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


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

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

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

Feminist Methodological and Theoretical Frames 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist Mentoring as Starting Point 

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

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

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

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

Reflective Practice from Feminist Locations 

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

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

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

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

Reflection Toward Coalition, Persistence and Power   

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

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

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

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

She continued:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Moments for Agentive Practice and Perspective 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Our Conversations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Rhetorics of/as White Feminism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Whiteness in Rhetorical Studies 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erma Bombeck’s Humor and Rhetoric 

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

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

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

Unremarking #1: A Singular Representation 

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

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

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

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

Unremarking #2: Obfuscating the Stakes 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Unremarking #3: Individualism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Works Cited 

Ansah, Ama. “Votes for Women Means Votes for Black Women.” 16 Aug. 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Student Writings; Finding Kate Hansen 

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

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

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

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

Combining Genre Studies with Archival Work 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing Kate Hansen’s Course Papers 

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

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

Remaining Within Genres 

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

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

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

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

Pushing Against Genres 

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

Challenges in Completing Writing Tasks 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Genre Imitation in an “Exercise in Letter Writing” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Beyond Genres 

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

Writing Beyond Genre in “An Experiment in Artistic Observation”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Beyond Genre in an “Oration” 

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

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

Miss President, ladies and gentleman [sic]:-  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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Unsticking Shame: Considering Lived Experience and Processes of Overcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study Methods and Women’s Lived Experience 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narratives of Overcoming 

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

Overcoming Shame Through Private Acts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Shame Through Relational Acts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrating Shame as Inventional Practice 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Narration, or What to Do with Complicated Feelings 

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

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

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

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

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7]Health at Every Size, or HAES, is a size acceptance group that promotes health not focused on weight. It is a branch of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). 

Works Cited

“About Health at Every Size.” Association for Size Diversity and Health. 2020. Accessessed October 17, 2022 

Adams, Heather Brook. “Rhetorics of Unwed Motherhood and Shame.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 40, no. 1, 2017, pp. 91-110, 

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

Our Bodies, Ourselves.Peitho, vol. 21, no. 3, 2019, pp. 580-98, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

—. “The Power of Vulnerability.” TedxHouston, Accessed May 18 2021.  

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

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

Fikkan, Janna L., and Esther D. Rothblum. “Is Fat a Feminist Issue? Exploring the Gendered Nature of Weight Bias.” Sex Roles, vol. 66, no. 9-10, 2012, pp. 575-92, 

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

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

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

Hallenbeck, Sarah. “Toward a Posthuman Perspective: Feminist Rhetorical Methodologies and Everyday Practices.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, vol. 15, 2012, pp. 9-27. 

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

“Home” Braving Body Shame. Accessed 17 October 2022. 

“Interview with Amanda Lacount.“ Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online.  

“Interview with Ashley Seruya.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 28 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Georgie Peters.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 28 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Ivy Felicia. ” Braving Body Shame Conference, 25 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Katie McCrindle.” Braving Body Shame Conference,  01 March, 2020, online 

“Interview with Nia Patterson.“ Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online. 

“Interview with Shannon Kaneshige.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 24 February, 2020, online.   

“Interview with Sophie Raniere.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 27 February, 2020, online.  

“Interview with Toni.” Braving Body Shame Conference, 27 February, 2020, online. 

Johnson, Erica L., and Patricia Moran. “Introduction.” The Female Face of Shame, edited by Erica L. Johnson and Patricia Moran, Indiana UP, 2013, pp. 1-18. 

Mann, Bonnie. “Femininity, Shame, and Redemption.” Gender and the Politics of Shame, special issue of Hypatia, vol. 33, no.3, 2018, pp. 402-18.  

Rand, Erin J. Reclaiming Queer: Activist and Academic Rhetorics of Resistance. U Alabama P, 2014. 

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

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

Smith, Michelle. “‘Indoor Duties’ in Utopia: Archival Recalcitrance and Methodologies of Lived Experience.” College English, vol. 80 no. 6, 2018, pp. 517-38, 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” Gay Shame, edited by David M. Halperin and Valerie Traub, U of  Chicago P, 2009. 49-62.  

Stenberg, Shari J. “‘Tweet Me Your First Assaults’: Writing Shame and the Rhetorical Work of #NotOkay” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 2, 2018, pp. 119-38, 

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research, Design and Methods. 3rd ed., vol. 5. Sage, 2003. 


Global Mobility and Subaltern Knowledge: A Transnational Feminist Perspective on Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

This article examines the effects of global economic disparities between states on the production and reception of popular contemporary writings by Iranian women. Focusing on works by Iranian women in diaspora as staples in multiculturalist education geared toward worldly Western readers, this article re-reads Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis through a transnational feminist framework to contextualize the historical struggles that inform the enthusiasm for this work[1]. As part of a larger pattern of diaspora writing by Iranian women, Persepolis is meant to convey the culture and character of Middle Eastern people to Western audiences who wish to engage, in good faith, in multiculturalist exchange across distance and difference. Falling short of this promise, however, Persepolis is laced with subtle Eurocentric rhetoric presenting as class bias, Islamophobia, and appeals to ‘white feminism’[2]. While diaspora writings by Iranian women are widely read with enthusiasm for their apparently progressive offerings, a transnational feminist reading can highlight how global and local syncretism can, in this case, increase misunderstanding and bias rather than create knowledge about distant peoples. Far from removing this work from study, however, Persepolis should be re-read for the critical insight it can provide into the vagaries of multiculturalism and the inequities that persist in the aftermath of European colonialism and its globalizing markets. Despite being a popular text in American and European higher education, Persepolis is a class-inflected work read as class-neutral by a readership that attempts to address global colonial inequalities through narrative discourse without paying enough attention to the historical struggles that create them. To address some of these misconnections, a transnational feminist re-reading can provide insight into how global market dynamics between states can influence literary production and audience reception. In sum, despite being an exemplar of work that signifies the humanist and anti-racist bona fides of the academic humanities and women’s studies, Persepolis is distinctly Islamophobic and Eurocentric in ways that implicate economic class within nations and market dynamics between them as historical struggles are translated into neutral narratives of migration and exile. 

What happens when American academic institutions, motivated by progressive values, wish to encounter Middle Eastern subjects as a pathway to becoming more worldly readers (Fisk 44)?[3] Marjane Satrapi, along with others like Azar Nafisi and Azadeh Moaveni, are best-selling Iranian women authors in the economically dominant, or Western, world. Their works often appear in college writing classes and feminist rhetorics anthologies: “in the U.S. alone, Persepolis appears on about 250 university syllabi” (Chute 137). Why is there such enthusiasm for this work among Western readers when it is banned in Iran? Perhaps the popularity of these stories suggests a preference on the part of Western readers for narratives that feature characters whose differences are buffered by resemblances – in this case, class and its attendant ethnic and religious features. In other words, in Persepolis, we are faced with a literary figure who is different, to be sure, but the difference in question is a kind of “difference within sameness,” or difference that is palatable (Iranian) but not excessive (Muslim) (Puar 25)[4]. 

Analyzing this work at the nexus of literature on one side and economic and historical struggle on the other to “foreground the concerns of people who have been the most marginalized in social and cultural life,” can tell us a great deal about how global literature, rather than uniting distant people, provides citizens of similar geopolitical status a way of exchanging discourse across national borders in an act of solidarity that can reify the very processes of hegemony that reading such literature is seen as subverting (Stone-Mediatore 128). With Persepolis, global literature provides a cathartic release for educated, liberal readers benefitting from uneven political and economic arrangements that, ultimately, allow them to profit from the consequences of colonialism. To understand these transnational entanglements, it is important to recognize how historical, political, and economic structures influence the shaping of migration narratives. For example, the Iranian diaspora is largely homogenous. Hailing from the Northern provinces, often light-skinned, and often members of the middle or upper classes, Persepolis gives a reading of the 1979 revolution that glosses over the anti-colonial and egalitarian elements of this event suggesting that certain ideological alliances, informed by class and ethnic status, influence this perspective (Parrillo 121). Asking why this memoir is so popular among Western readers means recognizing that the audience it addresses is similarly composed of market-dominant ethnic elite readers who come across Persepolis in college language and women’s studies classes[5]. In such venues, connection across difference is seen as an antidote to the unequal economic dynamics between first and third-world countries[6]. However, instead of creating the kind of ‘bridge building’ that addresses these distances, Persepolis does the opposite and solidifies class alliances across national borders under the auspices of literature and women’s studies.  

Recalling that migration is informed by specific colonial processes unfolding within specific colonial zones of influence, the connection between anti-Islamic sentiments and classist attitudes in Persepolis provides insight into how global and local syncretism can create disconnect rather that unity. Recalling that current members of the Iranian diaspora, who are often categorically opposed to the 1979 revolution and Islam, are composed of distinct Iranian classes and attendant ethnic groups suggests that the anti-Islamic consensus in these writings is tied to a perspective that is informed by market-dominant ethnic elite status. Let it be stated, immediately, that the failures of the Islamic revolution are legion and that the current regime in Iran is corrupt in countless ways, but the revolution did attempt, through popular consensus, to meet the promises of a modern, democratic republic in ways that even drew the attention of embittered Western philosophers like Michel Foucault, who met with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978[7]. In the spirit of re-reading Persepolis as a graphic nonfiction text firmly situated within history, this study reviews several examples of Islamophobic rhetoric present throughout the text and concludes with a counter-text by Babak Anvari engaging the same themes as Satrapi’s memoir (the effects of the Islamic revolution on the lives of Iranians and especially on the lives of women) without reifying Eurocentric ideological paradigms. Anvari’s Under the Shadow presents serious challenges for comparison as a film being contrasted with a graphic novel; however, both texts focus on the same historical moment and explore similar themes all in distinctly visual terms making them sufficiently tied together to warrant comparison. With these elements in mind, the following examples of Eurocentric rhetoric in Persepolis suggest that the creation and consumption of popular diaspora writing by Iranian women indicates a discursive alliance between market-dominant ethnic elites communicating across national borders. 

Islamophobia in Iranian Women’s Diaspora Writing: The Case of Persepolis  

While Persepolis is part of a larger pattern of texts written by Iranian women in diaspora, it is noteworthy both for its prominence in literary and feminist studies across the United States and for its graphic representation of the lives of Iranians, especially its women. It is important to emphasize the visual nature of this work since Islamic practices and philosophies are known for their habits of concealment and covering (including various Islamic head coverings), a tradition that continues to baffle, and fixate, Western viewers who long to uncover the Middle East. Especially its women. In an example of pandering to this tendency, the visual representation of Iran in Persepolis, notably, begins with a chapter ominously titled The Veil[8]

Figure 1: Page 3 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The figure includes a black and white illustration of a woman’s face cropped out of sight except for the right eye illustrated next to the words “The Veil” in all capital letters.

With this opening move, Satrapi introduces the 1979 Islamic revolution using the politically charged and often orientalist image of the veil. Considering the intended audience, whose imagination is undoubtedly saturated with assumptions about women, gender, and Islam, Western readers are introduced to the Islamic revolution in a familiar iconography that likely evokes certain ideas in the minds of Western readers about fundamentalism and clashing civilizations[9].

Figure 2: Page 6 of Persepolis. The figure includes a black and white illustration split in half and featuring a young girl in the center. Directly above her there is black text on a white background. On her right side, her hair is uncovered, and she wears a white long-sleeved shirt. Here, there is a black background with images of white gears, a ruler, and a hammer. On left side, her hair and body are covered and against a white background there are black geometrical, floral shapes.

Folded into this opening move, Satrapi goes on to present two sides of herself from a child’s perspective as she reflects on the revolution. On one side she is unveiled and surrounded by a ruler, a hammer, and gears implying modernity and on the other side is veiled and surrounding by ornate, geometric shapes indicating religion/tradition. She remarks, “I didn’t know what to think about the veil, deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde (6).” The implication is that veils and religion are non-modern (a refusal to progress forward into the present) and that religion/tradition lacks any world-making potential. The implication being that to be unveiled is to be measured, rational, and decidedly modern, while to be veiled is its opposite. The articulation we encounter here, of modernity and religion as two discrete and mutually exclusive categories, is not an innocent or facile rendering but, in fact, indexes a profound Eurocentricity (Asad 14; Can Non-Europeans Think? Dabashi 222). Aside from this, the reduction of the Islamic revolution into a mere matter of religious sentiment or cultural motivation erases the more urgent material conditions and anti-colonial resistance that was far more central to the founding of the republic than head scarves. As part of a larger pattern of stories written by market-dominant ethnic elite Iranian women who write for their Western counterparts in highly legible terms, Satrapi’s illustration of tradition and modernity smacks of civilizational discourse and, in ways that will be outlined further, attempts to humanize Iranians by excising their connection to Islam. 

As a graphic memoir, Satrapi’s account presents the thoughts and feelings of a child caught in a revolutionary moment. As such, historically precise portraits cannot be expected from such an account. However, Satrapi does declare in the preface of Persepolis that this is an attempt to clear up misconceptions about Iranians: “writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists (1).” While precision cannot be expected of a work of art, the representation of events in this memoir outlines a specific goal: to dispel misconceptions about Iranians and, as it turns out, their relationship to Islam. Persepolis is one striking example of a multiculturalist work read for its ethos of so-called bridge-building and its promise of unity a “contact zone”; however, a reading focused on class reveals the workings of political economy in the shaping of the Islamic revolution and its transnational links to the international politics of the American academy (Pratt 8)[10]. In other words, Persepolis is an example of a discursive, class-based alliance between the “global coalition of dominant groups” that exist in both First and Third-World contexts (Prashad 278). One striking example of this appears in Satrapi’s use of Western popular culture to convey the similarity of Iranians to the West against the dissimilarity of Muslims to the same. To understand this attempt at strategic union through strategic separation, it is important to contextualize the historical moment out of which the Islamic revolution emerged: the Cold War. As scholars have noted, the triumph of the war against the Soviet agenda marked the beginning of the rise of an elite class of citizens in former colonies and semi-colonies who acted as agents of colonialism for personal gain (Class and Nation Amin 136; Al Ahram Dabashi 44; Prashad 278). In the case of Iran prior to the revolution, the United States and Britain influenced the formation of a social order composed of middle and upper-class Iranians who benefited from the colonial presence and were thus unsurprisingly more receptive to the culture of the West compared to other classes who saw their situation worsen after the arrival of British and American trade[11]. Satrapi’s aim in this work to dispel harmful views about Iranians by invoking the so called wrongdoings of a few extremists camouflages the important class-based struggles that informed the revolution and undoubtedly resonates with her target audience who are barraged with media rhetoric about presumed Muslim extremists[12].  

Again, though the Islamic revolution failed on many grounds, the material dynamics between Iran (and similarly suited Third-World nations) and the British and American corporations that ruthlessly exploited its natural resources are often glossed over by Iranian women writing in diaspora[13]. The argument outlined suggests that class interests inform Satrapi’s account of the Islamic revolution in a memoir rightly praised for its gorgeously illustrated graphic depictions of an important historical moment. However, the popularity of Persepolis and its status as the foremost text depicting Iran as “an ordinary Iranian girlhood” obscures some important elements involved in the revolution indicating “an association of social interests” between the dominant groups of disparate nations in the name of literature and feminism (Chute 136; Quijano 166)[14]. In both the memoir and its film adaptation, the 1979 revolution is illustrated as a takeover by bearded goons and veiled, serpent-like revolutionary women targeting American pop culture. In an example of pandering to elite, Western reading audiences, such imagery says little about the targeting of such icons and what that has to do with economic imperialism and, instead, illustrates these events as random bursts of anti-Western sentiment. In this case, Western audiences seek connections with Iranians based on their mutuality (never their difference) and based on their mutual consumption of American popular culture products. There is no discussion as to why these commercial products ended up in Iran and other Third-World nations in the first place. Again, while precision cannot be demanded of a work of art the consistent concealment of economic class dynamics, and Western corporate trade within Iran, as well as its translation outside of Iran suggests a pattern. Namely, categorically anti-Islamic narratives from homogenous diaspora spaces do not dispel harmful misconceptions about Iranians; instead, they displace harmful ideas about Iranians onto Islam and Muslims.  

Figure 3: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The first frame is illustrated in black with two figures etched against this background. One is a salesman wearing a long black coat carrying contraband and stating “110 Tumans” in response to a young Marji who stands beside him asking, “how much?” Above them, a line of text reads, “I bought two tapes: Kim Wilde and Camel” in all capital letters. The second frame illustrates this same scene with a young Marji departing with a set of tapes


Figure 4: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The frame on the left illustrates Marji walking down a street in Tehran with a text box above her head reading. “We’re the kinds in America…whoa” in all capital letters as a group of revolutionary guards (women) clad in Islamic veils advance upon her, pointing. The second frame shows Marji apprehended by the women while she looks into in the direction of the audience. A text box at the top of the second frame reads “You! Stop!” uttered by the guards accompanied by another text box at the bottom of the frame reading, “They were guardians of the revolution, the women’s branch. This group had been added in 1982, to arrest women who were improperly veiled. (Like me, for example).”


Figure 5: Page 134 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. The frame on the left contains a cassette with a tape being inserted accompanied by a text box at the top of the frame stating, “I got off pretty easy considering. The Guardians of the revolution didn’t find my tapes.” The second text box illustrates Marji dancing to the music from the cassette with a text box at the bottom of the frame reading, “to each his own way of calming down.” A text bubble in zigzag shape at the top of the frame reads, “We’re the kids in America…whoao.”

The above images show a young Satrapi searching for contraband, like a fugitive, dodging Islamic revolutionary guards and their seizure of such goods. In former colonies and semi-colonies, consumption of Western media, like skin bleaching, is imbricated with class and economic dynamics informed by global colonialism which, in the case of the Middle East, is also very often connected to patterns of religious belief. In Iran, post-revolutionary measures taken to rehabilitate native culture to rebuild Iran after the ravages of colonial theft are illustrated as random acts of Islamic authoritarianism. Such a depiction, in all its dramatic pathos, will resonate with an audience who will react positively to the image of a young Iranian girl yearning for American popular culture goods as if the scene is untouched by colonialism and its structures of harm and gain. In this example of an Iranian girl opposing “extremism” by resisting an Islamic boogeyman, the echoes of Islamophobic and Eurocentric rhetoric emanate in the undue focus on culture and religion—a position that parallels the famous ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis that has been thoroughly discredited for its obscuring of economic and political forces that underlie regional tensions[15].   

While Satrapi’s illustration of ominous revolutionary women and their bearded male counterparts working to eject Western consumer products from the Islamic republic provides one view of this pandering, another perspective appears in Robert E. Looney’s Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution. In this version of events, Western collusion with Iranian ruling classes, and the instability it produced, led to conditions of scarcity whereby “two-thirds of the agricultural population,” according to Looney, “faced poor nutritional intake” (45)[16]. The second perspective suggests that this revolution, like many revolutions, was about bread and not women’s veiling practices or popular culture. When brutal monarchies are overthrown in Iran or even places like Haiti, for example, the story is not so aspirational as when one would find such revolutionary stories in French or American history. There is little sympathy for popular uprisings and expressions of the democratic will of a people when the people in question are defending their sovereignty in the language of Islam and when they are placed in a global racial hierarchy consonant with economic and political self-determination, or in this case, the lack thereof[17].

Satrapi’s account does not provide anything close to a nuanced perspective of why Iranians took to the streets in droves to overthrow a colonial puppet regime and shatter the iconography associated with it. What she does provide is a look at the revolution from the eyes of an ethnically elite Iranian residing in France, in Satrapi’s case, and addressing audiences in former colonial centers where her memoir continues to garner enthusiasm (Ansari and Parillo 122). Yet again, class tensions within Iran and larger colonial dynamics outside Iran inform the anti-Western sentiment seen during the 1979 revolution and the smashing of Western consumer products. Despite seriously glossing over these important details explaining why American popular culture is banned in Iran, Satrapi does make some brief comments about the rigid class systems motivating the revolution. For example, in the chapter titled “The Letter,” Satrapi chronicles her housekeepers love affair with her neighbor’s son who, Satrapi says, “like most peasants, […] didn’t know how to read and write (35).” The figure in question became Satrapi’s family servant when she was just eight years old and is caught breaking across class lines in this chapter.  

Figure 6: Page 34 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains five frames in black and white with capital letters. The top left frame has an image of a young girl with an arrow pointing to her stating, “her,” “this is Mehri.” The second figure illustrates a scene in rural Iran featuring Mehri’s parents handing over Mehri to Satrapi’s family as a servant. The third frame shows a young Mehri looking after an infant Satrapi. The third shows the same scene in a playground. The last scene shows Satrapi and Mehri sitting at a table eating with a text box stating, “she always finished my food.”

At a certain point, the maid is caught carrying on a flirtation with the neighbor until Satrapi’s parents find out and put an end to the relationship saying, “in this country, you must stay within your own social class (34).  

Figure 7: Page 37 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains two frames. The one on the left shows Marji speaking with her father in her bedroom as they discuss class dynamics. Her father says, “you must understand that their love was impossible.” The second frame shows Marji and her father disagreeing about the inflexible nature of class lines in Iran with two text boxes: one from Marji stating, “why is that” and one with her father’s response, “because in this country you must stay within your own social class.”

Explaining the importance of maintaining rigid class lines in Iran, this scene illustrates the issues resting at the heart of many revolutionary struggles: inequality and exploitation. While one generation reinforces these class divides, a young Marji questions them, providing readers a glimpse into another very different story buried in the iconic memoir—one that is not captured in the idea of dispelling myths about Iranians by denouncing the ‘wrongdoings of a few extremists.’ 

While recognizing how the Islamic revolution in Iran, and popular stories about it, are informed by economic class dynamics, both within and between nations, it is important to also note that ethnicity, and especially religion, are deeply inflected by class in the context of many Middle Eastern countries and communities. Iran, like many places in the contemporary world, is a region influenced by contemporary racial classifications systems and what Rey Chow calls the “ascendency of whiteness” (Puar 200)[18].

Figure 8: Page 132-133 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure depicts seven characters at a grocery store in a moment of tension. The figure furthest on the left states, “Southern women are all whores” while a retreating figure in the center states, “it’s terrible what you’re saying.”

An example of this appears in the chapter titled “The Jewels” describing an interaction in a grocery store in the northern city of Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war when Southern Iranians fled the war to find shelter in the North. Like many nation-states, Iran is populated by different ethnic groups, and Southern Iranians are viewed as darker skinned than their Northern counterparts. In this scene, the statement “anyway, as everyone knows: ‘Southern women are all whores,’” is made with all due rhetorical force conveying the kinds of internal ethnic and class hierarchies that persist, always, in reference to European colonization (93). These conceptions of ethnicity, tied to class, do not disappear in diaspora spaces. For instance, the ethnically ambiguous term “Persian,” at best used to hide the more Islamically charged “Iranian” and at worst tied to a notorious Aryan discourse, is sometimes used by Iranians who strategically support the idealization of whiteness[19]. It is important to note the manner in which class, ethnicity, and religion shift and mutate across borders and distances to reappear, later, in economically-dominant host nations (mired in their own racial dynamics) only to form unexpected alliances in literary and feminist attempts to address borders and distances. What follows is a fusion of power, based in class status, across national borders and between market-dominant ethnic elites who are educated enough to recognize their own dominant status in the global colonial order of things and what that means for far-away others (Fisk 179)[20].   

Satrapi’s conjuring up of a foreign friend to help assuage anxieties about inter-state conflicts and exploitation is asymmetrically mirrored in American foreign policy which, as David Harvey notes, is so often in the business of conjuring up a foreign enemy during times of domestic tension (Applebaum and Robinson 94). As noted, the fleeing ruling classes in pre-revolutionary Iran now reside in America as minorities and hold a palpable and categorical anti-Islamic attitude toward not just the Islamic Republic but Islam as such (Ansari and Parillo 122). Some of them even collaborate with the Department of Defense and call, publicly, for open warfare against the Iranian regime[21]. The economic undertones that shape these tensions are left unexplored since they point inevitably to past and present colonial policies by British and American corporations and the governments that back them, as well, it should be noted, as the constituents who benefit from these arrangements. Class elements are left unexplored, however, as both Persepolis and other bestselling works by Iranian women consistently focus on clerical authoritarianism in highly legible terms (veils and facile remarks about modernity and traditionalism) as they address Western reading audiences[22]. An example of this appears in one scene involving the hospitalization of Satrapi’s uncle, who tries to get official permission to leave the newly formed Islamic republic for medical reasons. In this scene, his wife is enraged at finding her former domestic servant who, because of the Islamic revolution and its reordering of classes, is now dictating the life and death of the formerly upper classes: 

Figure 9: Page 121 of Persepolis Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. This figure contains three frames featuring five characters. Marji, her parents, her aunt, and a hospital administrator. The first and second frame shows a conversation between Aunt Firouzeh and the administrator in which approval for foreign travel is denied. The third frame illustrates the family, minus the administrator, reviewing this result with outrage.

Contempt for the lower classes, and a sense of their having a rightful place, is sharply apparent in Aunt Firouzeh’s frustration, which is informed by attachments to an Iranian economy arranged by British and U.S trade agreements dividing Iranians along class lines[23]. As such, Satrapi’s account of the revolution does not present “Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” as subheadings have suggested but rather illustrates “an association of social interests” between the dominant groups of disparate nations in the name of literature and feminism (Chute 136; Quijano 166)[24]. 

The argument outlined suggests that Persepolis provides an example of how global literature, under the auspices of multiculturalism, can obscure certain, perhaps more unsavory, differences while accentuating other, more palatable ones: that is, by presenting a class-inflected historical moment as class-neutral. In this case, as other scholars have noted, this version of events is linked to different and contending versions of global mobility—who can move across national borders and who cannot—and the colonial market dynamics which enable or enclose those movements. As Maboud Ansari notes, most Iranians in diaspora are “upwardly-mobile, ethnically homogenous Iranian emigres who are the demographic majority in the West” (Ansari and Parillo 121). Recalling that in Iranian and other Middle East contexts, patterns of Islamic and secular belief often run parallel to economic class standing meaning that Satrapi’s narration, as a diaspora Iranian, is fittingly anti-Islamic.

Critical Responses to Persepolis: Class, Culture, and Revolutionary Struggle. 

Immigrants and diaspora subjects do not automatically populate universities and literary environments with progressive values. Instead, they can sometimes reinforce imperial power and bias through discursive alliances centered around class interests. While these elements are apparent in Persepolis itself, they are also echoed in secondary readings of Satrapi’s work by critics who invoke it to confirm what they suspected all along: that the conflict in Iran is not yet another instance of the United States strong-arming Third-World nations into conditions of production and exchange that vastly favor the United States. Instead, they would suggest that the conflict in Iran has much to do with amiable cultural exchange being thwarted by Islamic fundamentalists. In “Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,” Typhaine Leservot remarks, “Western products and cultural references abound in Satrapi’s Iran. Marji, her character, listens to popular western music, wears western-style clothes, goes to parties, and […] rebels against her parents and society like any western teen” (115). Evidently, to see Iranians as human, we must “highlight how westernized Iranians are (ibid).” Ignoring the economic relations behind the presence of the Western consumer products she lists, and what they ultimately point to (imperialism), Leservot goes on to make the case for Occidentalism as an underexplored analytic framework[25]. We are left to wonder how Leservot approaches contemporary Middle East/U.S relations in her position as director of “Muslim Studies” at Wesleyan University. In a similar focus to that of Satrapi, Leservot’s emphasis on culture and religion obscures the relations of exchange and inequality that create the kinds of crises she is rightly exploring in this work[26].   

Despite its success in describing the time in question in striking illustrations, Satrapi’s account of the 1979 revolution inspires simplistic readings about this event which land on familiar Eurocentric and Islamophobic ground. Despite an admirable attempt to reflect on important topics, Mary Ostby, like Leservot, reviews the “stereotype-defying” memoir as an exemplar of diversity and indeed cites Leservot to argue that the crisis leading up to the revolution was not anti-colonial in nature, “contrary to any notion of the Islamic revolution as a historical rupture, Iranian culture is the product of mutually constitutive contact in which it both shaped and was shaped by other cultures—both Western and non-Western (570). In what Elysium realm is any nation of the Third-World, in this case Iran, engaged in “mutually constitutive contact” is a mystery considering historical facts indicating otherwise[27].  The impulse to screen the realities of colonial theft and meddling between vastly unequal states may be rooted in a yearning for connection, or even a yearning for atonement, tied to the realization of one’s own position on the benefiting side of the colonial divide. The intention fails it promise, however, as indicated by critical readings that are congruent with Satrapi’s account of the revolution captured in her framing in the preface about the difference between Iranians and “a few extremists.” 

Perhaps no other critical response is as intensely filtered through a Eurocentric lens as Gloria Steinem’s endorsement on the back cover of the text, hailing Persepolis as having “the intimacy of a memoir, the irresistibility of a comic book, and the political depth of a conflict between fundamentalism and democracy.” It is important to note that Steinem, a famous feminist author, was once a paid employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose notorious campaigns against Third-World governments and economies are well-documented and critiqued[28]. Steinem’s characterization resonates with the way global literature is read and written by often dominant economic and ethnic groups across national borders who communicate across distances and unite, ultimately, around class interests[29]. In this case, Eurocentric rhetoric in Persepolis “capture[s] the interplay of market dynamics, power relations, and social forces that cut across borders,” in contrast with the multicultural ethics and feminist values such works are meant to convey (Appelbaum and Robinson 21). In sum, telling tales about ethnic ‘others’ in humanities and women’s studies classes across the United States has the effect of obscuring—not disclosing—what ‘others’ are like. As global economies continue to orbit around colonial relations of exchange, and global politics are shaken by the conflicts these relations produce, global literature and feminist rhetoric (inadvertently) disguise the effects of uneven development in ways that point toward religious and cultural differences rather than material conditions.  

While diasporic spaces do hold promise, it is important to be aware of the adverse consequences of transnational migration when diasporas are often shaped by race and class differences and borders selectively filter welcome and unwelcome entrants. The forces that enable the movement of international students are very different from those that enable the movement of other kinds of migrants with other stories to tell. These differences can manifest in especially harmful ways when considering the intensity of economic differences between First and Third-World states. This is not to suggest, however, that global inequalities have surpassed North/South binaries, or that wealth and power are not concentrated along the same old colonial lines. This does suggest, however, that established colonial patterns have fissured into elaborate subdivisions, feeding into new and emerging alliances between market-dominant ethnic elite writers in Third-World countries and their market-dominant ethnic elite reading audiences in Western contexts. In these cases, well-meaning readers end up simply looking back at themselves in a yet another example of subaltern speech unrealized. In sum, the emphasis on culture and religion erases the fingerprints of colonialism—which mark the contemporary crises facing both Iran and the Middle East as well as the larger Third-World in a global economic system that continues to orbit around past and present theft of resources and military domination. In this vein, the subtlety of Satrapi’s anti-Islamic rhetoric has gone unnoticed by audiences and critics and academics who repeat her Eurocentric biases in their readings of this famous memoir. Against these readings, the following section provides a counter-text that addresses the consolidation of power by the authoritarian clerical faction in Iran while folding this assessment into a critique of ongoing colonialism and its effects on Iranian social development.  

