct approach, five authors incorporate trans topics with the express intention of educating students about trans identities and, in other cases, helping students interrogate cisnormativity. Gold, for example, argues that including shows like I Am Cait and Transparent in her writing course not only helps students apply gender theories to everyday contexts but also helps students better understand trans people in their lives (157-158). In her gender and communication course, McGrath describes a three-day unit on trans topics—beginning with a lecture on trans terminology and ending with analyses of Princess Boy and Ma Vie En Rose—which she credits with “promot[ing] civility in the classroom” and helping students understand “the fluidity of gender identity” (100-101). Similarly, Abbott examines her decision to incorporate trans guest speakers and novels/films about trans people that appeal to her conservative student body while also encouraging them to consider how transphobia impacts their lives (155-165). Turning cisgender students’ gaze from trans people to themselves, Borgstrom encourages his students to interrogate the efficacy of “visibility” politics by including a novel in which cishetero characters violently objectify the hyper-visible body of their deceased gender-ambiguous friend (321-322). Moving away from primary texts, Johnson describes a class activity designed to help students interrogate the way slurs and stereotypes function to foreclose more nuanced understandings of gender identity and gender expression (230–232). Taken together, these authors contribute to pedagogical literature by articulating both trans awareness and cis students’ self-reflexivity as desirable learning outcomes.

Shifting focus from challenging students, five authors challenge educators to consider the implications of choices they make when choosing to include or not include trans topics in the classroom. Norton, for example, argues that some educators’ attempts at gender-based inquiries are insufficient because they remain rooted in cisnormativity (87). Educators have answered Norton’s challenge in several ways. Maples argues that educators can incorporate a trans-affirming lens regardless of course content—a point she demonstrates for readers by modeling a trans analysis of a classroom debate on school uniforms (210-212). In a similar vein, Ressler illustrates the ways in which an educator might apply queer and trans analyses to canonical cishetero texts like Romeo and Juliet (52). From a faculty development perspective, Parker and Bach offer a set of guidelines to help educators engage with trans texts (100). Finally, Leger and McLeod press educators beyond inclusion to consider whether the materials they’re using in the classroom meet trans-affirming criteria (5-7).

Shifting away from course content, in a final cluster of articles, three authors ask educators to be mindful of other ways they can show up for trans students in the classroom and in the writing center. For example, Moore calls for university writing centers to incorporate visual cues to suggest trans students are welcome—from including trans ally signage to making space for students to include their pronouns on intake forms (n.p.). Returning to the classroom, Orem and Simpkins discuss the ways in which including trigger warnings might be of particular value to trans students (n.p.). Finally, Boyd and Bereiter model the importance of educators listening and responding to trans students when they critique reductive (or inaccurate) representations/discussions of trans issues in the classroom (13). On the whole, these contributions raise important questions about the impact of educators’ choices—particularly as they affect trans students, whose educational needs are frequently forgotten in the rush for trans inclusion.

Trans Topics in Student Composing

Nine authors reference trans topics within the context of writing pedagogy. On the whole, the majority of these pieces illustrate how the writing/composing process can increase students’ introspection around gender. As in the previous section, more than half of these articles center the educational experiences of transgender students. Three of these articles engage with transness as a metaphor. For example, in their respective articles on teaching underserved student populations, here English language learners and incarcerated students, Gentil and Butler imagine their students’ relationship to acquiring new literacies as akin to the process of transitioning (Gentil 123, Butler 33). While Gentil and Butler don’t actually introduce their students to trans topics in the classroom, Alexander includes trans writers and theorists in his/their writing course designed to interrogate gender norms circulating among contemporary masculinity (46). Specifically, Alexander describes a creative writing prompt—which he/they claims rendered his/their students “virtually transsexed”—in which he required his students to write as the “opposite” gender (50, 60). To be clear, employing transness as a metaphor exposes authors like Alexander, Gentil, and Butler to critique (perhaps rightly so). At the same time, these authors end up illustrating—in the absence of performing this work—the need for scholarship that centers trans students’ needs, explores trans students’ unique literacy practices, and amplifies trans students’ rhetorical contributions.

Moving away from literacy metaphors and toward the value of trans-worldmaking, four authors illustrate how the writing/composing process can open students up to a deeper engagement with gender. Sometimes, the connection between trans topics and writing/composing results from student-driven inquires. Describing student research groups as a site of invitational rhetoric, Yam illustrates how a cisgender student’s perspective evolves after reading his trans peer’s essay on trans bathroom bans (n.p.). Related, in a student-teacher co-authored piece, Kitchens (teacher) analyzes his student’s self-reflexive autoethnographic research on drag king culture, observing the ways in which Larkins’s writing resulted in a deeper understanding of herself and, somehow, of trans identity (n.p.).

Moving from student-centered to teacher-led composing, authors like Lewis and LeMaster employ writing prompts to deepen students’ understanding with trans topics. Lewis, for example, argues that students’ engagement with trans topics was enriched through a semester-long writing assignment, in which students were required to use a blogging platform to curate/analyze cultural artifacts (interviews, articles, videos, etc.) related to assigned readings (202, “Star”). Taking a more direct approach to student composing, LeMaster conducts a multi-tiered and multi-modal course writing activity in which students were tasked with creating (through paints, collage, and graffiti) an introspective reflection on their gendered positionalities/universes (223-225). Taken together, these four pieces demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between trans inquiry and the writing process—illustrating, also, that such relationships can emerge even when transness isn’t the central focus of a course.

Of the articles discussing the connections between transness and writing/composing, only two articles explicitly engage with trans student writers. Drake, for example, writes about a student who experiences a coming-to-consciousness moment after reading an assigned speculative fiction novel, in which the characters use the neopronouns per/person. Drake goes on to say that the student not only came out as genderqueer in the class but went on to adopt ze/hir pronouns in a piece of writing ze submitted to an essay contest (n.p.). Related, Houle and McKee analyze a trans student’s multimodal essay; in the essay, the student (Kimball) employs voice recordings, graphic images, MP3 files, and hyperlinks to challenge a reductive, monolithic narrative about his transition (n.p.). Though less frequent, pieces like these have an outsized impact on pedagogical scholarship in the sense that they highlight the needs (and, indeed, presence) of trans students’ rhetorical agency—particularly the ways in which they employ writing/ composing to challenge cissexist logics.

Trans Educators’ Classroom Experiences

Only three authors give voice to the experiences of trans faculty in (and outside) the composition and communication classroom. Each of these authors, to varying degrees, examine the ways in which trans faculty members’ bodies function as texts in various institutional spaces, and we celebrate that this special issue adds particularly to the body of work we review here. Patterson’s qualitative study examines the relationship between cissexist violence and conservative institutional expectations of writing pedagogy. In their essay, Patterson recounts the story of a queer- and trans-of-color nonbinary grad student whose gender-non-conforming presentation not only elicited verbal taunts from a senior faculty member (outside the classroom) but also the threat of legal action from a white cishetero student (inside the classroom), who interpreted the grad student’s intersectional curriculum and multiply-marginalized body as an infringement of his right to a politically neutral classroom (136–137). In an adjacent vein, but speaking from a first-person perspective, Sathiyaseelan explains how ze capitalizes on hir students’ misreading of hir positionality and hir gender identity to shut down a cisgender student’s transphobic classroom tirade––an intervention which resulted in a trans student gaining the confidence to come out as trans in hir classroom (59). Finally, Lewis writes about how implicitly outing herself/theirself to her/their students as a “black queer femme on the intersex spectrum” not only had the effect of shifting marginalized perspectives to the center in the classroom but also inspired her/their students of color and her/their nonbinary students—neither of whom had ever taken a course with a Black professor or a professor who uses they/them pronouns (201).

Taken together, these articles not only center voices (nonbinary, gender expansive, trans of color) that are frequently marginalized in the trans scholarly archive but they also illuminate the experiences (both violent and life-affirming) that accompany multiply-marginalized faculty as they move through institutional spaces. Such perspectives, we argue, should be amplified—given the relative lack of nonbinary and racial diversity (to say nothing of equity) in both rhetoric & composition and communication studies.

Cisnormativity in Educational Settings

Eight authors contribute to trans rhetorics scholarship by calling attention to educational institutions’ stubborn fixation on cisnormativity. Two of these authors direct readers’ attention away from higher education and toward public secondary education. SJ Miller, for instance, examines the ways institutional spaces (hallways, locker rooms, etc) and school events (plays, dances, teams) institute cishetero-normativity (40). As a corrective, Miller forwards a “queer literacy framework (QLF),” arguing that QLF’s ten principles can and should be applied across disciplines and educational spaces (41-43). Extending this conversation, Pritchard argues that secondary schools’ zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, ostensibly adopted to create “classroom safety,” are too often weaponized against queer and gender nonconforming students of color (326).

Switching from secondary to post-secondary educational contexts, three articles draw from autoethnographic accounts to illustrate institutional cissexism. For example, Czuy Levine illustrates how graduate faculty members enacted “benevolent transphobia” by inappropriately fixating on his trans-masculinity and framing his trans identity as a liability (52-54). Speaking about their experiences both as graduate students and faculty, Patterson and Hsu engage in embodied, dialogic, enbie storytelling to interrogate the racist, cissexist, ableist, fat- and femme-phobic assumptions that undergird higher ed’s visions of “professionalism” and “trans-inclusivity” (n.p.). Drawing data from his study of early career academics, Robinson employs poetic transcription to give an account of the macro- and microaggressions experienced by his biracial nonbinary participant (113-115). Moving from interpersonal to institutional critique, Spencer and Patterson draw from their experiences advising an on-campus LGBTQ student org to illustrate the ways in which corporate diversity initiatives render multiply-marginalized trans students and faculty vulnerable to various forms of institutional violence (309-311).

Applying similar critiques to the college classroom, Malatino calls attention to how trans-inclusion initiatives often manifest in ways that tokenize trans students and exploit trans faculty (399). In particular, Malatino illustrates how higher ed’s insistence that trans people be “included” often coincides with a profound indifference as to whether the people tasked with “including” trans people have the necessary “trans-specific [training in] theory, politics, or pedagogy” to teach these topics (407). Finally, while LeMaster similarly critiques higher ed for saddling marginalized trans faculty with under-compensative service, their work veers from the previous pieces by also focusing on the possibility for coalition and consciousness-raising taking place outside the classroom in trans student-collectives (128-129).


In many ways, the articles we’ve reviewed above make numerous contributions to our understanding of trans rhetorics—a point we’ve taken care to address in the body of our review of trans topics in educational spaces (above). We would be remiss, however, if we failed to mention some drawbacks that also cut across this body of literature. To begin, pedagogical literature in trans rhetorics struggles with intersectional representation—in such a way that transness risked becoming associated with whiteness (Abbott 162, Furrow 151, Gold 158-159, McGrath 98-99, Parker & Bruce 97). Relatedly, some trans pedagogical articles, even newer ones, continue to reinforce the gender binary by consistently sidelining the existence of nonbinary trans people and gender expansive trans people who exist outside Western gender cosmologies (Alexander 50, Boyd & Bereiter 15, Johnson 230).

Beyond these struggles with racial and gender diversity, trans rhetorics pedagogy also sometimes struggles to represent transness accurately. For instance, such inaccuracies frequently manifest in the ways authors conflate transness with gender roles, gender expression, intersex experience, and drag performance (Alexander 66, Ballif 60, Borgstrom 321-322, Larkin and Kitchens np, Moore np, Qualley 125-126). Still, other times, this inaccuracy manifests through erasure—particularly in instances where trans students become invisibilized by the implicit assumption that an engagement with queer theory or a critique of heteronormativity are sufficient lenses with which to view trans experience/ontologies (Alexander 50, Borgstrom 316-319, Swanson & Peters 296, Ressler 52). Perhaps most unfortunate, sometimes this inaccuracy manifests in pedagogical literature that sensationalizes/objectifies trans bodies and reifies trans-exclusionary ideas (Alexander 60, Ballif 61-63, Bliech 52, Butler 33, Gold 158-159, Gentil 123, Parker and Brice 99-100. Spieldenner 219, Qualley 123-125).

Our final observation, however, hinges less upon a question of accuracy and more on a question of vantage point. Overwhelmingly, trans rhetoric pedagogy tends to prioritize the comfort and intellectual growth of cisgender students and faculty (Abbott 152, Alexander 53-56, Consiglio 72-73, Johnson 232, Peters & Swanson 305, Spieldenner 219, Yam np, Qualley 125-126). While it’s certainly true that all students—cis and trans—benefit from deeper, trans-affirming gendered literacy and pedagogical practices, it remains imperative that educators attend to the hard questions of whether or not their “trans inclusivity” may, in fact, result in isolating, marginalizing, ostracizing, or outing their trans students.

Moving forward, we call for pedagogical theorizing that takes trans rhetorical agency as its starting point. We call for favoring primary texts that feature trans authors, actors, theorists, and performers—over and above material that plays at trans inclusivity while centering cisgender voices. Similarly we call for an intersectional pedagogical praxis, which incorporates a bottom-up approach to teaching that centers BIPOC and gender expansive perspectives. We call for a deeper attention to developing curricula which explicitly attend to the needs of the transgender students in our classrooms. Finally, we call for continued attention to the institutional and classroom experiences of trans and gender expansive faculty, particularly BIPOC and gender expansive faculty, whose voices are under-represented in our respective fields. In short, while we believe that trans pedagogies and trans worldbuilding can benefit students and educators regardless of their gender identities, we also believe that no transformation is possible if it doesn’t begin by centering multiply-marginalized trans and gender-expansive voices.

Analysis of Scholarship on Trans-Related Research Methods

Methodology scholarship offers readers valuable meta-analyses surrounding the practice of data collection, data interpretation, and the write-up of data. Such work, in a nutshell, allows us to think about our thinking. Trans rhetorical methodologies, broadly speaking, not only illuminate the cis-centric undercurrents embedded in common research practices, but they also illustrate how the research process itself can change when the needs and perspectives of gender expansive people move from margin to center. Below, we consider twenty trans methodological contributions in the following three areas:

  • historical and archival methods,
  • person-based research methods, and
  • critical discourse analysis.
Historical & Archival Research Methods

Eight articles in our lit review take up the connections between trans identities and historical/archival research. Some research considers the ways that research practices must shift in order to craft a fuller account of trans and gender expansive histories. For instance, Driskill crafts asegi stories, which identify the presence of Two-Spirit ancestors through the practice of reading settler colonial records against the grain (Asegi, 5-6). Almarri similarly draws attention to the relationships between culture, language, and nation state—cautioning researchers against sloppy translations of Arabic terms denoting gender and sexual minorities (105-107). In an adjacent vein, Pritchard makes the case for including living Black trans elders as historical figures to ameliorate the ways in which Black trans people have been intentionally obliterated from LGBT archives (Fashioning, 104-106). Finally, as a way to challenge the implicit/explicit racism and cissexism that leads to the erasure of multiply-marginalized trans voices, Rawson’s work takes aim at primacy of traditional print archives—whether through expanding the archive to include web-based materials (“Transgender Worldmaking,” n.p.; “Toward a Digital Trans,” n.p.) or through deconstructing the archive altogether (“Archive This,” 239-247).

Other methodological scholarship considers the degree to which archival spaces are accessible to trans people. Taking his trans analysis to brick-and-mortar archives, Rawson suggests that archives can take steps toward trans-inclusivity by providing all-gender bathrooms, respecting guests’ pronouns, incorporating trans perspectives in decor, and avoiding cis-centric criteria when organizing archival material (“Accessing Transgender,” 126-140). Similarly, applying a trans analysis to online archives, Kuzawa considers the methodological importance of allowing would-be contributors the agency to name (or not name) their gender, gender-identity, race, and orientation alongside their submissions to the Digital Literacy Narrative Archive (158). Finally, bearing in mind the important role trans scholars have to play when it comes to amplifying the voices of trans and gender-nonconforming people, Miller argues for “the necessity of creating and maintaining personal and communal trans scholarly archives” (152).

Taken together, these authors contribute to trans rhetorical scholarship by inviting readers to consider archival/historical spaces and records as always-already political; they ask us to be mindful of the ways in which cissexist habits of mind influence: whose voices get flagged as notable rhetors, which voices are excised from the record altogether, and whether or not trans people can access archival spaces in the first place.

Critical Discourse Analysis

Eleven articles in our lit review examine how the scholarship in our field does, and doesn’t, talk about transness. Broadly speaking, this body of research can be categorized into three different clusters. The first cluster of this scholarship calls researchers’ attention to a tendency of trans rhetorics scholarship to center white, settler-colonial perspectives. Bey, for example, (“Trans*-ness”) articulates the gender binary itself as rooted in a white supremacist ordering of the world, and persuades readers to see blackness and trans*ness as “differently inflected names for an anoriginal lawlessness that marks an escape from confinement and a besidedness to ontology” (278). (See also Bey “Other Ways,” 165-167.) Following a similar thread, Driskill articulates Two-Spirit theory as a corrective to queer, queer of color, post-colonial, and trans theory, whose theorizing (unwittingly or not) engages in the erasure of Native peoples. Centering Two-Spirit methodologies, Driskill forwards a vision of a doubleweaving to describe Two-Spirit critique’s simultaneous fights for sovereignty just as much as it fights against racism, hetero/sexism, and transphobia (74).

A second cluster of scholarship employs trans theory as a way to interrogate rhetorical scholarship’s limited framing of feminism. Gayle Salamon’s (“Assuming,” “Ethics”) work, for example, urges cisgender feminists to reconsider the presupposition that there is a natural, “biological” body that exists outside of discourse. Continuing this thread, Eric Pritchard (“Yearning to Be”) engages with the published archive of Black men’s feminist scholarship and highlights the ways in which this body of work presupposes Black men are both straight and cisgender (180). Finally, focusing on solutions to feminist rhetorics’ limited views of gender, Rawson (“Canonization”) recommends three approaches for conducting trans-inclusive feminist research: (1) uncover “gender advocates” rather than an exclusive focus on women rhetors, (2) avoid relying on gender binaries, and (3) emphasize the discursive production of sex and gender instead of assuming these categories as a given (45-51).

Finally, a third cluster of academics engage in critical discourse analysis to shed light on research ethics in trans studies scholarship. Patterson (“Healthy”) offers a taxonomy of research practices in trans research that unwittingly reinforce cissexism. They suggest research practices that scholars who are not themselves trans can implement so that they are acting in solidarity with trans scholars and trans communities (147). Citing both the epistemic value of trans* researcher positionality when studying trans topics and the prevalence of uninformed trans scholarship penned by cis researchers, Ivy calls for a moratorium on trans scholarship written by cis scholars (170). Fischer (“The Cistakes”) recommends actions that white cis scholars can take to leverage their privilege to “amplify[] trans voices” at the institutional level, in the classroom, and when conducting ethnographic research in trans communities (160). Extending the conversation about researcher positionality, LeMaster (“(Un)Becoming”) offers that TGNC and NTC folks can both fail when it comes to “allying across intersectional lines of flight.” They call for more self-reflexivity for all researchers when considering the ways that positionality informs perceptions of transness (157).

Ultimately, such scholarship contributes to the field of trans rhetorics by encouraging researchers to reflect on how reductive theorizations of gender may limit the impact of their work and (unintentionally or not) reinforce existing regimes of white supremacy, transphobia, and settler-colonialism.

