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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoric, Biopolitics, and Medical Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness and the Authorized Narratives of Trans Life

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

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

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

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

Patient Narratives and Affective Norms

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

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

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

Normalcy, Narrative, and Transmedicine

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

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

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

Narratives of Passing-As

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

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

Narratives of Passing-Over

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

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

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

Conclusion: On Demand

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

Link to video: https://youtu.be/NyB90Ynd0Qg

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

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

Gender Reveal Parties as Ideological Iteration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Reveal Party Fails as Ideological Rupture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Appendix: Detailed Script

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ, vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 387-422.
  • binaohan, b. decolonizing trans/gender 101. Biyuti Publishing, 2014.
  • Calafell, Bernadette Marie. Monstrosity, Performance, and Race in Contemporary Culture. Peter Lang, 2015.
  • —. “Performance: Keeping Rhetoric Honest.” Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, 2014, pp. 115-117.
  • Conquergood, Dwight. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” The Drama Review, vol. 46, no. 2, 2002, pp. 145-156.
  • Farzan, Antonia Noori. “A Border Patrol Agent threw a Gender-reveal Party. He Ended up Starting a 47,000-acre Wildfire.” The Washington Post, 1 Oct. 2018. Accessed 1 Aug. 2019.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, edited by David Forgacs, New York University Press, 2000.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Hall, Stuart. “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 2, 1986, pp. 28-44.
  • Jobran, Mojahed. “Gender Reveal Party Fail.” YouTube, uploaded by Mojahed Jobran, 13 Nov. 2016.
  • LeMaster, Lore/tta. “Embracing Failure: Improvisational Performance as Critical Intercultural Praxis.” Liminalities, vol. 14, no. 4, 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.
  • —. “Pedagogies of Failure: Queer Communication Pedagogy as Anti-Normative.” Critical Intercultural Communication Pedagogy, edited by Ahmet Atay and Satoshi Toyosaki, Lexington Press, 2018, pp. 81-96.
  • —. “Transing Dystopia: Constituting Trans Monstrosity, Performing Trans Rage in Torrey Peters’ Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones.” The Popular Culture Studies Journal, vol. 6, no. 2-3, 2018, pp. 96-117.
  • Leonardo, Zeus. “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the Discourse of ‘White Privilege.’” Educational Philosophy and Theory, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 137-152.
  • Lugones, María. “Methodological Notes toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latina/o Theology and Philosophy, edited by Ada Mara Isasi-Daz and Eduardo Mendieta, Fordham, 2011, pp. 68-86.
  • —.“Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 742-759.
  • McLaren, Peter. “Schooling the Postmodern Body: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Enfleshment.” Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics, edited by Henry A. Giroux, The State University of New York Press, 1991, pp. 144-173.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.
  • Ridolfo, Jim and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery.” Kairos, vol. 13, no. 2, 2009. Accessed 20 Jan 2020.
  • Roen, Katrina. “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 2001, pp. 253-263.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • Stryker, Susan. “More Words about ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein.’” GLQ, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 39-44.
  • —. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994, pp. 237-254.
  • Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. New York University Press, 2008.

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

Remembering, Renaming, Rewriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Othering Olive Oatman: Captivity Narratives as Displacement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fight for a Voice, the Control of Identification

Olive Oatman’s Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stratton’s Appropriation of Oatman’s Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetorical Identities: The Importance of Being Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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  • Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill, Cornell University Press. 1985.
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  • McGinty, Brian. The Oatman Massacre a Tale of Desert Captivity and Survival. University of Oklahoma, 2005. Kindle file.
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  • Monroe, M. H. Olive Oatman, c. 1837-20 Mar 1903National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
  • Moore, Cindy. “Why Feminists Can’t Stop Talking about Voice.” Rhetorical Women: Roles and Representations. Ed. Hildy Miller and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. pp. 191-205.
  • Myatt, Alice Johnston. “From Erasure to Restoration Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure.” Remembering Women Differently Refiguring Rhetorical Work. Edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.
  • Oatman, Olive. “Handwritten Narrative of Olive Oatman’s Captivity by the Apache and Mohave Indians, Passes Issued to the Yuma Indian who Affected Her Release, a Photograph, and Published Accounts of Her Captivity, as Presented on the Chautauqua Circuit.” 1856-1927. MMS 566 Olive Ann Oatman (1837-1903). Women’s Study Bibliography Manuscript Collections in the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. 16 October 2017.
  • Olive Oatman, The Apache Captive.” Sacramento Daily Union. Vol. 11, no. 15 1586, April 25, 1856. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  • Powell, Katrina M. Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2015.
  • Rice, William B. “The Captivity of Olive Oatman: A Newspaper Account.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1942, pp. 97–106. JSTOR.
  • Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (Composition, Literacy, and Culture). University of Pittsburgh Press. 2013.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press. 2012.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Haymarket Books, 2014.
  • Stratton, Royal B. Captivity of the Oatman Girls: Being an Interesting Narrative of Life Among the Apache and Mohave Indians. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
  • Szijarto, Istavan, and Sigurour Glyfi Magnusson. What is Microhistory? Routledge, 2013.

I Have Not Always Shown Humility: Reclaiming Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

In June of 2018, British historian Fern Riddell caused a social media stir by insisting on being referred to as Dr. Riddell, rather than accepting other people’s default of Miss or Ms., in recognition of her authority as a scholar. She described receiving immediate criticism, being “told that wanting my professional title to be acknowledged in a public setting, where I work as a public expert, is ‘vulgar’ and ‘immodest,’ and that I lack ‘humility’” (qtd. in Flaherty). While her critics have been vocal, she has also gained supporters, who use the hashtag #ImmodestWoman in solidarity. Such support, however, is far from universal. Pride in one’s self and accomplishments, not to mention humility, still looks very different for women than it can for men.

At times, it seems rather obvious that women and men can be judged differently on the basis of their rhetorical choices. For example, women face a particular double bind as teachers: “female instructors are expected to be nurturing and supportive; when they’re not, it may count against them in evaluations. At the same time, if they are nurturing and supportive, female instructors risk being perceived as less authoritative and knowledgeable than their male counterparts” (Mulhere). Still, too few people realize how tied to gender their irritation at an accomplished and proud woman like Riddell (or even their desire to downplay her accomplishments) is. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical approach in her presidential campaign was described as showing “intelligence, articulateness, politeness, and a wealth of knowledge” (Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton 185). Yet, “as a woman with those qualities, she also had to be taken down a notch or two—and not just by men, but by those women who resented what they saw as her haughtiness” (Bordo, The Destruction 195; italics in original). What might have worked for a man did not work for a woman, because despite her politeness, she lacked deference to male authority.

In lacking deference, as well as in experiencing a resultant backlash against their rhetorical approaches, Clinton and Riddell share something fundamental with women who have sought public voices throughout Western history. The rhetorical constructions of gender shaping the idea that “women take care, men take charge” (Huston 79) have deep roots, but they are worth considering anew as factors that influence how women experience voice and their receptions in positions of power. Exposing this communicative undercurrent opens a new dimension for considering the experience of one notable sixteenth century figure: Anne Boleyn. Despite her enduring popularity as an object of fascination, few scholars to date have considered her as a potentially skilled and instructive wielder of rhetoric. Instead, her transgressions of accepted feminine rhetorical practices have led many writers and scholars to consider her as rhetorically inept, arrogant, and unlikeable—the ultimate failed feminine public figure. What that idea supposes, however, is that a feminine public figure is what Anne’s use of wording and image was attempting to portray.

While some historical women were able to utilize traditional (i.e. male) rhetorical affordances of bold, public speech, most worked within a separate sphere of accepted female rhetorical forms, such as letters and interpersonal conversation (Donawerth). However, Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical style defies easy categorization, and the social boundaries she transgressed prevent us from seeing her potential as a figure of study. Yet her rhetoric shows us how one woman used language and imagery to challenge the constrictions against women’s voices in her historical moment. In doing so, she helps us question, perhaps even challenge, the constrictions of our own.

Anne is as much an obsession for the modern world as she was for Henry VIII. Many versions of her story, told in novels, histories, movies, and miniseries, invite controversy in their portrayals: Anne the schemer, Anne the seductress, and Anne the bitch battle it out with Anne the intellectual, Anne the politician, and Anne the religious reformer for space in our hearts and minds. Unsurprisingly, the darker, nastier Anne tends to win out in the balance of public opinion, as Dr. Susan Bordo explores in her work of history and cultural criticism, The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Even prominent historians present Anne as, essentially, a sexual predator who victimized her husband and a nation in her desire for power (Bordo 43). What isn’t as often acknowledged is that there is no historical basis for this interpretation; no factual, unbiased accounts exist to indicate that Anne set out to “trap” Henry or that show us her motivations. In fact, if we look more closely at Anne’s own words, a very different presentation of her actions and wishes emerges. The fact that history and fiction have yet to do this looking on a wide-scale tells us much about our own society’s view of women. We continue to define women in terms of “good” and “bad,” and in both our own time and in hers, the quality that puts Anne squarely in the “bad woman” category is her voice, her insistent sense of self: she made herself visible. Writers and historians assume for Anne the role of “bad woman”—using interconnected descriptors of her such as loud, shrill, cruel, and sexually voracious—perhaps without even realizing their own assumption, let alone questioning the social forces framing and encouraging those assumptions (Bordo, The Creation 47).

Regardless, Anne the historical figure and Anne the fictional character loom large in our cultural preoccupations. But Anne the rhetorician? Her we have yet to fully consider. At first glance, she may not appear to warrant such consideration. Yet when we do, we see that Anne’s use of rhetoric opens up new ways of thinking about her as a woman speaking publicly, specifically a woman who re-wrote the rules of what public address was supposed to look like and achieve. Rather than using the available means open to women, through visual messages and performances of gendered submissiveness, Anne usurped the male prerogative of bold speech, in order to create a persona of strength that was otherwise denied women. It was an approach that garnered an undeniably negative response from her contemporary audiences; through her unwillingness to alter her approach, Anne’s rhetoric calls into question why we speak out at all, especially if doing so goes against what our audience will accept.

The Historical Anne Boleyn

In Renaissance English society, women could conceivably achieve public roles and influence while maintaining the veneered gender performance of submission to the “natural order” in which men governed and woman obeyed. For example, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, was able to play a powerful cultural role during her son’s kingship, establishing educational institutions and promoting religious men of her choosing. Yet, in her early efforts to establish the kingship of her son, Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, she had to disavow her own right to the throne, despite the fact that Henry’s claim came through her. Men and women inhabited extremely rigid social roles, and these roles saw expression in the personas each gender was expected to adopt; for a woman, overt rulership was not on the table. Women’s submissive personas were demonstrated and shaped through a variety of rhetorical means, up to and including manners of speaking (Gibson 10), the rules of which Anne would decidedly break.

While Anne’s cultural context was more rigid in its gender norms and the consequences for transgressing them, the gender norms themselves bear a similarity to our expectations today. Generally speaking, gender rules continue to require participants to enact rigid definitions of male and female identity in order to achieve acceptance and reward. In Anne’s day, women’s gender performance emphasized “chastity, silence, and obedience,” while “courageous and active virtue” defined positive masculinity (Gibson 10). Shades of these ideals remain today, as Riddell’s case so starkly demonstrates. In fact, our continuing fascination with Anne and her story indicates that we see in it something of relevance to our own experience—there’s something in Anne’s story we haven’t worked out yet, as evidenced by her enduring presence in films, television shows, biographies, and novels, each with its own unique take on the events of her life and its meaning.

That so many different perceptions of Anne are possible stems from the inconclusiveness of her historical record; much of what can be known about Anne is brought to us through the biases of third party witnesses. More factual data about her was lost, in no small part by Henry VIII’s intentional efforts to erase her from history (Bordo, The Creation x). From a biographical standpoint, we can reasonably state that Anne Boleyn was born (in either 1501 or 1507, the date is disputed) to an upper class family, and her father served as an ambassador for King Henry VIII, a status that would have repercussions for Anne’s educational opportunities.

During Anne’s developmental years, women’s education in and use of rhetoric, in the sense of public speaking, was severely curtailed by their gender. While humanism sparked renewed societal interest in classical education and rhetorical studies, women’s expected roles in society, as chaste, obedient wives and mothers, meant that the education they received was “narrower, usually excluding substantial portions of the pagan classics” (Gibson 10), texts which were seen as essential to the rhetorical education of young boys. These boys were expected, in humanist educational theory, to become the men who would improve society though their participation in legal and political circles. Women, however, could benefit from education as a means to “strengthen and stabilize their characters” (Gibson 10)—given that society viewed women as inherently giddy and mentally and emotionally unstable, this was perceived as important work. In fact, women’s silence in the public arena became conflated with their proper performance of their gender role; “female silence was equated with chastity, female eloquence with promiscuity” (Jones qtd. in Levin and Sullivan 6). Thus, women’s education focused on issues of grammar, languages, and the translation of important texts (an activity which did not necessitate public speech), as opposed to rhetorical persuasion. While men were taught the “diverse forms of argument and the need for a practical grounding and application for argumentation” (Gibson 17), women who received any linguistic training learned to use language to “delight, but to persuade no one” (Gibson 19).

However, Anne would receive learning opportunities unavailable to most of her gender. Because of her father’s international connections, Anne’s family was able to send her to be educated in 1513 by Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, where she was taught French and court etiquette, subjects seen as fitting for her gender and station. In 1515 Anne went to France, where she became a companion and translator for the French Queen Claude. Here, Anne witnessed the political and intellectual prowess of women like Marguerite of Navarre and Louise of Savoy. While Anne, as a woman, likely never received a formal rhetorical education, through these international connections she gained role models for women as intellectual, outspoken, and politically powerful in a way they had never achieved in England (Lindsey 51). She would have been made aware of popular debates over women’s value and voice, and would likely have had access to Christine de Pizan’s popular Book of the City of Ladies, a famous fifteenth century rhetorical work refuting women’s inferiority and arguing for their right to educational opportunities (Bordo, The Creation 85). These experiences exposed Anne to humanist ideas unavailable to most English women.

It is also while in France that Anne is thought to have developed the religious views that would later influence England’s Reformation. William Latymer, her chaplain and an influential religious reformer, later described Anne’s reformist proclivities: she advocated for an English translation of the Bible, a copy of which she kept in her rooms for people at court to read. She used her authority to protect the illegal influx of vernacular Bibles into the country. This type of radical reformism earned her many enemies, and Anne seems to have done little to placate her opposition.

The progress and tone of Anne’s relationship with Henry is far from clear, though it hasn’t stopped both historians and novelists from assuming Anne dominated Henry with her sexual wiles in a bold attempt to “steal” him from his wife. In fact, what is more definitively documented is that Anne attempted to rebuff the king’s advances, as evident in Henry’s own surviving letters to her, as well as by George Wyatt, one of Anne’s earliest biographers. Yet historians and novelists have long attributed Anne’s refusal to become Henry’s mistress to coyness and design—Anne using sex as “bait” to make Henry leave his wife and marry her—though there is no evidence that this was actually her motivation. Whatever her intent, Anne was trapped by Henry’s desire, unable to marry elsewhere while pursued by the king (Lindsey 59). This does not mean, however, that she had no interest in him, as they at least initially shared intellectual and cultural interests. During the six years it took Henry to annul his first marriage, he wrote a series of passionate love letters to Anne that survive today. Unfortunately, Anne’s responses have never been found; in their absence, many historians and fiction writers alike have fallen back on the gendered cultural stereotype of the femme fatale, filling in the blank with an image of Anne as intentionally playing hard to get, an interpretation not substantiated by any real evidence.

After Henry declared himself head of the church in England in order to achieve an annulment, he and Anne married in 1533. Anne, however, seems to have had a deeper interest in religious reform, as evidenced by her work to popularize the vernacular Bible and protect religious reformers. William Latymer also provides evidence that, as queen, Anne was a vocal advocate for educational access and poverty relief. In her experience among figures such as Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy, and Marguerite of Navarre, such advocacy was well-within a queen’s purview (Lindsey 55).1 However, for Henry, Anne’s primary function was to provide him with a legitimate son, not to exercise political power. In fact, the letters of the French ambassador Jean du Bellay note that Henry later blamed Anne’s eventual execution on her “meddling” in his political affairs, a point he raised in order to warn a later queen not to do the same (Correspondence 506).

While Anne did give birth to a daughter in 1533, who would become the much-celebrated Elizabeth I, this was not enough to save her in Henry’s eyes. Anne had at least two miscarriages in the next two years, the second of which was believed to have been a boy. By 1536, Henry was publicly expressing his dissatisfaction with Anne. In early May, she was arrested and charged with adultery and treason. Her execution took place on May 19th; Henry announced his engagement to another woman (Jane Seymour) the following day.

Historians dispute the primary reasons behind Anne’s downfall, yet nearly all agree that she was innocent of the charges against her. As Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb explains, the accusations against her of adultery and incest were deliberately intended to play on the idea of Anne as a sexual predator, and therefore to make Henry seem more vindicated in seeking her death. Anne was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th.  This was the first execution of an English queen in history (although Henry would also execute a later queen, Anne’s cousin Katherine Howard, also for adultery).

Uncounted depictions of Anne’s story have been produced throughout the years since her death, and in them we can continue to read contemporary gender preoccupations (Bordo, The Creation 3-6). The Anne we see in these narratives can vary widely, from the feminist heroine of the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days (dir. Charles Jarrott) to the cold-hearted, power-hungry schemer of Hilary Mantel’s popular 2009 novel Wolf Hall. Yet all these depictions, factual and fictional, of Anne share a notable trait: in each, Anne is loud. She doesn’t keep silent; she’s willing to say things that can only make those listening angry. For some, the concept of a powerful, vocal woman is inspiring, but for many others, it is apparently as terrifying now as it was in the Tudor era. Yet for someone who has been characterized as so loud, little attention has been paid to what she actually said and how she said it.2

Anne Boleyn’s Rhetoric

Analysis of Anne’s rhetoric calls into question her customary use as a cautionary tale against female ambition (Bordo, The Creation 221), by asking us to reconsider what Anne’s ambitions were and how her rhetoric achieves them. It requires even more reconsideration of what a woman speaking boldly in such a rigid patriarchy could hope to do, and why. The traces of evidence we have for Anne’s rhetoric, including her letter from the Tower, her trial response, and her execution speech, argue that Anne was not necessarily seeking to persuade; she was using language and image to shape her own voice, to show herself as a woman capable of speaking boldly and valuing her own ideas, even if the cost of her voice was her own life.

That traditional persuasive rhetoric has long been a male preserve is well documented. Education as a whole has for centuries been shaped along gendered lines, with rhetorical study and training available to only a few privileged women, up until comparatively recently. During the 16th century in England, humanism provided slightly more opportunity for women to achieve formal education, but even then rhetoric was unlikely to be part of the curriculum. Dr. Maria Dowling explains that even among the privileged classes, “women were not trained for public office; their domain was the household, their cares were their own moral well-being and the upbringing of their children” (221). The learning women received was intended to thus “enhance those twin jewels, piety and chastity” (Dowling 221); a “good” woman, therefore, was not one brazen enough to speak or hold power in a public arena. Regardless of the fact that this era saw, by the necessity of succession, the first acknowledged queens-regnant in England’s history (Mary I, Elizabeth I, and arguably, the short-tenured Jane Grey), most women’s destinies were not seen as commensurate with formal rhetorical education.

In part, the conceived purpose of such an education made rhetorical training seem unnecessary, even dangerous, for women. Juan Luis Vives, who composed a plan for the instruction of Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Princess Mary titled Instruction of a Christian Woman, stated that “for maids to be eloquent of speech, that is to say great babblers, is a token of a light mind” (113). Despite the fact that his intended recipient of these instructions was not only a princess but, at the time, the heir apparent to the English throne, Vives believed Mary required “an education befitting her station—that of a silent, submissive woman and not of a vocal, aggressive ruler” (Vosevich 65). Vives demonstrates not only the patriarchal ideal of feminine education and behavior, but also that this ideal of womanly silence applied across social status boundaries: even queens should play their proper gender role.3 Tudor-era pedagogues, almost all of whom would have been teaching boys, would likely have defined rhetoric as the Greco-Romans had done, as the art of persuasion. Women, being as they were thought by nature less moral and logical, were thus not fit to be persuaders of men. Some women received such training despite this; Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, for example, studied classical rhetoric under her tutor Roger Ascham. On the whole, however, any education women received in literacy or communication would not have been intended to make them persuasive writers and speakers.

Anne’s rhetoric is therefore particularly intriguing. She doesn’t seem to have received any classical rhetorical education (which would not have been deemed necessary to her gender and station), and yet she does seem to have used language, presentation, and interpretation to establish voice and identity, if not necessarily to be persuasive. If we look at Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical purpose as primarily about audience persuasion, then she has far less to teach us. She was unable to “persuade” the people of England to accept her as queen, while even more specifically she was unable to argue herself out of arrest, a guilty verdict, and execution. By this definition, she is an exceptionally unsuccessful practitioner of rhetoric. Yet for such an unsuccessful communicator, Anne certainly continues to make her presence known. Defining her rhetoric as unsuccessful fails to explain the enduring quality of Anne’s voice and image in our literary and popular culture.

My listing of Anne’s persuasive “failures” does not mean she was incapable of influence. On the contrary, Anne Boleyn was capable of persuasion in a traditional sense. While we don’t know the rhetorical means she utilized to achieve her ends, the success of those ends themselves indicate that she was extremely skilled. Eric Ives notes that Anne was not just the reason for the Reformation, she was also the mental force behind the push for religious reform (48); her first biographer, George Wyatt, having spoken with those who had living memory of Anne, described her as the “mind [which] brought forth [to Henry] the rich treasures of love of piety, love of truth, love of learning” (29). She is described by one witness, Lancelot de Carles, as a skillful user of language as well as appearance to achieve rhetorical effects.

She was also able to persuade the king in smaller, more personal matters; for example, she convinced Henry to read the “heretical” book by William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, an incident that was related to George Wyatt by Anne’s former lady-in-waiting, Anne Gainsford. Even George Cavendish, one of Anne’s enemies, noted that she had “a very good wit” (35-6). And Anne seems to have theorized ways of conveying her arguments despite the restrictions of her gender, through the promotion of specifically chosen delegates; though women could not preach, she successfully promoted the appointments of religious figures who would advocate her reforms, including Thomas Cranmer (Ives 73). She also utilized men more directly as rhetorical stand-ins; Anne approved, and perhaps helped compose, a sermon to be delivered by her almoner John Skip, opposing Henry’s plan to confiscate the wealth of several monasteries without turning those resources toward public educational initiatives (the latter being a project Anne advocated). Historian Eric Ives (307-308) argued that Anne’s role in shaping the sermon was most obvious in its preoccupations with the king’s sexual infidelities and misuse of crown funds, by reminding the listeners that King Solomon “became very un-noble and defamed himself sore by sensual and carnal appetite” and “also by avaricious mind in laying too great or sore burdens and yokes upon his subjects.” Skip’s sermon also presented a parable in which Anne represented the Biblical Queen Esther, whose husband King Xerxes was led astray by an evil counsellor, referring to Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell (Records Office, State Papers 6). Anne, then, was capable of thinking through her arguments, including her audience’s gendered expectations and the best means to convey points when she would not have been seen as an acceptable voice for making them.

So when Anne’s use of rhetoric does not have the effect of persuading her audience to her side, it is not necessarily because Anne herself is rhetorically unskilled. On the contrary, there are cases where she seems to go out of her way to not utilize the means of persuasion available to her. She had a very good example of what these means were. Anne’s relationship with Henry brought her into the notice of a public that very much loved Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen. Catherine projected the ideal image of a queen consort: gentle, submissive, and religious. David Loades notes that Catherine’s time “was taken up with works of piety, with her domestic responsibilities, and with her daughter” (25)—exactly befitting a “good” woman in the Tudor age. That this image of Catherine was one she intentionally created is made clear by her ability to assume roles that were the very opposite of this queenly feminine ideal when she believed them warranted. For example, Catherine could portray herself as a fearsome warrior; she not only oversaw England’s military defeat of Scotland in 1513, she sent the absent Henry the bloody coat of the fallen Scottish king as a trophy. (As she herself noted, the Englishmen’s “hearts would not suffer” her original plan: to send Henry King James’s battered body [Letters and Papers]). In other words, Catherine seemed able to intentionally shape her own public image: in peace time, she showed herself as a gentle, kind, devout woman, devoted to her husband and adopted country, for the most part masking her capability as a martial leader.

One of the ways that Catherine was able to portray her image was through the means of a chosen badge and motto. Read as rhetorical texts, these presented an idea about the bearer (their “brand” as one of my students recently described it), particularly useful for conveying messages in times of high illiteracy. Catherine’s chosen badge was the pomegranate. For anyone with an understanding of Catherine’s Spanish history, this would have held a religious and possibly military meaning: in Spanish, pomegranate is “Granada”, also the name of the region her parents, the Christian monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, had conquered from the Muslims during Catherine’s childhood (Fox 13). However, the English read this image as one of nourishment and feminine fertility (Fraser 71), fitting symbols for the woman who stood to enhance England’s royal line through progeny bearing her illustrious European royal blood. Her motto likewise conveyed her feminine virtues: “Humble and Loyal.” Though Catherine’s ancestry was more exalted than her husband’s, and her home country far more politically and militarily significant than England, her motto disavowed any sense of her own superiority. She did not, her motto demonstrated, look down upon the nation she was joining; given England’s national inferiority-complex in comparison with France and Spain, this was an excellent reassurance for her new people. Catherine would be their humble and loyal English queen, not a self-assured Spanish princess. In short, Catherine used the means available to her to present her ideal feminine qualities, and by doing so, she created an ethos that encouraged the sympathy and support of the English people.4 In these ways, Catherine played by the rules of feminine self-presentation. Yet, Anne did not follow Catherine’s example, seemingly choosing instead to reject the rules all together.

Anne projected her own individual voice and sense of self through at times very unfeminine rhetorical choices. Anne’s desire to convey her individual voice, over persuading others to view her as a virtuous, correct Tudor woman, is demonstrated in her choices of badge and mottos. While Catherine’s badge conveyed what she could provide, fertility and the seeds of future monarchs, Anne’s choice of a falcon conveyed an image of strength over feminine softness. The falcon image conveyed aggression and vitality—not widely held at the time as feminine virtues. As Karen Lindsey describes Anne, “Like the falcon she chose as her emblem, she was a wild creature used, curtailed, but never truly tamed; she was a sexual woman whose vitality belonged only to herself” (48). These are certainly not attributes one would expect to find in the Tudor system of accepted gender norms. Even more significant is Anne’s choice of mottos. Her early motto, chosen in 1530 as she was gaining infamy for her relationship with Henry, was far from designed to placate her detractors: “Ainsi sera groigne qui groigne”, or “Let them grumble; this is how it’s going to be.” Rather than conciliate her opposition, she directly stated her intention to overrule them. Anne thus raised her voice in a very public way: she would speak as she wished and act as she wished, without regard to those who were judging her. Even her more well-known motto, chosen at the start of her queenship, emphasized her right to make her own choices, despite their unpopularity: as Henry’s wife and queen, Anne proclaimed to the world, she would be “The Most Happy,” privileging her own feelings and fulfillment, regardless of how unhappy her status made others. Anne was not utilizing the same tools as her predecessor by embracing an ideal feminine image. Rather, she was creating and projecting an image of herself as outspoken and confident; certainly not what Tudor England expected in the public persona of a good woman, let alone a good queen.

These attributes also come across in the language of what might be the most deeply personal remnant of Anne’s voice, her letter to Henry written during her imprisonment in the Tower of London. This letter is deeply controversial among historians, with some, including Eric Ives and Elizabeth Norton, arguing that it is a forgery. However, I am guided by the recent work of Dr. Susan Bordo and, particularly, historian and writer Sandra Vasoli, who make strong cases for the letter’s authenticity. This case requires further explanation, not least of all because Vasoli is most well known for her fictional, rather than historical, writing. While nearly all popular fictionalizations of Tudor persons are at times problematic in their portrayals—see, for example, the works of Phillipa Gregory—Vasoli’s non-fiction book and research regarding Anne’s letter from the Tower utilizes archival methods and linguistic analysis. Vasoli makes a case for the letter’s authenticity based upon language, syntax, and content commensurate with the historical record and Anne’s own rhetorical self-presentation (23). Additionally, accounts such as that of Lord Herbert of Cherbury report that the copy of the letter that eventually became part of the Cotton collection was originally found among the papers of Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell. Another early copy of the letter, located within the British Library’s Stowe collection (MS 151), corroborates this account, recording it as made from an original letter by Anne to Henry which was later found among Cromwell’s papers. The copy itself was made by an anonymous hand known by historians as “the Feathery Scribe,” who was known to have copied documents for highly placed clients, including William Cecil, the chief advisor of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I. Therefore, Vasoli notes, “someone of importance contracted the Feathery Scribe to reproduce the letter in order to preserve the words for posterity, directly from the one found in Cromwell’s papers, prior to 1628” (28). Likewise, she points out that historians from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century treated the letter as genuine (33). The argument for the letter’s authentic provenance rests upon Cromwell having not delivered it to Henry, rather keeping it among his own papers, after which it was preserved by an unknown source before copies were made and became part of private collections. Vasoli makes the (ultimately unprovable) case that the letter might have been transmitted from Cromwell’s protégé William Sadler to his friend and colleague, Cecil, during Elizabeth’s reign.

