Beyond Choice: Infertility and/as Disability

My primary physician washed her hands and smiled over her shoulder as she said, “There’s no rush, I had my children at 41 and 43.” This was an upbeat follow-up to her claim that I probably didn’t want to get pregnant “this depressed.” Pregnancy during major depression is risky, and my doctor’s suggestion that I could choose to have children later seemed reasonable (even feminist). I delayed a year, and at age 34, learned that I was profoundly infertile. I had blithely assumed, along with my doctor, that I would be fertile-enough until at least 35 if not 40, as I’d so often heard. I did not understand how I could be so infertile without anybody noticing, given my privilege in having consistent healthcare and regular OBGYN check-ups. A few years later, after four failed intrauterine inseminations (IUIs), a privately-funded infertility specialist would tell me I was reacting to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment like someone who was 43 years old. By which she meant, unlike my primary physician, like someone at the end of their fertility. 

Fertility and infertility are simultaneously silenced and subject to constant rhetorical negotiation. While it may seem that one is silenced (infertility) while the other is not (fertility), I am instead suggesting that we are always talking, or not talking, about the two together. The silence speaks to fears of infertility, the intolerable state of the “barren woman, and ignorance about the prevalence of infertility when people are in their twenties and early thirties. These silences operated in my conversation with my doctor, who did not discuss infertility with me, inquire about my pregnancy history, or ask about any biological family members who struggled to get pregnant and/or went into early menopause. At the same time, it is routine to rhetorically engage fertility and infertility by asking friends and strangers if and when they will have any or more children (Bute, “Nobody”). When infertile people respond to probing questions by revealing their struggles to get pregnant, family, friends, and bystanders say “‘your time will come,’ ‘you’re meant to be a mom,’ or ‘don’t try so hard’” (Jarvis, “Invitational,” 19; also see Johnson and Quinlan). Very rarely did anyone, except fellow infertile people, respond to my infertility with anything other than chipper advice.  

Fertility is treated as the “natural” or “default” status until a certain age, while infertility is an inevitable deficit. Instead of accepting this normative, predictable, and ultimately false continuum, I embrace a fluid notion of infertility that waxes and wanes in specific individuals and populations. My notion of infertility encompasses the broader medical, social, and rhetorical histories and contexts in which fertility and infertility are imbricated, which include rhetorics of abortion and birth control, forced sterilization and population control, adoption, and other assisted reproductive technology (ART). Infertility rhetorics must make room for those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or disabled, for those denied adoptions, and/or for single parents, thereby challenging biological and genetic bases as the sole connections to parenthood (Brakman and Scholz). Those who experience infertility may be clinically infertile or may not; I suggest that infertility is not always a clinical diagnosis and is defined by wanting to have children, or the option to have children, and being unable and/or prevented from doing so. To mark my revisions to typical notions of infertility, I could use a new term – maybe “in/fertility” (Marafiote) or, drawing on disability perspectives, “disfertility.” I haven’t done so here because my primary goal is to shift the way broader publics think of infertility (rather than create a neologism broader publics won’t adopt), and to reclaim the term from its currently limited reference to the clinical/physical inability to have children in cisgender women.  

While I’ve sketched infertility broadly, I cannot consider all types of infertility in this essay. I am limiting my examination of assistive reproductive technology (ART), particularly in-vitro fertilization (IVF).[1] Focusing on IVF means focusing on white, cisgender women of means, because we are the ones who are able and encouraged to seek IVF (Britt; Johnson, B.). I am this over-represented woman: white, cisgender, and middle-class (and at the time of treatment, married to a man). In analyzing infertility rhetorics, this over-represented white, cisgender woman threatens to erase the experiences of those who are not like her. I am simultaneously tackling two problems in this essay: that infertility is misrepresented to everyone, causing much pain and limiting the effectiveness of treatment, and that certain people, particularly those who are not white or or straight or able-bodied, are not regarded as worthy of infertility treatment and have been actively harmed through sterilization. I analyze these two issues together not to equate their impacts, but because they are connected at the root. That is, cisgender white women of means don’t have access to infertility treatment in significantly higher numbers simply because they have money (though that helps), but because this is how the system is designed to work: cisgender white women are encouraged to procreate while disabled people, queer people, and people of color are not, in a system that blames infertile people for their infertility. 

Partly because of these complications, and partly because I’ve worked on this essay on and off for nine years, this essay moves in several directions while swirling around issues of choice. I begin by situating infertility in the context of “choice feminism,” noting how infertility is positioned as the result of “bad choices.” To do this, I examine the 2018 Netflix film Private Life in the context of feminist scholarship that dismantles the idea of people simply “choosing” when to have children. In the second section, I trace the eugenic implications of educating people about biological fertility timelines, which simultaneously push white people toward pregnancy and people of color toward sterilization, as represented in “fertility campaigns.” In response, I consider incorporating evaluations of infertility into routine medical care (which would have revealed my infertility to me earlier in my life, for better and worse). Finally, I suggest that locating infertility within the frames of progressive disability studies invites infertile people to resist shame and blame discourses, reconceptualizes infertility outside of deficit models, and values infertility as a feminist-disability intervention into normative decision-making processes about when and why to have, or not have, children 


In Jennell Johnson’s introduction to Graphic Reproduction, she notes: “So this is the point where I must note that I do not have any children.” Conversely, this is the point where I must note that I have one child. After four failed IUIs, I was told I had about a 15% chance of having a child through IVF. I produced four eggs and three embryos, all of which were implanted in my uterus and one of which became my son. My privilege facilitated the birth of my child, as my mother paid for me to go to a top-rated infertility clinic and supported various supplementary treatments (such as acupuncture and months of pre-hormonal treatment). While my treatment is over, I remain impacted by my experience and the continuing consequences of my infertility, particularly navigating the risks of early menopause. And, though it would be wrong for me to claim that I understand the experience of infertility treatment that does not produce a child, I do claim that the identity and experience of infertility is not erased through the birth of a child, nor does it always persist when children do not result from treatment.   

Infertility, Choice Feminism, Reproductive Justice 

Feminist scholarship engages infertility as a “rhetorical vehicle” for discussions of risk, objectification, capitalism, genetics, and Western culture (Sandelowski and de Lacey 33). Christine St. Peter argues that we should group ART with other technologies, such as contraception and abortion, prenatal technologies, and birth-related technology so we can critique the “coercive medical environment in which women are being conditioned to trust, or forced against our will to accept, high-tech interventions in our reproductive lives” (354). In her analysis of choice in relation to abortion, ultrasound, and sterilization, Jennifer Denbow suggests that rhetorics of choice are attached to “autonomy as proper or rational self-governance,” which allows for “the appearance of respecting women’s rights and self-determination while justifying increased surveillance and management of women’s bodies and reproductive decisions” (3).[2]   

Feminist scholarship on infertility is particularly helpful in challenging the idea that people simply “choose” when to have children. In Contemplating Maternity in an Era of Choice: Explorations into Discourses of Reproduction, Hayden and Hallstein argue: “Choice suggests rational deliberation – as if women consider all the options in informed ways, choose the option they prefer, take appropriate action, and achieve their goals.” Instead, “women’s reproductive desires are often ambivalent, vague, and subject to change” (xvii). Palczewski suggests an emphasis on “reproductive freedom” instead of choice, highlighting “the right to have children as equally important as the right not to have them” (73).[3] Jennifer Bute et al. trace reactions to Sylvia Hewlett’s very popular Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, and they ask: “[H]ow are women to be strategic when their choices are limited by lack of access to paid time off, inadequate child care, or fear of losing their jobs?” (63). Tracy Marafiote echoes this claim, and Elissa Foster places the “choice” of getting pregnant against her non-choice of a miscarriage (150).[4] Feminist scholarship has also considered infertility in a global context, noting that while infertility is not without stigma in richer countries, infertile people in these places usually “live in a society that does not force them out of their own houses, curse at them in the streets, or condemn them to a life of poverty and destitution due to their infertility” (Shah and Baxter 109-110; also see Inhorn and Balen; Inhorn).  

Despite this rich scholarship, much of mainstream feminism adopts a fairly simple notion of infertility informed by “choice feminism,” which as Shelley Budgeon explains, “coheres around a set of key principles including a privileging of individual women as best positioned to make choices about how to live; a belief that women are able to unproblematically exercise autonomy because of the achievements of feminism; a claim that traditional feminine norms are no longer connected to gender inequality; and that the role of feminism is to withhold judgment of the choices women make” (12; also see Ferguson; Thwaites). Mainstream, choice feminism confirms dangerous myths surrounding infertility: that it is rare; that cisgender women younger than 35 (even 40) are rarely if ever infertile; that infertility is not an issue for people of color, queer people, trans people, gender non-conforming people, and/or disabled people; that infertility isn’t related to, or embedded in, eugenic histories of procreation and sterilization; and that medical advice about fertility and infertility can be issued without medical testing, examination of family history, and discussion of pregnancy histories.  

The 2018 Netflix film Private Life is worth analyzing because it challenges mainstream choice feminism but leaves misconceptions of infertility intact. It’s important to understand this common rhetorical move, which suggests that people need better choices to prevent infertility, rather than challenging the idea that “better choices” can consistently avoid infertility. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (who had IVF treatments in her 40s), the film examines the infertility journey of Rachel and Richard (who are both white and hyper-educated), a married couple played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. As noted in a Guardian interview with the filmmaker and Hahn, the film indicts second-wave feminism for “lulling women into a false sense of fertility” (Shoard). This is evident in a scene where Rachel and Richard are in their New York apartment getting ready to go to the fertility clinic: 

RACHEL: It totally misrepresents the book. And then it’s like, oh, you know, I don’t understand the  business side of things, which I don’t. But I do know if a guy wrote it it wouldn’t be packaged like a cupcake. 

[RICHARD laughs] 

RACHEL: I’m sick of this shit. Same thing with this whole fertility nightmare. I just feel so betrayed. 

RICHARD: By what? 

[RACHEL is brushing her teeth and talking]  

RACHEL: The bullshit I was fed in college. Feminist ideology. [spits in sink] The lie that I could have a career and then kids. Well obviously that hasn’t panned out. I should send them the bills for our IUIs and IVFs. 

RICHARD: You can’t blame second-wave feminism for our ambivalence about having a kid. 

RACHEL: I’m not ambivalent. 

RICHARD: No now you’re not, because you realize that the boat is leaving the dock. But before you kept changing the deadline, remember? You know, we’ll start as soon as I finish the play. Right after I get this story published. Once I finish the book. 

RACHEL: Are you blaming me? 

RICHARD: No I’m not blaming you. I’m just saying that we need to take some responsibility for the situation. 

RACHEL: A lot of women have babies at 41. I thought I could too. 

RICHARD: Okay. I just don’t think it’s Gloria Steinem’s fault that we can’t get pregnant. 

RACHEL: Whose fault is it then? I guess it is mine. Because I was too busy writing my stupid book. 

The scene ends with Rachel noting that they need to move on and just “repress it, or suppress it, or whichever one is more appropriate.” Like feminist scholarship, the scene suggests that people do not simply “choose” when to get pregnant, though blaming second-wave feminism is a new twist. But rather than blaming “Gloria Steinem,” I would argue that it’s rhetorics of choice, popularized in second-wave feminism’s abortion battles, filtered through choice feminism’s emphasis on personal “freedoms” and “choices,” that misrepresent the realities of when and how pregnancy occurs. Accurate representations of infertility do not align with choice rhetorics that suggest all who can bear children are fertile until 35 or 40. 

A feature of Private Life that’s received little to no attention is the young woman Rachel and Richard recruit as their egg donor – their young niece Sadie (who is not a blood relative). In a film review, Sadie is referred to as “a fecund 20-something who is exploding with fertility but is completely in no way prepared to have a child” (Almendrala). In actuality, Sadie does not perform as expected as an egg donor – she isn’t fertile enough. In the film, she tearfully reports her conversation with the fertility doctor to Rachel and Richard: “He said I didn’t have enough follicles, that I’m a low responder. That someone my age should have way more and my eggs aren’t growing at the right rate or something. He said he has 41-year-old patients who produce more eggs than me.” I cheered when I first saw this scene, but rather than a needed representation of a young infertile woman, Sadie only serves as a foil for understanding mid-life infertility and as a narrative respite from what is, in this film’s set of relationships, a bad decision to use a family member as an egg donor.[5] In reality, Sadie’s experience is common if uncommonly represented: As reported by the CDC, 12% of women aged 25-29 use infertility services. In another study of 782 couples (involving women aged 18-40), the rates of infertility (determined by failure to conceive in 12 cycles, or about a year), were 8% for those aged 19-26, 13-14% for those aged 27-34, and 18% for those aged 35-39 (Dunson and Baird). Finally, while based on a dated study, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) prominently positions claims that 7% of women aged 20-24 are infertile, 9% of women aged 25-29, and 15% of women aged 30-34 (“Waiting”).[6]   

While the infertility numbers are expectedly higher in the 35+ category, one in ten women being infertile and/or seeking infertility services prior to 35 is significant. But in Private Life, the 20-something’s infertility is a brief plot point and the focus stays on Rachel, who is on the older end of normative childbearing age (over 40). Thus, while the film troubles assumptions that people should just “choose” to have children earlier, it keeps intact the idea that Rachel would have been fine if she’d (just) had children earlier. Maintaining this choice, and choice rhetoric, is necessary to hold mainstream feminism together, because if we decide that infertility only happens when we make bad choices, then we just need to make better choices, so let’s fight to keep those choices in the hands of women. While this echoes common pro-choice slogans (“my body my choice”), it also keeps the systemic factors that prevent and delay (and demand) childbearing, and the reality of pre-35 infertility, obscured.  

A reproductive justice (RJ) framework provides an alternative to choice feminism. As described by Kimbala Price, the reproductive justice movement’s “three core values are: the right to have an abortion, the right to have children, and the right to parent those children” (341). In “Radical Reproductive Justice,” Loretta Ross et al. argue that RJ must “go beyond affirming the right not to have children and pivot to emphasize the right to have children under the conditions we choose” (184). Rhetorically, Shui-yin Sharon Yam argues that reproductive justice must reshape rhetorical work, and Melissa Stone and Zachary Beare offer an infographic on the relationship of RJ, reproductive rights, and reproductive health. Clearly, RJ frameworks are important to reframing infertility, though much of the scholarship does not address infertility (including the sources I just mentioned). Further, as I suggest in the final section of this essay, the connections between reproductive justice and disability justice are also underdeveloped, and a disability perspective on infertility is necessary to truly challenge rhetorics of choice around infertility. 