Quantitative Research

Just one article in our lit review takes up the connections between trans rhetorics and quantitative research methodologies. Patterson’s “Queering and Transing Quantitative Research” argues that queer and trans researchers have no obligation to accept the positivistic assumptions often attached to quantitative research. Debunking the myth of disembodied survey measures, Patterson illustrates how their embodied experience as a multiply-marginalized trans scholar influences the way they design survey measures (59-61), shapes the way they conduct survey sampling (66), and provides them an avenue to resist a positivist analysis of survey data (69-71). Such research calls readers’ attention to how data collection, data interpretation, and everything in between must be reconsidered when working with trans participants.


Broadly speaking, the work we’ve reviewed above illuminates how the research process itself can change when gender minorities move from margin to center. As these authors have demonstrated, adopting a trans-informed methodological framework can also result in more rigorous, more accurate, and more ethical scholarship. Comparatively speaking, the field is wide open when it comes to publishing opportunities on trans rhetorical methodologies. For example, further investigation at the intersection of trans rhetoric and person-based research seems like an important gap to address. It also seems important to consider how trans-informed epistemologies and embodied trans experience may shape a whole range of qualitative research methods and sub-genres of those methods.

Moving forward, we echo the call of scholars like Fischer, LeMaster, Ivy, and Patterson, who bring into high relief the ethical considerations one must address when conducting research about trans topics and/or with trans participants. Indeed, we appreciate all of the scholars referenced in this section because of the thoughtfulness and thoroughness they bring to trans-informed research methods. We hope to see more work in this vein, which amplifies the rhetorical agency of trans and gender expansive researchers, participants, and communities—work which includes trans people not as a titillating exposé but as respected co-constructors of knowledge.

Conclusion: Notes Toward a Trans Rhetorical Agency

On the whole, this body of work enacts a collective argument: that trans epistemologies offer a valuable set of lenses for rethinking rhetorical theories, methodologies, and teaching practices. Indeed, much of the best scholarship addressed in our review returns to the following three themes:

  1. We need to rethink our disciplinary norms when it comes to gender. Still too often, rhetoric & composition and communication rely on ciscentric, binaristic frameworks—which not only erase trans perspectives but also limit our disciplinary understanding of how a colonial vision of gender shapes our lives, our pursuit of knowledge, and (yes) even our articulation of reality (Morgensen 5).
  2. Trans inclusion and trans visibility aren’t the panaceas we imagine them to be. We must consider: what counts as inclusion, what are the limits of inclusion, and who is the agent doing all of this including? Indeed, as Dean Spade (“Trans Politics”) observes, discourses of inclusion tell their own stories about the cynical resiliency of institutions to co-opt the language of justice in order to preserve an oppressive status quo (359). What’s more, as many of the scholars we review assert, the problem isn’t about a lack of visibility but about the ways in which many multimarg trans people (i.e. those also marginalized in terms of race, class, culture, sexuality, disability, nonbinary identity, and/or undocumented status) become hyper-visible and thus vulnerable to institutional and interpersonal violence. Too often, it seems, we fail to consider how a culture’s embrace of some privileged trans people (made visible thanks to neoliberal logics) often requires the further pathologization and criminalization of marginalized trans people (Haritaworn 2.8).
  3. Rather than figuring trans people as object lessons of gender trouble (Stryker 12), the most influential research not only centers marginalized trans perspectives but also takes care to grant trans people rhetorical agency by providing trans and gender expansive people the opportunity to speak for themselves

Thus far in our literature review, we have avoided offering a working definition of transgender rhetorics. In part, we worried that asserting an a priori vision of this area of study, without first deeply engaging in our colleagues’ work, risked presumption. But our hesitance also stemmed from the rhetorical moment we find ourselves in—where some of our colleagues in the interdisciplinary field of trans studies have openly asked whether “trans studies is over” and, if it isn’t over, whether “it should be” (Chu and Drager 103). This question was posed to us once, during the peer review process, when an anonymous reviewer asked: What, if anything, does trans rhetorics have to offer trans studies? We take this as an earnest question, posed to us in a kairotic moment in which a cadre of junior trans scholars—who not only study trans topics but who also inhabit trans lives—have been left wondering whether trans studies has room for the actual speaking voices of marginalized trans people. We understand, and appreciate, the frustration that gives rise to questioning the viability of trans studies and the usefulness of trans rhetorics.

Trans rhetorics’ usefulness, we posit, hinges upon a question of agency. What if, instead of trans studies being “over,” it has only just begun? What if trans rhetorics allows us to attend to the voices of actual trans people speaking? Cognizant of the ethical weight of trans studies scholarship and inspired by the insights we’ve gleaned from our colleagues in rhetoric & composition and communication—we invoke the following, aspirational vision of what trans rhetorics might be: Trans rhetorics might be the study of gender expansive rhetors, who—drawing from their embodied knowledge and their (emotional, spiritual, and political) disidentification with gendered formations of colonial biopower—craft/articulate gender cosmologies that confront kyriarchal violence, amplify the literacies of their gender expansive kin, recover the legacies of their gender expansive elders, mobilize to increase the life chances of gender expansive people, and celebrate the promise of trans joy and trans survivance. To be clear, the project we’ve just described calls forth the promise, not necessarily (and not always) the current practice of trans rhetorics.

In the days ahead, we hope to see work that prioritizes trans people’s rhetorical agency—work that considers not just who’s doing the speaking but what the impact of that speech may be. This point feels especially important to emphasize because, while much of the work examined for this review inspired and challenged us as fellow trans rhetorics scholars, we sometimes found ourselves troubled (often wounded) by published narratives about transness that trafficked in inaccurate, stereotypical, appropriative, and (at other times) downright cissexist tropes. That such publications have found their way into our scholarly archive is less an indictment of trans rhetorics as it is an indictment of our disciplinary praxis in rhetorical studies. The promise of trans rhetorics hinges upon the infrastructure of support it finds (or doesn’t) in the fields of rhetoric & composition and communication. In that spirit, we call on editors/reviewers of scholarly presses/journals to recognize their (in)ability to assess trans scholarship under peer review. We call on graduate programs to emphasize (once more, with feeling) the relationship between positionality and research practices. We call on our colleagues and departments to create infrastructures to support, recruit, and retain gender-expansive scholars—efforts that must go beyond corporatist forms of inclusion and, instead, meaningfully confront their complicity in white supremacist discourses of “professionalism” and “meritocracy,” which provide institutions the cover to simultaneously exploit-and-devalue the intellectual, political, and emotional labor of trans scholars—particularly BIPOC trans scholars. Finally, we call on our cisgender colleagues in trans rhetorics to develop the capacity to sit with their discomfort long enough to ask: How am I telling this story, and is it my story to tell?

To be clear: our indictment of disciplinary praxis isn’t “virtue signaling.” It’s a fundamental recognition that our scholarship does not exist in a vacuum. The stories we tell about trans people influence classroom practice. The stories we tell about trans people shape public policy. The stories we tell about trans people communicate who we welcome into our fields. The stories we tell about trans people go on to influence the stories that other people tell about trans people—creating a feedback loop that affects the life chances of any person (trans or not) who finds themselves in the crosshairs of a white supremacist, colonial cosmology of gender. For these reasons, we invoke the promise of trans rhetoric as not only a vehicle for telling better stories about trans people but also as a vehicle for giving trans people the space to tell nuanced, self-reflexive stories about themselves.


  1. We also object to the centuries-long program to deny the existence of intersex people (i.e. those born with sex characteristics that fall outside doctors’ tidy m/f axes) (Malatino 81-83, “Situating”) and the subjection of intersex people to (often unnecessary) medical interventions so that their bodies align with the medical industrial complex’s rigid cosmology of gender (which, though thoroughly political and subjective, circulates under the guise of universality and objectivity) (Davis and Murphy 129-135). We do not include intersex within the definition of trans, but we do espouse a politics in opposition to the machinations of intersex oppression under the rubrics of cissexism.
  2. The authors thank Chris Samson and Brett Ball for their research assistance with this article.

Works Cited

Happiness, Biopolitics, and Transmedicine’s Necessary Contradiction: Rhetorics of Normalcy and the Narratives of Gender Transition

Nothing, not even surgery, will grant me the mute simplicity of having always been a woman. I will live with this, or I won’t. That’s fine. The negative passions—grief, self-loathing, shame, regret—are as much a human right as universal health care, or food. There are no good outcomes in transition. There are only people, begging to be taken seriously.

—Andrea Long Chu, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy”

Experiential accounts of gender transition don’t often make it into the mainstream, and when they do, they tend to be framed as moments of celebratory visibility, emphasizing liberalism’s progress and the possibilities of technomedicine.1 While these sorts of accounts may offer certain opportunities for trans rhetors to engage with and contest misinformed or ill-intentioned perspectives, they also close off opportunities for more combative accounts.2 However, even when a combative and politically-charged account of gender transition does make it into a mainstream publication, trans advocates may not be entirely pleased. Such was the case when, in late 2018, trans writer and literary studies scholar Andrea Long Chu published an opinion essay in the New York Times detailing her experience of depression and anxiety that has accompanied her gender transition. Although it ultimately forwarded a trans-positive argument—that transmedicine has no ethical ground for denying or delaying transition-related care to anyone, even when the outcome is uncertain—many trans people responded to the essay with anger. In the context of transmedicine’s history of gatekeeping, as well as the current climate of renewed attacks on the legitimacy of trans life, these respondents expressed serious concern over the way that Chu frames the experience of transition. This framing, its context, and the concerned response to it will be the focal points of this article. I argue that the controversy over Chu’s essay indexes the broader problem of transmedicine’s biopolitical effects. That is, communicating in public about the experiences of being transgender is a fraught rhetorical endeavor because transmedicine, as it has emerged in the eurocolonial3 world, adopts the authority to define and describe the phenomena that make up trans life. Consequently, the act of articulating one’s own relation to the norms of transmedicine risks damaging the possibility for others to adopt those norms as viable goals—especially if that relation is an unhappy one.

The first section of this article establishes the theoretical context for my argument; I explain how I understand transmedicine as both a rhetorical and a biopolitical process, and I indicate how particular acts of clinical judgment embedded in this process serve to authorize or de-authorize particular bodies and experiences. In the second section, I give an overview of Chu’s argument, its context, and the response to it, and I introduce the relation between happiness and normalcy that I use in the following section. The third section conducts an analysis of the dominant narratives of trans life and transmedicine, which form the rhetorical and biopolitical context for the experience that Chu describes in her essay. In that section, I draw on research into the historical development of transmedicine in order to show how Chu’s argument (and the response to it) reveals a disconnection between the norms of transmedicine and the emergent ongoingness of transgender life. The concluding section poses this disconnection as a distinction between “need” and “demand”—that is, I end my argument by noting how Chu’s essay aims to put into question transmedicine’s basic practice of administering treatment based on judgments of needs and risks, rather than recognition of a demand for care. In sum, I argue that Chu’s essay represents neither a capitulation to transmedical norms nor an overly radical rejection of medical beneficence; rather, it represents a disclosure of transmedicine’s necessary contradiction, that is, the simultaneous acceptance of and intervention into the forms of trans life.

Rhetoric, Biopolitics, and Medical Judgment

Rhetoricians of health and medicine have argued that the force of rhetorical figuration in these disciplinary structures extends beyond what is typically understood as “health communication” or “medical texts.”4 That is, as Judy Z. Segal puts it, medicine “is also rhetorical as a system of norms and values” that forges and formulates the knowledge and experiences of patients, physicians, and medical personnel (3). This means that medical rhetorics are especially important as instances of epideictic rhetoric, the mode of rhetoric that makes arguments about what is good or bad in the shared present tense (i.e. norms and values).5 Karen Kopelson, in her 2019 article on the epideictic rhetoric of medical doctors’ writings on death and dying, asserts that the role of epideictic in medical rhetorics demands our attention precisely because of its normative force: “As the rhetoric that (re)consitutes what is praiseworthy and blameworthy in human conduct to (re)shape the basic codes of value and belief by which we live, epideictic rhetoric is inherently normative, and its practitioners invested with special authority and influence” (286). For medical rhetoricians, then, epideictic rhetoric can be seen as a particularly forceful mobilization of the doctor’s traditional authority. To analyze particular medical rhetorics as epideictic is thus to highlight and examine the way that the norms of health and medicine may double as social and ethical norms; tracing the way these norms emerge and take force in the world allows medical rhetoricians to evaluate the historical and political justifications for normalizing (as it were) health and medicine in such ways. In this article, I add to this body of work through a discussion of Chu’s essay and its relation to the historical and conceptual background of transmedicine—that is, the physiological, psychological, and technical knowledges that underwrite the medical facilitation of gender reassignment.6 By excavating some of the processes and problems through which transmedicine as it occurs today emerged (and continues to emerge), I analyze the way that it acts in the world as an array of epideictic rhetorical forces.

To be precise: by “epideictic rhetorical force,” I mean the circulation of values and norms that affect how particular people perceive good and bad within their own experience of the world.7 For my own purposes, then, I argue that rhetoric (and epideictic in particular) contributes to the emergence of people’s lives as such, making some actions and attitudes possible and others impossible. While I acknowledge this is a fairly radical claim to stake on behalf of rhetoric, locating rhetorical force in this way allows us to better understand (among other things) rhetorics of health and medicine. Segal argues, for instance, in her work on patient narratives as an epideictic genre, that the circulation of particular narrative frameworks (with particular plots, characters, themes, etc.) for describing the experience of particular health concerns has bearing on more than just one’s understanding of those experiences after the fact. Rather, she asserts, these narrative forms actively shape the way that those health concerns manifest for the people who encounter them. That is, such epideictic force places pressure on patients to not only “report experience” but also in fact to “interpret experience and even to experience experience in certain sorts of ways” (69). In the same way, the tropes and topoi that form transmedicine’s diagnostic and treatment models do more than just represent the experiences of its patients after the fact. Rather, this process participates in the emergence of that experience itself, such that the medical framing of trans patients is also a biopolitical forming of trans life.

By using the word “biopolitical,” I mean to suggest that trans politics—and debates over transmedicine in particular—addresses structural interventions into the forms of trans life. Transmedicine, as one instance of this, intervenes in trans life through the acts of judgment that make up its diagnostic and treatment models: for example, judgments of who is transgender, who is capable of undergoing what types of treatment, or what experiences indicate what kinds of prognoses or developmental progress. In that regard, not only transmedicine but contemporary medicine per se is fundamentally biopolitical, in the sense outlined by Nikolas Rose. He describes biopower as a form of intervening into “the vital characteristics of human existence”; in other words, biopower acts upon the material details of “human beings, individually and collectively, as living creatures who are born, mature, inhabit a body that can be trained and augmented, and then sicken and die” (The Politics of Life Itself 54).8 (This does not mean that medicine is bad because it is biopolitical; rather it means that medicine is an important venue for conflict over differing biopolitical valuations of life as such.) Biopolitics, then, refers to a variable set of methods and rationalities for understanding the lives of a particular set of people in a particular context, such that it becomes possible to orient those lives toward particular ends.9 By framing my rhetorical analysis as also an analysis of transmedicine’s biopolitical force, I am thus attuning to the ways that transmedicine forms, arranges, and narrates the vital capacities that make up trans life.

Recent discussions of the principle of “informed consent” in transmedicine may inadvertently reveal the extent to which biopolitical intervention serves as its implicit central purpose. In a 2016 overview of this principle as it pertains to transmedicine, Timothy Cavanaugh et al. explain that an informed consent model frames patient-clinician consultations not as diagnostic scenarios but as “discussion of risks and benefits of possible treatment options” in which “clinicians work to assist patients in making decisions.” In this way, the model attempts to depathologize trans identity and to counterbalance transmedicine’s history of paternalism. Thus, the authors assert that “[t]his approach recognizes that patients are the only ones who are best positioned, in the context of their lived experience, to assess and judge beneficence (i.e., the potential improvement in their welfare that might be achieved)” (1149). The intention behind the use of this principle is clearly well-meaning, as it seeks to center the experience and judgment of the trans people who seek care rather than that of clinicians. This can be especially helpful when put into practice by endocrinologists and surgeons, who otherwise typically do not offer care until a would-be patient has visited a psychologist or psychiatrist and has received a letter authorizing the legitimacy of the person’s gender dysphoria and lack of psychiatric contraindications. Replacing psychiatric gatekeeping with an informed consent process can indeed make seeking care easier and more accessible.

However, in their ethnographic work on transmedicine, stef shuster has found that there are often discrepancies between the theory and the practice of this informed consent process. They explain that some of the clinicians participating in their research “followed the informed consent process to a degree, but modified it by including an assessment to determine if a patient had the capacity to understand the information offered or was ready to make the decision to begin trans-specific interventions” (“Performing Informed Consent” 192). This suggests that as clinicians apply this ideal in their practice, it tends to morph into “a conditional concept that is qualified by a provider’s assessment of a patient having the capacity to offer consent” (193). By drawing on implicit norms of who may offer consent to care on their own behalf and who may not, clinicians who interpret the process this way have only replaced one type of gatekeeping with another.10 So, even in the context of informed consent guidelines, clinicians are oriented by the very structure of their medical authority toward making judgments about who should receive treatment and who shouldn’t.

What this dynamic indicates, then, is that transmedicine tends toward adopting the role of evaluating its patients’ capacity for affirming their own gender (or their capacity for evaluating their own capacity for affirming it). That is, the medical authority that transmedicine enacts is not simply a matter of making judgments about who deserves care and who doesn’t; rather, and more fundamentally, transmedicine enacts biopolitical authority by making judgments about the form of trans life. As an array of epideictic forces, the structures of transmedicine circulate particular sets of assumptions about what is good, healthy, and normal, and through this circulation they repeatedly translate those assumptions into the real, material forms of experience that are available to the patients, clinicians, and care workers who participate in those structures.11 And this is what biopolitical intervention consists of: evaluating a form of life, making a judgment about the goodness or badness of that form’s trajectory, and posing a strategy of influence based on that judgment. As a medicalization of trans life, then, transmedicine does not oppose trans life per se; rather, it acts upon trans life in order to bend it toward the norms of cisgender life. These norms—upon which clinicians make their judgments of readiness, beneficence, risk, and capacity for understanding and consent—are intended to promote what transmedicine’s model of beneficence understands as its patients’ happiness. And thus these are the norms that Chu resists in her essay when she disavows the “happy ending” of transmedicine.

The Controversy: “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy”

Chu’s essay was published on the New York Times website on November 24, 2018, with the title “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy.”12 Almost immediately, it sparked an outcry from both the online trans community itself as well as the anti-trans coalition of right-wing culture warriors and trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Trans women objected to Chu’s characterization of hormonal and surgical transition as fundamentally painful processes. Anti-transgender respondents, meanwhile, objected to her assertion that medical gatekeeping was unethical and ought to be reversed in favor of a demand-based paradigm. More supportive responses simply noted the difficulty of adequately representing trans experiences in the mainstream press, even when those experiences are autobiographical. Some trans writers who identified with Chu’s sense of frustration toward the norms of medicalized transition responded with their own accounts of distress and uncertainty in the midst of more joyful coming out narratives. Other trans advocates countered by asserting their own experience of (or research into) transmedicine’s effectiveness in achieving good outcomes.13 Advocates and researchers also questioned her apparent dismissal of data that suggests trans people generally become happier as they get further into their transitions.14 The central premise of Chu’s argument—that “happiness” and “good outcomes” were, in any case, dubious standards on which to base a truly gender-diversity-affirming model of care—tended to be overlooked as respondents objected to the more contrarian aspects of her essay’s ethos and framing.