Ultimately, without definitive evidence of the letter’s authenticity, Vasoli and Bordo look to the correlations between the style and content of the letter to other known statements and speeches that Anne made. Bordo argues that “it’s hard to imagine anyone else” (109) writing the letter that so embodies Anne’s known voice and demeanor, while questioning the gender and personality politics implicit in doubts about its authenticity. Perhaps, she notes, not everyone has been willing to believe that Anne could write what has been called “one of the finest compositions in the English language” (112).

As an artifact, this letter emphasizes Anne’s sense of her own self-worth and desire to speak out in a social context that conflated silence with femininity, even for well-educated women (Gibson). If we look at this letter through the lens of traditional rhetorical analysis, guided by a definition of rhetoric as persuasion, then our foremost question might be about Anne’s persuasive intent. In other words, the letter is, at least on the surface, a persuasive artifact; she has an external audience (Henry) from whom she wishes to achieve something: “My last and only request shall be, That my self may bear the Burthen of your Grace’s Displeasure, and that it may not touch the Innocent Souls of those poor Gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait Imprisonment for my sake” (British Library). Anne thus specifies what she wants from her reader: she wants Henry to pardon the men who have been imprisoned and accused along with her. Again, if we are to judge Anne’s skill as a wielder of rhetoric from her success in using language to achieve this end, she will always be found wanting—each of the five men tried alongside her were also executed.

However, it should be noted that Anne’s request is only a brief section at the very end of her letter. While this is not to say she wasn’t sincere in her wish for their freedom, the small role this plays in the letter overall, and the authorial choices she makes in the earlier part of the letter, indicate that persuading Henry was not her only, or perhaps even primary, purpose in writing. The majority of the letter is what Anne calls her “confession,” the attestation of her point of view on the events that had overtaken her. She analyzes her own feelings on their extraordinary relationship, proclaiming that: “…never Prince had Wife more Loyal in all Duty, and in all true Affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn, with which name and Place I could willingly have contented myself, if God, and your Grace’s Pleasure had been so pleased” (British Library). Anne as self-contented in her role as a private Tudor-era gentlewoman is not what we tend to see in popular representations of her; rather, Anne as a schemer who purposely destroyed a marriage in her thirst for power has been the default interpretation of her for centuries. Yet from her own point of view, Anne attests both her loyalty to Henry as his queen and her own initial disinclination to achieve that status. It was Henry, and God, whose pleasure made her Queen Anne; she would have been happy and proud to remain simply Anne Boleyn. This pride in her sense of self over and above her status as queen is echoed in the letter’s closing, which she signs not as Queen Anne, but as Anne Boleyn. It is Anne Boleyn whose voice predominates throughout this letter, and that, she emphasizes, is enough.

The letter itself, then, is a testament of a voice, an identity, of which she is not ashamed, and which she will not silence or soften for her audience’s pleasure. In fact, if getting back into Henry’s good graces was her chief motivation, she would have been ill advised to include some of the zingers that make it through. For example, she writes that she is well aware of Henry’s inconstancy. It was his “fancy” that made her queen, and she claims to have always understood the fickleness of it. “The least alteration, I knew, was fit and sufficient to draw that Fancy to some other Subject” (British Library) she declares, knowing by this time Henry’s interest in his soon-to-be third wife, Jane Seymour. This also illuminates an aspect of Anne’s character that is often overlooked in popular history and fictional portrayals. Anne was a front row witness to Henry’s poor treatment of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. (In fact, in many of these portrayals, it is Anne even more than Henry who is responsible for these cruelties.) The Anne we see in these portrayals is thus rendered foolish: she fails to understand that a man who treats his first wife cruelly could just as easily do the same to her. The Anne in this letter is no such fool. Not only does she proclaim herself innocent of the charge that she destroyed Henry’s marriage (he being the one to pursue her, rather than vice versa), she also attests her clear understanding that what happened to Catherine might also become her fate.

Likewise, were Anne truly hopeful of persuading Henry of anything, she would also have done well to avoid telling him her hope that God “will pardon your great Sin therein, and likewise mine Enemies, the Instruments thereof; and that he will not call you to a strict account for your unprincely and cruel usage of me” (British Library; italics mine). In other words, she will pray that God will not punish Henry too much…but will punish him some, as he, after all, deserves it. Also, given Henry’s notoriously thin skin and his perception of himself as a chivalric, enlightened monarch, her descriptions of his behavior as unprincely and cruel would have deeply offended him. Again, Anne doesn’t pull her punches; no feminine reticence leads her to soften the blow to Henry’s sense of personal virtue. Why then, write such a letter, and risk even greater anger than Henry already feels? Why is she speaking, when what she says can only do her more harm?

If we think of Henry as her primary audience, and swaying him as her primary purpose, of course her authorial decisions seem illogical. More sensible would be a retreat to a feminine ideal of helpless grief, to play the damsel in distress for Henry, a self-proclaimed adherent of chivalry (Ives 92), to pity and rescue. However, if we see her audience as including herself, Anne’s authorial choices make more sense. Certainly, many of us know the power of words and writing to shape our identities and strengthen our resolves. Anne seems to be doing so here—crafting and reaffirming her own sense of self, identity, and innocence. Yet, she is doing so in a public way; this is not a diary entry intended for her eyes only. It is meant to be read by Henry (though in reality, it likely never reached him [Vasoli 4]), but Anne would have known it would also be read by the chain of people between herself and Henry, including her jailor Sir William Kingston and chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Anne is shaping her truth and speaking it back to power, even though her truth is not what they want to hear.

That the sense of self Anne created with her words and symbols is one of such strength and outspokenness is something that can strike modern readers as feminist in its aims. While we can’t attribute to Anne a prescience of modern day feminism, her formative years in other cultural contexts would have exposed her to women in power (Bordo, The Creation 72); she would have known that such women existed, and perhaps even at this point hoped her daughter would become one. Therefore, it is not impossible that Anne would have seen herself as having a right to speak boldly, a right with which other women and men in English society would have disagreed. There is no evidence that the rhetoric of this letter is the result of her own misunderstanding of the ways her words might be judged. To say that Anne included, for example, the insults to Henry because she was rhetorically unskilled is to indicate that persuading him was her ultimate goal. However, if we read her as having personal and political aims beyond Henry, we might read her as courageous, perhaps even as sensing that future audiences could give her the hearing she wouldn’t receive in her own time.

As previously noted, there are some who debate Anne’s authorship of this letter. Yet two more rhetorical artifacts, more definitely tied to Anne Boleyn, exhibit similar moves: Anne’s trial speech and her execution speech. Specifically, both demonstrate her desire to exert her voice, even when doing so might in some ways be to her present disadvantage.

In a speech delivered to the court following the pronouncement of her verdict, Anne directly challenges the honor of the jurors who have found her guilty. She states, “I am willing to believe that you have sufficient reasons for what you have done, but then they must be other than those which have been produced in court, for I am clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge” (De Carles). If taken as straightforward, this statement accuses her judges of deception or conspiracy, as they have produced weak and even demonstrably false evidence against her. This was, in fact, the case. The charges of adultery were made in an obviously slapdash and careless manner: “even after nearly 500 years, three-quarters of these specific allegations can be disproved. In twelve cases Anne was elsewhere or the man was” (Ives 344). The “sufficient reasons,” for finding Anne guilty, therefore, were not about Anne’s guilt, but about the jurors’ unwillingness to displease the king, and Anne wants them to know that she knows it. What Anne is guilty of, and what she admits to, has nothing to do with sexual fidelity (which she asserts that she has always, unlike her husband, maintained):

I have ever been a faithful wife to the King, though I do not say I have always shown him that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited. I confess I have had jealous fancies and suspicions of him, which I had not discretion enough, and wisdom, to conceal at all times. But God knows, and is my witness, that I have not sinned against him in any other way. Think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life, for He who saveth from death hath taught me how to die, and He will strengthen my faith. (in de Carle)

In other words, Anne is attributing her real “crimes” to her insistent use of voice: she lacks the “humility” to remain silent and submissive; she has particularly refused to turn a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities. In demanding a voice in both politics and her own marriage, Anne has made herself a “bad” woman, wife, and queen, with lethal results.

Her last statement is particularly intriguing, and perhaps gives us a better sense of Anne’s own thinking about her rhetorical purpose. She assures her listeners that her purpose in speaking is not to persuade them (“think not I say this in the hope to prolong my life”). Why, then, does she reiterate her failure to perform the appropriate gender rhetoric of her time? Perhaps she is not solely speaking to her contemporary audience at all. She seems to be speaking more to herself, reassuring herself that what this hostile audience believes does not ultimately matter—it is God who will ultimately preserve her and strengthen her faith. This attitude is fitting with the new religious beliefs taking root in England at this time, which Anne advocated. While Anne remained essentially Catholic, never fully committing to the new Protestant ideas in the way her later successor Catherine Parr would, under figures such as Marguerite of Navarre she would have been exposed to reformist ideas. Among these was the priority of personal relationships with God; in other words, of the importance of inward thinking beyond outward ritual. That Anne may have used rhetoric to look inward, to strengthen rather than subsume her own interpretations and beliefs, fits with what is believed about her personality and faith. Her rhetoric demonstrates a belief that she had as much right as a man to seek and speak her own truths. Thus this, her next-to-last opportunity for public address, is used not to persuade her audience, something that was fruitless given their loyalty to the king’s will, but to use language to shape and present her own voice for herself, her God, and as part of the public record for posterity.

Anne’s execution speech does more to acknowledge her audience’s gendered rhetorical expectations, although the way in which she makes these concessions is still atypical for her time. Executions in Henrician England were common enough to have developed their own rhetorical genre, with particular genre expectations. The condemned, after ascending the execution platform, would address the assembled crowd with an oration acknowledging his or her guilt, even if innocent of the crime in question. He or she then asked the audience to turn away from their own sins; finally, the condemned praised the king and asked the assembled to pray for his or her soul. Anne’s own execution speech follows this basic format, but also exhibits her own steadfast belief in her voice and innocence, as well as the possibility that one day these attributes would be judged differently.

Anne’s speech might seem staid and conciliatory in light of her previous rhetoric. Yet when read against the expectations of execution speeches in her day, Anne’s tweaks speak obliquely what the words themselves may not. Anne does not acknowledge guilt or proclaim herself deserving death, as was the expectation; what she does instead is pointedly refuse to discuss this issue. She states, “…according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die” (in Wyatt). So, while not upending the established form by proclaiming innocence rather than guilt, Anne acknowledges the expectation while specifically explaining that she is skipping over it. She is not allowed by tradition to say she is innocent, but she will not say she is guilty.

In a move which both maintains traditional expectations and has the effect of endearing herself, at last, to her audience, Anne praises King Henry, the very man who is most responsible for her death: “I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never, and to me he was ever a good, a gentle, and a sovereign lord” (in Wyatt). Anne allows the absurdity of this statement to go unremarked. However, the audience seems to have appreciated Anne’s willingness to make such a pretense. Given Henry’s popularity with his subjects, the statement was well-received; most of the audience fell to their knees in sympathy during Anne’s speech, in what might have been the most overt show of public respect Anne ever received during her career. Yet why would Anne, who has seemed so unwilling to silence herself, even when doing so would be in the best interest of preserving her own power and/or life, not overtly proclaim her innocence in this speech, which was the most likely of all her words to be remembered by posterity? Why would she acquiesce in praising the king? This we might attribute to Anne’s ability to play the traditional rhetorical game when she chose to. In praising Henry, Anne was able to protect her daughter. Henry had already shown himself to be a fickle father, particularly toward daughters, as demonstrated by his humiliating treatment toward his daughter Mary, whose mother Catherine embarrassed Henry by her refusal to accept the annulment of their marriage. Further embarrassing Henry in this last, most public of venues would do little to endear their daughter Elizabeth to his paternal affections. It is also worth considering that Anne was as much a product of her time as we all are of ours, and perhaps therefore she did wrestle with feelings of guilt or shame about her own lack of womanly humility and submissiveness. Maybe she honestly believed, in that moment, what she said—that Henry was a great, gentle, and merciful sovereign, and that what had befallen her was more her fault than his, even if not for the reasons he claimed.

Yet Anne’s denouement also subtly reasserts both her sense of self-belief and her hope that future audiences would acknowledge her differently. Again, she seizes the opportunity to assert her sense of self. As a conclusion, Anne adds, “And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best” (in Wyatt). In slipping in this statement, Anne reminds us that she has a cause worth meddling over. She is not the treasonous seductress as others have defined her; rather, those who may one day judge the best will see her as she has shaped herself: strong, forthright, intelligent, and with a right to both speak and be heard.

Reclaiming Anne Boleyn, Rhetorician

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical approach, in which the desires and expectations of her contemporary audiences seem almost subsumed by internal or future ones, was not without precedent. The use of language to shape and present identity was in fact becoming fashionable amongst Renaissance intellectuals. Stephen Greenblatt has identified “an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process” (2) during the Renaissance. This contrasts with an earlier medieval philosophy that identified the self as pre-determined and the shaping of it as either useless or even damaging. The self-fashioning possibilities opened by Renaissance philosophy was something achieved through language (Greenblatt 9)…or at least, achieved by men through language. Figures like Thomas More, William Tyndale, and Thomas Wyatt could use language to seek “a new basis of control” (114) over their identity and its dissemination in ways they chose for themselves; Anne Boleyn was allotted no such privilege. Her attempts to do the same have been consistently interpreted not as “Renaissance self-fashioning,” but rather as ill-judged mouthiness.

The default interpretation of Anne’s voice as thoughtless and uncontrolled, rather than intellectual and rhetorical, demonstrates how our gendered assumptions can continue to slip in under the rhetorical radar, for authors across genders. Take, for example, how one of the most well-regarded biographers of Henry’s queens, Antonia Fraser, describes Catherine of Aragon’s rhetorical approach: “Queen Catherine, in her prime, had been far too well-trained, and too clever, to allow herself to appear ungraciously argumentative; she had followed the pattern of a certain kind of intelligent woman throughout history, making her point without confrontation” (265). What’s notable is Fraser’s wording; acquiescing to the status quo of female silence is both gracious and intelligent; by extension, Anne was neither. More overtly, historian Gareth Russell has described Anne’s outspokenness as evidence of “occasional stupidity” from an “otherwise intelligent woman.” Neither seem to conceive of Anne’s insistence on voice as a potentially rhetorical tactic rather than a misunderstanding of her available rhetorical means or a complete failure to think rhetorically at all. This pattern extends to many of her fictional representations. In Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall, the character Anne tells Thomas Cromwell that “People should say whatever will keep them alive” (480), which is, of course, the complete opposite of what she did in reality. Therefore, this Anne, the depiction which is the most prominent in our current cultural moment, is presented as again lacking in rhetorical intelligence—she simply couldn’t understand what the right words to keep herself alive might be. These portrayals of Anne don’t show her as someone who did know what to say to please an audience, but for whom doing so would be a betrayal of herself.

Ultimately, such interpretations of Anne’s rhetorical (in)ability effectively neuter her as a rhetorical power player. We have a reason to not listen to this mouthy woman, because she obviously didn’t put much thought into what she had to say. Additionally, Anne’s perceived lack of feminine graces open her memory up to social stricture. In many interpretations, such as Mantel’s, Anne is a kind of ruthless, hysterical female monster. In these interpretations, Anne, in ending her life on the scaffold, arguably got what she deserved for victimizing the good and proper Queen Catherine, who was standing between Anne and the power she ultimately proved too incompetent to hold onto.

Anne Boleyn’s rhetorical legacy is emblematic of what happens when the social forces that shape our ideas about women’s voices go unacknowledged. Anne’s creation of her image as a woman with a strong public voice, a voice that so greatly challenged accepted feminine characteristics, caused rage among her listeners. Even today, her rhetoric is often correlated with ineptness, as her misunderstanding of what a woman could realistically use rhetoric to do; when this happens, factual and fictional portrayals marginalize the very brave and potentially instructive work she undertook.

Political discourse in the United States is at a particular crossroads, raising questions about the nature of ethos and audience expectations among women in positions of power. Mary Beard identifies Western culture’s fear of women’s public voices as in an inherited Greco-Roman anxiety about gender identities, but also more deeply as a fear for the very social and political orders we live by. In raising these concerns, Beard argues that we can “make ourselves more aware about the processes and prejudices that make us [judge vocal women negatively]” (40). However, she also notes that there is no clear and easy remedy for this state of affairs (49). Should women try to “play the game” of acceptable feminine rhetoric if it means gaining an audience’s acceptance, to be “likeable”…or should we speak our own truth, even for audiences unwilling to accept it? Do we acquiesce to gendered rhetorical expectations in the hope of succeeding to positions of power, or reject them even if that means failure? Is there a middle ground? We don’t yet have answers to these questions, but there is something to be said for the “success” of Anne’s style of rhetoric. While we know that in her own time, Anne Boleyn’s bold rhetoric contributed to her downfall and made her unpopular amongst women and men, there are more in our own time who seem ready to admire her for those very transgressions.

Anne Boleyn did not always bear the humility expected from a woman in her age, as evidenced by the ways she used language and image to create a sense of herself as powerful and outspoken. Many would not see her as much more likeable today. Yet by questioning the gendered rhetorical restrictions of her time, she has ensured a lasting role in our cultural imagination, and inspired some women today as a model for the role voice can play in self-fashioning. In response to a 2010 online poll about Anne Boleyn’s cultural relevance, one anonymous respondent said, “Anne is a good role model for young women. Those who speak out can see her as an ally, and those who are shy can be inspired by her” (Bordo, The Creation 253). It’s hard to see how this could have happened if she had “shown humility” and kept her mouth shut, even if it meant keeping her head.

Had Anne relied on feminine rhetorical means, had she been more silent, played the damsel in distress, and, when speaking, said only whatever would keep her alive (to paraphrase Mantel), we today would likely not know her or, for at least some of us, honor her as one of the original #ImmodestWomen.


  1. It is worth noting that these women, though they inhabited public positions of power, did so through the acquiescence of even more powerful men. Margaret of Austria deferred to her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, while Louise of Savoy and Marguerite of Navarre operated through the approval of their son and brother (respectively), King Francis of France. Even so, each faced occasional persecution for such “unfeminine” behavior, especially Marguerite, whose work as an author and religious reformer led to persecution and threat from the powerful religious establishment, despite her brother’s protection (Cholakian).  Anne, while she had Henry’s approval, was relatively safe; without it, she was open to the character assassination that has reverberated across centuries.
  2. Anne Boleyn has been the subject of historical interest as early as the late 16th century, when George Wyatt composed her earliest known biography. Modern examinations of her life have been authored by Retha Warnicke (The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1989), Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII, 1992), David Starkey (Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, 2003), Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, 2005), and Alison Weir (The Lady in the Tower, 2010). These assessments differ over questions such as Anne’s sexual and gynecological history, the prime movers behind her downfall, even her appearance, but only Ives’ superlative study offers any, albeit limited, rhetorical analysis of Anne’s own words. Elizabeth Norton’s 2013 collection The Anne Boleyn Papers combines contemporary texts both by and about Anne, but without a more critical examination of the gendered forces shaping and expressed by Anne’s rhetoric.
  3. Kathi Vosevich contrasts Princess Mary’s education with that of Princess Elizabeth (under Roger Ascham, who praised Elizabeth for her unwomanly intellect) as a means of illuminating their different approaches to the rhetoric of queenship. However, some have argued against Mary’s education being categorically different than Elizabeth’s (see Schutte, Mary I and the Art of Book Dedications).
  4. Given the xenophobia and sexism of Tudor society, that she succeeded in gaining such approval, despite her Spanish heritage and lack of male offspring, is impressive. However, she also had a long tenure as queen, something that made her a more familiar and endearing presence than Anne ever became.

Works Cited

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Making Sense of #MeToo: Intersectionality and Contemporary Feminism

Beginning in October 2017, the #MeToo movement has brought widespread attention to sexual assault and harassment, experiences that remain pervasive. The phrase “me too” was first used by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 during her non-profit work at Just Be Inc. providing resources for people who had experienced sexual assault. In the wake of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a message with the hashtag #MeToo to illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. When Tarana Burke was interviewed in 2019 as part of the Time 100 Summit, she acknowledged that it is easy for most people to condemn the actions of someone like Harvey Weinstein; she argues that the work of the movement now involves drilling down into less straightforward scenarios. In her comments, Burke references the tendency for people to get upset about allegations against so-called “good guys”: “But when we start talking about…the good guy who’s an ally to women, who looks out for everybody, who’s a stand-up person, but maybe behaves in a way that is too permissive, then [people think] it’s a problem” (Time). As #MeToo has begun to broaden its scope to focus on more nuanced interactions, I review the popular press conversation around the movement, offering a snapshot of the public discourse around #MeToo as it has played out over the last two years, to try to answer the following research questions: Does popular press coverage suggest that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive? Whose voices are being amplified in the popular press coverage of the #MeToo movement?

Because popular press coverage not only reflects but also influences how people respond to social justice movements, I focus on coverage of the #MeToo movement from its initial dramatic beginnings to its more recent reckoning with the kind of difficult scenarios Burke references. In this article, I discuss two trends in the #MeToo pieces I analyzed: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. This data offers insight into my research questions. While the movement has unquestionably found some success in highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual assault, it remains constrained by limitations. Despite its origins in the work of a Black woman activist (Burke), #MeToo is not sufficiently incorporating an intersectional approach to its activism; rather, it is de-centering the voices of people of color and queer people. Additionally, the movement remains hamstrung by a brand of feminism—present since the women’s movement in the 1970s—that emphasizes individual agency and self-sufficiency.

#MeToo as a Power Disruptor

I situate the work of #MeToo as rhetorical, grounded in an understanding of how power functions and can be disrupted. Throughout my textual analysis, I draw on Jay Dolmage’s (2014) definition of rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (5). His emphasis on power proves critical for a site of research like #MeToo, where participants are attempting to shift power dynamics through the tactic of speaking out publicly. I conceptualize power as a relational dynamic that enables or constrains people’s decision-making capabilities (Sullivan and Porter, 1997; Fischer, 2000; Simmons, 2007). The #MeToo movement has identified the many ways that people can take advantage of their privilege to exert influence on someone else in a way that benefits them. As I will show later, these benefits can include work status, control in a relationship, or maintaining the exclusion of certain groups to the advantage of others within an institution (for example, publicly harassing female candidates so that women are discouraged from running for office). Scholars in rhetoric and composition have developed methodologies that speak to the ability for rhetoric to erode and dismantle these institutionalized systems of power. James E. Porter et al. argue for a methodology of institutional critique that draws on theories of postmodern mapping to discern “zones of ambiguity” and unstable boundaries where intervention might be possible. They explain,

Our viewpoint is cautiously hopeful—though, realistic, we think–about the possibility of changing institutions. Our basic claim is this: Though institutions are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths; they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings, laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable. In other words, we made ’em, we can fix ’em. (611)

In framing institutions as comprised of rhetoric, these scholars offer a pathway for rhetorical intervention against seemingly impenetrable social structures. If we think of sexual harassment, misogyny, and patriarchy as institutions, #MeToo uses rhetoric to intervene in them, largely by naming the systemic practices of abuse and harassment—often gone unspoken—by which these institutions sustain themselves. This type of intervention builds toward a hopeful future in which abuse and harassment may not be as deeply engrained in women’s experiences as they are today. As Sarah Burgess (2018) contends, #MeToo is less about legislating the past and more about engaging in an act of political imagination:

advocates understand that themselves to be participating in a politics that aims to being about yet-to-be-imagined future. Such a politics, it seems, is built on the ability to define what is appropriate, healthy, and ethical in sexual encounters, without relying on or reproducing the traditions and norms that have created systemic inequalities. (346)

People who participate in #MeToo are using the power derived from speaking out and connecting with others who have had similar experiences to chip away at exclusionary institutions and norms.

The tactic of speaking against powerful institutions as a truth-telling device has a long tradition in rhetoric, illustrated in the Greek concept of parrhesia. As explained by Michel Foucault (2001), “Parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his [sic] personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself)” (19). The speaker is compelled to truth-telling out of “duty,” which comes at great personal risk. We can interpret the risk in participating in #MeToo as involving one’s literal life, in the case of domestic abuse or other violent altercations, or pertaining to quality of life factors such as employment and mental well-being. Foucault also emphasizes that parrhesiastes utilize “frankness” in their utterance(s), thereby opening themselves up to criticism from those who do not appreciate the sentiment being conveyed with such directness (or at all). Because harassers often rely upon a culture of silence and shame to shield the behavior and not face repercussions, #MeToo’s rhetorical strategy of communicating openly about abuse and harassment represents an attempt at intervening in an unstable institutional boundary, per the institutional critique methodology. Once the #MeToo movement reached a certain level of publicity, the “duty” that survivors felt in telling their own story derived, in part, from the hope that the force of the intervention might be more impactful through sheer numbers.

The circulatory capacity of online platforms can enable parrhesiastic discourse not only to reach significant numbers of people but also to yield an affective impact on readers. As Kyle Larson (2018) argues, positioning persuasion as the main goal of rhetorical exchanges ignores the affective capacity of online communications that do not emphasize rational, Western, logocentric argumentation. Through his research on a feminist Tumblr blogger, Farrah, Larson argues that Farrah uses a rhetorical technique called remonstrative agitation “as a performative, parrhesiastic rhetoric to continue and even further incite the affective circulation of counterdiscourse in the pursuit of feminist, anti-imperialist recognition of her humanity in the broader public sphere” (263). Through “remonstrative agitation”—which includes rhetorical anger1 Farrah and other online activists use parrhesiastic rhetoric to counter the dominant discourses that circulate online (and in the culture more broadly) by making counterdiscourses more visible. Through increased exposure to rhetorical stances and points of view that are feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist in nature, activists remain hopeful that readers can learn from these points of view. Larson offers a personal testimonial to the effectiveness of this type of approach: “Increased circulation of counterdiscourse offers further opportunities for those socialized by dominant discourse to reencounter the counterdiscourse again and again over time and therefore to potentially learn from and become a participant in it—like me” (274). Parrhesia in online settings (as with #MeToo) can reflect a remonstrative stance rather than the more logocentric approaches that we often associate with rhetoric. The counterdiscourses that result can affect change by merely being present and available for audiences to encounter.

In the case of #MeToo, enacting parrhesia is implicated in the body, given that the truths being told involve physical contact, verbal assaults on one’s body, and other forms of harassment. Some of the most notable recent work on the body in rhetoric and composition comes from the specialization of disability studies, with its focus on normative practices and how they influence people’s bodies. In elaborating on his definition of rhetoric, Dolmage responds to Aristotle’s canonical definition (“the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion”) by arguing that “the body has never been fully or fairly understood for it role in shaping and multiplying these available means” (3). While Dolmage is interested in how expectations of normalcy attempt to exert control over bodies (9), his point about the omission of the body as an available means of persuasion applies to #MeToo. In truth-telling about the trauma of physical/mental/emotional harassment, survivors have located the body at the forefront of their rhetorical activity. The experience of abuse has been culturally coded as a “private” matter, something that should not be talked about in an open forum like Twitter. By sharing their stories, parrhesiastes are using taboo available means such as calling attention to their bodies.