Lessons in Feminist Criticism: Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow.  

While primarily responding to economic imperialism, the Islamic revolution also intervenes in a global media climate dominated by Western knowledge and representation. Few would deny that the Islamic revolution fell short of its many promises, but it did succeed in shifting consumer-producer relations between the West and Iran in the domain of media and film. Iranian films have become a major player in the world of global cinema, doing the much-needed work of demonstrating that other regions of the world do, in fact, think, “the anti-Western politics of the post-revolutionary Islamic state enabled a reversal of the filmic flow, which used to move from the West into Iran, so it now moves out from Iran” (Moallem 27). It is important to note that it is precisely the Islamic, anti-western, censorship laws enacted by the post-revolutionary regime, and their insistence on films drawing material only from local sources, that has decentered the Western gaze and its attendant political, economic, and epistemic hegemonies. 

Having discussed the subtle Eurocentric rhetoric underlying critiques of Islam in popular and academic writing by Iranian women, I now turn to a counterexample of feminist critique addressing similar issues as those of Persepolis (the rise of masculinist, clerical Islam among other post-revolutionary failures) in a film titled Under the Shadow. A 2016 Iranian diaspora film written and directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow is a horror story set in the immediate aftermath of the revolution during the height of the Iran/Iraq war. Set in Tehran, Under the Shadow critiques Islamic veiling laws enacted after the revolution. The shadow, in this case, refers to both mandatory veiling and continued colonial interference in Iran which destabilizes Iranian sovereignty in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war. This film successfully weaves anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal critique together by situating the problems of this age into a story about a haunting featuring an entity from Islamic theology known as djinn. The djinn in this case is presented in an Islamic veil, or chador, that reflects anxieties about the role of religion, spirituality, and native consciousness in a society forced into modernity by a violent and dominating power[30]. Post-revolutionary anxieties about the role of religion in society are a common theme in this film which features the arrival of the demon (djinn) immediately after an American bomb punctures the roof of an apartment building where the main characters live. In other words, the arrival of the djinn reflects both the contemporary spiritual crisis haunting Iranian social consciousness and the colonial forces that shape them.  

Under the Shadow opens with Shideh, a young mother, learning that her university appeal process has been denied and that she is barred from attendance because of her political activism during the Islamic revolution. Shideh, a revolutionary who remains in Iran after 1979, sits across from a cleric and arbitrator who tells her, in harsh and uncompromising terms, that she will not be admitted to university. In a scene showcasing the multivocal character of the revolutionary movement (two different and contending revolutionary actors find themselves on opposite sides of the newly born Islamic republic), Shideh is excluded from university, perhaps, it is implied, because she is a woman. This critique repeats in other, subtler, examples of misogynistic thinking presented throughout the film. For example, Shideh’s landlord accuses her of failing to lock a garage door, implying that because she is the only women in the building who drives a car, it must be her negligence causing the problem. Later on, Shideh’s husband makes a vague claim about how Shideh is neglectful of their daughter, Dorsa, and should behave in a more conventionally motherly fashion. Under the Shadow portrays the many faces of sexism in a society that questions woman’s competence in every area of life, whether private or public, and maps the contradictions and absurdities of patriarchy while also depicting how these sexist views are informed by, and multiplied by, incessant colonialist meddling. 

In this sense, the film draws on, and therefore affirms, indigenous theologies and mythologies to perform a dual critique of patriarchal versions of Islam and always/already patriarchal colonialism. The missile, which initiates the haunting, does not detonate and, in the ensuing chaos, Shideh’s daughter, Dorsa, tells her mom that she saw an apparition. Once the missile is removed, it leaves a rupture in the ceiling. This becomes the place of entry and exit for the djinn who initiates a campaign of fitna against Shideh and Dorsa. The Islamic notion of fitna, referring to civil strife, originates in the first civil war in the history of Islam, the one that erupted soon after the death of the prophet (PBUH), and is an event which continues to haunt the Ummah through ongoing Shia/Sunni tensions[31]. It is important to note that the Iran/Iraq war broke out two years after the Islamic revolution when Saddam Hussain made territorial claims on Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province, aided by the Reagan administration, which armed both Iran and Iraq during this conflict—a textbook example of fitna—prolonging and amplifying a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Iraqis. Paralleling the fitna that the Reagan administration stirred between Iran and Iraq, the djinn hides Dorsa’s doll and starts telling Dorsa that her mom has taken it away. The djinn also hides Shideh’s workout cassette, which Shideh later finds in the garbage, implicating Dorsa as the only other person in the house. The sowing of fitna, or civil unrest, in this household alludes to the strategic and calculated fitna imposed on Iran and Iraq by the Reagan administration and, thus, performs a double-edged critique of patriarchal imperialism from outside and sexist bias from within. While Under the Shadow critiques sexist oppression in post-revolutionary Iran by focusing, in some sense, on the private sphere, it folds the narrative into a larger social and historical event, showcasing the impact of imperialist intrusion on internal social development.  

As the djinn’s aggressions escalate, Shideh flees her home forgetting to wear the now-mandatory Islamic veil. She is promptly picked up by revolutionary guards and sent to jail where she is reminded of her main duty in life by yet another cleric: to guard her modesty. They send her home where Shideh, pushed back into the private sphere, returns to an escalated haunting; the djinn takes her daughter Dorsa. Shideh throws herself into the attack, creating, perhaps, the most visually striking scene in the film where the protagonist is shown drowning in the fabric of an Islamic veil. This heavy-handed symbolism makes a clear statement about women’s struggles in the Islamic republic while avoiding critiques that center and justify Eurocentrism and, perhaps most importantly, acknowledges the influence of colonialism. Anchoring its critique in native ideas and mythologies, this diaspora film, despite not being under censorship by the Islamic Republic, nonetheless avoids the kind of Eurocentric critique we see in Persepolis. In its very title, Under the Shadow, suggest a dual-critique of internal sexism and external patriarchal imperialism highlighting how women’s situation in post-revolutionary Iran is always informed by both: the shadow is a demonic entity haunting the splitting of society into public and private spheres; the shadow is an American-made missile sold through Israeli channels. When placed into conversation with a work like Under the Shadow, Persepolis can provide a great deal of insight into the many layers of complexity that inform U.S/Middle East relations and thus meet the promises of cosmopolitan liberalism with much greater force than as a stand-alone text.


This article presents Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis as a case study illustrating how literature produced by Iranian writers in diaspora is often read as an exercise in progressive, liberal education served with good multicultural intentions. Reading Persepolis, instead, for what it says about the structure and function of international migration vis-à-vis global colonial markets can tell us a great deal about how religion in the Middle East is always imbricated with ethnicity and class—and how that manifests in diaspora spaces. This, in addition to the increasingly securitized regulation of who gets to cross borders and what kinds of stories get to be told about border crossing, can provide readers with lessons in feminist criticism and the misunderstandings and distances that can occur regardless of good intentions[32].

Despite the anti-Islamic consensus in Iranian women’s writings, and its ties to class and ethnicity in the Middle East, readers of such works continue to view difference and inclusion in purely visual terms lacking the depth of analysis that can come with attention to historical context (Sara Ahmed 173). In the case of Iranian diaspora writings and scholarship, and in recognition of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and its failures, it is important to note that migratory flow from the global south does not inherently reduce inequity, but in a seemingly paradoxical move, can sometimes strengthen it. In Satrapi’s work, important class differences, always tied to market-dominant ethnic status, dictates transnational movement. These differences are not readily visible to someone unfamiliar with class-based (and thus ethnic and religious) stratification in Iran and its specific manifestations during the time and place in question. In Satrapi’s border-crossing, we see how certain kinds of migrant interaction with host nations differs based on economic or citizenship status—an international student traveler vastly differs from a humanitarian entrant, for instance[33]. These differences in kinds and categories of migration express the carefully managed nature of borders and how population control mechanisms influence art and literary culture without the awareness of readers and critics. Arguably, in the case of Persepolis, global literature serves as a platform on which dominant groups form communicative alliances across national borders and assuage shared anxieties about their own complicities in benefiting from an uneven global market. As a reward for such effort, and in the case of authors like Satrapi, safe passage is granted to certain kinds of migrants while enclosure prevents the entry of others. In addition to serving transnational economic alliances, national borders also serve the ongoing alliances of power within the United States in favor of ruling ethnic groups by avoiding tipping the demographic scales too far in the direction of minoritized peoples whose perspectives might disrupt the contemporary American social order.  

In this vein, proponents of anti-racist and, of course, feminist teaching and learning concerned with the ongoing effects of racialization may read this literary text for the subtle Eurocentric rhetoric apparent in it to study what kinds of structures it reflects. What I suggest in this article is not to abandon this work—quite the contrary—what I suggest is that we update our reading of this text with counter examples like Under the Shadow to shed further light on the political and historical dimensions of how a story like this comes to be told in the first place. As scholars of world literature note, readers now have unprecedented connection to the writings of peoples in distant regions, but understanding has not caught up at the same speed of connection. With certain geopolitical updates in mind, we can read Persepolis for its expression of the cultural politics of globalization and the complexities presented in the figure of the migrant writer.  

End Notes

[1] ‘Western’ in this article is consonant with my use of the term ‘Third-World,’ stressing the vast economic differences between, broadly speaking, regions of the world separated by the divisions created in the wake of the ‘age of discovery.’ For further elaboration, please see note number 6.  

[2] My usage of Islamophobia is aligned, broadly, as “dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force” (Oxford 2020). 

[3] Gloria Fisks’s 2018 Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature outlines the persistent misunderstandings created by a literary readership attempting to build connections across differenceUltimately, Fisk argues that there is a great deal of bad faith thinking involved in these attempts leaving almost nothing knowledgeable for readers of such works. 

[4] In her work, Terrorist AssemblagesJasbir Puar describes the workings of the necropolitical carousel operating in the modern world today and argues that one distinctive feature of this machinery is the “careful management of difference” where “what little acceptance liberal diversity proffers in the way of inclusion is highly mediated by huge realms of exclusion: the ethnic is usually straight, usually has access to material and cultural capital (both as a consumer and as an owner), and is in fact often male. These would be the tentative attributes that would distinguish a tolerable ethnic (an exceptional patriot, for example) from an intolerable ethnic (a terrorist suspect) (25). Ana Ribero makes a similar argument about acceptable heterogeneity in her characterization of “brownwashing rhetoric” used in national addresses by Barack Obama “to placate liberal allies, garner the Latin@ vote, and posit a humane national image, while it disguises continued discriminatory tactics against racialized undocumented migrants” (1).

[5] My usage of the term “market-dominant ethnic elite” refers to the emergence of a class of economically dominant Third-World citizens who reside in economically dominant or Western countries—countries which are wracked with their own internal ethnic politics rendering the presence of seemingly non-dominant ethnic individuals or groups into a kind of currency. For example, many American universities hire international students who are seen as injection of pluralism on campus. Because of how wealth and power are currently distributed across nations, however, these are the market-dominant ethnic elite members from their respective nations.  

[6] I use the term “Third-World” deliberately in its non-alignment and Bandung spirit. For a biography of the short-lived Third-World project, see The Darker Nations by Vijay Prashad and “The World Without Bandung, Or “For a Polycentric System with No Hegemony,” by Samir Amin. In addition, my use of the term ‘western’ is synonymous with the term first-world and invokes the same mapping of power and wealth cited in the sources above.  

[7] Foucault visited with Ayatolla Khomeini during the early revolutionary period and developed his ideas about “political spirituality” based on what he saw on the ground in Iran. He did not, however, publish those writings which remain obscure in academic circlesBehrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s very recent work, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment covers these writings and notes that Foucault was inspired by “the revolutionary subjects in the streets of Tehran [and] the possibility of a transformative politics one can exercise outside normative conventions of the Enlightenment […] in response to his critics, he insisted that the manner in which the revolution was lived must remain distinct from its success or failure” (189). Please note: another author, an Iranian woman and academic named Janet Afary, has commented about this event and her take is consonant with the same Eurocentric and Islamophobic line in Satrapi’s thinking. 

[8] The “veil” is a blanket term used in the West to describe various forms of spiritually informed dress used by Muslim women—and sometimes men. There are various types of veiling practices informed by various interpretations of Islam. These include not only clothing practices but also states of mind and choices in conduct. In the West, however, the “veil” continues to be depicted in simplistic, sensational, and decidedly orientalist terms.  

[9] I am referring to Samuel Huntington’s infamous “clash of civilizations” thesis in his book of the same title. He argues that conflicts of the post-cold war arena will be primarily cultural conflicts between the so-called East and West—a view that erases the undeniable economics and political (colonial) dynamics in East/West relations. See “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993.

[10] First, Mary Louise Pratt coins this term (contact zone) to describe the complexities of disparate cultures attempting to establish understanding and connection in her work, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation

[11] Leila Ahmed describes this pattern of social stratification that follows Western commercial activity in the region, “The lower-middle and lower classes, who were generally adversely affected by or experienced no benefits from the economic and political presence of the West had a different perspective on the colonizer’s culture and ways than did the upper classes and new middle-class intellectuals trained in Western ways, whose interests were advanced by affiliation with Western culture and who benefited economically from the British presence” (147). While Ahmed is describing events in Egypt during the British occupation, this pattern, she notes, has repeated in many Middle Eastern societies “in one way or another” and influences a discourse that still informs our understandings of gender in the Middle East today (130).  

[12] For a summary of key events leading up to the Iranian Revolution, please see Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations, page 75, titled, “Tehran.” This chapter describes the emergence of an elite Iranian class (secular and Euro-imitating) in the aftermath of trade consolidation by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the forerunner of British Petroleum). In addition, as noted in Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World the American media landscape is saturated with deceptive representations of Islam and Muslims suggesting that any discussion of the region or Muslims risks breathing further life into this harmful rhetoric.  

[13] Like many regions in the Third-World, British and American corporate interests dramatically re-shaped the destinies of entire nations while British and American governments either stood by tacitly or actively engaged in maintaining these interests. In the case of Iran, the British enabled William Knox D’Arcy’s brazen theft of Iranian oil and American business interests motivated the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh. For one small glimpse into this history, please see The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century by Giuliano Garavini. 

[14] Hilary Chute remarks, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which made its first appearance in the United States in an explicitly feminist, antiracist context in Ms. magazine in 2003” was initially intended to circulate under the title “Persepolis: Tales From and Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” (136). 

[15] See note 9. 

[16] For an in-depth look into how austerity and income inequality influenced the revolution, see chapter 3 of Robert E Looney’sEconomic Origins of the Iranian Revolution, titled “Developments in Agriculture.”

[17] The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 was a secret agreement between France and Britain, with the agreement of Russia, to carve up the remains of the Ottoman empire into zones of colonial influence. 

[18] Puar is drawing extensively on Rey Chow’s work on the ambiguous concept of ethnicity in the contemporary world in her famous book The Protestant Ethnic and Spirit of Capitalism. 

[19] For a study of Aryanist discourse in Iranian home and diaspora communities, please see Reza Zia-Ebrahimi’s “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the ‘Aryan’ Discourse in Iran.” 

[20] Two remarks: First, attending to the formation of a transnational elite does not refute the reality that (in some sense) wealth and power are still concentrated along so-called first-world and Third-World lines—those disparities continue to this day as evidenced by ongoing imperialist aggression against Iran and the larger Middle East by the United States. However, economic realignments and transformations in the world require us to switch from the analytic units currently in use to recognize that there is a first-world within the Third-World and a Third-World within the first-world. And second, recognizing how Third-World elites interact with, and reinforce, power in elite first-world spaces can tell us a great deal about misguided notions of ‘diversity’ currently operating in the academy today. For a reading of these misunderstandings, please see Roderick Ferguson’s The Re-Order of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference 

[21]Masih Alinejad is a prominent Iranian diaspora writer and outspoken activist for women’s rights based in the U.SShe, like Azar Nafisi, is seen moving through Department of Defense circles in an approach to women’s liberation that places her alongside Mike PompeoFor a discussion of these partnership, please see the following source on the official American Embassy Website addition, please see Hamid Dabashi’s chapter, “The Comprador Intellectual” in Brown Skin, White Mask for a view of this tendency among Iranian women writers (44).  

[22] Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran are vastly popular memoirs by Iranian women whose handling of the Islamic revolutionary project is biased, one-sided, and categorically opposed to any aspect of this on-going project. 

[23]Another example of Satrapi’s classist views appear in the following interview with Robert Root: The basic culture is not that the woman is nothing—Iran is not Saudi Arabia—the women, they are educated, they are cultivated, they work. You have women who are judges, they are doctors, they are journalists, they work. So, these women, when you tell them that their witness doesn’t count as much as that of the guy who is going to wash the windows even if she is a researcher in nuclear science or whatever […] (Root 151). 

[24]Hilary Chute remarks, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which made its first appearance in the United States in an explicitly feminist, antiracist context in Ms. magazine in 2003” and was initially intended to circulate under the title “Persepolis: Tales from an Ordinary Iranian Girlhood” (136). 

[25]Ignoring the relations of exchange between dominant nations and the nations that often supply them with resources is an irresponsible move for any researcher or educator considering the increasingly serious consequences of these relations. For instance, the G-7 (Canada, France, U.S, U.K, Germany, Japan, Italy), own more than half of all the world’s wealth and extract much of it from Third-World nations, “In 1970, when the third-world project was intact, the sixty states classified as “low income” by the World Bank owed commercial lender and international agencies $25 billion. Three decades later, the debt of these countries ballooned to $523 billion […] over the course of three decades, the sixty states paid $523 billion in principle and interest on loans worth $540 billion” (Prashad 277). 

[26]These would be figures such as David Graeber and Michael Hudson whose works examine global financial structures and argue that the U.S Dollar and contemporary monetary systems function as a mechanism of warfare against many nations. Please see Hudson’s Finance as Warfare (2015) and Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years 

[27]Again, like many nations of the Third-World, Iran was pulled into colonial relations of exchange that could easily be described as theft. For a summary of these relations please see Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations and Robert E. Looney’s Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution 

[28]Please see Sheel B. Yajee’s CIA Operations Against the Third World, 1985. 

[29]xxix Similar arguments appear in the works of decolonial scholars (such as Walter Mignolo, Ramon Grosfoguel, and Anibal Quijano) whose analysis of colonialism often surpasses national borders as a useful unit of analysis. 

[30]The chador is a covering that conceals the entire body, except for the face, and is worn within or outside the home. The home chador is usually made of colorful and floral fabrics and is the veil of choice during prayer. The outdoor chador is normally all black or navy blue and it almost always worn by women in public service. The djinn in this story appears in a home chador, further emphasizing the enclosure of women into the private sphere in the aftermath of the revolution.  

[31]‘Peace Be Upon Him’ is invoked by believers who speak the prophet’s name. 

[32]Recognizing how anti-racist and feminist intentions can subtly serve homogenizing processes, the failures of liberalism are highlighted, again and again, by scholars of postcolonial, and especially, decolonial studies, “diversity is a concept that can have some usefulness […] but it must be properly situated alongside other less ambiguous concepts and within an emancipatory and decolonial rather than liberal framework” (Samir Amin “The World Without Bandung” 17; Maldonado-Torres 99). 

[33]Because Satrapi’s migration experience is, “limited to institutions (hotels, resorts, schools, businesses) that isolate them from having to deal with the local culture in a substantial way and on its own terms” it is highly specific to particular economic classes despite being presented as ‘an ordinary Iranian girlhood’ (Klapcsik 71). 

Works Cited

Afary, Janet, and Kevn B. Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. U of Chicago P, 2010. 

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. Yale University UP, 1992. 

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

Amin, Samir. Class and Nation: Historically and in the Present Crisis. Heinemann Educational Books, London, 1980.  

Amin, Samir. “The World without Bandung, or for a Polycentric System with No Hegemony.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 7-11, 

Ansari, Maboud. “Iranians in America: Continuity and Change.” Rethinking Today’s Minorities. Edited by Vincent N. Parillo. Greenwood Press, 1991. 

Appelbaum, Richard P., and William I. Robinson. Critical Globalization Studies. Routledge, 2005. 

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford UP, 2003. 

Chow, Rey. Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. Indiana UP, 1993. 

Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia UP, 2010. 

Dabashi, Hamid. Brown Skin, White Masks. Pluto Publishers, 2011. 

Dabashi, Hamid. Can Non-Europeans Think? Zed Books, 2015. 

Dabashi, Hamid. “Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire.” Al Ahram Weekly, June 2006. Issue No. 797.  

Ferguson, A Roderick. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. U of Minnesota P, 2012.  

Fisk, Gloria. Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature. Columbia UP, 2018. 

Garavini, Giuliano. The Rise and Fall of OPEC in the Twentieth Century. Oxford UP, 2019. 

Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz. Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution After the Enlightenment. U of Minnesota P, 2016. 

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House, 2011. 

Grosfoguel, Ramón. “Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality.” Transmodernity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011,  

Hudson, Michael. Finance as Warfare. World Economics Association, 2015. 

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, pp. 22-49. 

Klapcsik, Sandor. “Acculturation Strategies and Exile in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Journal of Multicultural Discourses, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, pp. 69-83. 

Leservot, Typhaine. “Occidentalism: Rewriting the West in Marjane Satrapi’s PerséPolis.” French Forum, vol. 36, no. 1, 2011, pp. 115-30. 

Looney, Robert E. Economic Origins of the Iranian Revolution. Pergamon Press, 1982. 

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. “The Crisis of the University in the Context of Neoapartheid: A View from Ethnic Studies.” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self- Knowledge, vol. 10, no. 1, 2012. 

Mignolo, Walter D., and Madina V Tlostanova. “Theorizing from the Borders.” European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 9, no. 2, 2006, pp. 205-21. 

Mignolo, Walter. “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 57-96,  

Moallem, Minoo. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, U of California P, 2005. 

Moaveni, Azadeh. Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. Public Affairs, 2005. 

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random House Trade Paperbacks,  

Ostby, Marie. “Graphics and Global Dissent: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Persian Miniatures, and the Multifaceted Power of Comic Protest. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 132, no. 3, 2017, pp. 558-79, 

Prashad, Vijay. The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. New Press, 2007. 

Pratt, Mary L. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 2008 

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Duke UP, 2007.  

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America.” International Sociology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2000, pp. 215-32. 

Ribero, Ana Milena. “Acceptable Heterogeneity: Brownwashing Rhetoric in President Obama’s Address on Immigration.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1-7. 

Root, Robert. “Interview with Marjane Satrapi.” Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, vol. 9, no. 2, 2007, pp. 147-57. 

Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine how we See the  

Rest of the World. Pantheon Books, New York, 1981. 

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.  

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon Books, New York, 2007. 

Stone-Mediatore, Shari. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 

Yajee, Sheel B. CIA Operations Against the Third World. Criterion Publications, 1985. 

Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza. “Self-Orientalization and Dislocation: The Uses and Abuses of the ‘Aryan’ Discourse in Iran.” Iranian Studies: Journal of the International Society for Iranian Studies, vol. 44 no. 4, 2011, pp. 445-72, 

Under the Shadow. Directed by Babak Anvari, performances by Narges Rashidi and Avin Manshadi, Wigwam Films 2016.  




“This Seismic Life Change”: Graduate Students Parenting and Writing During a Pandemic

As a parent and a doctoral candidate, I often tell people that I never imagined going back to school for a Ph.D., but if I had, I could not have dreamed that it would be my fourth or fifth priority (in the best of times), behind tending to my full-time faculty job, my daughter, my husband, my aging parents, and other obligations. And while I feel my life and teaching experiences have benefited me tremendously as an older returning student, I find myself wishing fairly often that I were younger, less encumbered, and that more of my life and my time were focused on my studies, as I see in some of my classmates. Instead, frankly, my doctoral work is something I have to fit in around other things and people that demand my attention. For instance, if I plan to study one evening and my daughter is sick,[1] I abandon studying. If a work crisis pops up, I attend to that instead of writing a paper for class. This has been even more the case since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interruptions and competing priorities are literally in my line of vision at all times now. Although I hesitate to admit it here, my writing—both for my job and graduate work—has fallen even further down the list of priorities as I worry about my daughter’s isolation, the possibility of my husband being furloughed or laid off, our elderly parents’ immune systems, and my own sanity. Due to these limitations, my approach to such work has changed drastically and my standards for it have dropped, hovering now somewhere between “don’t embarrass yourself” and “just get it done.” I suspect this is the case for many graduate students—particularly those with children at home. Our ability to focus, broadly, is simply not what it was ten months ago for so many reasons.

Just a few months into the pandemic, I read an article in The Washington Post, in which two parents—both academics—tracked their child-related interruptions. They wrote of a 3-hour period of tracking: 

Looked at one way, the situation appeared manageable: Over the course of three hours, the parent on duty was interrupted for a little over half an hour in total, meaning they got almost 2 1 / 2 hours of work time…But that time didn’t come in two clean chunks: The parent was interrupted 45 times, an average of 15 times per hour. The average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time was three minutes, 24 seconds. The longest uninterrupted period was 19 minutes, 35 seconds. The shortest was mere seconds. (Edwards and Snyder) 

The same article referenced a study that found it can take 20 minutes for a person who has been distracted from their work to come back to focus (Brumby et al.). Again, the longest uninterrupted work time for this particular writer was 19 minutes and 35 seconds.[2] Theoretically, my partner and I split our day around childcare, each taking either a morning or afternoon (pre-nap or post-nap[3]) working session while the other partner watches our daughter. Because she is two years old,[4] there is little to no independent time for her—unless we count watching TV on the couch while we sit next to her, trying to work or attend Zoom meetings. In reality, there has not been a single block of time without interruption in ten months.[5]

And it’s this experience that has led me to my research here. I ask: In what ways, if at all, are the experiences of graduate students who are parents different from the experiences of non-parent graduate students, particularly regarding home life and writing since the start of COVID-19?[6]  

The “Incompatibility” of Parenting and Graduate Writing 

The pandemic has, of course, changed every aspect of life for most people, from social gatherings and travel to parenting and public health overall. In higher education, the changes are just as drastic, and of course, for graduate students, in particular, educational challenges are heightened by all aspects of life outside of the classroom—even the virtual classroom.[7] Most graduate students work in addition to their studies—many full time. In “normal times” graduate student stress is well documented (see “Grappling with” and Puri). And during the pandemic that stress is increasing rapidly, ultimately developing for many into more substantial mental health issues. A study out of University of California at Berkeley reports that “32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder” during the early months of the pandemic (Chirikov et al. 1). The study also notes, of course, that certain populations are much more likely to feel these effects—and they include caregivers in this set of specific populations. Caregivers in another study noted that they were most in need of “general coping” mechanisms (Fitzpatrick et al. 1088).[8]

B. S. Russell et. al conducted a study early in the pandemic about caregiver burden during COVID, finding that the impact of long-term and/or undefined periods of quarantining for families has the potential to “lead to unprecedented impacts on individuals’ mental health” (672). They write, “parents must actively plan new caregiving, work, and education routines, potentially compromising time to tend to their own emotional experience and self-care” (672).[9] Graduate students, then, must “actively plan” these new tasks into their days while also attending to their own educational routines.

We can assume that graduate students who are also parents make up a significant percentage of the overall graduate student population, although no recent data is available on this number. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, twenty-two percent of undergraduates are parents, and I think it stands to reason that this number is likely higher among graduate students, who are on average older (ASCEND); the average graduate student age is thirty-three (Who Graduate Students Are | Graduate Mentoring Guidebook | Nebraska).

Parenting during graduate studies or in a full-time academic job has always been fraught. While mothers in academia have done important work in making these complexities visible and noted, these have mostly been through narratives, and straight, white-middle class mother narratives at that (Rose). Few data-driven studies have examined the nuances and challenges of parenting while working as an academic, but it’s clear that finding time, energy, and focus particularly to write at all is extremely challenging in most cases, to put it mildly. Graduate student parents have always reported completing much of their studying and writing for school at night and on the weekends (Sallee 406). They also report spending less time on coursework than they would like or feel obligated to due to competing childcare demands (Sallee 406), particularly as quality childcare has always been out of reach for on graduate students’ salaries/stipends (Springer et al. 447; Theisen et al. 53). Candice Harris et al. write “Family is perceived by some to be invisible in academia,[10] although women often perceive motherhood to have a considerable impact on their academic career, as the amount of work required to be a successful academic can only be done when one is without children or other responsibilities” ( 709).

What we do know is that there is an underrepresentation of graduate student mothers in Ph.D. programs and some have referred to this as a social justice issue (Kulp 408). Alessandra Minello, Sara Martucci, and Lidia Manzo point out that “the beginning of an academic career is marked by a prolonged period of precariousness, one which typically coincides with a woman’s reproductive period” ( 2). Mothers who have a doctoral degree are also are not as likely to come from top-ranked programs or to publish scholarly work (Kulp 410). One study of parents in academia, centered around identity and performance, quotes a mother remarking on her colleagues and academia at large: “There is still an assumption that a parent can separate themselves from their children and come to work…especially a very young child…they just have to turn the switch off and I don’t think you can” (Harris et al. 712).[11] Amanda Kulp writes that “Graduate school is a critical period for Ph.D. earners to collect the kinds of resources they need to compete for tenure-track jobs, and parenting a child during graduate school can put stress on graduate students in their efforts collect these resources” (410).

For mothers working in STEM particularly, concerns around gender inequality that have always existed have now risen too. A “new motherhood penalty” places further distance between mothers and their non-mother and male colleagues in STEM, particularly, although certainly also those in other fields (Staniscuaski et al. 724). Kristen Springer, Brenda Parker, and Catherine Leviten-Reid found that  

there are few formal institutional supports tailored to the needs of graduate student parents; there is limited knowledge on the part of faculty regarding supports that may exist for graduate students with children; and departments accommodate graduate student parents on a flexible,[12] case-by-case basis. All three serve to create a message that children are not a standard feature in the lives of doctoral candidates. (441)  

Motherhood in academia[13]—whether as graduate students or faculty members—has always had to be strategic choice (Harris et al. 709). Springer, Parker, and Leviten-Reid write, “being both an academic and parent is quite incompatible in practice” (436)—and they were writing pre-pandemic.
It’s no wonder, of course, that Minello, Martucci, and Manzo  in their very recent, very powerful study on the pandemic and academic mothers report that academic work is (still) “incompatible” with full-time parenting (2). I think most parents would admit that when they are parenting young children, it can be very difficult to be fully focused on work, even when their child is not physically in their presence. And now, they are fully in our physical presence at all times. For all parents, of course, both household work and childcare commitments are overwhelmingly up.[14] Although much has been rightly made of women disproportionately taking on caregiver loads, one recent study found that there was a much bigger gap in researcher productivity between those who have children and those who don’t than between genders (Breuning et al.). It’s worth noting that they also concede that, just the same, “women will be worse off when the dust settles from the pandemic” (Breuning et al. 2). It’s parenting more than gender, even, that makes keeping one’s head above water as an academic during the pandemic nearly impossible.