In particular, trans writers expressed concern that Chu had simply chosen the wrong words and the wrong venue for her argument. The mainstream readership of the New York Times, such writers asserted, is already prone to be skeptical of radical claims to transgender rights. While trans representation in this context is therefore much needed, a “reckless” and “confusing representation of trans experience is nevertheless, they suggested, ultimately harmful. For example, Florence Ashley writes that the essay “can be very easily and very reasonably read as saying that surgeries don’t contribute to trans wellbeing,” a reading that would potentially provide “excuses to defund trans care”; while they agree with Chu’s overall point and recognize the value of her story, they suggest that “just because a story needs to be told doesn’t mean it needs to be told this way, here.” Similarly, Kai Cheng Thom points out that, despite Chu’s excellent critique of the medicalization of trans life, her dismissal of outcomes research leaves a rhetorical vulnerability that anti-trans voices are already taking advantage of. This dismissal of evidence-based perspectives, she writes, “makes her argument grievously incomplete, not to mention especially vulnerable to manipulation by prominent conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson, who have cited the piece as evidence that trans identity is both a mental disorder and a harmful ‘ideology.’” These critiques are well-founded. Chu’s argument is a risky one to make, not only on her own behalf but for the trans community at large. However, her argument (and the response to it) is instructive for scholars of transgender rhetorics because it reveals the significance of happiness (as an expression of—or a criteria for—a state of normalcy) within the rhetorical dynamic between trans life and transmedicine.

Happiness and the Authorized Narratives of Trans Life

Chu situates her argument in opposition to both the straightforwardly anti-transgender narrative alleging that “gender dysphoria is a clinical delusion” and (what she calls) its “liberal counternarrative.” That is, she contests mainstream accounts of trans life that equate transgender identity with “suffering” and equate transmedicine with “a duty to ease that suffering.” She singles out, in particular, a June 2018 article written by Jesse Singal that centers on, as Chu puts it, “the statistically small number of people who have come to regret their medical transitions”—which, she argues, is simply a form of “compassion-mongering,” or “peddling bigotry in the guise of sympathetic concern.” Singal argues that parents and clinicians should be more skeptical of children’s and adolescents’ assertions of trans identity because (he suggests) childhood and adolescence are themselves periods of psychological fluidity and change. The primary evidence he presents for this claim is a set of cases in which adolescents identified themselves as trans, began (or considered beginning) treatment, and later “detransitioned.” Rather than addressing his misrepresentations of actual treatment protocols for transgender youth (which other trans writers were quick to point out at the time15), Chu instead critiques Singal for buying into the most retrograde facet of the standard treatment model: the gatekeeping strategies that prioritize “good outcomes” over access to transition-related care.

This counterargument leads into Chu’s assertion that the primary assumption of mainstream narratives of transmedicine is that “[p]eople transition because they think it will make them feel better.” This assumption, Chu says, is simply incorrect. To illustrate this, she describes her experience of her own ongoing medical transition, which she paints as “a marshland of regret” that has increased her dysphoria and prompted suicidal ideation. Chu’s intentions regarding these assertions and descriptions are clear: she wishes to force her readers to acknowledge that ambivalence and distress are not limited to the “before” of gender transition, and that to pretend those affects (or their absence) can reliably serve as a measure of need for (or success of) treatment will only ultimately serve a gatekeeping function. This is a trans-affirmative argument, and not meant to be self-hating or self-serving, but it was this specific argument that sparked the objections among the trans community. By claiming that “[t]here are no good outcomes in transition,” these responses countered, Chu delegitimized the experiences of the many trans people who did feel satisfied with their medical transitions. This is a reasonable and important critique of Chu’s argument. However, the tenor of the responses often strayed past a straightforward rejection of the implication that transition is a necessarily painful process, to a full-throated defense of the medical community and its standards, and even to questions over Chu’s mental health or the stability of her hormone levels. The suggestion that Chu’s description of her own experience reveals a need for further medical or psychiatric intervention fails to live up to the expressed principle of valuing trans people’s own descriptions of their transitions. Moreover, this extreme response itself buys into the premise that Chu is critiquing: that transition care must be based on a model of medical beneficence, in which the duty of the medical discipline requires an authoritative judgment of the patient’s needs that trumps her own assertions.

It’s too simple to suggest that such objections are merely a false-consciousness-type uptake of mainstream transmedical narratives. As Dean Spade points out, the relation between trans patients and medical practitioners is necessarily structured by such narratives. He argues that this relation is formed in part by “the long-standing practice amongst gender variant people of strategically deploying medically-approved narratives in order to obtain body-alteration goals” (“Mutilating Gender” 316). In this context, the “happiness” of medical transition that Chu disavows is both a product of the medical gatekeeping she decries and a genuine goal for many if not most trans people (one that may be achievable by mimicking, in some way, the normal trajectory of an approach toward that happiness). That doesn’t make trans people dishonest or inauthentic—on the contrary, both cis and trans lives are capacitated by biopolitical structures that orient us toward various “happy endings.” There’s no outside to biopower, only different strategies of directing and making use of it.16Furthermore, trans people have a legitimate need to monitor the rhetorics that frame our existence, and claiming our story as a happy one is one strategy for that.

Underlying this controversy, then, is a conflict over the narratives that capacitate trans life, that make transgender lives recognizable as real and possible lives. This conflict occurs because of the contradictions of normalcy and pathology, concepts which (in the context of biopower) structure both medical practice and social organization, leading to an overdetermined relation between claims about bodily health and judgments about the proper distribution of power and resources.17 As an element of gender, this overdetermination leads to an imbalance of scientific and technocratic interest in bodies that exhibit gender variance. Spade explains: “Containing gender distress within ‘transsexualism’ functions to naturalize and make ‘healthy’ dichotomized, birth-assigned gender performance. It casts a critical eye on the gender performance of those transgressing gender boundaries, and produces a norm that need not be criticized” (“Mutilating Gender” 319). Thus the clinicians who administer transition care adopt norms of expression and experience—not only proper gender performance, but proper orientation toward gendered happiness—as criteria for making judgments about how trans life ought to take form in relation to the normal. It’s no wonder, then, that trans people feel a need to resist rhetorics that associate trans life with pathology, pain, and suffering. But this also means that in order to capacitate and legitimize their bodies and lives, trans people have (understandably, necessarily) relied on that same force of normalcy. This contradiction is itself foundational to transmedicine’s understanding of its own beneficence.

Patient Narratives and Affective Norms

The assumption that Chu points out—“People transition because they think it will make them feel better”—roughly corresponds to the central tenet of the liberal turn in transmedicine.18 When the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders was released in 1980, it included a revised entry for the transsexual diagnosis, using the term “gender identity disorder” for the first time and adding criteria regarding “the degree to which one experiences distress from living with one’s natal sex” alongside the more traditional concern over separating out the “true” transsexuals from those who were “merely” sexually-motivated cross-dressers. As Jodie M. Dewey and Melissa M. Gesbeck explain in their article on diagnosis in transmedicine, this change in framing shifted the locus of attention from variations of gendered behavior and expression to “the stress caused by gender variation” (48, emphasis in original). Hence the shift in diagnostic terminology from the residues of a physiological paradigm (“gender incongruence”) to a more psychosocial one (“gender dysphoria”).

Yet despite this emphasis on relieving patients’ distress instead of enforcing behavioral norms, the liberal “gender dysphoria” paradigm of transmedicine nevertheless enforces norms of affect. By defining its diagnosis and its successful treatment less by expression and more by experience, this more current paradigm of transmedicine frames trans identity as a transition of attitudes, from self-denial to self-acceptance. And while this transition narrative certainly matches the life experience of many trans people, centering such a narrative on affective transformation places “normalcy” in a regulatory relation to “happiness,” and vice versa. As Sara Ahmed suggests in her work on figures and figurations of happiness and unhappiness, philosophical and psychological models of “the good” tend to frame happiness as an end that orients the action of those who strive for it (Promise of Happiness 22-26).19 Using phenomenological terminology developed in her earlier work,20 Ahmed describes the relation between the circulation of such models and the formation of social norms that draw distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable affective states. In particular, she argues that shared beliefs about what happiness is and how it occurs exert a normative force on the experience of happiness itself: “If the same objects make us happy—or if we invest in the same objects as if they make us happy—then we would be directed or oriented in the same way” (38). Conversely, being “out of line” with shared objects of affective involvement results in experiences of alienation or even exclusion (41). The notion of “happiness,” Ahmed explains, thus functions as both an orienting point and a criterion for making judgments about the orientations of others, judgments which may well help shape the experiences of orienting in one way or another, such that “the promise of happiness is located as well as distributed” (45). In this way, the narrativization of happy outcomes serves as a powerful species of epideictic rhetoric, circulating forms of experience that tighten the alignment between orienting oneself toward normalcy and participating in shared feelings of pleasure, fulfillment, and contentedness. The achievement of such happiness thus may depend on whether or not one’s life lines up more or less neatly with these forms.

In a medical context, this force of affective norming takes an especially significant role in forming the tropes and expectations of being a patient. As Segal asserts, standardized narratives of patient experience do not only retrospectively frame experience but actively form experience, such that genres of patient narrative create a “generic groove” that orients patients’ experiences and sensations toward particular values and particular ends (69). Like grooves in a footpath, narratives of particular health concerns—gender transition among them—become more deeply embedded the more they are used, which itself encourages further use. Indeed, Ahmed makes the same point with regard to objects and orientations that line up in neat and normative ways: “Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created.” She thus suggests that we may understand such lines, such epideictic “grooves,” as “performative” in that “they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions” (Queer Phenomenology 16). In the case of transmedicine, not only has the authorized narrative of patient experience been elevated to the status of a diagnostic model (“gender dysphoria” that must be relieved through medical intervention); the “happy ending” of this narrative has itself become a criterion for judgments of whether and how to enact care. Consequently, the groove of the authorized transmedical narrative of patient experience becomes worn deeper and deeper the more it is used to adjudicate and administer the distribution of care, and in turn the individuals who make up trans life collectively perceive more and more intensely the assumed necessity of transmedical care as a pathway to a happy future.

Normalcy, Narrative, and Transmedicine

By refusing to describe her transition in resolutely happy terms, then, Chu cuts across—and in this way reveals—the grooves that form transmedicine’s authorized patient narrative. In particular, she shows how the norms of cisgender life structure this narrative and the expectations for gender reassignment that it forwards. Her own experience of transition, then, has been colored by sensing her own deviation from those norms. Explaining that her dysphoria has actually increased since beginning her hormonal transition, she indicates that this manifests as a hyperawareness of her difference from other women: “I now feel very strongly about the length of my index fingers—enough that I will sometimes shyly unthread my hand from my girlfriend’s as we walk down the street. When she tells me I’m beautiful, I resent it. I know what beautiful looks like. Don’t patronize me.” In a particularly controversial passage, she writes: “Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain.” Respondents pointed out that this was not accurate—the neovagina does in fact heal, and although there is some discomfort involved in caring for it post-surgically, it’s really not reasonable to refer to it as a permanent wound.21

But taken together these passages suggest that Chu’s frustration with the “liberal counternarrative” of transmedicine is also a frustration with the commonsense notion that transgender bodies ought to match up with, transform into, or otherwise become indistinguishable from cisgender bodies. And to be clear, becoming frustrated with this notion is not the same as depriving it of its force. On the contrary, this is exactly how norms work: a norm exerts its force whether or not you are paying attention to whether or how it is exerting that force. As Chu herself puts it an earlier essay, titled “On Liking Women,” “Transsexual women don’t want bottom surgery because their personal opinion is that a vagina would look or feel better than a penis. Transsexual women want bottom surgery because most women have vaginas” (emphasis in original).22 Rhetorics of normalcy are thus affectively baked into gender transition. As Ahmed might put it, transition promises the happy ending of being (or at least feeling) normal, and in this way, the protocols of gender reassignment rely on the norms of one or the other binary gender. Whether or not a particular trans person identifies with a particular gender norm, then, is immaterial to the force of that norm on that person’s experience of transition—if only because the disidentification with this particular norm puts this person “out of line” (in Ahmed’s terms) with the shared affective investment of gendered belonging (The Promise of Happiness 41). The groove is there, inertly disrupting movements transversal to it.

Just as Segal suggests of patient narratives in general, then, transition narratives imply epideictic rhetorics of how to “experience experience” (69) by engaging with and redeploying norms of (among other things) affect. In the particular biopolitical context of trans life, these experiential norms circulate between and among the spheres of transmedicine and the trans community at large. Such norms do not necessarily emerge from transmedicine directly, but its function as an access point for care means that transmedicine wields disproportionate epideictic rhetorical force, amplifying the reach and effects of such norms. Thus the historical emergence of transmedicine’s diagnostic concepts and treatment protocols exhibits a tendency toward adopting and solidifying whatever norms are most ready to hand, in order to ensure the quickest and easiest demarcation of the normal from the pathological.

Narratives of Passing-As

As indicated above, before its liberal turn transmedicine did not emphasize experience directly, but rather oriented its clinical attention toward more “external” factors such as behavior and appearance. This tended to mean that clinicians, even when they were relatively open to the notion of gender reassignment, operated under a hermeneutic of suspicion (as it were): their reliance on behavior and appearance encouraged clinicians to believe that they could nevertheless distinguish between the “true” and “false” patients. That is, patients were sorted into various pathological categories that posited different diagnoses and prognoses, and only some were actually eligible for a “complete” transition (regardless of what the patients themselves asserted). Thus Dallas Denny suggests, in her retrospective account of the university-housed “gender identity clinics” that opened up in the 1960s and 70s, that the fundamental goals and assumptions of this treatment paradigm were directly opposed to the intentions of the patients. The clinics’ interests, she explains, were research-based and oriented toward “last-ditch” interventions, since their model of gender identity assumed that only the most entrenched and desperate cross-gendered-identifications could hold together through the process of transition. They also prioritized the ability to pass as cisgender, so much so that clinicians “were prone to assume that anyone whose presentation was not strikingly that of the gender of choice were not good candidates,” while “drag queens and street hustlers, who were generally skilled at appearing as women,” were more likely to be accepted for treatment (12).23 In addition, the research goals of the clinics often meant that patients were pressured to give up their privacy and autonomy and even adapt their lives to the specifications of the accepted treatment narrative: “Those who did not restructure their lives according to the demands of the clinician (changing jobs, divorcing spouses) were subject to punishment by expulsion from the program” (17). The use of particular behavioral and experiential norms to restrict access to transition care thus resulted in the conceptual distillation and rhetorical amplification of particular narratives of what constituted a “true” trans identity. The restrictions of the transmedical narrative consequently served as restrictions of who, within the ongoing emergence of trans life in the world at large, could assume the orientation that aligned with the norms of a gendered narrative and its happy ending.

These narratives, then, occupy an ambivalent place in the emergence of trans life—while they offer a restricted account of what it means to be trans (and thus who gets to be “trans”), they also provided tropes and topoi that gave rise to trans autobiographical narratives such as the ones that Jay Prosser analyzes in his landmark study Second Skins. He argues that the circulation of autobiographical narratives of “transsexuality” provided a fundamental venue for the emergence of trans identity out of more disparate feelings of alienation or loss: “Indeed, for the transsexual even to discover the possibility of transsexuality—to transform it from private fantasy to realizable identity plot—takes place ‘in’ narrative. To learn of transsexuality is to uncover transsexuality as a story and to refigure one’s own life within the frame of that story” (124). However, as he goes on to explain, this same reliance on narrative has come to structure diagnosis as well as personal identification. Thus the emphasis within mid-century transmedicine (extending to some degree into the more “liberal” period) on a consistent and recognizable account of “strong, early, and persistent transgendered identification” (101). Further, this clinical use of autobiography means that some patients’ stories must be judged as incorrect, or at least not good enough. As Prosser puts it, “[t]he diagnosis acts as a narrative filter, enabling some transsexuals to live out their story and thwarting others” (107).24 This suggests that the emergence of “transsexual” as a coherent, public identity itself required a certain slippage between the clinical narratives that defined trans life pathologically and the autobiographical narratives that trans people have used to define themselves. The epideictic form of trans autobiography—parasitically promising access to the gendered happiness placed within transmedicine’s diagnostic restrictions—thus forwards its own norms, wearing a groove in the collective experience of trans life. Although such narrative forms provide the necessary rhetorical vectors for “transgender” to circulate as an identity, they also necessarily contribute to the distinctions between those lives that are recognizably “transgender” and those that are not. And in the context of contemporary biopower, those distinctions often form along the lines of other biopolitical vectors, such as race, class, nationality, and mobility.

Narratives of Passing-Over

Chu notes the difficulty of describing dysphoria to someone who has never experienced it, and she wields some poetic figurations that gesture toward a feeling of discomfort, aloneness, and incompleteness—“hunger without appetite,” for example, or “grieving” while “having nothing to grieve.” One of these figurations evokes the feeling of suspended movement: “It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane.” It’s a striking metaphor because, as many have pointed out, the very term “transgender” implies a reference to travel and mobility—“trans”-as-across, movement across a space or period of time. In mainstream accounts of trans identity, however, this movement is typically framed as finished, not suspended.25 Aren Z. Aizura argues that the function of such travel/mobility tropes is to contain “gender indeterminacy,” that is, to assert the fundamental normalcy of cisgender life by framing gender transition as happening “elsewhere”—thus “[t]he border between genders is figured as liminal and impossible space” (39). Chu’s evocation of living in a suspended “elsewhere,” then, subverts the typical transition-as-arrival narrative, even as she laments the discomfort of this experience.

Figuring gender reassignment as a “movement” or “journey” allows trans individuals to perceive their transition in terms of progressive development, but it also suggests a metaphysical “crossing over” from one side of an essential binary to the other. On the one hand, this trope of “crossing” has been taken up by many transgender writers and speakers as a way of articulating the experience of transition. On the other hand, framing transition as a form of movement through space indicates the close relation between one’s relative ability to pass “between” gender norms and one’s ability to appear as a normative figure along other biopolitical vectors. To illustrate this, Aizura refers to Christine Jorgensen, who has traditionally been considered the central patient figure of transmedicine’s emergence in mid-twentieth-century America. He explains that Jorgensen necessarily also serves in this capacity as a figure of whiteness, economic privilege, and physical mobility26—especially considering the transnational scope of her transition. Unable to find doctors in America willing to facilitate a gender reassignment surgery, she travelled to Denmark and lived there for several years, undergoing surgery at a Copenhagen clinic and returning triumphantly to America as a fully realized transsexual woman. As Aizura puts is, “To place this story at the center of transgender history privileges whiteness and the imperative of social mobility, as well as an imperialist division of the world into a national here and a colonial elsewhere” (32, emphasis in original). An identification with particular figures of mobility and relative normalcy such as Jorgensen, then, has tended to marginalize all but the most privileged members of the trans community. Not only does this obscure the variety and unpredictability of trans life’s ongoing emergence; this orientation toward narratives of normalcy also threatens to redouble that marginalization through a process of affective norming—wearing the grooves of the authorized transition narrative even deeper.