While #MeToo has instigated discussion of harassment and assault on a broad scale, I want to acknowledge the long history of feminist and queer thinkers, and women of color in particular, for agitating around sexual harassment for decades; these scholars and activists have long called attention to the kinds of behaviors that #MeToo critiques. They have developed a body of work that examines the institutionalized harassment women face in the workplace (MacKinnon, 1979); how overlapping social identities experience discrimination (Crenshaw, 1989; Lorde, 1984); gender performativity (Butler, 1990); the social construction of biology based on gender stereotypes (Martin, 1991); modes of feminist resistance (Combahee River Collective Statement, 1977; Crunk Feminist Collection, 2017); the policing of heteronormativity (Lorde, 1984; Halberstam, 2011); and multimodal feminist archival collection (Eversley, 2015). Through this work—and more that I cannot adequately address here—feminists have undertaken a world-making project, responding to injustices against marginalized populations and offering alternate models for living and working. These interventions have resulted in changes in a variety of sectors, including education (curricula) and the workplace (anti-harassment policies). This collective feminist work has offered research and a theoretical foundation to support #MeToo’s central claim that misogynistic behavior toward women is systemic.

Before I analyze my findings and position #MeToo as a power-disruption tactic, I first provide an overview of my methods for this study.


I offer a rhetorical analysis of the popular discourse surrounding the movement based on a review of 100 popular press articles about #MeToo. I chose 100 articles as my corpus in an attempt at being thorough; articles that include the phrase “me too” encompass a wide array of topics and perspectives, and I wanted to encounter as many as I could. I began with a corpus that positioned me to inductively come to working conclusions about what is being said about the movement. Using a grounded theory methodology, I also employed a critical discourse analysis approach. In his work on hashtag activism, Nicholas DeArmas (2018) argues for the usefulness of critical discourse analysis in highlighting power dynamics, especially when comparing multiple texts. This method allowed me to effectively address my research questions, both of which are oriented around the distribution of power. Through close reading, I noted trends that not only appeared frequently in the data, but also trends that, while more limited by comparison, seemed to upset prior assumptions about #MeToo (my last section about longstanding rifts within feminism falls into this category). In other words, while the mainstream media encourages us to focus on a few elements of #MeToo (e.g., the codes “consent” and “backlash” were well-represented within my data set), I am interested in amplifying some perspectives represented in the corpus that may not garner significant attention in the media. One such perspective is the need to center intersectionality within the movement.

I located all popular press articles through a Google search for the term “#MeToo.” In order to foreground articles from a variety of perspectives, I also searched “queer #MeToo,” “critiques of #MeToo” and “#MeToo criticism.”2 In the process of deciding on my final corpus, I ended up discarding several pieces that included a superficial analysis of the movement. After reading each of the articles, I inductively came up with 16 thematic codes based on patterns I saw emerging (see appendix). As I mentioned earlier, some of these themes were present in quite a few articles (such as the topic of backlash), while other themes emerged in just a few articles (e.g. the varied reactions of feminists to the movement). For the purposes of this article, I narrowed my discussion to two themes—both of which are strongly rooted in the circulation of power—that crystalize the promise and challenges of #MeToo: the need for an increased intersectional approach, and the exposure of continued rifts in feminist thought. I offer a rhetorical analysis of these themes in response to my research questions about whose voices are being amplified in the movement and whether #MeToo is beginning to disrupt the power dynamics that allow harassment to thrive. With this rhetorical foundation of power and parrhesia in mind, I now will focus on the popular press publications that have sought to make sense of the #MeToo movement. All articles that I refer to from this point forward are included in my corpus of 100, with the exception of some citations that serve to provide further context; these citations are indicated by an asterisk (*).

Engagement with intersectionality proves a critical factor in the movement’s effectiveness

First conceived by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theory of intersectionality dictates that oppressions “intersect” at various axes according to identity markers such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. These intersections dictate that, for example, a cisgender white woman will experience sexism differently than a Black transgender woman. At the same time, the theory rejects the temptation to place oppressions along a hierarchy; the visual image of a traffic intersection that Crenshaw has used in her talks illustrates how various identity markers converge in a non-hierarchical fashion. The movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) enacts an intersectional approach to their activism, stating in their website materials that they recognize “the need to center the leadership of women and queer and trans people” (“Herstory”)* because those are the folx who historically have been shut out of movements or forced to work in the background. The BLM movement’s centering of queer and trans women is a corrective to previous movements that marginalized these voices even as the movements claimed to seek racial justice. Referencing the fact that many of the #MeToo claims that received significant attention in the media came from upper/middle class straight white women, Burgess explains that

The exclusion [of marginalized populations] matters here because the narratives told and heard determine who is recognizable as one that can make a claim about sexual harassment and be believed…Just because one’s voice is included does not mean that it is given the same weight. Access or entry to the scene of address does not guarantee equal footing. To create structural change, then, means that the norms of recognizability…must be contested. (351-352)*

Burgess calls attention to the fact that even when women of color come forward, their claims are not given the same value as those of white women. Perhaps #MeToo’s very origin—founded by an activist Black woman, popularized by a celebrity white woman—has stifled its ability to engage an intersectional approach. Regardless, popular press accounts have articulated both the failures and successes of #MeToo in this regard and also offered insights into how #MeToo can more fully apply the principles of intersectionality.

Some critics of #MeToo have pointed out that, for example, #MeToo has failed to honor queer and transgender survivors of harassment and assault. Neesha Powell (2017) argues that the movement needs to stop pretending that violence only happens to cisgender straight women. She cites the following troubling statistics from the The Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse: “46% of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetime; lesbians are significantly more likely than others to experience gang rape; and 55% of trans men and 68% of trans women experience sexual assault in their lifetime” (Powell). Despite these statistics, 75% of my mainstream media corpus focuses on straight, cisgender white women. Meredith Talusan (2018), writing for the publication them, argues that this erasure ignores the particular dangers for the gender non-confomring community, given the rigid gender expectations that many people still hold: “Trans and [gender non-conforming] folks are so much more vulnerable than cis women: We not only experience unwanted sexual advances and provocations, but we are also at risk of being physically assaulted or murdered when those who approach us are unable to deal with their own attractions” (Talusan). Silencing the perspectives of queer and transgender survivors proves especially pernicious when Black queer and trans women have been at forefront of social justice movements for decades. As the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, queer women of color have often functioned as parrhesiastes around a variety of social justice issues. Failing to take an intersectional approach to talking about sexual violence not only ignores survivors but also diminishes the contributions of many current and potential talented leaders.

Marginalizing the experiences of the LGBTQ community and gender non-conforming folx also presents missed opportunities for learning from these communities about how they negotiate consent, a central concern of the #MeToo movement. In his article “Cruising in the Age of Consent,” Spencer Kornhaber (2019) argues that gay men in particular have much to offer in this area, as historically they have had to develop codes in order to safely find sexual partners. Kornhaber draws on his current-day experiences in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular gay mecca, to argue that a common question between potential lovers, “What are you into?,” represents a marker of consent that, because it does not presuppose any particular behaviors, might be adopted by people of all sexual orientations. Michael Faris (2019) argues that queer sex-education comics offer instructive perspectives on consent as techné: a way of relating to others that is not limited to sexual encounters alone. He concludes that “Consent is a set of ethical practices, not simply a matter of risk and danger, but also of pleasure and boundaries. Further, as many sex-education comics argue, consent is not solely tied to sex: it is an ethical practice, a techné, for being in relation to others” (108)*. The comics that Faris studied emphasize that bodies always exist in relation to one another, with consent representing a critical characteristic of how effectively bodies communicate in a variety of contexts. While affirmative consent has remained a feminist goal for decades (perhaps best known due to Antioch College’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, created in 1990), the #MeToo movement illustrates that consent remains an ill-defined and elusive concept for many people. Looking to queer folx, who have developed a range of relational practices oriented around pleasure, can help inform the discussion around what consent can look like. Leaving queer communities on the margins of #MeToo means missed opportunities for learning from a rich set of embodied knowledges. Keeping #MeToo focused on white, cisgender, straight women is not only exclusionary to marginalized populations but also counterproductive to achieving the goals of the movement.

In spite of these shortcomings, a limited intersectional approach has yielded forward progress in at least one high-profile cases of abuse that has garnered increased attention since the beginning of #MeToo. In January 2019, the Lifetime television network ran a mini-series entitled, “Surviving R. Kelly,” chronicling the R&B star’s long history of sexual abuse allegations; the following month, he was charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse in Chicago. Despite his marriage to a 15-year old girl, Aaliyah Haughton, in 1994; a profile in the Chicago Sun Times in 2000 regarding his interest in underage girls; an indictment of 21 counts related to child pornography in 2002 (he was acquitted at trial); and a Buzzfeed article in 2017 accusing him of holding several women against their will in a sex cult (France), Kelly has thus far avoided jail time, enjoying widespread popularity throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The series represented one of the few sustained, in-depth examinations of sexual abuse of women of color in the mainstream media since the #MeToo movement began (a follow-up series of the same name ran in January 2020). One of the criticisms of #MeToo has been its initial, well-publicized focus on the Harvey Weinstein survivors, the majority of whom are wealthy, cisgender, white women. Ten articles in my corpus of 100 argue that from its inception, the movement has failed to center voices of color, transgender women, and non-binary individuals. Instead, #MeToo has largely reflected “white feminism”: “a common term for a particular set of feminist dispositions and discourses that consciously or unconsciously uphold Eurocentrism and white supremacy for the expedient advancement of Western, white women” (Larson 280)*. Moments where the focus has been placed on women of color have provided reason for hope. In one such instance, Lisa Respers France (2019) argues that the #MeToo movement gave momentum to increased attention to the alleged crimes of R. Kelly. France writes,

For years Kelly’s fans had heard rumors—and even made jokes—about him having a ‘thing’ for young girls. What’s changed? The entertainment industry is now viewed through the lens of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, making accusations like this harder to dismiss. (CNN)

While women of color have for years played the role of parrhesiastes, calling out R.Kelly’s behavior, the kairotic environment of the #MeToo movement has granted their voices greater impact. The founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, sat for an interview in “Surviving R. Kelly,” solidifying the connection between the movement and increased (legal and public) attention to Kelly’s behavior. Even so, the series argues that the lack of intervention in Kelly’s prolonged abusive behavior toward young women underscores a societal disregard for women of color. #MeToo has stumbled in enacting a sustained intersectional feminism that calls attention to this plight, with numerous critics calling for a more inclusive feminism at the core of the project.

Though this instance offers reason for hope, people offering critique and analysis through the lens of #MeToo should more deliberately draw on Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, a theory that has informed feminist analysis for decades. As many commentators have pointed out, especially in the wake of the 2016 United States presidential election, Black women have long been at the forefront of social justice activism; #MeToo needs to more explicitly center their voices, while also paying increased attention to the violence targeted at women and girls of color. Brittney Cooper (2018) has recently emerged as a powerful feminist voice, arguing that

I’m advocating for people-centered politics that hold the safety and protection of the least of these—among them Black women and girls—as a value worth fighting for. I’m asking what will it take to have a politics that puts Black women and girls (cis, trans, and everything in between) at the center and keeps them safe. What will that look like? Because I sure as hell know what it doesn’t look like. (85)*

Cooper is careful here to include transgender women, a population that experiences consistently high levels of violence, particularly among communities of color. Cooper’s plea models an intersectional approach that recognizes how significant strides in women’s equality will not be made until the full range of women’s experiences and backgrounds are honored. Enacting exclusionary practices and politics—particularly in relationship to communities of color and LGBTQ folx—is a self-defeating proposition that will ultimately stifle movements like #MeToo.

#MeToo has affirmed that longstanding rifts within feminism still exist

#MeToo has proven polarizing not only in its initial tactics—a wave of firings and public humiliation—but also based on its premise that harassment and assault are systemic problems. Several public commentators have criticized the movement as infantilizing, believing that #MeToo implies that women are powerless in the face of inappropriate behavior. Commentators Daphne Merkin, Bari Weiss, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe, and Caitlin Flanagan have all published pieces decrying the loss of individual agency that #MeToo allegedly implies. While it would be easy to attribute the differences perspectives on #MeToo to a generational divide, the public opposition of commentators such as Weiss (who is not yet 40) suggests that age is not necessarily a determining factor in one’s orientation to the movement. Rather, disagreements among self-proclaimed feminists about #MeToo tread well-worn pathways within feminism regarding the role of individual responsibility when it comes to navigating abuse and harassment (Donegan). While this debate has existed for decades (with white women often espousing an ethic of personal responsibility and women of color often pointing to structural inequalities), #MeToo represents a kairotic moment for increased theorizing around this issue.

In her 2018 piece for the Guardian, Moira Donegan claims that this divide among feminists is more serious than a rift caused by different generational perspectives. The debate over #MeToo demonstrates that “feminism has come to contain two distinct understandings of sexism, and two wildly different, often incompatible ideas of how that problem should be solved. One approach is individualist, hard-headed, grounded in ideals of pragmatism, realism and self-sufficiency. The other is expansive, communal, idealistic and premised on the ideals of mutual interest and solidarity” (Donegan). These approaches place different emphases on the role of individual agency in combatting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other social ills. Folx who argue that #MeToo infantilizes women, for example, tend to claim that women should remove themselves from situations where they are being treated badly; that saying “no” can prevent assaultive behavior; that the #MeToo movement only reinforces the idea that women are defenseless. The more “communal” perspective, as Donegan puts it, emphasizes the structural nature of misogyny–that harassment and assault, while differing in degree of violence, both stem from the same underlying cause of misogynist thinking. Institutional critique fails when the institution (i.e., patriarchy and the systemic harassment of women) is not acknowledged as existing.  For this reason, it is not easy to combat that structure through individual actions such as saying “no.” In fact, women feel as though they cannot say “no” in situations that they recognize as potentially dangerous for many reasons, including the fear of escalation to physical violence and long term retribution.

Several self-proclaimed feminists, some of them mentioned above, have argued that #MeToo has laid out unrealistic standards for men to achieve. In one of the more forceful examples of this line of argumentation, Bari Weiss (2018) uses an incident involving Aziz Ansai as an example of #MeToo’s alleged overreach. As the story was reported by journalist Katie Way (2018), Ansari used sexually aggressive behavior toward a woman, Grace (a pseudonym), on their first date. At the time that the story broke, Ansari had just won a Golden Globe for his television show Master of None and was a respected comedian.3 The story gained a good deal of press coverage, with some commentators arguing that Ansari’s behavior reflects a broader lack of understanding of consent. Among those who publicly critiqued this reading of the incident, Weiss argues, “If you go home with him and discover he’s a terrible kisser, say, ‘I’m out.’ If you start to hook up and don’t like the way he smells or the way he talks (or doesn’t talk), end it. If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door” (Weiss). Weiss draws upon the individualist philosophy of sexism to argue that Grace bore the responsibility for extricating herself from the situation; Ansari would have had to have read Grace’s mind in order to know that she was uncomfortable.

Adjacent to Weiss’ personal responsibility argument is the notion that public conversations about consent through vehicles like #MeToo inevitably paint women as weak. Caitlin Flanagan, writing for the Atlantic, picks up on this same thread by bemoaning that  “Apparently there is a whole country full of young women who don’t know how to call a cab, and who have spent a lot of time picking out pretty outfits for dates they hoped would be nights to remember. They’re angry and temporarily powerful, and last night they destroyed a man who didn’t deserve it” (Flanagan). Generalizing about women in “pretty outfits” minimizes Grace’s experience, refusing to consider why she may not have felt comfortable/able to simply “call a cab.” While she bemoans the apparent inability for Grace to take forceful action, at the same time, Flanagan expresses regret that Grace (and women like her—whatever that means) have garnered some measure of power. Notably, at one point in her piece, Flanagan writes that she found “the most significant line in [Grace’s] story” to be when Grace bemoans “You guys are all the fucking same.” Flanagan uses Grace’s exasperation to infer that this type of encounter has happened to Grace “many times before,” foisting the blame onto the survivor. Flanagan preemptively declares Ansari’s life ruined as a result of the incident (though he would quickly reemerge in 2019 with a Netflix standup special), showing more concern for him than for a woman who allegedly has had several men not respect her wishes. She fails to recognize the institutionalized pattern of harassment and instead casts the incident as related to the survivor’s personal will.

Both Weiss and Flanagan portray #MeToo as a vehicle for spoiled, aggrieved women to seek revenge on men who have not accommodated their romantic fantasies. Neither writer acknowledges the structural inequities and institutionalized discrimination that women have historically faced in every area of life—the workplace, the home, the streets—and how those inequities bring to bear on romantic encounters. For them, #MeToo has become an excuse for women to air their individualized  grievances with the intention of taking down well-meaning men. In response to both Weiss and Flanagan, Osita Nwanevu of Slate acknowledges the complexities of the Ansari story, maintaining that it is precisely for that reason that it should fall under the purview of #MeToo:

It is by no means clear what we’re all to do with a man like Ansari. But one thing is for certain: if #MeToo is to be a movement that merely indicts the worst of the worst, then we might as well start winding it down. It will never, then, be truly useful to the vast majority of women who have not been preyed upon by millionaire moguls promising them roles or bosses who can lock doors from their desks. (Nwanevu)

While the ill-intent of men such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer (both invoked above by Nwanevu) remains obvious to most, Nwanevu argues that the value of #MeToo lies in its ability to instigate conversations about less clear-cut scenarios. How might public conversations around consent develop in ways that help all people better negotiate romantic encounters? What factors bear upon a woman’s decision about whether she remains in any given situation with a man (i.e., physical safety, fear of retribution, etc)? How do age, race4, and sexuality, among other factors, affect interpretations of consent? These more nuanced conversations seem far afield from the initial wave of #MeToo tweets, but as Nwanevu and others have pointed out, the early approaches and tactics of #MeToo can give way to discussions about less-straightforward instances of coercion, silencing, and harassment. The Ansari story represented just one opportunity to have such a discussion, though commentators such as Weiss and Flanagan imply that a “call a cab”/”I’m out” mentality would render the need for such discussions moot.

Debates over the role of personal responsibility in the face of sexism will likely steer the conversations around #MeToo in the future. If, as Flanagan and Weiss argue, sexism can be overcome with grit and persistence, #MeToo and movements like it will evade more difficult discussions about issues such as consent, where there are no straightforward answers. The personal responsibility argument is reminiscent of a bootstraps mentality: the idea that through determination and hard work alone, people are able to create a more comfortable way of life for themselves. Women, for example, should be able to “pull themselves up” from situations where sexism is at play if they would reject an alleged learned helplessness that these writers see as increasingly common. The bootstraps perspective historically has been directed at people of color, with the implicit argument that they could counter the effects of racism if only they tried hard enough. Notably, both Weiss and Flanagan are white, as are Daphne Merkin, Masha Gessen, Kate Roiphe: all writers who have publicly argued, to varying degrees, that #MeToo has infantilized women and denied their agency. Writers of color, both men (Osita Nwanevu, cited above) and women (Tarana Burke, Brittney Cooper, Stephanie Jones-Rogers—all of whom have engaged publicly in discussions about #MeToo) will have experienced the effects of racial prejudice, with women of color having experienced multiple axes of discrimination; these experiences make them more likely to adopt the perspective that countering the patriarchal institution involves more than simply willing oneself outside of it. In an interview with Elizabeth Adetiba for the Nation, Tarana Burke calls out the difference between a movement that is focused on individual transgressions and one that examines structural oppression:

Understanding the structural and historical nature of misogyny positions #MeToo as a communal project, one in which personal actions and reactions are part of a larger patriarchal system that is entrenched and normalized. From its earliest days, feminism has struggled to keep the voices of women of color, lesbians, and transgender women at the center of its work. This failure makes it even more critical that #MeToo maintain an intersectional approach and honor/learn from the voices of people of color. Doing so will steer the conversation away from one of personal responsibility toward an interrogation of the larger structural forces that limit women’s choices. (Burke)*

As Burke points out, centering people of color makes the movement more likely to become more focused on structural oppressions. Because people of color have felt these forces, they are more likely to steer the movement toward addressing the root causes of misogynistic behavior.


This overview of 100 of popular press articles about #MeToo demonstrates how the movement has evolved over time—and provides clues as to how it might continue to develop. Viewing the utterance #MeToo as an act of parrhesia, or truth-telling, begs the question of whose truth is being told and listened to. In response to my research question on this issue, my conclusion is that we are failing to center the voices of women of color, queer folx, and transgender women; if we continue to do so, #MeToo’s reach and effectiveness will be limited. Those of us who carry white privilege need to be vocal when people of color find inadequate representation in these conversations; academics who are writing about #MeToo (or any topic, for that matter) need to ensure that they are citing scholars of color and building on their work in an ethical manner. This principle extends to all categories of representation. Tarana Burke bemoans that “the women of color, trans women, queer people—our stories get pushed aside and our pain is never prioritized…We don’t talk about indigenous women. Their stories go untold” (Time). Those of us who do have privilege need to take concrete action to give these stories their due. Foucault’s definition emphasizes that a parrhesiastes “recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people” (19).* Truth-telling is not merely for the benefit of oneself, but also for the benefit of others. In the case of #MeToo, telling one’s story can inspire others to do the same, thus creating a wider discourse around an issue than previously existed. This collective truth-telling also challenges the taboo around abuse survivors sharing their experiences in an open forum. Expectations around what are appropriate public topics of discussion have long impeded women’s ability to find support in cases of abuse and harassment. #MeToo, in this sense, challenges not only expectations for public spheres but also patriarchy as an institution: the notion that women can be abused/harassed and should not upset the status quo by complaining about it.

The concept of parrhesia finds complication in the present day, which is influenced by post-truth logics. The decreasing ability for factual evidence to persuade an audience leaves the tactic of truth-telling imperiled. Burgess analyzes this current day challenge in detail, and in reflecting on #MeToo, she explains that “If the problem is, as the body of literature advocating for deep, structural changes to systems of oppression evidences, that we must alter the norms that determine who might be believed, then it is ‘post-truth’ discourses that are at play in setting these norms” (355)*. While incidents of sexual violence have often been reduced to “he said/she said” scenarios (with “he said” often holding primacy), “post-truth” calls into question even those incidents with clear factual grounding. This quandary is made even worse, according to Burgess, by the #MeToo hashtag’s implied mandate that all #MeToo tweets should be believed without question. Along with the rise of #MeToo, the phrase “believe women” has gained traction in the public. Burgess worries that this kind of automatic belief helps fuel post-truth logics, precipitating a reliance on affective politics to legislate sexual harassment and assault (361)*. One of the two reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Jodi Kantor, has commented publicly on the “believe women” catchphrase, explaining that she and her co-author Megan Twohey “do, in many ways, want to live and work in the spirit of that statement. But there’s a conflicting impetus in journalism, which is that everything needs to be scrutinized; everything needs to be checked. And we believe that really solid, well-documented reporting protects women…the best way to get people to believe women is to document those women’s stories really thoroughly” (Kantor)*. This kind of scrutiny need not derail the movement but rather counter post-truth impulses that can easily be marshalled against accusers. In his own time, Foucault was also concerned with “knowing how to recognize [parrhesiastes]” (170).* Recognizing a truth-teller means working to center women of color so that they can be more readily accepted in this role. It also means not shutting out others who may not agree with #MeToo politically (Burgess 363*), as doing so could facilitate a further slippage into post-truth logics. These tactics fly in the face of current norms, but they represent hopeful attempts at intervening in institutionalized oppression.

This challenge to institutional norms speaks to the kinds of interventions that Porter et al imagine in their institutional critique methodology. Returning to my other research question, the popular press coverage that I analyzed suggests that #MeToo is disrupting the power dynamics that allow sexual harassment to thrive. The high numbers of women saying “me too” suggest a collective attempt at altering an institution that has limited their self-efficacy: the patriarchy. Through parrhesia, women are attempting to make this institution more visible, citing the ways that it bears upon their very bodies. Like all institutions, according to Porter et al, the patriarchy contains unstable boundaries that are dependent on silence and fear of retribution or not being believed; parrhesia represents one tactic by which women are seeking to further destabilize those boundaries. In order to eradicate this institution, it is not enough for women to simply “call a cab” when they find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Likewise, in the workplace (another thematic code that emerged in my data, though I do not have space here to address it), calling attention to all forms of unequal treatment is a crucial part of intervening in an institution that was not designed for women to be present. Decades after women entered the workforce en masse, we are still seeing signs (e.g., harassment, lower wages than men) that we are not completely welcome. The #MeToo movement’s best chance for effecting change is—despite the grousing of some self-proclaimed feminists—remaining focused on the collective and the institutions, whether that involves calling attention to how women are treated in the workplace or in the bedroom.

Consider a case where a woman is sexually harassed at work. Oftentimes, if she wants to stay in that job, she must endure being objectified and marginalized within the work environment–or she must risk the possibility of retribution and/or a loss of professional contacts by reporting the harassment. This kind of scenario maintains a hierarchy within the workplace, with women experiencing routine professional setbacks through no fault of their own. #MeToo, then, challenges this hierarchy, in the workplace and beyond. Echoing an institutional critique approach, Melanie Yergeau and John Duffy (2011) argue in Disability Studies Quarterly that “rhetoric functions as a powerfully shaping instrument for creating conceptions of identity and positioning individuals relative to established social and economic hierarchies. Yet this perspective on rhetoric is incomplete if it does not acknowledge the capacity of individuals to respond to and re-imagine such shaping rhetorics” (Yergeau and Duffy)*. Their conception of rhetoric emphasizes the agency of individual actors when it comes to reimagining hierarchical structures. Through this re-imagining of “shaping rhetorics,” women are envisioning #MeToo as a way to resist quid pro quo arrangements, threats against their reputations, physical violence, and implications of being lesser-than. #MeToo represents a tactic by which those who have experienced sexual assault and harassment have attempted to disrupt institutional structures, enacting the kind of agency that is endemic to rhetoric.


  1. Recent publications such as Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage have attested to the rhetorical value of women showing their anger in the public sphere.
  2. Because Google has become attuned to my search patterns over time, I acknowledge that the results that were generated are likely oriented toward what the search engine determines are my political and ideological leanings (Noble 2018). For example, a number of the articles that comprise my corpus are from the New York Times, a publication that I read regularly. Additionally, the Times broke the initial Weinstein story and has maintained a focus on the issue through regular opinion pieces, profiles, and news items.
  3. Ansari never disputed the story publicly and issued a statement in which he said that while he believed that his encounter with Grace was consensual, “I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said. I continue to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”
  4. Some commentators have speculated that race may have played a role in how/why Ansari, who is Indian, was treated in the media subsequent to the encounter described in Babe. Others have critiqued the Babe story for sloppy reporting, particularly pertaining to the timeline/sequence of events in Ansari’s apartment.