Age Education and Infertility Testing 

Perhaps the answer, then, is to educate people about the actual likelihood of infertility and so they can make informed decisions. Upon request, I’ve tried educating people I love about infertility, noting that it regularly happens to people in their twenties. Each time, I’ve felt like a pesky great aunt who wiggles her finger and says “tick tock,[8] and each time, I’ve been rebuffed by these folks, who assure me they are “fine,” adhering to what Ruhl calls “the willed pregnancy.” Education about fertility and infertility is fraught not only because it can feel “unfeminist,” but because these conversations are imbricated in eugenic and racist beliefs about who should (not) have children. To move forward with effective education and discussion of infertility issues, we must understand its eugenic underpinnings, and to this end, I examine three sites of fertility education: an ASRM campaign and two “fertility campaigns” (in Italy and Britain). I then consider the complicated benefits of including fertility evaluations as part of routine reproductive care. 

Eugenics and “Fertility Campaigns”

There is a need for education about age-related and non-age-related infertility. In a systematic literature review of 71 studies of fertility awareness, such awareness is described as “low to moderate among people of reproductive age,” with subjects assuming that “age-related fertility decline starts later than the actual turning point” and overestimating what fertility treatment can do (Pedro et al. 75; also see Bretherick). More shockingly, in a study of 599 childless men aged 20 to 50, the researchers conclude that their subjects “had no coherent body of knowledge regarding age-related fertility and ART treatment and family building options” (Daniluk and Koert 839; also see Benyamini et al.; Bunting and Bovin; Lee; Maheshwari). Geeta Nargund suggests increased attention to age education, sperm-related infertility, impacts of STIs and abortion, IVF treatment, and implications of “low population growth,” though again, pre-age-35 infertility is ignored.  

As Lynn Harter et al. claim, existing campaigns to educate about biological timelines “discipline women through rhetoric about time, technology and middle-class values,” ultimately blaming women for not acting “in time” (87). These attempts range from urging people to have children earlier (while ignoring why they wait) to campaigns that less subtly draw on racist and ableist eugenic rhetorics about who should and should not be having children. The former is evident in an ASRM campaign, which while over a decade old, is still prominent online. A series of four posters feature repurposed milk bottles, and one of the posters (below) features an hourglass made of a baby bottle with the sand/milk almost out. All caps against an orange background reads: “Advancing age decreases your ability to have children.” In smaller print, it says: “While women and their partners must be the ones to decide the best time when (and if) to have children, women in their twenties and early thirties are most likely to conceive. Infertility is a disease affecting 6.1 million people in the United States.” (The other three fertility posters focus on STIs, smoking, and weight. All use the phrase “your decisions.”) 


In a widely-reported photo from the campaign, 46-year-old Kate Garraway is costumed with gray hair, liver spots, and wrinkles. She’s pregnant and covers her breasts with a shawl (which is fuchsia, the color of First Response boxes), while revealing her pregnant belly.

American Society for Reproductive Medicine promotional poster

As Tracy Marafiote describes, the National Organization for Women (NOW) has had “vehement responses against campaigns to educate women about age constraints with the idea that such campaigns would bully and scare women into having children earlier or at all” (188). Such responses are understandable, as education campaigns like ASRM’s fail to recognize why people have children later in their lives. ASRM’s poster also contradicts its own educational booklet entitled “Age and Fertility,” which more accurately notes: “A woman’s best reproductive years are in her 20s. Fertility gradually declines in the 30s, particularly after age 35.” That people are often rather fertile in their teenage years is ignored; I assume this is to avoid identifying these as relevant childbearing years.[9]   

Judith Daar’s The New Eugenics: Selective Breeding in an Era of Reproductive Technologies claims that a new eugenics perpetuates “decades of restrictive immigration policies, years of discriminatory marriage laws, and a half-century of forced sterilization” (192; also see K. Price).[10]  Naively though, Darr suggests that “few worry that modern-day Americans would respond favorably to scientific assertions about improving the human condition by organizing a web of state-sponsored programs that assess, suppress, deprive, and encourage reproduction according to one’s expressed and inherited characteristics” (28). Such programs and attitudes are explored by Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, where she claims that “reproductive literacy” centers on the concerns of white, middle-class women and the right to abortion (6), rather than “the devaluation of Black reproduction” by new reproductive technologies (246) and the parallel development of state-sponsored sterilization of Black women alongside a “booming” fertility industry to help white, middle-class couples (4; also see Greil). 

Another campaign is Italy’s government-sponsored “fertility day” in 2016, which released promotional materials but was ultimately canceled.[11]  The main poster/image features a white woman in a red sweater holding an hourglass toward the camera, with the caption, “La bellezza non ha eta. La fertilita si” (“Beauty has no age, fertility does”). The woman, who has pale white skin and long brown hair, holds her hand over her belly and gives a knowing look, and negative response was swift given the condescending tone and Italy’s childcare inequities (Pianigiani).  

This main poster/image features a white woman in a red sweater holding an hourglass toward the camera, with the caption, “La bellezza non ha eta. La fertilita si” (“Beauty has no age, fertility does”). The woman, who has pale white skin and long brown hair, holds her hand over her belly and gives a knowing look

Image from an Italian fertility campaign

This campaign, and others like it, are concerned about diminishing numbers of younger workers, not with preventing difficult and expensive infertility procedures for those who want to have children.[12]  In her work on infertility’s racial and economic disparities, Ann Bell notes that women of color “must grapple with the stigma of being childless while simultaneously rejecting the negative stereotype that they should not be mothers in the first place” (690). Conversely, in my infertility journey, I was told more than once that “people like me” should have children, because I am “smart” (and white and middle class and cisgender, and at the time, married).  

Finally, a similar campaign called “Get Britain Fertile,” sponsored by First Response, adds an ageist twist. In a widely-reported photo from the campaign, 46-year-old Kate Garraway is costumed with gray hair, liver spots, and wrinkles. She’s pregnant and covers her breasts with a shawl (which is fuchsia, the color of First Response boxes), while revealing her pregnant belly.  

In this photo, 46-year-old Kate Garraway is costumed with gray hair, liver spots, and wrinkles. She’s pregnant and covers her breasts with a shawl (which is fuchsia, the color of First Response boxes), while revealing her pregnant belly

Image from the “Get Britain Fertile” campaign

She’s supposed to seem ridiculous and remind us of fertility timelines. Think Progress responded: “First Response has decided the solution to the trend of women waiting longer to have children is to criticize them, prey on their fears of aging, and exploit social disgust for even moderately sexual old women.” While these concerns are apt, critiques failed to note the eugenic legacy of encouraging white Brits to procreate (Soloway), while people of color are featured in campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy (DasGupta). As Robin Jensen argues, the rhetorical history of infertility “complicates the idea that the discursive past is made up of a diachronic success of strategies, each superseding the other” (5). Instead, rhetorical themes repeat and recur, including eugenic themes.  

Such fertility “education” depoliticizes infertility and reproductive technology, ignoring how the “toxic by-products of industrialized culture” significantly impact infertility (Gaard 108). In their work on mandatory insurance for infertility, Mary Shanley and Adriene Asch argue that such insurance “obscures the fact that a significant share of infertility stems from quite varied (and oppressive) social contexts that affect different populations: delayed childbearing, untreated pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and workplace and environmental toxins” (852).[13]  More encouragingly, infertility awareness campaigns driven by non-profit organizations like RESOLVE (an infertility organization) have featured abstract representations of diverse people with emphasis on being “one in eight,” as one in eight people will experience infertility. There is not, however, any emphasis on infertility before age 35, and the impact of such campaigns may be limited (Patel). That only 1% of the articles in major health journals geared toward women have focused on infertility in the last 15 years isn’t helping (Place et al.). 

Infertility Evaluation

Another approach to education is to include fertility evaluation as part of routine reproductive care (as such care exists in the United States). At present, heteronormative (and mysterious) “guidelines” in the United States specify that infertility should be suspected after one year of unprotected sex with no pregnancy if you are under 35, six months if over 35. There are also simple blood tests that are infrequently offered, and those tests would have very likely revealed my infertility issue (low ovarian reserve) in my twenties. Instead, by the time my AMH and FSH levels – which roughly correlate to the quantity (AMH level) and quality (FSH level) of eggs – were tested in my early thirties, my AMH number was “scant” and I had no ability to get pregnant without intervention. Such blood tests do not indicate all fertility problems, but they do provide important hormonal information for all people, including current and pending infertility, hormonal imbalance, and/or menopausal status.[14]  

I wonder what I would have done if a routine fertility evaluation had revealed my quickly diminishing ovarian reserve in my twenties. Bavan et al. explore this issue by reporting the results of a 73-question survey focused on access to testing ovarian reserve, which was administered to 328 women (mean age 22). Most respondents were interested in ovarian reserve testing (79%), and “29% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they would consider stopping their education or work immediately if they became aware that their ovarian reserve was clinically low,” which assumes that one cannot pursue education and work while trying to get, or while being, pregnant. Had I been one of the survey respondents, I believe I would have been among the 62% who “agreed or strongly agreed that they would take no action regarding their education or work despite such news,” and perhaps also the 80% who “indicated that if they received unfavorable results revealing abnormally low ovarian reserve, they would consider having children earlier” (1196). There is no option in Bavan et al.’s survey to decide not to have children as a consequence of the testing information; “repro-normativity” (Franke) remains intact. 

While the right to fertility information feels unquestionable, implementing such testing without a concomitant shift in attitudes and behaviors may further oppressive pressures and systems: As Robin Jensen notes, medicalization and moralizing/shaming often work together. Ovarian reserve testing may scare people into having children before they are ready. Testing may only be offered to some and identify problems that those without insurance cannot attempt to address. Testing won’t change the fact that certain people – people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, poor people – are often discouraged from having children in the first place. Testing may further stigmatize those who seek infertility treatment, under the guise that they “should have known” they were infertile. Similarly, such testing may reify a healthcare system that already refuses to cover infertility. Finally, increased stigmatization of IVF might impact people who use infertility treatment with no other option. 

Tracing familial lineages of infertility, despite the seeming irony of that phrase, is also needed. Well into my infertility process, an infertility specialist asked when my mother had gone into menopause. No medical history had ever asked me this, and when I asked my mother, she felt bad that she’d never thought to tell me she went into menopause in her early forties. At the same time, relying on familial lineages of infertility privileges certain kinds of infertile people, as gathering family history can be challenging. 

While useful in some ways, ovarian reserve testing and tracing family lineages of fertility are ultimately problematic because they still rely on choice rhetorics: they assume that people can make better choices with better information, when this often isn’t the case. Instead, to radically reconceive and reclaim infertility, we must more overtly (and finally) disconnect infertility from choice and volition. Disability helps us do this. 

Cripping Infertility 

Early Disability Studies sought to shift disability away from “problem” bodies and position it as a consequence of inaccessible environments (Linton). This body/environment binary has been rightly criticized (Owens), but a kernel remains that helps articulate infertility in environments (rhetorical, historical, cultural, political), rather than solely in individuals’ bodies and “choices.” For me, a disability perspective was key to resisting the shame-and-blame discourses of infertility while respecting my sense of loss.[15] Further, a disability approach to infertility honors the pain and grief of infertility and reframes it using crip time. Cripping infertility “decenter[s] normative relationships between bodies and institutions” (Simpkins) and emphasizes community, not cure.[16] We must shift from occasionally considering disability as a “topic” to adopting disability as a theoretical and activist lens through which we consider infertility.  

Existing work on disability and fertility largely focuses on selective abortion. As Michelle Jarman claims, “[W]e must infuse our politics with a more crip lens…that pays careful attention to the dangers of figuring disability as a central defense of either life or abortion “ (63). Alison Piepmeier explores how choice rhetorics of reproduction inform prenatal testing and selective abortion, and in her interviews with mothers who have children with Down Syndrome, Piepmeier highlights the “inadequacy of the narrative of ‘choice,’” as decisions to mostly knowingly have children with Down syndrome were often community decisions, results of indecision, or conflicted choices (166). At the same time, as Bagentos notes, we must pay attention to how disabled people are “frequently denied their own rights to conceive, bear, and parent children, whether through forced sterilization or abortion, the denial of assisted reproduction, or the denial of parental rights once their children are born” (276).  

The connections between disability justice and reproductive justice frameworks are underdeveloped and primarily focus on prenatal testing and screening. Dorothy Roberts and Sujathe Jesudeson note that “reproductive justice, women’s rights, and disability rights activists share a common interest in challenging unjust reprogenetics policies and in forging an alternative vision of social welfare” (318). They discuss developing a shared set of values around reproductive autonomy, parenting, and policy advocacy, though they largely settle on “reproductive genetic technologies” (314), particularly prenatal screening, as the main takeaway of their piece. Similarly, in an exploration of rhetorics of reproductive justice, Novotny et al. touch on disability and infertility, but only to question “what lives are worth living” (“Amplifying” 383). While prenatal testing and screening are important, “any consideration of disability and reproductive rights must consider people with disabilities as parents, not just as fetuses” (287; also see Powell, “Disability”). 

As articulated by Crystal Benedicks’ review of two infertility memoirs, a disability perspective on infertility emphasizes that we can’t control our bodies, and that self-care won’t prevent or heal infertility.[17] Benedicks reviews Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos’ Silent Sorority and Phoebe Potts’ Good Eggs, noting that each features a moment of “outraged entitlement,” where these women claim they “should be fertile” due to healthy lifestyles (also see McLeod and Ponesse). But as Benedicks claims, as each story develops, so does “the realization that there is no moral basis for health, nor is biological function subject to the will.” While neither Tsigdinos nor Potts uses the language of disability, Benedicks notes that “their crises can be read as moments of recognition of one of the ableist myths that undergirds normative understandings of disability: disabled bodies metaphorically signify moral failure; people ‘deserve’ the bodies they have.” Benedicks suggests that disability perspectives can help navigate infertility, and for me, the grief that came with infertility was tempered by my view of it as a disability. While I was sad that I would not be able to have, or easily have, the biological child I wanted, only in my lowest moments did I somehow think it was my fault or that I was “less of a woman,” as infertility memoirs relentlessly relate. I have other disabilities and have discarded the idea that I somehow “deserve” the emotional and physical pain my disabilities cause, and my infertility provides perspectives on reproduction that are valuable. 

A disability approach to infertility is also needed because disabled people struggle to access infertility services (Francis et al.) and are more likely to be infertile than nondisabled people. As noted by Ha and Martinez, “[C]ompared to those without disability, WWD [women with disabilities] had 78% increased odds of having self-reported infertility,” and among those, women with cognitive and sensory disabilities have the highest infertility odds (7). There is also weight discrimination surrounding infertility, as access to infertility services is often tied to BMI requirements (Parker and Grice; Slocum et al.). Finally, infertile people prefer the language of disability. A study of preferred terms for infertility among 1,226 U.S. adults reveals “condition” as the preferred term (78.4%), then disability (11.5%), then disease (9.7%) (Mancuso et al. 2111). Notably though, Those choosing ‘condition’ were less likely to have a personal history of infertility and more likely to have a family or friend with infertility, and those choosing ‘disability’ were more likely to have a personal infertility diagnosis” (2114). I embrace the language of disability for infertility, in the context of disability and reproductive rights (Kallianes and Rubenfeld) and disabled mothering (Lewiecki-Wilson and Cellio-Miller).  