When it comes to expectations for research and publishing, some institutions are beginning to make concessions for faculty, but graduate students seem to be on their own (Guatimosim). Early studies suggest that “the global pandemic is quite likely to influence scholarly productivity during this period and in the months, and possibly years, to come” (Breuning et al. 2).[15] Reporting on a study of Canadian graduate students, Christine Ro notes that “Just over three-quarters of the 1,431 respondents report that the pandemic has ‘notably’ impeded their ability to conduct research.” 44 percent of those graduate students worry that the pandemic will impact their chances at completing their degree (TSPN). I have to believe that this sentiment is common beyond the bounds of this study.

Further, some argue that “writing needs concentration and inspiration that cannot be constrained into a limited time of the day” (Minello, Martucci, and Manzo 7). Very few studies have looked at the experiences of graduate student writers (Henderson and Cook 49), but even pre-pandemic, graduate student writing is a challenge. Brian Henderson and Paul Cook report that “a significant gap exists between what graduate students know and what they are expected to know” (49). And of course, different fields are going to hold and manage expectations very differently. For instance, in engineering, graduate students, “often struggle to learn to write under high-pressure conditions” (Berdanier and Zerbe 138). Such conditions are typical in many programs. Catherine Berdanier and Ellen Zerbe write:  

…it is interesting that most students do understand that writing is a knowledge- transforming process, while still struggling with the trifecta of perfectionism, procrastination, and writer’s block. Leveraging writing strategies to overcome some of these issues, such as accountability structures, timed writing sprints, and time management techniques can be housed within a broader discussion of learning-to-write and writing-to-learn as a graduate student in the process of becoming a member of a discipline, calling to mind academic literacies theory. (133) 

One might reasonably assume that writing expectations, especially towards professionalization, are more explicitly understood by graduate students in writing studies, but even in this discipline, Henderson and Cook’s work  shows us that writing studies graduate students still feel they need clearer expectations (63). As we think about parenting, graduate students, writing, and the pandemic, we see a number of connections and crossovers, and yet, we don’t yet see any scholarship about parents who are graduate students writing during the pandemic. 

Population and Data Collection

The research that follows draws from a larger data set collected by graduate students in a research methods class[16] at George Mason University. This IRB-approved (IRB 1557945-1), mixed-methods project included a survey and a limited number of interviews, conducted via video conferences due to the pandemic. All survey participant and interviewee identifying information has been made anonymous, per our IRB approval. The survey contained 27 questions, and a call for responses was distributed nationally, primarily via professional and academic listservs and social media. Due to the listservs we had access to, a high percentage of the respondents were in programs related to English or writing studies (68% of nonparent and 55% of parent respondents were in a writing and rhetoric or related program). However, a variety of other disciplines were represented, including, for instance, information systems, art history, Russian studies, law, consumer behavior and family economics, and genetics, just to name a few. Degrees being pursued included M.A., M.F.A, J.D., and Ph.D. Of 397 survey responses, six were single parents and fifty-three noted that they lived with a partner or spouse and their children, making a total of fifty-nine parents who answered the survey and 275 nonparents. An additional sixty respondents chose not to answer the question of who they live with, and so the answers from these participants were disregarded for the purposes of this inquiry. The total number of survey respondents I looked at, then, was 336. Of those, fifty-three percent of nonparents were still in coursework, and sixty-one percent of parents were still in coursework. Of both nonparents and parents, the vast majority of respondents were in Ph.D. programs and M.A. programs. 

The interview contained sixteen open-ended questions. The interviewees were drawn from survey respondents who indicated that they were willing to be interviewed. In the interviews, only four of the twenty-five interviewees mentioned having children, a smaller percentage than replied to the survey, presumably because parents have less time to spare to volunteer to be interviewed.  

Mental and Physical Health 

 Physical and mental health has been a major concern during the pandemic, for reasons that span the stress and isolation and the closing of gyms and the complexities of exercising with social distancing in place to issues of lost wages, the illness and death of family, civil unrest, and so many other factors. Approximately half of each group reported major or moderate impacts to physical health during the pandemic.[17] Of the survey respondents, fifty-four percent of parents stated that they have accessed health and/or wellness resources during the pandemic, compared to thirty-nine percent of nonparents. Interestingly, more nonparents reported major or moderate impacts to mental health, seventy-two percent compared to parents at sixty-two percent. Parents reported a slightly higher impact than nonparents on work-life balance (eighty-three percent to seventy-four percent), but both groups reported major impacts here in high numbers. Only fourteen percent of nonparents expressed high impacts from caretaker expectations, compared to fifty percent of parents, although this fourteen percent reminds us that “caretaking” takes many forms. Several survey respondents and interviewees mentioned drastic life changes and particularly strict quarantining due to elderly or immune-compromised relatives that they cared for.[18]
Parents in interviews also talked quite a bit about the lack of “alone” time they experienced[19] due to balancing graduate work, childcare, and, usually, also a job, all within the confines of their home: 

My biggest thing is just childcare, and I mean that has really been the big shift for me […] while both kids are understandably in the middle of the meltdown because we’re in a pandemic and they haven’t seen their friends, and I’m just sitting there thinking, like, [this would] be so much easier if they were in school every day. You know, like I could get a little time to myself. So that’s really the biggest the biggest one for me. (Anonymous Interview Participant 28) 

Ironically, they also, sometimes in the same breath, discussed the challenges of isolation:[20] 

The isolation was definitely like a struggle, especially without the childcare that—I already—I am an introvert, and I do kind of recharge by having alone time. But even I was kind of starting to hit my limit on the amount of hours a day and days a week that I could spend with only an eight month old to talk to (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

They[21] are with their[22] children every second, but never with colleagues. Such issues of space and home, of lack of access to offices, classmates, and colleagues, while central to these conversations about sanity, don’t even touch on the limits these situations place on gaining access to feedback or even casual what-are-you-working on conversations, which most scholars I think would agree are often incredibly valuable to our work.


Productivity is, of course, a major concern for any graduate student, but for parents during the pandemic, such concerns are certainly heightened. Interestingly, Figure 1 below, which charts perceptions of productivity since the start of COVID-19, shows us that parents and non-parents alike are struggling to similar degrees; exactly forty-four percent of each group perceived that they are less productive since the start of the pandemic. We don’t, of course, have data on whether these perceptions are accurate and/or the degrees to which productivity might have suffered.  

Figure 1: The first pie graph, titled “Productivity of Parents,” shows that almost half note that they have been “Less Productive” during the pandemic. In the second pie graph, titled “Productivity of Non-parents,” that pie slice is slightly smaller. Interestingly, the “Parents” graph also shows that a slightly larger percentage stated they were “More Productive” during the pandemic than non-parents.

 Related to this question of productivity, in answer to the question, “Is there anything else about your graduate writing life during the COVID-19 pandemic that you think is important for us to know?” perhaps unsurprisingly, most parents who responded to the survey wrote about having their kids home with them, and the toll twenty-four-hour care and home-school  supervision took on them and their work. Representative responses include:

The hardest, most difficult aspect for me is that public schools are closed, so both of my kids are at home full time and it’s impacting my time to get both work and school done. I teach a 5/5 load at the university where I’m a full-time lecturer, plus am taking graduate coursework, and the original plan is that my kids would be in school. This really threw a wrench in things! (Survey Participant 244) 

 My situation feels a little unique in that I was a full-time caregiver of two children from March-September. My boyfriend’s children moved in with us and I had to manage them for the duration of the spring semester and all of summer during a research fellowship. My writing process and workflow changed dramatically due to being a full-time parent.  (Survey Participant 7) 

Keeping up with the demands of family and work mean my graduate writing is significantly diminished. (Survey Participant 19) 

…not a whole lot got done, because my days were devoted to just trying to keep track of a crawling infant and keep him happy and kind of keep on top of stuff. (Anonymous Participant 3) 

We see that for these caregiving graduate students, writing “changed dramatically” as the hours of each day being allocated previously to writing were now necessarily devoted to the work of caring for kids. And no wonder; if a parent works an eight-hour day and commutes, the average toddler likely spends around nine hours in daycare each weekday, and school children are often gone somewhere in the range of seven hours. Those seven to nine hours are now time that parents need to feed and supervise their children. Even high school students, who require less “supervision,” require time and attention during the day from their caregivers. As one respondent put it, “[my writing] is more impacted by the fact that my daughter is at home all of the time since high school is not meeting face to face; her mental state and her ability to work at home colors my ability to work at home” (Survey Participant 289). To keep up productivity, these parents have to find writing time elsewhere.[23]  

In the limited number of interviews from parents, we found that external childcare was a topic of concern that related to many questions. The narratives from these interviews reinforce how much graduate student parents rely upon safe, consistent childcare and schooling for their children in order to write and work. Some representative comments included: 

So actually, the biggest [challenge] is childcare. I have a 10-year-old, and I have a four-year-old. And so when I originally signed up for my Ph.D. program, I was like, oh, now is the perfect time, right? Like my four-year—in Fall 2020…my four-year-old will be going into preschool, so will be in school for like four hours a day, five days a week. My 10-year-old is going into fourth grade. He’s in school for eight hours a day. My eighty-year-old grandparents come up twice a week and they spend the night with us, and they take care of the kids […] I can take two classes no problem. And then COVID happens. (Anonymous Participant 12) 

For the first six months of the pandemic, we had my partner’s kids here with us full time, and I needed that flexibility to get through the summer, and my summer work, because I had to take care of them during the day, like watch what they were doing, like make sure they’re alive and fed, and have things to do […] I went through this seismic life change of becoming a full-time guardian, and going online, like the same week. (Survey Participant 7

Childcare was probably the single biggest issue. I think if my son had still been able to go to daycare through everything, even if I couldn’t go to the library, even if I couldn’t go pick up materials, I could have still gotten a decent amount done. Maybe had a little bit of a lapse in productivity. But that was the—the single biggest one is just you can’t—with one that little—you can just sit, you know, you can’t even say like, well, go play in your room for a little while. It’s like, you’re eight months old, you’re into everything. And it’s just a constant, kind of keeping track of him (Anonymous Interview Participant 3) 

Managing home school is a particular concern[24] for many of the interviewees as well: 

I went from like, oh, I have this three-hour block of time where I can just write and write and write and write to like now I’m like, alright I get a 20 minute burst, and then my older son gets locked out of Zoom and I have to run in there and help him and then I come back and do another fifteen minute burst and then […] there’s no boundary right now, and it’s just a very different space to be in to try to get work done. (Anonymous Interview Participant 11) 

Nonparents, on the other hand, wrote about a variety of other issues that affected their writing productivity: including isolation, anxiety, a lack of focus, increased screen time, challenges of remote collaboration and remote teaching, the less-than-ideal physical spaces they have to write in, and uncertainty about the job market. We might assume that these were concerns shared by the parents, but that childcare and parenting concerns simply took precedence.  

Access to Campus Services and Campus-community Opportunities 

One of the most illuminating sets of data in this survey regarding parents relates to access to campus services and other on-campus opportunities for graduate students. Figure 2 below illustrates parent and non-parent responses when asked to rate the degree to which COVID-19-related changes in such services and opportunities have impacted their reading and writing work. 



Figure 2: Horizontal bar chart demonstrating that for all categories non-parents reported a higher impact on their reading and writing processes by a lack of access to services. The chart is titled “Rate the degree to which changes to the following campus services and campus community opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted your reading/writing process as a graduate student. The chart shows non-parents (in blue) were most impacted by library access at 60%, advice from peers at 55%, faculty office hours at 45%, and meeting with faculty outside of office hours are 45%. The charts shows parents (in orange) were most impacted by advice from peers at just above 40%, library access at just above 35%, meeting with faculty outside of office hours at 30%, and faculty office hours at just under 30%.

We can see that parents were less effected in every single category above. This chart shows us that parents were then, presumably, taking less from such campus services to begin with. And yet, interestingly, of nonparents, thirty-seven percent explicitly said they felt supported as a graduate writer by their “institution, department, program, and/or campus community,” compared to fifty-five percent of parents—perhaps because they have the time to access such support.[25

Insights for the Future 

 In May of 2021, a photo of an MIT professor went viral after he purchased a crib for his office to support his graduate students with babies or small children (“Mass. Professor Goes Viral After Putting Crib in Office to Help Grad Student with Infant Daughter”). He was praised, but then, quickly, commenters shifted to lament the lack of large-scale, systemic help for parents in general, and graduate students in particular.[26] As we see in the literature above, mothers who are graduate students suffer in uncountable ways. They’re disadvantaged as students and if we measure success by what kind of job they’re able to land post-graduation, such disadvantages and lack of support will continue to impact them throughout the rest of their career.[27]  

This data and these insights from this study aren’t likely to change much about our current situation or the larger one; there’s no vaccine buried in them, and there’s no rhetoric to make millions of COVID-deniers start wearing masks.[28] But if nothing else, it’s my hope that part of what comes out of this study and others like it is that both parents and non-parents alike can recognize both these systemic issues and the enormous toll COVID-19 is taking on our work. And I hope that advisors and the faculty overseeing these students and programs can too. Well over half of the participants in both data groups reported major or moderate impacts to their mental health since the start of the pandemic,[29] and as we’ve all experienced in some way or another, the other challenges and tragedies of life don’t stop just because we’re stuck at home. Elderly family members still have heart attacks. Work is still busy. The car still breaks down.[30] The stresses of life are already high for most of us, in particular graduate student parents.  

And while I hate to generalize, I believe that most of us would assume such dilemmas affect mothers more than fathers. Right now, more broadly, women’s unemployment is far outweighing the unemployment of men (Ruppanner et al.)—almost certainly as this relates to motherhood—and I imagine only time will tell, too, how many graduate programs, also disproportionately of women, are interrupted or fully stopped due to childcare, as we might assume from a recent census piece (Heggeness and Fields). It’s crucial that we change expectations, educating on what life is like for parents right now so that we lose fewer of them through the “leaky pipeline” but also so that our writing can measure up to our peers.   

In one of my favorite interviews, a graduate student told me that her kids were grown, but that the two who were college-aged were at home with her due to the pandemic, rather than away in a dorm, as they’d all expected. She told me that they’ve been keeping her in line, and even reading her work and offering her feedback on her papers.
Unfortunately, of course, this is a rare case. As the data shows, most graduate students—parents or not—are struggling in any number of ways.[31] But they were also struggling before the pandemic, as so much of the scholarship I explore above shows.

To that end, finally, I’m most interested in this data as I believe that it tells us something larger about graduate students who are also parents during “normal” times. As I look back to Figure 2 above, I’m struck by how graduate students who are also parents operate, write, and work differently than non-parent graduate students. As we see, parents reported being less affected by the loss of every single type of in-person campus and program-related resources that had disappeared during the pandemic, from faculty office hours to services for grad writers from other offices or departments. Again, this suggests to me that these parents have been less reliant on such services and support even pre-pandemic. I am a parent in a Ph.D. program, but during my M.A. and M.F.A., I was not a parent. I can say with certainty that I spent more time on campus with faculty and peers and that I took advantage of my university’s additional graduate student support much, much more during my time enrolled in these earlier programs. Without children and working as a teaching assistant, I had the time to; my graduate work was my priority. In my Ph.D. program, however, even pre-pandemic, nine times out of ten I deleted emails advertising workshops, talks, and other opportunities for graduate students. I felt I had little time to spare—even for often seemingly very worthwhile activities—and even if I did feel like I had the time, I often couldn’t bear the thought of asking my partner to do dinner/bath time/bedtime alone yet another night of the week beyond the evenings I attended class.[32] It feels crucial to me that institutions find ways to better accommodate other graduate students in similar positions.

I think that seeing all of this should allow me to simply give myself a bit of a break.[33] Truthfully, the tension between wanting to go easier on myself as a parent, student, and employee, and the still very real deadlines and responsibilities are in many ways irreconcilable—and to me this data suggests that this was the case even pre-COVID. But it’s my hope that even if graduate students are largely “failing” at writing, we can better accept our limits and the limits imposed by the pandemic—but also the system as a whole.[34] Because it seems clearer than ever that the system(s) aren’t going to change for us. 


[1]Or overly tired. Or missing me. Or hungry for something different than her dad knows how to make. Or interested in taking a walk. Or sitting in the backyard eating popsicles.

[2]It’s probably worth noting that it took me four days to simply get through this brief article.

[3]Since initially writing this, she’s stopped napping. STOPPED NAPPING ALL TOGETHER no matter how long we stroke her hair and talk in quiet voices and get her up early and schedule pre-nap quiet time.

[4]Now three, likely four at the time of publication. Look, it’s a pandemic and a I have a toddler, so yeah, fully researching, writing, and revising this thing has been a long process.

[5]Make that 19 now!

[6]Other than, you know, nonparents probably sleep and occasionally watch Netflix and likely have clean-ish hair and don’t find a slice of bell pepper at the bottom of their cold, cold coffee mug at noon when they finally finish it.

[7]And obviously high schools. And middle schools. And elementary schools. And don’t even get me started on the unexpected shame of having the only toddler who won’t sit still for Zoom story time in April 2020, despite me literally bribing her with snacks. And it’s a screen! Why isn’t it captivating like all the screen-based garbage that she can’t look away from?

[8]But what would that even look like right now? We don’t have the hour for therapy, even those of us lucky enough to have insurance. And if we did, every therapist I know is booked up because everyone is falling apart. What other strategies might I be attempting to employ? Last week my daughter tried a Sesame Street deep breathing exercise at a particularly rough moment. But I wouldn’t call that a long-term solution…

[9]And by “self-care” we’re rounding down now to teeth brushing. 

[10]To put it truly as mildly as possible.

[11]And the thing is, I really try. I apologized to my professor so hard and so many times the night I had to leave a Ph.D. seminar because my husband called to tell me the baby had spiked a 104-degree fever and had thrown up in every room of the house in the hour since I’d left. The shame of it, leaving class to go to the Emergency Room.

[12]Flexible? Says who?

[13]Or, you know, ANYWHERE. 

[14]It was a few months into the shutdown when I calculated the number of meals and snacks I made, plated, and cleaned up after weekly for my toddler during the pandemic, and I no longer have that number because I can’t find anything in this mess of a house, but it was a lot.

[15]And after this, will we ever look at how just parenting in normal times impacts “productivity” when compared to non-caregiver colleagues?

 [16]I mean, obviously I couldn’t have planned this, gotten IRB approval, recruited, and developed the study materials alone. My role in collecting the data wasn’t huge. Even analyzing the data felt like an insurmountable task most nights as I looked with bleary eyes at my Excel sheets after bathing this kid and reading six books and sitting with her until she fell asleep in the dark without actually falling asleep myself. 

[17]I actually would have guessed parents would be in better shape at this point because we’re always chasing the kids to save them from death in the street and chasing them to wear them out so they’ll sleep and chasing them because the neighbors would for sure think she’s too small to be five houses down alone on the sidewalk.

[18]Can you even imagine caring for a toddler AND an elderly parent in your home right now? (Surely some of you can and are!) For that matter, I only have ONE kid! How am I even complaining?

[19]That’s not necessarily true for me. I did a lot of crying alone in the bathroom while my daughter watched Bluey.

[20]Never alone and also isolated feels right on target.



[23]And in my home and many others, “elsewhere” means after bedtime.

[24]Sweet Jesus, I can’t honestly even imagine.

[25]“Perhaps,” but, you know, definitely because of this. After working all day and being away from my kid, and knowing I have to be in a classroom again at 7:20 p.m. for a graduate seminar, I’m not going to skuttle over to campus early to check out the resources at the Random Campus Opportunity.

[26]We see versions of this all the time; the professor with a student’s baby strapped to his or her back is another recurring example.

[27]It’s not within the scope of the research here to consider the cost and quality of childcare in the U.S. during “normal” times, and yet, of course, it’s relevant. In most areas of the country quality childcare is nearly outside of the range of possible for homes with two working parents. What happens when one of those parents is bringing in only a pittance of a graduate student stipend?

[28]Or, now, as I revise this in late Fall 2021, convince these people to get the vaccine because COME ON, SERIOUSLY I STILL GOTTA BE WORRIED ABOUT THIS KID GETTING COVID. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.

[29]More migraines. More panic attacks. More insomnia. More decision fatigue, driven by “Are we being too cautious or not cautious enough? Which is worse—that she’s getting super weird from lack of socialization or that her friends who went back to school might be exposed?”

[30]You still forget the milk. Your in-laws still need you to be sure to call Aunt so-and-so because she’s ill. A peach milkshake still spills all over the car.

[31]As a person who’s been lucky to only really rarely struggle with focus and “buckling down and getting to work” in my pre-pandemic endeavors, and as a student and employee who takes quite a bit of pride and identity stake in my ability to be productive, my life during the pandemic, here at home, a virus raging outside and a two year old/ three year old raging inside, my struggle to focus isn’t just a frustration; it’s becoming a spark to a larger depression brought on by feeling as though, well, what is the point? My rational brain is quick to remind me that, of course, work and productivity don’t equal value and there’s a pandemic and also my child is alive and fed, so that’s a win, and yet, I struggle, like so many of my peers. I hope that this data and analysis allows me to lower the bar lower for myself. I want to demonstrate, at least inwardly, that I can’t possibly meet those same standards I was meeting pre-pandemic. And of course, it’s worth noting, realistically, no one can, with or without kids; this data shows that everyone is struggling.

[32]During the pandemic, I don’t even open these emails; I just hit delete. And I have to believe I’m not the only one.

[33]But not, you know, really. Many months after initially drafting this, the guilt I feel is stronger than ever about the ways I’m failing my daughter.

[34]And the system is fucked. I mean, not just the academic system, although, yeah, for sure that is. But the SYSTEM-system is fucked, and that’s clearer than ever to anyone who wants to see it. Whether you clean houses or run a museum or grow flowers or wait tables or analyze stocks, if you are a mother, your life and time were never your own, but they are even less so now. As I write work on this revision, I am sitting on the toilet next to the tub where my daughter is soaking off a 102.5-degree fever. On a work day. And a school day. On day six back to daycare after 18-months home. There is no system in place that works for me, a working mother and graduate student, so earlier today I taught my class virtually, and the two quiet hours I had marked off to work on my dissertation evaporate into the steam of the humidifier while I soothed her. It will be all right, I tell her, but long-term, I’m skeptical. I imagine this little creature as an adult woman with her own child, with goals, even with a partner who does their fair share—and still, run ragged and exhausted by the tension between this drive and the lack of support.

Works Cited 

Anonymous Interview Participant 3, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020.

Anonymous Interview Participant 11, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020. 

Anonymous Interview Participant 12, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020. 

Anonymous Interview Participant 28, Personal Interview, Oct. 2020

ASCEND, The Aspen Institute and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Parents in College By the Numbers” 2020. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020. 

Berdanier, Catherine, and Ellen Zerbe. “Quantitative Investigation of Engineering Graduate Student Conceptions and Processes of Academic Writing.” 2018 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (ProComm), IEEE, 2018, pp. 138-45.  

Breuning, Marijke, et al. “The Great Equalizer? Gender, Parenting, and Scholarly Productivity during the Global Pandemic.” Political Science Education and the Profession. APSA Preprints, 21 July 2020, 

Brumby, Duncan P., et al. “How Do Interruptions Affect Productivity?” Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering, edited by Caitlin Sadowski and Thomas Zimmermann, Apress, 2019, pp. 85-107.  

Chirikov, Igor, et al. “Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” U.C. Berkeley SERU Consortium Report, Aug. 2020., 

Edwards, Suzanne M., and Larry Snyder. “Perspective | Yes, Balancing Work and Parenting Is Impossible. Here’s the Data.” Washington Post, 10 July 2020. 

Fitzpatrick, Olivia, et al. “Using Mixed Methods to Identify the Primary Mental Health Problems and Needs of Children, Adolescents, and Their Caregivers during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, Oct. 2020. pp. 1082-93

“Grappling with Graduate Student Mental Health and Suicide.” Chemical & Engineering News, 7 August 2017. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020. 

Guatimosim, Cristina. “Reflections on Motherhood and the Impact of COVID 19 Pandemic on Women’s Scientific Careers.” Journal of Neurochemistry, Sept. 2020, pp. 1-2.  

Harris, Candice, et al. “Academic Careers and Parenting: Identity, Performance and Surveillance.” Studies in Higher Education, vol. 44, no. 4, Apr. 2019, pp. 708-18.  

Heggeness, Misty L., and Jason M. Fields. “Parents Juggle Work and Child Care During Pandemic.” The United States Census Bureau, 18 Aug. 2020, 

Henderson, Brian R., and Paul G. Cook. “Voicing Graduate Student Writing Experiences: A Study of Cross-Level Courses at Two Master’s-Level, Regional Institutions.” Graduate Writing Across the Disciplines Identifying, Teaching, and Supporting, edited by Marilee Brooks-Gillies, et al., The WAC Clearinghouse, 2020. 

Kulp, Amanda M. “Parenting on the Path to the Professoriate: A Focus on Graduate Student Mothers.” Research in Higher Education, vol. 61, no. 3, 2020, pp. 408-29.  

“Mass. Professor Goes Viral After Putting Crib in Office to Help Grad Student with Infant Daughter.” MIT Department of Biology, 21 May 2021, crib-in-office-to-help-grad-student-with-infant-daughter/. 

Minello, Alessandra, Sara Martucci, and Lidia K. C. Manzo . “The Pandemic and the Academic Mothers: Present Hardships and Future Perspectives.” European Societies, Aug. 2020, pp. 1-13.  

Puri, Prateek. “The Emotional Toll of Graduate School.” Scientific American Blog Network, Jan. 2019, 

Ro, Christine. “Pandemic Harms Canadian Grad Students’ Research and Mental Health.” Nature, Aug. 2020. 

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

Ruppanner, Leah, et al. “COVID-19 Is a Disaster for Mothers’ Employment. And No, Working from Home Is Not the Solution.” Phys.Org, 21 July 2020, 

Russell, B. S., et al. “Initial Challenges of Caregiving During COVID-19: Caregiver Burden, Mental Health, and the Parent–Child Relationship.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 51, no. 5, 2020, pp. 671-82.  

Sallee, Margaret W. “Adding Academics to the Work/Family Puzzle: Graduate Student Parents in Higher Education and Student Affairs.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, vol. 52, no. 4, 2015, pp. 401-13. (Crossref), 

Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker, and Catherine Leviten-Reid. “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 30, no. 4, Apr. 2009, pp. 435–57. (Crossref), 

Staniscuaski, Fernanda, et al. “Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Mothers.” Science, vol. 368, no. 6492, 2020, p. 724. 

Survey Participant 7, Sept. 2020. 

Survey Participant 19, Sept. 2020. 

Survey Participant 244, Oct. 2020. 

Survey Participant 289, Oct. 2020

Theisen, Megan Rae, et al. “Graduate Student Parents’ Perceptions of Resources to Support Degree Completion: Implications for Family Therapy Programs.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, vol. 30, no. 1, 2018, pp. 46-70. (Crossref), 

Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN). “COVID-19 Graduate Student Report.” Toronto Science Policy Network. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020. 

“Who Graduate Students Are.” Graduate Mentoring Guidebook, UNLN. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020. 

“Whose Eyes Shall Bless Now the Truth of My Pain?”: Recovering Diane di Prima’s Feminist Rhetoric

I slipped out of my daze in time to hear, “We’re closing in fifteen minutes.” Staring at the now-black screen, I tried to recall what induced this trance, but it wasn’t until I had made my way back on the highway that I remembered. Over the previous eight hours in the archive, I developed a robotic rhythm, flipping through documents, taking pictures, and making notes. Suddenly, I was painfully aware of how intrusive it felt to thumb through someone’s personal effects for my scholarly purposes. I pulled into my driveway with the same feeling of lost time, as the three-hour drive seemed a blur. This feeling lingered, as the research I collected from the archive sat untouched for years, until now.

I was first drawn to the Beat writers in my early twenties. As I read Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, I recurrently asked myself: where are the women? Years later, in a master’s course in feminist rhetorics, I began to pursue this question in earnest.

Italian American poet, painter, and activist Diane di Prima was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934 and was the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and well-known anarchist, Domenico Mallozzi (“Diane di Prima”). di Prima dropped out of Swarthmore College to pursue writing. Shortly after, she began performing her poetry within a bohemian community of writers, artists, and activists in Greenwich Village, which included well-known Beat authors. The mother of five children, she wrote two memoirs and over thirty poetry collections. Some of her most renowned works include This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958), Dinners and Nightmares (1961), Revolutionary Letters (1971), Loba (1978), and Pieces of a Song (1990). Before relocating to San Francisco in 1968, di Prima co-founded the New York Poets Theatre, a newsletter called The Floating Bear, and the Poets Press, which published Audre Lorde’s premier volume, The First Cities (1968). di Prima taught creative writing at the New College of California, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco Art Institute, California Institute of Integral Studies, and co-founded the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Politics. di Prima worked as a mixed-media artist since the 1960s and had several solo art shows in California (“Diane di Prima”). She also studied Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, which exert a palpable influence over her work in the 1970s and 80s. di Prima died on October 25th, 2020, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease and Sjogren’s Syndrome (Genzlinger).

Poet and novelist Daniella Gioseffi best captures the singular and multifaceted nature of di Prima’s work, describing her as:

a learned humorous bohemian, classically educated, and twentieth-century radical, [whose] writing, informed by Buddhist equanimity, is exemplary in imagist, political, and  mystical modes. A great woman poet in [the] second half of American century, she broke  barriers of race-class identity, delivered a major body of verse brilliant in its particularity. (308)

Working across genres, di Prima offers readers critical narratives of her and other women’s experiences that model alternative ways of being for the marginalized.

As a reader, I was taken with di Prima’s mobilization of memory and reflection towards an unapologetic critique of gender and sexual norms. Yet, as I began pursuing a doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition, I was once again frustrated by her absence from feminist rhetorical canons. Galvanized by this frustration, I set out to recover her work.

The narrative that begins this article recalls my first experience with archival research in the Diane Di Prima[1] Papers collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014. This first trip left me victim to archive fever (Ramsey et al. 3). Overwhelmed by the materials and my feelings, I found it “difficult to envision a project out of ‘the lot’” (Ramsey et al. 3). Since then, I have visited di Prima’s papers in the Syracuse University special collections and completed several graduate seminar papers and conference presentations on her work. Yet, I remained reluctant to publish, as my archive fever lingered. I continued to work on this article sporadically over my doctoral studies but still never felt right about submitting it for publication. With di Prima’s recent passing, the feelings I experienced years ago in the archives resurfaced. The sense of responsibility that once gave me pause now fueled my resolve to share how her work had sparked my love for feminist rhetoric.