Appendix: Codes for Popular Media Articles

  • Impact of #MeToo
  • Consent
  • Backlash
  • Reticence to report abuse
  • Hollywood
  • Reporting on #MeToo
  • Queerness
  • Preserving a record of #MeToo
  • Pop culture coverage
  • NYU case
  • Harvey Weinstein
  • Media men
  • #MeToo has lost its way
  • #ChurchToo
  • Academia
  • Blue collar workplaces

Works Cited

  • Burgess, Sarah K. “Between the Desire for Law and the Law of Desire: #MeToo and the Cost of Telling the Truth Today.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. vol. 51, no. 4, 2018, pp. 342-367.
  • Burke, Tarana and Elizabeth Adetiba. “Tarana Burke Says #MeToo Should Center Marginalized Communities.” Where Freedom Starts: Sex, Power, Violence, #MeToo: A Verso Report, Verso, 2018, pp. 14-17.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage. New York: Picador, 2018.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8.
  • DeArmas, Nicholas. Using Hashtags to Disambiguate Aboutness in Social Media Discourse: A Case Study of #OrlandoStrong. 2018. University of Central Florida. PhD dissertation.
  • Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014.
  • Donegan, Moira. “How #MeToo Revealed the Central Rift within Feminism Today.” The Guardian, 11 May 2018. Accessed 3 Dec. 2018.
  • Eversley, Shelly. Equality Archive. 2015.
  • Faris, Michael. “Sex-Education Comics: Feminist and Queer Approaches to Alternative Sex Education.” The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics. Special Issue: Comics and/as Rhetoric, vol. 3, no. 1., 2019, pp. 86-115. Accessed 4 Jan. 2020.
  • Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
  • Flanagan, Caitlin. “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari.” The Atlantic. 14 Jan. 2018. Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
  • Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Pearson, Joseph, ed. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001.
  • France, Lisa Respers. “‘Surviving R. Kelly’ is Resonating More Because of #MeToo.” CNN. 17 Jan. 2019. Accessed 4 Aug 2019.
  • Greenberg, Zoe. “What Happens to #MeToo When a Feminist is the Accused?The New York Times. 13 Aug. 2018. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke, 2011.
  • Herstory.” Black Lives Matter. Accessed 10 June 2019.
  • Kantor, Jodi and Megan Twohey. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. New York: Penguin, 2019.
  • —. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air, 10 Sept. 2019. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.
  • Kornhaber, Spencer. “Cruising in the Age of Consent.” The Atlantic. July 2019. Accessed 2 Aug. 2019.
  • Larson, Kyle. “Remonstrative Agitation as Feminist Counterpublic Rhetoric.” Peitho, vol. 20, no. 2, 2018, pp. 261-298. Accessed 4 Aug. 2019.
  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984.
  • MacKinnon, Catharine A.  Sexual Harassment of Working Women. New Haven: Yale, 1979.
  • Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York UP, 2018.
  • Nwanevu, Osita. “There is No Rampaging #MeToo Mob.” Slate. 16 Jan 2018. Accessed 17 Mar. 2018.
  • Penney, Joel and Caroline Dadas. “(Re) Tweeting in the service of protest: Digital composition and circulation in the Occupy Wall Street movement.” New Media & Society, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74-90.
  • Porter, James E., et al. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” College  Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 4, 2000, pp. 610-642.
  • Powell, Neesha. “Here’s How We Can Center Queer & Trans Survivors in the #MeToo Movement.” Everyday Feminism. 29 Nov. 2017. Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.
  • Simmons, W. Michele. Participation and Power: Civic Discourse in Environmental Policy Decisions. Albany: State University of New York P, 2007.
  • Sullivan, Patricia and James E. Porter. Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1997.
  • Talusan, Meredith. “How #MeToo Stands to Marginalize Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People.” Them. 27 Oct. 2017. Accessed 21 May 2019.
  • Time. “’Our Pain Is Never Prioritized.’ #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke Says We Must Listen to ‘Untold’ Stories of Minority Women.” Accessed 15 Nov. 2019.
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
  • Vie, Stephanie and Douglas Walls. “Overview.” Because Facebook: Digital Rhetoric/Social Media, special issue of Kairos, vol. 19, no. 9, 2015. Accessed 10 Jan 2016.
  • —. Social Writing / Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2017.
  • Way, Katie. “I went on a Date with Aziz Ansari. It Turned into the Worst Night of my Life.” Babe. 13 Jan. 2018. Accessed 13 Jan. 2018.Weiss, Bari. “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.” The New York Times. 15 Jan. 2018. Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.
  • Yergeau, Melanie and John Duffy. “Guest Editors’ Introduction.” Disability and Rhetoric, special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, n.p.

Recipes for/of Subversion: The Rhetorical Strategies of The Suffrage Cookbook

Recipes, instructional or indicative, are not, of course, exclusively concerned with the more or less complicated production of routine meals or the orchestration of feasts, though, in doing just that, they evoke the elaborate scene of home, and the contentious arena of domestic politics and family values. In their different appearances, they are also persistently drawn into cultural debates around health and purity, about lifestyle and individualism, and into definitions of the national past, present, and future. (Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts,” 1)


It being a human Cook Book there will likely be some errors, but as correcting errors is the chief duty and occupation of the Suffrage Women, I shall accept gratefully whatever criticisms these good women have to offer. (L. O. Kleber, Introduction, The Suffrage Cookbook)

In 1915, the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania made a curious move.  Responding to the growing nationwide movement for equal suffrage, as well as an impending vote on suffrage for Pennsylvania women (which ultimately did not pass), the Franchise voted to increase their annual budget from $8,000 to a seemingly unrealistic $100,000. Records show that members not only solicited large donations from sympathetic philanthropists, but were also encouraged to do what they could to raise funds (rummage sales, jewelry donations, jam, jelly, and produce sales, etc.) (Leach 200). In addition, the Equal Franchise Federation commissioned a group-wide fundraiser—the sale of the organization’s own compilation, The Suffrage Cook Book. L. O. Kleber, a local member, worked to solicit recipes and information for the cookbook, which was published that year. 

The Suffrage Cook Book both communicated the value of suffrage to the Equal Franchise Federation’s audience, but also did so in a way that was traditionally coded female and, at least on the surface, communicated a female/feminized domestic image of the suffrage activities.  While cookbooks offer an interesting overview of food history, analysis of the rhetorical methods of The Suffrage Cook Book reveals the group making thoughtful and complex rhetorical moves. Overall, the cookbook demonstrates the Franchise participating in a “new” version of “true” womanhood—one that is both placed squarely within traditional domestic behavior through cooking and attention to the hearth/home and family, but also reflects women who were politically savvy, slightly more progressive than the more conservative national suffrage movement, aware of their audiences, aware of new trends in nutrition and domestic science, and finally, witty, using humor and satire to try to convince their audience. As Jessica Derleth notes in “’Kneading Politics’: Cookery and the American Suffrage Movement,” “by writing about food and displaying cooking skills, suffragists demonstrated their ongoing commitment to dominant gender expectations even as they demanded the right to vote” (452). Published in 1915, the Suffrage Cook Book also reflected the ways that the suffrage movement, and the Equal Franchise Federation in particular, had changed from their original tactics, demonstrating genre adaptability by presenting more nuanced (and sometimes more pointed) ways of arguing for suffrage.  

Ultimately, the Federation’s 1915 publication of The Suffrage Cook Book offers a way to view the Federation’s beliefs, their participation in contemporary conversations regarding both food and suffrage, and their rhetorical approaches to suffrage. The cookbook was produced at the convergence of the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania’s formation and growth within the food sciences movement, subtle changes in the suffrage movement’s rhetorical strategies, and the community cookbook movement. This essay tracks the history of the Equal Federation’s formation and attempts to align with and push back against national organizations. This is followed by a close analysis of The Suffrage Cook Book and its rhetorical moves, including an active campaign to co-opt the idea of “women in the kitchen” and use it to their advantage. Overall, the cookbook, like other suffrage cookbooks that came before it, both reinforced and reflected the beliefs of the Equal Franchise Federation and their desire to both place themselves within but also push the envelope on the national suffrage debates.

The Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania

While national work on suffrage had been going on since the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, it was in 1890 that the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association consolidated and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) came into existence (Evans 153; Derleth 452). Eventually, NAWSA comprised 700 auxiliary groups, doing work at local, state, and national levels (Sharer 27). In 1910, the group split into the older NAWSA, led by long time suffragist Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and the newer, more radical National Women’s Party, led by the young Quaker radical Alice Paul.1

In Western Pennsylvania, suffrage efforts experienced a groundswell in 1904, when local resident Jenny Bradley Roessing and her friends formed the Allegheny County Equal Rights Association (ACERA) as a branch of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association (Leach 192).  However, in 1909 ACERA dropped its state and national affiliations “in subtle protest against the lack of progress in the larger organizations” (Leach 193). In 1910, the former members of ACERA began the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania (Leach 193) and, with some concerns, aligned themselves with NAWSA.  

The Federation thus claimed an interesting space for itself—on the face, it was aligned with the more conservative of the suffrage organizations, but largely because of their reluctance to embrace the more radical work of what would become the National Women’s Party. However, they were also disappointed in the conservative, state-by-state work of the national organization, with their focus on “educational strategies” and lack of focus on the political necessity of women’s enfranchisement (Leach 193-194). According to Holly McCammon, this was typical of the entire movement, where “a rising new generation of suffragists argued that the ways of the older suffragists were outdated and too passive” (795). As Leach notes, because it was “determined to make friends, not enemies, the Equal Franchise stressed conventional strategies rather than militancy” (193). In reality, however, the group believed in a more political, more activist agenda than NAWSA had previously employed, and worked to set an ambitious agenda to create their own headquarters in Harrisburg, train women to speak publicly and lobby key lawmakers, and to reach the Pennsylvania public with any means they could imagine (Leach 194). Their production of the 1915 The Suffrage Cook Book is a reflection of this public education drive. While advertised as a fundraiser, The Suffrage Cook Book both contributed to the Federation’s goal of retaining a more conservative image for women while still pushing the suffrage agenda and making some pointed commentary regarding both non-supporters and anti-suffragists.

Community Cookbooks

The surge in early twentieth-century suffrage activities coincided with an already established community cookbook movement. While work on suffrage had wound down during the Civil War, community cookbooks appeared for the first time in 1864, when Maria Moss’s Poetical Cookbook was sold to subsidize costs for the medical care of Union soldiers (Hilliard iv). The cookbooks were a part of a larger rash of self-help manuals published during the time (Johnson 20) and often contained both recipes for food as well as cleaning products, home remedies, and household advice, gathered from contributors and assembled for the specific purpose of fundraising. As a result of Moss’s initial success, other groups began selling cookbooks for war relief, but such projects quickly branched out to local community and religious organizations which sought to fundraise. Such practices not only brought together communities of like groups of people, but the cookbooks also served to communicate American values about food, household order, and cleanliness to both residents and incoming immigrant populations (Hilliard iv; Walden 77). By 1915, community cookbooks were a well-established means for local fundraising, and one in which the suffrage movement also participated.

The timing and overall success of community cookbooks as a fundraising device also coincided with the suffrage movement’s needs to raise funds for lobbying, travel, and printings. Sociologist Stacy Williams has located seven suffrage cookbooks sold as fundraisers. These included The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (Burr, 1886 and 1890, Boston), the Holiday Gift Cook Book (Rockford Equal Suffrage Association, 1891), Washington Women’s Cookbook (Jennings, 1910), The Suffrage Cook Book (Kleber, 1915), Enfranchised Cookery (Hoar, 1915), Suffrage Cook Book (Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County, 1916), and Choice Recipes Compiled for the Busy Housewife (Clinton Political Equality Club, 1916). Of the seven cookbooks that were published, only two are readily available—Burr’s The Woman Suffrage Cookbook from 1886/1890, and Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book from 1915.2 I have chosen to work with the Kleber because it quietly but explicitly pushed the rhetorical envelope, demonstrating genre adaptability in ways that reflect the more complicated positions that the suffrage movement had begun to take on by 1915. 

It’s difficult overall to know who bought and read any of the suffrage cookbooks, or how successful they were, either in convincing their readers to join the cause, or in raising funds for the movement. I have been unable, for example, to locate any record of profits from the sales of The Suffrage Cook Book, or find evidence of how (or if) it contributed to the Federation’s 1915 fundraising goals.3

In part, all of the suffrage cookbooks were certainly purchased by women who were connected to the groups selling the books, and were therefore already supporting the cause by financially supporting their local groups (Williams 152). In addition, some evidence exists that in Washington DC in particular, the suffragists went door-to-door, selling the cookbooks and asking for support for their cause. “These tactics likely resulted in women who were not members of a suffrage organization but were sympathetic or indifferent to the movement purchasing and reading the cookbooks” (Williams 152). The audience for the cookbooks, however, was diverse and surely would also have been comprised of women simply looking for a new cookbook, those who were interested in but not yet committed to the cause, and a smaller group comprised of those who did not necessarily support the movement but were curious about how the cookbooks functioned. While the cookbooks most likely had the greatest appeal to those who were already part of the movement, however, they were also meant to convince those who were undecided, who were worried about the pressures that suffrage would put on wives and mothers to “engage in the scuffles and hurly-burly of ‘a man’s world’” (Schneider and Schneider 166).

Suffrage and Conveying the “Proper” Image

Women in 1915 America, while they were on the cusp of enfranchisement, were still often bound by leftover beliefs from the nineteenth century about the cult of true womanhood, with its four pillars of piousness, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (Cott 69).  Women by the late 1800s, however, had been increasingly leaving the home and entering the public realm, as working class women sought factory work and upper class women publicly worked on various social issues (temperance, suffrage, poverty, etc.). Because suffrage work increasingly included forays into the public/male sphere to attend rallies, give speeches, march in parades, attend political meetings, etc., women were vilified for their disruption of the feminine ideal. Nationwide debates (and even a few divorce proceedings) erupted “about suffragists and their relationships to their husbands, household duties, and domestic harmony” (Derleth 451). As a result, suffragists’ continued participation in the movement led to what Evans terms “politicized domesticity” (153).

Overall, there was tremendous fear that women’s participation in the suffrage movement as a whole would render them too masculine—desexed, unmarriagable, and unable to care for their homes and children. At their best, suffragists were seen as meddling in the proper roles for women and men. At their worst, they were “painted as neglectful mothers and kitchen-hating harridans, busy politicking while their children starved” (Martyris).4 Most of the anti-suffragist arguments were an extension of the early arguments that women’s roles were in the home, and that their moral influence on the voting men in their households already gave them sufficient political power (Schneider and Schneider 166). 

Since suffragists were acutely aware of the ways in which they were portrayed, they worked to counteract those views in the hopes that a “kinder” view of them as womanly women, still able to attend to their duties as wives and mothers, would further their cause. Through such work as the community cookbooks, as Derleth notes, “suffragists used the practice and language of cookery to build a feminine persona for their movement and to demonstrate that enfranchising women would not threaten the vital institution of home and family” (451-2). In addition, they worked to find ways to coopt the “in the home” argument. As Sheryl Hurner notes in “Discursive Identity Formation of Suffrage Women,”  “for the suffrage cause to succeed, women needed to create new identities and definitions of womanhood to extract themselves from symbolically defensive positions” (251). Because even other women were opposed to the ideals of suffrage, the movement had to work doubly hard to present positive/feminized representations of themselves. The suffrage cookbooks overall combine an outward symbol of political work (the very public and visible work to advocate for suffrage) with a symbol of female domesticity (the cookbook itself). The suffrage cookbooks also sent an important message to detractors, implying that suffragists could advocate for political/radical change, but still be women who cared for their families, children, and homes. 

In part, the cookbooks particularly reinforced the idea of women’s role as silent in the culture. They used print culture to co-opt the idea of gendered domesticity, by both sharing the printed message of suffrage quietly and privately while still declaring their public positions to willing readers. The Suffrage Cook Book is no exception. Instead of proclaiming their positions loudly and in public forums (and in turn being referred to as the “shrieking sisterhood” (Chapman 36)), the cookbooks are rhetorically savvy. Their publication meant that the suffrage message could be conveyed and digested in the privacy of the women’s sphere—the home (and more specifically, the kitchen). In her work Making Noise, Making News, Mary Chapman discusses multiple print rhetorical devices that the suffrage movement used to convey their message. In addition to having their own periodicals, they used slogans, silent tableaux, letters to the editor, novels, plays, sketches, songs, film scripts, and speeches (Chapman 7).5 By the time that the cookbooks were starting to be printed in earnest, print culture was also a significant part of their strategy. While print culture could provide for mixed loud/quiet opportunities (“loud” news girls bearing “Suffrage News” bags stood on street corners and yelled out to sell “quiet” suffrage papers, for example), the cookbooks participate in what Chapman notes is a “silent voice” (5).  

This voice also successfully worked with and yet defied the anti-suffragists notions (and often those of the NAWSA) that women should stop being loud and public.  The cookbooks’ use of print did just that: a suffragist “could ‘shout,’ ‘holler,’ and ‘declare’ and be rhetorically persuasive while her literal body remained invisible, acoustically silent, and therefore womanly and unassailable” (Chapman 5). While silence is often seen as a negative for women, the particular silence of the cookbooks actually functions as a powerful rhetorical device (Chapman 58).  It offers women a voice to answer both resistant and male speech and masculinized derision of their roles.   

 The image of women who were functional in both the public and private spheres was also applied so that the reader/viewer could even imagine women leaders of the movement, such as cookbook contributor Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as a woman “who presided lovingly over her home and who sent out her good works and words from that sphere where she exerted her most profound influence of all” (Johnson 118). In an attempt to both appeal to new members and convince those who were against them that the vote would not disrupt their roles as women, much suffrage marketing was concerned with conveying this image. As Cathleen Rauterkas notes in Go Get Mother’s Picket Sign, “all of the suffrage materials, including clothing, postcards, dolls, cartoons, photographs, tea sets and tools of civil disobedience showed that they did not forget the responsibility to the home. Everything they used encompassed the right of suffrage and maintained the image of the dutiful wife and mother” (1). The announcement of the publication of The Suffrage Cook Book in The Woman’s Journal (the major publication of the suffrage movement), reinforces this, noting that the cookbook “ought to silence forever the slander that women who want to vote do not know how to cook” (“Cook Book Will Silence Enemy” 325). The material reminders of the suffragists’ work, including the cookbooks, successfully but quietly reminded citizens of the suffrage movement and intentionally worked to frame the suffrage movement as a movement that was appropriately female/feminine/proper. 

L.O. Kleber’s Influence on The Suffrage Cook Book

Behind every community cookbook is a person or team making decisions about the contents.  Little information is available about L. O. Kleber, the woman who compiled The Suffrage Cook Book. Whenever she is mentioned in newspaper articles about the Equal Franchise Federation or articles about suffrage cookbooks, she is routinely mentioned as L. O. Kleber, and attempts to discover the meaning of the “L. O.” eluded me. According to letterhead produced by the Equal Franchise Federation, Kleber was not listed among the board members of the Equal Franchise Federation in 1913 (“Equal Franchise Federation”). However, a 1916 news article from The Pittsburgh Gazette Times notes that “Mrs. L.O. Kleber reported that Dr. Anna Howard Shaw’s meetings in Pittsburgh had netted the Federation $2500,” (5) perhaps placing her as a key fundraiser or even treasurer. Kleber’s photo also appears in the Pittsburgh Sunday Post in 1916, as a delegate (Pittsburgh) and speaker attending the 48th annual convention of the Pennsylvania Equal Suffrage Association, of which the Equal Franchise Federation was a branch member. 

Black and white portrait photo of a woman smiling and looking slighty off camera.

Fig. 1. Suffragists to attend convention.

She presumably also had a daughter who was near to adult in 1915;  a Miss Laura Kleber of Pittsburgh, PA is listed as a contributor to the cookbook. Thus, it becomes clear that Kleber herself, while remaining a bit of a mystery to us, was an active and known participant in the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania. Clearly her 1915 activism in working on the cookbook was part of her larger activism within the group.

While many versions of Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book have been reprinted since its initial publication, the original version shows the designer’s attention to the suffrage movement, and the Equal Franchise Federation’s place within it, right down to the detail of the blue cloth cover. Rhetorically, the cover reflects the state-by-state movement of suffrage as well as the Equal Franchise Federation’s desire to see men and women have equal legal rights to enfranchisement. The cover also reflects patriotism (in the form of Uncle Sam as well as the blue cover) and justice (the scales of justice). Unlike future editions, which list L. O. Kleber prominently on the front cover, no author or editor is listed here. Kleber is listed as “the compiler” in the front pages. There is also no indication from the cover that this is produced by the Equal Franchise Federation. The cover looks professionally designed and seems to indicate that The Suffrage Cook Book belongs to a larger movement, rather than a smaller local group. This may have been intentional on the part of the cover designer, or it may have been an economic decision (more colors and more embossed lettering would have meant greater cost). Regardless, a carefully crafted image of a woman and a man in the “scale of justice,” shows them as equally balanced and held by Uncle Sam. In his hand, he guides a wheel, whose spokes are “a roll call of the suffrage states,” including half a spoke for Illinois, which had partial suffrage (“Cooking for a Cause”). Pennsylvania, rightfully, does not appear as one of the spokes.

The cover of The Suffrage Cook Book is a perriwinkle blue with gold lettering. It features a man holding scales in one had and a wheel in the other.

Fig. 2. Cover of The Suffrage Cook Book.

The Use of Frames: Crafting Careful Rhetorical Arguments

Looking within the cookbook provides further evidence of the rhetorically savvy nature of the Equal Franchise Federation and their use of contemporary arguments for suffrage. For example, the social science concept of framing offers one powerful way to read the rhetorical positioning of the suffragists, and such frames are also reflected in significant ways in The Suffrage Cook Book. Frames are defined as  “action-oriented sets of beliefs and meanings that inspire and legitimate the activities and campaigns of a social movement organization” (Williams 148). Holly McCammon and Karen Campbell, in “Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919,” note the existence of “frame bridging” (63) in the suffrage movement. Initially, the suffragists nationwide had used “justice arguments”—those that argued that women, as citizens of the United States, had an inherent right to the vote. However, they quickly discovered that these arguments were met with significant resistance and thus were not rhetorically successful. Their arguments were generally more successful when the women moved to an “expediency argument,” which argued that allowing them to vote would help to bring their nurturing qualities into a public motherhood role, thus improving public life through the addressing of social ills (although suffragists continued to use both arguments when appropriate) (McCammon and Campbell 63). Aileen Kraditor notes the practice of using expediency arguments as early as 1894, and NAWSA used both arguments whenever practical, although they increasingly saw the value of the expedience argument (52). Expedience arguments were used in situations where “social reform was their principle goal and suffrage the means” as well as situations where “the link of woman suffrage to reform seemed to be the best way to secure support for their principle goal: the vote” (Kraditor 45-46). The expedience argument “crafted their public arguments for suffrage in ways that resonated with widely held beliefs in society; in this case, particularly beliefs about women’s appropriate roles” (McCammon and Campbell 63).6 While the claims were the same in both cases (that women should have the vote), the expedience warrant was far more effective than the justice warrant alone. Thus, the expedience frame bridged the beliefs of suffrage (which might be met with opposition) with those that were already held about women’s appropriate roles, and created a new public role in which women’s “special skills” would be brought to bear on public life. In this respect, their argument created a frame that simply extended the role of women, rather than radically changing it.  Likewise the suffrage cookbooks also occupied a space where they presented themselves as examples of the expedience argument. With a focus on nutrition, food science, and family, the cookbooks reinforced the nurturing qualities and public motherhood roles of the suffragists. 

Reflections of the New Woman

In addition to shifts in the framing of suffrage arguments, The Suffrage Cook Book also reflects the Equal Franchise Federation’s attention to other social and cultural changes present by 1915. In particular, the cookbook demonstrates adherence to the new food science movement. Rather than reflecting the “true” woman, the cookbook reflects a “new” woman, creating a more complicated image for themselves—part knowledgeable and cutting-edge housewife, part political organizer, rolled into a compatible whole. For example, The Suffrage Cook Book mixes the new formatting for recipes with the older format of including household hints and recipes for things such as food for the sick and household goods like soap. The recipes follow the “newer” trend at the time of including a list of ingredients followed by the instructions for how to put the recipe together (older recipes contained a single narrative paragraph with the ingredients embedded within).7As Derleth notes, the suffrage cookbooks “capitalized on widespread public concerns and conversations—about health and safety, science and modernization, and the consequences of urbanization—to promote the cause of female enfranchisement” (453). As such, The Suffrage Cook Book works to create an image of women who were both comfortable in the kitchen (no very basic instructions are included for brand new cooks), but were also on the cutting edge of food economy, food science, and family nutrition

Within the seemingly silent book pages, and in addition to the recipes that one would expect to find in any cookbook, Kleber’s cookbook also offers a reflection of the Equal Franchise Federation’s local participation in the suffrage movement. Just over half of the contributions to the cookbook (30 out of 57) are from women in Western Pennsylvania, where the cookbook was published (Green). While there is a list of contributors at the beginning of the book, many of the recipe entries are not identified by contributor unless the contributor is a person of note.

In addition, the opening includes a brief introduction by well-known Western Pennsylvania columnist Erasmus Wilson, who discusses the shift in cookbooks from those that were comprised of recipes that merely tasted good, to those that are aimed at maintaining and promoting health of body and mind (as noted previously, the more modern scientific and nutrition-based approach to food). Wilson likewise places cooking and domestic science as natural (he even refers to them as “sacred”) activities of the suffragists, but also ones that are squarely found in the home. According to Wilson’s introduction to the book, “Women being the homekeepers, and the natural guardians of the children, it is important that they be made familiar with the culinary art so they may be entirely competent to lead coming generations in the paths of health and happiness. So say the members of Equal Franchise Associations throughout the length and breadth of the land” (8). Kleber’s use of Wilson in the introduction sets the reader up for the cookbook as a publication that shows suffrage and the domestic ideal as compatible and links the local Western Pennsylvania organization to the larger national organization. In this scenario, regardless of the suffrage fight, the pillars of true womanhood are reflected in attention to domesticity, piousness, and food purity—but when read carefully these also reflect a new/modern woman who is both aware of the science of nutrition and comfortable having a political voice and traversing the “length and breadth” of the country to fight for her cause.    

Creating Ethos Through The Use of Experts

 Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book also follows the model of many of the other community cookbooks by having prominent people contribute to the collection. In addition to their recipe, advice, or suffrage statements, many contributors to Kleber’s collection included photographs that were published next to their pieces.   Such a reliance on “experts” is used to create a greater sense of authority in order to create a greater sense of credibility.  While rhetorical scholars view this as a fallacy, it is, of course, often an effective strategy for helping an audience to relate to and buy into your point, and participates in the traditional practice of many fundraising cookbooks. 

There are several types of “experts” presented in The Suffrage Cook Book. First, Kleber includes recipes and advice from prominent nutrition and health experts. These include information about care of the sick, including a recipe for various types of breakfast mush, contributed by a Dr. Harvey Wiley. Wiley was the driving force behind the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and he later worked in the Good Housekeeping Institute laboratories (“Harvey Washington Wiley”). Wiley encouraged suffrage as a means of securing votes for clean food and drug legislation (Derleth 460) and was also a contributor to the Clinton (NY) Political Equality Club’s 1916 cookbook, Choice Recipes Compiled for the Busy Housewife (Derleth 458). As such, Wiley’s name may well have been familiar to many readers of the cookbook.8

In addition to Wiley, Julia C. Lathrop, the bureau Chief of the U.S. Department of Labor Children’s Bureau, sent in a letter of support for the project (“Lathrop, Julia Clifford”), as did social reformer Jane Addams.  Likewise, an entire section at the end of the cookbook includes “albuminous beverages” (those concocted from eggs), contributed by dietician Alida Frances Pattee, whose book Practical Dietetics is described as “an invaluable book for the home” (222).  Including work from nationally prominent social leaders and those involved in dietetics, nutrition and children’s work strengthens the overall ethos of the cookbook, and shows the suffragists as up-to-date on nutrition and food purity issues. 

The second type of “expert” included in The Suffrage Cook Book was people who were active and involved nationwide in the suffrage movement, particularly members of NAWSA. Carrie Chapman Catt, twice President of NAWSA, included both her image and a recipe for Pain D’Oeufs (184). Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of NAWSA between 1904 and 1915, also contributed her support to the project, although she admits that she does not know how to cook, and contributes a recipe that she saw in her local newspaper for bacon with cheese, mustard, and paprika.  Shaw notes “now that is a particularly tasty dish if it is well done. I never did it, but somebody must be able to do it who could do it well” (60). Likewise, recipes and letters of support were contributed by women involved in suffrage and other progressive work across the country, including Mrs. Samuel Semple, the President of the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women, and Harriet Taylor Upton, President of the Ohio Women’s Suffrage Association. Mrs. Henry Villard, President of the Women’s Peace Conference, contributed both a statement about the importance of the peace process as well as an image (34-35), and Mrs. Ava Belmont (suffrage activist and President, Political Equality Association, New York) included a recipe for “Mayonnaise Dressing Without Oil” as well as her image (176).

Including pieces from these women helps to show readers that the cookbook organizers were connected to and had the support of the national suffrage movement. In addition, it shows the reader that the Equal Franchise Federation was particularly aligned with NAWSA, where Catt, Shaw, and Belmont in particular were well-known national leaders. No recipes, images, or letters of support are included from the more radical suffragists, but including these from the likes of Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw shows that the Equal Franchise Federation was aligned with and supported by NAWSA.

The third type of “expert” came from authors and “famous people,” such as author Jack London and his wife, who contributed a recipe for Roast Duck (46) and one for Stuffed Celery (99). Charlotte Perkin Gilman [sic] includes a recipe for boiled rhubarb with apples that she labels “Synthetic Quince” (200). Author and columnist Irvin S. Cobb sent a letter of support, and labor leader Margaret Robins contributed a recipe for Lemon Cream (160) 

Beyond this, however, a genre shift is shown in the final type of expert included—national political leaders. Pushing the envelope for what a reader might expect in a cookbook, and making an explicit political statement, political support for the women’s fight for suffrage was offered in the form of letters from the Governors of Arizona, California, Wyoming, Illinois, Kansas, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. These men, representing eight of the spokes from The Suffrage Cook Book’s cover, wrote in with support for the women and their cause, as well as reflections on suffrage in their own states, lending a significant air of authority to both the cookbook and the suffrage project. In addition, the inclusion of these letters (usually a paragraph or two, interspersed throughout the collection) reflects the group’s changing framing of the suffrage argument.