Much as the meaning of disability is slippery in ways that challenge simple binaries, so could “infertility” expand to include all those for whom heterosexual conception is challenging or impossible. In doing this, my goal is not to make the definition of infertility so vast as to be meaningless or include everyone (as happens with “we’re all disabled in some way” arguments, see Murray and Carlson). Instead, broadening and complicating infertility decenters the idea of “choosing” your way out and emphasizes contextual barriers. A disability approach also makes space for the pain and suffering that many with infertility experience. Cara Jones argues that feminist disability scholars “must add to their analytical toolkit a model of disability that centralizes pain” (556), and her work centers on menstruation and sexual pain related to endometriosis. The emphasis on pain where “fun” sexual experiences are expected maps to infertility, and both invite attention to disabilities strongly implicated by hormones. Margaret Price also encourages attention to pain, and I was struck by Price’s description of how she hopes people will react to her pain: by “witnessing” and expressing a “desire to help alleviate pain (rather than denial and eradication of the pain)” (13). This is what I wanted on my infertility journey but did not receive. 

A disability approach also invites a needed re-reading of time and aging in relation to infertility. Robin Jensen asserts that given the over-attention to having children “in time,” there is little space left “for the consideration of diverse evidence, historical perspectives, and long-established scientific and cultural refutations” (155). Jensen seeks to center “structural inequalities, lived material experiences, and a variety of relational encounters” (167), and a disability approach extends this work to more squarely question normative fertility/infertility time frames, rather than saying people lack choices within these frames.   

In “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Ellen Samuels notes that she doesn’t exactly wish for a cure;, she wants “for time to split and allow two paths for [her] life” that she could move between. I live these two paths, alongside other infertile people who grieve what they may have lost while embracing the path they are on. Samuels’ articulation of crip time can challenge normative fertility-to-infertility timelines and recognize that infertility happens across the life course, as crip time can “extract us from linear, progressive time with its normative life stages and cast us into a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration, jerky stops and starts, tedious intervals and abrupt endings.” As Alison Kafer writes in “After Crip, Crip Afters,” crip time is not only about slowness or doing things “in time,” which again maps to infertility. Instead, she asks: “What are the temporalities that unfold beyond, away from, askance of productivity, capacity, self-sufficiency, independence, achievement?” (421). A disability approach makes space for infertility successes and failures while complicating what those terms mean. A disability approach to infertility makes room for community; infertility is part of disability justice.  

Resistance is Infertile 

I’ve been writing this essay for a long time, and my motivations and connections to infertility have shifted over the years. At first, I was motivated by a conversation with my therapist about whether I wanted a second child, and in that session, I realized that I was grieving the loss of the choice I thought I would have, not an actual second child. I believe that if I hadn’t felt promised the choice to have a child – if infertility had been typical and expected – I wouldn’t have had so much to grieve, either in thinking about another child or in navigating the privileged and painful gauntlet that led to my son. At the same time, my infertility was a VIP invitation to important conversations I would not otherwise have had, as my infertility required me to think long and hard about whether I really wanted children and what it means to want biological children. Infertility requires us to think deeply about what we want and why, to consider the privilege and exclusion that informs why some of us get what we want and some don’t, and to imagine diverse futures that embrace multiple forms of parenting. For these reasons, I am grateful for my infertility. 

Around the time I finished a first draft of this essay, I marched at the second annual Women’s March (in 2018), and I saw a protest sign that said, “Resistance is Fertile” in all caps on a white board, with some hastily-drawn flowers at the bottom. (The rest of the photo features the backs of marchers dressed for cold, some in pink cat ears and some holding protest signs, against a backdrop of traffic lights, buildings, and a lightly-clouded blue sky.) 

The sign assumedly draws off the phrase “resistance is futile” from the Borg in Star Trek, which made me chuckle. But the sign bothered me because it equates resistance, feminism, and fertility in a movement and march significantly composed of infertile and/or menopausal people. Resistance grows in barren wombs and adoption denials; feminist rights extend to infertile people and those who are childfree; fertility is neither natural nor neutral.  

In the Covid era, I worried about those who have had their infertility treatments put off, in some cases for fear of the virus (Muhaidat et al.). Predictive modeling suggests significant Covid impacts on the success of infertility treatment (Bhattacharya), particularly for those with lower income (Morris), as well as notable impacts on mental health related to infertility (Barra et al.; Marom et al.). I had to move quickly when I learned I was infertile, and had I delayed treatments for a year or two, I would not have been successful. But clinics stayed open for some during Covid (de Souza et al.), and my prestigious clinic probably would have done so for me. 

As I submitted this essay for publication, Roe fell. As the federal right to abortion was removed, I found myself less comfortable critiquing the idea of choice, while also feeling galvanized to more loudly declare that not everyone had choice – about abortion and other matters of reproductive justice – even with Roe. The Dobbs decision has also changeds how IVF works, “making IVF less efficient, more costly and unsafe, and inevitably limiting access to care” (Ulker et al. 306; also see Crockin; Letterie & Fox). 

As I finally finish this essay, I know my family is complete with my son. He won’t inherit my complicated fertility, though it has characterized, and will characterize, our discussions of what it means to have children. My niece will need to know her infertility lineage in a different way, and, if she wants children, possibly navigate the testing and timelines I’ve considered in this essay. As I imagine talking to her about it, concerns about her feeling pressured to have children young wash over me anew, despite everything I’ve written here. Rhetorics of choice aren’t only normative and omnipresent – they’re simplistically seductive.  

But it won’t be one hard conversation or painful realization with my son or my niece, as it was when I learned about my infertility. Conversations with these people I love will be the constant, gradual, and recursive dismantling of myths of fertility and reproduction. Telling the story and lessons of my infertile body and bodies like mine is my choice. There’s still time.  

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Price, Kimala. “What Is Reproductive Justice? How Women of Color Activists Are Redefining the Pro-Choice Paradigm.” Meridians, vol. 19, no. S1, Dec. 2020, pp. 340–62., 

Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 268–84, . 

Private Life. Directed by Tamara Jenkins, performances by Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, and Gabrielle Reid, Likely Story, Netflix, 2018. 

Robbins, Andrew. “‘The Last Great Infertility Hurdle’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of US News Media Frames of Female Age-Related Fertility Decline.” 2015. The University of Melbourne, Master’s Thesis. 

Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage Books, 1999. 

—, and Sujatha Jesudason. “MOVEMENT INTERSECTIONALITY: The Case of Race, Gender, Disability, and Genetic Technologies.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 10, no. 2, ed 2013, pp. 313–28. 

Rome, Jennifer Marie. “Blogging Wounded Manhood: Negotiating Hegemonic Masculinity and the Crisis of the Male (In)Fertile Body.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 44, no. 1, 2021, pp. 44–64. 

Rose, Jeanne Marie. “Mother-Scholars Doing Their Homework: The Limits of Domestic Enargeia.” Peitho, vol. 22, no. 2, Winter 2020,  

Ross, Loretta J. “Conceptualizing Reproductive Justice Theory: A Manifesto for Activism.” Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique. Eds., edited by Loretta Ross, Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017, pp. 170-232. 

—, and Rickie Solinger. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. University of California Press, 2017. 

Ruhl, Lealle. “Dilemmas of the Will: Uncertainty, Reproduction, and the Rhetoric of Control.” Signs, vol. 27, no. 3, 2002, pp. 641–63. 

Rushing, John, and Nanette Santoro. “Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research Perimenopause: Utility of Testing.” Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research, vol. 27, Dec. 2022, pp. 1-6. 

Samuels, Ellen. 2017. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vo. 37, no. 3, 2017. 

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— and Sheryl de Lacey. “The Uses of a ‘Disease’: Infertility as Rhetorical Vehicle.” In Infertility Around the Globe, edited by Marcia Inhorn and Frank Balen, University of California Press, 2002, pp. 33-51. 

Shah, Kavita, and Frances Batzer. “Infertility in the Developing World: The Combined Role for Feminists and Disability Rights Proponents.” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, vol. 3, no. 2, 2010, pp. 109–25. 

Shanley, Mary Lyndon, and Adrienne Asch. “Involuntary Childlessness, Reproductive Technology, and Social Justice: The Medical Mask on Social Illness.” Signs, vol. 34, no. 4, 2009, pp. 851–74. 

Shieh, Albert, et al. “Estradiol and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone as Predictors of Onset of Menopause Transition-Related Bone Loss in Pre- and Perimenopausal Women.” Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, vol. 34, no. 12, 2019, pp. 2246–53. 

Shoard, Katherine. “‘Having a Child Is a Distraction from Your Own Mortality’: Kathryn Hahn and Tamara Jenkins on Their IVF Film.” The Guardian, 2019, 

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Sims, Alexandra. “Denmark Is Fighting Its Low Birth Rate in the Creepiest Way Possible.” The Independent, 2016,. 

Slocum, Breonna, et al. “Body Size, Fertility, and Reproductive Justice: Examining the Complex Interplay between BMI, Reproductive Health, and Access to Care.” Women, vol. 2, no. 2, June 2022, pp. 93–101. 

Soloway, Richard A. Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-Century Britain. UNC Press Books, 2014. 

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Takhar, Jennifer, and Kelly Pemberton. “Reproducing ‘Rhetrickery’ in Online Fertility Marketing: Harnessing the ‘Rhetoric of the Possible.’” Consumption Markets & Culture, vol. 22, no. 4, 2019, pp. 314–36. 

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[1]Note that male infertility (Barnes; Culley et al.) and secondary infertility are common causes of infertility. 

[2] Similarly, Anne Burns suggests that choice functions “as a tool for discipline, rather than a means for liberation,” noting that viewer comments on involuntary porn sites overwhelmingly shame people for “choosing” to take naked/sexualized pho
[3] On being childfree, see Gillespie, Hintz, Kelly; on the blurring of childfree and involuntary childlessness through the concept of non-motherhood, see Letherby and Williams; on managing stigma and the limitation of choice rhetorics for those who are childfree, see Morison et al. 
[4]The “choice” to end IVF is also complicated (Haas; Harwood; Jarvis, “Expanding”; Thorsby). For a critique of choice rhetorics in infertility clinic marketing, see Takhar and Pembert
[5] Rounding out the film’s representation of maternity is Sadie’s mother, Cynthia (played by Molly Shannon), who complains to her kids about how they ruined her life. 
[6] Correspondingly, people lament the lack of resources for those who are infertile in their twenties (Pearson; Tigar), and there is debate regarding whether infertile women and girls in their teens should be treated (Derouin; Haimov
[7] Yam also suggested that rhetoricians rethink using “women-centered” language, as while such language “helps articulate and reclaim the specific history of misogyny and cis-sexism, it inadvertently excludes trans and gender nonbinary people” (22). To this end, in this essay, I have worked to use more inclusive terminology, such as “infertile people.” However, my use of such inclusive terminology is overshadowed by the consistent use of “women” in the scholarship I reference (in quotations and article/journal titles). 
[8] On clock metaphors, see Robbins; on biological clocks and tenure clocks, see Ceraso and VanHaitsma. 
[9] On the over-focus on preventing teen pregnancy in defining reproductive justice, see Vinson and Daniel. 
[10] She adds that Robert G. Edwards, the Nobel-Prize winning doctor who co-created IVF, was an ardent eugenicist (see Johnson, M.; Obasog
[11] For analyses of infertility on social media, see Blakemore, et al.; Johnson & Quilan; Perone et al.; Rome. 
[12] Russia once gave a national “conception” holiday, with rewards for those who had babies nine months later on what was roughly Russia Day (Gietel-Basten). In another example, a Danish travel agency encouraged folks to “Do it for Mom” and “Screw for Denmark” while on vacation, with possible prizes if you could prove you conceived while on holiday (Sims).
[13] Another study reveals that expanding insurance coverage for infertility only results in increased usage by middle class, educated, cis-gender white women (Bitler and Schmidt).
[14] For example, clinical testing and tracking of hormones in the “menopause transition” has been shown to help prevent bone loss (Karlamangla et al.; Shieh et al.; Podfigurna et al.), and research indicates a need for testosterone screenings for certain populations (Johnson et al.). At present, over-the-counter hormonal testing is limited to ovulation tests and pregnancy tests (for a feminist critique of such tests, see Layne). A newer market is OTC perimenopause/menopause testing, and while the value of such testing is “unsubstantiated” (Rushing and Santoro), as a non-expert, I’m interested in OTC options given inattention to infertility in reproductive care.  

[15] Part of a disability approach to infertility can include considering infertility as a legal disability. Legal scholars have sought protection of infertility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Dallman; King and Meyer; Sternke), and David Orentlicher notes that reproduction was considered a major life activity in Bragdon v. Abbott, which considered whether an asymptomatic HIV+ woman seeking dental care was in fact disabled, and she was considered so because AIDS can impact fertility and reproduction. Orentlicher argues that we often identify age-related conditions as disabilities (osteoporosis, hearing loss) and that infertility should be no different. Such legal reframings leave “disability as deficit” intact. 

[16] Cripping infertility overlaps with Maria Novotny’s concept of queering rhetorics of infertility, as well as work on queer reproduction (Smietana et al.) and queering reproductive access (Tam). 
[17] I edited this review while serving as one of two book reviews editors at DSQ.

Reimagining Sponsorship: Recovery Work, Institutional Sponsorship, and the Nearly Forgotten Rev. Mary A. Will


“We pray the Lord of the harvest, that he may send laborers into his harvest, that are not afraid to unite their labors with that of a woman. 

—Rev. Mary A. Will, The American Wesleyan, 20 February 1861 

“We are glad to say, that our church never has been so well governed under any pastor, as it has been under sister Will. We think it can no longer be said, that a church cannot be well governed by a woman. There never was a mother who watched over an infant with greater interest, than sister Will has over this church.”  

—S.A. Stock, The American Wesleyan, 12 June 1861 

“Resolved, that the action of … ordaining a female was unscriptural.”  

—Wesleyan Methodist Connection, “Book of Minutes,” June 1864  

“Resolved, that the action of … deposing sister M. A. Will was irregular and illegal.”  

—Wesleyan Methodist Connection, “Book of Minutes,” October 1875  


In 1994 when Cheryl Glenn published “Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric,” she called for feminist historians of rhetoric to “re-map” rhetorical history by writing women into the rhetorical canon (180). Glenn went on to offer a first step in this feminist challenge to the history of rhetoric by arguing for the inclusion of Aspasia of Miletus—a contemporary of Socrates, Plato, Pericles, and other classical figures—in the rhetorical canon. No primary sources from Aspasia have survived, but Glenn nonetheless reconstructs her life and rhetorical impact through secondary and tertiary sources, drawing a parallel between the credibility of recovery work on Aspasia and that of Socrates: “We know about Aspasia much the same way we know about Socrates: from secondary sources, for neither of their work exists in primary sources” (182). Soon after, Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong published “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology,” which employs similar recovery methods to consider Aspasia’s role as a Sophist and argue that “she marks the intersection of discourses on gender and colonialism, production and reproduction, rhetoric and philosophy”—making Aspasia a figure of “profound importance” for historical scholarship (10). Since then, feminist scholars in the history of rhetoric have continued to advance recovery efforts and made incredible strides in writing women and other traditionally disenfranchised groups into the rhetorical tradition, and more possibilities for recovery work remain.  