In this article, I recover di Prima as a feminist rhetor and argue for her recognition in the field. When recognized in historical accounts of the Beat literary movement, women are often relegated to flat characterizations of the wife, girlfriend, or lover of their male counterparts. However, many of the male Beat authors’ spouses were prolific and published writers, including Hettie Jones, Carolyn Cassady, Joanne Kyger, and Joyce Johnson. The recovery of women Beat authors is a rich, decades-long literary project (e.g., Carden, Women Writers; Knight; Grace and Johnson). However, these women, and di Prima, have yet to be recognized as feminist rhetors.

To begin this work, I analyze di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies: her critical subjectivity, critique of patriarchal gender roles, subversion of sexual norms, and circulation of feminist rhetoric.[2] I analyze these strategies as evidence of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric to support my argument for her recognition in the field. I do not subscribe to a static definition of feminist rhetoric. Instead, common characteristics and themes of feminist rhetoric, as recognized by scholars in the field, inform my identification and analysis of these particular strategies. I use the term, critical subjectivity, for instance, to capture di Prima’s use of her own narrative to critique patriarchal and heteronormative structures. This strategy resonates with Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie’s characterization of feminist rhetoric as “challeng[ing] dominant epistemologies” and “assert[ing] new topoi/contexts from which to argue” (11). In addition, the field has long recognized the power of autobiography and storytelling as modes of critique, and more broadly, the subjective as a vehicle for feminist rhetors to enact agency.[3] For instance, Jacqueline Jones Royster cites how African American women rhetors of the nineteenth century employed the subjective form of essay writing (31). Through storytelling and reflection, di Prima amplifies previously neglected voices, expressions, and representations. In this way, her narrative serves as a catalyst to shock, intrigue, and seduce readers into considering an alternative history of the Beats.

I draw from feminist rhetorical methodologies of recovery and regendering (Glenn, Rhetoric Retold; Ratcliffe; Lunsford) to analyze her published memoirs and poems, personal correspondence, and unpublished manuscripts. Informed by the greater move within feminist historiography to broaden the notion of the archive (i.e., Gaillett; Glenn and Enoch; Kirsch and Rohan; Morris and Rawson), I analyze artifacts that traverse traditional categorizations of genre, audience, and authorship. In a 2013 letter included in the SU archive, di Prima articulates the value of engaging with archival material that defies neat categorization:

These journals are each an “art work” in and of themselves…. at the time that I began them, I conceived of them as an entirely different form of journal: one where I would experiment a lot more with images, and where I would abandon the recording of the daily event …. I would want to guarantee access to this archive to myself, my children and grandchildren (so much of their history is in it), and of course to scholars. (di Prima, Letter)

She positions her work, even the most personal of her writing, as worthy of scholarly study and circulation. In doing so, di Prima directly recognizes the rhetorical significance and power of her subjectivity.

I intersperse reflections on my archival experiences throughout this analysis to evoke the many interruptions of my nebulous, years-long writing process. In doing so, I aim to reciprocate di Prima’s vulnerability and honesty in sharing her thoughts, feelings, desires, and failures. My reflections help me to center my interpretive power (Royster 281) and reflect the complicated affective processes of this project.

In recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric, I contribute to an ongoing “transform[ation of] the discipline of rhetoric through gender analysis, critique, and reformulation” (Buchanan and Ryan xiii). This recovery broadens the history and resonance of Beat literature, while also offering a methodology for recovering the often-neglected rhetorical contributions of women to other literary and social movements. Most importantly, this project contributes to the longstanding tradition of feminist historiography in the field, as it works to expand and complicate what we identify as feminist rhetoric. Recovering di Prima’s feminist rhetoric also builds upon previous scholars’ calls to expand, complicate, and disrupt how we study and canonize feminist rhetors (i.e., Hallenbeck; Ratcliffe; Rawson). As such, this work helps us to reflect on how we can reflexively avoid canonization and citational practices that reify the very exclusion the field was founded on resisting.

Critical Subjectivity

I return to the archival materials I collected years ago and old feelings of paralysis flood back. With frustration, I ask myself why I should pursue this project and who I am serving with this work. Around this time, I find an unpublished, undated poem in one of di Prima’s journals, titled “Bohemia,” in which she writes: “Whose eyes shall bless now the truth of my pain? They are fled who could bear witness to my tale, their blundering time to another.” I continue searching and reading with lots of questions and a renewed energy.

di Prima rejected the patriarchal norms of both the 1950s milieu and a male-dominated literary community. She shares her narrative and critically reflects on her experiences to engage in feminist critique. As opposed to the male-authored representations of women common in popular Beat literature, di Prima offers readers a transparent representation of a woman writer’s struggle to love, live, and work within oppressive structures. Her feminist resistance is most evident in her enactment of a critical subjectivity, in which her (and her characters’) experiences act as parodies, reflections, and criticisms of oppressive norms. In identifying her critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy, I draw from Laura Micciche’s definition of feminist critique as “question[ing] what passes as ordinary, often as a cover for maintaining the assumed value of intellectual inheritance, in order to unsettle the ground upon which norms hold sway” (176). di Prima shares the material realities of her own marginalization and reflects on her internalization of patriarchal systems to indict their repression of women’s lived experiences. di Prima’s feminist critique originates from her experiences and is enacted through sharing them unabashedly, even (and especially when) they exist outside of decorum, norms, and, in some cases, legality. di Prima offers readers alternatives to these norms, modeling pathways to agency, expression, and self-determination not afforded to women in the same frequency or breadth as their male peers.

In her memoir, Recollections of My Life As a Woman (2001), di Prima shares stories, memories, and journal entries from throughout her life to chronicle her journey of self-discovery. Throughout these stories, she reflects on her successes and failures in finding her voice. After characterizing the adult relationships she grew up around with a series of vignettes, she articulates the broader agency and social critique that her reflection affords:

It is power I am talking about now, no right and wrong. No cloudy issues of “neglect” or passion. Simply, who held the power in our lives? How did we speak with them, how did they treat us? A pluralism. There are bonds and groupings of power, within each group a kind of hierarchy, never spoken but fully acknowledged. And then there were different groupings, separate and more or less equal. Ward politics. The Church. City Hall. The cops. International relations I learned in the kitchen. (Recollections 57)

di Prima identifies the implications of the messages women receive about love, power, and relationships in the home. She draws attention to the processes by which women internalize family power dynamics. For instance, when questioning why she relented to pressures to have an abortion, she asks: “What could I expect? Had I ever seen a woman treated well? Treated as she should be? Not in my home, certainly, not among my parents, or their relatives, or their friends. Not among my own friends, in their various modes of coupling. No room to speak truth. For the woman to speak her truth and be heard. And be safe” (Recollections 237). di Prima centers her own narrative within a broader indictment of systemic inequality. Her feminist rhetoric encourages us to reflect on the power dynamics in which we were raised as a strategy for recognizing and fighting against the oppressive power structures of social and cultural institutions.

di Prima enacts a critical subjectivity that “places material experience…at the center of knowledge formation” (Ronald and Ritchie 11). For instance, di Prima reflects on her own experiences with marriage and polyamorous relationships to criticize the patriarchal institution of marriage. She describes her marriage as a “contractual marriage” she was forced to agree to out of necessity (Recollections 336). She reflects on the sacrifices she made to conform to the wife role:

I had figured into that equation some acknowledgement of the freedoms I’d given up. Some respect for the woman/artist I was, and some gratitude for coming to meet this man halfway. None of these things was forthcoming, and I knew better than to feel sorry for myself. I had hardly been married two months before I knew I had made a mistake—shouldn’t have gotten into this at all. (di Prima, Recollections 336)

In these realizations, di Prima claims an agency not afforded to her in the moments she reflects on. She offers readers of the day a rare glimpse into the processes by which patriarchy becomes ingrained in women’s lives, hearts, and minds.

Her memories serve as conduits for her feminist resistance. This is a common characteristic of feminist rhetoric, in that “knowledge based in the personal, in lived experience, [is] valued and accepted as important and significant” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 59). di Prima’s narrative is in itself a feminist rhetorical strategy, in that she uses it to intervene within normative narratives of womanhood and the nuclear family. In an analysis of di Prima’s memoirs, Roseanne Quinn identifies her most important feminist act as “dar[ing] to write about herself in the first place” (176). Upon reading the book, critic Grace Paley described Recollections as “about a woman who really retained her own powers, a woman determined to live the way she wanted to live—and that was it” (qtd. in di Prima, Recollections, “Praise for Recollections of My Life as a Woman”). As feminist rhetorical scholars have long acknowledged, for women rhetors, the act of self-expression is an act of resistance. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell describes feminist rhetoric as a “process of persuading listeners that they can act effectively in the world” (86). di Prima employs her subjective experience to claim a self-authored identity and way of being free from the patriarchal and heteronormative gender constructs of the 1950s and ’60s.

For example, di Prima ruminates on her decision to defy dominant beauty standards and expectations of femininity. She cites her sexual and creative exploration as enabling her to identify and resist society’s attempts to regulate her voice and body. She writes:

It was about this time I made what I thought of as my decision not to be beautiful…. I had watched the burden that beauty was for the women and girls around me…. Watched how they were watched, both by friends and lovers, so that they were not seen, not truly presences, but the painting, movie, statue of someone’s dreams. A piece of the furnishings…. no matter how truly they were loved, there were truly never loved. (Recollections 114-15)

In writing through her experiences and observations, di Prima offers a broader critique of the male gaze and how it impacts every aspect of women’s lives. She draws attention to this issue while also modeling strategies for enacting self-authored beauty standards. This critical subjectivity is also evident in her reflections on becoming a mother. di Prima builds upon her own struggles with balancing the demands of motherhood and work to indict the lack of support available to working and single mothers: “The woman who is charged with manslaughter when she leaves her child alone to go to work, to go to the store or the doctor and the house burns down, is doing what she has done a thousand times before, what she has had to do, in a world, a society that leaves her no options. I saw this now. It was the beginning, for me, of a new kind of radicalization” (Recollections 178). In both examples, di Prima uses her experiences as a platform for feminist critique of the social and political structures that stifle women’s agency. This theme of the impossible choice with which women are presented—to conform and surrender autonomy or to resist and be alienated from the power structures that often determine women’s well-being and success—recurs throughout di Prima’s work and illustrates her engagement with critical subjectivity as a feminist rhetorical strategy.

Within the first few scenes of Recollections, she articulates the feminist motivations of her work: “I write this book to try to understand what messages I got about being a woman. What that is. How to do it. Or get through it. Or bear it. Or sparkle like ice underfoot” (26-7). di Prima recognizes her personal experience as a vehicle for feminist critique and rhetorical agency. She dwells in her subjectivity as space for critical thought, and potentially social action. In their foundational essay, Lisa Ede, Cheryl Glenn, and Andrea Lunsford identify the mobilization of memory towards critique as a characteristic of feminist rhetoric:

From a feminist vantage point, however, it is impossible to take the subjectivity of the rhetor for granted, impossible not to locate that subjectivity within the larger context of personal, social, economic, cultural, and ideological forces, impossible not to notice not only the context itself, but also who is absent from this context as well as what exclusionary forces are at work there. (59)

Similarly, di Prima’s work centers her subjectivity as her primary rhetorical strategy for engaging in feminist critique. By sharing her experiences trying to reconcile what it means to be a woman, what is expected of her, and how she can thwart such expectations, di Prima locates a pathway to agency.

Rewriting Patriarchal Gender Roles

If di Prima has taught me anything, it’s that things are always more complex than they seem. Every time I think I have a certain claim, I read something that contradicts it. My impulse is frustration, but I realize how pompous that is. This impulse becomes something I must remember to store in the locker with my other belongings before entering the archives.

di Prima’s feminist rhetoric constellates around her reflections on her development as a woman and the obstacles she faced in shedding the expectations of femininity and submissiveness ingrained in her as a child. In Recollections, she writes:

Part of the bind was/is that it is “wrong” for women to control. To try to control, though the instinct is biological. To get a little peace. “Don’t be teacheretical” my parents would say. “You want everything your way.” When I got older, what I heard from lovers, was that I was a controlling or castrating bitch. But—the assault was universal and ceaseless. You would have had to be dead not to try to stop it for a minute. (di Prima 41)

di Prima describes her experiences fighting against the common stereotypes often ascribed to strong, outspoken women. She offers a glimpse into the complicated and impossible choices women are faced with when fighting to write their own narratives. A key element of di Prima’s expose of the material realities of women’s inescapable “bind” is her subversion of the dutiful wife role women were largely expected to fill in the 1950s and ’60s.

As established, di Prima rejected the patriarchal institution of marriage, positing the wife role as stifling and inauthentic to true agency (Mortenson 36). She channels the Beat individualism and her own narrative to depict women as more than merely an extension of their male counterparts. Characterizing marriage as a mechanism of the patriarchy, di Prima narrativizes the material and affective experiences of women subjected to oppressive gender roles in her poem, “City Winter” (1975). She describes marriage as a jail cell:

I know I am trapped here

in my high, little room

behind the shadow of my husband

and his lovers

taking their ease in the front room

playing the phonograph

I am held here by the shouts of the children

the baby. (192)

As the narrator, di Prima assumes the wife role, describing her prison to the reader in first person. She breaks the illusions of domestic bliss with which marriage is often colored in the 1950s and ’60s. She pushes readers to experience the narrator’s feelings, mobilizing affect into feminist critique.

In “Learn to Drive Blues” (1975), di Prima criticizes normative expectations of the wife’s role in a more upbeat and playful tone. As the narrator, she embodies a female character who refuses to be subservient to her husband; a character that encourages other women to also avoid the oppressive nature of unequal marriages. She talks directly to the reader, “Well, if you ever get an old man who won’t let you sing & shout / Baby then you’ll find out, just what the blues is all about / Well, I love you babe, but I ain’t gonna sell my soul” (303). In addition to highlighting the consequences of domesticity, she showcases women characters who refuse to relent and live within the constraints of gender norms.  In both poems, and across her work, di Prima crafts an alternative to conventional marriage, one in which the woman can both love and be loved, can be both a loving partner and a self-determined woman.

A central characteristic of di Prima’s feminist rhetoric is the complexity with which she frames this alternative. In addition to imagining women characters that both do and do not resist patriarchal subjugation, di Prima shares memories of real women living and loving alternatively. After reflecting on the problematic messages she received about women’s power growing up, she points to women she met once leaving home as models for the autonomous lifestyle she longed for and later actualized. In the introductory scenes of Recollections, she reflects on what those women meant to her:

I thought of deep gratitude of some of the women I met when I first left home at the age of eighteen: those beautiful, soft, and strong women of middle age with their young daughters who made me welcome in their various homes…. These women, by now mostly dead I suppose, were great pioneers. They are nameless to me, nameless and brief friends I encountered along the way who showed me something else was possible besides what I had seen at home. (di Prima 5)

Later in the memoir, she refers to these women as those who “didn’t dream of marriage, or a dinette set, [who] gave their love where they wished, with no hidden agenda” (Recollections 265). Throughout her critique of marriage, and more broadly of restrictive gender roles, di Prima does not prescribe to one representation of what agency or empowerment looks like. In this, she continues to enact the feminist rhetorical agenda to revise normative narratives of women’s lived experiences.

Authentic/Alternative Sexual Representations

One of the most recognized aspects of di Prima’s feminist critique is her celebration of alternative sexualities. In writing about sex with the same abandon as the male Beats, di Prima rebels against the post-WWII generation’s grief and preoccupation with the nuclear family. Her sexual experiences afford her an outlet for self-authored agency. di Prima’s disruptive style is palpable in her poem, “To the Patriarchs” (1971), in which she personifies female sexuality as a wrathful, goddess-like entity who threatens the reader:

My hips

haven & fort

place where I stand

& from which I fight

My cunt a bomb exploding

yr Christian conscience

The shock waves of my pleasure


all future shock forever. (317)

di Prima uses her sexuality to shock readers. She repurposes the mysterious and sometimes dangerous representations of women’s sexuality as a source of revision and empowerment. In the world she creates, a woman’s sexuality is generative and galvanizing, rather than dangerous or submissive.

Similarly, in Recollections, di Prima shares her homosexual and polyamorous experiences as a social commentary on the oppressive systems that prevented her and her peers from expressing their authentic sexual identities. She blends her memories with social critique that reminds the reader of the inherent risks she and her peers endured to live and love freely. In fact, she explicitly recognizes her alternative lifestyle as a broader act of resistance to the status quo, writing:

…there was no reason, per se, to obey the laws of the land. We simply assumed we were being lied to again. The laws of the land were a hodgepodge of prejudice, fear, and bigotry. That much was clear. Homosexuality was illegal. It was illegal in many states to experiment in your own bed with your own ‘legal’ partner…. The dance we had all performed to keep parents and the law from ganging up on us when we were teenagers had not been lost on us. Nor had we forgotten the many friends who had disappeared: madhouses, deportation. (Recollections 203)

She acknowledges her writing as a critical rhetorical act that exposes the material realities of sexist and heteronormative logics. In contextualizing her rebellion, di Prima employs her feminist critique to “(re)write the past and the present…[and] to draw attention to gendered actions, biases and assumptions as well as the accompanying inequities of power” (Ratcliffe 7). Her seemingly personal narratives, in this way, become outlets for a political consciousness that gives way to feminist critique.

di Prima’s resistance to dominant characterizations of a woman’s sexuality as dangerous or perverse is most evident in her erotic memoir, Memoirs of a Beatnik. She begins Memoirs by reflecting on her first time having intercourse as a sort of awakening, as she “enter[ed] the world of the living” (22). In the remainder of the book, she describes her sexual experiences with men and women over the course of a year while living in the “pad,” a commune living-style apartment in New York City. An intertextual mix of memory and fiction, Memoirs defies genre conventions (Carden, “‘What You”). di Prima plays with fact and fiction to deconstruct and circumvent readers’ expectations of how a woman should write about sex. In other words, she mobilizes the stereotype of promiscuity often associated with women like her to enact her rhetorical agency. di Prima’s explicit language and style “violate oppressive conventions of the feminine,” which dictated that “conventional women, good girls, are not supposed to hear or speak these words” (Johnson 103). In both the content and form of Memoirs, she blurs normative boundaries between the public and private, enacting a feminist rhetoric that reflects “the material embodiment of the relationships among self, text, and world” (Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford 64). Considering the common stigmatization of women’s sexuality at the time, narrating sex from a woman’s perspective was—and still is—a feminist rhetorical act. Roseanne Quinn recognizes this, identifying Memoirs as “an early example from the women’s movement of…a sex-positive narrative” (189). di Prima goes beyond just talking about sex from a woman’s perspective to use her critical subjectivity to reveal and indict the patriarchal systems that repress women’s nonheteronormative sexual expressions.

In reflecting on her time at the “pad,” she lists the benefits of her polyamorous approach to sex and love: “light and freedom, air and laughter, the outside world—outside of the stuffy incestuous atmosphere of her ‘family life’…. laughter, the silliness and glee unscrutinized, one’s blood running strong and red in ones’ own veins, not drawn to feed the uneradicable grief of the preceding generation” (di Prima, Memoirs 72). di Prima posits sexual freedom as a conduit for her agency, much like many women’s liberation rhetorics at the time. Feminist critic Estelle Freedman notes that during this time, “explorations of female passion proliferated as feminists attempted to redefine sexual empowerment” (xvii-iii). She claims her autonomy as a woman in control of her alternative sexuality. Furthermore, di Prima presents sexual liberation as an exercise in collective resistance, a unity in difference, in a refusal to love according to social prescriptions. Her representation of a woman’s self-determined sexuality is a cornerstone of her feminist rhetoric. In fact, she has often been identified as one of the “heroic precursors” of the women’s liberation movement (Libby 46). Sharing realistic representations of a woman’s sexuality enabled di Prima to both critique sexual norms and carve a place for feminist rhetorical elements within male centric Beat literature. By bringing her own sexuality and sexual experiences to the forefront, di Prima espouses a feminist rhetoric that is meant to disrupt social conventions that portray female sexuality as bad, dirty, or wrong. She positions herself as a woman who possesses “an actual body, with body parts, and bodily functions and pleasures” (Quinn 178-179). In claiming her own “sexual power,” di Prima exposes readers to depictions of women as sexual beings (Memoirs 33). She flips the tropes common in male-authored sex scenes to center a woman’s affective experience and control.

In claiming a space for her own sexual expression, di Prima also draws attention to the biased nature with which women’s sexually explicit work is received. Memoirs was poorly received and branded as vulgar upon its initial release because of its explicit content and style. Unlike the sexually explicit, male-authored Beat novels, di Prima received much criticism for Memoirs. Some criticized the book as “pornographic” and as having “too many sex scenes” (McNamara qtd. in Dumaine). One reviewer cited the openness of di Prima’s sexual expression to invalidate feminist movements of the time. For instance, literary critic Steve Haines wrote, “If you read it, you’ll probably wonder if most of the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement would really like to be as uninhibited as Diane di Prima” (qtd. in Dumaine). One of the most common responses to Memoirs was criticism of di Prima’s fictionalization of sexual scenes and partners (Carden, “‘What You”), something she makes explicit in the book with section titles like, “A Night by the Fire: What You Would Like to Hear” (148) followed by “A Night by the Fire: What Actually Happened” (150). While male Beat authors, like Kerouac, were praised for their blending of memory and fiction, di Prima’s credibility and perspective were questioned for employing the same artistic freedoms. Her male lovers are objects of her desire and in her dominance over them, she counters male-authored representations of women’s sexuality. Literary critic, Michael Davidson describes di Prima’s confrontational style as “appropriating the coercive rhetoric of the masculine tradition and using it against itself” (qtd. in Charters 359). di Prima uses her disruptive style as a feminist rhetorical strategy (Campbell; Ede, Glenn, Lunsford) to chronicle her affective journey to sexual liberation. By sharing this journey, her narrative communicates the potential for fulfillment through alternative and self-determined sexualities that fall outside of accepted norms. The Beat movement is often associated with sexual freedom and the defiance of gender norms. Yet, di Prima’s work—and its reception—highlights the one-dimensional, and often misogynistic, representation of sexual expression within its canon.

Embracing the multiplicity of experience that feminist rhetoric affords, di Prima depicts her path to self-awareness through sex as a complicated process punctuated with moments of uncertainty. She shares experiences in which she succumbed to unwanted sexual advances and relented to the sexual roles to which her male lovers expected her to conform. di Prima describes her sexuality as simultaneously empowering and objectifying. For example, interwoven within free sex vignettes, she describes being sexually assaulted:

But he was too quick, and caught me around the waist at the same time jerking my pants, which he had unzipped while I was sleeping, down around my legs. I struggled silently to free myself, all the time thinking unbelievingly that this was rape, that I was about to be raped… And my fear and horror seemed ridiculous. This was Serge…who never got to screw his wife, and if he wanted to throw a fuck into me, why I might as well let him…. Anyway, it didn’t seem that I had much choice. (Memoirs 68)

In sharing this experience, di Prima resists creating her own tropes of sexual freedom removed from gendered power dynamics. She reminds the reader that, even within this alternative and open atmosphere she and her peers build together at the “pad,” sexual violence and women’s subjugation is ever present. Later in Memoirs, she reflects on how the patriarchy bled into even the most alternative of her relationships. While in a polyamorous relationship with two men, di Prima finds herself relegated to normative gender roles: “I lost myself in my new-found woman’s role, the position defined and revealed by my sex: the baking and mending, the mothering and fucking, the girls’ parts in the plays—and I was content. But slowly, imperceptibly, the days began to shorten, the grass turned brown” (Memoirs 110). Unsure at the time what caused her malaise, di Prima reclaims an agency in this reflection, as she narrates the constant struggle to resist gender norms. She reminds us that resistance to patriarchy and heteronormativity is a recursive and complex process.

Throughout Memoirs, di Prima interweaves asides and social critiques between erotic scenes. She breaks narration with the section titled, “Fuck the Pill: A Digression,” in which she criticizes the common perception of the birth control pill as granting women sexual freedom. Contradicting many feminists at the time, she describes the pill as another impossible choice with which sexually active women are faced. Sharing her and her women friends’ experiences with the hormonal effects of the pill, including a reduced libido, di Prima identifies it as another tool of control over women’s sexuality. As she puts, the pill made “women who finally achieved the full freedom to fuck, much less likely to want to fuck” (di Prima, Memoirs 105). di Prima recenters the narrative of the pill through women’s lived experiences. In “Goodbye, ‘Post-pill Paradise:’ Texturing Feminist Public Memories of Women’s Reproductive and Rhetorical Agency,” Heather Adams analyzes “non-nuanced…retrospectives on the emergence of the pill,” calling for more complex histories of the pill authored by women (391). Adams identifies narratives like di Prima’s as “feminist interventions” that “trouble and texture remembrance to enrich feminism’s stories of agency and liberation” (411). di Prima counters dominant representations of the pill, therein contributing to a more multi-faceted representation of women’s sexuality. The complexity with which di Prima represents women’s sexual freedom is often overlooked in critical and scholarly receptions of Memoirs. The explicitness with which di Prima describes the erotic scenes is an important means by which she resists sexual norms and enacts rhetorical agency. However, her feminist rhetoric is most palpable in her representation of women’s sexual freedom as a perpetual negotiation between personal desire and societal expectations.

Feminist Circulations

Through both her writing and participation in activist networks, di Prima engages circulation as a feminist rhetorical strategy to raise consciousness of women’s rhetorics and disseminate rhetorics of social change. A common theme across her work is the woman artist’s affective struggle for rhetorical agency.  For example, in Recollections, she recalls an epiphany she experienced after taking part in a women’s writing retreat:

For the first time, I saw the chaos in the actual process manifesting, and I questioned whether indeed [the creative process] was “crazy” or only a particular part of our dilemma as women artists. If one persisted, what to do with the work? How to carve a niche for it, if one doesn’t have access to galleries, to publishing houses? How to make a place if one doesn’t speak the language of the critic? (di Prima 198)

Through kinship with fellow women writers, she achieves a critical subjectivity that she then mobilizes towards criticism of women’s exclusion from public platforms. She models a rhetorical agency and feminist resistance possible through subjective expression. She offers affective solidarity to fellow women and feminist rhetors (Hemmings, “Affective”), contributing to the social circulation of their work and writing processes (Royster and Kirsch).

Some of the most notable of this work includes her time with the Diggers, a group of activist artists that supported homeless youth in San Francisco (Fitzpatrick); her co-founding of the Poets Press, which published writers like Audre Lorde; and her engagement in Vietnam War protests (“In Memoriam”). From 1961-1971, di Prima served as co-editor of The Floating Bear with LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). The Bear was a newsletter that published editorials, socially critical poems, short stories, and more, and was shared with authors and activists selected by the editors. di Prima was arrested in 1961 on a “trafficking in obscene matter” charge after publishing Issue #9 of The Floating Bear, which contained homoerotic material. Issue #20 of The Floating Bear (1962) includes an editorial, in which di Prima and Jones reaffirm their decision to protect the homosexual identities of mailing list members when pressed by the FBI during trial (di Prima and Jones). Included in the SU archives is a 1961 press release authored by di Prima and Jones just after their arrest, in which they state:

It has long been the contention of artists and intellectuals that neither the government nor any of its agencies are qualified to judge what is literature or art and what is pornography…. [our case is] a defense of the artist’s sovereignty…. If The Bear loses this case, it is not fantastic to say that there will be repercussions throughout the literary world. It would be an ugly precedent that would affect not only an entire generation of writers just breaking into print, but a great many other writers whose works a rust now being published in this country because of older censorship laws. This must not happen. (Jones and di Prima)

di Prima commits to freedom of expression in both her writing and actions. She models rhetorical agency in her work while fighting for marginalized artists’ access to public platforms, furthering the circulation of feminist and social justice rhetorics. Her critique of censorship is also seen in a 1990 memo she wrote to the Interface Holistic Education Center, in which di Prima defends her women students’ writing and criticizes the institution’s harassment policy, which “forbode sexual language.” She writes: “Having myself grown up in a period where the refusal to sign a loyalty oath was an inflammatory matter, I find myself perhaps super-sensitive to this kind of thing…. But I find the list of verbally forbidden material to be somewhat inhibitory, and am certain I do not want to subject any students of mine to such considerations” (di Prima, Memo). In these examples, di Prima both engages in and defends feminist critique. As established, writing about alternative sexualities during this time was an act of feminist critique. In addition, di Prima calls out the structures that perpetuate—and the consequences of—the censorship of feminist rhetoric. These artifacts only begin to demonstrate di Prima’s participation in activist networks, as they do not capture her work in coalition building for a myriad of civil and equal rights issues throughout her lifetime. Yet, they serve as evidence of her engagement in feminist circulation, and her ethos as a feminist rhetor deserving of recovery and recognition.

“Tacking Out”[4]

With di Prima’s passing, the original frustration that fueled my recovery of her work burns hotter. Even with all she accomplished, she remains in the shadow of male authors. The first line of her New York Times obituary reads: “She traveled in the circles of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti” (Genzlinger). This infuriates me.

In concluding this article, old feelings of paralysis and doubt return, as I recall the many artifacts and claims I have not included. I overcome this feeling by thinking of the countless images from my time at the archives that wait patiently in a desktop folder for my return and the archives I have yet to visit. It goes without saying that a recovery project like this warrants much more than an article-length inquiry. di Prima’s reflection on her Italian American heritage, for instance, is a key element of her feminist critique that I do not adequately address in this article and that I hope to investigate further. For example, Quinn identifies the intersectional  nature of di Prima’s work (Crenshaw): “The strength of di Prima’s voice is the way in which she persists in offering an ongoing feminist analysis of her sense of Italian American femaleness which began amid reaction to family, and was reinforced by both anti-Italian social sentiment and enduring patriarchal intrusion” (187). In this way, her work draws attention to the fact that a struggle against the patriarchy is also one against racism and white supremacy. In centering her Italian American heritage, di Prima complicates one-dimensional narratives of women’s lived experiences. More broadly, this project raises questions about other perspectives excluded from the Beat canon and the value in recovering their contributions to a widely celebrated and studied literary movement predicated on the appropriation of Black culture.

di Prima’s recovery as a feminist rhetor is important work. Yet, the contributions of this project go beyond recovery alone. For instance, di Prima’s unique blending of memory, fiction, and social commentary offer innovative lenses for studying genre-meshing social movement rhetorics. Her recovery also provides opportunities to reflect on who is and is not recognized in our rhetorical canons, contributing to what Charlotte Hogg describes as a “reflexivity and clarification as to what and whom we represent” (182). In Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn identifies the field of feminist rhetoric as in “a constate state of response, reassessment, and self-correction” (4). I contribute to this recursive enterprise by extrapolating  di Prima’s feminist rhetorical strategies (Ratcliffe), which, in turn, expands the field’s definition of what feminist rhetoric is and the positionalities, histories, and epistemologies to which we subscribe.