The highly visible, highly mobile norm of the white, eurocolonial, binary-to-binary, able-bodied and neurotypical transgender person thus heightens the vulnerability of trans people who differ from that norm. And although this is not solely reducible to transmedicine’s history of restricting access to care, that history (and its contemporary echoes) is a fundamental part of the sheer force with which normalcy warps the way that trans lives occur. The force of this history ought to provide context for Chu’s rejection of “good outcomes” reasoning: even while she herself has a highly visible, highly mobile body with access to transition care, the norms of the transmedicine’s authorized narratives have diminished the range of possible trajectories of her life’s ongoingness. And for those with less visible, less mobile, less materially supported bodies than Chu’s, the diminishment wrought by these norms has been further refracted through systemic diminishment along other biopolitical vectors. The goal of arguments such as Chu’s, then, is not to demand a better future, a different (happier) ending, but rather to demand a different form of relation to the present’s ongoingness. That is, the gambit here is an epideictic one—to jar or jam the replication of norms that result in a restricted narrative of how trans people experience their own present happiness or unhappiness.

Conclusion: On Demand

Interestingly, Chu’s boldest claim went unremarked upon by all but her most antagonistic interlocutors. That claim, I would argue, is her assertion that the administration of transmedical care ought to require nothing but asking for it: “I believe that surgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want. Beyond this, no amount of pain, anticipated or continuing, justifies its withholding.” The trans advocates who responded negatively to the essay apparently did not see this claim as particularly controversial, perhaps because they were more irked by Chu’s discussion of happiness and treatment outcomes. But in right-wing and anti-transgender outlets, this element of Chu’s essay struck a chord, in that it served as evidence that “transgender ideology” was antisocial, perverse, and/or insane because trans people wanted medical treatment “on demand.” For instance, The Federalist’s Libby Emmons argues that the logic of Chu’s argument would seem to imply that “doctors are merely client fulfillment specialists” who must abdicate the authority of their expertise, such that “[a]nything we can dream, a doctor can be compelled to perform.” The thrust of such an argument, Emmons claims, is the abandonment of all socially reasonable limits to the use of biomedical knowledge and technology; the thrust of Emmons’ argument, I would say, is thus to suggest that people who are trans (especially trans women) would be better off getting their heads examined than demanding surgery. This response is intriguing for a couple reasons. First, in the history of transmedicine, demand actually predates dysphoria as an indicator of trans identity. That is, before the broader shift toward affective criteria such as dysphoria in the 1980s, clinicians typically regarded “patient demand for sex-change surgery” as the fundamental diagnostic criterion (Billings and Urban 270). On the one hand, this simply corresponded to the way in which the patients appeared as patients—there was no test or syndrome that would result in a person being referred to a gender clinic, only those who wrote letters inquiring about (or, indeed, demanding) the possibility of a medicalized “sex change.” On the other hand, as both supporters and critics of transmedicine have pointed out, attuning to patient demand was a good way of countering the possibility of allowing transition care for those who had “perverse wishes for self-destruction” or were merely (in this framework) “an effeminate homosexual or a transvestite.” Given these risks, “the best indicator of transsexualism was the intensity of a patient’s desire for surgery” (271).

Of course, one effect of framing trans identity as a function of “demand” was the formation of a fundamentally skeptical attitude toward the individuals voicing that demand. Since clinicians ultimately lacked a surefire method of knowing who was “really” transgender, the best option was to simply limit the availability of care, so that the people who worked to put themselves in the position of patient could be viewed as already vetted (as it were) by the sheer difficulty and frustration of getting that far. In the contemporary paradigm, this concern for certainty remains, though clinicians no longer make judgments based on the (perceived) intensity of patients’ demands. Instead, because transmedicine now frames itself as a respond to a need, clinicians assess certainty directly, as an affective criterion.27 By emphasizing “need” rather than “demand,” then, the current paradigm of transmedicine attempts to sidestep the question of desire with regard to medical intervention. This question has gained new salience, Rose suggests, in the context of contemporary biomedicine, in which “[t]he old lines between treatment, correction, and enhancement can no longer be sustained” (The Politics of Life Itself 17). Hence the second reason why the specter of “on demand” care is intriguing: as an element of anti-trans rhetorics, it draws on and gives voice to this deeper anxiety over preserving the allegedly natural distinction between necessary and unnecessary care. Indeed, Emmons bears this out in her article, which posits that Chu’s experience of “cosmetic” surgical treatment “gives the distinct impression that the surgery is not medically necessary.” In consequence, she claims, Chu has revealed the flawed reasoning behind support for trans care: “Without a medically beneficial reason, what is the reason for allotting these medical resources away from medically necessary care?” As indicated above, this is exactly the sort of argument that many trans respondents feared Chu’s piece would provoke. Further, as Rose asserts with regard to biomedicine more broadly, even though any argument positing such a “distinction between treatment and enhancement” is ultimately “bound to fail,” these arguments still point to the intractability of conflict over “what we might legitimately desire and what desires might legitimately be denied” (104).

And this conflict leads us back once again to the rhetorical relation between happiness and biopower. After all, if Ahmed is correct that affective norms suggest “happiness is what you get in return for desiring well” (The Promise of Happiness 37), then the normative distinctions between good desires and bad desires, between right choice and wrong choice, are what shape the possibility of a happy ending for trans life. The extent of transmedicine’s emphasis on this sort of individual choice has led scholars from within as well as without trans studies to argue that mainstream narratives of trans life promote an uncritical ethos of individualism. Since the identity “transgender” emerged within the eurocolonial context of capitalism as it shifted from a liberal to a neoliberal form, the logic of individual choice has indeed always been part of the authorized narratives of trans life.28 But such analyses of neoliberal individualism often neglect to account for the particular role of risk in this biopolitical dynamic.29 That is, in the context of biopower, risk is not simply a function of making choices; rather, risk is the condition for all possibilities of choice, freedom, and indeed happiness. To be in the world at all is to engage with the norms that shape bodily involvement and affective engagement; and to engage with these norms is always to risk deviation from them.30 But even further, to deviate is always to risk unhappiness. Whereas narratives of normalcy might “encourage us to avoid the unhappy consequences of deviation by making those consequences explicit,” the (sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy) histories of trans life are, to use Ahmed’s words, “histories of those who are willing to risk the consequences of deviation” (91). In the context of biopower, to live in the world as a trans person is, for better or worse, to risk one’s own happiness.

More consequently for the purposes of rhetorical analysis, to communicate about living in the world as a trans person is, also for better or worse, to risk the happy narratives of trans life as such. Just as Chu’s disavowal of “good outcomes” risks becoming a justification for restricting access to the transmedical care that itself forwards those “good outcomes,” any rhetorical engagement with representations of transgender life risks contributing to distinctions between legitimate forms of trans life and illegitimate forms of trans life, good trans life and bad trans life. This is particularly relevant with regard to transmedicine’s epideictic force: there is always the danger that the content of one’s “happy transition narrative” may become formalized as a treatment norm. Thus one fundamental condition of transgender rhetorics in the contemporary context of biopower is collective risk, a shared participation in a wager over the possibilities of deviant life. So although Chu’s demand for something other than “good outcomes” does indeed risk collective access to “good outcomes”-based care, it also reveals transmedicine’s necessary contradiction, that there is no acceptance of (individual) trans life that is not also in the same instance an intervention into (collective) trans life. Admittedly, this is an unhappy view of the possibilities for transgender rhetorics, and especially transgender rhetorics of medicine. However, more optimistically, Ahmed reminds us that “[t]he unhappiness of the deviant performs a claim for justice” (The Promise of Happiness 96). That is, trans life forwards its own epideictic, bears up charges of praise and blame in the very happiness and unhappiness that trans people experience. In demanding care, in deviating from narrative norms, perhaps even in simply “[e]xisting in the world” (Gossett and Huxtable 39),31 those who participate in trans life themselves embody an array of epideictic rhetorical forces; in this way, trans life itself can pose a challenge to the norms and narratives that systemically dismiss some measure of its forms in the name of preserving transmedicine’s “good outcomes.”