Yet, there is still more work to be done. Existing recovery efforts have largely focused on historical figures for whom secondary or tertiary accounts exist, meaning some historical figures remain elusive because we have so little or no account of the figure’s words. Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch would refer to these figures as “silhouetted, if not altogether invisible, historical figures” (“Social Circulation” 175, emphasis in original). While silhouetted figures are everywhere to be found, the rhetorical tradition of preaching is rife with such silhouetted figures, particularly women preachers. Those women preachers who have entered the public consciousness and have crept into the rhetorical canon—women like Phoebe Palmer and Frances Willard—do so because of the relative celebrity they enjoyed as advocates for women during their careers. The higher cultural visibility that women preachers like Palmer and Willard attained led to the preservation of their sermons, letters, and other primary source materials that would enable future scholars to study and analyze their rhetorical impact. But what about the other women preachers, those who were less noticeable but no less significant? Women like Rev. Mary A. Will, a nineteenth-century Wesleyan-Methodist clergywoman in Illinois and the first known woman to be ordained, deposed, and then restored to ministry? Attempts to study and analyze Will via existing recovery methodologies have been unsuccessful because so few of her words were preserved, leaving very few primary, secondary, or tertiary accounts behind for analysis. This dearth of evidence surrounding Will reveals the need for expanded recovery efforts. Will and women preachers like her have shaped the communities around them and kept the tradition of women preachers alive for centuries, but most have been largely forgotten and have become silhouetted figures.  

Recognizing the need to recover silhouetted figures and other marginalized voices, Nan Johnson issued a challenge to feminist scholars in the history of rhetoric in her introduction to Peitho’s 2015 celebratory issue: “how can we widen the view even further?” (15). Johnson’s call is a recognition of both the incredible work feminist historiographers have done to recover marginalized voices over the past few decades and the need for even more innovative means to recover and elevate women’s voices in the rhetorical tradition.  

This article responds to Johnson’s call by forwarding a new framework of institutional sponsorship, a recovery methodology that is not entirely dependent upon a figure’s words. By reimagining Deborah Brandt’s notion of sponsorship through a feminist rhetorical lens, institutional sponsorship emerges an analytical framework that locates a silhouetted historical figure’s rhetorical presence through their relationship with the institution(s) surrounding their lives and careers. In forwarding the institutional sponsorship framework, I have two primary objectives. First, I hope to invigorate further conversations about the utility of sponsorship for wider application in feminist rhetorical scholarship. Second, I aim to theorize and demonstrate institutional sponsorship as one such application that serves as a method for recovering marginalized voices.   

The institutional sponsorship framework employs a three-pronged approach to map and locate a silhouetted figure’s presence: embracing the ephemeral evidence pertaining to the figure, exploring the power dynamics between the figure and the institution, and analyzing the reciprocal impact between the figure and the institution. I begin by contextualizing institutional sponsorship in existing literature and then explain and illustrate the three-pronged framework with Rev. Mary A. Will. Even though Will had a unique and tumultuous career as a clergywoman in nineteenth-century America, she has been almost completely overlooked in the tradition of Methodist women preachers. My attempts to study and analyze Will via existing recovery methodologies were unsuccessful and revealed the need for this new institutional sponsorship framework, as Will left very few words behind and only glimpses of her have survived in traditional archives. Despite the scarcity of primary, secondary, and tertiary accounts that have survived Will, I use institutional sponsorship to analyze Will’s relationship with her denomination and demonstrate how Will’s rhetorical presence shaped the Wesleyan Methodist legacy of women’s ordination.  

Toward a Feminist Rhetorical View of Sponsorship  

In their chapter in Laurie Gries and Collin Gifford Brooke’s Circulation, Writing, and Rhetoric, Royster and Kirsch call for the deployment of social circulation in our digital age to encourage a new type of analysis. Social circulation, as explained by Royster and Kirsch, is a feminist rhetorical practice that “invokes connections among past, present, and future in the sense that the overlapping social circles in which women travel, live, and work are carried on or modified from one generation to the next and can lead to changed rhetorical practices” (Feminist 23). Analysis grounded in social circulation, then, looks for impact that ripples across time and may transcend the boundaries of traditional archives. As Royster and Kirsch explain,  

This type of analysis helps us reach for new interpretive paradigms for silhouetted, if not altogether invisible, historical figures and locate a rhetorical presence, rather than absence, for them at the convergence of images, texts, forms, formats, and perspectives. At this convergence we gain a capacity to create a social historiography, a mapping of visibility, and a sense of mobility within social space as we learn to narrate consequence, impact, and achievement in a more fully textured way. (“Social Circulation” 175, emphasis in original) 

I suggest that reimagining sponsorship as an interpretive paradigm that stems from social circulation offers new possibilities for mapping the visibility of marginalized and silhouetted voices.  

Such a reimagination is already in close alignment with Deborah Brandt’s original conception of sponsorship. When Brandt first published “Sponsors of Literacy” in 1998, she was addressing the need to move beyond a narrow focus on individual literacy development and examine how an individual’s development was shaped and influenced by larger, systemic forces. Brandt formally defines sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (“Sponsors” 166). Brandt expands her exploration of sponsorship relationships in her 2001 book Literacy in American Lives, and commenting further on the nature of sponsorship, she explains:  

Sponsors are embodied in the materials of reading and writing, the institutional aegises and rationales under which learning is carried out, the histories by which practices arrive at the scenes of learning, the causes to which teachers and learners put their efforts, and the advantages, both direct and indirect, that stand to be won by the sponsors themselves. …Sponsors can be benefactors but also extortionists—and sometimes both in the same form. (Literacy 193)  

Put another way, sponsorship relationships are complex and nuanced. Sponsors possess power and exert ideological pressure, and a sponsor’s impact upon the sponsored may be helpful, harmful, or both. By analyzing sponsorship relationships scholars can locate those connections across time and space that Royster and Kirsch’s practice of social circulation calls us to look for and examine. 

Brandt further describes sponsorship as a way to expose the “[a]ccumulated layers” of influences that comprise the “deeply textured history” of literacy, making it a framework that not only withstands but embraces complexity and nuance (“Sponsors” 178). Rhetorical ecologies are rife with complexity and nuance, and when we reimagine sponsorship through the feminist rhetorical lens of social circulation it becomes a means of analyzing that “convergence” of sources that Royster and Kirsch envision to surround silhouetted figures (“Social Circulation” 175).  

Since its publication, Brandt’s sponsorship framework has been widely applied to study literacy in a variety of contexts, from Bump Halbritter and Julie Lindquist’s methodology for operationalizing discovery in scenes of literacy sponsorship to Dale Jacobs’ study of Marvel comics as sponsors of multimodal literacy.1 The complexity of these sponsorship relationships and the variety of research sites and subjects put forth by Brandt and many others in her wake serve as proof of the appeal and utility of sponsorship as an analytical framework, particularly in examining relationships between the sponsor and the sponsored. However, as chronicled by Ann M. Lawrence in her 2015 review of sponsorship literature, subsequent scholars who used Brandt’s study as a model for their own research moved away from this expansive notion of sponsorship and focused only on people as sponsors. New possibilities for analysis and potential rhetorical intervention emerge when we re-engage with Brandt’s original construct through a feminist rhetorical lens, particularly when we consider the “institutional aegises” that Brandt named as a site of sponsorship.  

Brandt’s definition of sponsors highlights the importance of looking beyond the individual to the influences that surround them, and this same concern has reverberated throughout feminist rhetorical scholarship. Through her scholarship, Brandt effectively argues that sponsors are “delivery systems” for economies of literacy and that sponsorship is “richly suggestive” as a framework for exploring these economies and their effects (“Sponsors” 167). The feminist reimagination of sponsorship I am calling for not only re-engages with Brandt’s expansive conception of sponsorship but also shifts its lens from economies of literacy to rhetorical ecologies. By using sponsorship to examine rhetorical ecologies and grounding the framework in feminist rhetorical practices, scholars of rhetoric can offer new insights into people, situations, events, and interactions by identifying the sponsors—human or nonhuman, overt or subtle—that possess or exert power in a given rhetorical situation and then examining the relationships between the sponsors and the sponsored. For the present purpose, my interest is in developing an ecological view of the sponsorship relationship between an institution and a silhouetted historical figure. This sponsorship relationship offers feminist scholars in the history of rhetoric a new way to recover silhouetted voices that existing recovery methodologies have not yet been able to access.  

Institutional Sponsorship  

Institutional sponsorship, then, is a specific form of rhetorical sponsorship that I define as an analytical framework that examines the relationship between a person and the institution(s) surrounding that person’s life and career. The deployment of this institutional sponsorship framework follows a three-pronged approach: embracing ephemeral evidence, examining power dynamics, and analyzing the reciprocal impact the person and the institution had on one another. This methodological reorientation toward institutional sponsorship holds great potential for recovery work in the history of rhetoric. For the remainder of this article, I will demonstrate how a silhouetted figure’s presence can be mapped and analyzed through the three-pronged institutional sponsorship framework by offering some brief biographical background and then exploring the sponsorship relationship between the silhouetted historical figure Rev. Mary A. Will and her denomination.   

The Nearly Forgotten Rev. Mary A. Will  

Rev. Mary A. Will was ordained in 1861 and assumed leadership of the Nora preaching circuit in northern Illinois around that time. A scant three years later in 1864, Will was stripped of her ordination and ministerial credentials on the grounds that ordaining a female was unscriptural. Her case was later brought before the church’s General Conference in 1875, at which time Will’s deposition was declared “irregular and illegal” and she was (surprisingly) reinstated into ministry. As both a rhetorical scholar and an ordained woman, I believe Will’s story is remarkable in both its novelty and complexity. Will navigated predominately male spaces and found both success and opposition, and her story may also help us better understand the struggles other women and marginalized groups face. Yet, despite her unusual ministerial career, Will has remained a silhouetted figure, a mere whisper in the Wesleyan-Methodist archives, and very little about her personal life is known. Will’s rhetorical presence can only be recovered and analyzed through the lens of institutional sponsorship.  

Will may be nearly forgotten, but her impact upon her denomination—the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America—has rippled throughout subsequent generations. By analyzing the traces of Will that remain through the three-pronged institutional sponsorship framework—embracing ephemeral evidence, examining power dynamics, and analyzing the reciprocal impact—I examine Will’s rhetorical presence and consider how Will shaped the Wesleyan Methodist legacy of women’s ordination. 

Embracing Ephemeral Evidence: Locating Mary Will in the Ripple Effects

While the excellent strides feminist scholars have made in developing recovery methodologies have enabled many marginalized figures to be written into the rhetorical tradition, some figures do not fit into these methodological frameworks because we have minimal or no accounts of the figure’s words. I argue that when we have little or no primary, secondary, or tertiary accounts of a figure’s words—as is the case with Mary Will—we can use the institutional sponsorship framework to study the figure’s rhetorical impact through the ripple effects the person left upon a given institution. These ripple effects are what queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz would call the ephemera or “invisible evidence” that is located in intangibles like performance, emotion, and story (10). Ephemera includes “those things that remain after a performance, a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself” (10). In other words, ephemera is not the silhouetted figure or direct evidence from the figure but is instead the impact the figure has made upon the institution.  

Though the institutional sponsorship framework can certainly be used in contemporary application and analysis, institutional sponsorship is ideal for recovery work because it is not a means of examining a figure individually (e.g., a focused analysis of a person’s journals or private papers). When a person has left few or no papers, letters, or words behind—either through primary sources or the kinds of secondary and tertiary sources that motivated Glenn’s recovery of Aspasia—even established recovery methods are quickly stretched. Institutional sponsorship, by contrast, is less concerned with a dearth of surviving words from a historical figure than with the figure’s relationship to a particular institution. And the traces of this relationship are located in the ephemera. Ephemeral evidence of this nature, Muñoz argues, “grants entrance and access to those who have been locked out of official histories” (9), and institutional sponsorship offers a way to locate a person’s rhetorical presence by analyzing and interpreting the ephemeral evidence to reveal the relationship between the person and the institution. This ephemeral lens is useful for analyzing Mary Will because very little traditional evidence remains to offer insight into Mary Will’s life and career. Glimpses of Will remain only in government records, minutes from denominational meetings, and a few brief status updates about her church that were published in her denomination’s weekly newspaper, The American Wesleyan 

Mary Will was ordained by the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America (now known as the Wesleyan Church), a small Methodist denomination that was formed in 1843. The larger Methodist church in the United States was embroiled in a debate over slavery at that time, and the pro-abolition wing of the church branched off and established itself as the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America. In their early days, the Wesleyans had considered themselves “beacons in a darkened world” (Stephens 164). They identified with the radical reformers of their day, fighting for abolition and the promise of a new social order.  

This social reform mentality was seen most clearly in 1848 when the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY became the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention in the country, and ephemeral evidence suggests the possibility that a young Mary Will had a connection with the Seneca Falls congregation. Genealogical records indicate that Mary Will was born in the state of New York in 1821, with her maiden name appearing with the spelling variations “Salsbury” and “Salisbury” across records. Records from the Chapel in Seneca Falls indicate that a Rev. Samuel Salsbury/Salisbury served as the pastor there from 1843 to 1847 and then again from 1870 to 1872 (National Park Service). Samuel Salsbury/Salisbury was also the president at the 1867 Wesleyan-Methodist General Conference. Surviving evidence can neither confirm nor deny a familial connection between Mary and Samuel—perhaps he was her father, uncle, brother, or other relation—but these ephemeral traces suggest that Mary was likely immersed in the social reform-minded Wesleyan-Methodist community as she grew up and would have been aware of the women’s rights movement that burst to national visibility at Seneca Falls. In 1853, a few years after the Women’s Rights Convention, the founder of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America, Rev. Luther Lee, presided over the ordination of Antoinette Brown, one of the first women to be ordained in the United States. Less than a decade later, Rev. Mary A. Will was ordained by the Illinois District of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1861, making her the first woman to be ordained within the fledgling denomination.  