My anger feels generative now; there is much work to be done.


[1]di Prima’s last name is often capitalized and without spaces, DiPrima, as that is her family’s legal name. She adopted the lower case “di” and added a space to honor her Italian ancestry (Genzlinger).

[2] My use of the term circulation is most informed by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch’s concept of social circulation presented in Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies.

[3]For instance, see Dworkin, Hemmings’ Why Stories Matter, and Segal. Also see feminist rhetorical studies that position memoir and autobiography as methodologies for expanding patriarchal, Eurocentric models of ethos (Foss and Foss, Reynolds, Ryan, Myers, and Jones’ Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, and Richtie and Ronald’s Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s)). Queer rhetorical studies have also recognized memoir, autobiography, and narrative as vehicles of rhetorical agency (i.e., Bechdel, Cvetkovich, Muñoz, and Sedgewick).

[4] In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Royster and Kirsch describe the process of “tacking in and out” as imperative when conducting ethical rhetorical studies. “Tacking out” encourages the researcher to take a step back from the work to “broaden…viewpoints in anticipation of what might become more visible from a longer or broader view” (72). I model this approach in the conclusion by identifying the areas I have not sufficiently covered in this article, how my research might evolve moving forward, and the contributions of my project to the field of feminist rhetorical studies and other disciplines.

Works Cited


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A Question of Affect: A Queer Reading of Institutional Nondiscrimination Statements at Texas Public Universities

Introduction: Queer Moments in Texas

Being queer in Texas is a curious experience. LGBTQ+ people make up approximately 4.1% of the population—around 770,000 adults and 158,500 youth in 2017 (Mallory et al.). However, until the June 15th, 2020 ruling by the Supreme Court that Title VII protections included LGBTQ+ workers, no state or federal nondiscrimination protections existed for LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas [1]. While some cities had LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination policies in place prior to 2020, these were and remain quite limited. At legislative and institutional levels, Texas has historically been unsympathetic to LGBTQ+ interests, with the state government being particularly hostile to the transgender community in recent years. Additionally, in 2017, Texas ranked thirty-ninth in the nation on public support for LGBTQ+ acceptance and rights, while in 2021, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) State Equality Index, an “annual comprehensive state-by-state report that provides a review of statewide laws and policies that affect LGBTQ+ people and their families,” scored Texas in the lowest-rated category, “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality” (Mallory et al.; HRC Foundation).  

In Texas, as in the twenty-six other states currently lacking statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, what few nondiscrimination protections exist have been tied to where we live and, until recently, where we work. The physical locations of our bodies have been intrinsic to how we experience and navigate the world. Because of this, I had some reservations in 2016, when I received an offer from my current employer, part of a large university system that was simultaneously undergoing a major downward expansion and pursuing Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) designation. While I was considering the offer, I perused the institution’s website, only to discover that I couldn’t find the campus nondiscrimination policy anywhere: an immediate red flag for someone who openly identifies as queer. When I asked about it, I was sent a link to the system policy, which suggested to me that the campus nondiscrimination policy was something of an afterthought, despite the large number of minority students that the institution served. In 2016, eighty percent of the inaugural freshman class and seventy percent of the overall student body identified as Hispanic, and seventy-three percent of enrolled students were the first in their families to attend college (University Communications; Office of Institutional Research). As Porter et al. have noted, what is present on (or absent from) an institution’s webpage, reflects that institution’s identity and priorities (620). These websites are part of institutional discourses, which establish institutional identities and practices, and are a means by which institutions legitimize and justify their existence (Mayr 2). If diversity were as important to the institution’s identity as indicated by the designation it sought and by the population it served, why wasn’t the nondiscrimination statement already present on the university’s website, especially as it was undergoing a massive recruitment process for new faculty and its first class of freshmen?  [2]

There is an additional peculiarity to being a queer faculty member at a public institution in Texas, especially one that does queer work: we are often outed by state policy. House Bill No. 2504, originally passed in 2009, requires that public institutions of higher education post the curriculum vitae of each instructor on their websites. CVs must be “accessible from the institution’s…home page by use of not more than three links; searchable by keywords and phrases; and accessible to the public without requiring registration or use of a user name, a password, or another user identification” and list the instructor’s “postsecondary education, teaching experience, and significant professional publications” (“H.B. No. 2504”). For faculty whose work concerns LGBTQ+ themes and issues, this can act as a form of public outing—one that I was not warned about when I was hired.  

These experiences during my hiring, along with being the first openly transgender faculty member on my campus and then co-chair of Rainbow P.A.W.S. (Pride at Work and School), the faculty and staff LGBTQ+ group, led me to further question how institutional policies affect LGBTQ+ individuals at Texas public institutions. These policies are the means through which institutional perceptions of diversity are constructed (Iverson 152), yet perceptions and actual experiences of diversity on campus are very different things. In 2018 alone, Texas public institutions educated approximately 658,219 students, an unknown number of whom may identify as LGBTQ+, as there are approximately 928,500 LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas by current estimates (“Texas Higher Ed Enrollments”; Mallory et al.). For LGBTQ+ students, the campus environment, including institutional policies and programming, “has a direct effect on students’ outcomes and can mediate the effects of [negative] inputs [from the wider culture]” (Woodford, Joslin, and Renn 69). My experience working with LGBTQ+ students bears this out: I’ve often been told that they feel more comfortable being out on campus than anywhere else in their lives, even as they sometimes struggle with system policies and technologies regarding LGBTQ+ identities, such as preferred names and pronouns. Because our students feel safe on campus, it is our obligation to do all that we can to be worthy of that trust: to support them both in and out of the classroom and to revise our institutional policies and practices in ways that reflect our embodied experiences as queer individuals studying, working, and living in the strange and often hostile environment that is the state of Texas. 

The Project 

To answer my questions regarding institutional policies and LGBTQ+ populations, in late 2017 to early 2018, I assembled a corpus of thirty-five nondiscrimination statements from the websites of Texas public universities to analyze them from an LGBTQ+ perspective. I tracked the location of the nondiscrimination statements on each institution’s website, the number of clicks it took from the homepage to access them, whether or not the statements contained any references to gender identity or expression, and related information such as the presence of an LGBTQ+ student group and diversity offices on campus.  

The nondiscrimination statements were often difficult to find—it took me three or more clicks from the homepage to locate the nondiscrimination statements for 13 out of the 35 institutions, and in some cases, I had to run a search in order to find them. They were often inconsistently presented, with different versions of the statements appearing on different pages of the website. This left me wondering what the correct version of the policy was, especially because the differences between these statements generally concerned gender identity and expression—that is, some versions of the statements included them as protected categories, while others did not. The statements themselves proved problematic in a number of ways, which I elaborate upon in my analysis below, and the presence of LGBTQ+ student groups and diversity offices on campus also proved somewhat difficult to confirm. While most institutions had a clearly-named student group, in three instances I couldn’t actually find one, and I could only confirm the presence of twenty diversity offices within the thirty-five institutions I analyzed. 

Based on these findings, grounded in Sara Ahmed’s work on affect and institutional diversity, and drawing on my experiences as an openly-queer person working at a public university in Texas, I argue that nondiscrimination statements at Texas public universities are affective objects which serve as straightening devices on the queer bodies that they affect, even as they purport to and often do protect them. 

I begin my discussion with a brief review of affect, how I conceptualize its relationship to queer bodies and institutions, and how institutional nondiscrimination statements act as straightening devices for queer bodies. Next, I provide a brief overview of Texas public universities before analyzing three different models of nondiscrimination statements that I discovered in my research, which I have dubbed the Equal Opportunity Model, the Discrimination Prohibition Model, and the Additional Model. I also analyze the presence and absence of gender identity and gender expression statements as part of these nondiscrimination statements and conclude with a few suggestions for how these statements might be improved.  

These statements can only be improved; they cannot truly be fixed, especially not by those tasked with writing revisions to these policies. The goals of my critique are twofold: to support the work of those tasked with writing revisions to these policies by offering a few practical suggestions to allow for greater enforcement of the nondiscrimination practices that these policies espouse and to encourage further reflection on the creation, implementation, and maintenance of these policies in light of their status as living documents which have real, material consequences for the LGBTQ+ individuals who live, learn, and work in our institutions.

Affect, Ahmed, and Objects 

Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth describe affect as “aris[ing] in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon…found in those intensities that pass body to body…in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1, emphasis in orig.). Affect occurs between bodies, between moments, between words. Sara Ahmed describes “Affect [as] contact: we are affected by “what” we come in contact with” (Queer Phenomenology 2). Affect is fluid, changeable, sticky, embodied: there is something inherently queer in its unsettledness, in its action, its permanently fleeting state. Affect exists “in the regularly hidden-in-plain sight politically engaged work…that attends to the hard and fast materialities, as well as the fleeting and flowing ephemera, of the daily and the workaday, of everyday and every-night life, and of ‘experience’” (Gregg and Seigworth 7). That is the work of this project—to consider the implications and absences of documents that are generally considered mundane matters of legal and political necessity and the bodies that they affect.  

The nondiscrimination documents and diversity discourses of our institutions circle about, between, and stick to bodies like mine, which need nondiscrimination protections due to the historical failure of state and national governments to create or enforce such protections. For example, the 2020 Supreme Court Title VII ruling only applies to employment discrimination, after all. In Texas, we dwell in a “legal landscape and social climate… [that] likely contributes to an environment in which LGBT people experience stigma and discrimination [which] can take many forms, including discrimination and harassment in employment and other settings; bullying and family rejection of LGBT youth; overrepresentation in the criminal justice system; and violence” (Mallory et al.). All of this affects us in physical, material ways. The first real moment of affect between myself and my institution occurred because of the simultaneous presence/absence of the nondiscrimination statement on the university homepage, which was materially tied to both my queer body and the institution’s body, as the administration was attempting to recruit me to it. This affective relationship continues to this day, as I am visibly out on campus in a number of ways, including through my publicly-posted CV, my work with Rainbow P.A.W.S., the pronouns and title that I use, and my office (a visible representation of my place at the university, a place where my queer body can regularly be found), awash in varying shades of rainbow. This visibility is both involuntary and voluntary, and carefully negotiated: my way of navigating through the “working closet,”[3] heavily impacted by the federal, state, and institutional policies and discourses that affect how I experience the world. 

These institutional policies, discourses, and nondiscrimination statements are affective objects. “Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 29, emphasis mine). Institutional nondiscrimination statements address the idea of legal protections for marginalized people based on the institution’s espoused values, and the object(s) of these ideas and values are the bodies of those affected by them. As affective objects, nondiscrimination statements are “imbued with positive affect” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 34). They are “sticky because they are already attributed as being good or bad, as being the cause of happiness or unhappiness” (Ahmed, “Happy Objects” 35). While institutional artefacts such as nondiscrimination statements’ diversity policies are ostensibly “good” objects, they do not always serve the needs of the populations they purport to protect, as scholars in disability studies such as Stephanie Kerschbaum and Robert McRuer have discussed.[4]  

Through embodied experiences with these policies, we may “become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are already attributed as being good,” a process which Ahmed describes in 2012’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (37). The diversity workers she interviewed reported feelings of alienation and isolation in doing their work: continually running into the “brick wall” of the belief that doing diversity work meant professing diversity, rather than taking material action to create more equitable institutions (174-175). Nondiscrimination statements and diversity policies are objects through which institutions can profess diversity, and these objects are good because they are doing diversity work. Through my critique of these “good” affective objects, I become one of Ahmed’s affect aliens, because critiquing these documents means critiquing the institution itself and its good intentions.[5] 

I am affected by these objects, surrounded by them, and in a position to analyze and evaluate them because of my queer bodythey are stuck to me. Yet it is not on me to solve the problems with these objects—I am solely here to “queer the discourse of diversity,” to borrow Liz Morrish and Kathleen O’Mara’s phrasing. It is, after all, “not up to queers to disorientate straights… disorientation [can be] an effect of how we do politics, which in turn is shaped by the prior matter of simply how we live” – through embodiment and experience (Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 177). My job is not to fix the problem; instead, it is to explain how and why it is a problem. As the former co-chair and current secretary of Rainbow P.A.W.S., formerly the LGBTQ+ Task Force at our campus, my duty entails problematizing things for my institution to encourage changes that will positively affect myself and the other queer folx on campus.[6]  

Institutional Nondiscrimination Statements as Straightening Devices 

Diversity, as defined by institutional discourses, is something that is brought to the institution by individual students, staff, and faculty, which contributes to the greater good (Urciuoli 165). Institutional policies frame diversity as “a goal to work toward or a commodity to accumulate” (Kerschbaum 25-26) such that diversity becomes “a marketable signifier—its invocation masquerades as the cultural capital of the university, to be bestowed on all who tread within its walls and resonating with the promise of corporate success” (Morrish and O’Mara 978). Minority bodies, including queer ones, are the means by which the institution “becomes diverse.” Institutional diversity documents such as nondiscrimination statements, diversity policies, and Safe Space stickers frequently become the instruments of this commodification, framing diverse bodies as objects for institutions to acquire and display. [7]  

These documents have historically acted as straightening devices and they continue to do so. They serve to enfold an ill-fitting body (one that is non-normative according to the cultures of the institution, one that is queer) into the institution. As Roderick Ferguson explains, “From the social movements of the fifties and sixties until the present day, networks of power have attempted to work through and with minority difference and culture, trying to redirect originally insurgent formations and deliver them to the normative ideals and protocols of state, capital, and academy” (8). Title VII and Title IX, the legal documents that created the precedent for present-day nondiscrimination statements, are the direct result of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s and underwent the same process of normativity. Just as the revolutionary student movements of the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation of ethnic, women’s, and queer studies departments within the academy, folding them into the institution’s power and body, institutional nondiscrimination statements both provide support for and act to straighten minority students, staff, and faculty, aligning them with the whole. Or, as Ahmed puts it, “One fits, and in the act of fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view” (Queer Phenomenology 134). Individuals like myself—nonbinary, asexual, and aromantic—frequently disappear even from queer conversations; by becoming part of the institution’s body, we may as well not exist at all. 

This history of straightening is present in the structure of the nondiscrimination statements I analyzed, which frequently echo the wording of both Title VII and Title IX. Title VII reads “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual…because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” (“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”). Title IX, passed in 1972, reads “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (“Title IX and Sex Discrimination”). Although these laws were originally intended to address only issues of sex and racial discrimination in education and employment, they have since been interpreted more broadly, most recently in favor of protections for LGBTQ+ workers, as of June 15th, 2020. 

Derived from these laws, universities have developed individual nondiscrimination statements that both comply with the law and establish institutional attitudes towards diversity. However, as Ahmed explains, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This ‘not translation’ is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality,” a gap which those of us who are LGBTQ+ on campus frequently experience (Living a Feminist Life 90). Once, I was dropping off flyers advertising one of our Safe Space sessions to the secretary of a department not my own and explained that this was training to help support our LGBTQ+ students. The person to whom I was speaking replied, “what’s that?” This moment of affect impacted my body on a physical level—for a moment, I literally couldn’t process what I was hearing; I was so dumbfounded by the idea that someone didn’t know what the LGBTQ+ acronym meant. This was not-translation in a literal sense: at that moment of exchange, we were speaking two different languages.  

Although generally in a less literal form than this example, nondiscrimination statements can become the means through which this “not translation” occurs, particularly because they serve as a one-size-fits-all solution to the inherently personal problem of discrimination on campus. The issues I face on campus as a white, DFAB,[8] mostly-abled, agender individual, are quite different than those of my cisgender, heterosexual, Black best friend, a Jamaican immigrant who is also a lecturer in our program, yet the same nondiscrimination statement is ostensibly meant to protect us both, even though our needs and experiences are very different. 

Symbolic commitments to diversity are not enough for people who are affected by these statements, whose responses to these documents and discourses are inherently personal and embodied. Creating these documents is not enough: we must critique, revise, and continually adapt them to better serve the needs of both our students and ourselves. 

An Overview of Texas Public Institutions 

Texas has six public university systems: the A&M system (eleven institutions), the University of Texas system (eight institutions, six medical centers), the University of Houston system (four institutions), the University of North Texas system (two institutions, two medical centers), the loosely-affiliated Texas State system (four institutions), and the Texas Tech system (two institutions, two medical centers). There are four independent public universities: Midwestern State University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas Southern University, and Texas Woman’s University. 

As I reviewed each institution’s website, I encountered three general models of nondiscrimination statements: one focused on equal opportunity, one focused on prohibiting discrimination, and a third model, which was a variation on the other two. In all cases, Title VII and Title IX defined the list of protected classes included in these statements, and institutions frequently included additional protected classes that were at the time not yet defined by law: sexual orientation, gender identity, and occasionally gender expression. While some of these nondiscrimination statements have been updated since the time of data collection, many remain the same. 

Diversity Statement Model 1: Equal Opportunity Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] provides/will provide equal opportunity without regard to/regardless of [list of protected classes].” 

Table 1: Institutions using the Equal Opportunity Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Equal Opportunity Model 
Texas A&M  11  8 
University of Houston  4  4 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  2 
Midwestern State University (Independent)  1  1 

This form of nondiscrimination statement is framed in a positive manner, based on providing equal opportunity to all, rather than on forbidding unlawful employment practices. This model is perhaps the simplest and most positively phrased, and thus the most politically neutral; rather than defining any sort of prohibition, it only promises that “equal opportunity” will be afforded to traditionally marginalized groups. This phrasing obfuscates the actual legal obligations of the institution in terms of protecting marginalized bodies and does not offer explicit protections for those that it affects. It also fails to define any prohibitions against discrimination, though these may be described elsewhere in other policy documents.  

The phrasing of this form of nondiscrimination statement raises a number of questions. How is “equal opportunity” defined at the institution? How does one provide evidence that they have not been offered an equal opportunity as someone else? In such cases one must out themself to administrators, much as disabled individuals must when requesting legally-required accommodations, an institutional practice which disability studies scholars have described as “a bureaucratic act further perpetuating different manifestations of institutionalized discrimination” (Carrol-Miranda 281). 

Further questions arise when we consider the issue of embodiment: what does equal opportunity without regard to or regardless of identity mean? I am a queer faculty member, doing queer work at my institution. My ability to do this work is intrinsically tied to my identity; it affects my experiences, my teaching and service and scholarship—so what does it mean if my experiences and knowledge go without regard? For scholars focused on identity—scholars of color, queer scholars, feminist scholars, disabled scholars—our work is intrinsically tied to our embodied experiences of the world. If a position arises that is connected to issues of identity, should it truly be an opportunity that is offered equally to all? Several years ago, our then-named LGBTQ+ Task Force collectively decided that at least one queer individual needed to serve as co-chair of the committee at all times. Was this an equal opportunity? Should it have been one? 

These questions are theoretical until the moment that these policies affect someone, affect their embodied experience of the world, and connect (or disconnect) them from the body of their institution.  

Institutional nondiscrimination statements affect bodies: they serve as a form of straightening device by enfolding disparate groups together and putting them together under the shared umbrella of diversity, eliding the differences between them. The marginalized members of diverse groups, with different needs and experiences, are offered “equal opportunity,” a vague term which is assumed to address all these disparate needs. And what of intersectionality? Many institutions will happily tout their diversity credentials while their campuses remain inaccessible for anyone with a physical disability: I once spent a semester on crutches, unable to access my department, located on the third floor of a building with no elevator. Although my classes were relocated to buildings with elevator access, I was once asked if I could hobble up the stairs to the third floor to make it to a class that had been rescheduled.[9] Another time, a fire drill occurred while I was on the fourth floor of the library. The elevators had been shut down, and while I stood there, presumably burning to death, I had some pointed questions for the building staff about evacuation plans for the disabled. Their answer was a politely baffled silence. 

These issues had nothing to do with my queerness, but everything to do with my body: non-normative, affected once again by institutional policies that didn’t account for me. What is “equal” about that? 

In the wording of this model, even the potential for wrongdoing is obfuscated: the institution offers “equal opportunity,” which implies that no discrimination could ever occur, since opportunity is offered equally to all. While this suggests that the institution considers ensuring equal opportunity to be a moral obligation, the fact of the matter is more prosaic: every institution must have policies in place to deal with such situations because they can, do, and will occur, regardless of the good intentions of the creators of such policies. 

Diversity Statement Model 2: Discrimination Prohibition Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] does not discriminate/discrimination is prohibited on the basis of [list of protected classes].” 

Table 2 : Institutions using the Discrimination Prohibition Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Discrimination Prohibition Model 
Texas A&M  11  3 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  1 
University of North Texas  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  4 
Texas State  4  4 
Texas Woman’s University (Independent)  1  1 

 This form of nondiscrimination statement, rather than offering vague promises of equal opportunity, is more explicit about the institution’s legal obligation to prohibit discriminatory practices and bears a stronger resemblance to the phrasing of both Title IX and Title VII than the previous model does. Because of their emphasis on prohibiting discriminatory acts, these nondiscrimination statements seem to have a bit more weight to them. It may be easier to define what counts as a discriminatory act than what counts as “equal opportunity,” given that most institutions have established working definitions for what constitutes discriminatory behavior, usually found on the policy statements page, Title IX, EEO, or HR pages. Likewise, potential consequences of discriminatory behavior are generally explicitly stated within these policies. Because these policies define clearer boundaries, institutional agents may more easily enforce them.  

This model of nondiscrimination statement implies a different sort of protection than the previous one, yet still acts as a form of straightening device for the bodies that it affects. Like the previous model, it provides protection for the institution, keeping it in line with federal requirements, and this increased legal emphasis serves to distance it from the very people that it affects. Likewise, the list of marginalized categories still groups disparate individuals together under the same ill-fitting umbrella. One major difference between this and the previous model, however, is that the increased legalese of the phrasing implies that protections for marginalized populations are a legal obligation for institutions, rather than a moral one. 

However, these legal protections have their limits. While an institution may prohibit discrimination, the people who are part of the institution are often the ones who commit discriminatory acts, whose words and actions have physical and material consequences for the LGBTQ+ population on campus. Legal protections can do very little when the perpetrators of such actions cannot be found. When I was initially collecting the data for this project, the Coalition, the student LGBTQ+ group, hosted Drag Show Loteria as part of Coming Out Week and posted flyers around campus advertising the event. Several of these posters were defaced by persons unknown—an act of clear anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, but one which went unpunished because there was no mechanism for tracking down the vandals and applying the appropriate sanctions, as A&M system policy states that discrimination is “a materially adverse action or actions that intentionally or unintentionally excludes one from full participation in, denies the benefits of, or affects the terms and conditions of employment or access to educational or institutional programs” (“System Regulation 08.01.01, Civil Rights Compliance”). An act of vandalism such as this, while clearly a discriminatory action—one that had a significant negative affect on the Coalition members who had to deal with the situation, one which was intended to make them feel unwelcome and potentially concerned about their physical safety while on campus—may not be considered as such per system policy.  

This is precisely the problem with documents that focus on the legal issue of discrimination: they may not be enforceable given institutional policies and structures, and they provide little to no guidance on how to protect our bodies and work from discrimination coming from nebulous agents within our institutions, to say nothing of those from the outside. In 2020, two virtual public events hosted by our campus were Zoom-bombed by racist groups which played pornographic videos and filled the chat with discriminatory slurs—acts which caused significant distress for participants, acts which, although virtual, affected their feelings of safety and security at our institution. In the wake of these incidents, security guidelines for public online events were clarified and strengthened, yet once again, the perpetrators were never caught. 

Diversity Statement Model 3: Additional Model 

Statements in this model were worded as follows: “[Institution] provides equal opportunity/does not discriminate based on [list of federally protected classes]. Additionally, [Institution] does not discriminate on the basis of [list of additional classes].” 

Table 3: Institutions using the Additional Model 

System  Total Institutions  Number Using the Additional Model 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  5 
Texas Tech  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  2 
Texas Southern University (Independent)  1  1 
Stephen F. Austin State University (Independent)  1  1 

The third model of nondiscrimination statement lists additional protected categories in a separate sentence, rather than adding them to the end of the existing list. The Texas Tech system had a slightly altered take on this phrasing:  

Texas Tech University does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of students based on or related to sex, race, national origin, religion, age, disability, protected veteran  status, or other protected categories, classes, or characteristics. While sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected categories under state or federal law, it is Texas Tech University policy not to discriminate on this basis. (“Title IX”) 

Since the Supreme Court ruling of June 15, 2020, sexual orientation and gender identity are now considered federally protected categories, at least in regards to Title VII. 

This model echoes the other two models, including both the vagaries of “equal opportunity” and the legalese of “does not discriminate.” This phrasing highlights both the changing nature of the politics of nondiscrimination and the institution’s professed dedication to diversity and emphasizes that LGBTQ+ individuals were protected by their institutions, even when unprotected by state or federal law. Though this phrasing acknowledges the unique status of LGBTQ+ individuals and serves as an institutional critique of broader American culture and politics, it may also be an indication of the tokenism that occurs when diverse bodies are used as props to illustrate how inclusive an institution is, or at least how the marketing department would like it to appear.  

This form of diversity statement showcases the bodies that these policies affect most explicitly and additionally. While these statements imply a critique of the larger social problems facing LGBTQ+ individuals, this phrasing also suggests that these extra bodies—these queer bodies—are ancillary, an afterthought. The double-edged sword faces us once again: as LGBTQ+ individuals, we are in a unique situation regarding current nondiscrimination laws, which until recently have been dependent on whatever local and institutional policies applied to our physical locations. Local nondiscrimination laws frequently only apply to individuals employed by or contracted with the city, and as employees of Texas public universities, we work for the state. Thus, no such laws applied to us until the Supreme Court’s Title VII ruling, and even then, one of the first studies of LGBT employees since this ruling found that “nine percent of LGBT employees…were fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year” (Sears et al.). The policies that our institutions have created have often been our only form of nondiscrimination protection and are only effective when enforced. They both acknowledge and obfuscate the complexities of our positions: a queerness inherent to our very existence.  

The phrasing of this form of nondiscrimination statement both explicitly acknowledges the unique circumstances of the queer body within the institution and larger society and most explicitly renders our bodies as a form of diversity currency, which the institution can call upon to illustrate its (supposed) commitment to diversity. Our presence on campus is often used as a recruitment and marketing tool: at my institution, small banners, which feature images that illustrate the diversity of our campus, adorn the lampposts. One such image features the Coalition, our LGBTQ+ student group. While this image helps to advertise an important student organization, I also consider it somewhat exploitative of an already-marginalized population, especially because the composition of some of the images used for this purpose have a whiff of what disability rights activists call “inspiration porn.”[10] Likewise, while we celebrated the addition of a rainbow crosswalk to our campus in the spring, we were less appreciative of its location—a walkway between two different parking lots, far from any campus buildings.  

Unlike the other forms of nondiscrimination statements, this version does not “straighten” queer bodies by lumping them in with other marginalized bodies. However, the overall purposes of the nondiscrimination statement remain the same: to provide a normative structure through which to manage an abnormal body and to formalize and ritualize extremely personal experiences of discrimination through a bureaucratic process that serves the needs of the institution. This very action is a form of homonormativity,[11] of straightening, and can also be found within many additional diversity policies.  How many institutions will offer health insurance and other benefits to the same-sex partner of a queer employee, but only if they are legally married? Such policies assume that the goal of any partnership is marriage and children, despite the fact that this is not the case even for many heterosexual couples. What of those who are queer enough that they do not fit even within those boundaries? My household is entirely queer—my queerplatonic partner and I are both agender, aromantic, and asexual—but because we refuse to engage with an amatonormative, allonormative institution such as marriage,[12] my benefits cannot extend to them, despite our nearly seven-year partnership. 

Policies such as these may consider me “additional,” but when even other members of the queer community sometimes fail to recognize my identity and partnership, am I even that? 

Diversity Statements and the Issue of Gender Identity  

Another issue with nondiscrimination statements concerns statements of gender identity and expression. Of the thirty-five nondiscrimination statements I analyzed, thirty-two included a gender identity statement [13]. The three that did not (Tarleton State University, part of the A&M System; UT Arlington; and UT Tyler) failed to do so even when the system policy did include one.  

All thirty-five nondiscrimination statements utilized the phrases “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to demarcate these particular protected categories. However, as Morrish and O’Mara point out, such phrasing is deliberately vague: “the specifics of sexual identities are erased in favor of sexual orientation…gender has an identity, a binary identity, although the transgender identity rarely appears” (984). This phrasing acts as a straightening device: it names the protected categories without specifying what they might look like or drawing undue attention to non-normative forms of being. This creates a relatively streamlined nondiscrimination statement that allows for broad categories that may be applied to a number of different contexts but also folds non-normative sexualities and gender identities into categories that also include heterosexual and cisgender identities. 

The presence and absence of such gender identity statements are a reflection of the nebulous ways in which transgender individuals are treated in our society. As a matter of legal precedent, the Supreme Court only recently declared that gender identity is a protected category under Title VII, as it falls within the larger protections guaranteed to individuals regarding discrimination on the basis of physical sex. The bodies that are or fail to be acknowledged by gender identity statements are those that deviate from the gender binary: those who are transgender or those who are intersex in any of the many ways there are to be.[14]For individuals like myself, who are not “traditionally” trans,*[15] “gender identity” means many different things: I don’t have a gender identity, so am I actually protected at all by these policies? What does that protection look like when instances of misgendering are so prevalent on our campus? 

Even if gender identity is considered a protected category in an institution’s nondiscrimination statement, that does not mean the individuals who make up the institution are well-educated enough on the matter to refrain from discriminatory actions. The nondiscrimination statement for our campus, which does currently include gender identity and expression, allows me to openly identify as agender on campus and to freely use they/them pronouns and the title Mx. without fear of reprisal, but I’m still misgendered on a daily basis, even by people who should know better. Two years ago, I asked our then-department chair to contact HR on my behalf to correct the title on all of my paperwork from “Ms.” to “Mx.” All of the official paperwork I have received from HR since then has used the appropriate title, but another colleague had to contact the manager of our departmental webpage three separate times to get the correct title listed there. While this is an example of gender identity protections actively being enforced, communication breakdowns still occur: in 2020 I received a formal letter from our dean which addressed me as “Ms.,” and two months ago I received one from the Provost’s office which did the same: more moments of unsettling affect, when my physical body was once again mislabeled by my institution. While the Provost’s office now has the correct title on file, the burden was on myself and my department chair to request the correction—and this was simply an instance of misgendering in a formal letter, a form of private communication, albeit one which I had to disclose to my superiors to ensure it would not happen again. It could have been much worse: other transgender individuals have been addressed with the wrong title in campus media, and experienced significant dysphoria—an affective moment of mental and physical stress—as a result of being misgendered in front of what was effectively the whole campus. 