The expediency argument, discussed earlier, with its focus on using women’s suffrage to assist with social change, is particularly reflected in the letters submitted to The Suffrage Cook Book by the various governors. Idaho Governor Alexander, for instance, writes that in Idaho, suffrage is no longer an experiment, but a successful institution that helps move forward needed “domestic and moral” reforms. His letter, like many, both supports the expediency frame and reassures the reader that women’s suffrage is non-threatening: “The women form an intelligent, patriotic and energetic element in our politics. They have been instrumental in accomplishing many needed reforms along domestic and moral lines, and in creating a sentiment favorable to the strict enforcement of the law” (155). Likewise, Oregon’s Governor Oswald West reports that women’s “influence is most always found upon the side of better government. The result of their efforts is already being reflected in a number of important measures recently adopted in this state, which will make for the public good” (220). Lastly, Kansas Governor George Hodges reports that the replacement of men by women in such government offices as the Board of Administration, the Board of Health, and the Board of Education has facilitated positive change for the state. “The women of Kansas have ‘arrived’ and the state service is better by their participating in it” (182). In this way, the governors, in a cookbook, move the conversation about public activity and republican citizenship from one that is typically gendered male into one that has moral and socially responsible input from women. By including the Governors’ statements in The Suffrage Cook Book, readers can see that the Equal Franchise Federation is also supporting the right of women to vote not just because they are women and somehow inherently deserve it, but because they want a place at the table of state and national policy making.

The use of various experts in the cookbook both reflects a concern for ethos and shows the rhetorical savvy of the Equal Franchise Federation. It also shows the Equal Franchise Federation’s ability to both align themselves with but push against contemporary suffrage arguments and social views about women’s roles. While the “true” woman was in charge of the domestic matter of the home, the “new” woman is appropriately extended to be in charge of the domestic matters of the country as well. By 1915, with successful enfranchisement in place in multiple states, The Suffrage Cook Book was therefore able to offer encouragement and support for the cause from local and national leaders in food science, the suffrage movement, and state politics.

Moving Beyond NAWSA-Pushing the Rhetorical Envelope

The Suffrage Cook Book, in addition to relying on authority figures and an expediency frame to help support the suffrage argument, also includes aphorisms, suffrage-themed recipes (Suffrage Salad Dressing (174) and Suffrage Angel Cake (122), for instance), and “fake recipes” for the reader. However, rhetorically the most powerful recipes in the Kleber collection are the four  “fake” recipes. These represent a significant genre shift from the earlier straight-forward “recipe-household hint” format seen, for example, in Burr’s 1886/1890 The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. Kleber’s inclusion of Hymen Bread (107) and Five Oz. of Childhood Fondant (215), for example, both offer cheery lists of ingredients for a happy marriage and a successful childhood, both reinforcing the notion that women involved in suffrage work could still be kind, generous, and successful spouses and mothers. 

A recipe for "Hymen Bread"

Fig. 3. Hymen Bread recipe (107).

A recipe from "Candies, Inc" to make five ounces of childhood fondant.

Fig. 4. Five-ounce Childhood Fondant recipe (215).

At closer read, though, the Childhood Fondant recipe is not a cheery as it looks; it reinforces the attention to social issues such as childhood poverty, as well as an attention to the physical needs of children (sunshine, good food, etc.) that were a substantial part of reform during the Progressive Era, and pushes the reader towards action. The recipe challenges NAWSA’s approach of simply educating people regarding reform, and instead contains a call to “distribute to the poor.” Both recipes are reminders of the public’s “public housekeeping” expectations for true women, with subtly added reminders that social justice, tolerance, and action were part of the new woman’s role.

More directly and pointedly geared towards the suffrage fight, Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband (Kleber 147) reveals that the women working on the collection were also interested in attempting to change minds. This recipe (along with Anti’s Favorite Hash) also provides a significant departure, for example, from Burr’s 1886/1890 cookbook, which offers aphorisms but no “fake” recipes, and certainly no direct attacks on the opposition. While Burr’s earlier focus on the support for suffrage is clear, Burr’s cookbook is otherwise non-confrontational.  Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband, in contrast, shows an appeal to a potentially reluctant audience that is reflective of the cookbook’s more complex rhetorical approaches of 1915. It is, as Dylan Dryer notes, a “motivated genre change, as tactical social intervention” (Dryer). The argument in the Pie recipe also reinforces the expediency argument presented in the governors’ letters that women have worthwhile contributions to make to significant social issues.

Fig. 5. “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband,” Kleber, 174.

Fig. 5. “Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband.” (Kleber, 174).

The recipe is overtly political; it shows a sophisticated use of wit as well as a basic list of the issues about which women want to be able to vote. Much like the Childhood Fondant recipe, this list of “ingredients” shows that the suffragists were aware of and concerned about many of the major “municipal housekeeping” causes that women championed—peace, child labor and working conditions for women, and access to wholesome and clean food/water. As Derleth notes, such advocates “pointed to air quality, food purity, and city sanitation as domestic concerns” (457). These were considered issues where women might have appropriate input, and where being enfranchised would help contribute to the country’s moral and physical improvement. The intentional inclusion of this recipe shows women’s awareness of complex social issues (and the need to treat them carefully) and their inclination to draw attention to them.

The recipe also shows an awareness for how to “treat” such issues—carefully, without sarcasm or rough treatment. It also indicates the group’s understanding of class issues and the need to approach them gently, and aligns their own group as less elite and more class inclusive. In part, it shows their understanding of and attacks the notion that the Pennsylvania suffragists had earlier “adopted an elitist posture that kept working-class women at a distance,” (Leach 196) a position that they did not want to take. In fact, in contrast to NAWSA’s general practices, Equal Franchise Federation leader Jennie Roessing insisted that the group address suffrage in all locations, including “every Grange, labor union, church society, men’s gathering, and college group in the State” (Leach 201). While some of the Equal Franchise Federation members reportedly initially chafed at being asked to do work “in the precinct organizations of the Woman Suffrage party rather than in women’s clubs of their own social class” (Leach 203), Roessing’s vision of class inclusion is evident here in the Pie recipe (as it was in the Childhood Fondant recipe as well). This recipe uses “upper crust” both to refer to pie and to refer to class, with a dig at the anti-suffragists along the way. Rhetorically, this shows the suffragists using a domesticated form (the recipe) to make an overtly political point.

Pushing the envelope even further, the fourth “fake” recipe, the Anti’s Favorite Hash, reprinted from The Ebensburg Mountaineer Herald, is much more severe in tone, and recognizes the strength of the anti-suffrage movement, while deriding their viewpoints. This is not a “quiet” recipe but rather a direct attack on the rhetorical methods and beliefs of the Antis. 

Fig. 6. “Anti’s Favorite Hash,” Kleber, 56.

Fig. 6. “Anti’s Favorite Hash.” (Kleber, 56).

The ingredients of acid, mangled truth, injustice, and vitriol, point to a campaign on the part of the anti-suffragists that was run by maligning those who fought for the cause. While the tone is sarcastic, the inclusion of this “recipe” in the suffrage cookbook indicates an awareness of the ways in which the antis perceived the suffragists, and the power of such an image. As well, it offers a perception of how the antis functioned. The view of the antis as seeing the world through “dark glasses” indicates the suffragists’ sense of the antis as impeding progress and maintaining a system of oppression. Lastly, the recipe’s inclusion exerts pressure on those who did not see the potential damage of the anti-suffrage sentiment.

Overall, these two final “recipes” are a momentary act of disruption in an otherwise conventional text. Because they include “deeply political issues in a form and context that used domesticity and cookery as metaphors for political engagement,” (Derleth 465), they also push the boundary on piousness and submissiveness, two of the key pillars of the cult of domesticity and two behaviors that NAWSA encouraged in their membership. Rhetorically, these two recipes reflect a moment of what Burke terms “recalcitrance,” which happens when we “extend our pseudo-statements into the full complexity of life” (Burke 255). As such, while wit and sarcasm cover some of the more direct messaging, the recipes push the boundaries of acceptable behavior advocated by NAWSA, even if temporarily, and venture towards the more overtly political and “loud” statements made by the NWP. While important, they are momentary rhetorical disruptions, however, carefully woven into an otherwise quiet, feminized, and seemingly unobjectionable text. 


Overall, the participants in the woman suffrage movement used a variety of means to forward their agendas. In the case of suffrage cookbooks, however, they worked hard to use established gender norms and expectations to their advantage. Suffragists used the cookbook to help counter beliefs that voting would somehow masculinize them, and render them unfit to care for their homes and families. Furthermore, they used the cookbooks overall as a “quiet” (and therefore feminine/feminized) way to communicate their views, in direct contrast to the ways they had been portrayed as loud or shrill. As Bower notes, “earlier feminists often felt compelled to repress expressions of interest in domestic life for fear that such expression would consign them to an essentialized ‘feminine’ role” (9). But suffragists’ participation in the production of community cookbooks was aimed at exactly that—reminding their readers that they could do both—they would stay female/feminine even if/as they participated in civic life. They used femininity arguments to their advantage and cleverly “connected women with domesticity and socially acceptable forms of womanhood” (Derleth 467).

The Equal Franchise Federation’s use of The Suffrage Cook Book showed their understanding of the complexities of the suffrage movement, and the expectation for their behavior within it. In addition, it showed their understanding of the domestic science movement, the suffrage movement’s limitations, and their own ability to navigate these but also press against them in still seemingly acceptable ways. Overall, Kleber’s collection works to rely on authority, recognize the competition (and attempt to call them out as seeing the movement in unfair ways), use and push against an already extant and gendered idea of women belonging in the kitchen, and work to convince those who were not yet on their side. By adding in recipes from regional women, contributions from famous authors, support from Governors, and “fake” recipes, Kleber’s The Suffrage Cook Book creates a sophisticated, political, relevant product that reflects the Equal Franchise Federation’s complex position on suffrage in 1915—both aligned with but pushing against traditional roles for women, both aligned with but pushing against NAWSA. Kleber’s collection works to subtly remind the reader that suffragists could remain feminine/feminized even as they worked for major social change. They could be the authority figures in their homes, as well as being humorous, politically involved, and astute to both class and gender issues. As such, they invoke disruption through convention, even if it is only momentary. Much work clearly went into the collection, and it reflects the complexity of the suffrage movement and the Equal Franchise Federation’s participation in it.  


  1. This is, of course, a drastically simplified version of the struggle for suffrage. For further elaboration, see Weiss’s The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Kraditor’s The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, or Evans’s Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America.
  2. Both the Burr and Kleber are widely available online and in reprints, although most of the reprints do not retain the original formatting of the text of the recipes and omit any photos. Burr’s earlier work is a more traditional collection of recipes and household hints and is less overtly political, reflecting earlier suffrage positions (the second version was published in 1890, just as NAWSA consolidated).
  3. While no evidence exists in the newspaper announcements or the Library of Congress filing as to the cost of The Suffrage Cook Book, it likely sold for somewhere around $1, based on the price for both other books and other fundraising cookbooks at the time. The Washington Equal Suffrage Cookbook, for example, sold in 1910 for $1 (“An Equal Suffrage Cook Book”).
  4. As Flexnor and Fitzpatrick note, the anti-suffrage movement was large, organized, and often stealthy. Members included those with liquor interests (who worried that women would vote for temperance (289)) and those with business/labor interests who feared that women would vote for labor reform and anti-trust legislation (289; 293). The Equal Franchise Federation recognized liquor interests and other women as their primary local opponents (Leach 191).
  5. The Equal Franchise Federation also distributed packets of yellow flower seeds, imagining a spring where suffrage gardens would flourish and provide a quiet but external sign of support for the movement (Leach 207).
  6. Jessica Derleth points out the difficulties of the expediency argument, which allowed for class and race bias within the movement, including the argument that only the “most qualified” women should be able to vote. These biases plagued the movement throughout its existence (452).
  7. As Sarah Walden notes, recipes did not change to the current standardized list of ingredients/instructions format until the Progressive Era, when the food science movement worked to make recipes into a form that contained standardized measurements (114).
  8. Wiley also addresses the frugal cook when he discusses the fact that the cereals he recommends are “sufficient for from four to six persons. The cost of the raw material based on the farmer’s price is not over 1 ½ cents” (103), indicating that the cookbook is not just geared for the upper class. While this is not the focus of my analysis, various other recipes also address meat and even fruit
    substitutions to present economical choices.

Works Cited

  • “An Equal Suffrage Cook Book.” The Woman’s Journal, Vol. 41, No. 39, Sept. 1910, p. 157.
  • Bower, Anne. “Bound Together: Recipes, Lives, Stories, and Readings.” In Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories, edited by Anne Bower. U of Massachusetts P, 1997, pp. 1-14.
  • Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change. U of California P, 1984.
  • Chapman, Mary. Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism. Oxford UP, 2014.
  • “Cook Book Will Silence Enemy.” The Woman’s Journal, Vol. 46, No. 41, October 9, 1915, p. 325.
  • “Cooking for a Cause: Finleyville Resident Discovers 1915 Cookbook.” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, November 3, 1996, p. G13.
  • Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835. Yale UP, 1997.
  • Derleth, Jessica. “’Kneading Politics’:  Cookery and the American Woman Suffrage Movement.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, Vol. 17, 2018, pp. 450-474.
  • Dryer, Dylan. “From the Editors.Composition Forum, vol. 31, Spring 2015. Accessed 15 May 2019.
  • Dubisar, Abby. “’If I Can’t Bake, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution:’ CODEPINK’s Activist Literacies of Peace and Pie.” Community Literacy Journal, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Spring 2016, pp. 1-18.
  • Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania.” Letter to Miss Ada James, 20 December 1912. University of Wisconsin Collection.
  • Evans, Sara. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. Free Press, 1997.
  • Flexnor, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the US. Harvard UP, 1996.
  • Floyd, Janet and Laurel Forster. “The Recipe in its Cultural Contexts.” In The Recipe Reader: Narratives-Contexts-Traditions, edited by Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster. Bodmin, 2003, pp. 1-11.
  • Green, Sierra. “Cookbooks with a Cause.” Detre Library and Archives.
  • Harvey Washington Wiley.” Biography.com.
  • Hilliard, Sean Robert, Editor. The Woman Suffrage Cookbook. Whitlock Publishing, 2015.
  • Hurner, Sheryl. “Discursive Identity Formation of Suffrage Women: Reframing the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ Through Song.” Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 70, No. 3, July 2006, pp. 234-260.
  • Johnson, Nan. Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
  • Kleber, Mrs. L.O. The Suffrage Cook Book. The Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania, 1915. Google Books.
  • Kraditor, Aileen. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920. Columbia UP, 1981.
  • Lathrop, Julie Clifford.” Social Welfare History Project.
  • Leach, Roberta J. “Jennie Bradley Roessing and the Fight for Woman Suffrage in Pennsylvania.” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 1984, pp. 189-211.
  • Martyris, Nina. “How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion.” NPR Food History and Culture. 5 November 2015.
  • McCammon, Holly. “’Out of the Parlors and into the Streets’: The Changing Tactical Repertoire of the U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movements.” Social Forces, Vol. 81, No. 3, March 2003, pp. 787-818.
  • McCammon, Holly and Karen Campbell. “Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919.” Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 55-82.
  • Rauterkas, Cathleen Nista. Go Get Mother’s Picket Sign: Crossing Spheres with the Material Culture of Suffrage. University Press of America, 2009.
  • Schneider, Dorothy and Carl Schneider. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. Anchor Books, 1993.
  • Sharer, Wendy. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Southern Illinois UP, 2007.
  • “Suffragists to Attend Convention This Week.” Pittsburgh Sunday Post, November 19, 1916, Section 2, p. 5.
  • Walden, Sarah. Tasteful Domesticity: Women’s Rhetoric and the American Cookbook 1790-1940. U of Pittsburgh P, 2018.
  • Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. Viking, 2018.
  • Williams, Stacy. “Hiding Spinach in the Brownies: Frame Alignment in Suffrage Community Cookbooks, 1886-1916.” Social Movement Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, 16 April 2015, pp. 146-163.

Imagining an Embodied Ethos: Serena Williams’ “Defiant” Black Ēthe

Feminist rhetoric scholars have long argued for a revitalization of many traditional rhetorical concepts, most recently, our understanding of ethos. For example, Susan Jarratt and Nedra Reynolds discuss ethos as communal and specifically emphasize the positionality and situational nature of ethos, and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Coretta Pittman argue that certain individuals already face a disadvantage when it comes to their ability to develop ethos because their bodies do not reflect the cultural values of the community to which they speak. Recently, Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Meyers, and Rebecca Jones have forwarded an important reconsideration of ethos as ecological ēthe in their Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. They argue, with due reason, that Aristotelian interpretations of ethos are in need of revision and suggest that an ecological perspective provides an understanding of ethos more conducive to feminist aims and more accurate for describing the variety of ways in which women build ethos. As they explain, drawing from the plural ēthe can “open up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts. This theorizing recognizes all elements of any rhetorical situation as shifting and morphing in response to others (persons, places, things), generating a variety and plurality of ethos, or ēthe” (3). Ryan, Meyers, and Jones provide three possible manifestations of ecological ēthe, though they carefully explain that these categories are not exclusive and often overlap: interruption, advocacy, and relation. These categories expand current understandings of rhetorical ethos to allow a “shift away from an Aristotelian framework toward a conceptualization of women’s ethos that accounts in new ways for interrelationality, materiality, and agency” (viii). While this work is sorely needed for new understandings of women’s ethos, it also points out how much is still left to be done in regards to understanding the complex nexus of women’s subjectivity, ethos, and the physical body. For example, in the Afterwords to Rethinking Ethos, Paige A. Conley points out the need for feminist research to “continue to trouble and challenge traditional notions of naming, the subject, and subjectivity as fixed and singular concepts, particularly for marginalized or doubly marginalized rhetors” (285). Therefore, I argue that in order to interrogate a fixed understanding of subjectivity and further the important work started by Ryan, Meyers, and Jones (and their contributors), we must first attend to the relationship between ethos and subjectivity and to how one’s physical, material body affects and is affected by one’s subjectivity and ethos.

One such “doubly marginalized1” rhetor who helps challenge fixed understandings of subjectivity is tennis superstar Serena Williams. 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 from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform2 for a community whose values do not always reflect her own. Further, although sport has provided women with opportunities to build and transform their physical bodies, thus providing women with a way to challenge gendered expectations about women’s appearance, body shape, and size, the very structure of sport simultaneously reinforces gendered expectations for women’s behavior and their adherence to a normative aesthetic ideal. One of the problems that several feminist scholars have noted (Ryan, Meyers, and Jones included) with previous conceptions of ethos is that it does not account for the material conditions that might influence how one’s ethos is perceived, and that it assumes a certain agency for the rhetor, assumptions that do not always accurately depict a woman’s or other marginalized group’s lived reality. As I will demonstrate below, a careful consideration of the relationship between subjectivity and ethos brings us necessarily to the physical body and the need for an embodied understanding of ethos that accounts for how material conditions such as one’s physical body might influence one’s efforts at establishing ethos. Thus, I argue Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ ecological ēthe points to the need for a specifically embodied understanding of ethos in order to better convey how and why one might utilize (or be compelled to utilize) these other means of gaining ethos.

However, instead of focusing on how Williams and other marginalized women attempt to gain agency by resisting or subverting social norms, as much important feminist scholarship has already demonstrated, I seek instead to analyze the varieties of ways in which women use their bodies in order to build and construct ethos, the various bodily movements, behaviors, and practices that might constitute women’s agency, and the ways in which these bodily movements and behaviors allow one to inhabit or embody certain social norms. I argue that the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity are necessarily intertwined, and I offer the term embodied ēthe to complement Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ work on expanding feminist understandings of ethos. An embodied ēthe is capable of inhabiting—not just resisting—social norms, which further expands the various modalities of action that might lead to one’s agency and the various actions that women might use to develop ethos. I specifically emphasize embodied because it helps describe how material conditions influence one’s ethos, while utilizing Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ plural ēthe to convey the multiple, varied ways that individuals attempt to build ethos.

Associating ethos with embodiment also better accounts for the layers of oppression that certain individuals might face. Race, class, gender, and the body intersect and influence interpretations of each other. That is, it is impossible to delineate each of these constructs from each other, because they often operate in connection with each other. As Patricia Hill Collins explains, intersectionality3 treats race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other identity characteristics as intersecting, rather than competing frameworks, and as aspects of “mutually constructing systems of power” (10-11). An intersectional approach to ethos allows me to discuss various factors that may influence one’s performance of ethos, and to consider these factors as interconnected and fluid. Intersectionality is an especially important aspect of my research methodology because much previous scholarship on ethos from rhetorical studies ignores some of these identity categories, or tends to focus on a particular aspect of identity (most commonly gender or race), rather than considering how these facets of identity interact with and influence each other and one’s ethos as a whole. For example, Hill Collins argues that for African Americans, “the relationship between gender and race is intensified, producing a Black gender ideology that shapes ideas about Black masculinity and Black femininity” (6). Using Hill Collins’ interpretation, it is impossible to separate a Black feminine experience into a simply Black experience, because cultural constructions of Blackness are also inextricably tied to one’s performance of gender. Like Hill Collins, I suggest that these frameworks interact with and influence each other, and therefore, when I discuss these concepts, though I may focus my analysis on one specific aspect for a given situation, I see these constructions as operating together.

I offer the term inhabit to draw attention to the ways in which individuals might occupy and lay claim to certain social positions and behaviors, even those that appear marginalizing, and to emphasize the connection between one’s habits and one’s ethos. In using this term, I aim to tie these practices to the history of feminist efforts to claim space and to dwell in places where women and other marginalized groups were not necessarily “supposed to be.” In doing so, however, I want to clarify that ethos is not merely habit, but rather a negotiated standing within a particular community. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones helpfully explain, our modern word ethos actually has two etymologies, with ethos meaning custom or habit, while ēthos describes “social, ethical, and located dimensions” (6). According to Ryan, Meyers, and Jones, these two etymologies are “consubstantial with each other, creating a rationale for combining discussions of character, habit, and abode, thus highlighting the social, constructed, ethical, and agentive aspects of premodern ethos” (6). Thus, to inhabit a social norm draws upon both etymologies, while also providing the possibility of harnessing certain disciplinary practices for one’s own purposes.4

Examining the variety of ways that rhetors like Williams build and perform ethos therefore suggests that the physical body is even more strongly tied to one’s ethos and one’s subjectivity than even the most recent scholarship acknowledges. More importantly, and in keeping with Ryan, Meyers, and Jones’ vision of expanding feminist understandings of ethos, considering an embodied ēthe allows rhetoric scholars to see and understand different capacities for action and to consider how actions and behaviors that may only seem to reinforce societal norms can actually be used to build ethos. For example, when Williams was recently singled out by French Open officials for a “disrespectful” outfit worn in the tournament, rather than criticizing the new rules about player apparel, as many of her fans and her sponsor Nike did (discussed in more detail below), Williams was conciliatory when discussing the outfit in question. Instead of taking issue with tennis officials, Williams quietly acquiesced to their ruling, letting her fans and media commentators take on the cause. In this example, Williams’ submission to French Open authorities allowed others to question the decision on her behalf, ultimately demonstrating her ethos.

What I am calling “modalities of action,” which is a term I borrow from feminist anthropologist Saba Mahmood, refers to the potential for one to re-purpose or re-deploy disciplinary practices and bodily movements for one’s own purposes and agenda. In this way, the very practices that might render one docile also have the potential to lead to agency. What is important about considering these behaviors and practices as modalities of action, and what is different about my understanding of these practices than those of, for example, a more traditional feminist objectification critique, is that individuals might employ a variety of behaviors and practices—even those that seem to only reinforce gendered or racial norms and stereotypes—for their own purposes and agendas. In some cases, it is the very inhabiting of social norms that allows individuals to take action. This understanding of power and subject formation means that agency is not just the same as resistance to social norms, but is a capacity for action that is made possible specifically through one’s subordination. What this means for feminist rhetoric scholars is that even actions and behaviors by rhetors who appear subordinate or marginalized can in fact be utilized to build ethos. Focusing on how individuals work within seemingly limiting frameworks—such as how Williams responds to the normative tennis community—to establish ethos broadens the scope of what feminist rhetoric scholars consider indications of ethos, and better accounts for how certain rhetors adapt to the rhetorical situations they face.

Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that the process of athletic training and the care of the self may also function as processes of invention that offer the possibility of agency. By shifting the focus from how certain practices reinscribe traditional gender roles or expectations to how those practices might produce different capacities in the subject, I argue that it is precisely Williams’ subordination to the disciplinary practices of her athletic training that enables her capacity for action. As a Black woman in a predominantly white sport, Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors do not differ from those of other (white) players. In this way, Williams’ rhetorical actions are viewed similarly to those of other Black women rhetors, linking Williams with legacies of Black women rhetors and their rhetorical practices. For example, in her historiographic work on nineteenth century African American women, Jacqueline Jones Royster argues that for these women, “any acts by which they claim agency and authority are necessarily defined as going against the grain, that is, against the dominant values and expectations of the general culture” (64). In an effort to claim agency, Royster suggests that African American women must construct multiple identities and incorporate bodily experience in order to construct an ethos that “does not operate in the absence of rhetorical actions but in tandem with them and also with the way that these writers envision the context” (66-68). Similarly, I argue that Williams utilizes these gendered and racialized narratives for her own purposes, using them as a modality of action that allows her to build intimidation in the eyes of her opponents. In addition, her resistance to the social norms of tennis—seen in her unconventional tennis attire and her unorthodox behavior during matches—demonstrates the variety of ways in which women may develop agency. Williams’ ability to either inhabit or subvert social norms depends on her ability to develop and shape the body, revealing the ways in which repeated bodily habits and behaviors provides the individual with a malleability that allows one to develop and shape one’s subjectivity.

Nonetheless, as I will demonstrate below, Williams’ identity as a Black tennis player in the predominantly white tennis community has material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. In the sections that follow, I first provide evidence for understanding ethos as specifically embodied, and theorize ethos, the physical body, and subjectivity as an intersecting nexus. I then discuss the racialized narratives circulating in popular discourses about Williams, demonstrating how both previous cultural narratives and the materiality of the body affects one’s ethos, and how Williams’ specifically Black body is read in the context of the predominantly white tennis community. I argue that the disciplined Black body presents instability and malleability in understandings of subjectivity, suggesting the need for a more fluid theory of ethos that recognizes the importance of the physical body. Finally, I illustrate how Williams inhabits certain social norms while resisting others, capitalizing on racialized and gendered expectations about acceptable behavior in order to gain a competitive advantage. In doing so, Williams presents a compelling figure for feminist analysis because she reflects shifts in traditional Black feminist understandings about subjectivity and agency. Together, these analyses suggest the need for reimagined theories of ethos that better describe how differently located rhetors negotiate social norms and other marginalizing discourses in their efforts to establish ethos.

Ethos, the Body, and Subjectivity as a Nexus

My analysis incorporates rhetorical scholarship on ethos and the body, feminist scholarship on ethos and subjectivity, and sports studies scholarship on the body and subjectivity in order to illustrate ethos as a specifically embodied concept that is inextricably connected to one’s subjectivity. This conception of ethos and subjectivity provides rhetoric scholars with a better understanding of the variety of ways in which rhetors may work within limiting frameworks, including efforts to inhabit and embody social norms, not just efforts to resist or subvert those norms. In this way, even actions and behaviors that might seem contrary to feminist aims might be re-established as actions that have agency. In my interpretation, these performances of ethos might consist of bodily movements, actions and behaviors, and outward adornment, in addition to more traditional understandings that attend to ethos as part of public, linguistically-based discourse. Considering bodily movements and behaviors as part of one’s efforts to construct ethos broadens the scope of practices that feminist scholars might include in theories of ethos, and broadens theories of ethos more generally.

Sports studies scholars such as Pirkko Markula and Eileen Kennedy (2012), Gwen Chapman (1997), David Johns and Jennifer Johns (2000), and Markula and Richard Pringle (2006) all discuss women’s use of athletics as a way of shaping the self, using Michel Foucault’s understanding of the care of the self, which they relate to athletic training. However, much feminist sports studies research that incorporates the care of the self tends to focus on questions of femininity, situating women’s exercise practices as either conforming to a dominant aesthetic ideal or efforts to subvert those ideals, failing to see how ethos might be constructed apart from those established aesthetic expectations. In addition, many of these researchers do not address the history of the care of self or its importance for ancient Greeks in creating ethical subjects, missing the importance of women’s ability to physically shape and construct the body for their ability to shape and construct their ethos, and consequently, their social and political standing.