Will’s motivations for entering ministry are unclear, but the ephemera surrounding Will offers some insights. Census records indicate that Will married her husband Henry “H.R.” Will, a Canadian citizen, during her teen years, and gave birth to their two daughters—Sophia and Matilda—while the young family was living in Canada. In 1848 the Wills returned to the US, taking up residence on a farm in Hanover, Cook County, Illinois. By the time of the 1860 census, Mary and H.R.—now empty nesters—had moved roughly 100 miles southwest to the Hennepin Township in Putnam County, Illinois, where H.R.’s profession was listed as a “Wes. Meth. Clergyman.” Denominational records show that both Mary and H.R. were ordained by the regional Illinois Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, and that the Wills relocated to Nora, Illinois in late 1860. Pieced together, census data and denominational records suggest that the Wills entered into ordained ministry and moved to Nora for Mary to take charge of the Wesleyan-Methodist preaching circuit there following the previous pastor’s departure. This move would mean Mary Will was not only the first woman to be ordained but also the first woman to be officially recognized as a pastor and given a pastoral appointment within the Wesleyan Methodist Connection. Put another way, the ephemeral evidence reveals that Will was the first woman to hold a formal leadership position within her institution.  

It was a common practice for Wesleyan-Methodist pastors at the time to send periodic updates to the denomination’s newspaper, The American Wesleyan, and Mary Will published a few such updates in early 1861. Will’s updates are brief and written with a positive tone, but her update published on February 20, 1861 offers her only surviving reference to the opposition she encountered as a female minister. After recounting some details about her growing ministry in Nora, she concludes with a prayer: “We pray the Lord of the harvest, that he may send laborers into his harvest, that are not afraid to unite their labors with that of a woman, for the harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few” (30). Clearly, Wesleyans had not universally adopted Rev. Luther Lee’s view of women’s ordination, and Will was confronted by people who were reticent or unwilling to “unite their labors with that of a woman.” However, the exact nature of the problems she encountered remains unknown. Perhaps the challenge lay with her local congregation, perhaps with the Wesleyan Methodist institutional leadership, or perhaps both. Whatever the case, ephemeral traces indicate that Will’s ordination was revoked three years later.  

How and why Will’s ordination was challenged remains unclear, but at the 1864 General Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America, the Illinois Conference’s decision to ordain her was brought under review. The committee that reviewed Will’s ordination declared “that the action of the Illinois Conference in ordaining a female was unscriptural” (209). The General Conference, however, declined to take action following the committee’s resolution and left the matter to the Illinois Conference (Haines and Haines 18). The Illinois Conference soon followed suit and deposed Will from ordained ministry, exerting their institutional power over her. This much is recorded in the official denominational minutes, but details of the conversations and wider debates that surrounded Will’s deposition were not preserved.  

Will’s thoughts and actions following her deposition are also unknown. Perhaps she remained at the Nora church, continuing to minister as she had been but with H.R. stepping in as the official pastor. Perhaps she needed some time to recover from the deposition ordeal and left Nora to stay with one of her daughters for some respite. Will disappears from records for a few years following her deposition, and surviving evidence does not indicate if her retreat from visibility was forced or voluntary.  

The impact of Will’s ordination and subsequent deposition on her denomination, as seen through these ephemeral traces that remain, is complex. Her deposition came near the end of the American Civil War, a time when many Christian communities—including the Wesleyans—were beginning to experience an identity crisis. As historian Randall J. Stephens observes, “post-war Wesleyans longed for a miraculous, old-time, unadorned faith, free from worldliness and corruption,” and the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century marked a period of transition away from their focus on reform to a more conservative outlook that emphasized personal holiness and entire sanctification (169). The result was a loss of the radical hope that had driven the abolitionist reformers, and Wesleyans faded from larger national conversations as they abandoned “the idea that the world could be fundamentally reordered by the cross and through human effort” (Stephens 173). Whereas the Wesleyan-Methodist founder Rev. Luther Lee had advocated for women’s ordination and other reforms with enthusiasm, Mary Will’s generation of Wesleyans had endured a civil war and were struggling to redefine themselves.  

By locating Will in and through the ephemera that surrounds her, we see more clearly how her ministerial career was shaped by historical, social, and denominational events both before and during her career. Will is the first of many Wesleyan women who would eventually be ordained in the centuries to come, but her complex relationship with the Wesleyan Methodist Connection is reflective of the complex history of women’s ordination in the United States.  

Examining Power Dynamics: Mary Will’s Pastoral Ethos

The second pillar of institutional sponsorship is an examination of the power dynamics between a person and an institution. Like Brandt’s original sponsorship framework, institutional sponsorship is grounded in power. Under Brandt’s definition of sponsorship, power is the key characteristic a sponsor possesses, and the sponsor benefits from exercising their power. However, in the institutional sponsorship framework, the power evinced between a person and an institution may be more nuanced than a blanket statement that the sponsor possesses power and benefits when that power is exerted. While this imbalanced power dynamic is often true in institutional sponsorship relationships, it is also possible that the power dynamic is more fluid and can shift over time. Institutions generally possess and exert more power than any one person, yet individual people like Mary Will can and have wielded complex and often fraught forms of influence over a wide range of institutions.  

The institutional sponsorship approach investigates who was able to exert power in a given situation and how that power was expressed. Sometimes power is overt and visible, and sometimes power is seen through scars left upon the person, the institution, or the surrounding landscape. To explore such power dynamics, the institutional sponsorship framework asks two main questions. First, Whose accounts and records were preserved and what is missing? Or, in contemporary application, Who is allowed to speak and who is silent? When analyzing a historical figure, power is revealed in the surviving evidence. Institutional sponsorship considers how power dynamics influence which voices, sources, and forms of evidence were preserved and which were disregarded. Institutional sponsorship also examines how power dynamics inform who was granted and who was denied access to publications, platfoWhat sources rms, pulpits, and more across various places in time. Second, of power do individual figures and institutions draw upon? Institutional sponsorship looks both for traditional, visible forms of overt power (e.g., power to create policies, form governing structures, hold leadership positions) and for nontraditional, more subtle sources of power (e.g., community support, spiritual ethos) that operate within a given rhetorical situation. By wrestling with these questions and tracing power dynamics across time, institutional sponsorship participates in Royster and Kirsch’s call for the deployment of social circulation in new forms of analysis. In so doing, institutional sponsorship helps to map the visibility of silhouetted figures and locate their rhetorical presence through the power they exerted and the power exerted upon them.  

To begin interrogating the power dynamics between Mary Will and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, I focus on the power exerted through access to ordination. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection held the power to control and wield access to ordination. The denomination exercised this power over Will by first granting and then revoking her ordination, and they benefitted from their power to control and regulate access to ordination. Later, however, the power of Will’s presence would lead the denomination to restore Will’s ordination. To examine these power dynamics between Will and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, I turn to the two guiding questions: Whose accounts and records were preserved and what is missing? What sources of power do individual figures and institutions draw upon?  

Discussion of the first question—whose accounts and records were preserved and what is missing?—began in the previous section with the recognition that very few of Mary Will’s words have been preserved. No surviving records reveal how Will reacted to her ordination and deposition, and the Wesleyan Methodist newspaper, The American Wesleyan, is noticeably silent regarding wider reactions to Will’s ordination and deposition. Will also seems to have been denied access to the review of her own ordination. Nothing in the records and minutes from the 1864 General Conference that overturned her ordination indicates that Will was present or invited to contribute to the conversation in any way. Whether Will was intentionally written out of “official” histories or was merely overlooked as not worthy of inclusion in these conversations, these gaps and silences reveal the power that the Wesleyan Methodist Connection exerted over Will.  

In response to the second question—what sources of power do individual figures and institutions draw upon?—Will seems to have drawn power from three sources: the ethos of the Methodist woman preacher, the tangible success of her ministry, and her congregation. Will was ordained relatively early in the life of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, a time when the new denomination was still negotiating its institutional identity as distinct from the broader Methodist church it had broken away from. Methodist preacher and theologian Phoebe Palmer was already a well-known figure during Will’s time, having published her best-selling book The Way of Holiness in 1843, and Will would have had Palmer and other Methodist women preachers to point to as she was beginning her ministerial career. It is possible that Will, in her church context, was able to draw power from the ethos of the Methodist woman preacher to reach and connect with her audience in the manner that Patricia Bizzell effectively argues enabled Frances Willard to reach her own audience. This ethos, which Bizzell describes as “a particular type of womanly spiritual ethos,” likely helped to advance Will to ordination in 1861, whether because she enacted this spiritual ethos or because her audience would have made positive associations between Will and other Methodist women preachers (“Frances Willard” 378). Yet, as time passed and the Wesleyans drew further away from the larger Methodist church, any power Will might have drawn from enacting the ethos of the Methodist woman preachers seems to have faded quickly. By the time her ordination was brought under review at the 1864 Wesleyan Methodist General Conference, the power of the Methodist woman preacher ethos had dissipated.  

From the ephemeral scraps of Will’s written words that have survived, another source of power, though of a distinctly rhetorical kind, emerges: the undeniable success of her ministry. A handful of updates Will published in The American Wesleyan are all that remain of Will’s voice, and in these updates she offers the wider denomination glimpses of news from her congregation. Will’s first update appeared in the newspaper on January 23, 1861, a few months after she had arrived in Nora to take charge of the preaching circuit there. Addressing the newspaper’s editor, as was standard practice, Will writes:  

Bro. Prindle:—While writing on business, I will just say to the readers of the Wesleyan, that we are enjoying a glorious revival on this Circuit. It is supposed that there have been over one hundred reclaimed or converted, and the work is still going on. We have no house large enough to hold the congregations that assemble from evening to evening. There is another feature of this work which is encouraging; believers are being sanctified. All are pressing forward to perfect holiness. (15)  

The factual tone of this update is indicative of Will’s other pastoral updates, and through this factual tone Will contrasts herself with her male contemporaries. Most of the updates pastors published in the newspaper were more expansive and included the pastor’s ruminations on certain people and events within his congregation (perhaps as a means of smoothing over any challenges or difficulties that had arisen), yet Will’s update is succinctly focused “on business.” Rather than offering her own extended interpretation or reflection on the status of her church, she draws power and authority from her successes: with more than 100 new members and the need for a larger meeting space, few could deny that Will’s ministry was thriving.  

The final source of power seen in the evidence surrounding Will is her congregation. Even though Will’s name appears in the pastoral rosters that were periodically published in The American Wesleyan during the early 1860s, not everyone acknowledged her leadership at her church. In a report on the Nora Quarterly meeting that appeared in the newspaper on May 15, 1861, Will and her husband H.R. were referred to as “Brother and sister Will, the joint pastors of the flock” (Matlack 78). H.R. Will was also an ordained minister, so this confusion is perhaps understandable, but it is more likely that people who encountered Mary Will operated within a terministic screen that equated pastor, preacher, or clergy with men. Seeing Will in a pastoral capacity would not fit within that interpretive framework, and categorizing Will with her husband, then, would have been a way to make sense of and explain the lived reality. It is also possible that defining pastor as male led the authors of such reports to intentionally suppress Mary’s leadership in her church.  

Whatever the case, the confusion over Will’s leadership motivated her congregation to come to her defense. A month after the report listing Mary and H.R. Will as “joint pastors” was published, S.A. Stock—a member of Will’s congregation—wrote to the editor of The American Wesleyan to correct and clarify Will’s position as pastor:  

Brother Prindle:—In looking over the Wesleyan, I notice brother Matlack’s publication of our quarterly meeting. We think Bro. M. did not understand sister Will’s position. We do not censure brother M.; we think he was misguided perhaps by the quarterly conference. We do not wish it to go out, that sister Will does not have charge of the Nora Circuit. We are glad to say, that our church never has been so well governed under any pastor, as it has been under sister Will. We think it can no longer be said, that a church cannot be well governed by a woman. There never was a mother who watched over an infant with greater interest, than sister Will has over this church. May God speed the time, when man will no longer trample under foot woman’s rights, but, when God calls her to labor in his vineyard, she may not be trammeled. As woman is blamed with the fall of man, we think she should have the privilege of proclaiming his redemption. (Stock 94, emphasis added)  

This letter was published on June 12, 1861, and we have no information about this letter’s author, S.A. Stock. Yet, Stock’s rebuke of those who either confused or intentionally downplayed Mary Will’s leadership imbues Will with power by confirming her position and authority as pastor of her church.  

It is noteworthy that Will did not offer this correction herself but remained silent and allowed S.A. Stock to speak for her in this venue. In her analysis of women’s defenses of women’s preaching in nineteenth-century America, Lisa Zimmerelli identified appealing to the power of the call to preach as one of three topoi commonly employed. By articulating detailed accounts of the call to preach, women were able to shift agency away from themselves and establish their ethos in a “mandate from God,” which also “constituted an exigency that demanded women respond” (Zimmerelli 189). Zimmerelli argues this frequent pivot to narration of the call to preach demonstrates women preachers’ rhetorical savviness via their “astute analysis of the constraints and opportunities of their rhetorical situation” (189). While I suspect Will would have employed this rhetorical strategy in her own preaching and pastoral work, she allowed someone else to narrate her calling and capabilities to the readers of The American Wesleyan. In so doing, the impact of this letter upon its Wesleyan audience was stronger than if it had come directly from Will, and the power behind Will’s pastoral ethos rests in both a divine mandate and the support of her congregation.  

The power Will drew from the ethos of the Methodist woman preacher, the tangible success of her ministry, and her congregation may not have been enough to keep the denomination from revoking her ordination, but her powerful presence kept her from being fully ignored or completely written out of official histories. In 1878, the county where Will had lived and pastored published The History of Jo Daviess County, Illinois, and a significant portion of the book traces the history of Christian denominations in the area. In a section devoted to Will’s church in Nora, the book’s authors note:  

[W]e are unable to fix the date of organization, but it is remembered that the office of pastor was filled by Revs. Mr. Morgan, W. W. Steward, H. R. Will and his wife Mary A. During the charge of the latter minister, in 1861, their church was built on the township line road five and one half miles south of Warren. …The Sunday school was organized in connection with the church at the time of the erection of their building. Its first superintendent was Rev. H. R. Will. (562-563, emphasis added) 

Mary Will’s name is only briefly dropped into this record, yet her presence is significant. As the only woman to appear in this record, we can assume that Will’s role in the church was so powerful that even those who would intentionally or subconsciously suppress women’s pastoral activities could not leave her out of the historical record. Echoing the confusion that led to S.A. Stock’s letter clarifying Will’s role as the pastor of the Nora church, Will is here listed again as pastor alongside her husband, but this record also identifies H.R. as the first superintendent of the Sunday school. This detail offers a hint as to the true dynamic between Mary Will and her husband. Sunday schools were typically operated under the authority of the church, with the superintendent taking responsibility for the administration, budget, and operations of the Sunday school. If Mary Will pastored the church and H.R. ran the Sunday school, it is possible that Mary was effectively H.R.’s boss, which would align with S.A. Stock’s letter explaining Mary Will’s leadership over the Nora church. In contemporary terms, this would mean Mary was the lead pastor and H.R. was her assistant pastor.  

Mary Will’s powerful presence also forced the Wesleyan Methodist Connection to contend with her again more than ten years after her deposition. The events that led to Will’s appeal are unknown, but at the church’s General Conference in 1875, Will’s deposition was appealed, and the committee that reviewed her deposition declared that “the action of the Illinois Conference in deposing sister M. A. Will was irregular and illegal” (350-351). Though this was certainly good news for Will, the committee’s report was not adopted by the General Conference and support for women’s ordination swiftly declined. Will’s appeal in 1875 is the last known mention of her in any documented records, and she is noticeably absent from the Wesleyan Methodist archives and the Wesleyan newspaper from this point forward.  