Such failures of recognition are often the result of ignorance and the inherent complexities and problematics of trying to create an enforceable policy which protects everyone, or at least attempts to. However, these honest mistakes and oversights still have a real, immediate, and physical affect on those who experience them. While I was the first openly transgender faculty member on campus, I am not the only openly transgender employee, and my colleagues’ experiences of misgendering and transphobia on campus have been very different from mine. This is likely because of our different positions: students are generally more willing to be confrontational with staff than faculty, and no nondiscrimination policy, no matter how thorough, can account for the simple differences in power dynamics that we experience because of what we do for our institution. 

While statements regarding gender identity are necessary to protect LGBTQ+ individuals on campus, significant problems occur if these statements are lacking, misplaced, or otherwise difficult to find. If system policies say protections exist for gender identity, why do some individual institutional statements fail to include them? In the case of a discrimination complaint, which policy applies? Why are the statements different in the first place? 

Some of this is simple human error—keeping institutional webpages and records up-to-date is incredibly difficult. Yet the lack of gender identity in some of these statements alarms me, even though, in every case, it is a protected category within the system policy. It is the “additionally” concern once again: the aspect of my queerness that is most likely to receive pushback is an afterthought, a secondary concern, when even now, in 2022, it is what puts me in the most danger. The Williams Institute’s 2021 study of LGBT employees found that “nearly half (48.8%) of transgender employees reported experiencing discrimination based on their LGBT status compared to 27.8% of cisgender LGB employees. More specifically, over twice as many transgender employees reported not being hired (43.9%) because of their LGBT status compared to LGB employees (21.5%)” (Sears et al.). 

Diversity Statements and the Issue of Gender Expression 

The most concerning issue I encountered in my analysis regarded statements of gender expression. Of the thirty-five nondiscrimination statements I collected, twenty-one did not include any explicit statements about gender expression, though many of the current versions of these statements do. 

Table 4: Institutions lacking a Gender Expression Statement 

System  Total Institutions  Institutions Lacking a Gender Expression Statement 
Texas A&M  11  11 
University of Texas  8 institutions, 6 medical centers  4 
Texas State  4  3 
Texas Tech  2 institutions, 2 medical centers  4 
Midwestern State University (Independent)  1  1 

 Outside the LGBTQ+ community, there is little recognition that gender identity and gender expression are not the same thing. But for any transgender individual, the difference is very real: a closeted transgender individual is still trans* and should have that identity respected regardless of how they present themselves to the world. A transgender individual who does not “pass” as cisgender should still have their identity respected. And what of the nonbinary folx like myself? Is our gender expression still respected, especially for those who may present as male one day, female the next, and androgynous the third? At institutions where gender expression is not a protected category, even if gender identity is, we must all proceed with caution. 

Even when gender identity and expression are mentioned in policy statements, they sometimes conflict with each other. At the time of data collection, A&M San Antonio’s nondiscrimination policy read as follows: “Texas A&M University-San Antonio does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity in its programs and activities” (“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment”). In contrast, the wording on the nondiscrimination posters on campus (see fig. 1) read as follows: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires education institutions that receive federal funds or financial assistance to prohibit sex discrimination in ALL programs and activities. Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible.” 

Fig. 1. A nondiscrimination poster prominently displayed on campus. The poster states: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires education institutions that receive federal funds or financial assistance to prohibit sex discrimination in ALL programs and activities. Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible. Sexual assault = sex discrimination. Title IX protects YOU from sex discrimination in academics, activities, admission, athletics, employment, financial assistance, housing, and recruitment. Title IX: The law is not optional.” Photographed February 27, 2018.

These posters implied that gender identity and gender expression were both protected categories at A&M-SA under the precepts of Title IX at the time, per the statement “Discrimination based on gender identity and expression is impermissible.” Impermissible or not, the A&M system did not recognize gender expression as a protected category at the time. The phrasing of the nondiscrimination statement has since been updated, and now reads: “Texas A&M University-San Antonio does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression in its programs and activities” (“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment”). These are recent changes, reflecting a more coherent approach to diversity on campus, albeit one that is moving sluggishly and unevenly across departments. While the current administration is visibly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, transgender individuals still have mixed experiences on campus: many instances of misgendering that I’ve experienced have come from faculty and staff rather than students. And, of course, Rainbow P.A.W.S. still doesn’t have a budget of its own. 

To protect gender identity but not gender expression implies a contradiction: an institution might respect someone’s gender identity but might not grant them the right to express that identity safely on campus. For transgender individuals, gender expression is a complex issue: although legally changing your identity in the state of Texas is a surprisingly simple process, it also requires a good understanding of the court system and how to apply for financial waivers, and there is, as of yet, no option to legally identify as non-binary.[16] Because of this, the documents that we use to prove our identities are often inaccurate. Mismatches between gender expression and genders listed on official identity documents, including institutional items such as student and staff IDs, can be a matter of outright danger for transgender individuals. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that, of Texas respondents, “32% of respondents who have shown an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted” (3). When our institutions cannot even grant us the option to list our identities properly on our paperwork, we have to wonder how protected we actually are. 

Being transgender on campus, being openly transgender on campus, is risky. The same 2015 report found that, of Texas respondents, “73% of those who were out or perceived as transgender at some point between K–12 experienced some form of mistreatment,” and “19% of respondents who were out or perceived as transgender in college or vocational school were verbally, physically, or sexually harassed because of being transgender” (1-2). More recently, in September 2021, the Trevor Project reported a 150% increase in crisis contacts from LGBTQ+ young people in Texas when compared to the same time period in 2020, with transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas “directly stat[ing] that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state” (Trevor News). Over seventy anti-LGBTQ+ bills were proposed by lawmakers in the 2021 Texas legislative session, more than forty of which specifically targeted transgender and nonbinary youth (Trevor News). 

I only started using they/them pronouns publicly within the last few years, and while I’m comfortable introducing myself to my students that way now, the first time was nerve-wracking. They often misgender me anyway, largely because my gender expression is near-universally perceived as female, but many of them remember and do try. The same is true of my colleagues. But I am extremely fortunate: being misgendered, a type of microaggression, does not trigger gender dysphoria in me, the way it does for so many others. Gender dysphoria—that moment of awful affect—is often triggered because of issues with gender expression: moments when someone misgenders you, moments when for legal reasons you must take up an old identity that was never actually you, moments when you don’t feel safe enough to express your true identity, when the administrative systems of your institution do not allow for name changes, and when the paperwork for your institution does not allow you to identify as anything other than male or female.  

The paperwork that binds me to my own institution, where my queer body does queer work, where it works to support other queer bodies—that paperwork is wrong. Matters are equally problematic for students: in spring 2021 I assisted in updating Banner and Blackboard to add a feature which would allow for preferred first names to be displayed,[17] but Banner only imports name changes to Blackboard when students register for classes. Students who update their names after registering for classes are confronted with their deadname every time that they log on to Blackboard, triggering dysphoria and often causing their fellow students to misname and misgender them in collective spaces such as discussion boards. Meanwhile, this system does not exist for faculty, so while I would prefer to alter my name and state my pronouns in Banner and Blackboard, I simply cannot. Since I only teach online nowadays, I am regularly misgendered by my students simply because they see the name “Sarah” every time I post anything to Blackboard and assume that I use feminine pronouns despite having they/them listed as my pronouns in both the syllabus and my email signature—more moments of uncomfortable affect, this time enabled by the mechanical processes of institutional policy.[18]  

I feel safe at my institution, and I trust the gender identity and gender expression statements will protect me on my campus because I know the individuals that are tasked with enforcing those protections, and I trust them to act appropriately. I trust them to protect me, to protect my colleagues, and to protect my students. But not everyone is so lucky.[19] 

These concerns are especially important given that on February 22, 2017, the Departments of Justice and Education withdrew landmark 2016 guidance explaining how schools must protect transgender students against discrimination under Title IX. Protections for transgender individuals were only reinstated three years later thanks to the Title VII Supreme Court decision, a ruling which itself makes no explicit statements regarding gender expression. It is especially concerning here in Texas, where the state legislature has been relentless in its attacks on the LGBTQ+ community, with more anti-LGBTQ+ bills filed in 2021 than in any other state, and where the most successful of these bills, where discriminatory legislation that bans transgender youth from participating in sports in alignment with their gender identity, was signed into law on October 25, 2021 by Governor Greg Abbot.  

So how protected are we? 

Conclusion: Words Are Not Enough 

My experiences are not universal: they are intrinsic to my queer body and how it moves through space, through institutions, through the state in which I live and for which I work, affected by them and affecting them. My critique is affective in return—these statements might act as straightening devices, but I, in my queerness, can push back against them, affecting them just as they affect me: after all, the campus nondiscrimination statement appeared on our institutional website shortly after I noted its absence. My institution may have enfolded me into its body in an act of straightening, but, by doing so, it is also queered because of my presence within it. My queer body and my queer work have in turn served to queer my campus: Rainbow P.A.W.S. has hosted LGBTQ+ educational events, outreach programs, and resource fairs; the Preferred Name working group specifically recruited my assistance to help implement the preferred name system in Banner and Blackboard; and most recently, I have received an inquiry about joining another committee tasked with developing training materials for a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion certificate program. 

I offer this critique while acknowledging that these documents are aspirational: used to determine the focus, purpose, goals, and commitments of an institution, the promises it makes to those who make up its body, and meaning very little in the absence of effective enforcement, of effective commitment on the part of our institutions. After my presentation on this topic at the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication, I spoke with someone who expressed intense frustration with his institution, where he was tasked with enforcing the campus nondiscrimination policy. Like so many others, he felt boxed in, surrounded on all sides by a “brick wall” of uninterested and unsupportive colleagues—the seemingly-universal experience of a diversity worker in higher education. I could offer him little more than sympathy and the hope that he might find like-minded others who would be willing to do the actual work of diversity with him. Perhaps now that the Supreme Court has ruled in our favor on Title VII, he will have better luck. 

Institutions can also revise, review, and expand their nondiscrimination policies. While these statements do act as straightening devices, and likely always will simply due to their nature as legal documents, the expansion of such policies to include working definitions for commonly-used terminology, as well as more detailed definitions of discrimination—as one frequently sees in Title IX trainings—can help mitigate these effects and enable more effective enforcement of nondiscrimination policies. Thus, institutions should work to develop precise definitions for the following terms: 

    1. Gender identity and discrimination: Institutions could borrow from their already-existing Title IX terminology and the examples used in institutional nondiscrimination training to identify and address instances of discrimination based on an individual’s gender identity. 
    2. Gender expression: In addition to developing a clear definition for what gender expression is and how it differs from gender identity, institutions could provide specific examples of what discrimination based on gender expression might look like by developing further examples to be added to their already-existing Title IX training. 
    3. Sexual orientation and discrimination: While most institutional trainings do cover sexual orientation in their Title IX training, albeit generally briefly, the development of further examples of discrimination based on sexual orientation could provide more specific guidance for the enforcement of such policies. 

The working definitions and examples for these terms should be linked directly from the policy statement on the institution’s website. They should also be available internally, and the definitions and examples added to each institution’s Title IX training program. Policy and subject matter experts should be called upon to further develop these statements, working definitions, and examples. In larger systems, such developments should take place at the system level, rather than at individual institutions, to ensure consistency across all campuses. 

Revising these statements, developing working definitions, and providing further examples and training is a starting point, but we cannot let that become the only point, nor can diversity documents be our only concern. They affect us, but attending to such documents is not enough. They are important because of their ability to determine how, when, and why our institutions protect or fail to protect us, but their power lies in engagement and enforcement, in being regularly updated to reflect the ever-changing legal and political climate in Texas and the country. As employees of these institutions, it is our duty to raise questions about them, to critique them, and revise them, but also to recognize the limitations of this work. It is not and will never be enough to speak about diversity: we must take action, beyond the bare minimum that the law requires, to create safer spaces on campus for everyone. 

This last point is both the most nebulous and most important one: cultivating an inclusive campus environment, one that provides visible and meaningful support for the LGBTQ+ community, is the most effective way to create change. Creating institutional policies and documents that can better protect our students and ourselves begins with education, outreach, and understanding. A committee tasked with policy revisions is better equipped to make changes that support the LGBTQ+ community when they are trained in LGBTQ+ issues and understand the challenges that may be faced by their students, particularly given the specific cultural and geographic contexts of individual institutions. An awareness of state and local challenges to LGBTQ+ rights is essential for shaping policies that can better protect our students, staff, and faculty. Visible and concrete dedication to supporting the LGBTQ+ community is essential here in Texas, where the transgender youth sports ban has gone into effect as of January 18, 2022, and school boards across the state are facing an unprecedented number of requests from politicians and parents to remove books dealing with race, sexuality, and gender from school libraries after a parent complaint about Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer went viral (Hixenbuagh).   

On campus, it is easy to forget that the policy documents that we create, cloistered away in committees and tucked away on some forgotten webpage, are affective objects—they shape how we work and how our institutions work. They are living documents that people turn to when they are trying to make decisions about where to go and what to do. Creating them once is not enough: they must be attended to, revised, and updated to reflect the changing circumstances of our students, our politics, and the world. 

We are never “done” with diversity. We are never “done” with providing what protections we can for those who are marginalized within our institutions and within the academy as a whole. But we can and should do better: our students’ safety—our safety—depends on it. 


[1]As of this writing (February 14, 2022) there are still no statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in Texas. 

[2]Shortly after my exchange with the department chair, a link to the institutional nondiscrimination statement appeared on the university’s homepage. It seems as though by asking about the lack of nondiscrimination statement I may have successfully (albeit unintentionally) engaged with Porter et al.’s activist methodology of institutional critique (610-642), a practice which I continue in limited form in this article.

[3]Working closet: “complicated, layered, and unorthodox space comprising a set of networked relations and interactions (including rhetorical practices and strategies) between the LGBT individual and all life contacts,” focused particularly on “workplace and professional contacts and interactions” (Cox 3-4).  

[4]See Toward a New Rhetoric of Differencethe edited collection Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, and Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. 

[5]For another experience of affect alienation, this time with Safe Space stickers, see Fox, 496-511. 

[6]Folx: an alternative spelling of “folks” used most commonly on social media platforms by members of the LGBTQ+ community, but referring to all people, particularly members of marginalized communities.

[7]See Fox, 496-511. 

[8]DFAB: Designated Female At Birth. A term commonly used in the trans* community to refer to the gender identification granted to infants on legal documents such as birth certificates. The corresponding term is DMAB, Designated Male At Birth.

[9]I declined to do so.

[10]Inspiration porn: a term coined by Stella Young to describe the portrayal of disabled people as inspirational solely on the basis of their disability.

[11]Homonormativity: a term popularized by Lisa Duggan to describe a politics that upholds assimilationist and heteronormative ideals within the LGBTQ+ community, including a focus on marriage, monogamy, and childrearing. 

[12]Amatonormativity: a term coined by Elizabeth Brake to describe social ideals and pressures about romance, including a focus on monogamy and marriage. Allonormativity: a term coined within the asexual community to describe social ideals and pressures about sexual attraction, mainly that all people experience it.

[13]For a relevant overview of the process through which a gender identity and expression statement was added to the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s nondiscrimination statement, see Case et al.

[14]Intersex: An umbrella term used for the estimated one in 2,000 babies…born with reproductive or sexual anatomy and/or a chromosome pattern that doesn’t seem to fit typical binary definitions of male or female. These traits…include androgen insensitivity syndrome, some forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, Klinefelter’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, hypospadias, Swyers’ syndrome, and many others” (InterACT). 

[15]Trans*: a term used as a form of shorthand within the LGBTQ+ community to refer to a diverse array of non-cisgender identities, including non-binary and culturally-specific identities.

[16]Very few of our students are aware of how to navigate the process of changing their legal name and gender identity in the state of Texas, assuming that they are in a position to safely do so. Many are not.

[17]This was the term used by the group, though the use of the term “preferred” is contentious, and is generally no longer considered acceptable when it precedes pronouns. The group nonetheless used the term “preferred” for names, as the policy and technology change applied not only to trans* individuals, but also those who wished to change the names they had on file with the university for reasons unrelated to gender. Students can also indicate their pronouns in this system, although that information is kept confidential and can only be accessed by instructors through Banner.

[18]While Blackboard does allow users to edit their personal (first) name, this function is enabled by the institution rather than the user, and TAMUSA does not currently allow such edits. 

[19]To the surprise of exactly no one, concerns with the enforcement of trans-inclusive nondiscrimination policies in higher education have been a consistent concern for trans* folx over the years—see Seelman and Goldberg et al.

Works Cited 

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Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51. 

—. Living a Feminist Life. Durham and London, Duke UP, 2017. 

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

—. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006. 

Carrol-Miranda, Moira. “Access to Higher Education Mediated by Acts of Self-Disclosure: ‘It’s a Hassle.’” Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Kerschbaum, Laura Eisenman, James Jones, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder, U of Michigan P, 2017, pp. 275-90. 

Case, Kim, et al. “Transgender Inclusion in University Nondiscrimination Statements: Challenging Gender-Conforming Privilege through Student Activism.” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 68, no. 1, 2012, pp. 145-61. 

Cox, Matthew. “Working Closets: Mapping Queer Professional Discourses and Why Professional Communication Studies Need Queer Rhetorics.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 1-25, doi:10.1177/1050651918798691. Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

Ferguson, Roderick. The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. U of Minnesota P, 2012. 

Fox, Catherine. “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in “Safe Spaces”. College English, vol. 69, no. 5, 2007, pp. 496-511. JSTOR, Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Goldberg, Abbie, et al. “What is Needed, What Is Valued: Trans Students’ Perspectives on Trans-Inclusive Policies and Practices in Higher Education.” Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, vol. 29, no. 1, 2019, pp. 27-67. 

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory Seigworth, editors. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 1-25. 

“H.B. No. 2504.” Texas Legislature Online, 2009, Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Hixenbaugh, Mike. “Banned: Books on Race and Sexuality are Disappearing from Texas Schools in Record Numbers.” NBC News, 1 Feb. 2022, Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “2021 State Equality Index.” Human Rights Campaign, 2021, Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

InterACT. “interACT FAQ.” InterACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, 2016, Accessed 4 Feb. 2022. 

Iverson, Susan. “Constructing Outsiders: The Discursive Framing of Access in University Diversity Policies.” The Review of Higher Education, vol. 35 no. 2, 2012, pp. 149-77, Accessed 18 Nov. 2019. 

Kerschbaum, Stephanie. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference. CCCC/NCTE, 2014. 

Mallory, Christy, et al. “The Impact of Stigma and Discrimination against LGBT People in Texas.” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2017, Accessed 6 June 2020. 

Mayr, Andrea. Language and Power: An Introduction to Institutional Discourse. Continuum, 2008. 

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York UP, 2006. 

Morrish, Liz, and Kathleen O’Mara. “Queering the Discourse of Diversity.” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 58 no. 6-7, 2011, pp. 974-91, Accessed 18 Nov. 2019. 

“Non-Discrimination/Sexual Harassment.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2017, 2021, Accessed 18 Nov. 2019; 24 Nov. 2021. 

Office of Institutional Research. “Texas A&M University – San Antonio Fact Book 2016.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2016, Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

Porter, James, et al. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” CCC, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610-42, JSTOR, Accessed 24 Aug. 2020. 

Sears, Brad, et al. “LGBT People’s Experiences of Workplace Discrimination and Harassment.” The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2021, Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

Seelman, Kristie. “Recommendations of Transgender Students, Staff, and Faculty in the USA for Improving College Campuses.” Gender and Education, vol. 26, no. 6, 2014, pp 618-35, Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

“System Regulation 08.01.01, Civil Rights Compliance.” The Texas A&M University System, 2021, Accessed 24 Nov. 2021. 

“Texas Higher Ed Enrollments.” Excel file, Texas Higher Education Data, 2019, Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title IX.” Texas Tech University, 2019, Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title IX and Sex Discrimination.” U.S. Department of Education, 2015, Accessed 6 June 2020. 

“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Accessed 29 June 2020. 

Trevor News. “New Data Illuminates Mental Health Concerns Among Texas’ Transgender Youth Amid Record Number of Anti-Trans Bills.” The Trevor Project, 27 Sep. 2021, Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

University Communications. “Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s HSI Designation Benefits Students and Surrounding Community.” Texas A&M University – San Antonio, 2017, Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. 

Urciuoli, Bonnie. “Neoliberal Education: Preparing the Student for the New Workplace.” Ethnographies of Neoliberalism, edited by C.J. Greenhouse, U of Pennsylvania P, 2010, pp. 162-76. 

Woodford, Michael, Jessica Joslin, and Kristen A. Renn. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Students on Campus: Fostering Inclusion Through Research, Policy, and Practice.” Transforming Understandings of Diversity in Higher Education: Demography, Democracy, & Discourse, edited by Penny Pasque, Noe Ortega, John Burkhardt, and Marie Ting, Stylus Publishing, 2016, pp. 57-80. 


Silently Speaking Bodies: Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Transnational Feminist Rhetoric

In 2015, a group of women in the Amuru district of Uganda, engaged in a form of embodied protest to resist their loss of their land and other violence visited upon them in the conflicts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA): they stripped naked and chanted, “Lobowa, Lobowa”—”our land” in the local Luo dialect. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, U.S.A., twenty-three women shaved their heads on the state capitol steps in order to draw attention to the ways that years of industrial coal mining and subsequent mountaintop removal have degraded their land, livelihood, and health. Noting that coal mining disproportionately affects low-income West Virginians and people of color, leader Marilyn Mullens explained that caring for the land is “part of our Appalachian culture;” destruction wrought by coal mining, then, is antithetical (“Marilyn Mullens”). In both examples, the breaking of social and gendered norms was seen as necessary in order to secure the attention to the cause.

While just two of many possible instances we might cite of women using their physical bodies to publicly protest injustice, violence, and oppression,[1]both cases raise provocative questions about rhetorical action in the current transnational context and neoliberal age (Bohrer). They call us to question certain assumptions about rhetoric: namely, that if one makes use of traditional and appropriate means of persuasion, intended audiences will listen. For protesters like Mullens and Alum, however, this is not the case: both had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes but found themselves unable to intervene through words alone. How might bodily forms of rhetoric bring about action when words alone are not listened to?

Driven to use their bodies to form collectives and make the destructive forces of global economic and political transformation visible to broader audiences, these protests call us to consider the ways embodied rhetorical action responds to neoliberalism, which cultural theorists and rhetorical scholars have theorized as a configuration of the global economy that upwardly redistributes wealth, circulates market-based logics of individualism and competition, and authorizes destructive forces of capitalist expansion (Asen, Chaput, Dingo, Duggan, LeCourt, among others). While neoliberalism can make people less aware of the structural causes of their circumstances due to rhetorics of personal responsibility (Duggan), there are also examples like the ones here where people are acutely aware of the impact on their lived experiences. The effect of neoliberal conditions is a “welling up in the body” (Micciche), and it is expressed through the physical body. It is through physical and emotional manifestations such as rolling on the ground, stripping naked, shaving heads, and shouting, that we truly see 1) the lived effects  neoliberalism and 2) that this impact is made visible by protesters to one another. This allows these protesters to work against the ways that individualism spreads by “articulat[ing] relationships” to enable the construction of a collective ‘we’  (Asen 300).“I” am not hurting because I am failing. We are hurting because of the ways that neoliberal institutions like government officials and transnational policy have disrupted our land and enacted violence on the bodies of those we love, the protests in the case studies I present can argue. They can argue this due to their collective, bodily protest; they can do this through affect.

Bodies are at the center of the work that we do as rhetorical scholars. That is, we study rhetoric so that we can understand how oppressive systems, such as neoliberalism, use arguments to persist, circulate, and ultimately impact people physically, emotionally, and mentally and to examine effective rhetorical strategies for resisting those systems. Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have worked to understand the ways that neoliberal discourses function to marginalize individuals by circulating through policies, human rights stories, and more (Dingo, Reidner, Wingard). Transnational feminist scholars have provided a framework for understanding the lived impacts of neoliberalism. Affect scholars have worked to uncover how the impact of rhetoric is not just linguistic and not just heard but also seen, felt, and sensed (Ahmed). Finally, social movement scholars have questioned “what provokes bodies to shift from assigned places” (Jarret and Alexander). My analysis puts affect theory into conversation with transnational feminist rhetoric in order to consider the ways rhetors respond to neoliberal conditions in agentive ways.  I examine how these conversations can come together to call us to construct an understanding of rhetoric that allows us as scholars, activists, and community partners to see how rhetors use their physical bodies as well or instead of their words to be seen when they are not heard—to both make visible and call for changes in their daily, lived experiences of damaging global systems like neoliberalism.

I understand these protesters actions through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance, a phrase I use to note the bodily and linguistic strategies that protesters together use to make visible the lived realities of neoliberalism, realities too often forgotten, silenced, and not listened to. Marilyn Mullens, Magdalena Alum, and others initially used traditional, linguistic rhetorical channels to bring attention to their marginalization. However, their audiences did not listen. Because stakeholders did not listen, these protesters instead turned to bodily forms of rhetorical resistance. This calls feminist rhetorical scholars to continue to question the ways that rhetorical understanding rely on an audience to listen and the actions rhetors take when they do not. What happens when traditional, linguistic rhetorical techniques do not persuade powerful audiences, such as policy makers, to listen? Both of these cases represent a movement from linguistic rhetorical strategies to embodied ones. These women had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes, but because they were not listened to, they instead used what I call an affective rhetorical resistance through nude protest, in one case, and shaving their heads at a government building, in another. I argue that, in moments of seeming rhetorical failure, feminist rhetorical scholars and activists might look closer to see how rhetors use their physical bodies to express resistance in ways their words alone cannot.

In what follows, I begin by overviewing existing work on the body in feminist rhetoric. Next, I will set up the exigence of studying rural areas for particular strategies of rhetorical activism. Then, I will provide more background on the case studies I look at in which West Virginian women shaved their heads in protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining and Ugandan women stripped naked in protest of government sanctioning of ancestral farming land. I look to these two instances to theorize an affective rhetorical resistance that makes visible the lived realities of neoliberalism. Both groups of protesters use their bodies to respond to transnational instances of neoliberally-motivated oppressions surrounding land. I end by calling for this theory of affective rhetorical resistance to be taken up in generative ways by transnational feminist rhetorical scholars, specifically, but also by feminist rhetoricians and feminist activists.

Embodiment and affect in protest, particularly in contexts of economic globalization and neoliberal capitalism, have concerned rhetorical scholars in a variety of conversations. In order to read these protests, it’s useful to think about how scholars in three sometimes distinct, sometimes interwoven, rhetorical conversations have advanced collective understandings of embodied protest. I will trace the projects of feminist rhetoric and transnational feminist rhetoric broadly. Then, I question what conceptions of social movements and work surrounding affect may offer transnational feminist scholars and activists. Specifically, I weave these conversations together in order to develop a theoretical framework of affective rhetorical protest.

Responding to the exclusionary nature of rhetorical study — wherein definitions of rhetoric were drawn from primarily economically privileged male rhetors —  feminist rhetoricians changed the field of rhetoric by asking: “Where are the women?” (Glenn, Rhetoric and Schell). Through studies on Aspasia (Glenn), and Ida B. Wells (Rosyter), for example, feminist rhetoricians contributed to an understanding of rhetoric as not just the available means of persuasion but also a practice wherein power defines rhetorical success. In other words, feminist rhetoric scholars began to address the ways that rhetors’ gendered lives impacts who we study and why (Glenn, Jarratt, Lunsford, Ratcliffe, Royster, Swearingen, among others). Early feminist rhetorical scholars essential contributions changed who we study as rhetors and, in so doing, changed our definitions of rhetoric and the methods by which we study it (Kirsch & Royster). The recovery of essential voices that were overlooked in classical rhetorical scholarship set the groundwork for a turn toward the ways that material realities of power impact rhetors and texts.

Outlining the project of transnational feminist rhetorical studies, specifically, Rebecca Dingo explains, “transnational feminism illustrates a matrix of connections between people, nations, economies, and the textual practices present in, for example, public policies and popular culture” (12). Taking up early calls for transnational feminist interventions in feminist rhetoric, which call for us to be “attentive to the constraints of neoliberalism and to the power differentials and inequalities that shape geopolitical alignments,” transnational feminists argue for the recognition of “globalization’s unequal economic, political, and social relations and gendered, sexualized, and racialized imageries” (Hesford and Schell 467). The overall project of transnational feminist rhetoric thus far has been to construct a model of rhetorical situations that includes not just rhetor, audience, exigence, and purpose, and not just how utterances are contextualized within historical and contemporary power dynamics around gender, race, class, and other matrices of power, but to do this while also contextualizing utterances within nation-state and political economic structures.

If the key questions raised by the feminist rhetorical project were “Where are the women? How can we recover their voices to arrive at a new definition of rhetoric?” then the defining questions of emergent conversations in transnational feminism became: “Who do we hear most loudly, through circulation, and why? How can utterances be contextualized in their political economic moments and interrupted in light of nation-state relationships, global economic transformation, and social inequity and activism?” Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have made essential contributions to rhetorical understandings of  how objects, places, and work are manifestations of a location in an interconnected neoliberal political economic system.

In 2008, Wendy Hesford and Eileen Schell called for Rhetoric and Composition to shift from a U.S.-centric narrative “of nation, nationalism, and citizenship” (463).  Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard responded to this, for example, by conceptualizing a “network” in order to think about  how “transnational studies scholars engage concurrently with multiple scales as they consider how globalized power operates  through a variety   of linked scales—the economic, national, state, and political conditions of contemporary neoliberalism, neocolonialism and neo-imperialism” (518). In general, transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have been interested in how global structures like neoliberalism and biocapitalism are constructed and spread rhetorically to impact rhetors. I continue this project by looking at bodily protests as instances of people flipping the script on these narratives and using their physical bodies to make visible and protest the lived impacts of systems of violence like these (Dingo, Networking, Dingo and Reidner, Beyond, Riedner, Writing, Wingard, Branded).

Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have begun to take up studies of the body in relation to the way rhetorics circulate, or how and why rhetorics move across sites. For example,  Dingo, Riedner, and Wingard examine how the rhetorics around Ahed Tamimi and Malala Yousafazi circulate differently based on how their bodies (their skin color, hair color, and physical gestures) are read in relation to nation-state narratives. They state, “…we suggest that the news archive about Tamimi is limited — where she is, what is happening to her, and what she says — is difficult to track because her story does not shore up the political and economic objectives of the nation-state and global capital; it cannot be used to stand for benevolent neoliberalism” (184). In other words, transnational feminists question why some get to speak louder than others based on nation-state interests and gendered performances.[2] In another example, Jessica Ouellette discusses how Amina Tyler’s nude body was talked about and how the rhetorics of her protest were taken up in circulation.[3] Whether through an examination of women’s health information (Dicaglio et. al), through a reading of physical bodies as furthering and complicating nation-state narratives (Dingo et. al), or through a look at how nude bodies undercut rhetorical significance in circulation (Ouellette), we often see the body talked about in relation to rhetoric, not as rhetoric. Both of these lenses are essential and can further the project of transnational feminist rhetoric.