  1. Many thanks to Caroline Jennings, two anonymous reviewers, and the editors of this special issue, GPat Patterson and K.J. Rawson, for their indispensable feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
  2. Che Gossett points out, in this regard, that “[o]ne of the traps of trans visibility is that it is premised on invisibility: to bring a select few into view, others must disappear in to the background, and this is always a political project that reinforces oppression” (183).
  3. By framing the context that I address as “eurocolonial,” I am asserting that my analysis is directed toward the forms of rhetoric that have emerged from the tradition of power and knowledge based in eurocentrism, imperialism, and universalism. In that regard, while I address the history of gender variance in America I do not address the histories of American Indian gender variance, which I understand to be distinct from the set of identities that goes by the name “transgender.” That is, American Indian identities such as (what is called in English) “two-spirit” are capacitated as lived possibilities by a set of political and ontoepistemological formations separate from the formations considered in this article (respectively, the various knowledges and traditions of indigenous nations, and the eurocolonial biopolitical paradigm emerging from Enlightenment and imperialist sciences). This does not mean that these two sets of formations are not related in any way; rather, the violent history of eurocolonial power has fundamentally affected the lives that are capacitated by indigenous knowledges and traditions (see Qwo-Li Driskill, “Stolen from Our Bodies”). However, to fully account for this relation between the two sets of formations and their responses to gender variance would require much more than I can provide in this essay, and would exceed the limitations of my own experiential grounding.
  4. Elsewhere in rhetoric and communication studies, scholars have considered the role of stigma against transgender people in their experiences of health care; see Kami Kosenko et al., “Transgender Patient Perceptions of Stigma in Health Care Contexts”; Kosenko et al., “Patient-Centered Communication: The Experiences of Transgender Adults”; and Jan S. Redfern and Bill Sinclair, “Improving Health Care Encounters and Communication with Transgender Patients.” For analyses of “transgender” as an identity category in legal and public rhetorics, see Isaac West, “What’s the Matter with Kansas and New York City? Definitional Ruptures and the Politics of Sex”; and Doug Cloud, “Toward a Richer Rhetoric of Agency: Shaping the Identity Category Transgender in Public Discourse.”
  5. Segal summarizes the traditional sense of “epideictic” as a distinct type of rhetoric: “Aristotle identifies three occasions for rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Deliberative rhetoric is speechmaking directed at the future, he says; its business is exhortation and dissuasion, and its exemplary genre is the political speech. Forensic rhetoric is speechmaking trained on the past; its business is accusation and defence (sic), and its exemplary genre is the advocate’s summation in a court of law. Epideictic rhetoric is the rhetoric of the present; its business, Aristotle says, is praise and blame, and its exemplary genre is the funeral oration. Epideictic rhetoric is a culture’s most telling rhetoric, because, in general, we praise people for embodying what we value, and we blame them for embodying what we deplore” (61).
  6. To be clear, I am distinguishing between “gender reassignment” and “gender transition” for the sake of separating the treatment protocols involved in transmedicine (“reassignment”) from the broader process of making one’s gender known to the world (“transition”). (Chu herself uses the term “transition” to refer to both.) I use the term “gender reassignment” here with the same wariness that Aren Z. Aizura expresses along with his use of this term: “In recent years some have begun using gender affirmation or gender confirmation as a way to signal that trans body modification brings the body in line with an individual’s true gender identity. Although these terms’ cultural ascendance reflects an increased acceptance that body modification is necessary to trans mental health, I question whether the language of affirmation/confirmation invests in the idea that everyone has a ‘true’ gender identity that has always been, and that surgery merely reflects that inner, lifelong identity. Hormonal and surgical body modifications should be available without the need to affirm a primary gender identity. Thus I have retained gender reassignment as a term while acknowledging its inadequacy to describe the complexity of the embodied, psychic, and social practices to which it refers” (12-13).
  7. Cf. Catherine Chaput, “Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy.”
  8. Rose draws most prominently on the theoretical work of Michel Foucault, who originally introduced his own notion of “biopower” in his History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, asserting it as a form of power emerging in Europe’s seventeenth century related to what he had elsewhere called “discipline.” While discipline is oriented toward the physical body and its capacities (“an anatomo-politics of the human body”), biopower is oriented toward “the species body” as a living form (thus “a bio-politics of the population”) (139). In his own development of this concept, Rose points out that the distinction between these two forms of power has tended to “blur” as Foucault and others have traced the ways that “different authorities seek to act upon the one through action upon the other” (The Politics of Life Itself 53). Ultimately, Foucault himself would gravitate toward emphasizing biopower (i.e. management of and intervention into forms of life) over disciplinary power (management of and intervention into particular bodily capacities). For a useful application of both concepts in the context of the regulation of transgender people in particular, see Dean Spade, Normal Life, 50-72.
  9. The role of “particular ends” with regard to biopower and biopolitics becomes clearer when considered in the light of Foucault’s work on the concept “governmentality,” which he began developing at about the same time as his turn toward biopolitics. In his 1978 lectures on this concept, he argues that “government” emerged in Europe’s sixteenth century as a theory of state power that referred to the total exercise of management within the state, from fathers, teachers, tradespeople, up to and including the head of state (93-94). Foucault argues that this form of power is essentially economic, rather than prohibitive. Whereas older forms of power were based in prohibition and punishment, for government “it is not a matter of imposing a law on men, but of the disposition of things, that is to say, of employing tactics rather than laws”; in other words, the action of governing is “arranging things so that this or that end may be achieved through a certain number of means.” And since “the end of government is internal to the things it directs,” whatever is to be governed must thus be described, measured, analyzed, and subsequently managed in order to achieve its “perfection, maximization, or intensification” (99). In his own elaboration of the concept, Rose writes that government, as a form of power, is “a certain way of striving to reach social and political ends by acting in a calculated manner upon the forces, activities and relations of the individuals that constitute a population”; such ends include “security for property and wealth, profitability and efficiency of production, public virtue, tranquillity (sic), and even happiness” (Governing the Soul 4-5). Paired with governmentality, biopolitics thus describes the way that certain concrete ends become instantiated as calculable and achievable outcomes at the level of both the individual subject and the governed population.
  10. It’s instructive to consider who exactly may be denied treatment on the basis of such norms of consent. In a recent participant-observation study of diagnostic criteria at an Australian clinic, Riki Lane notes that clinicians may delay treatment due to medical, social, or psychiatric contraindications such as “extreme obesity,” “homelessness,” or “active psychosis”; further, clinicians may actually deny treatment to patients who are judged to have “alternate diagnoses such as severe autism or medical complications” that would (in this view) hinder the facilitation of transition care. Regarding the former (delay of treatment), the criteria appear to come from an attitude of pragmatism, but it’s noteworthy that each example is also a category that is otherwise stigmatized and pathologized. Regarding the latter (denial of treatment), the implication is more concerning. One participant states: “We’re seeing a lot more younger people…with not only gender variance but broader identity disturbance. That’s one of the tricky parts, one of the diagnostic dilemmas” (220). Given that this quote appears directly above Lane’s explanation of cases in which treatment may be denied, and given that Lane elsewhere includes autism as an example of “broader identity disturbance,” this suggests that, for patients who are both trans and autistic, clinicians are likely to factor into their judgment an implicit evaluation of the “severity” of the person’s autistic traits. While this may involve pragmatic questions of whether particular behaviors will interfere with the administration of treatment, it seems more likely that clinicians perceive autistic traits as risk factors that lessen the potential for good treatment outcomes as such. This is concerning on its face, but it’s even more concerning given two other factors. First, as Melanie Yergeau points out, researchers frequently suggest that autism and gender variance are actually correlated (70); why, then, should autistic behavior be regarded as a risk factor in gender transition? Second, Yergeau also details the entanglement between the history of transmedicine and the history of research into and treatment of autism. As she explains, the same cohort of researchers at UCLA operated the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC), the Feminine Boy Project (FBP), and the Young Autism Project (YAP); while the GIC occasionally referred (adult) transgender patients to receive more affirmative treatment elsewhere, both the FBP and the YAP were expressly intent on eradicating gender variance and autistic behaviors, respectively. The techniques developed in these latter two programs formed the basis for what has become known as Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, a process denounced as abusive by autistic self-advocates yet still frequently used to “recover” autistic children at the behest of their parents and/or doctors (101-115). This historical relation is significant, then, because it suggests an overlap in the bases of clinical expertise regarding autistic life and trans life. To frame these two forms of life as contraindications thus contributes to the erasure of their entangled emergences, and it threatens, in particular, the possibilities of life at the intersection of these two experiences.
  11. Segal compares this “in-forming” (62) function of epideictic rhetoric to both Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation and Maurice Charland’s notion of constitutive rhetoric (64), and she draws on the example of blogs and websites that celebrate such pathologized phenomena as eating disorders or self-harm, which “create the conditions under which one might form the idea of the attractiveness of surgical manipulation or self-mutilation” (63, emphasis in original). Obviously, I don’t intend to draw a comparison between being transgender and having an eating disorder or compulsive self-harming—but Segal’s work is instructive here in that she indicates the way that epideictic wields its force at the level of form, pressing upon those who participate in it to recognize and reproduce the tropic and generic forms that carry its values forward. We might consider this to be another way in which epideictic (in distinction to deliberative or forensic) rhetoric addresses the present (in distinction to the future or the past): this type of rhetoric instances its suasive force at the present moment of our lives’ ongoing emergence, such that the very forms of our experience take shape along with (or in defiance of) the grain of epideictic.
  12. In the print edition of the newspaper, Chu’s piece was titled differently: “Surgery, Hormones, But Not Happiness.”
  13. Many of the replies to her tweet announcing the essay’s publication were from other trans women who simply stated that their experiences with transmedicine did not match the description Chu gave of her own experience. See also Kristen Browde’s and Nathaniel Frank’s letters to the editor published several days after Chu’s essay.
  14. In a reply to a tweet posted the same day as her essay’s publication, Chu responded to a question regarding peer-reviewed research indicating that trans people overwhelmingly experience positive psychological outcomes after gender reassignment. She asserted that she did not view such research as trustworthy because of its disciplinary leanings (“i don’t trust sociologists farther than i can throw them”), and because of trans people’s structural incentives toward redeploying the accepted narratives of transmedicine. Some respondents interpreted this tweet as a suggestion that interview-based studies of transmedicine (or even trans people themselves) were de facto untruthful. However, as indicated below, there is historical research indicating a structural tendency toward the rhetorical dynamic that Chu suggests—though, this appears to be more common in the context of medical and psychiatric interviews, rather than sociological ones. (Chu acknowledges in her tweet that she is conflating these scenarios.)
  15. The same day that Singal’s article appeared online, trans writer Julia Serano posted a Twitter thread responding to these misrepresentations and linking to several of her articles addressing the broader controversy over “detransitioning” in transmedicine. See in particular “Detransition, Desistance, and Disinformation.”
  16. Although biopolitical frameworks share with social construction frameworks an emphasis on the historical contingency of power relations, they differ in that the latter tend to assert strategies of breaking down or otherwise exiting such structures in order to establish a state of freedom, while the former have tended to insist that there is no political subject outside of historically contingent structures. This includes the forms of affect and desire that make up contemporary subjectivities. Rose, in particular, has argued that all theories of “the self” as a psychological or political entity are themselves part of the contemporary structure of biopolitical government. The discipline of psychology, most importantly for his purposes, ought to be understood first and foremost as “an ‘intellectual technology,’ a way of making visible and intelligible certain features of persons, their conducts, and their relations with one another” (Inventing Our Selves 10-11). That is, the “selves” that we attribute with desires, flaws, virtues, and genders are inevitably formed and shaped by the networks of tools, concepts, and experts that take up the task of measuring and explaining the self. However: the point here is not to demand freedom from psychology and its concepts (such as “happiness”). Rather, the point is to take stock of the way that psychology (or other such structures) enables our relations to our “selves,” and then to work toward (as Rose puts it) “turn[ing] programs intended for one end to the service of others” (36). A concept such as “happiness,” then, has real effects in shaping the lives of cis and trans people alike, and the work of trans politics with regard to such a concept is not to debunk the reality of that happiness as an achievable end but rather to reorient the force of that concept toward more equitable ends.
  17. This overdetermined relation results, Elizabeth Stephens notes, from the double meaning of “normal” that formed through the genealogical emergence of this term. Making use of Georges Canguilhem’s work on this subject, she explains that as the term “normal” was first used in the mid-eighteenth century, it “appeared in two highly specialized and apparently distinct discursive locations: geometry, in which it was used as a less common synonym for a perpendicular line; and, second, anatomy, in which it was paired with, and used in opposition to, the ‘pathological’” (142). After this concept was transported into the (then-new) science of statistics in the late-nineteenth century, it came to mean “both statistically most common and socially preferable,” that is, “the average and also an ideal” (143). The concept “normal,” then, effects a fusion between a quantitative mean and a qualitative value, and at the same time it effects a partition between an unacknowledged standard and other, highly visible variants—that is, the “pathological.” Thus, by taking up this oppositional relation between “normal” and “pathological,” disciplinary structures such as medicine posit a need to observe, regulate, and police that relation.
  18. Historians of transmedicine roughly mark the beginning of this turn with the closing of many of the more conservative university-based gender clinics, sparked by the publication of a negatively evaluative report by the psychiatrists Jon Meyer and Donna J. Reter in 1979 (Meyerowitz 267-268), and the formation (also in 1979) of the more liberal Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association (Meyerowitz 255).
  19. Recall the function of “ends” in Foucault’s notions of government and biopower—through their measurement, definition, and description, ends such as “happiness” simultaneously orient and justify the force of interventions into individual and collective life. Ahmed, for her part, does not specifically connect her discussion of happiness to Foucault’s work on government and biopower. But I would argue that her analysis may be understood as complementary to that of Foucault and Rose, in that she considers the ways that desires and emotions emerge within a material, political ecology of power that is structured by the forms and genres of the liberal, post-Enlightenment, eurocolonial world.
  20. See Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology. In this text, Ahmed turns the phenomenological concepts of “object” and “orientation” toward the ends of queer feminist and post-colonial analysis of power structures. Her use of these terms, then, is intended to show how the phenomenological body is shaped by its surroundings, such that some actions are possible and others impossible. Building from “[t]he radical claim that phenomenology inherits from Franz Brentano’s psychology,” that “consciousness is intentional: it is directed toward something,” Ahmed claims that an “object” may be understood as “an effect of towardness”—that is, “by being posited as a thing, as being something or another for me” in the terms of one’s own phenomenological world, an object “takes me in some directions rather than others” (27). This aspect of “towardness” and “directedness” leads her to specify that “orientation” (her term for a non-reductive version of mind-body involvement in the world, i.e. consciousness embodied) may be understood as a set of relations to various objects arranged in a particular way, some near, some far, some central, some off to the side, some entirely unreachable. Thus, she explains, “Orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (3). I make use of Ahmed’s work in my own argument, then, because it nicely connects the biopolitical emphases of Rose and Foucault with the more traditional rhetorical concept of epideictic as described by Segal. While Rose and Foucault describe the ways that power structures posit particular “ends” as objects of action for subjects as well as particular elements of the subject as objects of intervention for institutions, Segal describes the ways that rhetorical subjects take on forms of experience that are circulated by culturally powerful networks of influence. These two accounts are clearly related, but it’s not immediately clear how best to put them into conversation with one another. I think Ahmed’s phenomenological framework plays this role well, because her attention to the individual body’s involvement in its surroundings opens up a relation between the immediacy of embodied experience and the circulation of particular interests, objects, and forms of directedness. As she explains: “Bodies hence acquire orientations through the repetitions of some actions, over others, as actions that have certain ‘objects’ in view” (58).
  21. In their response to Chu’s essay, Ashley writes: “But neo-vaginas heal. They heal well and they stop hurting. Our bodies don’t ‘regard the vagina as a wound’ nor do neo-vaginas ‘require regular, painful attention to maintain.’” When others responded to Chu on Twitter to point out this problem with her language, Chu explained, “this is an editorial thing unfortunately, i had a lovely metaphor about how your junk gets delicately turned inside out (‘think, slicing a mango’) but it made one of the editors too squeamish [eye-rolling emoji].” Some trans women also pointed out that this framing is a hallmark of transphobic and transmisogynist rhetorics. The argument that trans people (and trans women in particular) are fundamentally “wounded” or “mutilated” is one that goes back decades, at least to the publication of Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire in 1979, and it often functions as a metonymic argument that the real problem with trans people is that they are dangerously psychotic. Take, for instance, this excerpt from a letter to the editor published in the lesbian newspaper Coming Up in 1986, addressing the figure of the lesbian trans woman: “He is not a lesbian, he is a mutant man, a self-made freak, a deformity, an insult. He deserves a slap in the face. After that, he deserves to have his body and his mind made well again” (qtd. in Stryker 110).
  22. To suggest that sometimes transsexual women do get bottom surgery because they believe a vagina would look better than a penis is, counterintuitively, entirely to Chu’s point: at a subjective level, trans people want what they want because they want it, not because it is the expression of a political or metaphysical identity. Norms of appearance, sensation, and utility—with regard to vaginas, penises, or any other fleshly form—help shape those wants, one way or another. Thus it’s both no coincidence that most trans women desire to have their genitals surgically reconstructed to form vaginas and not at all contradictory that some trans women prefer to have genitals that are formed in some other way. Even in purely theoretical terms, a norm only functions as a norm as long as there is some variability for it to assess and regulate.
  23. Denny suggests that this category of patients (“drag queens and street hustlers”) “often were not transsexual” (12). That assertion obviously adopts some dubious assumptions regarding whose claims of trans identity ought to be taken seriously and why—it’s likely that her perspective is both reliant on and conscious of the history of antagonism between and among the various groups of gender-variant people in the mid-twentieth century. These conflicts can be understood as just part of the process of identity distinction, but they must also be recognized as tied up with anxieties and prejudices over class, race, and sexuality. For example, “transvestites” were often white, middle-class, and “heterosexual” (in the sense of identifying primarily as men who love women), whereas “drag queens” (or “street queens”) were often poor and working-class people of color who primarily had sex with men. (For a discussion of these distinctions and the shifting antagonisms between them, see Meyerowitz 168-207.) In the case of the clinics that Denny discusses, it’s important to note that the norms of appearance and expression were often combined with (or refracted through) these norms of race, class, and sexuality. Consider, for example, the assertion of a clinician quoted in a 1982 sociological article: “We’re not taking Puerto Ricans any more; they don’t look like transsexuals. They look like fags” (Billings and Urban 275).
  24. It ought to be no wonder, then, that patients (and prospective patients) frequently altered their biographical narrative, or even fabricated it entirely, to meet the expectations of the clinicians. In some sense, this is only a reasonable extension of the narrative-shaping that the clinical paradigm wrought on the future of the patient. It certainly, as Prosser points out, matches the logic of relying on a diagnostic premise that assigns transsexual identity to a retrospectively spoken narrative: “The diagnosis is premised on the belief that autobiography can and should function mimetically—narrative mirror to transsexual nature. While clinicians evidently fear the deliberate artifice of the transsexual narrator (author as fraudster), they yet appear to remain quite ignorant of the ways in which the autobiography is fundamentally constructed as narrative: a telling, a representation, the life thoroughly contingent on the form” (110).
  25. Prosser emphasizes the literal, material implications of such tropes as “coming home” and “arriving in the right body,” with regard to sex reassignment surgery in particular: “What makes the transsexual willing and able to submit to the knife—the splitting, cutting, removal, and reshaping of organs, tissues, and skin that another might conceive of as mutilation—is the drive to get the body back to what should have been” (83). The sense of “movement” that tends to structure narratives of reassignment, according to Prosser, is less about “crossing over” and more about a return to a longed for ideal: “The body of transsexual becoming is born out of a yearning for a perfect past—that is, not memory but nostalgia: the desire for the purified version of what was, not for the return to home per se (nostos) but to the romanticized ideal of home” (84). Prosser’s argument thus indexes the same norms of bodily being that Chu references in her essay, and both writers productively uncover the nuances of cross-gender-identification as a form of knowingly desiring a physical ideal.
  26. Along the same lines, C. Riley Snorton points out that Jorgensen’s public renown shows how, in contrast to the population of Black Americans suppressed and devalued by racial segregation during the same era, a white transsexual like her was “not beloved but somehow incorporable” (142). In evidence of this, he displays a set of newspaper stories and magazine profiles from the same mid-century period; the Black trans women and “female impersonators” featured in these pieces were explicitly contrasted with Jorgensen in terms of their mobility, economic status, and vulnerability to police harassment (157-166).
  27. Thus, as shuster points out, the inherent inconclusiveness of medical or psychiatric attempts to “verify a transgender identity” tends to be displaced onto the patients themselves, such that clinicians pose on behalf of the patient “an expectation to be ‘100% certain’ of initiating trans-related interventions” (“Uncertain Expertise” 325). As a result, trans people who are nonbinary, neuroqueer, and/or otherwise abnormal (in the terms of transmedicine’s authorized patient narrative) are forced to defend and continually reaffirm their need for care.
  28. For example, Aizura analyzes this as an example of “entrepreneurialism of the self”: if the institutions of neoliberal society “reward calculation” and “penalize behavior that does not competitively seek self-satisfaction,” then people who are trans will perceive their transition as a project of individual self-enhancement (142-143).The concept of “entrepreneurialism of the self” was first introduced by Michel Foucault in his 1979 lectures on biopolitics and governmentality (The Birth of Biopolitics 225-226); Aizura’s use of the term is also influenced by Wendy Brown’s work on neoliberalism and democracy. See also Aizura’s argument that contemporary biopolitical structures orient trans people toward notions of “infinite perfectibility” that form their desires for and understanding of transition care (47).
  29. Foucault locates a particular sense of personal risk at the heart of neoliberalism’s reduction of life to economic rationality. That is, he argues that the form of “economic analysis” that neoliberalism adopts as a basic explanation for human conduct—a dynamic of “substitutable choices…in which scarce means are allocated to competing ends” (The Birth of Biopolitics 222)—needs to be understood as an application of a liberal, empiricist notion of “interests.” With reference to the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, he explains that this model of the “subject of interests” posits a fundamental distinction between good and bad at the level of the individual person’s experience of choice: “The painful or non-painful nature of the thing is in itself a reason for the choice beyond which you cannot go.” That is, this distinction “is a sort of irreducible that does not refer to any judgment, reasoning, or calculation.” This means, Foucault argues, that for this model of the subject “the principle of my choice really will be my own feeling of painful or not painful”; hence, “interest” really means “an irreducible, non-transferable, atomistic individual choice which is unconditionally referred to the subject himself (sic)” (272). By adopting this definition of interest, neoliberal models of human conduct pose economic choice not as a function of pure rational decision (as some have argued) but rather as an irreducible uncertainty that must be submitted to rational processes. Foucault explains: since, in this model, interest takes the form of a set of choices that address the undisclosed (possibly painful) future, it necessarily includes elements that are “involuntary, indefinite, uncontrollable, and non-totalizable”—and yet, he explains, these elements “found, as it were, the specifically individual calculation that he makes; they give it consistency, effect, insert it in reality, and connect it in the best possible way to the rest of the world” (278). In other words, this fundamental uncertainty is good and necessary because, under the laissez-faire macroeconomic principles of the neoliberal framework, only the free pursuit of interest on behalf of individuals can result in an overall collective good. But for such a collective good to occur, the facts of the result must remain absolutely unknown and unknowable: “Everyone must be uncertain with regard to the collective outcome if this positive collective outcome is really to be expected.” This is because “[t]he collective good must not be an objective” pursued by an interest, individually or collectively, since “it cannot be calculated, at least, not within an economic strategy” (279). What this means, then, is that the role of “risk” in neoliberalism is not simply a feature of economic analysis but in fact the basis of the individual’s relation to the world. To act in the world, to make choices, is—for the neoliberal subject—to risk pain; but more than that, it is to participate individually in the collective risk of pain. That is, this participation—again, in the form of the subject that neoliberalism provides—takes the form of a pursuit of individual safety, care, and economic support, under the presumption that some pain, for someone, is always at risk. The very form of the neoliberal subject is thus participation in risk, in networks of distribution of possible pain.
  30. Ahmed argues in Queer Phenomenology that even as such norms form “lines” that restrict our objects and orientations, “accidental or chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds.” Importantly, these encounters that deviate us may be happy or unhappy: “Sometimes, such encounters might come as the gift of a lifeline, and sometimes they might not; they can be lived purely as loss. Such sideways moments might generate new possibilities, or they might not” (19).
  31. In dialogue with Che Gossett, trans artist Juliana Huxtable describes her own sense of ambivalence and uncertainty toward the epideictic rhetorics of visibility and performativity that have recently suffused mainstream accounts of trans life. She recounts, in particular, her experience with coming to understand the fractures (generational, racial, and political) in the “community” of trans life: “When I would meet older trans women, I would be like, Oh my god, how do you do it? Oh my god, what about hormones? Oh my god, what about your sex drive? How have you supported yourself? There was a kind of apprehension, almost a distance or a dismissive attitude toward me, when I would ask those questions. And I didn’t understand that. But I think it’s because so many people of an earlier generation had to go through so much. To have someone who, from their perspective, just decides to take estrogen one day and assumes that those experiences have a shared commonality with what they went through was almost insulting to these women. They were like, ‘You have no clue what I’ve had to do just to be able to exist in this way’” (43). Huxtable goes on to explain that she herself, much like the older trans women who regarded her approach with apprehensiveness, has come to regard newer forms of trans life with distance and suspicion. For example, she asserts that she has become more conscious of the racial privilege embodied by current norms of forwarding trans visibility through gender-bending: “The other day I started thinking about what passing culture signifies specifically for Black trans women. Passing is a means to safety, the ability to navigate the world with a bit of rest. It’s so very different from what a lot of white trans people experience. I think sometimes it’s easier for them to operate in a sort of genderqueer/genderpunk way, but as a privilege. You’re allowed to operate in the space of gender variance. But that space for us can really be—and feel—like a prison. I went through that stage of genderqueerness. And now I find little ways to hold onto my refusals. But I think it’s actually really radical to insist on an idea of beauty” (53-54). I would suggest that Huxtable’s sense of her own experience here, the negotiation among varying expectations and ultimate insistence on her own articulation of beauty, indicates the particular way that trans life forwards its own epideictic force. That is, Huxtable orients herself within the not-necessarily-cohesive trans community by settling on some notion of the good (the beautiful) that takes form in relation to the norms of gendered happiness (the beautiful woman). In this way, the ongoing, disharmonious emergence of trans life bears up forms of experience that are beautiful, good, and (indeed) happy.

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“It’s a … [inaudible blood-curdling screams, chaos]!”: Gender Reveal Party Fails as Ideological Rupture

Author note: This hybrid contribution includes two elements that are intended to be engaged in this order: first, a mediated performance (short film) and, second, a theoretical argument engaging the potential in gender reveal party fails. As such, this submission is multimodal. You are invited to engage the elements of the hybrid submission at your leisure, however.

Link to video:

Gender reveal party fails are a fine form of media genre. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and search for “gender reveal party fails” on any video-sharing platform (i.e., YouTube), hit play, and enjoy—whether in joy, awe, and/or disappointment. In this essay, I take seriously the implications of gender reveal party fails. I accomplish this through performance both on the page and on the mediated stage. On the page, here, I consider gender reveal party fails as ideological ruptures. The ideological formation to which I draw our attention is that of racialized cisheterosexism. I argue, the “success” of gender reveal parties relies on a normative understanding of gender as a progressive unfolding in racialized cisheterosexist terms. In turn, gender reveal party “fails” matter to the extent that they intervene in the performative sedimentation of racialized gender as a compulsory enactment. Conversely, on the stage, I embody trans monstrosity through a mediated performance adapted from the theatrical stage to the mediated stage in filmic form titled A Trans Monstrous Reflection (see Appendix for detailed script).1 Informed by Susan Stryker’s performative theorization of trans monstrosity (“My Words”), I meditate on the possibility of gender reveal party fails as affectively charged communicative enactments of trans rage resisting the performative sedimentation of racialized cisheterosexist gender interpellation. While the performance is intended as farce, the broader goal is to take seriously the potential in gender reveal party fails.

I use performance as both object and method of research. And when placed in conversation with rhetoric, I, like Bernadette Calafell, use performance to “push back methodologically against traditional approaches in rhetoric, hoping for more complex approaches to embodiment, resistance, and cultural nuances” (“Performance” 115). In this regard, I submit both the page and the mediated stage as concurrent engagements with “theory and practice, abstraction and embodiment” so as to better engage the potential in gender reveal party fails (Conquergood 153). The page provides the theoretical foundation from which the mediated staged performance emerges. On the page, I make two moves. First, I frame the “successful” gender reveal party as an ideological iteration of racialized cisheterosexism. Second, and in turn, I conceptualize of gender reveal party fails as a form of ideological rupture; the failure matters to the degree that it refuses to acquiesce to ideological expectations of racialized cisheterosexism as an uneventful sex/gender unfolding in mimetic binary terms. To begin, let us consider gender reveal parties as ideological iteration.

Gender Reveal Parties as Ideological Iteration

Gender reveal parties are a peculiar contemporary Western cultural phenomenon ritualizing non-trans embodiment. Their “invention” can be attributed to Jenna Karvunidis. In a 2019 Facebook status update, Karvunidis described the invention process: She wrote about her own gender reveal party on her now defunct blog High Gloss and Sauce in 2008. Subsequently, The Bump, a pregnancy and parenting magazine, amplified the blog post in an article resulting in a party idea gone viral. Since then, everyday people have sought innovative means to disclose the genitals of a fetus in grandiose cultural performances that are posted to social media. Interestingly, Karvunidis’s post was about more than origin stories. Indeed, she expressed “mixed feelings” about her “random contribution to the culture,” which has since “exploded into [something] crazy [sic] after that. Literally—guns firing, forest fires, more emphasis on gender than has ever been necessary for a baby.”

In the end, Karvunidis disclosed: “PLOT TWIST, the world’s first gender-reveal party baby is a girl who wears suits!” Karvunidis’s child, Bianca, posts content on Instagram (@bianca_k_actor) using the tag #girlsinsuits.2 While Karvunidis now asks “Who cares what gender the baby is?,” it is worth exploring the cultural mechanisms enabling the repetition of gender reveal parties as a normalized cultural performance. Indeed, while Karvunidis’s initial blog post reflected a small, local idea (and while she describes her role in the creation of the cultural performance as “random”), Stuart Hall reminds us, “Ideas only become effective if they do, in the end, connect with a particular constellation of social forces” (42). Gender reveal parties are the result of a viral blog post—the virality of which was/is predicated on an understanding of gender as a compulsory enactment informed and constrained by racialized cisheterosexism, an ideological stronghold pre-determining and, in turn, delimiting gender potentiality.