In order to address the complexity of embodied ēthe, it is necessary to consider that subjectivity and one’s ability to shape the self (both shaping the physical body and the shaping of a particular public persona) is also tied to the body. According to Foucault, power affects the body via disciplinary mechanisms such as ranking and individualization, which functions to normalize individuals. At the same time, one’s pursuit of these disciplinary practices further promotes the circulation of power. However, the materiality of the body affects the relationship between athletic training and the body. For example, elite athletic training relies on the idea that one can change the body, that the tissues and physiological structures of the body can be developed and trained, leading the elite athlete to believe that she can shape her body, and thus shape her subjectivity. But the same understanding of the malleability and trainability of the body presents a problem because there are certain aspects of the material body that one simply cannot change, such as one’s race or height, or the types of tissue that can be built or grafted onto the body. This offers the elite athlete the illusion that she is the self-author of her body and the way her body is perceived in society, but really her understanding of herself and the way that others perceive her are culturally constructed and situated in discourses that are shaped by previous cultural narratives, which may limit how she performs ethos and how that ethos is perceived. For example, sports studies scholars Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin claim that athletes like soccer player Brandi Chastain and volleyball player Gabrielle Reese have a different understanding of how women’s bodies are represented in the public sphere, and “tend to see physical appearance as a marketing asset that is not necessarily gender-specific, pointing to the ways the male body has itself become sexualized and commodified in recent media culture” (39). As they explain, when the body is specifically coded as athletic, it can “redeem female sexuality and make it visible as an assertion of female presence, and make that presence amenable to a range of sexualities” (82-83). But though these athletes have a certain amount of agency in capitalizing on their physical appearance, these efforts are still culturally constructed and at least in some ways, shaped by discourses that the athlete has little control over. Elite athletic training makes the illusion of controlling one’s self-image intoxicating: because the athlete has been able to mold and shape her body, she assumes she has control of it, but how her body is read by others is always shaped by cultural constructions and previous cultural narratives.

One of the reasons why elite athletes present such a challenge for feminist scholarship is because they occupy a contradictory position. That is, elite athletes pursue disciplinary practices such as regimented athletic training programs and specific diets, but these disciplinary practices are also the key component for their success as athletes and for their agency as individuals. More specifically, elite athletes occupy a contradictory position because the very practices that render them docile also enable their ability to use such practices and behaviors as modalities of action that might produce their own chosen results.  Therefore, while feminist scholarship has traditionally been critical of body work (like athletic training) for its disciplinary practices, my argument is that in the context of athletics, it is this very willingness to submit to disciplinary practices that provides the means and mechanism for athletes to produce their own desired outcomes. In the case of Serena Williams, her willingness to enter a dialogue with tennis officials about returning to play at Indian Wells (discussed in more detail below), and therefore to inhabit social norms about reconciliatory behavior, allowed her to use that platform to speak about social justice.

Within rhetorical scholarship, Debra Hawhee traces the relationship between rhetoric and athletics in ancient Greece, demonstrating the long history of ethos as a bodily concept. Using the idea of melete, or repeated practice5, Hawhee argues there is a connection between one’s bodily habits and one’s ethos in that “melete becomes the means through which permanent dispositions develop” (146). Therefore, ethos’s connection to the body and to habit suggests that repeated bodily movements, such as those performed by an elite athlete in the course of athletic training, influence both one’s own conception of the self and also how others perceive the self. The bodily actions performed in athletic training thus are seen as indications of one’s ethos, which suggests that ethos can be developed and trained over time, and that these repeated bodily movements influence how others perceive one’s ethos. Utilizing Hawhee’s discussion of bodily ethos, I argue that the repeated bodily movements often performed through athletic training also play a significant role in how the subject is developed, to the extent that these particular movements and behaviors not only reflect one’s ethos to others, but come to constitute necessary attributes of the self. For the ancient Greeks, the trained, cared-for body was seen as a sign of one’s readiness to participate in civic life. That is, the physical body was symbolic of one’s subjectivity; it signaled one’s ability to act or take action in a particular context (Foucault, Hawhee). In this way, the self and subjectivity are also closely tied to ethos, because ethos amounts to one’s personal credibility and character, and thus represents one’s conception of the self or status as a subject to others.

However, while Hawhee’s work is important for understanding the relationship between specific bodily movements and habits with the way one may develop ethos, it assumes that all bodies have the same opportunities for cultivating these movements and habits that then influence one’s ethos. Likewise, Aristotelian understandings of ethos assume that one acts from deliberate choice and that one has the means to engage in chosen practices and behaviors that might lead to habit formation. This perspective ignores factors that influence ethos and habit formation about which an individual has limited choice, such as the rhetor’s race, gender, or class, and the marginalized social and cultural positions that some rhetors consequently face. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones point out, Aristotelian theories of ethos that assume a static subject and a homogenous male community “ignore postmodern and feminist critiques of selfhood and discussions about ethics” and “do not presume difference, the shared yet diverse oppression of women, or contemporary theorizing about the subject as starting points for constructing ethos” (5). This is especially troubling for Black women, whose choices may be limited by intersecting systems of power. For example, Hill Collins notes that because of similar work and social experiences, “U.S. Black women as a group live in a different world from that of people who are not Black and female,” and that these distinct experiences can “stimulate a distinctive consciousness concerning our own experiences and society overall. Many African American women grasp this connection between what one does and how one thinks” (23-24). In other words, the behaviors and actions available to Black women have a direct effect on their conceptions of themselves and their subjectivity. In this way, discussions of bodily ethos that rely on Aristotelian understandings of ethos do not address the social and political ramifications of ethos as a bodily concept and cannot account for the ways an individual’s ethos might be influenced by factors outside of his or her realm of control. Therefore, while existing scholarship suggests that ethos is related to the physical body, it is not enough to simply think of ethos as bodily; rather, we must work to understand how embodied ēthe works in connection with subjectivity and how this nexus of ethos, the body, and subjectivity might influence how certain rhetors work to establish ethos. This more intersectional approach would better account for the efforts of rhetors who face multiple layers of discrimination at the same time.

In an effort to address some of these questions about Aristotelian ethos, other scholarship (Hyde, Royster, Pittman, among others) considers the relationship between bodily and material aspects of ethos and discourse, emphasizing the material effects that language has on the individual, as well as the interplay between the audience and the speaker, demonstrating a more social understanding of ethos. In particular, Michael Hyde combines an Aristotelian understanding of ethos with Heidegger’s emphasis on the communal nature of ethos. For Heidegger, one’s ethos is contingent on one’s ability to move an audience, with move meaning both one’s ability to influence the audience to consider something (moving the passions, or taking something to heart), but also to place or “move” the audience into a relationship with the speaker, and into a “dwelling place” where audience and rhetor may deliberate together (xiii). According to Hyde, ethos “is a matter, at the very least, of character, ethics, Being, space and time, emotion, truth, rhetorical competence, and everyday situations that are contextualized within the dwelling place of human being—a place known to encourage metaphysical wonder” (xxi, emphasis mine). That is, instead of Aristotelian understandings of ethos that emphasize the speaker and tend to “fix” ethos as predetermined, Hyde considers the ways that human being—the way in which one exists in the world—influences ethos.

Royster’s important work on nineteenth century African American women rhetors suggests that though these women often faced negative stereotypes and expectations, ethos is developed through repeated decision-making opportunities. Like Hyde, Royster explains that we see “traditions of ethos formation shaped by the materiality of their relationships to work and by the material conditions of the world around them” (236). According to Royster, one way that nineteenth century African American women developed ethos was through the patterns of behavior these women developed as they acquired professional identities. As she argues, “a critical view of women’s participation in this organizational work offers an opportunity to look beyond the work itself to what this pattern of behavior suggests about the formation of ethos in rhetorical decision-making” (210). Royster explains that the “merging” of these women’s identities (personal, historical, social, professional, or even political) “gave rise to a particular type of process for the formation of ethos among these women as writers and speakers in public domains” (210). Further, Royster points out that for these women, rhetoric was an embodied practice, with arguments centered “not just rationally and ethically, but in the body—in the head, the heart, the stomach, the backbone—in the interests, apparently, of inducing not just an intellectual response but a holistic one, that is, a whole-body involvement. The goal seems often to be quite literally to ‘move’ the audience,” a rhetorical practice Royster suggests leaves “no rhetorical holds barred” (68). Therefore, in order to account for more diverse manifestations of ethos, scholars must consider embodied understandings of ethos and the process of ethos formation and its relationship to patterns of behavior.

This understanding suggests that ethos, like the human body, is not fixed in advance, but is capable of being shaped and trained, and also that it reveals some sort of fundamental aspect of the self. By utilizing Hawhee and Royster’s respective emphases on ethos as embodied and trained over time through habits and deliberate practice, along with Hyde’s understanding of ethos as fluid and constantly in flux, I want to suggest that ethos is not only embodied and trained, but that it creates possibilities of being in the world, or of existing as an ethical subject capable of action. Likewise, Hyde’s emphasis on being and dwelling resonate with feminist efforts to claim spaces and to acknowledge multiple subjectivities. The act of inhabiting social norms and dwelling in these norms (and not just resisting or subverting them) can therefore be read as actions that might lead to further possibilities for agency. Royster’s discussion of ethos formation as part of a pattern of behaviors or “an engagement with rhetorical decision-making” opens up considerations of ethos to include actions and processes of identity formations, not just the “end result,” and emphasizes ethos as something that is developed over time (211). Further, this understanding of ethos acknowledges the importance of routine, everyday actions as aspects of ethos building, which values the rhetorical practices of differently located individuals. For example, Hill Collins suggests “many contemporary Black women intellectuals continue to draw on this tradition of using everyday actions and experiences in our theoretical work” (33). While Aristotelian understandings of ethos often focus on more formal, static displays of ethos, embodied ēthe better accounts for everyday displays of ethos, which acknowledges the traditions of ethos formation of other disenfranchised groups, such as Black women.

In addition, scholars have argued that ethos is co-constructed, or negotiated, between the audience and the speaker or performer (Hyde, Jarratt and Reynolds, Smith). Because ethos is both external to and internal to the speaker or performer, one cannot just “claim” or “earn” ethos; rather, ethos must be granted by an audience. Therefore, one may deliberately style ethos for a particular audience and situation, but previous conceptions of one’s ethos may also influence how the audience perceives of subsequent performances of ethos. Because of this negotiation, women may face challenges in constructing ethos in certain contexts. As Ryan, Meyers, and Jones suggest, it is often “culturally and socially restrictive for women to develop an authoritative ēthe” (2). Therefore, although the rhetor has a certain amount of agency in each performance of ethos, these performances are always read in the context of the cultural values of the community to which one speaks. In the context of athletics, while one certainly has agency in pursuing particular exercise practices, these efforts often require willing subjection to an authority figure such as a coach or trainer. Yet as I will argue, it is this very subjection to disciplinary practice that provides the means for rhetors to inhabit social norms and utilize them for their own purposes. Therefore, reimagining ethos as embodied ēthe offers feminist scholars a means to locate agency within subjection, which expands opportunities for ethos to situations where rhetors appear to lack agency or are in marginalized positions.

The Body and Ethos: Defiant (Black) Sexuality

As mentioned above, certain individuals face issues of racism, classism, or sexism that mark them as undesirable or outside of an established norm, which has consequences for how their ethos is perceived by an audience. As I will demonstrate below, the fascination with Black athletes’ bodies, as reflected in media discourses that focus on Williams’ height and muscularity, has specific material consequences manifest in Williams’ bodily behaviors and movements, which subsequently influence how she performs ethos. Williams’ Black body is thus read through the context of these discourses, meaning that in comparison to the normalized discourses of white tennis athletes, the sensationalized discourses about Williams’ body therefore represent an unstable subjectivity, although her disciplinary practices—which would serve to normalize the white body—are similar to those of other players. Williams’ performances of ethos suggest that she occupies a blurred subject-object position, and that her disciplined Black body represents instability, while the disciplined white body presents a more normalized self. Williams’ efforts at establishing ethos therefore indicate the need for an understanding of embodied ēthe, which allows scholars to examine how Williams disrupts a fixed understanding of subjectivity and the way that her physical body and the cultural narratives about certain bodies factor into her rhetorical choices.

Media commentary about Williams has often sensationalized or obsessed over her physical body or her difference from other players. For example, tennis analysts focus on Williams’ “imposing height” and physicality, even when she plays opponents who are the same height or taller than she is. Likewise, despite Williams mentioning her strategy many times in interviews, commentary about her playing often focuses on her power, rather than her skill in placing shots and thinking a few steps ahead of her opponent.6 The commentary about Williams perpetuated through tennis media can be linked to epideictic rhetoric about the Black athlete. As sport sociology scholar Nancy E. Spencer argues, Black athletes are assumed to have an almost innate, “natural” physicality (“Sister Act” 120). Such assumptions of innate athleticism undermine individual athletes’ years of athletic training, their learned skill in a particular sport, and their mental strategy.

In addition, tennis analysts love to bring up Williams’ childhood in Compton, despite the fact that she moved to Florida when she was nine (see for example Caple and Vercammen and MacFarlane). The continued reference to Compton—an area commonly stigmatized as dangerous, poor, and gang-riddled—effectively calls attention to Williams’ Blackness and ghetto-izes her, further reinforcing her as outside of the normative tennis community. Earlier in her career, tennis writers and other players also derided Williams for her unconventional behavior on the tennis court (for movements such as fist pumps, grunts and yelling, or questioning officials’ calls) calling Williams arrogant or unfriendly (Price), “disrespectful,” “ballistic,” and immature, despite the fact that other players have loudly emphasized their playing with shouts or disagreements with officials or have boldly predicted their success (such as Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenko, Martina Hingis, and John McEnroe). The emphasis on Williams’ childhood in Compton continues to perpetuate myths of the violent Black athlete, and relies on an “overcoming the odds” trope that sensationalizes Black achievement, further emphasizing spectacular “natural” talent rather than attributing such success to hard work and dedication. The persistent focus on Williams’ “unladylike” behavior within the genteel norms of tennis consistently paints her as an outsider, even when her actions do not differ from those of other players.

These discourses about Williams’ body and background have material consequences in the movements and bodily behaviors that Williams employs and in the way these behaviors are read by her audience. For much of her career, tennis media have consistently characterized Williams as freakish or defiant, whether by drawing attention to her supposedly supernatural strength and power or by condemning her behaviors and expressions. Yet at the same time, I argue that Williams seems to embrace this framing, performing movements and cultivating an ethos that is deliberately nonconformist.7 For example, in the early 2000s, when Williams’ tennis career was newly successful (marked by her first “Serena Slam” in 2002-2003, when Williams held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously), Williams appeared to reinforce her difference from other tennis players through her choices of apparel. While other players typically wore conservative colors and minimal jewelry, Williams often sported neon colors, large earrings, and outfits embellished with rhinestones or cutouts, many of them her own design. Williams’ penchant for the unconventional offers an interesting example of inhabiting social norms. While media commentary framed Williams as nonconformist and defiant, Williams worked within that framework to utilize these sometimes marginalizing narratives for her own purposes. By highlighting the very same body that media framed as unconventional, Williams redeploys these narratives to reinforce her identity as a specifically Black tennis player. According to fashion studies scholar Tanisha Ford, one’s dress might be considered a “political ‘strategy of visibility’” (4). Ford examines the role of dress and style as “embodied activism” within the civil rights and Black Power movements (3), ultimately arguing, “in the everyday choices that Black women made as they dressed themselves and styled their hair lay a revolutionary politics of style” (1). Using Ford’s compelling discussion of how fashion might be incorporated into activism, I argue that Williams utilizes a similar approach, using her on-court clothing choices to challenge stereotypes about Black women.

Williams is especially well known for her “catsuits,” the first of which she wore at the 2002 U.S. Open. The sleeveless, one-piece black Lycra bodysuit she wore received a tremendous amount of attention from tennis media, who described it as “super-tight, ultra-risqué” and “requir[ing] more bravery than fabric” (Everson, Harris, Preston). According to Jaime Schultz, media response to Williams’ catsuit focused not only on the way that the garment highlighted her muscular physique, but also suggested “a deviant sexuality, thereby contrasting her with a compliant sexuality emphasized in journalistic and promotional representations” (338-339). However, as Schultz argues, though Williams’ catsuit was unconventional, it was not an entirely novel fashion choice, even in the traditional confines of women’s tennis: in 1985, Anne White wore a long-sleeved, one-piece white Lycra bodysuit at Wimbledon. Schultz claims that although White’s bodysuit and Williams’ catsuit were similar in design, “there is a striking discrepancy in the ways in which she [Williams] and Anne White were framed and discussed by the popular media… White was scolded for accentuating her feminine assets; Williams was admonished for exhibiting her masculine muscularity” (344). As Schultz convincingly points out, even the term catsuit has different connotations than White’s bodysuit. On the one hand, Williams’ catsuit was sleeveless and included shorter legs, while White’s bodysuit was long sleeved and had full-length legs, essentially covering her entire body. However, Schultz notes that catsuit often refers to a type of lingerie, which immediately groups Williams with “the legions of other female athletes sexualized by the popular media” (344). The catsuit is also sometimes considered a fetishized form of lingerie, associated with deviant forms of sexual expression. Though it is important to note that the outfit was designed by Williams in connection with her then sponsor, Puma—whose logo is a leaping cat—and that Williams herself refers to the outfit as “a catsuit” (Boeck), responses to Williams’ tennis apparel, and the catsuit in particular, emphasize the ways her physical body is outside of the dominant white, slender, normatively feminine aesthetic typical in tennis. Therefore, any efforts by Williams to establish ethos within the tennis community are read in the context of this outsider identity.

While tennis media roundly criticized Williams’ first catsuit, it is important to view this fashion choice in light of Ford’s scholarship on dress as a means of political visibility. As Ford explains, during the fight for Black liberation in the 70s, Black people used clothing “to not only adorn but also re-aestheticize the Black body,” leading to “a re-aestheticization of Blackness, which created new value and political power for the Black body in the twentieth century” (7). In particular, Ford argues that Black women used their clothing to “write new ‘body narratives,’ new renderings of their personal narratives that reflected their more expansive view of freedom; through their clothing, they projected a sense of sexual freedom, gender non conformity, and upward social mobility” (7). Seen in this framework, Williams’ first catsuit might be read as an effort to challenge tennis media’s criticism and persistent focus on her body, and to defy that criticism openly. In this way, Williams inhabits certain stereotypical social norms about Black women, but redeploys them for her own purposes, celebrating the very same body that the tennis media scorned.

Though Williams works to counter these discourses, media commentary about her body and the first catsuit in particular reflects racist and gendered stereotypes. For example, feminist scholar Janell Hobson explains that the criticism of Williams’ catsuit can be related to a long history of “enslavement, colonial conquest, and ethnographic exhibition” which often framed the Black female body as “grotesque,” “strange,” “unfeminine,” “lascivious,” and “obscene” (87). Sociologists James McKay and Helen Johnson add that “the categorization of Black women’s bodies as hyper-muscular and their targeting for lascivious comment mirrors the public and pseudo-scientific response to nineteenth century exhibits of Saartjie Baartman,” or the Hottentot Venus, and such assumed racial difference only serves to reinforce historical and cultural associations with “grotesque and deviant sexuality” (493). For example, after Williams’ disappointing finish at the 2006 Australian Open, The Telegraph’s Matthew Norman opined, “Generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars…. But tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different U.S. state from the rest of her” (Norman). This commentary not only portrays Williams as hypersexualized, but also suggests a kind of freakish, subhuman body.

While these discourses focus on Williams’ body as hypersexualized, and therefore aberrant, other discourses focus on Williams’ body as atypical in another way: her well-defined muscularity is framed as unnaturally masculine or superhuman, denying Williams’ femininity. For example, Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price described Williams’ catsuit as “flaunting curves and muscles that could be dreamed up only by the brains at Marvel Comics,” (“Grand Occasion”), and The New York Daily News’ Wayne Coffey described her body type as a “defensive-back physique” (p. C01). The persistent focus on Serena’s muscularity and physical stature, along with the suggestion that she looks more like a male football player than a women’s tennis player, not only masculinizes her body, but also figures her as unnatural or superhuman.

Sport historians Patricia Vertinsky and Gwendolyn Captain explain that discourses equating Williams’ muscularity with masculinity can be traced back to several persistent historical myths about Black womanhood, namely, “the linking of African American women’s work history as slaves, their supposedly ‘natural’ brute strength and endurance inherited from their African origins, and the notion that vigorous or competitive sport masculinized women physically and sexually” (541). According to Vertinsky and Captain, the association between “stereotyped depictions of Black womanhood and ‘manly’ athletic and physically gifted females” is related to “slave womanhood stereotypes involving the colonization of the Black female body by the white master” (541). Likewise, as bell hooks argues, though historians tend to focus on how slavery emasculated Black men, “it would be much more accurate for scholars to examine the dynamics of slavery in light of the masculinization of the Black female” (22). According to hooks, while enslaved, Black men were not expected to perform what might typically be considered “feminine” work—such as cooking, cleaning, and child care—while Black women were required to perform “masculine” labor such as working in the fields, in addition to their domestic tasks (Ain’t 50-51). Therefore, when tennis commentators focus on Williams’ “masculine” qualities, or when she is depicted as manly, these depictions effectively place her in the relationship of master and slave, positioning her as one that does not matter (to use hooks’ phrasing). The obsessive focus on Williams’ body by the predominantly white tennis world can be read as an attempt toward colonization, or at the very least, suggests an attempt at surveillance over Williams’ Black, muscular body (Douglas).

In addition, these discourses illustrate the ways in which social constructions of Black women’s bodies have material consequences for how certain individuals may perform ethos. Because Black women historically performed both physical labor and sex work, their labor resulted in a simultaneous blurring of masculinity and femininity (Peterson, x-xi), leading to a grotesqueness associated with the disciplined Black body, as opposed to a sense of normalization in the disciplined white body. And according to Schultz, in the context of tennis, “where traditional femininity is publicly valued above strength,” there is “little natural about female athleticism and muscularity” (348). Consequently, like many other Black women, Williams must negotiate overlapping racialized and gendered stereotypes, which suggests the need for a more intersectional theory of ethos that accounts for the ways in which certain rhetors may face several layers of discrimination in their efforts to gain ethos. In this way, while the disciplined white body might lead to a more stable understanding of the individual, the disciplined Black body actually creates more instability, such that while certain individuals may attempt to work on the body, that work may already be undermined by previous discourses and histories that construct their bodies in different ways. Therefore, while Williams might utilize the very same disciplinary practices that other (white) female athletes employ, rather than normalizing her body these practices only serve to reinforce her difference. That is to say, Williams and other marginalized rhetors disrupt typical, fixed understandings of subjectivity, pointing to the need for a more varied, fluid understanding of ethos that accounts both for multiple subjectivities and for how the physical body affects one’s subjectivities.

However, I argue her tennis apparel is specifically designed to draw additional attention to her difference from other, more traditional (white) players, and suggests an effort to construct her ethos as specifically feminine, perhaps as an attempt to counteract discourses that consistently paint her athletic performance and body type as masculine. Williams designs many of her tennis outfits, including the infamous catsuits. Her proclivity to wearing jewelry, rhinestone-embellished tennis dresses and body jewels, and manicured fingernails while playing all function as a type of hyper-feminization, emphasizing Williams’ femininity in the face of her bullet of a serve. In addition, Williams’ habit of spinning in place to address the crowd following a win—which usually causes her tennis skirt to flutter around her as she twirls—can also be read as an effort to evoke femininity and innocence, recalling a behavior more typical of young girls. In this way, Williams seems to employ the rhetorical concept of metis, or cunning intelligence, which refers to one’s ability to shift or blur identities to gain an advantage in a specific situation (Hawhee), such as the way that Williams may embrace the media’s masculine framing with her grunts and shouting while also emphasizing her femininity with her manicured nails and delicate twirling. Importantly, metis is developed in part through repeated practice, and though one cannot train for every possible situation, repeated practice allows one to develop a ready, perceptive body that is capable of particular maneuvers at key moments. Using this interpretation, scholars can also consider the concept of metis as a malleability or a rhetorical flexibility that allows the rhetor to adapt to particular situations, shifting shape in order to better respond to the specific moment. In addition, the apparel Williams chooses for tennis matches suggest a political activism in the everyday choices of how she dresses or styles her hair. According to Ford, “in a world where Black women’s bodies were often objectified and used as placeholders in a variety of competing ideologies—whether as symbols of ‘primitive’ Black sexuality or as keepers of Black respectability—women’s choices to adorn themselves differently became political” (14). In her unconventional tennis attire, Williams pushes back against these ideologies and discourses about her body. Understanding the body’s influence on metis and ethos more broadly adds to scholars’ knowledge of how ethos might function for a variety of rhetors, especially those whose subject positions are marginalized or changing. Like ecological ēthe, embodied ēthe suggests an important plurality to ethos, one that better accounts for certain women’s rhetorical practices within their lived realities.

Williams’ more recent “catsuit,” which I’m referring to as the “SuperMomSuit,” also reveals the way that Williams uses adornment as a rhetorical tool. In the 2018 French Open, Williams’ first Grand Slam after delivering her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams wore a fitted, compression style garment designed to help prevent blood clots, a known problem for Williams before her pregnancy and even more so in her post-partum period, which included multiple complications and surgeries. The “SuperMomSuit,” with its full legs and cap sleeves, was less revealing than Williams’ earlier catsuit, and had the additional function of improving blood circulation. Like her earlier catsuit, the “SuperMomSuit” also drew attention to muscular thighs and arms, and was black. Though the outfit was mostly praised by fans and tennis media at the time (Williams framed it as a “tribute” to other moms on her personal Twitter), several months following the event, officials of the French Open announced a new dress code for athletes, with French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli reasoning, “‘I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place’” (qtd. in Gaines). In critiquing Williams’ outfit, Giudicelli made no allowances for medical needs, nor did he explain what was “disrespectful” about Williams’ apparel. When Giudicelli questions the respectfulness of Williams’ outfit, he is really relying on and recirculating racist and sexist discourses that have framed Black women’s bodies as obscene. Further, by calling Williams’ medically warranted outfit somehow disrespectful, Giudicelli is not only deeming Black women’s bodies as insolent. He and the tennis community that he represents are also effectively disregarding Black women’s medical concerns.

Despite Giudicelli’s troubling announcement, Williams received mostly support and praise about her “SuperMomSuit.” For example, other players, such as Andy Roddick and Billie Jean King, criticized the French Open’s decision (Fleming), Williams’ longtime sponsor Nike put out a print ad in response, and media and fans spoke out about the unfair singling out of Williams. As Christen Johnson of the Chicago Tribune puts it, “if her powerful thighs, hamstrings and butt were thinner — and therefore less accentuated by the spandex suit — would Giudicelli still think that ‘we’ve gone too far’? If her biceps were smaller, her torso leaner, her hair in a silky, swinging ponytail instead of a cornrow-braided-bun, would Giudicelli then think she is ‘respecting the game and the place’?” (Johnson). Though tennis officials (as reflected by Giudicelli’s comments) have still ostracized her, other responses to Williams’ “SuperMomSuit” were vastly different than those of her earlier catsuit. Whether the change in attitudes about Williams is due to overwhelming success (Williams has won an astonishing 19 Grand Slam titles since the 2002 U.S. Open), the medical needs that warranted the “SuperMomSuit,” or her status as a mother (in contrast to discourses that hypersexualized her), responses from fans, media, and other players suggests that Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and subjectivity have changed for good the discourses around her body and other bodies like hers. Acknowledging actions and behaviors such as Williams’ efforts at adornment, her fist pumps and twirls, or her responses to media as rhetorical practices that demonstrate embodied ēthe better accounts for the ways that differently located rhetors might build ethos. Yet at the same time, Giudicelli’s comments and the French Open’s stance on tennis apparel suggest that gendered and racialized discourses still challenge certain rhetor’s efforts at establishing ethos, and feminist scholars need theories of ethos that understand and acknowledge how existing discourses might affect individual efforts to gain ethos.

As another example of Williams’ agency within a limiting framework, Williams readily acknowledges her role as an entertainer, expressing a desire to play “thrilling, high-level tennis [that gives] the fans something to cheer about,” instead of the routine point-trading that sometimes happens at the beginning of matches (On the Line, 6). Williams asserts, “I understand that I’m in the entertainment business. I compete at the highest levels of my sport. I know the only reason there’s all that prize money and endorsement money is because people buy tickets to watch. I get that” (On the Line 76). Indeed, Williams’ acknowledgment of her public image suggests both that Williams actively produces her ethos and that she considers herself a product, an entertainer that audiences pay to see.