While scholars like Dingo, Wingard, Reidner, and Oulette have contributed essential understandings of how bodies are talked about/read determines the success of the rhetor’s message — how widely and justly it spreads — they also open questions about how the bodies involved here — Tyler, Tamimi, Yousafzai, readers of Our Bodies, Ourselves — are sites of rhetorical intervention in and of themselves by virtue of the ways the way rhetors use their bodies to move through space. To be more precise, the cases of Tyler, Tamimi, and Yousafazi all involve women using their physical bodies to respond to governmental decisions that negatively impact them and that, I argue, signal neoliberal narratives of profit over life.

What’s needed, in other words, is a theory of resistant rhetorical responses that uses not just words said by or about bodies but a way to fully understand how rhetors use their physical bodies, even without, and sometimes in addition to speaking, to be louder, to be noticed, to be listened to. The cases that I represent below demonstrate our need to develop transnational feminist rhetorical theories that analyze not just the way that bodies are spoken and written about but also methods for how to rhetorically analyze the movement of bodies themselves as powerful, resistant acts. As the cases I examine in this article demonstrate, rhetors can use their physical bodies — the way they are positioned, what they do, where they are — as rhetorical interventions into neoliberal structures of the economy that marginalize them by taking away their land and exploiting their labor. Affect as a method can help us to see the full ways physical bodies work with words to make visible and resist harmful narratives and structures.

A rich source of understanding about emotional and corporeal power is the robust body of rhetorical and theoretical literature on affect. Rhetorical study is about the power of texts. However, as material rhetoric and feminist scholarship evolved, the lived and material realities outside of texts have also been brought to the fore. In what follows, I will draw together various definitions of affect, from across disciplinary perspectives to build a theory of affective rhetorical resistance.

Feminist rhetorical scholars are invested in examining how larger circulating structures of power impact individuals so that we can ultimately make that less damaging in interactional and structural ways. Affect theory offers a lens for this, as this theory has made advancements in thinking about how bodies take on their environments — what moves and flows and damages them. For example, in Catherine Chaput’s taxonomy of affect theory, she underscores how different conceptions of affect take up the body: some view affect as a description of how external material circulates through bodies, while others view affect as a physical response to those external factors. On one hand, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant think of affect as “energetic matter” which “circulates through environments — molding, producing, and defining them in its wake,” while other theorists “foreground affect as the biochemical and neurological patterns of bodily attraction and repulsion” (Chaput 91-92). Chaput ultimately argues that “affect provides a lens for the rhetorical theorization of how experience moves through and lingers in bodies in a way that engages but is not reduced to scientism” (10).

Though they define affect somewhat differently, Chaput and Ahmed are particularly influential in my own thinking about affect because they reveal how affect describes the ways that bodies physically take on the structure of power around them. Ahmed, for instance, “tracks how the affective patterns of gendered, sexed, and raced bodies follow the ebb and flow of political economic exchanges” (Chaput 96). I argue that an affective lens can illuminate the ways that political economic structures physically fall on the body — such as how political economic realities physically fall on a laboring body and appear as stress, pain, or anger (Ahmed), or how the reality of political economic and legal policy physically falls on immigrant bodies through movement across borders, pain, or violence. However, I want to extend the work of scholars such as Chaput and Ahmed by thinking about how affect cannot just illuminate the ways that bodies take on their environments in the aforementioned ways but also the ways that rhetors use affect — through gesture and movement, for example — to respond to and highlight these impacts. This allows us to see the savvy work that rhetors can do through not just their words, but their physical bodies.

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Apaa Region, Uganda and in West Virginia, U.S.A.

I present these examples in Uganda and West Virginia not to be read separately but to be seen as two instances in a larger trend of bodily protest that makes visible the too often invisible lived impacts of neoliberalism, particularly for those marginalized by race, class, gender, regionality, and nation-state relationships. In a future iteration of this project, with appropriate research funding, it would be beneficial to hear directly from the protesters about their experiences and intentions. However, since my primary method is to read visually, I instead take up the protesters’ words as mediated through images, videos, and news articles around the protest as my data.

The first protest I discuss occured in the Amuru district of Uganda, which is a site of exploitation over land. As rural areas, we can see parallels in the ways that both Uganda and West Virginia are impacted by neoliberalism. The Amuru district of Uganda has historically been a site of dispute over land. In sum, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has argued that the people of Apaa occupy a game reserve, while the community of Apaa argue that they occupy ancestral land. Violence by security forces has arisen from this conflict (Byaruhanga). The history of exploitation of land makes this location a site worthy of rhetorical analysis because it is a place from which to see how the community here responds in rhetorically agentive ways when traditional rhetorical means have not persuaded the government officials that make up their audience.

As a sign of protest to impending governmental demarcation of land, the women of Apaa stripped naked. In the way that BBC News frames it, “In front of two government ministers, soldiers, policemen and hundreds of people from their community, they started removing their clothes. Off came their tops — then some of the women pulled down their wrappers and skirts so they were completely naked. ‘Lobowa, Lobowa!’ they chanted, which means ‘our land’” in the Luo dialect” (Byaruhanga 2015).

Before moving on, I want to address the way that the reasonably angry emotion of these women is filtered, and made light of, by a Western news agency, BBC News, in the way it is reported here. Rather than having a matter-of-fact tone, the article exclaims, “Off came their tops!” and says that they “shouted” (Byaruhanga 2015). This is one way in which a Western news agency makes light of, and thus, does not do justice to, the cause that these women are fighting for. Though I would like to rhetorically analyze the rhetorics of reporting about the protest, I aim to keep my rhetorical analysis here focused on the rhetorics of the protesters’ words and bodies themselves so as to respond to the exigence for my work that I introduced earlier.

Regarding the protest method itself, African Argument, a “pan-African platform for news, investigation and opinion,” explains that this is one instance in a long history of nude protest in Africa and around the world:

According to Florence Ebila Akona, a researcher at Makerere University, this Apaa protest was the ‘culmination of mistrust, frustrations, anger and anxiety over an uncertain future,’ but she also explains that naked protests – in this instance and all others – are much more than just outpourings of desperation. They also convey deep symbolic messages. The undressing was most importantly meant to curse the person who had brought all these suffering to them, says Akona. (Guyson 2018)

The cultural significance of cursing in this instance shows just how rhetorical this act is — these women cultivated cultural values and beliefs into a political stance against land in front of political economic stakeholders in that land.

I argue that these women used rhetorical tactics like ethos but did so in a way that is both connected to their cultural, localized intimacy and tied to a broader political economic system that asymmetrically abuses the land and labor of marginalized people for capital gain through a global trend in nude protest. I take up ethos here in the way that Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones define it as “feminist ecological ethē,” which “open[s] up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts (i.e. ideological, metaphorical, geographical)” (2). They go on to say that examples of “feminist ecological ethē” include interruption-interrupting, advocacy-advocating, and relation-relating as patterns we have observed across the chapters that enact this way of thinking and constructing ethos” (3). To this list, this case study adds that ethē should also contain a practice of affect: a physical, corporeal way of responding that, in this case, is used strategically when traditional, linguistic ways of protest did not work or were not listened to. Thinking about ethos in relationship to affect is modeled richly by Lorin Shellenberger in a discussion of Serena Williams. She explains that “despite being one of the best tennis players in the history of the sport, Williams often receives just as much attention for the size, shape, and color of her body. As a Black woman originally from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform for a community whose values do not always reflect her own” (Shellenberger). Shellenberger demonstrates how other’s raced and gendered readings of rhetor’s physical bodies affect rhetor’s claims to ethos. In the case studies I present, I join Shellenberger in considering the ways that physical bodies are not only a part of an establishment of ethos, but also an important part of rhetorical protest.

As Rebecca Dingo pointed out in a conversation about this project, these women force you to look, force you to listen, in a way that channels such as letter-writing and petition-signing, which they had previously done, do not force (Dingo 2019). As Sara Ahmed explains, sometimes “they do not hear you because they expect you to speak in a certain way” (99). These women are expected to perform, speak, and protest in sometimes parallel, sometimes varying ways along racial capitalist and neoliberal narratives of what it means to be a black woman in Apaa or a working class woman in the U.S. South. These women demand to be heard by speaking, moving, and being in places and ways they are not expected to. They craft this rhetorical resistance by using their bodies in ways they are not expected to — they strip though this is thought of as a curse, they strip though elderly women’s bodies are not expected to be seen publicly due to agist, sexist conceptions of beauty and sexuality, they position their bodies in unexpected ways by rolling, lying on the ground, and raising their legs: “As a policeman took pictures, one of the women approached him by rolling on the ground and then raised her leg. He ran away” (Byaruhanga 2015). They use their bodies to express the anger that was not listened to in their words.

These women demonstrate an affect of anger, as the image, their bodily positioning and gestures, and volume show. They show the power and productivity of anger in the way that Audre Lorde thinks about its usefulness when she explains that anger is often systematically discussed in ways that undercut its productive uses, but urges that “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies” (280). Sara Ahmed also takes up this line of thinking by naming “feminist killjoys:” feminists who refuse to succumb to what is ‘supposed to’ make them happy, but instead, chose to rest in that misfit in order to point out the ways that their unhappiness is linked to structural causes (57). These protesters act as “feminist killjoys” by expressing their anger and their “hurting” through both their words and their physical gestures.

The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked "police." The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies

Figure 1: Unnamed protesters in Apaa village lie on the ground partially naked in front of government official’s vehicles. The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked “police.” The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies.

The wider history of governmental tension and violence that precedes this protest privileges profit over life or converts life into profit, as Alum shows above when she cited the violence that her son endured by government officials, an affective, raced, and economic reality that she uses her body and her emotions to draw attention to. “I have nothing,” she says, citing the loss of her land, livelihood, and son. This loss is attributed to a system of neoliberalism that “values strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade as a means through which to assure individual and social freedom (Dingo et. al. 523). At the heart of the land dispute and resulting violence is the privileging of property and profit over the wellbeing of the Apaa community. Alum and other protesters use their words and body work together to produce a rhetorical response to violence that demands to be listened to and that links her suffering to neoliberally-motivated governmental changes. When words alone were not striking enough, these protesters used their physical bodies in “unruly” ways in order to jar their audience and also to physically restrict governmental officials from access to the land that they were there to demarcate. I suggest that this protest strategy offers transnational feminist scholars one way to see how rhetors respond to the lived impacts of neoliberalism.

The affective rhetorical resistance by residents of Apaa proved to be listened to more than their words, as the ministers and government authorities that were there to demarcate land did, indeed, turn around. They did achieve their intended impact through their rhetorical activism, a strategy that responds to years of colonial and neoliberal power colliding into processes of racialization and class stratification that create the governmental violence and land disputes which these protesters respond to. This is another example of the rhetorical ingenuity that these Apaa women exhibit when their causes are not being listened to. As Plange argues in Peitho’s recent Special Issue on Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, “African women have historically organized and acted to make societal changes” (n.p.). Extending Plange’s work, I argue that this protest is an instance in which Apaa women are drawing attention to the unique impact of the processes of postcolonialism and neoliberalism that prompt this protest. These protesters’ affective rhetorical resistance signals a powerful expression of the collective, accrued, “welling up” of the impacts of postcolonialism and neoliberalism which have resulted in governmental violence and land exploitation (Micciche). In pointing to this particular kind of rhetorical ingenuity, I hope to assert that affective rhetorical resistance is a response to the accumulated impact of networks of material power in a way that words alone are not. Illuminating the rhetorical ingenuity of this group of protesters through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance contributes to the long-standing work that Plange and transnational feminist scholars have done to de-center the rhetorical practices of white women in Western contexts. More specifically, by framing this protest strategy as a response to accrued experiences of postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and racism colliding for these Apaa women, I hope to contribute to the need for “more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric” that Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones call for (n.p.).

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in West Virginia

Another rural geopolitical context that is rich to look toward is the U.S. Appalachian region, as it is a place with a long history of labor and land exploitation, from taking indigenous land and lives to coal mining. It is similarly a place with a history of protest and resistance to that labor exploitation. I aim to draw on the work of Appalachian studies scholars who have studied protest and resistance in order to think about this West Virginia protest as a form of affective rhetorical resistance — a concept that I hope can help Appalachian studies and transnational feminist scholars continue to consider rhetorical meaning-making in rural sites within their political economic context. Appalachian studies helps us to see the ways that activism takes place in rural spaces (Eller, Lewis, NeCamp). In fact, Appalachian studies provides a nuanced framework for thinking about rural sites as places with rich histories of activism and highly contextualized relationships to landscapes and for thinking about histories of women protesting mountaintop removal in Appalachia, specifically (Bell). I suggest that these analyses can be further enriched by an examination of Appalachian protest in connection with transnational political economic rhetorics of neoliberalism. I provide a beginning toward this questioning. As a working-class woman who grew up in Appalachia, among generations of working-class family members, I have seen just how deeply rooted and internalized neoliberal rhetorics become and how often they are forgotten about in wider public discourse. As a white, U.S. born woman, I do also benefit from the racial privilege unjustly afforded to me by historical and contemporary collides between global political economics and racism. In the work that follows, I look at one example of resistance in West Virginia, one part of the Appalachian region through a transnational feminist rhetorical lens in order to begin to address these gaps.

The same neoliberal economic system that women in Uganda responded to operates as an exigency for protests in West Virginia. Both groups use their physical bodies in ways that play on and subvert local, cultural codes to make their position in the political economy visible and to turn the gaze of the public eye to these intentionally forgotten places. They counter rhetorics of profit by showing how they are actually rhetorics of violence in disguise. Both groups speak not individually but show a collaborative model of rhetorical agency, though more so in the Uganda example, as Marilyn Mullens is the most prominent voice in and organizer of the West Virginia protest.

There are perhaps no better words with which to introduce the 2013 protest where dozens of West Virginian women shaved their heads while standing on the steps of the state capitol building in protest of mountaintop removal for mining than those of Marilyn Mullens, one of the protest leaders. In an interview before the protest, she contextualizes the group’s efforts:

Tomorrow we’re planning an event in Charleston at the West Virginia State Capitol steps, a silent protest, where women from Appalachia will come together to shave our heads. We want to show a solidarity with our mountains that are being stripped, our people that are getting sick. Just to show that we’re willing to give up something to get people to pay attention. I grew up in the coalfields in Boone County, in Sand Creek Hollow mostly. Living there, it’s coal mining. That’s the big industry. (Mullens, emphasis added).

Mullens’ own words show us the power of affective rhetorical resistance: to make audiences look.  These rhetors use their bodies to draw attention to the material impacts of neoliberalism, as she notes when citing the “big industry” responsible for their cause. Like the protest in Uganda, these women also challenge stereotypes of what gendered bodies are supposed to do and look like in public space. One image that depicts this well is their fallen, cut hair lying on the steps of West Virginia state capitol.

The image shows piles the protester's hair. The long hair is laying on white concrete steps. The chunks of hair apparently come from multi people, as they range in color from white, black, and brown.

Figure 2: Protester’s fallen hair on the West Virginia state capitol building steps. The image shows piles of protesters fallen hair laying haphazardly on white concrete steps of state capitol steps. The chunks of straight and wavy hair range in color from white, black, and brown.

A striking image of the protesters’ fallen hair on the state capitol building’s steps is worth discussing. This image and the protest itself is a symbolic, rhetorical act — one that intervenes in public space in ways that both bring attention to the silenced issue of mountaintop removal for mining and that challenges traditional, stereotypical notions of femininity through the act of shaving their hair on the state capitol building’s steps. Strategically playing on an audience that might believe in these stereotypes of how women’s bodies should exist in public — stereotypically beautiful and silent — these women rhetorically position shaving their heads as a loss, stating that they are “willing to give up something” (Sierra Club).

I chose to include the image of the women’s hair fallen on the capitol steps, in particular, because the haphazard nature in which the hair is fallen visually represents the destruction that these protesters intended to draw onlookers attention to. This image shows the way that the highly affective nature of this protest strategy culminates in rhetorical power and moves the audience to awareness surrounding mountaintop removal and the resulting destruction to the lives and livelihoods of the Appalachians in this community. When I look at the images, I am moved and reminded of the destruction that I have also witnessed growing up working class in a different area of the Appalachian region that has only weathered the consequences of environmental destruction for profit. However, for readers who may not be as familiar with this kind of destruction, these protesters use their silence and their body movements to move their audience to awareness. When I look at this image, I see how these protesters used affective rhetorical resistance to move audiences to action.

As Mullens explains, they wanted people to “pay attention,” a statement that shows how they turned to this affective rhetorical act when traditional linguistic acts did not work. They turn notions of silence in public on its head by using an affective rhetoric to stay linguistically silent but speak volumes with their bodies on the steps of the state capitol. As Cheryl Glenn explains in her theory of rhetorical silence,

…we all inhabit silence: in a kaleidoscopic variety of rhetorical situations, taking up “the politics of space, place, and time” (Schell 923). Ever sensitive to kairos, to the appropriateness of the occasion, we attempt to fashion our communication successfully, through words or silence. After all, the stupendous reality is that language itself cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists most of all in silences. (263)

They are silent, but they speak volumes.

Taking the two case studies together,  we notice strategic uses of both sound and silence alongside the visual and affective rhetorical strategies these women use their bodies to deploy. Whereas the women in Uganda use their bodies and their words, shouting “Lobowa, Lobowa!” which means “our land” in the Luo variety, as they stripped naked, lifted their legs, and rolled, the women in West Virginia chose to use silence while similarly positioning their bodies in unexpected ways that draw on and subvert cultural codes of femininity to draw attention to issues of labor and land exploitation that have not been listened to in traditional rhetorical channels.

Both of these instances show that rural places may call for embodied forms of rhetorical resistance that force audiences to listen and to look, calling attention to this site ignored by governmental officials and news outlets.  Protesters demonstrate a keen understanding of the ways that rhetorical readings of their bodies through raced and gendered lenses constrain and frame their meaning-making. They use their bodies in unexpected ways (stripping naked, shaving their heads) to draw attention to their otherwise overlooked causes.The case studies of affective rhetorical resistance that I provided here, I hope, start a conversation about the most meaningful ways that affect and transnational feminist rhetorical analysis can intersect. Affect can show us how economic realities physically fall on bodies through labor exploitation and how women use their physical bodies to protest these conditions.

These two case studies show us that sometimes we must look at not only strictly linguistic situations, but rhetorical situations using the body to see rhetorical success. Both of these groups of protesters used their bodies in unexpected ways in order to achieve governmental changes and attention from a broader audience as they intended. In particular, rural sites that may not receive as much attention from wider audiences may use affective rhetorical resistance in order to draw attention to the lived impacts of neoliberalism that go unnoticed, as protesters in Uganda and West Virginia have done. We can see how bodies are used when words fail to be listened to. We can see how, particularly in rural contexts that are forgotten, and even more so among people marked by race, class, gender, and problematic conceptions of the Global North and South, these rhetors use their bodies to force us to listen. Where else might we look? How might there be rhetorical success under the surface? In what other instances are rhetors using their bodies to draw attention to the lived reality of neoliberalism?

I urge transnational feminist scholars and feminist rhetoricians to look to spaces that seem like rhetorical failure and see how rhetors might be using their bodies rhetorically in those spaces, to see where rhetorical success might be under the surface. I urge feminist activists to look to protests like those in Uganda and West Virginia to see how they might use an affective rhetorical resistance to make them look, to make them listen. These protests are only a couple of examples in a wider pattern of bodily protest. More than showing two responses to violence in Uganda and West Virginia, my intention is to provide these as examples in effective, affective rhetorical strategies to use when words alone are not listened to and acted upon by audiences who have power to change material circumstances. This allows feminist rhetorical scholars a new way of reading seeming silence, of reading bodily movement along with words, in order to see rhetorical activism. By employing an affective rhetorical analysis, rhetorical scholars  can continue to see rhetoric where it perhaps is not heard, activists can adopt these successful bodily strategies, and stakeholders and policy makers can listen and look to protests in these moments of activism.

End Notes:

[1] Bodily protest has a long history, but bodily and nude protests have become a more prominent trend in protest strategies in recent years (Sassion-Levy and Rapoport).

[2] For more information on this, see the book by Dingo and Reidner Beyond Recovery which is under consideration with University of Pittsburgh Press. In my reading and conversations with them as a Research Assistant, I have seen how their work shows that rhetorics that circulate to shore up nation-state and global projects of neoliberalism and biocapitalism also depend on gendered performances of the physical bodies — in this case, the bodies of Malala Yousafazi and Ahed Tamimi.

[3] These are only some of the many impressive works on the body and circulation within feminist rhetoric.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life.  Durham UP, 2017.

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, no. 20, 1991, pp. 5-32. Stable URL:

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth. Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice. U of Illinois P, 2013.

Bohrer, Ashley. “Neoliberalism Laid Bare: Feminism, Intersectionality, and Nude Protest in the 21st century.” Melbourne Journal of Politics, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 3-19.

Byaruhanga, Catherine. “The Ugandan Women Who strip to Defend their Land.” BBC News Africa, 2015, Accessed 28 October 2021.

Colpean, Michelle, and Rebecca Dingo. “Beyond Drive-by Race scholarship: The Importance of Engaging Geopolitical Contexts.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no.4, 2018, pp. 306-11.

Dicaglio, Sara and Lori Beth De Hertogh. “Introduction to “Rhetorical Pasts, Rhetorical Futures: Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy.” Rhetorical Pasts, Rhetorical Futures: Reflecting on the Legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and the Future of Feminist Health Literacy, special issue of Peitho, vol. 21, no. 3, 2019, pp. 565-72.

Dingo, Rebecca. Networking Arguments. U of Pittsburgh P, 2012.

Dingo, Rebecca, Rachel Reidner, and Jennifer Wingard. “Toward a Cogent Analysis of Power: Transnational Rhetorical Studies.” JAC, vol. 33, no. 3/4, 2013, pp. 517-528.

Eller, Ronald. Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945. UP of Kentucky, 2008.

Fleitz, Elizabeth. “Key Concept Statement: Material.” Special 25th Anniversary Issue, special issue of Peitho, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 34-8.

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

Hesford, Wendy S., and Eileen E. Schell. “Introduction: Configurations of Transnationality: Locating Feminist Rhetorics.” College English, vo. 70, no. 5, 2008, pp. 461-70.

Lewis, Ronald L. Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920. U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol 25, no.1/2, 1997, pp. 278-85.

“Marilyn Mullens.” The Cost of Coal. 27 May 2012, Accessed 30 September 2021.

NeCamp, Samantha. Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspapers, and Writing in Appalachia. UP of Kentucky, 2020.

Sasson-Levy, Orna, and Tamar Rapoport. “Body, Gender, and Knowledge in Protest Movements: The Israeli Case.” Gender & Society, vol. 17, no. 3, 2003, pp. 379-403.

Selzer, Jack, and Sharon Crowley, editors. Rhetorical Bodies. U of Wisconsin P, 1999.

Ouellette, Jessica. “Blogging Borders: Transnational Feminist Rhetorics & Global Voices.” Harlot: A Revealing Look at the Arts of Persuasion, vol. 1, no. 11, 2014.

Shellenberger, Lorin. “Imagining an Embodied Ethos: Serena William’s ‘Defiant’ Black Ethe.” Peitho, vo. 22, no. 2, 2020.

Stillion Southard, Belinda. How to Belong: Women’s Agency in a Transnational World. Pennsylvania State UP, 2018.

Rhetorical Failures and Revisions in the Second-Wave: Emerging Intersectionality in the Ethe of Activist Zelda Nordlinger

Feminist scholars often characterize the second wave [2] as a movement disproportionately focused on white middle-class issues, led by activists who were unconcerned with the lived experiences, goals, and desires of marginalized women. The movement in the 1960s and 1970s has become known for its ignorance of intersectionality, seeking instead to group all women—regardless of race, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status—into one movement with the same agenda for feminist equality [3]In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, for instance, bell hooks argues that although second-wave feminists urged “unity” among all women, this quest for female solidarity and sisterhood—championed primarily by white, middle-class women—ultimately “ignore[d] the differences between their social status and the status of masses of women” (25). Following hooks in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, Cheryl Glenn embeds this depiction into the field of feminist rhetorical studies, adding that the second-wave movement neglected to address the “range of needs experienced by so-called Others—nonwhite, working poor, lesbian, bisexual, and non-Western women (and men)” (31). Though second-wave feminism did focus on the issues of middle-class white women, Glenn contends that it is this discrimination by the era’s activists that paved the way for intersectionality and hope. She writes, “The fissures within the second-wave feminist movement offered perfect opportunities for rhetorical feminists to disidentify with hegemonic feminist rhetoric…The time was ripe for feminism—and feminist rhetoric—to leave its homogenizing tendencies behind” (31).  But how did this unfold, and how did change occur within the second-wave movement? The archived papers of second-wave feminist activist Zelda Nordlinger prove to be a rich resource for examining intersectionality as it was emerging within and in conflict with second-wave ideologies.  

In this article, I argue that the archived materials of a local activist in Richmond, Virginia offer a glimpse into this emerging intersectionality in the second wave through the ethe Nordlinger develops in her writing. Nordlinger was, in many ways, the most typical of second-wave feminists: white, middle-class, well educated. She organized sit-ins, protests, and meetings, and she was integral in establishing the Richmond chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her archived letters, speeches, and essays lean heavily on typical second-wave rhetoric, and much of her language demonstrates a disregard for racial and socioeconomic difference. Yet, there are slivers of emerging intersectionality seemingly at odds with her second-wave ethos, and it is in Nordlinger’s consideration of this intersectionality that researchers may peek at the shift toward leaving “hegemonizing tendencies behind” in the historical moment of the second wave (Glenn 30).   

Using Nordlinger’s archived papers, I demonstrate first how Nordlinger’s comparisons—metaphors, analogies, and similes—function to build an ethos rooted in the “problematic practices” of second-wave feminism (Brown 255). Her documents feature comparisons that are troubling, such as comparing the feminist movement to the civil rights movement and middle-class women to those enslaved in the Antebellum South. By contemporary understandings of intersectionality, these comparisons, and the ethos Nordlinger constructs through them, “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Yet, her rhetoric is more complex than that, and her papers reveal a competing ethos sympathetic to emerging intersectionality, as she learned to be an ally of women across the boundaries of race and socioeconomic status. Specifically, Nordlinger demonstrates a humble embrace of revision to her practices and ideas to become more attuned to the needs of varying communities of women. With these opposing ethe—a typical second-wave ethos and a revisionist ethos—Nordlinger stands as an example of the growth and the complexity of crafting a feminist ethos before the term intersectionality had a pervasive impact on feminist thought. Through an examination of her ethe, I offer Nordlinger’s writing as an archival case study that captures a brief moment in the emergence of intersectionality and carves a trajectory for continued revision of the practice of rhetorical feminism.  


Many people outside of Virginia are unfamiliar with Nordlinger. She was not a national leader for the second-wave movement, but a mother who, like countless others, read The Feminine Mystique and became enlightened and enthralled with seeking equality for women. In a 2007 interview, Nordlinger reflects on that transformative moment in which she became a feminist. She said: 

Well, after about a week of simmering [on Friedan’s work], I called the YWCA and asked them if they knew of anybody that was interested in the women’s movement or the feminist movement. “No,” they said, “no.” I said, “Well, I wonder if you all down there would agree to let me have a meeting room and let me host a meeting of the people who might be interested in forming a feminist group?” And they said it would be alright. So, I posted the notice, and a week later five of us got together at the YWCA. And that was the beginning of the feminist group here in Richmond. (Nordlinger “Interview” 14-15)  

After Nordlinger’s introduction to Friedan, she adopted the tenets of mainstream second-wave feminism with moxie and organized a founding group of feminists in Richmond. Although the locus of her influence was Virginia, Nordlinger stands as an example of the many women around the nation who were championing a localized feminist movement. Her position as relatively typical of a second-wave feminist allows for her to serve as a case-study example of the ideologies that influenced the movement on a local-activist level.   

Considering that Nordlinger’s influence was confined primarily to Richmond, the status of the city in the 1970s is key to understanding her activist movements because “location” and place “matter when we talk about feminist activism” (Gilmore 113). The challenges of Richmond were unique because the city is situated in the American South, where segregation existed in full force, and the practice of slavery and process of emancipation were influential memories for Richmonders. Furthermore, the city in the 1970s was not particularly amicable to the women’s rights movement: the state had rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), the traditions of the deep South and “southern belle” mentalities were prominent, and the city’s newspapers were overtly skewed conservative (VanValkenberg 17). These factors led to a general opposition to a progressive women’s movement that caused Nordlinger to reflect years later (in 1983) that “being a feminist in Richmond can be compared to being an evangelist missionary in a house of ill-repute . . . it’s been damned hard” (Nordlinger “Tenth Anniversary” 1). Despite the struggle, she continued to lobby for her convictions. Most notably, Nordlinger was instrumental in beginning the Richmond chapter of the NOW and for leading a sit-in at an all-male restaurant attached to a department store, Thalhimers. Although the ERA was never ratified in Virginia in her lifetime[4] and progress was excruciatingly slow, Nordlinger and her colleagues remained active in organizing peaceful protests, lobbying, giving speeches, and writing letters to newspapers, magazines, and politicians seeking equal rights for women through the early 1990s.  


Upon her death in 2008, Nordlinger donated all her personal papers to three libraries in Virginia—the Library of Virginia, James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Earl Gregg Swem Library at William and Mary. Her collections include stacks of newspaper clippings and notes relating to women’s rights, along with letters, speeches, and essays penned by Nordlinger.[5] I approached the archives knowing that Nordlinger’s words would be embedded in a movement marked by heightened racial tension, so I sought to heed Tessa Brown’s directive:

White women scholars can contribute to this tradition [of critiquing oversight of black influence in white women’s rhetoric] by practicing reflexivity as a reflex, persistently centering racial analysis to any study of white rhetors and interrogating how our own rhetoric as white women resurfaces problematic practices. (Brown 255)

Nordlinger’s writing certainly includes “problematic practices,” and by centering this study in a racial context, I could examine the tensions between Nordlinger’s oversight of African American influence in her ethos development and her “reflexivity” as she reflects upon and revises those “problematic practices” while grappling with questions of emerging intersectionality (Brown 255). With each archival document I reviewed, I sought to answer the question, “Is Nordlinger saying anything about intersectionality here?” Ultimately, I discovered a more nuanced picture of intersectionality in the second-wave feminist movement than I originally imagined.  