Calafell’s astute observation that performance enables rhetorical scholars to “push back methodologically against traditional approaches in rhetoric, hoping for more complex approaches to embodiment, resistance, and cultural nuances” is insightful here (“Performance” 115). Notably, with regard to the question of motive or intent. Rhetorical scholars have long expressed interest in exploring a rhetor’s motive (e.g., Kenneth Burke). Conversely, performance approaches emphasize impact over intent. Indeed, from a performance perspective, the effect remains the same regardless of intent. For instance, LeMaster explores ideology as embodied rhetoric suggesting mundane cultural performances are pre-determined by that which came before (“Embracing”). In this regard, mundane communication is informed by performatively sedimented cultural scripts that reflect hegemonic ideologies. As such, a focus on intent erroneously absolves the individual from the collective performance of cultural hegemony of which we are all differently engaged. And, so, regardless of Karvunidis’s intent, gender reveal parties have gone viral taking on innovative forms that build on that which came before. Karvunidis, the author, is thusly insignificant, as is her intent, in the ongoing performance of gender reveal parties that merely remix performative cultural elements that came before. Those elements are made meaningful exclusively against a backdrop of racialized cisheterosexist ideologies.

That gender reveal parties are animated through virality suggests a need to look at digital rhetorics. Ridolfo and DeVoss advance “rhetorical velocity” as a means of theorizing rhetorical delivery coupled with an understanding of how texts work in mediated terrains. Rhetorical velocity can help us to make sense of the virality undergirding gender reveal parties. Rhetorical velocity draws the rhetorician’s attention to “the speed at which information composed to be recomposed travels” and thus focuses on the rhetor’s attention to “the working conditions of the third party and what type of text it would be useful (or not) to provide” (“Composing”). In short, rhetorical velocity gestures at intent—the rhetor’s intent in terms of crafting and delivering a text that can be “recomposed, redelivered, redistributed, etc., across physical and virtual networks and spaces” (“Composing”). However, and as we have established, a performance approach to rhetoric is interested in effect over intent. In this regard, that which is remixed (in this case, gender reveal parties as cultural performance) diverges from that which is constructed in mediated terrains for mediated repurposing. Still, gender reveal parties are cultural performances that remix elements of that which came before.

Undergirding each of these remixed enactments, however, are repetitions of racist cisheterosexist ideology. As such, the rhetorical message stays the same (nonconsensually disclosing genitals and suturing a racialized cisheterosexist map of meaning on to a fetus) while the performative mechanism by which the message is delivered changes. Said differently, rhetorical velocity draws our attention to the unique rhetorical means by which a genital disclosure occurs through the performative use of the colors pink and blue. However, what is less addressed are the ideological strongholds that possibilize the traction for the cultural performance at all. That is, hegemonic ideologies—in this case, racist cisheterosexism—are what enable the velocity by which gender reveal parties gain rhetorical traction through a mundane compulsory want to re-perform and document a racialized cisheterosexist ritual of sex/gender interpellation. And, in turn, while the rhetor may not intend a gender reveal fail, a failure provokes virality as a result of its unwillingness to easily acquiesce to racist cisheterosexism as a presumably uneventful unfolding of sex/gender intelligibility.

The rhetorics I study are ideological as they are embodied. Ideological in the sense that they are normative ideas made meaningful through historically-sedimented and uneven power relations that reflect those who hold and embody cultural power across intersecting lines of identity. That ideologies reflect the interests of the powerful, they are often understood as “common sense.” And, as Antonio Gramsci reminds us, “The relation between common sense and the upper level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’” (332). Ideology thus reflects ongoing discursive tensions between varying power relations vying for cultural significance. Moreover, the rhetorics I study are embodied in the sense that ideology informs/constrains bodily comportment (LeMaster, “Embracing”); ideology is at once discursive and material. Peter McLaren clarifies, “Ideology is not realized solely through the discursive meditations of the sociocultural order but through the enfleshment of unequal relationships of power; it is manifested intercorporeally through the actualization of the flesh and embedded in incarnate experience” (153). The rhetoric to which I draw our attention is racialized cisheterosexism as embodied ideology. As I exhibit, despite the nuanced differentiations in form (i.e., the unique mechanism by which the genital disclosure occurs), the “successful” gender reveal party performs an iteration of racialized cisheterosexism in a broader ideological sense. Allow me to unpack this a bit further.

The gender reveal party cultural performance is predicated on a Western medicalized gaze. The gaze categorizes bodies based on a phallocentric model of reproductive potential. This phallocentric model further maps a non-trans spatio-temporal projection onto a fetus. Moreover, however, this gaze, and its accompanying phallocentric model, is rooted in Western imperialism and is, thus, a colonial iteration. María Lugones characterizes gender as a “colonial imposition” distinguishing Western (white) men from Western (white) women (“Toward” 748). Conversely, sex was used to (dehumanize and) distinguish non-European subjects (of color) based on reproductive—and in turn labor—potential and, in turn, to assess “worth” under white supremacist capitalism. Said more plainly, white supremacy undergirds binary gender (binaohan; Snorton). The gender reveal party, then, continues a legacy of bodily assessment projecting futurities of normative gender based on racialized cisheterosexist notions of bodily being and becoming; there is nothing new here. Gender reveal parties are an iteration of racialized cisheterosexist ideology with different ends and in a contemporary context.

I use racialized cisheterosexism to name the ideological stronghold undergirding the systemic organization of gender as a racialized hierarchy. In this hierarchy, white non-trans bodies enjoy a culture organized around their bodily wants, needs, desires, and comportment. This reductive framing is necessarily troubled across intersections of difference such that the able-bodied white non-trans subject enjoys far greater access to cultural privileges including the assumption of bodily safety, gainful employment, and/or ready access to sex and desire on one’s own terms. More than privilege, however, this hierarchy enables and encourages the domination of those bodies that fall outside of its normative intersectional grasp. Zeus Leonardo proposes a focus on “discourses of supremacy” that acknowledge white privilege, for instance, “but only as a function of whites’ actions” toward people of color as opposed to a “mysterious accumulation of unearned advantages” (150). Leonardo highlights that “privilege is the daily cognate of structural domination” (148). And in a culture informed by ideologies of racist cisheterosexism, white non-trans subjects are empowered to dominate racialized gender other(s/ness). One manifestation of this domination can be located in the denial of bodily autonomy, and the concomitant foreclosure of transness, in the cultural performance of gender reveal parties.

Thus far, we have explored the ways in which gender reveal parties emerge as a racialized cisheterosexist ideological iteration. What the party determines is less a gender identity and more a normative parameter for gender lived “right” through time and across space and in line with dictates of whiteness. Any resulting divergences emerge through a field of rhetorical (un)intelligibility, and are, as a result, constituted as monstrous. Said differently, this subsection theorizes the becoming of trans monstrosity informing my performance. Conversely, in the next subsection, we consider gender reveal party fails as performative ruptures in the saliency of racist cisheterosexist ideology and explore the potentiality in monstrous becomings.

Gender Reveal Party Fails as Ideological Rupture

In her groundbreaking essay, Susan Stryker challenges disembodied, de-materialized interrogations of gender through “an unstated cisnormative bias” in queer theory (“More Words” 40). In her original essay, Stryker writes: “I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself. I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster” (“My Words” 240). Stryker’s performative theorization (page and stage) draws our attention to the cultural constitution of transness as monstrous; here, Stryker embraces that monstrous rendering. In more specific terms, Stryker’s theorization emerges in dialogue with the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stryker draws a parallel between her own subjectivity as a transsexual woman and that of Shelley’s monster. Where the two subjects diverge is in their drive toward humanization.

In Frankenstein, atypical corporeality renders the monster as “monstrous.” As such, ocularcentric standards for human corporeality disallow the monster from being recognized as “human.” In turn, the monster acquires the capacity for speech and, through aural means, challenges ocularcentric criteria for that which defines “human,” regardless of corporeality. Conversely, the trans subject can—presuming said trans subject has ready access to the necessary material and administrative means as well as the desire to—pass cisheteronormative criteria for embodiment and, in turn, be granted “human” status (read: granted cisheteronormative privilege and the capacity to dominate trans subjects who do not pass cisheteronormative criteria). In turn, the trans subject who passes cisheteronormative criteria must use aural means to assert their monstrosity—I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster—less they get eclipsed into the fold of cisheteronormativity.

At the same time, however, to presume transness as the sole means by which one is rendered monstrous reveals the classed whiteness undergirding Stryker’s theorization (Roen).3 Indeed, white supremacy interpellates gender in human/non-human terms based on affiliation/alignment with whiteness. Like Calafell, I am concerned with the ways in which “difference, or Otherness, gets constructed as monstrosity” (Monstrosity 4). Though, identity is always intersectional and “intersectionalities inform monstrosities” (Calafell, Monstrosity 5). Highlighting the ways race has always undergirded images of the Frankenstein monster, Elizabeth Young traces the metaphor of the black Frankenstein arguing the metaphor both challenges and reinforces “structures of race and masculinity in U.S. culture” (10). Young writes, “The origins of the Frankenstein monster’s body in the dismemberment of corpses prefigures the violation of black men’s bodies in white America” (178). More to the point, and in a US context in particular, dismembered (black) body parts—as a result of lynching—are what constitute the Frankenstein monster as always and already black in the white imagination. To extend the analysis, Young describes the sequence closing James Whale’s iconic 1931 film adaptation, Frankenstein, where the monster flees from a “crowd of angry townspeople, whose pursuit of him is represented with the visual markers—barking dogs, fiery torches, angry shouts—of a lynch mob” (177). Whale extends the lynch mob imagery in his 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, where the monster’s blackness is doubly marked in juxtaposition to his (white) Bride, and, as a result, is forced to continue fleeing white terror. In short, monstrosity, like human status, is constituted at the intersections of difference.

In a recent essay, I develop Stryker’s work in analytic terms suggesting a co-constitutive process of “becoming monstrous” and its resulting affect “monstrous becomings” (LeMaster, “Transing”). Becoming monstrous highlights and analyzes the material conditions under racist cisheterosexism that give rise to monstrous renderings of difference. In tracing the racist cisheterosexist ideology undergirding gender reveal parties, we perform this becoming monstrous labor in the prior subsection. That is, such tracing illuminates the discursive field in which a failure is made meaningful. In turn, monstrous becomings take serious affective responses to those material conditions. Monstrous becomings see potential in mundane enactments of raging out and against racist cisheterosexist ideology. Quoting Stryker, monstrous becomings explore the “emotional response to conditions in which it becomes imperative to take up, for the sake of one’s own continued survival as a subject” (“My Words” 249). This can include “the affects that enable one to fight back or the affects that sustain a family of choice,” for instance (LeMaster, “Transing” 102). And for our purposes, we explore gender reveal party fails as monstrous becomings that rupture the ideological saliency of racialized cisheterosexism or the ideological means by which transness is rendered monstrous at all.

To reiterate an earlier point, ideology’s saliency is determined by its capacity to order and organize culture(s). Often understood as “common sense,” ideology is pervasive, though not static. Hall adds, “These associations [between ideology and the organization of life lived] are not given for all time. But they are difficult to break because the ideological terrain of this particular social formation [for our purposes, racist cisheterosexism] has been so powerfully structured in that way by its previous history” (41-42). As a result, thinking and imagining outside of racist cisheterosexist ideology is tough. Lugones proposes a decolonial feminism that reads the social world “from the cosmologies that inform it, rather than beginning with a gendered reading of cosmologies informing, constituting perception, motility, embodiment, and relation” (“Methodological” 79). In turn, I seek to read gender reveal party fails as monstrous becomings that fail to complete the discursive circuits animating the historicities informing racist cisheterosexist ideology.4

As a communication scholar, I am moved by Karen Barad’s query: “What are we to make of a communication that has neither sender nor recipient until transmission has already occurred?” (398). I believe Barad’s quantum-theorization of communication query is realized in the performance of gender reveal party fails. Specifically, in the GASP of surprise (sometimes a scream in horror, sometimes misogynist disgust at the sight of pink) in response to a “failure” in the presumed uneventfulness of racialized (non-trans) gender becoming. In this framework, the fail elicits an affective response that communicates ideology as embodied despite lacking an agential interlocutor. Indeed, the fail communicates at the level of embodied ideology such that the actors—party attendees, everyday folks—are responding to a rupture in normative conceptualizations of gender saliency in racist cisheterosexist terms that merely affirms their own sense of (racist cisheterosexist) gender as an unquestioned “fact,” as common sense.

Jack Halberstam theorizes failure as a queer art “activated through the function of negation rather than in the mode of positivity” (110) where “the queer subject stands between heterosexual optimism and its realization” (106). That is, as in failing to appease the optimism driving racialized cisheteronormativity as an uneventful unfolding of sex/gender intelligibility. For Halberstam, queer failure refuses to “acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and [is thus understood] as a form of critique” (88). As a form of critique, queer failure highlights the structural constrains that pre-determine and distinguish winners from losers. And in a cisheteropatriarchal capitalist structure founded on white supremacy, the “successful” gender reveal party succeeds at securing familial and nation stability through the projection of patrilineal inheritance rights and practices. José Esteban Muñoz characterizes queer failure as an embodied and mundane “mode of escape” from the “dominant order and its systemic violence” (172). In this regard, queer failure is constitutive of minoritarian subjectivity. However, and to be clear, queer failure does not highlight the subject as a failure sans culture; rather, queer failure implicates the ways in which culture has “failed to make room for and to affirm non-normative embodiment, identification, and subjectivity” effectively producing the effect of a failing subject who merely fails imposed normative criteria (LeMaster, “Pedagogies” 86). The gender reveal party fail, so understood, refuses racist cisheterosexist interpellation and thus performs an ideological rupture. In this regard, the dis-ease the gender reveal party fail provokes marks a trans monstrous becoming of potentiality that refuses racist cisheterosexist interpellation if but only for a moment.

In my mediated performance, A Trans Monstrous Reflection, a trans monster prepares for a gender reveal party. To accomplish this, the trans monster decorates a box in which they place rainbow-colored balloons. Throughout the performance, the trans monster unpacks Stryker’s theorization of trans monstrosity and, in turn, explores the potential in trans rage. In so doing, the trans monster volleys between setting the gender reveal party up for disaster and enacting rage against a racist and cisheterosexist structure exhibiting both the means by which one becomes monstrous (e.g., through the repetition of gender performance rituals expressed through the preparing of a gender reveal party) and the resulting monstrous becomings that are realized in embodied affective responses to racist cisheterosexist materiality (e.g., destruction of the scene through a failure). As we near the end of the performance, the trans monster secures the box, ensuring the rainbow-colored balloons are enclosed. As the trans monster does this they disclose that they are preparing for the party by designing its failure. Indeed, the trans monster clarifies: “a gender reveal party fail isn’t happenstance. Rather, the fail reflects an intentional energetic force of rage generated by trans monsters everywhere working to unravel the very foundation of an arbitrary and hegemonic compulsory gender performance predicated on racist cisheterosexism.” The film closes with a tight shot on the completed gender reveal box. The shot widens and fades to black.

The box that closes the film is inspired by the gender reveal box featured in a gender reval party fail video uploaded to YouTube by Mojahed Jobran (“Gender Reveal”).5 The couple, who eagerly anticipates pink or blue balloons in Jobran’s video, opens the box only to find rainbow-colored balloons ascending. Someone has pranked them (the trans monster?). And their disappointment reveals the potential in a gender reveal that fails (to easily acquiesce to racialized cisheterosexist ideology). To consider the gender reveal party fail as ideological rupture is to imbue the moment with communicative meaning that works against the common sense ordering racialized cisheterosexism as an uneventful cultural enactment. In the end, the gender reveal party fail is anything but inconsequential. Rather, it holds within it the potential to intervene in the performative sedimentation of racist cisheterosexism. Though, it can be difficult to discern such when we refuse to decenter the saliency of racialized gender normativity. And to this, the trans monster would rather fail at the outset than acquiesce to a cultural order designed to fail its non-normative subjects. With that, I invite you to join me in a performance of trans monstrosity.


  1. The first iteration of this performance was staged at the Empty Space theatre at Arizona State University and featured in the Encyclopedia Show during the fall semester of 2018. A second iteration of the performance was staged at University of New Mexico as part of the Department of Communication and Journalism’s spring 2019 colloquium series on Queer/Trans Studies. A third and final public iteration of the performance was staged at the 2019 meeting of the National Communication Association as part of a Critical/Cultural Communication Studies performance panel titled Performing Cultural Monstrosity as Embodied Means of Survival.
  2. Karvunidis manages Bianca’s account. While teasing the implications are outside of the scope of this paper, I think it important to note Karvunidis’s personal Instagram account is set to private while Bianca’s is public.
  3. Stryker later acknowledges her early monstrous work “inadvertently perpetuated the racist trope of imaging blackness as the unmarked and unacknowledged condition on which the existence of whiteness depends” (“More Words” 42).
  4. My intent is not to make light of the very violent effects many of these fails have enacted but to draw our attention to the potential in failure as a mark of discursive resistance to racist cisheterosexist ideology. Indeed, it is key to note, for instance, that some of these fails have resulted in environmental destruction (e.g., Dennis Dickey, an off-duty US Border Patrol agent, started a 47,000-acre wildfire; see Farzan) and bodily harm (e.g., broken limbs, getting hit with sports balls, untrained and unregulated detonation of explosives).
  5. This video (the cardboard box, specifically) served as the inspiration for this trans monstrous reflection on gender reveal party fails as ideological ruptures.
  6. [from Script] All vocal performances and sound editing by Benny LeMaster. Each character is a morphed variation of LeMaster’s voice. Note on “SUSAN STRYKER”: This vocal performance is not of/by Susan Stryker. Rather, it is a performed excerpt from her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” published in a 1994 issue of the journal GLQ: A Journal in Lesbian and Gay Studies.
  7. [from Script] Opening sequence soundtrack credit: Tin Bowls from Outer Space by Daniel Birch, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
  8. [from Script] Scissor cutting sound effect credit: Cutting with Scissors by Rodzuz, licensed under Creative Commons: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication. This sound effect is used intermittently throughout the film.
  9. [from Script] Primary soundtrack incorporates elements from: Non-linear by Simon Mathewson, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NCSA 3.0 US); Dizhetal by Ṩtrannye Ẏagodi, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US); and Resound by Julie Licata, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0).
  10. [from Script] Added suspenseful soundscape credit: The Bridge (Horror I) by David Hilowitz, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
  11. [from Script] Choir soundscape elements credit: Machinamentum Interruptus by Gavin Gamboa, licensed under Creative Commons: By AttributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US).
  12. [from Script] Gamboa, Machinamentum Interruptus.
  13. [from Script] Closing sequence soundtrack credit: Birch, Tin Bowls from Outer Space.