The athlete-as-entertainer is a particularly interesting concept in relationship to women’s athletics. Heywood and Dworkin note that in today’s body commodification culture, male and female athletes tend to be seen as “both active subjects who perform their sport and market their image, and commodified objects who are passive” (86). In this understanding, by situating herself as an entertainer and professional athletics as part of the entertainment business, Williams suggests she is the author of her own self-image and ethos—an active subject who specifically performs for an audience—and also an object to be consumed and sold as a product. However, because ethos is always co-constructed, no one is completely self-created, and this often presents a challenge for feminist scholars because of the ways in which the female body has typically been objectified. That is, the traditional feminist objectification critique suggests that Williams’ body and athletic performances are always-already under surveillance through the very structure of sport and the sporting context, and therefore, through her participation in the social institution of athletics and its related commodification culture, Williams’ body is objectified. Yet Williams’ (and other female athletes’) ability to occupy this blurred position of both subject and object, in combination with her strategic use of both inhabiting and resisting social norms (such as by highlighting her Black body through atypical tennis apparel), complicates the objectification critique.

This somewhat paradoxical position reflects a tension in traditional feminist scholarship about the body and what Maria del Guadalupe Davidson suggests is a tension between how young Black women and traditional Black feminists view agency. Davidson presents this tension as a question, asking, “is the present generation of young Black women experiencing the realization of Black feminist efforts from the past or is it deceived about its own agency?” (88). Davidson contends that many traditional Black feminists are troubled by how younger Black women are using their bodies or presenting their agency. For example, Davidson points out that Beyoncé’s version of feminism and “brand of agency” signifies “what traditional Black feminists mean when they say that young Black women today see their agency but they fail to see when their agency is being challenged or jeopardized” (91). According to Davidson, because traditional Black feminists are “impacted by a history that constructed Black women as sexually deviant … they see young Black women today who by tricking or any other means play into this image of Black women’s sexuality as reductive, ahistorical, and dangerous for all Black women” (109). Yet younger Black women, as reflected by Williams’ acknowledgement of herself as a product, are influenced by “the commercialization of sexuality and sex—indeed, it is their cultural heritage willed to them in part by a successful feminist movement” (Davidson 109). Davidson argues for a “fused” understanding of Black women’s agency, which would “posit a discussion around modern Black women’s sexuality that respects Black women’s right to express themselves, yet at the same time acknowledges the way in which some sectors of society view Black women’s bodies as objects” (109). In this way, Williams’ efforts at constructing ethos and demonstrating agency complicate traditional Black feminist understandings of agency, and suggest the need for broadening the scope of what might be considered agency. Williams’ agency in creating certain outfits, highlighting certain aspects of her body, and performing certain movements and behaviors thus situates her as an embodied subject that must be understood through her corporeality, which in turn extends discussions of women’s subjectivity and embodiment within rhetorical theory, and draws attention to the important nexus of ethos, subjectivity, and the physical body.

Training (Black) Habits and Behaviors for Political Action

In the previous section, I suggested Williams at times seems to embrace media discourses that situate her as outside of the norm for women’s tennis. More specifically, I argue below that Williams seems to employ her Blackness as an element of her ethos, often drawing on racialized narratives and using these audience expectations to her own advantage. Rather than reinforcing these narratives, however, I argue that it is Williams’ very efforts to embrace and inhabit these racialized expectations that then allow her to capitalize on them. Williams’ ability to inhabit these expectations suggests the importance of viewing ethos as both specifically embodied and inextricably tied to one’s subjectivity. Embodied ēthe, therefore, better describes women’s efforts to gain ethos even in circumstances where they appear to be subordinate subjects, expanding the scope of feminist understandings of ethos.

Williams’ efforts to embrace her Blackness and the relationship between Williams’ behaviors and tennis media’s tendency to portray Williams as defiant or nonconformist is especially evident in analyzing her performance of ethos in the 2004 U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Jennifer Capriati. Although not a championship match and not one of her more recent, record-breaking wins, this match is an important moment in Williams’ career for several reasons. First, the match vs. Capriati is notable for a number of questionable officiating calls that would later become the catalyst for the player-driven challenge system now used. Second, Williams’ justifiable questioning of these calls would eventually become linked with other, more aggressive disputes that were criticized by tennis media (Abad-Santos). This match would also be grouped with other incidents8 at least partially influenced by race. Finally, Williams chose unusual tennis apparel for her match vs. Capriati: a studded, cropped black tank top, a denim skirt, and black sneakers that combined with removable gaiters to give the appearance of knee-high boots. Williams claims she chose the outfit because of its “in-your-face, hip-hop feel,” a description which draws on associations of Black hip hop culture with violence, intimidation, deviant behavior, and masculinity (Arthur 113), associations that Williams perhaps employs to put additional pressure on her opponents, but also associations that tennis analysts have drawn on in describing Williams as “pummeling” opponents or responding to officials with “cockiness.” Once again, Williams utilizes adornment as a rhetorical practice, using her apparel to make a political statement. Though Williams was not as outspoken about her activism at this stage in her career, her choice of dress and style, as well as her interactions on the court, can be read as what Ford terms “embodied activism.” As Ford suggests about the history of soul style, “in substance and symbolically, soul and style politics writ large are more critical to the Black liberation and women’s liberation struggles than we have previously recognized” (14). In this way, Williams’ rhetorical practices of adornment might be read as early (perhaps more palatable for mostly white tennis media and officials) efforts of political activism that paved the way for her later, more explicit efforts (discussed in more detail below).

Another example of Williams’ emphasis on her racial difference can be seen in her “matchbook,” which includes inspirational quotes or reminders of an opponent’s playing style and weaknesses (7). One of her matchbook entries reads: “Be strong. Be Black…. They want to see you angry. Be angry, but don’t let them see it” (42). Here Williams equates her Blackness with a source of personal strength and confidence, and she seems to suggest that it is a quality she can use to her advantage. Williams also seems to conflate Blackness with anger, or at least implies that her audience may conflate Blackness with anger, and that this composed, concealed anger is a quality that will help her succeed. This is an interesting directive given the social sanctions against Black women for displaying their anger. Black studies scholar Brittney Cooper argues, “Angry Black Women get dismissed all the time. We are told we are irrational, crazy, out of touch, entitled, disruptive, and not team players” (2-3). Though Cooper suggests that the Williams sisters are experts at “how to use rage with precision,” Serena Williams in particular has been criticized for her emotional responses—both passionate and outraged—and often punished for them. Cooper argues for an “eloquent rage,” a righteous anger as a productive force, and while she describes Williams as “eloquent rage personified,” it’s important to note the ways that Williams has been ostracized because of this (typically) justified anger (7). Though her actions and behaviors are similar to those of other (white) players, Williams has been fined and penalized for what tennis officials might call her “anger,” yet Williams herself suggests this quality is part of her success. Williams’ awareness of the power of her anger is similar to hooks’ concept of “talking back,” or “speaking as an equal to an authority figure … daring to disagree … having an opinion,” which hooks claims is “the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice” (Talking Back 5, 9). In unapologetically questioning calls, in demonstrating anger when tennis officials treat her unfairly, Williams performs her subjectivity, moving from object to active subject.

Importantly, Williams makes the distinction that she doesn’t want others to see her as angry, perhaps because of the social sanctions Cooper notes. The effort to conceal this emotion also suggests a carefully crafted ethos. Royster notes that for nineteenth century African American women, the process of creating a speaking self includes “encoding ways of being,” which “operates from a particular vision of mission and power, thereby exhibiting both agency and authority” (70). In similar fashion, Williams articulates her particular vision and way of being: decidedly Black, in the midst of a white tennis community.

In addition, the directive to “Be Black” suggests that Blackness is an important part of Williams’ embodied ēthe, and is a quality she actively works to construct and embody through her athletic performance. While it is impossible to determine whether or not Williams intentionally invokes this typically negative stereotype of Black athletes, I argue there is a relationship between epideictic rhetoric about Black athletes, media discourses about Williams, and Williams’ own behaviors and bodily movements, suggesting the need for understanding ethos as part of a complex nexus that includes the physical body and subjectivity and can account for multiple, intersecting layers of marginalization. By donning clothing that already represents a certain set of cultural values and behaviors in her match vs. Capriati, Williams embraces cultural narratives about Black athletes and almost conditions herself to behave in ways that are consistent with these circulating discourses. In other words, her very choice of attire, and her efforts to cultivate an “in-your-face, hip-hop feel” reflect the epideictic rhetoric being promoted by popular media, and may have also influenced her bodily movements and behavior as she got “in the face” of the head umpire to question the incorrect call.

In this way, Williams’ actions and behaviors were read through the context of racialized narratives perpetuated through popular media and Williams’ response to these narratives reflects her own embrace and acceptance of these narratives. To be clear, I do not mean to imply that media discourses about Williams necessarily dictate her behaviors and actions, but I do think it is important to consider the ways in which these discourses shape audience expectations about Williams and how Williams subsequently responds to audience expectations.  In this way, previous cultural discourses and audience expectations may influence how one constructs ethos. At the very least, I argue that Williams’ Blackness means her behaviors and actions are always-already read as defiant, even when such behaviors did not differ from those of other (white) players. As Royster suggests, African American women have traditionally come to a rhetorical task with “a reputation,” or a situated ethos that is “deeply compromised, especially when they seek as one of their target audiences those outside their immediate home community,” and that in these instances, “African American women are called upon to define themselves against stereotypes and other negative expectations, and thereby to shift the ground of rhetorical engagement by means of their abilities to invent themselves and create their own sense of character, agency, authority, and power” (65). Though Williams seems to embrace and inhabit these stereotypes and negative expectations, she redeploys and redefines them for her own purposes, using them as motivation in her playing strategy.

As another example of how Williams inhabits racialized expectations and repurposes them for her own agenda, when Williams announced she would return to play at Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2015, her decision was framed by tennis media as a move toward forgiveness and signaling Serena’s new maturity over the incident, especially when discussed in contrast to Venus’ “stubborn” position to continue to skip the event (Jones). The Williams family has boycotted the event following an incident in the 2001 tournament, when Serena faced a hostile audience that reportedly shouted racial slurs. Yet ESPN’s Peter Bodo claims that the Williams family chose to “punish” the tournament with the boycott, and that Serena reacted to the crowd’s response at the 2001 event “as if the sky had fallen in, because to her 19-year-old mind and heart it really had” (Bodo). According to Bodo, during the interim in which she was not competing at Indian Wells, Williams was more interested in her celebrity, but “once she embraced her identity [as a serious tennis athlete rather than a part-time actress], a new, more thoughtful and secure Serena began to emerge. She earned a platform from which she could say whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, with the guarantee that she would not only be heard but also that many would take her words for gospel truth” (Bodo). Presumably in contrast with her previous stance of boycotting the tournament, Bodo says of Williams’ new outlook on the tournament and her decision to return to play there, “Serena is making a statement, but it isn’t aggressive, vindictive or self-regarding” (Bodo).

Bodo’s characterization of Williams reveals several insights relevant to my discussion of ethos and race. First, Bodo’s assertion that it is only in her decision to return to Indian Wells that Williams demonstrates maturity implies that Williams’ earlier stance of boycotting the event was immature and that her stance on the issue was overly spiteful. However, rather than throwing a tantrum, Williams quietly—there has never been a public announcement that the Williams sisters were boycotting the tournament—chose to boycott the event, relying on a type of protest traditionally associated with the African American civil rights movement. The decision to boycott the event was thus actually an incredibly appropriate means through which to communicate her embodied ēthe.

In addition, Bodo’s focus on Williams as now older and wiser effectively focuses the incident on Williams’ response to it, discounting the way that tournament officials handled the incident (the Williams family has still not received a formal apology from the tournament) and exempting tennis media from addressing issues of race. This type of framing puts the onus on Williams for reaching a resolution to the issue, allowing tennis media and officials to escape any sort of accountability for the boycott. Unfortunately, this construction is consistent with racialized narratives that place the responsibility for reconciliation on the one who experiences racism. As journalist Howard Bryant points out, African Americans who have been subjected to racism often only get one choice from the American public: “forgive, be the bigger person, focus not on what occurred and its accompanying trauma but on all of the good, supportive people. The unforgiving suffer even worse labeling for the crime of not recognizing that things are better than they were, and for not getting over it—that is, until they come around and make America feel good about itself” (Bryant). And indeed, Williams framed her return to Indian Wells as an act of forgiveness (“I’m Going Back”), and by several accounts, it was Williams who initiated discussions of returning to Indian Wells rather than tournament officials who reached out to her (Bodo, Bryant, Jones).

However, as in other circumstances, Williams’ willingness to embrace racialized expectations—such as seeking reconciliation—actually allows her to use such moments of subordination for her own purposes. As Bodo suggests, Williams’ athletic success means that she has earned a public platform, and Williams leverages this platform to bring attention to issues of racial injustice. The fact that she was able to make such a vocal stance about racial justice suggests that her status within the tennis community has shifted, and that she has gained some levels of audience support. Though she still seems to face racial and gender discrimination from tennis officials (as evidenced by her experiences in the 2018 French Open and U.S. Open), tennis fans and mainstream media have begun to embrace her. When she announced her return to Indian Wells, Williams also highlighted the social injustice still faced by African Americans by inviting fans to donate to the Equal Justice Initiative, a criminal justice group that addresses the mass incarceration of African Americans and provides legal aid to those who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. One lucky donor would be selected to attend Williams’ first match at the tournament from her players’ box. Indeed, fans seemed excited about her return to the tournament, and her first-round match was sold-out. By using her return to call attention to racial justice, Williams is able to utilize racialized expectations, redeploying the discourses that continue to reinscribe her as subordinate to the dominant white tennis community as modalities of action that then allow her to take political action. Importantly though, I want to emphasize that it is specifically Williams’ complicity in inhabiting these social norms about appropriately reconciliatory Black behavior that then allows her to bring attention to these systemic issues of racism. Attending to the ways in which Williams and other marginalized rhetors are able to develop embodied ēthe by inhabiting (rather than merely resisting) social norms provides a fuller discussion of women’s rhetorical practices and broadens theories of ethos for feminist aims.

Williams’ performances of ethos draw attention to the ways in which previous cultural narratives, along with the materiality of the body, affects one’s ethos. Williams faced gendered and racialized discourses that positioned her as an outsider, even when her behaviors or actions did not differ from that of other (white) players. These considerations are important for rhetoric and sports studies scholars because the bodily practices and behaviors that come to establish one’s sense of self and subjectivity have real material consequences in the bodies of individuals that perform these movements. Williams’ efforts to construct embodied ēthe therefore demonstrate an important nexus of the physical body, ethos, and subjectivity, which suggests a further broadening of feminist theories of ethos and the need for an intersectional approach to understanding ethos. In addition, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe enrich discussions of modern Black women’s agency and reflect legacies of Black women’s rhetorical practices. Williams’ use of embodied activism and adornment complicates traditional Black feminist understandings of agency and respectability politics, while also bringing added attention to the value of everyday behaviors and actions (such as choosing certain tennis apparel) of claiming subjectivity. As Davidson suggests, paying attention to these everyday, often unrecognized acts of claiming subjectivity is important because these very same actions “have laid the groundwork for Black women making bold proclamations of agency on the most public of stages” (6). Considering embodied ēthe helps scholars account for the specific role of the body and one’s multiple subjectivities, which is more inclusive of marginalized rhetors and which might be particularly important for Black feminist scholars. According to Davidson, Black feminism needs to be open to new forms of agency, especially if it wants to appeal to younger Black women (140). Davidson argues that young Black women are looking for a Black feminism that is “more physical, one that is rooted in a politics of the body: a Black feminism that is nasty, and deviant, and violent, and sexy, and unapologetic” (123). Opening up theories of ethos to include embodied ēthe certainly accounts for the various ways that women such as Williams express their agency, including the role of the body within agency.

Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe also demonstrate the ways in which one might inhabit social norms, in addition to resisting them, expanding the actions and behaviors that might constitute one’s agency. Williams’ efforts to either inhabit or subvert social norms suggest a malleability and variance to one’s subjectivity. In this way, repeated bodily actions do not just signify one’s ethos, but actually work to constitute the individual. Therefore, in contrast to feminist sports studies scholarship that emphasizes the care of the self as either enabling resistance to or reinforcing social norms, Williams’ performances of embodied ēthe suggest that disciplinary practices such as the care of the self and dedicated athletic training are not so much about the social impositions placed on the subject but on the work that these practices do in shaping the individual. Likewise, examining Williams’ embodied ēthe expands feminist understandings of ethos to include various capacities for action, broadening the scope of actions and behaviors that might be seen as efforts to gain ethos. A reimagining of ethos as embodied ēthe therefore highlights the ways in which some marginalized rhetors might work to construct ethos, and values actions and behaviors not traditionally considered as efforts to gain ethos.


  1. Of course, though Williams has been cast as an outsider for much of her career, her status as a professional athlete grants her certain opportunities not available to many women of color, and certainly not to many women in the Global South. Describing Serena Williams as marginalized is, without doubt, relative. Nevertheless, the ability to speak for oneself as a subject capable of action has life-threatening consequences, as even Williams can attest. After giving birth to her daughter via emergency C-section, Williams (who has a history of blood clots) felt short of breath, and worried she was having a pulmonary embolism. Yet despite warning nurses about her symptoms and requesting appropriate treatment—a CT scan and blood-thinning medication—nurses initially brushed off Williams’ concerns (Haskell). That is, despite being one of the most successful tennis players of all time, despite being one of the most recognizable female athletes, and despite warning medical professionals about her history of blood clots, Williams was simply just one of many black women who disproportionately experience pregnancy-related complications. In fact, black women are more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than any other group (Lockhart).
  2. I use perform both to describe her athletic performance—her behaviors and actions while on the tennis court in competition—and also to acknowledge that any interactions with tennis media respond to a particular situation and can be considered performative actions. Performative understandings of rhetoric draw from the work of J.L. Austin, who explains that a given communicative event is performative if by saying something, one also does something, the classic example being when one says “I do” during a wedding ceremony. However, performative actions are dependent on context: if one says “I do” in a context other than the wedding ceremony it is not performative. Thus, when using perform or performance of ethos, I do not wish to suggest that Williams’ actions are not genuine, but rather that they respond to a particular context.
  3. Collins’ argument is based on critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work. Crenshaw developed the term intersectionality as a means of conceptualizing problems within the legal system that occurred when individuals faced both racial and gender discrimination. Because the law had no means of accounting for multiple forms of discrimination at that time, legal counsel did not know how to address multiple forms of exclusion. Collins applies Crenshaw’s term to forward a theoretical framework that accounts for race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as compounding systems of power (11).
  4. Although the focus of this paper is on how Williams inhabits social norms, other female athletes inhabit, rather than resist, social norms as well. For example, soccer player Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and is forever memorialized for her sports-bra revealing goal celebration, is another woman working within what might be considered a marginalized discourse. Chastain’s femininity and sexuality (and that of her teammates) were highlighted in commercials, newspaper articles, and television appearances leading up to the World Cup, yet in inhabiting this “safe” (for white male audiences) social norm, Chastain is able to speak against discourses that denigrate women’s sports and treat women athletes unfairly. Her iconic goal celebration is often used as the symbol of Title IX’s success, yet it is important to consider that the body displayed in this image is a white, feminine, heterosexual one. More recently, gymnast Aly Raisman posed nude for the 2018 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with words like “Survivor” and “Trust Yourself” painted on her body, alluding to her testimony in the 2017 trial of Larry Nassar, who had sexually abused Raisman and countless other athletes while serving as a team doctor with USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State University. In response to critics who expressed surprise that a sexual abuse survivor would pose nude, Raisman said, “women do not have to be modest to be respected” (Talarico). Therefore, though Raisman inhabits social norms about the objectified female body by posing in SI, she redeploys those discourses, using the very same body to speak out about sexual abuse and to complicate understandings of women’s bodies and subjectivities.
  5. Jeffrey Walker also links melete (or deliberate practice, training) with cultivating ethos in Rhetorics and Poetics in Antiquity (148).
  6. For example, The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg draws attention to Williams’ “mold-breaking muscular frame,” and commentators at the 2015 Wimbledon tournament emphasized Williams’ height and power in her match against Maria Sharapova, even though Sharapova, at 6’2”, is taller than Williams. In fact, Williams’ height, at 5’9”, was merely average for players ranked in the top ten in 2015.
  7. However, while several scholars rightly criticize the media’s focus on Williams’ Compton roots, the Williams family themselves often employs this narrative and emphasizes their difference from other players. In fact, Richard Williams appears to have deliberately trained Venus and Serena to expect that they will be treated differently than their white tennis-playing peers. For example, he reportedly bribed neighborhood children to yell racial taunts while Venus and Serena practiced to “prepare them for the kind of prejudice they might face in the mostly white tennis world,” and he had the brilliant foresight to prepare the sisters for the media by videotaping them playing and answering questions about their technique and future goals (Todd, 15; R. Williams, 229). In emphasizing their Blackness and the possibility of racist remarks, Richard Williams has helped influence the development of Serena’s ethos as specifically Black and the shaping of her identity as different from her audience of mostly white tennis fans and players.
  8. For example, at the 1997 U.S. Open, Romanian Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped into Venus Williams during a change of sides in their match (Price, “Venus Envy”). At Indian Wells (now renamed the BNP Paribas Open) in 2001, the Williams family heard racial
    slurs during Serena’s championship match. In a 2009 U.S. Open match vs. Kim Clijsters, Serena was again victim to a number of questionable officiating calls, and when she threatened a lines judge in frustration, Clijsters was awarded a penalty point, giving her the set and the match. In addition to losing the match, Williams was also fined and placed on probation. According to Sam Damre, despite being played on American soil, the crowd largely rooted for the Belgian Clijsters, even before Williams’ outburst (Damre). In 2011, Williams was called for an intentional hindrance in a U.S. Open match against Australian Sam Stouser for yelling, “Come on!” after hitting a shot. When Williams asked for a replay, claiming that the shout was involuntary, head official Eve Asderesky refused, leading some to question the difference between Williams’ shout and other players’ grunts, which are usually not ruled as intentional hindrances (Abad-Santos). Finally, at the 2018 U.S. Open, Williams was warned for a coaching violation (a very unusual violation), and when she appealed the warning with umpire Carlos Ramos, Williams thought they reached an understanding and that no violation was awarded. Later in the match, when Williams broke her racquet in frustration, she received a point penalty (the next escalation in penalties after a warning). Thinking it should only have been a warning because the earlier coaching violation had been overturned, Williams questioned the penalty, calling Ramos “a thief.” This comment got her a game penalty, a rather severe punishment given the circumstances.

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Mother-Scholars Doing Their Homework: The Limits of Domestic Enargeia

Nearly a decade ago, at the 2010 CCCC in Louisville, Kentucky, I attended a session on “Women’s Ways of Making It—or Making Do?: Off and On the Tenure Track with Children.” The roundtable included six mother-scholars: Lee Nickoson-Massey, Kim Hensley Owens, Christine Peters Cucciarre, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Deborah Morris, and Christa Albrecht-Crane. They shared narratives that presented family-friendly alternatives to the R1 careers emphasized in Michelle Ballif, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford’s 2008 book Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition. The conversation hit close to home. I was thirty-six, tenured for three years, married for three years, actively trying to conceive, and experiencing a longing for parenthood that surprised even me. My circumstances are hardly unique. I had been reminded, as have so many others, that babies should come before age thirty-five and ideally after tenure. The clock was ticking. Just thinking about Lee Nickoson-Massey’s description of getting a job offer the same day she received word that she’d be adopting a baby girl made me tear up. My hopes, my dreams, my anxieties, my sense of “what now?” after the long road of tenure—they all coalesced around the stories I heard at this panel. I wanted to deliver a conference paper with a baby in my arms, as Kim Hensley Owens described, or write while my children played in the background. I could live without the experience of pumping milk on the job market, a topic mentioned by at least two presenters. But I wanted the rest—the chaos, the sleeplessness, the playpen in my study—so badly it hurt.

The stories I heard that afternoon went on to become the impetus for Composition Studies’ 2011 special issue on “Wo/men’s Ways of Making It in Writing Studies.” I didn’t read it at the time, or anything else that wasn’t a board book. Two pregnancies and one baby later, I was at last a mother. The mother-scholar narratives would have been more resonant then, but mainly in terms of how I wasn’t measuring up. I found it impossible to do any work with my baby around. Even when I hired sitters, I heard him screaming, and I didn’t trust in their ability to comfort him. I didn’t sleep for months because of a round-the-clock nursing schedule from a child who wouldn’t take a bottle. I remember myself filmy from spit up and a lack of showering, and I wore the same three sweatsuits every day for almost a year. I was lucky enough to have a semester-long stay of teaching thanks to a parental leave policy that reallocated teaching duties to scholarship and service, but I got little done. On the rare occasions that I was cogent enough to think about how it was supposed to be, me working, my baby self-entertaining, I felt a profound sense of failure. Had I read the Composition Studies essays as a new mother, they would have struck a similar chord as Women’s Ways, which I had read shortly after its publication; while the latter left me feeling like an inept scholar, the Composition Studies pieces would have exacerbated my post-partum awareness of my inadequacies as a mother-scholar. I’m certainly not blaming these narratives for my response to them, nor for my own anxiety and paralysis. But I do think feminist scholars in our field would be well-served by considering the stories mother.1

Mother-scholars’ stories join a rich tradition of storytelling within writing studies. Diana George insists “storytelling is necessary if we are to pass on more than theory and pedagogical or administrative tactics to those who come after us” (xii). My own career has been guided by such stories. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I learned about women’s professional inequities through personal narratives like those collected by Theresa Enos and Sheryl Fontaine and Susan Hunter. While working on my dissertation, I read biographical sketches that equate contingent labor with the discipline’s classification as “feminine” or “feminized” (Schell; Schell and Stock). When I began a tenure-track position, I looked to the scholarship on writing program administration (WPA) for insights about administrative work as an assistant professor (George; Goodburn and Leverenz; Mirtz et al.). Taken together, works like these point to the significance of experiential narratives for rhetoric and composition professionals, even while, as Amy Ferdinandt Stolley has discussed, such accounts also universalize experience and inhibit alternative professional identities (19).

Indeed, the publication of Women’s Ways marked a shift in the field’s relationship to professional narratives. The volume’s narrow representation of success inspired a new generation of storytelling, more divisive than its predecessors. In addition to the 2011 special issue of Composition Studies, multiple counter-narratives emerged. Amy Goodburn, Donna LeCourt, and Carrie Leverenz’s book collection Rewriting Success in Rhetoric and Composition Careers, for example, took issue with Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s equation of success with “an academic culture that requires an undivided devotion to work” (176). Published in 2012, Rewriting Success showcases teachers and scholars who have found—and, moreover, defined—success through alternative career paths, including various roles within and beyond the academy. Kristin Bivens et al.’s Harlot piece “Sisyphus Rolls On” also confronts Women’s Ways’ definition of success, sharing mixed-media narratives of women working in a range of positions and institutions. With reference to contingent labor, the authors assert “most of the people who work in the field, according to the definition proposed by Ballif, Davis, and Mountford, have not made it, nor can they.” Others have challenged Women’s Ways’ hierarchical constructions of academic mentoring (Gindlesparger and Ryan; VanHaitsma and Ceraso).

The Composition Studies narratives about mothers “making it”—or, to borrow their term, “making do” (Cucciarre et al. 54)—were especially haunting when I eventually read them. Discussions of motherhood had, at the time, rarely entered the professional conversation, much less as a concentrated collection in one of the field’s prominent journals.2 I recently began to wonder why these stories remain so gripping several years after their publication. Part of the explanation lies in Dara Rossman Regaignon’s observation that genres are not only “social and rhetorical,” but “affective as well”; they encode “particular subject positions and modes of interaction” (157). Composition Studies’ mother-scholar narratives spur a set of affective associations through vivid verbal descriptions of academic mothers doing professional work while simultaneously tending to children. A detailed rendering of a new mother typing her dissertation while nursing an infant, for example, evokes an emotional response through its visualization of high-stakes personal and professional activities. Often set in the home, portrayals like these sometimes extend to spaces where academic responsibilities coincide with the work of home and family. Through compelling illustrations of working and parenting, the Composition Studies articles pull readers into the scene. They suggest an alternative not only to Women’s Ways, but also to the broader “Mommy Wars” asking professional women to choose between children and a career (Douglas and Michaels 204-05).