Analyzing the Reciprocal Impact: Mary Will’s Fractured Legacy

Alongside embracing ephemeral evidence and examining power dynamics, the third element of the institutional sponsorship framework involves analyzing the reciprocal impact of the person and the institution upon one another. Building upon the questions posed in the previous section about power dynamics, analyzing the reciprocal impact between a person and an institution involves asking: How would the institution and the individual be different if they had not encountered one another? This is perhaps the most important question posed within the institutional sponsorship framework. From a contemporary vantage point, institutional sponsorship looks at the changes in policies, leadership positions, and organizational structures that result from an institution’s interaction with an individual figure. These changes might be bold and readily apparent, or they might be subtle and visible only in the aftermath of the figure’s relationship with the institution. Whatever the case, changes and alterations are indicative of the nuanced power dynamics described above and serve as fruitful sites for analysis. As Kara Poe Alexander’s exploration of reciprocal sponsorship demonstrates, sponsorship need not be a “one-way” or “fixed” dynamic in which the sponsor influences the sponsored. Rather, Alexander argues, the sponsorship relationship can be fluid and reciprocal—that both parties can serve as sponsors for one another. The same can be true in an institutional sponsorship framework: the person and the institution can shape one another, and both can wield power. For historical figures, the reciprocal impact might be visible during the person’s lifetime (e.g., changes that directly affected the person’s career), in subsequent generations (e.g., policy changes, shifts in institutional structures), or both. To revisit Royster and Kirsch’s social circulation language, the reciprocal sponsorship impact “invokes connections among past, present, and future” (Feminist 23).   

The complex relationship between Mary Will and her denomination as seen through the ephemera and power dynamics above demonstrate a fluid relational dynamic. Both wielded differing forms of power and influence, and both impacted the other. While the Wesleyan Methodist Connection held the power of ordination and controlled Will’s career, Will left lasting imprints upon both her church in Nora, Illinois and the Wesleyan-Methodist denomination. Her calling to ministry and apparent leadership strengths prompted the Illinois Conference to make her the first Wesleyan woman to receive ordination and assign her to a preaching circuit, which both contributed to ongoing debates about women in church leadership and provoked new debate within the denomination. Will’s presence created ripple effects felt by the denomination and the women within it for generations to come, and the challenges to Will’s ordination reflect the shifting ideology of the Wesleyan Methodists. 

Despite the radical reform mentality that birthed the Wesleyan-Methodist denomination and its founder’s public support of women’s ordination, when Will came into ministry the prevailing attitude seemed to be that women had already advanced far enough. Wesleyan women already enjoyed greater access than in many other societal spheres, as they were able to cast votes in their local churches and to publish in The American Wesleyan newspaper, and women were central to the battle for temperance, which was becoming a prominent issue among Wesleyans during Mary Will’s time. While some still demonstrated a more activist stance, most Wesleyans seemed content to preserve the status quo surrounding women and were beginning to embrace the ‘separate spheres’ ideology that confined women to the domestic or private sphere. As Barbara Welter, Nan Johnson, and others have demonstrated, this gender ideology rose in popularity among white, middle-class Americans in the nineteenth century, including Wesleyans.  

This shift away from the Wesleyans’ radical reform mentality of the 1840s toward the separate spheres ideology is reflected both in Mary Will’s career and in The American Wesleyan. In 1847—more than a decade before Will’s ordination—a woman, Sarah A. Rice, wrote to the editor with a unique request: “Will the Editor be so kind as to recur to the 20th number of May 15th, 1847, and give us the vice versa of an article ‘To Wives’?” The “To Wives” article referenced was a detailed list of nine things wives should do to please their husbands, and Rice chastises its author, stating that he “assumes the office of dictator” and “issues down his terms as if he were an occupant of the upper world; or belonged to a higher species of some grade of superhuman nature” (1). This “supercilious manner of dictation to women,” Rice observes, is “neither new nor uncommon.” Rice then challenges the author to examine his own gender bias and to “occasionally reflect upon the deteriorating and degrading tendency of caste of sex, the necessary result of those conventional usages by which the power of the strong exalts itself to such an astonishing supremacy” (1).  

Rice follows this rebuke with a series of illuminating questions about the biblical and theological assumptions behind the “To Wives” article and concludes with a further challenge to the newspaper’s editor, briefly excerpted here:  

First, Can the mind under compound systems of physical power, civil, religious and domestic, ever attain its proper growth or the mortal and intellectual stature which its benevolent Creator meant it should?  

Second, Should not all human beings who possess incontrovertably productive energies sufficient to secure them in the rights of free agency, personal responsibility, and self-control, enjoy them?  

Third, Liberty is as necessary to the growth and expansion of the soul as is space to the body. Is that policy of society, of law, and of provincial justice, therefore right and just, which deprives females of all strength by securing their greatest possible dependence?  

Few Editors have moral magnanimity enough to allow females the liberty of the press, if they say anything which does not fall precisely in the wake of public sentiment. Can [this newspaper] publish this? If not, he is requested to send it to some lover of truth, if any such can be found, who will. (Rice 1) 

The newspaper editor granted her request, commenting, “We shall henceforth claim to belong to the most magnanimous class of editors, for we allow our lady correspondent the use of our columns, to say what is as far from the wake of public sentiment, as the general pursuits of men are from the duties of the nursery and the kitchen.(1). Printed just below Rice’s letter and the editor’s note was “To Husbands,” which opens by noting that a man’s first thought after marriage should be, “How shall I continue the love I have inspired?” Following this guiding question are the nine points of advice originally proffered to wives with the nouns and pronouns switched to refer to husbands. For example, the eighth point reads:  

Few things please a woman more than seeing her husband noble and clever in the management of his household. A knowledge of cookery, as well as every other branch in housekeeping is indispensable in a male; and a husband should always endeavor to support with applause, the character of the gentleman and the house-keeper. (Rice 1)  

Subsequent issues of the newspaper do not indicate how Rice’s request and the “To Husbands” column was received.  

By the 1870s, however, any “magnanimous” editorial spirit seems to have abated and such a request from a woman is less likely to have been entertained. On July 12, 1876, after Will’s ordination had been revoked and then restored, The American Wesleyan published an article written by Mrs. J. P. Spaulding, who was married to the current pastor of the Nora Circuit where Will had pastored. Mrs. Spaulding’s article, “Duties of a Pastor’s Wife,” argued that a woman’s primary responsibility was to care for her children. The pastor’s wife should also support her husband’s ministry through prayer and encouragement, but, Mrs. Spaulding concludes, “the position of mother [is] higher, nobler, holier than any of her sphere in which woman was ever called to act” (2). Mrs. Spaulding’s sentiments reflect an ideology that would confine women to the domestic sphere (see Bizzell, “Chastity”; Johnson, “Gender”; Welton), and her exhortation to pastor’s wives seems to be a direct response to women like Will who continually sought to work outside of the domestic sphere in the church.  

Yet, even as the Wesleyan Methodist Connection seemed to embrace at the institutional level the separate spheres ideology, Will could not be contained within the domestic sphere. The Wesleyans continued to debate about women after Will’s deposition, but she remained in Illinois and continued her ministry. Though her husband H.R. was now the ‘official’ pastor in the family, the 1867 pastoral roster listed “H.R. and M.A. Will” as pastors of the preaching circuit at Ophir, Illinois, and Mary Will’s name appeared on a publicized list of speakers for a regional ministry conference held in early 1867. Apparently, Mary Will’s pastoral calling and giftedness in ministry were so significant that the institution—her denomination—had no choice but to allow her continued presence in ministry.  

Years later, after Will’s deposition had been reversed, Mrs. H. E. Hayden, another preacher and contemporary of Will would allude to Will’s impact upon the Wesleyan Methodist Connection thus: “The Lord designed that the Illinois Conference should take the lead in giving the sisters a helping hand by ordaining them. I am sorry that after they had taken a step or two, they backslid. I hope they will soon be reclaimed” (Hayden 1). Mrs. H. E. Hayden was a vocal and visible advocate among the Wesleyans for women’s ordination and women’s right to preach, but she was never ordained. It seems that Hayden and many other women who sought to preach over the next few decades were casualties of the “backslide” resulting from the controversy over Mary Will.  

From 1879-1891, Wesleyans formally ceased ordaining women but did allow them to serve as licensed ministers.2 Wesleyan women were able to seek ordination again after that period, but the Wesleyans never regained the radical hope that had characterized their earliest years and led Will to ordination. Today, Will’s denomination, now known as the Wesleyan Church, is quick to celebrate its history of ordaining women. In 2011, a small brochure appeared at church conferences, “Celebrating 150 Years of Women in Ministry in the Wesleyan Church.” The brochure highlights Will’s ordination in 1861, but the more complete story of Will’s deposition and the denomination’s fractured legacy of support for women’s ordination is absent from both the brochure and the broader denominational consciousness.  

If not for Will, Wesleyans would not be able to (accurately) claim that their denomination has been ordaining women since 1861, and this legacy and history has attracted women seeking ordination to the Wesleyans. If not for Will’s appeal and restoration to ministry in 1875, the Wesleyans may have ceased ordaining women entirely during the nineteenth century, and her presence contributed to the continuation of women’s ordination in America. Despite this legacy, a study conducted in 2016 concluded that just 7.75% of all senior or solo pastors in the Wesleyan Church are women (Hammond 65). This figure places the Wesleyan Church slightly behind American Protestant churches, where women comprise just 9% of senior pastors (Barna Group).  

By using the institutional sponsorship framework to analyze Will’s relationship with the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Will emerges as a passionate, gifted leader whose presence forced her denomination to grapple with its position on women’s ordination. Many women who stand in Will’s fractured legacy have found that, like Will, their journey to and beyond ordination is a tumultuous one. Perhaps a greater awareness of Will would benefit women today who face challenges in their own ordination processes and ministerial careers. 


This article participates in mapping the visibility and mobility of women that Royster and Kirsch call for by mapping Rev. Mary A. Will’s sponsorship relationship with her denomination. Institutional sponsorship offers a means of responding to Nan Johnson’s call to “widen the view” of feminist rhetorical scholarship, and it invites new possibilities for further study and analysis. My exploration of Will and the Wesleyan-Methodist Connection of America highlights the complex relationships that can occur between a person and an institution, and it also demonstrates the ability to recover a figure’s rhetorical presence by examining the impact a figure has left upon an institution. While the denomination exercised significant power over her, Will—through her continued pursuit of ministry—shaped the Wesleyan legacy of women’s ordination. Will’s existence and effectiveness in ministry made her impossible to ignore or erase. Even after her deposition, the denomination acknowledged Will’s effectiveness in ministry and affirmed her as a “co-laborer in Christ,” and Will and her husband remained active in the denomination throughout their lives (“Illinois Conference” 2). Despite looming in the shadows as a nearly forgotten, silhouetted historical figure, Will’s presence has rippled across time and impacted generations of women and Wesleyans, and her presence provides additional context for existing rhetorical scholarship on women preachers. 

Institutional sponsorship builds upon the work begun by Cheryl Glenn, Nan Johnson, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch, and so many more by forwarding a new means of approaching recovery work and bringing silhouetted figures into sharper focus. Where other methods might see only an absence, institutional sponsorship locates a rhetorical presence at the convergence of ephemeral evidence, power dynamics, and reciprocity. I hope to see more historical figures recovered and analyzed using the institutional sponsorship framework.  


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Young, Morris. “Sponsoring Literacy Studies.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2013, 

Zimmerelli, Lisa. “Heaven-Touched Lips and Pent-up Voices: The Rhetoric of American Female Preaching Apologia, 1820-1930.” Mapping Christian Rhetorics: Connecting Conversations, Charting New Territories, edited by Michael-John DePalma and Jeffrey M. Ringer, Routledge, 2015, pp. 180-202. 

Feminisms and Rhetorics Keynote Address: The Uses of Fatigue: Invitations, Impatience, and Investments 

This is a modified version of the 2023 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference keynote address.  

Permit me to open with a few quotes. The first two are definitions of which you may be familiar. They are:  

Fatigue, a noun referring to extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness. 

Weariness, a noun describing a reluctance to see or experience any more of something. (  

The next quote is the opening of a recent advice essay in The Guardian. The letter writer states:  

Ever since I made the conscious decision to live my life fully as a feminist, it has been fraught with conflict and stress. I’m determined to make a mental note of any discrimination against my gender, to open my eyes and stop editing out instances — on the television, internet, radio, and day-to-day life — of women being treated differently to men…My conflict and stress don’t originate in interactions or arguments with others, but from the mental effort of attempting not to live in a dreamlike state, ignoring evidence everywhere, all the time. (“I Live as a Feminist”) 

This passage is the opening to an advice essay entitled “I Live as a Feminist, but I’m Tired of Being Furious All the Time.” In response to this dilemma, the columnist advises the letter writer to: “stop raging,” because  

Solutions are not found when we are incensed… We all want a new world that’s far more female-shaped. That dream will only be realized using predominantly feminine qualities, such as reason, patience, endurance, and emotional sensitivity. For that we need to be calm, rational, and ready to listen, not in a state of rage. (“I Live as a Feminist.”) 

A confession: in one draft of this address, I dragged this columnist and what I considered to be her antiquated advice. If there is an emotion that has characterized feminism and – more specifically – the feminisms enacted among people of color and marginalized communities, it has been rage. June Jordan once confessed that the police officers who beat and disfigured a childhood friend “hardened her” and pushed her into a “place of rage” (Parmar). bell hooks observed that “sharing rage” fosters cross-generational alliances among those groups “seeking ways to be…self-determined” and participate in…. [political] struggle” (hooks 19-20). Susan Stryker maintained that in “rebirthing [their] rage… rage rebirthed [them]” in her work on trans-life (237). Brittany Cooper has helped us understand when this emotion requires what she refers to as “homegirl interventions” (5). More recently, Hil Malatino extracted an “Infrapolitical Ethics of Care,” or a “reliance on a community of friends to protect and defend you from violence, to witness and mirror one another’s rage, in empathy, and to support one another during and after the breaking that accompanies rage” through their analysis of CeCe McDonald’s letters[1] (130). Rage has been integral to the political self-actualization of most feminists. Indeed, for some of us, rage is our brand. 

Eventually, I realized that I had encountered a version of feminist fatigue last spring during a conversation with the undergraduates in my Black Women’s Rhetoric class. When they fell silent during our session on Ida B. Wells’ rhetoric in “Lynch Law” and I tried to coax them back into the conversation, a brave young woman spoke up and said, “we’re tired of this.” 

“Tired of what?” I asked.  

“It’s overwhelming,” the student said. “It’s depressing.” Others nodded in agreement. “Why do we always have to look at the past? It’s hard enough being a Black woman here right now.”  