Appendix: Detailed Script

Works Cited

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  • Calafell, Bernadette Marie. Monstrosity, Performance, and Race in Contemporary Culture. Peter Lang, 2015.
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  • Conquergood, Dwight. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” The Drama Review, vol. 46, no. 2, 2002, pp. 145-156.
  • Farzan, Antonia Noori. “A Border Patrol Agent threw a Gender-reveal Party. He Ended up Starting a 47,000-acre Wildfire.” The Washington Post, 1 Oct. 2018. Accessed 1 Aug. 2019.
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  • Jobran, Mojahed. “Gender Reveal Party Fail.” YouTube, uploaded by Mojahed Jobran, 13 Nov. 2016.
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  • Lugones, María. “Methodological Notes toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy, edited by Ada Mara Isasi-Daz and Eduardo Mendieta, Fordham, 2011, pp. 68-86.
  • —.“Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 742-759.
  • McLaren, Peter. “Schooling the Postmodern Body: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Enfleshment.” Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics, edited by Henry A. Giroux, The State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 144-173.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
  • Ridolfo, Jim and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009. Accessed 20 Jan 2020.
  • Roen, Katrina. “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2001, pp. 253-263.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Stryker, Susan. “More Words about ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein.’” GLQ, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 39-44.
  • —. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994, pp. 237-254.
  • Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. New York University Press, 2008.

After the Ink Dried but Before History was a Woman’s

Remembering, Renaming, Rewriting

Woman. Othered. Intelligent. Celebrity. Victim. Survivor: these are all characterizations of how Olive Oatman’s identity has been molded. As a teenager, Olive Oatman was captured by the Apache tribe and then traded to the Mohave tribe where she lived within the Mohave culture for five years. After forcibly being returned to the colonists, a then-illiterate Olive encountered Reverend Royal B. Stratton who agreed to pen her autobiography. Oatman’s words became Stratton’s, and quickly her story became appropriated to fit his professional goals of rising within the religious community. During the nineteenth century, women’s individual identities were forced into gendered spaces where the men controlled the public and women were forced to remain in the private domain.1 Nancy Weitz Miller writes about the seventeenth century, but these problematic spaces have proven to be apparent throughout history and continue to be maintained by the rhetoric employed within this patriarchal culture: the separation between genders “secur[es] authority […] in an effort to keep them in a submissive position” (273). Stratton used this historical silencing to overtake Oatman’s narrative and formulate an identity that would enforce the separation between cultures and continue the religious narrative of pious, white, men. Olive Oatman managed to break through this dominant narrative by refusing to allow her voice to be silenced by the patriarchy. Olive Oatman strategized her resistance by employing several rhetorical strategies to appeal to the audience’s pathos, through her use of ethos, voice, and identity.

Margot Mifflin explains that Oatman’s lectures spanned the locations of Toledo, Ohio, Evansville, New York City, and other locations, and the response to her lectures were all the same:

“The audience listened with breathless interest, and all were deeply affected.” […] She packed the house: “Her pathetic story, surpassing in interest the most thrilling romance, was told with an unaffected simplicity and grace and a touching pathos that went to every heart and drew tears from eyes unused to weep. Miss Oatman evinces much dramatic power in the grouping of incidents”. (169)

She used Stratton’s ethos of the pious, white, male by acting as his tool to support his message. Oatman began her speech by explaining that she is not talking to her audience as a “public lecturer” (1), but instead is standing before the audience as a “narrator of events” (1) where she feels she has a “duty” (18) to present what she “experience[d]” (1) and “observ[ed]” (1) during her captivity. Using the words narrator, duty, and experience provides her connection to the audience, purpose of her speech, and ethos for speaking her own voice instead of continuing to let the public form her identity. In this sense, she simultaneously built her own authority before separating from him and his book tour, and making the public lectures her own. Oatman used the Othered identity the public cast her in as a catalyst for control of her identity and power as a woman. Focusing on the rhetorical aspects of identity employed in her speech, she resisted the public’s assumptions about what it means to be a captive who is Othered and displaced.

Olive Oatman is Othered because of her physical appearance, her lived experiences, and how her celebrity status causes the public to interpret and label her identity. The information regarding Olive Oatman comes from Bowling Green State’s archival collection, which houses her notes outlining her handwritten speech, the newspaper articles, as well as Stratton’s narrative which was reportedly relaying Oatman’s captivity narrative. Books, articles, and movies touch upon the problems Stratton causes to Oatman’s identity and the work she completed during her lifetime, but do not call attention to the rhetorical or feminist impacts that Oatman made. Examining Oatman’s narrative through the lenses of feminism and rhetoric allows the audience to investigate the rhetorical choices surrounding her captivity narrative that she used as a vehicle to employ a multiplicity of identities, which furthers and continues Oatman’s resistance to how the public writes her story within the dominant narrative.

Olive Oatman’s microhistory is a single event that represents how one narrative fits within a genre of forgotten, misrepresented, and Othered women who have contributed to the field. Microhistory, according to Istavan Szijarto and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson, “giv[es] a completely different picture of the past from investigations about nations, states, or social groupings stretching over decades, centuries, or whatever” (5) by examining a single event in history.2  This allows for an alternative recognition of the impact less recognized figures have made in society and presents other identities for that individual. Additionally, this article demonstrates how one person has the ability to add to the collective of women who have made significant changes to rhetoric and feminism, but have been overshadowed or who are “often dominated by ‘a male approach to the world’” (Myatt 41).3 As rhetorical scholars, women have the opportunity to continue the tradition of unearthing Othered identities.

Othering Olive Oatman: Captivity Narratives as Displacement

Identity and being Othered are terms within the pharmakon that both help the public relate to a group, but also isolate a person if the term does not connect with the majority who have socially constructed the boundaries in which people use to be identified with. Identity can be explained as “something that one does in language; or, more exactly, identity matters as something that one does to the audience through the expression of who or what one is” (Anderson 4).4 The group examining a person or action creates the structure in which a person identifies or does not identify with the collective. When a person does not identity with the majority they become situated on the outside of that society where they are Othered: that the collective “establish[es] a sense of identity and the mode by which they establish a relation to one another” (Davis 126). An identification can indeed cause the separation between the collective and the identified, making that person “Othered.”

Olive Oatman is known as “the girl with the blue tattoo” (see Fig. 1). Mifflin refers to Oatman by this nickname, and titles her book after the tattoo on Oatman’s chin that garnered this identity: The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Oatman’s tale began in 1851 (at the age of fourteen), when she and her family began traveling west with a caravan of Mormons who were following John Brewster to what they believed was the “land of Bashan” in California. During the expedition, the Oatman family separated from the group as they entered into Arizona. Soon after the Oatmans detached from the group, they encountered Native Americans who killed the majority of her family resulting from an altercation over food. After witnessing the murder of her parents and siblings, Oatman and her sister, Mary Ann, were spared but taken as captives by the Yavapai tribe (Olive referred to them as the Apaches) who held them hostage for a year. She and Mary Ann were traded to the Mohaves. Mary Ann eventually died of starvation. After five years of life with the Mohave tribe, Olive returned to Fort Yuma in California when the Commanding Lieutenant Colonial Burke sent a letter to the Mohave, by way of Francisco, a Yuma Indian who was acting as a representative for Fort Yuma. The letter demanded the safe return of Olive Oatman (Mifflin 104). Francisco conveyed the threat that there were “millions of whites lurking in the surrounding mountains [who] would kill them and all the local Indians if they didn’t give her back” (Mifflin 106). After much deliberation among the Mohave, Oatman was returned to the colonists.

A full-length photo of Olive Oatman standing in a floor-length, long-sleeved dark dress. She is posing with one hand resting on a decorative wall. She looks at the camera but isn't smiling. Her face tattoo is visible even from a distance.

Fig. 1. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Upon her immediate return, Oatman was interviewed by Col. Burke. She was able to answer him in English. Burke asked Olive: “How did the Mohaves treat you and your sister” (Kroeber 312)? She answered, “‘Very well.’ They had never whipped her but always treated her well” (312). Burke continued, “Did the Mohaves give you plenty to eat” (312)? Oatman again answered “yes” (312).5 From this initial encounter, we can compare how Oatman’s initial reaction to her time with the Mohave followed her general experience explained throughout her speech later in her life despite how the media and Royal B. Stratton decided to narrate her captivity.

During her time with the Mohave, Olive and Mary Ann received face tattoos comprised of “five thick vertical bars that stretched from her jaw line to her lower lip” (Mifflin 79). These tattoos visually marked the girls as outsiders to the colonists. Oatman’s tattoo visually separated her from the public, and was the reason for much of her celebrity status as her tattoo served as a way to Other Oatman; however, this paper is not focused on the transculturation that her tattoo caused, but on the actions after her tattoo gained Oatman notoriety. William B. Rice writes that Olive Oatman’s rescue caused her to be “celebrated” as the “Indian captive” (97). After Oatman’s deliverance from the Mohaves in February 1856, the story of her trials was recounted all over California in “the letters of correspondents and in articles which appeared in many news papers through a cumbersome system of exchange” (97). The Los Angeles Star published several articles updating the public about Oatman’s whereabouts, who visited her, and how she was progressing after being rescued. One article reads, “Miss Oatman is in her sixteenth year, without a relative save a young brother, as poor as herself, without education, and without even a knowledge of her native language” (“Miss Olive Oatman”). Not only is the information inaccurate, but the newspaper paints Olive Oatman as a victim in the eye of the public. Oatman was nineteen when she returned to Fort Yuma, she also did have knowledge of her native language. While she could not write, she was able to converse. The Sacramento Daily Union described Oatman as having her faculties “somewhat impaired by her way of life” (“Olive Oatman”). Again, Olive was portrayed as someone lacking the mental capacity to survive in her native culture, despite proof that she had survived in multiple environments. These newspaper articles, along with her tattoo, displaced Oatman among the public and made her into a celebrity figure where the majority of the population was unable to relate to her experience, and took the word of the media which was generated to the masses.

While Olive Oatman still remembered her native tongue, she possessed no written literacy skills. Unable to write the events that took place during her captivity, until later in her life, meant that someone else needed to record her narrative for her. Royal B. Stratton penned Oatman’s narrative and published a book on her captivity; however, the diction he used to write her story largely conflicted with the diction in the public lectures Oatman gave later in life, as well as the first interview. For example, Stratton quoted Oatman as saying, “‘One little incident took place on the morning of my departure, that clearly reflects the littleness and meanness that inheres in the general character of the Indian […] the son of the chief came and took all my beads, with every woolen shred he could find about me, and quietly told me that I could not take them with me’” (264-5). The attitude of the Mohave portrayed here differed from the answers previously given in the interview by Oatman, and found later throughout this article.

These differences suggest a conflict in Stratton’s views and Oatman’s experiences. Stratton’s views are reflective of dominant power structures which have historically silenced anyone who was not a white, straight, male. In essence, Stratton’s views that were projected in colonial society, represented so few, but were projected onto everyone became a “counterpublic memory that disrupts visions of life as it was, is, and will be” (Enoch 62).6 His use of a captivity narrative follows a structure that presents one perception of events, not even represented by Olive Oatman.

The definition of captivity narratives I am referring to comes from Brian McGinty where he writes that

The Indian captivity narrative was a quintessentially American form, a literary reflection of the long struggle between the European invaders and the Native peoples of North America for control of the continent. The narratives were first-person accounts written by whites who had been snatched away from their homes and families by marauding “savages,” made to endure unimaginable cruelties, and later (as a result of either escape or rescue) “redeemed”—that is, returned to their white families. Although typically attributed to the captives themselves, the narratives were almost always shaped, if not entirely composed, by other writers. (161-2)

Oatman’s captivity narrative is no exception to this form. Her narrative, written by Stratton, is a reflection from an American perspective and presents a power struggle between the Indigenous and colonial people. Stratton wrote from Olive’s voice, and presented the Native Americans as “savages,” but then Olive Oatman was indeed redeemed upon her return to the colonists. The problem lies not only between the power structure of cultures, but the power struggle between the author and subject, man and woman, and victim and survivor duality. When Oatman talks of the chief’s daughter, Topeka, during her speech Oatman declares “may God bless the poor forest girl” (58) following her explanation that Topeka had only wanted Oatman to be happy. On the other hand, Oatman addresses a monument named after Oatman by explaining that the monument is “handing down to posterity a key to the sad remembrances of my life” (58) marking her as “one of the most unfortunate of women” (58). While circumstances had made her a slave, she was treated with kindness by the Mohave, but the media depicted all Native Americans as evil and Oatman as helpful despite her strength in surviving captivity, famine, and language barriers as an adolescent.7 Her graceful attitude when speaking of Topeka implies this behavior. The western community wanting to cement the identity of a victim is what Oatman is remarking as harmful. Oatman’s story is a tragedy filled with loss; however, her narrative is also one filled with a complex identity composed of strength, courage, and survival, and having a monument named after her towards the Mohave tribe only furthers the misrepresentation of her story and the attitude of hate and blame towards the tribe.

Similar to the monument, the genre of captivity narratives comprises the same problematic duality of victim/survivor. This duality possesses reciprocal identities with opposing properties for one individual. On the one hand, the individual has faced a traumatic experience where (s)he was victimized. On the other hand, the victim becomes the survivor by living through and overcoming the traumatic experience. Authors like Malea Powell present impactful captivity narratives; however there is still the potential for problems with employing this genre, i.e., Stratton’s embellishment of Olive Oatman’s account and removal of her voice as a woman, author, and experiencer.

Retelling/creating these narratives becomes problematic with the limited duality of survivor/victim through circulation. Several captivity narratives were written by proxy or years after the captivity had taken place, leaving room for the author to misrepresent, control, or limit the identity of the “captive.” Brian McGinty writes that the formula for not only Oatman’s captivity narrative, but the majority of captivity narratives, follows the formulation of describing

a “brutal” Indian attack on an innocent white family and the forcible capture of two members of the family. It detailed a long list of cruelties that the captives suffered at the hands of the Indians. It related heroic efforts to “rescue” the captives, and it concluded with the “redemption” of one of them. It followed the pattern of many of the narratives in that it was written by a clergyman and adopted a vehemently anti-Indian tone. (164)

Stratton’s intention of writing Oatman’s narrative was in his self interest. Mifflin explains that Stratton’s pursual of Oatman’s story was to “deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating for his publisher, Whitton, Towne and Company, an arm of the Methodist Book Concern, which was trying to boost book sales in order to fund less lucrative church projects” (Mifflin 136-7). In Stratton’s version, Oatman was written with the same duality of victim/survivor that the public used to formulate her identity in a flat two-dimension persona of Otherness instead of the complexity within an identity. Lorryane Carroll’s book, Rhetorical Drag, argues that “In addition to the specific historical contexts that conditioned each narrative, I think this pleasurable position, with its discursive power, accounts for the choices these men made to write in the first person” (188). Carroll presents several narratives, excluding Oatman, that follow the principal of having narratives retold as fiction rather than fact, to fit the agenda of the author rather than retelling the accounts of the captive. Having the choices of the author overshadow the protagonist removes the complex nature of identity and instead writes identity in only the forms in which benefits the author. Carroll’s statement is applicable to Oatman’s narrative as she had her story rewritten by Stratton. For most captivity narratives, this would call into question the authenticity of the text; and Oatman’s narrative is no exception. Oatman herself called into question the authenticity of the text by presenting a dissenting narrative to the public where she was able to reframe her identity through her public lectures. As shown above, Col. Burke’s interview with Oatman contradicts Stratton’s account of Oatman’s experience; Stratton writes a narrative that reflected the public’s popular belief of Native Americans in order to sell a best seller rather than penning Oatman’s actual thoughts about her time with the Mohave tribe.

Since her return to Fort Yuma, Oatman became a public figure because of her circumstances that were visualized through her chin tattoo, marking her as Othered among the people who shared her ethnicity. She was physically and emotionally displaced within each culture.8 Oatman’s chin tattoo initially generated public recognition. Her celebrity status that the public recognition created caused Olive to be cast in different roles that created the identity the public wanted to see her as; she was: a victim, “the girl with the blue tattoo,” a survivor, a Mormon, the sister of Lorenzo Oatman, etc.9 Forcing Oatman into this celebrity role emphasized her displacement as someone who did not fall into the majority population of average citizens, and, therefore, was not part of the collective. Some of these identities were accurate, some were false, and some still remain unknown. The objective of this argument is not to dictate which identity proves to be authentic or inauthentic, but to examine how Oatman took control of her identity by retelling her story in her own voice after the colonial society imposed a displaced identity. Suzanne Bordelon writes that, “although some aspects of ethos are controlled by the rhetor, other elements are shaped by material and social surroundings” (118). This quote is applicable to Oatman’s life because through the disruption of her ethos and appropriation of her identity came her way to alter the disruption and appropriation. Oatman used the social circumstances and material around her to tell her stories, gain back her ethos, pave a space for women in the public, and construct her identity to be dependent on the circumstances.

A Fight for a Voice, the Control of Identification

Olive Oatman’s Voice

Treatment by the Mohave, actions of this tribe, defense of the chief and his family, and seeking out the Mohave after reentering society are four accounts from the lectures Oatman gives where she rewrote the narrative that Stratton gave her, and constructed a new identity that contrasted the image that society and Stratton have forced upon her. Brian McGinty writes about Oatman by describing her as “one of the first women to defy the social stigma attached to women speaking in public. Her personal history was well calculated to attract audiences, and she had the voice, poise, and presence to hold their attention” (McGinty 173). In each account Oatman contrasted the normative captivity narratives and foreshadowed contemporary theories of embodiment, feminism, and identity emphasized in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For instance, Oatman’s rhetorical choice to speak against Stratton’s narrative and the collective’s perspective on her identity embodied the work of Helene Cixous’ twentieth century concept of rewriting the woman to counteract the subversive representation of females in the phallocentric culture10 that affected Oatman from her captivity, removal from captivity, and Stratton’s use of rhetorical drag. While it may have been apparent to Oatman that her life was consumed by the patriarchy of different cultures, it was not until Stratton’s book was released that Oatman began to actively speak against the voices who tried to oppress her.

Four instances of discord between Oatman’s lectures and Stratton’s book will be reviewed, though there are others, in order to provide a chronological variety of Oatman’s experiences throughout her captivity while demonstrating the contradictions between Oatman’s language and Stratton’s diction. Stratton’s narrative was written prior to Oatman’s lectures and constructed through the lens of a patriarchal culture where his words attempted to remove Oatman from her own narrative by replacing her perception of events with how he wanted to view Native Americans. During these instances, we see Oatman posing contemporary questions of feminist rhetoric within her accounts by “Shift[ing] […] attention to the rhetorical work of recovery writ large, investigating the rhetorical work that goes into remembering women, and consequently examining how women’s memories are composed, leveraged, and forgotten, and erased in various contexts and situations” (Enoch 62). Oatman drew attention to the variances in diction, tone, and belief with her refutation of experiences, thereby removing Stratton’s authority and ethos while raising her own.