Rhetorical Failures 

Feminist rhetorical scholars could deem much of the problematic rhetoric of the second wave to be rhetorical failures, and Nordlinger was certainly not immune to these missteps. Glenn explains: 

Despite their best intentions, middle-class white heterosexual feminists failed rhetorically, as they did not consistently attend to the petitions of feminist activists not working in and for mainstream feminist issues, those women who acknowledged what would come to be called “intersectionality” … Instead, these second-wave feminists used their rhetoric (without giving much thought to their “identities”) to speak and write publicly on behalf of “the” feminist movement (as they so often did and were expected to do). (30-31).  

 Despite her own best intentions, Nordlinger, as a “middle-class white heterosexual feminist,” often “failed rhetorically” (Glenn 30). Beyond “speaking and writing publicly on behalf of ‘the’ feminist movement” (Glenn 31), Nordlinger, in her writing, strives to craft a second-wave feminist ethos by comparing her own struggles as a woman to the struggles of the civil rights movement and those enslaved in the Antebellum South, disregarding the stark differences between her own plight and those of marginalized groups, specifically African Americans.  

Exemplifying this rhetorical failure, Nordlinger relies on two problematic comparisons consistently through her writings that she implements to build her second-wave feminist ethos: (1) being a woman in the United States in the 1970s is a form of slavery and (2) the women’s rights movement is an extension of the civil rights movement. Sometimes, she states these comparisons as metaphors, and other times, she hedges them in similes and expands them as extended metaphors. Fahnestock offers definitions of metaphor, extended metaphorsimile, and analogy that link all four types of comparisons together in their rhetorical function. For Fahnestock, metaphor occurs when a rhetor brings “over a term from an ‘alien’ lexical/semantic field to create a novel pairing that expresses a point trenchantly” (104). The extended metaphor continues to “draw terms from the same newly introduced lexical/semantic field” (107). Similes are like metaphors because the simile “expresses an explicit comparison,” while the metaphor expresses an “implicit” comparison (110). The comparison is the same, but simile executes it in a less powerful way, deeming on entity to be like or similar to the other instead of a substitution for the other (as a metaphor does). Both forms of comparison—metaphor and simile—are “truncated” arguments based on underlying, ideological analogies (110). Put simply, the ideological analogy is the foundation upon which rhetors build a metaphor; an extended metaphor and a simile are alternate expressions of that metaphor. Whatever form the comparison takes, it is the manifestation of an underlying, ideological analogy. For Nordlinger, that analogy is one fairly common among women’s rights activists of the time: 

Womanhood : Modern Slavery :: African-American : Historical Slavery 

Feminist Movement : Gender Liberation :: Civil Rights Movement : Racial Liberation 

The metaphors, extended metaphors, and similes that Nordlinger employs are truncated versions of the analogies above, and they function as ethos-building mechanisms in her writing that assist Nordlinger in forming connections with her audience.  

Comparisons such as those used by Nordlinger are key in ethos-building because they “typically draw on the more familiar…to explain the less apparent” (Fahnestock 106). The realm of familiarity offers a connection point between the reader and the writer so that the writer may then “create new links” upon which to build her argument (Fahnestock 105). These “new links” function to craft an ethos that the audience identifies with and understands (105). Jonathan Charteris-Black situates metaphors in political contexts to demonstrate the ethos-building that occurs through the use of such comparisons. He explains that the metaphor creates a connection with the reader (often through an affective response) that allows the reader to form an impression of the writer’s character based on the writer’s revelation of shared familiar ideologies (Charteris-Black 20). That is, the connection forms at the familiar ideological meeting point between audience and rhetor. Such a practice of finding a mutual familiarity offers a platform upon which a rhetor can build ethos with her audience. Nordlinger relies on familiar ideas to introduce something new, and in the process, she crafts an ethos for herself that aligns with the causes and practices of the second wave, situates her as a member of a larger and more established movement, and connects her own views to the “ethical ideals” of her reader (Charteris-Black 203). There are numerous examples of Nordlinger comparing the women’s rights movement and middle-class white women to the civil rights movement and enslaved African Americans (respectively) as she leans on shared familiar ideologies to develop her second-wave feminist ethos. In three documents—an untitled early 1970s speech, a letter to Senator Douglas Wilder, and a letter to Jacqui Ceballos—she compares womanhood to slavery. Four documents exemplify her comparison of the women’s rights movement to the civil rights movement: a speech to the Jewish Women’s Club, an untitled early 1970s speech, a speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club, and a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  

Nordlinger first introduces this comparison that connects womanhood to enslaved African Americans in an untitled speech from the early 1970s.[6] She writes, “Both blacks and females have played distinctive roles in western culture—they serve their white male masters.” (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1). The key embedded metaphor here is that man is a master (a term directly associated with slaveholders in the Antebellum South) and, in an extension of the metaphor, women, like African Americans, are servants to those masters. In this speech, Nordlinger forms a link between slavery (with which her audience of Richmonders was likely familiar) and feminine oppression, and this comparative move functions to build ethos because she relies on a shared familiar ideology (slavery) to introduce a new ideology (the oppression of females). Leaning on that shared familiar ideology, she introduces a less familiar concept: the plight of women. The shared familiar ideology of slavery acts as a meeting point for audience and rhetor; if Nordlinger and her audience both hold a similar ethical relationship with slavery, they can find commonality at that point to examine new, similar concepts. That space of commonality establishes an ethos for Nordlinger with her audience and grants her a form of credibility to build her argument for the women’s rights movement.   

Additionally, in a 1972 letter to Senator Douglas Wilder as part of a plea for the senator to ratify the 19th Amendment (ERA), she writes, “Take courage, sir; Frederick Douglas [sic] understood the relationship between slavery and the plight of the female. We are both victims of WASPS!” (Nordlinger “Letter to Senator Douglas Wilder” 1). Leaning on Frederick Douglass to support her own argument, Nordlinger uses the term “relationship” to create a simile, or “an explicit comparison” between slavery and womanhood (Fahnestock 109). Her ethos-building move in this letter is like the comparison she makes in her early 1970s speech as she relies on the shared familiar ideology of slavery as a common foundation for introducing second-wave feminism. Nordlinger’s audience in this letter would have been familiar with the work of Frederick Douglass and the horrors of slavery and sympathetic to emancipation and desegregation—Senator Douglas Wilder was the “first African American state senator in Virginia since Reconstruction,” his grandparents were enslaved, he attended school during segregation, and Frederick Douglass was his namesake (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “L. Douglas Wilder”). In hopes of building ethos based on a connection to a shared familiar ideology, Nordlinger forms her argument to Senator Wilder for feminism through a comparison to slavery, a problematic simile she uses to build ethos as a new feminist in the second wave.      

Even into the 1990s, Nordlinger continues to rely upon a comparison between women and slavery. Nordlinger’s archives contain a letter composed in 1998 to Jacqui Ceballos[7] of the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA). In this letter, Nordlinger seeks to be included among the members of that society, so she makes a short case for admission in the group to Ceballos. Looking back on her heyday during the second wave, Nordlinger recounts some of her notable achievements in an ethos-building move to gain credibility with Ceballos: “marches, speech-making, and integrating an all-male soup bar, just to name only a few things I’ve done” (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1). Then, in the next paragraph, she writes: 

Living in the Capitol of the Confederacy presents unique problems…Southern ‘gentlemen’ are trying to hang on to the last vestage [sic] of the slavocracy, and their women, though reasoned, are keeping themselves in the traditional chains. The young women, thankfully, are emerging from sexual slavery. (Nordlinger “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 1) 

In this reflective letter, Nordlinger makes an even more direct connection between slavery and the plight of women through this extended metaphor. She first demonstrates that the issues she references are specifically issues of the middle- to upper-class, stating that it is the women of “gentlemen” who are holding on to traditional gender roles. Those roles, she considers to be “slavocracy,” and she invokes the image of chains in reference to the women of the middle- and upper-class and notes that a new generation is “emerging from sexual slavery.” This passage, again, assists Nordlinger in crafting an ethos, but given its timeframe and its audience, the move is slightly different than in the previous two examples. In the first two passages above, Nordlinger’s audiences were being introduced to the budding idea of women’s rights. Ceballos, on the other hand, had been lobbying for the same equality as Nordlinger for more than 25 years in New York City. In this letter, Nordlinger uses the slavery comparison to demonstrate an unfamiliar iteration of feminine oppression—one specifically located in the American South. By leaning on the shared familiar concept of slavery, Nordlinger can present a localized picture of the second-wave feminist fight to her audience and build ethos with Ceballos as an activist with a shared sense of necessary liberation. Her repeated, problematic comparisons of white women’s struggles with slavery demonstrate the second-wave’s lack of understanding of intersectionality. 

Nordlinger makes similarly problematic comparisons between the second-wave movement and the civil rights movement. Historically, the civil rights movement was a foundation for the women’s rights movement, so this comparison that Nordlinger makes is not uncommon (Key 104). Nordlinger’s second-wave feminist movement in Richmond ignited in the years closely following the civil rights movement and the abolition of Jim Crow Laws (which occurred in 1965). Similarities between the two movements are not to be overlooked. Key explains: 

As black women in Richmond reinforced progress for the black race, white women piggybacked this approach ten years later as one strategy in the continuing resistance against gender bias… The civil rights movement was in essence a launching pad for feminism in Richmond and elsewhere. (14, 104) 

Nordlinger and the feminists of the second-wave owed many of their tactics to the example and effectiveness of the civil rights movement, and many feminists of the time counted the radical women of the civil rights movement to be role models (Roth 8). However, race relations in America in the 1970s and socioeconomic gaps between women made this relationship between the two movements knotty at best. Nordlinger, a white, middle-class woman, along with her fellow feminists in Richmond, sought to transform the fight from desegregation to “desexigration” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sylvia Roberts” 1), but this was not a smooth transition because differences in race and class complicated the feminists’ desire for all women to become part of a “sisterhood” (Nordlinger “Letter to Chris” 5) fighting for equality for their gender. Nevertheless, Nordlinger makes clear connections between the second wave and the civil rights movement, and rhetorically, these comparisons function in a similar way to her comparisons to slavery. By aligning the second-wave movement to a successful civil rights movement in the recent past, Nordlinger links the ideologies of the civil rights movement with her own to establish credibility with her audiences.   

For example, in a speech given to the Jewish Women’s Club in 1976 [8], Nordlinger said, “The civil rights movement was a training ground for the feminist rebellion” (Nordlinger “Speech to Jewish Women’s Club” 2). A Jewish woman herself, Nordlinger was adamant about enacting change within her own religion, but the Jewish women in Richmond were slow to adopt radical feminism. She reflects, “The Jewish women here in Richmond are not at all receptive to the feminist movement…they’re extremely conservative here in Richmond” (Nordlinger “Second Interview” 2). To build ethos with a group of Jewish women, she relied on a common comparison—the feminist rebellion to the civil rights movement. The women in her audience would have experienced the numerous protests of African Americans in Richmond and witnessed the abolition of Jim Crow Laws in their lifetime. The shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement acts as a familiar meeting point for her to build an ethos with her audience and present a new concept for similar freedom for women.  

Nordlinger replicates this comparison of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement throughout several of her archived documents. In an undated and untitled speech [9] likely from the early 1970s, Nordlinger compares the civil rights movement to the women’s rights movement. She opens with:  

I would like to draw an analogy between the Black civil rights movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement: Black is ugly, Female is inferior…Blacks have been awarded low-paying menial labor, females have been kept as household serfs. White males have perpetuated a Capitalistic system through the cheap labor of Blacks and Females. (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 1)  

Nordlinger relies again on the civil rights movement in her controversial speech to the Fort Lee Officer’s Wives Club at For Pickett in 1971  [10] . She states, “The corollary between the Civil Rights movement and the women’s rights movement cannot be ignored…there is a definite parallel between the two” (Nordlinger “Speech to Officer’s Wives Club” 6). And in 1975, in a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,[11] Nordlinger solidifies this connection. She writes, “The changes [for women’s rights] now taking place in southern politics are the most significant since Reconstruction with credit going to activists in the civil rights movement” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1). In each comparison above, Nordlinger relies on the underlying analogy that the feminist movement vies for gender liberation as the civil rights movement sought racial liberation. Her audiences in Richmond would have been incredibly familiar with the civil rights movement and the liberation it brought to African Americans. According to the Virginia Historical Society, “…many of the most important legal landmarks of the civil rights movement originated in Virginia,” and the city of Richmond (as the capital) was the center of much activity during the movement (Virginia Museum of History and Culture “Civil Rights”). For building ethos, Nordlinger uses this shared familiar ideology of the civil rights movement to establish connection with her audience; this shared familiar ideology offers a foundation upon which she argues for women’s rights.

While each of these instances of comparison strives for ethos building with the best intentions for equality and were often rhetorically successful with her audiences, they are deeply problematic and indicative of Glenn’s depiction of failed rhetoric of second-wave feminists. Viewing these comparisons from the 21st century, the analogy of the plight of white, middle-class housewives to the plight of the African Americans in slavery or under Jim Crow Laws is incredibly off-putting, as there is no just comparison between the suffering of those enslaved and the inconveniences of the comfortable middle class. The metaphors and similes are inappropriate and built upon faulty analogies. Yet, Nordlinger maintained a local reputation as a relatively successful activist for Virginia’s women’s rights movement. Despite the insensitivity obvious to contemporary rhetors and feminist scholars, Roth sympathetically explains that such comparisons were perhaps an indicator of “just how seriously emerging white feminists took the struggle” for equality (188-9). Nordlinger’s comparisons to slavery and the civil rights movement in her writings work to amplify the significance of her subject matter, link her to the larger second-wave feminist movement, and develop an ethos rooted in a connection to her audience and readership through the use of familiar shared ideologies. Because leaning on the oppressive social structures of African Americans is a wholly unethical way to build ethos and craft socially just arguments for equality, though, modern feminists rhetors could view Nordlinger’s rhetoric as failing because of her lack of attention to intersectionality.    


If Nordlinger offers examples of the rhetorical failures of the second wave to recognize the intersectional issues of the era, what might feminist rhetorical researchers learn from her that both recognizes these rhetorical shortcomings and realizes that her work in the second wave paved the way for a shift towards intersectionality in later waves of feminism? The prime takeaway from Nordlinger’s archived collection is her desire to revise her ideas and her actions to be more attuned to the needs of women in marginalized communities. While she was building the ethos of a second-wave feminist, relying on problematic comparisons, Nordlinger was also building an ethos reflective of emerging intersectionality through a willingness to embrace revision in her thoughts and practices: a revisionist ethos.  

In “Constructing Essences: Ethos and the Postmodern Subject of Feminism,” Johanna Schmertz argues that feminism should take a up a new definition of ethos that allows for change in various moments. She writes, “I ultimately want to define ethos for feminism as neither manufactured nor fixed, neither tool nor character, but rather the stopping points at which the subject (re)negotiates her own essence to call upon whatever agency that essence enables” (Schmertz 86). For Schmertz, ethos is not a static entity that remains the same over time or something that a rhetor can pull out of her pocket to engage at a moment’s notice. It is in flux. This definition of ethos brings some clarity to Nordlinger’s shifting ethos—from one that uses racialized metaphors to one that welcomes revision toward intersectionality (and then at times, returns to those problematical racialized comparisons). This inconsistency is indicative of lived experience, as few rhetors present a consistent ethos through life. Nordlinger, while constructing an ethos that disregards difference in one scenario, was simultaneously, in other instances, building an ethos that accounts for the varying struggles across race and class lines as she acknowledged her shortcomings. It is in those moments of acknowledgement and revision that modern feminist researchers may see an intersectional feminist ideology as it is unfolding and developing, and Nordlinger’s papers offer a mere glimpse of this gradual (and eventually widespread) shift in feminist thought. Alongside Nordlinger’s contentious metaphors, similes, and analogies are revisions towards greater inclusivity and acknowledgement of difference among women across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. There are three specific instances in which Nordlinger revises her practices toward greater inclusivity—through critique in the planning of the Women’s Political Caucus, through listening to the voices of African American women at a 1971 Women’s Policy Council meeting, and through confronting her own privilege and position through reflection.  

Nordlinger revised her practices toward intersectionality when presented with critique. When organizing the conference for the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, Sarah Hughes wrote to Nordlinger[12] to criticize the $10 conference fee, explaining that it would exclude many members of lower socioeconomic status. Hughes wrote to Nordlinger:  

…the $10 registration fee is outrageous. This will certainly severely limit the constituency to affluent and sophisticated middle-class women…And I think the $10 fee puts the meeting beyond the means of even larger groups of women—for instance all those families who have children and whose paychecks barely stretch in which the woman is interested in women’s issues, but doesn’t have the kind of total commitment which will make spending $15 to go to Richmond for the day something other than an unthinkable extravagance” (Hughes 1). 

Hughes continues to express disapproval of the venue (the Richmond Holiday Inn) as “a place middle class women can afford and be comfortable in, but at a price which will exclude a number of Virginia Women” (Hughes 1). Between the choice of venue and the cost, for Hughes, the decisions about the conference were “unconsciously made” (Hughes 1). Hughes stood staunchly for intersectionality and criticized Nordlinger’s lack of consideration for women of lower socioeconomic status. However, her call for intersectionality was not just directed towards opening access for women based on monetary restraints, but she also recognized that the desires of African American feminists were often different than her own. She writes, “I don’t expect Black women to form a coalition with us on the basis of our feminist politics or really to be anything but quite wary of many of our ideas, if not hostile” (Hughes 2). Hughes rebukes Nordlinger’s focus on the white middle class and acknowledges difference in the aims of African Americans in the second-wave movement.  

Despite this sharp reproach, Nordlinger responds with humility and a desire for revision; she demonstrates appreciation toward Hughes for her critique, acknowledges it as necessary. Then, she moves to action. Showing appreciation, she writes, “Thank-you, Sarah, for your frank letter. I would hate to think that we allienated [sic] anyone for any reason whatsoever” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Nordlinger further acknowledges Hughes’s critique as “valid and most important,” agreeing that “the black women have their own problems, and they are indeed unique” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). Finally, Nordlinger acts on this rebuke. Sending out a new message about the event through the YWCA and several press releases, she deems the conference fee “not mandatory” and emphasizes in her messaging that “the Caucus welcomes all women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Sarah Hughes” 1). It is important to note that Nordlinger continues in this letter to express hope that she can locate a common ground with African American feminists, a sentiment reminiscent of the second-wave desire for universal womanhood and sisterhood.   

Upon further reflection about this specific event, Nordlinger writes to a friend and fellow activist in Mississippi, Llewellyn, stating, “You asked what we accomplished at the Caucus…. that’s a large order! First and most important, we brought women together from almost every level of society. We had business women [sic], mothers, social workers, teachers, older women, Black and White women, and young women” (Nordlinger “Letter to Llewellyn” 1). Nordlinger’s revisionist ethos in both her response to critique and her report to Llewellyn is different from the ethos she was building with her comparisons to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement; instead, she offers a move toward sensitivity of issues of those with lower socioeconomic status and begins to embrace the emerging intersectionality of the era. She revises through acknowledging her oversights and actively altering her practices. Nordlinger’s turn toward intersectionality in this instance is an imperfect step, but one that reveals both small revisionary progress and the friction between intersectionality and the guiding principles of the second-wave movement. 

Nordlinger also enacts a revisionist ethos upon listening to the needs of others, specifically an African American woman speaking at a Women’s Policy Council meeting in October 1971. In response, Nordlinger wrote to many of her news and press contacts to publicly plead for the inclusion of African American issues in the feminist fight, including Tom Belden (of United Press International), Mary Nell Duggan (of Women’s News), and Tony Radler (of WRVA Radio). To Radler, she writes:  

To quote a Black woman who was in the Va. W.P.C. as well as Women For Political Action: ‘Black women have problems that are different from yours; issues we (Va.W.P.C.) have adopted have been watered down as regards to Black Women. Be congnizant [sic] of the Black woman! You don’t want to undermine the movement.’ I believe, Tony, that the differences between White and Black women revolve mainly around birth-control and abortion repeal. For many years the Black women have been accused of being immoral as regards to illicit sex. They are having to live down that reputation. And here we are…middle-class White women talking about sexual freedom! … My dearest hope is that White women and Black women form a solid political block—both State-wide and Nationally! (Nordlinger “Letter to Tony Radler” 1)  

In a similar letter to Tom Belden, she invites him to attend a future meeting of African American activists and expresses a desire for understanding between the races and mutual inclusion (Nordlinger “Letter to Tom Belden” 1). At the Women’s Policy Council meeting she describes in these letters, Nordlinger was directly confronted with the difference in needs for African American women, and when she learned of these differences, she took action, revising the concept of the second wave that all women stood together on the same women’s issues. Here, Nordlinger holds on to the second-wave hope that women may bond together to create an effective “political block,” but she lets go of the notion that all within that force would have the same needs and agenda. To help others revise their thinking about homogeneity within the second-wave movement, she wrote to her news and press contacts to increase awareness of difference and incite action from her audience. As in her exchange with Sarah Hughes, Nordlinger takes on a revisionist ethos, revealing her subtle shift toward intersectionality.  

Self-examination and reflection further prompted Nordlinger to adopt a revisionist ethos. In an unpublished autobiographical work,[13]  Nordlinger writes:  

I saw a mix of attitudes and opinions about Civil Rights. Some, like Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy spoke of basic justice for all citizens. Then there was George Wallace and Orvill [sic] Faubus who maintained separation of the races was right and proper. Martin Luther King led marches through the South, cities endured race riots, and angry white people pledged opposition. Friends and relatives deplored the situation, maintaining outward indifference and inner confusion. I found myself hard-pressed to explain to my school-age children that they must accept black children in their schools. I was forced to reach deep inside myself, sorting out feelings and attitudes and examining them against my insulated background…Spurning the indifference I saw around me, I chose to join local demonstrations favoring busing of school children. I provoked arguments among my relatives and friends, taking from the confrontations renewed and more vigorous determination to defend my convictions. (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5)  

Here, Nordlinger reflects on her position in the civil rights movement as a white woman, and her self-examination prompted revision toward an intersectional view of equality. Specifically, Nordlinger recognizes her own shortcomings and her reluctance to speak to her children about accepting school integration. To do this she was “forced to reach deep inside” herself to understand her own privilege and the injustice at hand (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). As in other instances of her revision, she took action—this time by joining demonstrations and challenging the views of her relatives and friends. This practice of self-reflection as a catalyst for revision influenced her stance as a second-wave feminist, during which she continually re-examined “social customs and designs that had shaped [her] life” in an “odyssey from childhood to adulthood” that was “painful” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 5). Identifying these instances of privilege through self-reflection and examination was not easy for Nordlinger, yet the difficult process led to much needed revision. In moments of critique, listening, and self-examination, Nordlinger reveals a revisionist ethos and a willingness to compassionately alter her second-wave understanding of equality.  


Even if it is understandable that Nordlinger could have differing ethe at different moments in her life (as Schmertz contends), how might feminist rhetoricians today reconcile a revisionist ethos with Nordlinger’s problematic second-wave ethos revealed in the comparisons she makes between her own struggles to those of African Americans? Perhaps the best way to understand these contradictions is to consider Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s concept of “strategic contemplation” in how feminist scholars approach the messy, oft-problematic historical contexts revealed in the archives (84). Royster and Kirsch seek a meditative, intentional, revisionist ideal for the consideration of past rhetorical contexts. They write that strategic contemplation requires: 

…linger[ing] deliberately inside their research tasks…imagining the contexts for practices; speculating about conversations with people whom they are studying…paying close attention to the spaces and places both they and the rhetorical subjects occupy…and taking into account the impacts and consequences of these embodiments in any interrogation of the rhetorical event” (84-5). 

Specifically, such an approach allows researchers to “withhold judgment” for a time as we “ground the analysis more specifically within the communities from which [the rhetorical subject] emanates” so that we may “enact the belief that rhetorical performances are deeply rooted in sociohistorical contexts and cultural traditions,” as problematic as they may be (as in Nordlinger’s case) (85-6). Research within archives requires a deliberate examination of our research subjects’ ideologies (and the “consequences” of those ideologies) and a contemplation of those subjects not only as whole, flawed individuals, but also as members of complex rhetorical “contexts,” “places,” and “spaces” (Royster and Kirsch 84-5). Nordlinger struggled with the complexity of her context—of wanting women’s freedom, of not quite understanding the goals and needs African American women, and of striving for equality within a stratified social structure. In her struggle, though, there is both a warning against repeating the rhetorical failures of the second wave (to remain acutely aware that the ethe feminist rhetors construct can carry with them assumptions about race, social status, and the past) and an optimism for a revisionist ethos to prevail. Through Nordlinger’s failures, she revised toward inclusivity and intersectionality, but her revisions were not whole (even through the 1990s, she still made comparisons between women and those enslaved).[14] So, too, modern feminists’ conceptions of equality and intersectionality are not whole, and there is still much work to do[15]  as we “struggle collectively” towards equity in places of power imbalance (Dziuba).  

Nordlinger offers an example of how to move forward: through revision. For her, critique was welcomed and needed, and it required new, revised practices. Learning of another’s needs prompted action and speaking up, and critical self-examination led to change. In her “Manifesto of a Mid-Life White Feminist Or, An Apologia for Embodied Feminism,” Tracee L. Howell describes that this kind of revision is challenging: “Taking action that reveals one’s own vulnerability is often easier said than done within the patriarchy, no matter one’s power or privilege” (Howell). And with Nordlinger’s example of vulnerable action towards revision, I am left with what-ifs. While many feminist researchers already welcome opportunities to grow and revise toward more inclusive practices, what if that revision moved beyond feminist rhetoric and into the field at large? What if privileged rhetors (myself included) consistently responded to contemporary critiques against problematic or exclusionary practices with active revision? What if we humbly and repeatedly embraced opportunities to revise our ideologies when we learn new, more inclusive ways of acting and being? And what if feminist researchers return to the archives of second-wave activists to reexamine how they were—in small steps—revising their practices towards greater intersectionality? In pursuing these what ifs, I hope that we craft tangible “possibilities” for a more inclusive future (Glenn 193).  

End notes

[1]This archival research was made possible by the generous support of the Ellison Fellowship awarded by the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies and the contribution of the Rhetoric Society of America’s Graduate Student Development Award presented at the 2019 RSA Institute.

[2]There has been much debate by feminists and historians about whether or not to keep the wave metaphor in use when referencing feminist movements (See e.g. Bailey, Hewitt, and Reger). Despite this questioning of the metaphor, it is the most identifiable way to mark the period during which Nordlinger was a politically active feminist. I have adopted the term for this paper for that reason.

[3] See the work of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde for additional critiques of second-wave feminism.  

[4] Virginia did finally ratify the ERA in January 2020 (Williams). 

[5] This research focuses on those documents written by Nordlinger for outside audiences (not her notes-to-self), as with her compositions for other readers, she would likely have been more attuned to her ethos and rhetorical presentation.   

[6] The intended audience for this piece is unknown, as there is no indication in Nordlinger’s archives or news reports that reveal where she gave this speech. Based on context clues, such as Nordlinger’s citing statistics from 1968 and referencing Arthur Jensen’s research about IQ differences between race and gender published in 1968 and 1969 as a “recent study, this speech was likely delivered in the very early 1970s (Nordlinger “Civil Rights Comparison Speech” 2). Between 1970 and 1971, Nordlinger gave fifteen known speeches, and she sent copies of many of the manuscripts to Mereca Jane Pollack in June of 1972. In a cover letter accompanying those speeches that detail their context, Nordlinger indicates that this one could be one of several for which “she cannot recall the occasion” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). In all of these early speeches, Nordlinger’s audience was primarily Richmonders, as her influence had not yet spread beyond the city.  

[7] Ceballos is a feminist who was active during the secondwave movement in New York City. In 1992, Ceballos founded the Veteran Feminists of America (VFA), a non-profit organization with goals to “honor, record and preserve the history of the accomplishments of women and men active in the feminist movement, to educate the public on the importance of the changes brought about by the women’s movement, and to preserve the movement’s history for future generations” (Veteran Feminists of America “Mission Statement”). Nordlinger is included in the VFA’s book Feminists Who Changed America.  

[8] There is a possible discrepancy in the date of this speech. There is a hand-written note on the top of the document in the archives that says, “Speech To The Jewish Women’s Club 1976.” However, in a 1972 letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains that with the letter she has included a speech “made to The Jewish Women’s Club of Richmond nearly two years ago,” meaning 1970 (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Either these are the same speeches and the document in the archives has been misdated or Nordlinger gave two speeches, the first of which (in 1970) is missing a transcript. Of the speech that occurred in 1970 (whether this one or another unknown speech), Nordlinger indicates, “The reception to this presentation was cool…. (but polite). Within a day after it was presented, a prominent rabbi contacted me to inquire what I had told his women to get them so disturbed” (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1).  

[9] See note 6 about the date of this speech.  

[10] In her letter to Mereca Jane Pollack, Nordlinger explains the context of the speech. She writes in retrospect, “That one was a sensation…. not for its content, but because some of the officers wives organized a picket to protest my being invited to speak. The small group of women who had asked me to make the speech did not expect a boycott, and the press was thrilled over the ‘story’ (Nordlinger “Letter to Mereca Jane Pollack” 1). Despite this uproar, her rhetoric seemed to be successful. In a letter of thanks after the event, TE Ross wrote to Nordlinger saying, “You woke many a stagnant mind and brought on a new surge of awareness to us” (Ross “Letter to Nordlinger” 1).   

[11] Nordlinger penned this letter to the Richmond Times in response to an editorial piece published on June 6, 1945 about gender-based equality in education. Her overall critique of the news piece was that it presented information with an “ideological bias” and “distorted images” (Nordlinger “Letter to Richmond Times-Dispatch” 1).   

[12] Sarah Hughes was a white resident of Hampton, Virginia who was only marginally active in the feminist movement in the 1970s.  

[13] This piece was likely penned in the early 1980s. It is undated, but she opens the autobiography with “My life span of nearly fifty years…” (Nordlinger “An Unfinished Odyssey” 1).  Nordlinger was born in 1932 

[14] See “Letter to Jacqui Ceballos” 

[15] To this point, Cheryl Glenn explains, “All of us—hegemonic and marginal rhetoricians alike—already know that existing rhetorical theories do not yet fully account for the experiences and perspectives of all the humans who embody rhetorical expertise” (203).  

Works Cited 

Bailey, Cathryn. “Making Waves and Drawing Lines: The Politics of Defining the Vicissitudes of Feminism.” Hyspatia, vol. 12, no. 3, 1997, pp. 17-28. Stable URL: Accessed 17 October 2019.  

Brown, Tessa. “Constellating White Women’s Cultural Rhetorics: The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and its Contemporary Scholars.” Peitho Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 233-260.  

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