I don’t want to call this a failure on my part, but I had already stumbled with this class. On the first day of the semester during my customary reading of Pearl Cleage’s “Why I Write” essay, one young woman teared up and another became visibly tense when we got to the passage where Cleage describes a mass shooting. In my efforts to begin the class as I always had, I did not consider the residual trauma many of them were experiencing in the wake of the November 2022 shooting on our campus. My choice to prioritize business as usual had set the stage for them to shut down.  

The contrast between public discussions of feminist fatigue and the one I witnessed in my classroom is an inspiration for this address. While I imagine we’re all feeling the brunt of pandemic-related issues, inflation, anti-immigration legislation, attacks on queer and trans communities, political corruption and insurgency, gun violence, and anti-woke curricular initiatives alongside our standard diet of harassment, misogyny, misogynoir, patriarchy, the “isms” and the “phobias,” I consider my undergrads’ confession a cause for concern. If we can agree that feminism is a project undergirded by hope (Glenn 2018) and an insistence on justice, what are we to make when a group of prospective feminists and young rhetoricians are already exhibiting apathy and overwhelm? What are feminists’ ways of making it (Balliff, Davis, and Mountford) in times like these? And, finally, how can we collectively imagine feminist futures when so many of us are tired? 

My answer is that conversations about fatigue invite us to refine our approaches to listening, to deepen our understanding of relationships, and to invest in reparative practices. Black women and femmes hold no monopoly on exhaustion, but we have been talking about fatigue for a while. In the past decade, we’ve built upon the concept of “Racial Battle Fatigue” to include what Menah Pratt calls “racial and gender battle fatigue.” We have seen the emergence of groups like the Nap Ministry, and the publication of critical works such as Chanequa Walker Barnes’ Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, Marita Golden’s The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women, April Baker Bell’s “For Loretta: A Black Woman Literacy Scholar’s Journey to Prioritizing Self-Preservation,” and public-facing works like Tricia Hersey’s Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto. This is but a small sampling of a robust set of discourses on exhaustion happening among and about this group by Black feminist and womanist scholars that too often remain under-tapped for their broader insights about the nature of labor, work, and participation. In that vein, I devote the remainder of this address to identifying how fatigue among members of this group can be made usable to us as logics of participation, methods of disruption, and pathways to return. 

Truth is I’m Tired”: Fatigue as an Invitation to Listen[2]  

The first quotes I cited containing definitions of “fatigue” and “weariness” are attempts to pay homage to the late Audre Lorde, whose essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” is the other inspiration for this address. Lorde delivered “The Uses of Anger” as the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Conference keynote. By that time in her career, she had already published several poetry collections, helped to create Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and taught at Tougaloo, Lehman, and John Jay College where she fought for the creation of a Black Studies program. Although Lorde conceded that her position as an employed faculty member and one-half of a two-parent household gave her some economic stability, she used the occasion to call out NWSA’s commitment to equity, noting that the organization’s refusal to waive registration fees “for poor women and women of Color who wished to present and conduct workshops” undercut the liberatory potential of the conference’s theme of “responding to racism” (“Uses of Anger” 126). Lorde lists various racial and gender microaggressions she experienced as some of the sources of her anger, but she concludes that anger can be transformational because it’s “loaded with information and energy,” and, when “focused with precision, it can become a power source of energy serving progress and change” (127).  

In “The Shape of My Impact,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs informs us that when Lorde was diagnosed with cancer a few years later, she was not only denied medical leave, but she had to turn down a prestigious fellowship at Cornell University because Ithaca’s climate was too cold for her battle with the illness. Moreover, Hunter College, the school Lorde would join just months after delivering her NWSA keynote, ultimately denied her requests to teach during the summer so she might live in climates more accommodating to her health concerns the rest of the year. Never mind that Hunter College’s English Department would later hold a symposium to honor Lorde after her death. At this point, the institution was inflexible about how Lorde was to undertake the labor they expected of her (Gumbs). 

I relate to these aspects of Lorde’s career because at this point my situation looks different today than it did in October 2007 when I attended my first Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. I am now a tenured associate professor at an institution considered to be elite by some. Back then, however, I was a graduate student eager to present on Septima Clark, excited to meet fellow peers and friends that would push my thinking for years to come, thrilled to sit in a hotel lobby and chat with Dr. Royster, Dr. Logan, and the late Dr. Joyce Middleton, and unaware of how long it would take to pay off the credit card debt necessary to attend these events despite having generous mentors who let me room with them. I left that conference invigorated and invested. And so, when I took my first position as an assistant professor teaching a 4/4 load, I attended five conferences in less than two years, served on national committees, prepped five classes in four semesters, and published. And then, two years later, when I moved on to my next institution, a place where I would stay for six years, I dug even deeper into my reserves, attending at least twelve conferences and undertaking six campus visits, sitting on yearly hiring committees too often as the requisite person of color, prepping and piloting at least nine new courses, surviving two different tenure hearings, serving on executive boards, chairing committees, and planning one wedding and one funeral. I don’t share these last details to elicit sympathy or to downplay the good outcomes I have experienced. The truth is, though, I’m tired because the road from Little Rock to Atlanta has been an exhausting one.  

I am not alone here. 

  • A queer historian who has spent the first decade of their career assembling a groundbreaking archive and fighting to secure funding to house it receives an email soliciting their participation on yet another organization’s Awards Committee. When they respond explaining they have just finished their third committee appointment in five years, they are told “but we need people like you to do this work.” 
  • The sole woman of color on the editorial board of a scholarly journal receives an urgent request to write a piece for the journal’s late summer/early fall 2020 issue. When the scholar tells the editor that she is committed to other projects and has no new work she can contribute at that time, the editor immediately writes back requesting the names of other scholars “who can provide the Black perspective.” When the scholar sends the names of two other scholars who may be able to contribute, the editor circles back again and states: “I assume you can at least find the time to review these essays.” 
  • An energetic young scholar agrees to become a section editor for an established journal despite teaching a 4/4 and carrying a considerable load of other service obligations. In less than two years, the scholar steps down from the position. When asked about her decision, she confesses “There was no structure in place, and I was just tired.”    
  • An award-winning interdisciplinary scholar and researcher arrives two days early to the university where she will co-lead a week-long summer institute seminar. As she is catching up with her co-leader and finalizing their plans for leading the seminar, she begins to cry, saying: “I am tired. So tired.”  
  • An associate professor and journal founder posts an apology on social media to the people to whom she “owes something,” explaining that she has been overwhelmed and unable to deal with all of the obligations. 

Patricia Hill Collins’ (2016) work on Black Feminist Thoughtand specifically her discussion of oppositional knowledges – arose from her study of the labor exploitation Black women experienced. Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of “rhetorical listening” and her work to figure out how to “stand under” discourses developed as a response to the resentment and resistance Lorde’s critique and truth-telling inspired among some white readers (Ratcliffe 205). While I am sure many of us benefit from these valuable concepts, feminist rhetoricians still need frameworks to identify the kinds of assumptions, logics, and discourses that position Black women and other typically under-represented populations adversely within these spheres of labor and service. Said differently, in addition to “standing under” the discourses of others, how do we account for the discourses that inform how we “stand among” each other? 

Fatigue narratives like these become usable when they push us to listen for what I consider as the “seat at the table” logics that position some of us for burnout and make inordinate labor requests seem reasonable. As Sara Ahmed observed in On Being Included, the longstanding challenge to creating diverse and equitable working environments is a compulsory atmosphere of “happiness” where workers, and particularly members of under-represented groups, feel that they are expected to appear agreeable or perform gratitude for the opportunity to labor (2012). Conversely, as Carmen Kynard explains in “All I Need is One Mic,” there is a distinction between the “job,” or the compensatory tasks or acts of service individuals undertake, and the “work,” or the labor that should emerge from a person’s convictions and commitments, that is too often confused in these labor conditions. “Seat at the table” logics are the claims and assumptions about work, duty, and membership that Black women, and truly any number of historically underrepresented groups, internalize and navigate that lead to such confusion.  

Three of the prevalent logics that circulate in our contemporary moment are: 1) the scarcity/gratitude logic which says “there are limited seats at this table, so you must demonstrate willingness and gratitude to be there”;  2) the when and where I /you enter” logic[3] which says: “I am/you are the only one of your group at this table, so I/you must represent for my/your community;” and, finally, 3) the “change is slow and institutions are firmly built” logic which says you “must put in present work for future gain.” The latter is a particularly potent logic that not only makes change and accountability subjective or invisible but can also absolve those who are inhibiting progress of said accountability by amplifying the message that it is hard to undo tradition. Some of these logics have originated as survival mindsets designed to protect groups attempting to enter previously closed spaces from surveillance, disappointment, or exclusion. In these ways, they are not altogether dangerous, and they do not prevent individuals from being vocal or critical during a working or collaborative effort. These logics simply become dangerous when they justify unfair critiques or inordinate expectations placed on others. 

Let’s consider again the narrative about the scholar of color who was approached to write for the special issue. While it is likely that this woman joined the board to help promote more diversity in the journal, the editor does not acknowledge the lack of representation on their board but expects her to perform multiple forms of labor. In this instance, the scholar ultimately chose not to undertake the labor expected of them, but “seat at the table” logics enable us to hear the lines of thought and largely unspoken messages at work when underrepresented groups feel obligated to take on tasks time and time again. These logics also highlight the mechanisms that contribute to the state of the Black Rhetorical Condition, or what Elaine Richardson describes as a state of being “desired and devalued” (33). Imagine if we, a body of feminists and rhetoricians, built these forms of fatigue and these logics into our approaches to mentoring, organization, and engagement. Imagine if we thought about the assumptions that we internalize about the duties we should uphold or the labor expectations we project onto others. Imagine if we thought more about rest as we are thinking about representation. 

“Get Somebody Else to Do It”[4] : Impatience as Resignation 

Fatigue does not always look like lethargy. Sometimes it looks like confrontation or disruption. Such was the case when Civil Rights Attorney and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong interrupted a February 2022 press conference about Minneapolis Police Officer’s shooting of Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man who was asleep on a sofa when officers entered Locke’s cousin’s apartment thinking they had located a suspect in a different crime. Locke did not survive the shooting and the protesters and city leaders who spoke out on the murder condemned the police’s use of a no-knock warrant. When the city’s mayor and Police Department officials took to the podium during a press conference a few days after the subsequent protests, the Police Chief acknowledged how “everyone knows” the kinds of threats officers face and how “quickly” the officers had to make the decisions that culminated in the shooting that transpired (“Anatomy”). Minutes into the Police Chief’s remarks, Levy-Armstrong – who was co-chairing a public safety task force at the time – stood up and interrupted the speaker, approaching the podium while opening her coat and facing the cameras to indicate that she did not have a weapon (see Figure 1). In the eight-minute remarks that followed, Levy-Armstrong pivots between directly addressing the mayor and the Police Chief as she calls out what she describes as the “anatomy of a cover-up,” or the organizational structures and decision-making practices that enabled the Police Department to absolve themselves of responsibility in Locke’s death. Exasperated, she declares that she is:   

expecting strong leadership, I’m expecting integrity, and I’m expecting accountability. You guys aren’t going to waste my God damn time… I can be used to come speak the truth about what needs to happen, but when it’s time to call out these inconsistencies, these inaccuracies, the lack of information, I gotta sit in the back? Or not even be invited? I’m not here for it. (“Anatomy”) 

In an interview with Levy-Armstrong shortly after the press conference incident, journalist Roland Martin introduced the activist by saying that she was “sick and tired” of listening to excuses (“Anatomy”).  

Obviously, there is a difference between the service-inspired burnout I illustrated with the previous fatigue narratives and the activist burnout Levy-Armstrong articulated during the press conference. In this latter instance, fatigue becomes usable as a way of understanding how Black women rescript the terms of their working engagements and advocacy. Within her eight-minute remarks, Levy-Armstrong moves deftly through several significant rhetorical tasks. In addition to creating an opening to speak in a moment that is assumed to be closed by generic conventions and articulating her commitments and personal convictions as a civil servant and the mother of a Black son, she redirects the ethical responsibility of service back onto the city’s leadership with her actual threat of quitting the working group. These moves of employing spectacle, articulating an unapologetic stance, and calling out how the working group was wasting her time are all emblematic of the rhetorics of impatience, or discourses and performances of urgency and exasperation used in pursuit of equity and control (Carey 2020), Black women use as forms of resistance and discipline in the interest of self-care and wellness.  

As I explain in “Necessary Adjustments,” these rhetorics operate as resistance against forms of temporal hegemony, or structures and systems that converge and push equity further and further out of reach (270). Although the Police Chief was not attempting to push or delay any particular goal away from Levy-Armstrong, her reference to the “speed” in which her officers were forced to make their decisions suggests that the chief felt licensed to rush past the questions about accountability that would understandably follow. Had Levy-Armstrong subscribed to the “seat at the table” logic that suggests change happens slowly and that it’s difficult to undo traditions, she might not have been as possessive over the currency of her time or the way the city leaders seemed fine with exploiting her activism when it served their purposes. To disrupt and discipline the leaders away from these lines of thinking – lines of thinking that could result in the loss of a life – Levy Armstrong brings her “whole self” (Lorde) to this moment, embodying indignation and calling for reciprocity. Fatigue channeled as impatience becomes usable when it shows us how people like Levy Armstrong reject any attempt to make them complicit in their own oppression or the disregard of the communities for whom they labor. At this point, resignation is the only option.  

We will not all end up on the frontlines of efforts against state violence, nor will we all take active roles in racial and other social justice campaigns. As feminists, however, the minimal amount of work we should feel compelled to undertake is the task of learning to see, hear, and respond accordingly to the calls for accountability rhetoricians like Karma Chavez (2013), Eric Darnell Pritchard (2017), and Elliot Tetreault (2018) have made to advise us on how to responsibly show up for each other in our coalitional work. Imagine if the pedagogies we developed in our classroom spaces amplified these moments of impatience and fatigue as exemplars of activism rather than leaving them unengaged or misread as forms of incivility. Imagine if we did more to cultivate the kinds of emotional literacies necessary to stand among and stand up for each other in crisis.  

“No Ways Tired”[5] : Fatigue as a Call to Invest in Homecoming 

I began this address by identifying feminist fatigue and how I had observed it, but I want to close by returning to the definition of weariness, or the reluctance to see or experience any more of something. The case studies I have discussed are extensions of my current projects on urgency and risk, but it is the project I did on healing that has yet to let me go. That project has taught me that too often we skip the stage of grief that happens between trauma – by way of microaggressions or bigger systems of violence – and healing. The impulse to rush back to “business as usual” is understandable if we have the fear that taking time for ourselves will result in us giving up or falling apart, but it can be shortsighted when some of us are still weary. Well before the pandemic, I began to notice how many dynamic feminist scholars and or women of color have experienced have experienced fights with cancer. Indeed, I have worked alongside some of them and consider them among my dearest friends. Again, I don’t share these details lightly. Instead, I am convinced by scholars like Jenifer Nash (2022) who writes of “slow loss” and Black feminist endurance that we must sit with and grieve how heavy the weight of fatigue has been on us, particularly on women and people of color.  