Friendly is a theme that Oatman presents when describing the actions that the Mohave presented to the Oatman sisters. Mary Ann died from starvation during the drought of 1852 when no substances were able to grow in the valley where they were located. In Oatman’s initial assessment of the Mohave, she recounted that “the chief’s daughter showed some kindness and seemed careful of sister Mary” (36). These thoughts continued to be reflected when “the wife of the chief gave us some wheat and a spot of ground” (37). Despite being a captive, Mary Ann was not the only person who died in this drought. Oatman mentioned on several occasions that the chief’s wife provided them with food while other members of the tribe went without. When Mary Ann died, Olive stated that the “The wife of the chief came and bent over her, the night she [Mary Ann] died, and appeared as did her daughter to weep bitterly” (41). The Mohave displayed actions of consistently caring about the Oatmans’ well-being by feeding the girls before other members of the tribe, allowing her to host a Christian burial, and weeping over Mary Ann after her death. In this example, Oatman is creating a counter public narrative through altering the presentation of memories (Enoch) with her voice. As Cindy Moore writes, the author has the ability to “capture the disruptions, the differences: the textual expressions of female authors intent on shaping their own creative destinies” (193). Oatman is using her voice to share memories that recreate a positive ethos for the Mohave. Oatman shows the empathy and character of the Mohave by sharing how the tribe allowed Oatman to continue with her religious beliefs by burying Mary Ann as she saw fit, and putting the girls’ survival needs before their established members of the tribe.

The Mohave chief continued to protect Oatman after Francisco came to collect Olive Oatman. Once the colonists’ discovered where she was the tribe panicked and “Some were for killing me at once, but the chief forbade it” (49). Oatman was publicly admitting, in a room full of the collective, that the Native Americans’ actions contrasted the typical captivity narrative by not performing “cruelties” towards her, and instead went to great lengths to protect Oatman.11 Oatman was attempting to rewrite the dominant structure by presenting alternative, historical examples while simultaneously demonstrating how a woman could survive and adequately tell her experiences. Britt-Smith’s explanation of individuals creating social change is represented here through Oatman’s protection of the Mohave’s identity as the chief protected her physically. In using her voice and authority as a form of protection, Oatman is implicitly making a rhetorical stance on her ability to control her narrative.

Continuing to form her identity and change public perception, Oatman relayed another instance on how the chief’s family was hospitable during her captivity, and desired that Oatman one day be able to assimilate back into the colonial culture: “The chief’s daughter had always given evidence of a strong attachment to me, and had more than once expressed a desire that I might again enjoy a reunion with the whites. This daughter in accordance with my wishes and greatly to my surprise was sent by her father to accompany me to the Fort” (51). The chief’s daughter, Topeka, was characterized by Oatman as anything other than a “savage.” I might even go as far to describe both of these women as warriors. Two women who protected each other during a journey through the “Wild West” leaving both of their homes to enter unknown territory and not only surviving, but setting a precedent for women who speak up for each other and support each other. Topeka by helping Oatman escape the Yavapai and being part of her Mohave family, and Oatman for telling her experience of how kind Topeka was to Oatman in a room full of colonists who as a society had been known for demonizing Native Americans: both acted as fierce warriors of oppression towards normative narratives. Through this example, Oatman presented, in the nineteenth century, an alternative way to represent women: brave, fierce, supportive people who spoke out against what they perceived as unjust.

Well into her return, and after Stratton’s book was published, Oatman “heard that among the number [of Mohaves coming to negotiate with the Government], was the chief. I sought an interview with him and found that it was not the same chief that reigned when I was among them, but his brother” (56-7). She willingly chose to seek out the man that was responsible for four years of her captivity.12 Upon discovering that the representative was not the same chief, she still went to meet with him: “We met as friends giving the left hand in friendship, which is held as a sacred pledge among some tribes. I conversed with him in his own language, making many inquiries about the tribe” (57). Again, meeting as friends, speaking in their language, demonstrated Oatman’s willingness to challenge social constructions of gender and identity. Oatman did not hesitate when scheduling or discussing her meeting with one of her captors, and referring to him as a friend. Oatman was challenging the Indigenous narrative, while disavowing the victim/survivor duality of a captivity narrative, and presenting herself as a strong woman who challenged counterpublic memories in order to (re)present spaces that women could control, who women could meet with, and how women could refer to different spaces, places, and people.

Stratton’s Appropriation of Oatman’s Identity

Oatman’s public lectures began during the book tour for Stratton’s biography of Oatman’s life; however, her word choices varied dramatically from the language Stratton used in the captivity narrative. Stratton was a minister who citizens looked up to because of his identification as a white, heterosexual man, in a position of power. No one would question the ethos of a man of God speaking to his audience in a masculine, pious, space. Being able to read and write gave him all the opportunities that Olive Oatman did not possess, and Stratton used this to his advantage. Stratton “marked” her by physically inscribing his own voice over what Oatman had to say, and by publishing this rhetorical drag, he implicitly told the world that he (as a Caucasian, heterosexual, male, minister) had the authority to tell Olive Oatman’s story as he saw fit, allowing Stratton to narrate the dominant cultural and gendered identity stories that he found appropriate for the collective.13

One example where Stratton’s book contrasted Oatman’s public recollection took place when Olive connected Mary Ann’s death with the drought and famine that plagued the valley, but Stratton wrote that Oatman claimed “‘The last of our family dead, and all of them by tortures inflicted by Indian savages’” (196). Clearly opposed Stratton’s recount of events, Oatman spoke of Mary Ann’s death lacking torture, and instead listed what the Mohave did to help Olive Oatman with her grief, while the tribe grieved as well. The difference in tone and attitude between Stratton’s text and the opposing belief that Oatman directly relates to the public, questions Stratton’s narrative as a whole. Lorryane Carroll categorizes this behavior when she writes that “By impersonating captive women, male writers recognized and appropriated this experiential credential while retaining their own positions of patriarchal and often institutional privilege” (8). Carroll is not directly referencing Oatman’s experience, but the quote demonstrates how Oatman was performing her identity and denying Stratton’s construction of the typical captivity narrative where the “savage” is responsible for the helpless female’s death.

Another example is when Stratton’s account argued that Francisco was the reason that Oatman survived, not the chief. Stratton wrote that Francisco, fearing that the Mohave would kill her, refused to return to the Fort without her. Again, Stratton writes as if Oatman stated the following beliefs:

She began to fear for her life, especially as she saw the marked changes in the conduct of the Indians toward her. The wife of the chief seemed to feel kind still toward her; but yet she plainly evinced that the doings of the last few days had compelled her to disguise her real feelings. The chief was changed from a pleasant don’t-care spectator of Olive’s situation, to a sullen, haughty, overbearing tyrant and oppressor. (253)

The concept of redemption for women is apparent in Stratton’s text where he portrayed the Mohave as wanting to commit unspeakable acts to the captive, and she is sent a savior by the colonists. In Stratton’s version, we can see him “leveraging” his views to hyperbolize the role of the Native Americans as dangerous outsiders, with Oatman as a victim who needed savin, and protection. This portrayal subsequently writes women as weak and submissive who are props for the male agenda. These depictions help further the normative power constructions of violence toward the identification of minorities.

Stratton embodied the latter sentiments of misrepresentation, in this last example, when he wrote that Topeka, and her mother, the chief’s wife “‘seemed not wholly insensible to my condition, these were the wife and daughter of the chief. They manifested a sympathy that had not gathered about me since the first closing in of the night of my captivity upon me'” (197). “Not wholly indispensable” and “not gathered about me since” are contradictory to Oatman’s use of the words “had always” and sentiments that the chief’s family had always done what was in the best interest of Oatman’s survival. Stratton’s portrayal represented hatred toward the Native Americans that caused an inability to generate acceptance of accounts that went against the collective views of Native Americans.14 Stratton failed to observe the “various contexts and situations” that made Oatman’s experience, and allowed the audience to initially understand the complexity within her identity. The parts of her stories that did not fit into Stratton’s initiative and the collective’s colonialism became erasures, and Oatman’s identity was forced into a two-dimensional character where the woman was subservient to the patriarchal hierarchy. Oatman’s made the decision to overcome the displaced identities the colonists used to define Oatman: the image of her tattoo, the fact that she was held captive, the place of a woman within the colonist settlement, and instead, reclaim her authority by creating her own disruption to reclaim what she lost: her voice and identity.

The colonial views refused to integrate different societal mindsets into the collective view until Oatman’s defiance forced the public to consider the implications of forcing an individual into an identity that follows the cultural and historical beliefs of the collective. Once again Stratton attempted to revise Oatman’s voice to fit into the collective view by combining Oatman’s contrasting words with the collective tone: “‘I learned to chide my hasty judgment against All the Indian race, and also, that kindness is not always a stranger to the untutored and untamed bosom. I saw in this that their savageness is as much a fruit of their ignorance as of any want of a susceptibility to feel the throbbings of true humanity, if they could be properly appealed to’” (200). The characterization of the Mohave as a tribe that had no sympathy and had no regard for the lives of captives because they themselves admitted to their barbaric characterizations goes against the actions that Oatman described in her lectures. This narrative paints Oatman as a victim who is subject to everyone’s will for her life—which goes against the actions of her public speaking. The accounts that Olive Oatman presented are clearly contradictory to the writing of Stratton. The Othered identity that Stratton and the public cloak Oatman with prove to be the exigence she needed to reclaim her narrative and identity.

Oatman’s public discord with the previously published “autobiography” allowed her to (re)present her identity. Her actions not only presented a contrast with Stratton, but the normative behavior for women of the nineteenth century who were typically excluded. This residual behavior has led twenty-first century women to be celebrated for finding their voices because they have been silent for so long. The fact that Oatman had so much going against her, and yet still had the courage to find her voice, is an example to everyone who has ever been oppressed. In addition to finding her voice, she spoke it in a social construction where the audience established a general consensus of a belief system that represented the collective view in which she had to contend. Oatman’s courageous acts reflect disruption to the constructed norms of society imposed by history and continuously restored by institutions of power.15

By using Stratton in the same way as he used her, Oatman was able to break through the social barrier of the time to present alternative views, and have society begin to question the ethos behind captivity narratives. Oatman’s public resistance through her lectures were not only presented as contentious to Stratton’s word, but to the collective belief. She, an Othered woman, offered alternative perspectives to understand cultural and gendered identities. Oatman was not arguing for one identity or belief, but attempting to cultivate a discussion and challenge the normative constructions: “‘The goal of feminine rhetoric is not to achieve a sense of victory over the audience, to persuade them that one’s position is the correct one, but rather to empower the audience—to inspire it to believe that it has a credible voice and thus to negate that insecurity that allows the status quo to operate unchallenged’” (213).16 By posing continual examples that deny the normative narratives of the Native Americans, Oatman allowed for the collective to begin to create a social circulation of her version of events, and opening alternative beliefs for the audience on identity, power, and current constructions.

Rhetorical Identities: The Importance of Being Woman

When Oatman returned to Fort Yuma, her tattoo made her “Othered,” her initial inability to write made her vulnerable, allowing for Stratton and the collective to mark her as the Other. We have discussed how Oatman used her otherness to transform her identity from a negative displacement into positive différance. All of these factors made her what Luce Irigaray describes as the “scape goat” where “woman will therefore constitute the target, the object, the stake, of a masculine discourse, of a debate among men, which would not consult her, would not concern her. Which, ultimately, she is not supposed to know anything about” (13). There was a high potential for Oatman to fall into the dominant narrative where the women faced rhetorical drag and continued to be forgotten in the captivity narrative, but again we see that Oatman used what seemingly condemned her into rhetoric that overpowered the phallocentrism.

Oatman’s speech ends with her addressing the women in the audience: “allow me to address a few words to the young ladies of this audience” (Oatman 59). By making this statement, Oatman was drawing attention to the importance of women in society and the future. She went on to explain her hardships and alluded to the conclusion that she overcame every obstacle and young women have the possibility to do the same. Her recognition also allowed for the platform for more women to “talk back.”17 Speaking the events that transpired could not have been an easy task; she was talking about a culture that has historically been despised and oppressed by the colonists, and yet she spoke of the intimate details surrounding her relationship with the Native Americans. Oatman set out to not let the opinions of the collective dictate her history. bell hooks talks about the courage that speaking up takes, especially as women who are viewed as Othered, oppressed, and lack power:

True speaking is not solely an expression of creative power, it is an act of resistance, a political gesture that challenges the politics of domination that would render us nameless and voiceless. As such is a courageous act; as such it represents a threat. To those who wield oppressive power that which is threatening must necessarily be wiped out, annihilated, silenced. (126)

The act of speaking reclaims the power that the public intended to take away from women. Oatman’s speech implicitly addressed what a woman could do as much as her identity or relationships to varying cultures. Oatman’s reframing of her identity through the speech she continued to give highlights the ways in which she endeavored to control the narrative of her captivity and present alternative ways to view her identity as a positive image as a survivor, woman, and celebrity. She achieves this by dismantling gendered spaces and challenging normative, social constructions.

“The girl with the blue tattoo” may have gained infamy because of her tattoo, that set her apart from other captivity narratives, but the importance and relevance of her speech, the reason her lectures went on for years was because of her ability to wield rhetoric so effectively that she was able to talk back in a way that used the dominant narrative to dismantle the hierarchy, and  therefore removing the identity forced upon her in the dominant narrative. Oatman was able to shift the attention from the object (her victimhood) to the subject (her malleable identity within cultures): “It is that act of speech, ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of moving from object to subject, that is the liberated voice” (hooks 128). Oatman had something to say, and she said it, both through words and silence. What she did not say was represented through her performance: the act of feminism and the roles of cultures.

Olive Oatman clearly made important leaps and bounds in rhetorical and feminist practices, but why have her actions not been given the credit? Karlyn Kohrs Campbell attributes the lack of acknowledgment as a problem that we still have as a society by failing to recognize the women who have altered history: “One important but difficult aim is to identify the rhetorical theories that informed the practices of women activists in the past” […She continues:] “Another is to identify the distinctive characteristics of early women’s rhetorical practices, including the strategies they preferred and the representations of themselves as rhetors and of others as audiences that emerge out of these practices” (125). While Kohrs Campbell does not specifically reference Olive Oatman’s life, the exigencies Campbell is establishing can be applied to Oatman’s life as a microhistory within the larger context of women’s roles.

A woman claiming her role, denying the victim identification, and choosing to be an inspiration of rhetorical womanhood are just a few examples of the many ways Olive Oatman can be identified, as she demonstrated to us. She took back her voice, she re-wrote her narrative, and reclaimed what it meant to be an Othered woman, a rhetorical woman. Olive Oatman rose above the challenges and spoke up for herself as well as for the other women and young girls of the time. The problem with forgetting who Olive Oatman was, what she did for her societ(ies) and with her identities, cannot continue if progress is to be made. This is the argument that Oatman’s actions were making in the nineteenth century! And yet where are they today? Why do we not hear of Oatman or speak of her work?

Olive Oatman’s actions were before her time and yet painfully imperative to the collective of her time. The choice to use her displacement as a tool, to “talk back,” to use her “Othered” identity in order to demonstrate how identity is malleable, to be a woman in a place of authority during the nineteenth century was revolutionary. Seemingly, Oatman had everything going against her. She was captured as a child, lived among Native Americans for five years, and was an uneducated woman whose past was unknown to the colonists, leading to her displacement; her voice was taken from her by Stratton who used his power to construct his identity of how he wanted her to be perceived, along with the news outlets and the public, and yet she resisted it all. Oatman took control, molded her identity from a negative perception of Othered (victim, etc.) into a positive perception of survivor, woman, author, lecturer, and more. Oatman’s actions continue to be lessons from both rhetorical and feminist perspectives. She taught us that boundaries should not exist, and that flexibility is a necessity to survival. Our identities change based on our experiences and surroundings, our Kairos.18

Oatman’s work pre-dated work with rhetoric and feminism which forced the public to re-evaluate the socially constructed identity forced upon Oatman, the voice of women, and the ethos of captivity narratives. Through Oatman’s speech, she reclaimed her identity and challenged the public’s conceptions of culture, gender, and power by using rhetorical thinking to inform social change. She put into practices theories that were not yet written by demonstrating how identity is a multifaceted tool that can be used to resist structures and challenge gendered roles. These assertions are grounded in Oatman’s language and use of spatial temporality which helped build her malleable identity that functioned as a medium to speak back to others’ conjectures of her identity. Alice Johnston Myatt (and others) call to challenge dominant narratives so that our society can continue to evolve, by sharing Olive Oatman’s rhetorical resistance where she pushed back against her socially constructed identification, the acknowledgement and recollection of resistance work can continue.19

Women’s opinions are alterations of the phallocentric discourse. They offer multiple perspectives that have the possibility to add to the thought process and expand the mind into a “new consciousness”; but how can we do so without microhistories of the past? As I write this version of Olive Oatman’s history and contribution, I am reflecting on the contribution I am making by not letting the ink dry, making sure women of the past do not become erasures, and adding to the collection of women’s rhetorical history.20 Rebecca Solnit avows, “I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope they will get to say it” (10). There has always been and will always be a need for questioning, disrupting, and resisting dominance as it continues to emerge in socially constructed spaces. Oatman’s microhistory is just one example of where and how a woman refused to accept the categorization of her identity within the dominant structure. Olive Oatman’s choice to not accept the identity created by others, her determination to retell her story, and reclaim her voice to forge an alternative identity encourages us to rethink the role women have had in rhetorical history as we continue writing, rewriting, speaking, and talking back with the women of the past, future, and present.


  1. Gendered spaces is referencing Nancy Weitz Miller’s work in “Ethos, Authority, and Virtue for Seventeenth-century Women Writers.”
  2. Laurie A. Britt-Smith follws a similar assertion when she references Dorothy Day’s beliefss, “The locus of social change is found not in institutional or legislative mandate but within the heart of the individual (Britt-Smith 208).
  3. Myatt is quoting Sue Rosser.
  4. Dana Anderson is elaborating on Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification.
  5. These questions are taken from A.L. and Clifton B. Kroeber’s article “Olive Oatman’s First Account of Her Captivity Among the Mohave.”
  6. Enoch is drawing from Carole Blair.
  7. “Slave” is how she is referenced according to the captivity narratives and how she referred to herself within the speech at times.
  8. Katrina Powell explains that “Displacement narratives do not merely reflect the material conditions of a person’s forced removal or dislocation” (3).
  9. David Blakesley uses Kenneth Burke’s theory on identification: “We have bodies and experiences and a common language, each of which can help us identify with each other. Yet we also have unique experiences that we may interpret differently from others, keeping us divided” (15).
  10. Cixous writes that “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man” (Cixous 877).
  11. Reference to Brian McGinty’s wording in the structure of a captivity narrative.
  12. Oatman used the word “captivity” within her speech.
  13. See page 879 of “Laugh of Medusa” for Cixous’ twentieth century thoughts on “marked” writing.
  14. Stratton continues with this theme when he writes that Oatman voiced, “‘Every day brought to their ears expressions, casually dropped, showing their spite and hate to the white race. […] They taunted them, in a less ferocious manner than the Apaches, but with every evidence of an equal hate, about the good-for-nothing whites’” (Stratton 1740).
  15. Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch explain disruption as a “social circulation, our move is to also disrupt the public-private divide by suggesting a more fully textured sense of what it means to place these women in a social space, rather than a private space or public space” (24).
  16. Britt-Smith is referencing Karlyn Kohrs Campbell.
  17. Referring to bell hooks’ “Talking Back.”
  18. The definition of Kairos employed here comes from Thomas Rickert where he acknowledges that the tradition comes from the Ancient Greeks and is “a timely or appropriate moment for rhetorical action” (74).
  19. “Refutation often takes the form of resistance or pushback against a particular aspect of an individual’s character or contribution or role in history” (Myatt 49).
  20. Men Explain Things to Me is where Rebecca Solnit discusses how women have been erasures: “Thus coherence—of patriarchy, of ancestry, of narrative—is made by erasure and exclusion” (65).

Works Cited

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