Yet, as we’ve gathered here at Spelman College, an institution with an esteemed history and a beacon within an HBCU culture, I am inspired by the concept of a homecoming and how our opening session between Dr. Bachelor-Robinson and Dr. Royster launched us into this conference. Growing up in the Black Church, I understand homecomings as reunions and gatherings that should replenish us. As someone who studies healing though, I also see the concept of homecoming as a potentially radical reparative project. In her recent book Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self, psychologist Thema Bryant explains that fatigue is a sign of disconnection, an indicator that a person is out of touch, burdened down, and cut off from the sources that give them life. Among the solutions that Bryant offers is a project of reparenting. The logic is that we can extend to ourselves the care and support we have not always received. Ideally, these intentional practices will enable us to counteract weariness by being compassionate to ourselves first.  

As I close, I want to imagine several homecoming practices we might invest in as a coalition. Imagine if we made the restorative circles and other inclusive efforts intentionally built into this conference part of the coalition’s legacy. Imagine if the organizers of the next conference kept that same energy[6] as the organizers of this year’s conference exhibited and built in mechanisms for the rest and repair of their attendees. Also, imagine if we did more by way of recognition and self-actualization to combat the harmful “seat of the table” logics that position so many of us for exhaustion, perhaps through compiling or archiving fatigue narratives such as the ones I shared. Imagine if we as a coalition invested in or partnered with restorative training efforts such as Beth Godbee and Candace Epps-Robertson’s recently developed “Pathways Through Burnout” cohort program to stop the trend where we suffer through fatigue in “isolation” by joining spaces for “discussion, reflection, processing, and guidance” (“Pathways”). Imagine if we remixed the logic that change is slow and we rebuilt ourselves with the affirmation that our work, as a coalition, as scholars and teachers, as feminists, womanists, and as citizens, is and has always been necessary and that our presence is valuable. Imagine if we took rest in the fact that even as so many of us are tired, we are still here.  

Thank you.   


Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012.  

“Anatomy of a Cover Up: Nekima Levy Armstrong Interrupts Presser on Amir Locke, Calls Out  Officials.” YouTube, uploaded by Roland S. Martin, 4 Feb. 2022, 

Balliff, Michelle, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford. Women’s Ways of Making it in Rhetoric and Composition. Routledge, 2008.  

Bryant, Thema. Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic  Self. TarcherPerigee, 2022.  

Carey, Tamika L. “Necessary Adjustments: Black Women’s Rhetorical Impatience.” Rhetoric Review, 37.4, 2020. 269-86. 

—. Rhetorical Healing: The Reeducation of Contemporary Black Womanhood. SUNY Press, 2016. 

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

Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black Feminist Thought as Oppositional Knowledge.” Departures in  Critical Qualitative Research, 5.3, 2016, 133-44.  

Cooper, Anna Julia. “Womanhood: A Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race” (1886). The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper, edited by Charles Lemert and Esme Bahn, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. 53-71.  

Cooper, Brittany. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. St. Martin’s Press, 2018.  

—. “The Racial Politics of Time.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Oct. 2016, 

“Fatigue.”, Accessed September  2023. 

Frostrup, Mariella. “I Live as a Feminist, but I’m Tired of Being So Furious All the Time.” The Guardian, 24 Nov. 2019,  

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

Golden, Marita. The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women. Mango Publishing, 2021. 

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “The Shape of My Impact.” The Feminist Wire, 29 Oct. 2019. 

“Pathways Through Burnout: A Cohort Experience.” Heart-Head-Hands.Com, Accessed Oct. 2023.  

hooks, bell. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Holt Paperbacks, 1995.  

Kynard, Carmen. “All I Need is One Mic: A Black Feminist Community Meditation on  The Work, the Job, and the Hustle (& Why So Many of Yall Confuse This Stuff).” Community Literacy Journal, 14.2, 2020. 5-24.  

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. 1984, Crossings Press, 2007. 124-33. 

Malatino, Hilary. “Tough Breaks: Trans Rage and the Cultivation of Resilience.” Hypatia, 34.1, 2019. 121-40. 

Nash, Jennifer. “Slow Loss: Black Feminism and Endurance.” Social Text 151, 40.2, June 2022. 

Parmar, Pratiba, director. A Place of Rage. 1991. 

Pritchard, Eric. “‘When You Know Better, Do Better’: Honoring Intellectual and Emotional  Labor Through Diligent Accountability Practices.”, July 2019.  

Ratcliffe, Krista. “Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a Code for Cross  Cultural Conduct.” College Composition and Communication, 51.2, 1999. 195-224.  

Richardson, Elaine. African American Literacies. Routledge, 2002.  

Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ, 1.3, 1994. 237-54. 

Tetreault, Elliot. “We’re asking you to show up”: Accountability as Rhetorical Practice for Queer, Feminist, and Racial Justice Allyship. 2018. University of Louisville, PhD dissertation 

“Weariness.”, Accessed September 27, 2023.  


[1]Cece McDonald is an activist and advocate for prison reform who survived a white-supremacist and transphobic attack in 2011 but received a second-degree manslaughter conviction and prison time for defending herself. 
[2] The phrase “truth is I’m tired” is a reference to the song Take Me to the King by gospel artist Tamela Mann. It is commonly used in Black vernacular spaces to indicate that a person is exhausted and approaching a point of weariness that makes them want to leave or depart from a situation or environment. 
[3] Here I am acknowledging how Anna Julia Cooper’s oft-quoted claim that it is only Black women can say “When and Where I Enter” with the certainty that the whole “race enters” (“Womanhood”) with them can function as a form of internal motivation for under-represented groups while also functioning as a type of projected expectation from other groups that benefit from their labor.  
[4] The saying “get somebody else to do it” comes from a December 2022 TikTok video featuring a young woman approaching an older woman who is shopping and asking her to record a video. The older lady flatly tells the young woman, “Uh uh. Get somebody else to do it.” When the young lady tries to explain that she needs help to make a video for an audition, the older lady woman walks away, signaling her refusal to continue participating in the exchange. There is some debate as to whether the older lady is the young woman’s grandmother. Regardless, the phrase “Get somebody else to do it” has come to signify a flatly articulated stance of refusal.  
[5] “No Ways Tired” is a well-known gospel song about endurance and perseverance. 
[6] Keep that same energy” is a phrase from Black Vernacular culture that people use to challenge others to be consistent in their behavior, criticism, or participation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Works Cited 

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Gay, Roxane. “Why I Am A Bad Feminist: Author Roxane Gay on Being a Bad Feminist and How You Can Be One Too.” Buzzfeed.Com, Accessed 3 Feb. 2022. 

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Kelm, Sara. What a Way to Make a Livin’: Women Constructing Ethos in Contemporary Professional Memoirs. 2021. Texas Christian University, PhD dissertaton., 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The American West as Masculine/Masculinized Space 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Photography 

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

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

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

Evelyn Cameron:  Photographer 

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

Cameron’s Photos and “Women’s Work”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Ewen and Evelyn Cameron Branding Cow

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

Figure 3: Mabel and Janet Williams Branding Cow

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

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

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

Figure 4: Buckley girls with roped cow


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

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

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

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

The Erasure of Evelyn Cameron 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Works Cited 

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

Barrett-Fox, Jason. Untimely Women: Radically Recasting Feminist Rhetorical History. Ohio State UP, 2022.  

Buckley Girls Roping Cow. 1 January 1908 – 31 December 1908, –Montana Memory Project, Montana State Library, accessed 28 Jul. 2022, 

Cameron, Evelyn. “The Cowgirl in Montana.” Country Life, 6 June  1914, pp. 829-31. 

Carter, Sarah, editor. Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own FarCountry, 2009.   

Chavez, Will. “Images from the First-Known Native American Female Photographer.”  High Country News, Accessed 23 April 2023. 

Ewen and Evelyn Cameron Branding Cow. 13 Oct. 1910,Montana Memory Project, Montana State Library, accessed 28 Jul. 2022, 

Fanny Wright Reading in her Living Room, October 18, 1905. 18 Oct. 1905, Montana Memory Project, Montana State Library, accessed 21 Jul. 2022, 

 Fleckenstein, Kristie. “Professional Proof: Arguing for Women Photographers at the Fin de Siècle.” Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor, edited by David Gold and Jessica Enoch, U of Pittsburgh P, 2019, pp. 84-101.  

George, Ann, Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick, editors. Women and Rhetoric Between the Wars. Southern Illinois UP, 2013.  

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Hager, Kristi. Evelyn Cameron: Montana’s Frontier Photographer. Farcountry Press, 2007.  

Hariman, Robert, and John Lewis Lucaites. The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship. U of Chicago P, 2016.  

Henneman, Jennifer. Her Reputation Precedes Her: Transatlantic Celebrity, Portraiture, and Visual Culture, 1865-1890. 2016. University of Washington, PhD dissertation. 

Hudgins, Nicole. The Gender of Photography. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020.  

Jack, Jordan. “Redefining Rhetorical Figures through Cognitive Ecologies: Repetition and Description in the Canadian Wind Energy Debate.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 2022, pp. 1-16.   

Jeffrey, Julie Roy. Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880. Hill and Wang, 1979.  

Jensen, Joan M., and Darlis A. Miller. “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 49,  1980, pp. 173-213.   

Jordan, Teresa. Cowgirls: Women of the American West. Bison Books, 1992.   

Johnson, Susan Lee. “‘A Memory Sweet to Soldiers’: the Significance of Gender in the History of the American West.” Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, 1993, pp. 495-517.  

Johnston, Frances Benjamin. “What a Woman Can do with a Camera.” Ladies Home Journal, 1897.   

Jones, Karen. “Lady Wildcats and Wild Women: Hunting, Gender, and the Politics of Show(wo)manship in the Nineteenth Century American West.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts:  An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 37-49.  

Kelly, Casey Ryan. “Women’s Rhetorical Agency in the American West: The New Penelope.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 32, no. 2, 2009, pp. 203-31. 

“The Kodak Girl: Women in Kodak Advertising.” Toronto Metropolitan University Archives and Special Collections, accessed 20 June 2022,   

Lucey, Donna. Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron. Mountain Press, 2001.   

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Nash, Henry. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Harvard UP, 2007.  

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

Rushing, Janice. “The Rhetoric of the American Western Myth.” Communication Monographs, vol. 50, no. 1, 1983, pp. 14-32. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting True Womanhood’s Troubling Values  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Fulfillment in Domesticated Workspaces 

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

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

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

Critical Thinking and Resourcefulness  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enacting New True Woman’s Values 

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

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

Mary Ellen Pleasant 

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Wolfe 

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges to Enacting New True Woman’s Values 

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

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

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

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

Call for Action 

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


Works Cited 

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

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

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

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

Kraditor, Aileen. “Introduction.” Up from the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism, Quadrangle Books, 1968.  

Kraft, Stephanie. No Castles on Main Street: American Authors and Their Homes. Rand McNally & Company, 1979. 

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 433-457.  

Myers, Nancy. “Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A New True Working Woman.” Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor, edited by David Gold and Jessica Enoch. U of Pittsburgh  P, 2019, pp. 42-55. 

Norwood, Hayden. The Marble Man’s Wife: Thomas Wolfe’s Mother. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. 

Patterson, Martha H. “Introduction.” The American Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894- 1930, edited by Martha H. Patterson. Rutgers UP, 2008, pp. 1-25.  

Rayne, Martha Louise. What Can a Woman Do or Her Position in the Business and Literary World, Eagle Publishing Co., 1893. 

Rose, Mike. The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker Penguin, 2004. 

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. U of Texas P, 1983. 

Sheard, Cynthia Miecznikowski. “The Public Value of Epideictic Rhetoric.” College English vol. 58, no. 7, 1996, pp. 765-794. 

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1966, pp. 151-174. 

Willard, Frances E, Helen M. Winslow, and Sallie J. White. Occupations for Women: A  Book of Practical Suggestions for the Material Advancement, the Mental and Physical  Development, and the Moral and Spiritual Uplift of Women, Success Co, 1897. 

Yohn, Susan M. “The Primacy of Place, Collaborations, and Alliances: Mapping  Women’s Businesses in Nineteenth-Century Brooklyn.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 36, no. 4, 2010, pp. 411-428. 


Feminist Ethos and Global Food Systems Rhetorics on Campus

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

-Gabrielle, sustainable agriculture graduate student

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

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

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

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

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

Global Food Systems Development Rhetorics

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

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

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

Feminist Ethos in Rhetorical Studies

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

GM Food Research Context 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Asking Questions on Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Hosting Public Dialogue on Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Engagement Beyond the Contemporary Campus 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion and Reflection on Role of Gender

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Angie. Personal Interview. 18 June 2018.

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Belay, Million, and Bridget Mugambe. “Bill Gates Should Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need.” Scientific American, 6 July 2011, kind-of-agriculture-africans-need1/. Accessed 18 January 2023.

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Broad, Garrett M. “Plant-Based and Cell-Based Animal Product Alternatives: An Assessment and Agenda for Food Tech Justice.” Geoforum, vol. 107, 2019, pp. 223-6.

Community Alliance for Global Justice/AGRA Watch, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. “An Open Letter to Bill Gates on Food, Farming, and Africa.” Common Dreams, 10 November 2022, gates-food-farming-and-africa. Accessed 18 January 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle. Personal Interview. 14 March 2018. 

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

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

Gordon, Constance, Kathleen Hunt, and Mohan Dutta. “Editorial: Food systems communication amid compounding crises: Power, resistance, and change.” Frontiers in Communication, 2022. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Otero, Gerardo. Food for the Few: Neoliberal Globalism and Biotechnology in Latin America. University of Texas Press, 2008. Project MUSE,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wallace-Wells, David. “Bill Gates: ‘We’re in a Worse Place Than I Expected.’” The New York Times, 13 September 2022, report.html. Accessed 18 January 2023.

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

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End Notes

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

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


From Textual Subjects to Voracious Feminists: Rethink Constitutive Rhetoric


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Reconceptualization of Constitutive Rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Rhetorical Praxis

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

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

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

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

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

Forming Identification

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

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

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

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

Extra Textual Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locus of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For Other Faculty

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

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

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

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


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

Work Cited

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Pheng Cheah, Inhuman Conditions (149) 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Economies of Gendered Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transnational Feminist Solidarity and Economies of Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr Jiang…is a Lu!” I howl.

Minzu says, “A Lu…yes, indeed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I mean like a…like a…sister.”

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

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

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

“But you’ll come back, Ma Ma?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contextualizing the TMSG  

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoricizing Meeting Minutes  

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

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

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

Inventing Club Identity and Values 

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Counterpublic Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Privileging Local Civil Rights History 

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating Rhetorical Situations  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Rhetorically  

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

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

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