If pieces like the Composition Studies essays reassure women that they can integrate their personal and professional aspirations, they carry detrimental impacts as well. Portraits of mothers working alongside their children, at kitchen tables and living rooms, in classrooms and on campuses, and even at conferences, imply that work in writing and rhetoric can be done as needed, while multitasking parenting and domestic chores. By figuring women’s workspaces as simultaneously home and office, the narratives’ images reinscribe the symbolic functions Susan Miller attributed to her “sad women in the basement”: nurse, maid, and mother (137). Given our field’s reliance on flexible labor, its gendered labor inequities, and its fight for academic status, there’s an inherent risk in circulating tropes from which we have worked to distance ourselves. In making parenting visible, meanwhile, mother-scholar narratives render multiple constituencies invisible. Their stories homogenize domestic spaces, minimizing the relationship between socio-economic privilege and mothering in the profession.3 They exclude parents whose gender identities, sexualities, and domestic partnerships don’t align with the authors’ heteronormative families. They overlook the mothers and children who are ill-equipped to function in combined domestic and professional spaces. With these concerns in mind, this essay charts the narratives’ reliance on visual depictions of academic motherhood. Adapting classical enargeia, loosely understood as a verbal picture designed to evoke an emotional response, I focus on the potential for mother-scholars’ domestic enargeia to cultivate desire for immersive parenting experiences while also addressing the liabilities of such representations for the profession and its members.

Conceptualizing Domestic Enargeia

Classical texts offer a wealth of terms associated with the visibility of language, which have been interpreted and applied in slightly different ways by literature scholars and rhetoricians. Literary critics Judith Anderson and Joan Pong Linton note that contemporary understandings of visual imagery often blend “enargia (Greek arges, ‘bright’; Latin evidentia inlustratio, repraesentatio), or vividness and distinctness in description (the practices of ekphrasis, effictio, and the like), and energia (Greek ergon, ‘work’; Latin, actio), or the liveliness and ‘point’ of style in appealing to the senses, moving the emotions, and effecting turns of thought” (6). Anderson and Linton attribute this convergence to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which stresses the appeal to an audience’s visual sense (enargia) as a means of enlivening listeners and moving them to action (energia) (6-7; see also Aristotle 3.11.2-4). Rhetoric scholar Ruth Webb favors the Greek ekphrasis as a term for language designed to “mak[e] the listener ‘see’ the subject in their mind’s eye” (2). She views enargeia (Latin evidentia), which she characterizes as the vividness that allows for transactionality, as the “defining quality” of ancient ekphrasis (5). Webb distinguishes rhetorical ekphrasis from literary examples based upon their relative engagement with audiences. Literary ekphrasis—which some critics choose to label enargeia or enargia—conjures a pictorial representation of an art object, a “referent” or “representation of reality,” such as Homer’s poetic rendering of Achilles’s shield; rhetorical ekphrasis, which applies to a range of topics, impacts audiences’ perception, “making the listener seem to see” in a manner that is experienced as if tangibly present (Webb 38).4 My discussion of mother-scholar narratives is concerned with this rhetorical understanding of ekphrasis and, especially, its attendant enargeia.5

Webb locates enargeia in Quintilian’s Institutes, which supplements the Greek handbooks for rhetorical instruction (Progymnasmata), with his courtroom experience: “[from Quintilian] there emerges a clear set of ideas about the word’s ability to summon up images in the listener’s mind and about the ways in which an orator might need to make use of this technique in very specific ways to bolster his case” (4). Peter O’Connell’s work on enargeia in Athenian courtrooms establishes guided visualization as a characteristic forensic technique, consistent with jurors’ preference for observed evidence. Even if Attic orators lacked a vocabulary for naming their practice enargeia, says O’Connell, their speeches readily conveyed it (225). Feeling as if they had first-hand knowledge of the events in question made jurors especially receptive to the affective dimension of a speaker’s testimony (O’Connell 230). Quintilian’s Institutes, which harkened to its Greek predecessors, suggests one route through which the Greeks’ courtroom enargeia came to Roman forensic rhetoric. Despite its courtroom association, however, enargeia “is part of [Quintilian’s] broader discussion of emotional appeals” and thus applies to his larger rhetorical curriculum, including deliberative and epideictic rhetoric (Webb 90).

Significantly, Quintilian’s notion of enargeia hinges upon its psychological work. Enargeia, says Quintilian, “forces itself on the [audience’s] notice,” “set[ting] forth the objects of which we speak in lively colors, and so that they may as it were be seen” (8.3.61-62). Quintilian calls upon rhetors “not so much to narrate as to exhibit [such that] our feelings will be moved not less strongly than if we were actually present at the affairs of which we are speaking” (6.2.32). The sense of firsthand observation, he insists, holds “the greatest power in moving the [audience’s] feelings” (6.2.30). This process represents an affective transfer between speaker and audience, with listeners supplying their own imaginative details to reinforce the exchange. Jens Kjeldsen makes the point that performed accompaniments, such as gestures and expressions, solidify listeners’ involvement in the scene at hand (134-35). Although Kjeldsen’s discussion highlights physical performance, his remarks undersc

Enargeia’s efficacy relies upon the activation of images that resonate with listeners’ existing values. Take for example, Quintilian’s illustration of this phenomenon via Cicero’s oration against Verres: 

[W]hen [Cicero] reads the description in the oration against Verres, ‘The praetor of the Roman people, with sandals, with a purple cloak after the Greek fashion, and a tunic reaching to his feet, stood upon the shore leaning on a courtesan,’ he does not seem to behold the very aspect and dress of the man, and even to imagine for himself many particulars that are not expressed. (8.3.64)

Quintilian goes on to indicate, “I, for my part, seem to myself to see [Verres’s] countenance, the look of his eyes, the repulsive dalliance of him and his mistress, and the tacit disgust, and shrinking modesty, of those who witnessed the scene” (8.3.65). Cicero’s selection of visual details reveals how enargeia might elicit responses like Quintilian’s, rooted in shared cultural assumptions: “a Greek style of dress coloured with oriental dye, would have had strong connotations of un-Roman luxury, not to mention his unmanly stance, as he leans (‘nixus’) on his mistress” (Webb 110). Tellingly, the resonance of particular details is more significant than the amount of description provided.

Enargeia has received only sporadic consideration in contemporary rhetorical studies. Its closest correlate, notes O’Connell, is “Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s concept of presence” (243; see also Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 115-20). Charles A. Hill, for example, invokes presence in his work on visual rhetoric, offering a definition that resonates with classical enargeia. Hill characterizes presence as “the extent to which an object or concept is foremost in the consciousness of the audience members”; as he explains, dominant rhetorical elements “can crowd out other considerations from the viewer’s mind” (28-29). He goes on to associate presence with vividness, the psychological concept that marks information as “emotionally interesting and concrete” (31).6 Film and photographs readily transmit vividness, Hill indicates (31). When “direct visual perception” is not possible (30), he suggests, descriptive language that “promotes the construction of mental images” holds the power to dominate one’s thoughts, catalyze an affective response, and steer attitudes and actions (36).

Motherhood is a particularly rich site for eliciting the “mental images” Hill describes. According to Lindal Buchanan, the construct of the Mother “invokes a shared cultural code and generates powerful persuasive resources” (Rhetorics xvii). It’s not surprising that Buchanan’s work on maternal rhetorics highlights their visual qualities. Buchanan’s study of Anne Hutchinson, a prominent figure in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reveals how imagistic discourses of monstrosity turned public opinion against her (“A Study”). According to her political opponent Thomas Weld, Hutchinson’s 1637 pregnancy resulted in “30 monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as farre as I could ever learne) of humane shape” (qtd. in Buchanan, “A Study” 252: 214-15). Through its appeal to cultural fears linking monstrosity to God’s wrath, this depiction effectively maligned Hutchinson and her followers (“A Study” 252). Buchanan’s subsequent work on birth control advocate Margaret Sanger describes how Sanger’s self-construction through a family photograph also steered public sentiment, albeit in a favorable direction (Rhetorics). The photograph circulated in newspapers in January 1916, shortly after the death of Sanger’s youngest child Peggy and shortly before Sanger’s obscenity trial (Rhetorics 37-39). The portrait depicts Sanger with her sons Stuart and Grant and gestures toward Peggy’s absence, “contributing to Sanger’s ethos as a grieving mother” and generating support for the dismissal of her charges (Rhetorics 40-44). While the Hutchinson example involves verbal demonstration and the Sanger discussion centers around an actual image, both showcase the process by which visualizations of motherhood evoke presence and approximate classical enargeia.7 

Buchanan’s examples also illustrate visual representations’ ability to advance received notions of maternity. They prescribe a vision of what motherhood “should look like” (or shouldn’t) in their respective contexts, much like Cicero’s enargeic description of Verres calls upon Roman assumptions about leadership. The profession’s portraits of parenting function similarly, signaling a set of assumed values regarding family, work, and gender. As noted, I use the term domestic enargeia to refer to depictions of women combining academic work with childcare. My terminology stems from Webb’s assertion that enargeia deploys visual description as a means of “inviting imaginative and emotional involvement” (195); this combination of visuality and affective participation, which Webb calls “imaginative response” (106), is key to our field’s representations of academic motherhood. I have added the descriptor domestic to reflect the narratives’ sustained attention to children and household responsibilities. Domestic enargeia speaks to a synthesis of visual and emotional appeals, conjuring relationships among mothers, caregiving, and home. My terminology encapsulates the vividness associated with enargeia’s etymology, particularly the psychological quality that renders an image resonant or memorable. In keeping with Quintilian’s belief that enargeia “forces itself on the [audience’s] notice” (8.3.61-62), domestic enargeia gestures toward the visibility that informs the profession’s discussions of motherhood, namely the impulse to make motherhood itself visible. Finally, my language harkens to the visualization associated with classical enargeia, including its courtroom use as a means of bringing listeners “to the scene.” 

The following sections explore how mother-scholar narratives promote normative understandings of mothering in the profession. I aim to critique domestic enargeia’s socializing function by addressing the working conditions the narratives depict and elide, as well as their constructions of family and parenthood. I consider these depictions through the lens of my necessarily partial response as a white middle-class woman in a heterosexual marriage. To set the scene, I ground my analysis in an assessment of the relative absence of parenting in Women’s Ways. I then demonstrate how the Composition Studies essays frame the domestic sphere as a congenial site for mothers’ scholarly work, forging a problematic convergence between women’s work and childcare. To further my critique, I reference progressive portrayals of motherhood in the profession, focusing on a video essay that meditates on a filmmaker-rhetorician’s challenges raising bilingual sons. A pattern of domestic enargeia emerges across this representational range, pointing to its normativity despite the field’s diversity. I thus conclude by underscoring the need for mother-scholars to cede their reliance on domestic enargeia, and I urge feminist rhetoricians to circulate stories that reimagine what it means to work and parent in the profession.

Not Seen and Not Heard

Charting the limited depictions of home and family in Women’s Ways helps to explain why mother-scholars writing after its publication choose domestic enargeia as a storytelling device. The chapter on “Family and Academic Culture” (174-94)—particularly its section on “Combining Family and Career” (175-83)—is relatively brief. And, as the authors remark in that chapter, “many of the women scholars in our study do not have children. And neither do we” (175). They observe that, of the nine women profiled, only Jacqueline Jones Royster had a child while on the tenure track, and she entered her tenure-line position as an associate professor with an established publication record (177). The habits the book associates with scholarly achievement, such as working into the evening and traveling to multiple national conferences each year, do not lend themselves to active parenting. Home figures prominently as a writing space, but it is portrayed as a quiet alternative to a campus office (167). Success, as defined by the authors of Women’s Ways, is not compatible with childcare responsibilities. While five profile subjects have children (two with one child each), readers are meeting these women after they have “made it.” They are senior faculty and, in some cases, now emerita, and those who are mothers have grown children. Their formative professional years coincided with heightened, more explicit, gender discrimination in the academy that may have served as a tacit prohibition against seeking both a career and a family.8 On the whole, we encounter women defined by their passion for scholarship.

The profiles in Women’s Ways run about ten to 15 pages, beginning with a “Background” section, then shifting to a “Strategies for Success” section with a menu of subsections, including “Graduate School,” “Promotion and Tenure,” “Time Management,” and “Having a Life.” The only profile to include a subsection on “Children” is Patricia Bizzell’s. Her portrait recounts her adoption of two “biological sisters from Korea” during the 1980s (207). The mood here is cautionary—Bizzell describes how the life she had before having children was “reduced to rubble [. . . .] absolutely leveled to the ground” (208). The authors foreground Bizzell’s sense of frustration with her parenting options. She describes working full time and having children as “a real source of stress and pain,” referring to the “psychic tax” of being a working mother (210). This theme also surfaces in Cheryl Glenn’s and Susan Jarratt’s profiles. Glenn describes herself as “a pretty good mother, but [. . .] only pretty good” (238), while Jarratt reports, “parenting was a source of guilt for me” (253). Even the conversations with women who are “childless by choice” associate scholarly careers with parental inadequacy (167). Asked “if the decision not to have kids had anything to do with her professional life,” Cynthia Selfe echoes the uncertainty expressed by the women who are mothers: “I suppose it did. I just had never thought I’d make a particularly good parent” (304). Optimistic portraits of family and children receive comparatively less attention. Shirley Wilson Logan and Jacqueline Jones Royster note the centrality of family to their identities, yet their positive parenting experiences are minimized. Logan’s children are neither named nor enumerated, and Royster’s children are mentioned in a parenthetical (293).9 It’s hard not to see these portraits as part of an agenda that separates career success from engaged parenting.

Women’s Ways’ treatment of motherhood is largely pragmatic; motherhood is most directly associated with time management. Describing her return to work after her maternity leave, Bizzell refers to her watch as “a manacle . . . chaining me to the schedule” (208). She goes on to express the negative impact of parenting on her writing, especially the loss of the freedom to “let an idea gestate” (209). Glenn, whose remarks about being a single parent fall under her profile’s “Time Management” subsection, shares her intense daily schedule during her early years as an assistant professor, which coincided with her ninth-grade daughter Anna’s “acting out” after moving “two thousand miles from home” (241). The authors present Anna as an added challenge for Glenn, a source of “trips to the principal’s office and ad hoc parent-teacher conferences” (241). The sentence following these remarks reads, “So how did she manage her time?” (241), equating a needy child with lost productivity. Jarratt, also a single parent, was raising her daughter while a graduate student, living and teaching in San Antonio, commuting to University of Texas at Austin, and playing in a band. “It was too much,” she reports (254). “My daughter was protesting. And I could see that it was just too crazy” (254). The book describes Jarratt’s inclination to leave her PhD program, along with her eventual decision to relocate to Austin to complete her degree. Although the move benefitted her professionally and personally, Jarratt’s portrait further showcases the career and lifestyle accommodations that accompany parenting. Together, the three profiles that most explicitly include children depict them as “troubled,” in Bizzell’s words (209), “acting out” in Glenn’s case (241), and “protesting” in Jarratt’s (254). In this way, Women’s Ways foregrounds the demands and inconveniences of motherhood, with little attention to the rewards.

Even as Women’s Ways sounds a cautionary note about motherhood, its presentation of working mothers establishes a convention for the mother-scholar genre. Consider, for example, Jarratt’s reflection on the incident that made her rethink her 75-mile commute to graduate school: “One night I came home and [my daughter] had been sick—this was before cell phones. That scared me” (254). Although Jarratt is pointing to a moment when she failed to integrate work and childcare, her description calls upon domestic enargeia for its emotional appeal. The urgency surrounding a sick child—especially one who is 75 miles away with no means of contact—thrusts readers into Jarratt’s position. The selection of detail, such as arriving home “at night,” presumably too late to comfort her child, does salient rhetorical work. We, as readers, are invited to imagine ourselves in an analogous situation, failing to provide the nurturing perceived as fundamental to mothering. We might even visualize a fearful, feverish child, crying for her mommy. Learning “this was before cell phones” makes the situation all the more alarming: today’s working mothers rely on their mobile phones as a promise of connection in case of emergency. The sense of disconnect is palpable, and Jarratt’s uneasiness resonates with assumptions about care and neglect, availability and absence, and mother-scholars’ closeness to home. Bizzell’s and Glenn’s accounts make analogous appeals. Thus, despite its brief and largely negative attention to motherhood, Women’s Ways’ domestic enargeia sets a precedent for subsequent mother-scholar narratives: to mother is to nurture, the logic goes, and the happiest mothers find a way to grow their children alongside their scholarship.

Seeing is Believing

A corrective to Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s book, Composition Studies’ “Wo/men’s Ways of Making It in Writing Studies” sought to confront the field’s “minimalization of family commitments to construct a persona of professional success” (Clary-Lemon 10). Its reliance on domestic enargeia, in turn, represents both a departure from and a continuation of the rhetorical pattern established in Women’s Ways. The lead essay, “Mothers’ Ways of Making It—or Making Do?: Making (Over) Academic Lives in Rhetoric and Composition with Children” includes five of the mother-scholar stories presented at the 2010 CCCC. Collaboratively authored by Christine Peters Cucciarre, Deborah E. Morris, Lee Nickoson, Kim Hensley Owens, and Mary P. Sheridan, the article follows the roundtable’s dialogic format to showcase authors’ experiences as mothers working on and off the tenure track at varying types of institutions. Loren Marquez’s piece “Narrating Our Lives: Retelling Mothering and Professional Work in Composition Studies” describes the synergistic relationship between “the mother-multitasking game” and her professional responsibilities (73). Meanwhile, in “On (Not) Making It In Rhetoric and Composition,” Robert Danberg associates personal and professional disappointment with an approach to fatherhood that “might be described as the default position of mothering” (68). Throughout these narratives, children are seen and heard, named and celebrated. Their visibility serves multiple ends: to validate parenting as a lifestyle choice; to establish compatibility between academic careers and family engagement; to advocate for workplace policies that support pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and childcare; and to problematize Women’s Ways’ depiction of success. The Composition Studies articles’ images of academic parenthood nevertheless mark a binary response to their predecessor: if Jarratt’s, Bizzell’s, and Glenn’s narratives employ domestic enargeia to link professionalism with parental absence, Composition Studies’ domestic enargeia features mothers working alongside their children. Their heightened attention to the domestic sphere doesn’t change the terms of the conversation so much as it puts nurturing at its center.

At first glance, the articles appear to present generative possibilities for combining work and parenting, framing caregiving as a feminist choice. In the analysis that follows, I suggest the Composition Studies portrayals are complicit with a culture that pays disproportionate attention to children’s needs, often at mothers’ expense. Sociologist Sharon Hays describes this phenomenon as “intensive mothering.” In Hays’s view, contemporary motherhood is characterized by “a gendered model that advises mothers to expend a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in raising their children” (x). Despite the large percentage of mothers working outside the home, says Hays, “a logic of unselfish nurturing guides the behavior of mothers” (x). Building on Hays’s work, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels refer to this trend as the “new momism”: “the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children” (4). This ideology infuses the Composition Studies portraits. Despite demanding professional careers, the mother-scholars work alongside their children; they bring energy to their multiple roles, though they make parenting a priority; and they establish a standard of zen multitasking that few could meet.

The pattern of domestic enargeia conveys the authors’ parental dedication. Cucciarre et al. acknowledge their use of visual persuasion, framing their article as a collection of “snapshots” designed to illustrate a “range of possibilities” for “work-life balance” (42). Their portraits reveal lives made richer thanks to their integration of home and work. Morris, for example, discusses how her children’s different stages impacted her career choices. She attributes her decision to stay home with her young children to her need “to be the one who encouraged their learning and imagining throughout the day” (46). Readers get a concrete image of this need when, speaking of her return to graduate school when her children “entered middle school,” Morris describes doing “homework around the dining room table” with her two sons (46). Sheridan paints contrasting pictures of her “R1 university” and her current “Research Intensive university,” which she describes as “far more hospitable” to families (55). She compares being one of the few faculty members who brought children to her former institution’s “welcome-back-to-school party” to her current position, where “it is not a problem if occasionally my children play in an empty classroom” (55). Cucciarre shares a near-parable about her three-year-old son writing in her copy of Women’s Ways: “page three is full of scribbles and pen marks with large swooping circles all encompassed by one big box outlining the entire page” (48). His “scrawlings” represent the “strange cocktail of shame and guilt” she felt after reading the book, mainly involving her acceptance of a non-tenure-line position (48). Together, these “visuals” prompt readers to affirm parents’ nearness to their children. Making it as a mother-scholar, the domestic enargeia implies, entails choosing a position that welcomes children at our desks, on our campuses, and in our texts.

As Quintilian reminds us, visualization persuades by simulating eye witness experience, thereby securing audience engagement. To showcase this process, I turn now to a close analysis of Nickoson’s and Owens’s vignettes within the Cucciarre et al. essay. While all contributors follow a convention of domestic enargeia, Nickoson’s and Owens’s accounts feature tenure-track mothers of young children—categories holding particular emotional exigency. As Rachel Connelly and Kristin Ghodsee discuss in Professor Mommy, “the timing of the tenure track coincides exactly with the woman’s most fertile reproductive years” (8). Ballif, Davis, and Mountford also speak to the complexity of academics’ childbearing decisions. Pointing to the tenure-achievement gap between women with and without children, they note that “women who choose to have a family before tenure . . . must be prepared to swim against the tide, particularly in the top-tier research institutions” (180). They simultaneously caution readers that waiting “too long to get started” comes with a decrease in fertility, citing a survey respondent who “waited too long” and “will regret it forever” (181). Notably, both Nickoson and Owens share scenes in which they made their young children visible to their colleagues and their workplaces, prompting readers’ affective involvement in the process.

Domestic enargeia infuses Nickoson’s description of walking her five-year-old daughter Olivia to the campus preschool three afternoons a week (43). The walks “serve as regular and yet powerful reminders” of Nickoson’s good fortune—to have a job “in such dire economic times” and “to share that part of my life—my self—with my daughter” (43). For Nickoson, the walks represent “moments of equilibrium” between the personal and the professional (43). She and her daughter have meaningful conversations, and, demonstrating her school spirit, Olivia sometimes sings the university fight song. Their return walks “often revolve around animated discussions of the new experiences of the day and how those moments leave [Olivia] feeling good, not only about learning, but also about herself” (44). The scene evokes a pastoral, idyllic quality—the two are strolling through campus, presumably in a natural setting, at Nickoson’s workplace but talking, listening, and singing in their own shared space. Readers are invited to visualize a literal journey across campus, but also to “see” it as representative of parental separation and reunification—much like Jarratt’s narrative. Nickoson’s rendering of the experience leaves readers to fill in the details of the setting. I envision Nickoson and Olivia holding hands, for example, and it makes me want to stroll across my campus with my son. I begin to share Nickoson’s optimism regarding the synergy between academic work and parenting. I feel her gratitude, even more so because I remember the adoption details she shared at the 2010 CCCC. By positioning readers as participant-observers, the domestic enargeia cultivates desire—there is much to want for oneself: children who are interested in our work, a campus that welcomes them, and a dream of motherhood fulfilled.

Kim Hensley Owens’s reflection on her 2009 Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s) presentation follows an analogous rhetorical pattern: it presents a vivid mother-child interaction designed to secure readers’ emotional involvement. Owens’s scene opens when she begins her paper while her four-month-old daughter, whose designated babysitter didn’t arrive, slept in a carrier: “Alas, she awoke, wiggly, hungry, and angry, two minutes into my twenty-minute talk, so I gave my talk bouncing her in my arms” (54). Owens recounts denying her baby’s desire to nurse, which collided with her “professional responsibility” to complete her presentation (54). Untroubled by her discomfort, the audience was supportive, seeming more “impressed” than “surprised”; a graduate student approached Owens to tell her, “You make it look easy” (54). But Owens “felt desperate. It was my third day of being at a conference with a baby; I’d rarely been more exhausted, and I was embarrassed” (54). As in previous examples, the domestic enargeia revolves around parent-child separation, albeit in the same room rather than across a distance or a campus. In keeping with the genre, Owens’s description invites readers to visualize the situation: it’s easy to picture a squirming, fussing infant shaking with full-body sobs the moment her assistant professor mother steps up to the podium. The domestic enargeia provides multiple paths to affective identification, primarily rooted in the mother-infant connection but also associated with academic expectations. We are asked to share Owens’s sense of professional vulnerability, her mommy guilt, her performance anxiety, her need to soothe her infant, and her audience’s unexpected encouragement. Bearing witness to Owens’s “‘making do’ moment” (54), in turn, convinces us of the importance of nurturing children, even at the least convenient moments. 

Domestic enargeia colors Marquez’s and Danberg’s articles as well, even as these pieces take more critical stances toward parent-scholars’ work lives. Marquez, for example, cautions readers about arranging a work schedule to accommodate a family schedule (77). While her husband taught high school during the day, she taught her classes in the evening, with each alternating parenting and teaching. Although this schedule “fit securely in the nook of our family life,” she reports, “the research and writing of my dissertation and securing a job did not” (77). As Marquez points out, flexible working hours can hinder mother-scholars’ productivity, as their most valued professional responsibilities can be overshadowed by a partner’s working hours or classes with finite meeting times.10 Marquez nevertheless closes her essay with a description of writing while her daughter Libby bangs on a Sesame Street laptop: “she looks at me, delighted with her nearly-toothless grin” (84). In highlighting Libby’s imitation of her mother, the domestic enargeia shifts the narrative toward the rewards of parenting. Working mothers’ material needs—for office space, technical resources, focused work time, and collegial interaction—are eclipsed by Marquez’s cozy pairing of writing and childcare. Likewise, for Danberg, a single father and visiting faculty member, domestic enargeia directs readers’ attention away from his career precarity. He refers to “moments of dinner and dishes, papers to grade . . . . remembering that I need to get GoGo a snack for her class tomorrow, to find cash to rent Rubin’s cello” amidst writing and lesson planning (72). “At that moment,” he writes, “I am in the midst of wanting what I have” (72), signaling gratitude for his engagement in his children’s lives.

Taken together, the Composition Studies articles inculcate a set of values that has become a staple of mother-scholar narratives: working in close physical proximity to our children is advantageous, our parenting can productively inform our teaching and scholarship, and our children’s development is a marker of work-life balance. While I share these values to a degree, I also find them consistent with the intensive mothering Hays and Douglas and Michaels critique. Nickoson works at the campus Starbucks near Olivia’s preschool if “it is not too crowded,” sitting at “a small corner table,” where she maximizes “sacred three-hour blocks of work time” (43-44). Faced with a missing babysitter and an immanent presentation, Owens doesn’t mention an alternate caregiver or a pacifier (54). Despite the frustrations of writing “inside the baby corral with my laptop to my right, and [her son] Nate and blocks and books, and balls to my left,” Marquez works alongside the same corral with her daughter (78). Danberg learns to want what he has, masking his aspirations, and calls it “mothering” (68). Presented together in a special issue, the Composition Studies portraits exert a homogenizing force: the parents look remarkably similar in their interactions with children. They write and grade alongside their kids, they cover personal and professional sacrifice with vivid descriptions of cuddly babies and inquisitive children, and they imply that their choices, however limiting, are worth it. Moreover, their reliance on domestic enargeia compels emotional and imaginative engagement. Just as readers would do well to question the stories’ orthodoxy, scholars interested in extending the conversation about parenting in the profession ought to consider more expansive and inclusive rhetorical strategies, as some are starting to do.

Envisioning Alternatives

The mother-scholar genre has shown some promising new directions in recent years. It has become more attentive to the institutional and structural dynamics affecting mothers (and sometimes fathers) and more willing to situate motherhood in relation to intersectional identities. Narratives are more likely to voice parental challenges and dissatisfactions while offering more nuanced portraits of the children themselves. New rhetorical strategies, mediums, and methods have accompanied this growth. Alexandra Hidalgo’s video work, for example, locates academic motherhood in the contexts of multiculturalism, culture loss, and feminist activism. Her footage brings viewers directly into her family life, enabling us to watch her interactions with her sons. We are starting to see more attention to diversity in conventional print scholarship as well, as is the case in Krystia Nora, Rochelle Gregory, Ann-Marie Lopez, and Nicole A. Williams’s “Surviving Sexism to Inspire Change: Reflections from Mothers on the Tenure Track.” In offering a sample size “of more than 200 Rhet/Comp tenure track mothers” (136), Nora et al.’s heterogenous composite informs the study’s call for improved workplace policies. Parents’ experiences are also getting traction in venues that are not specifically geared toward family considerations, such as Christine Tulley’s How Writing Faculty Write. In her interview with Tulley, Jessica Enoch encourages mother-scholars to prioritize “the structural piece” of university policy “rather than evaluating if you’re being a good mom or not” (67).11 That said, generic change necessitates both invention and convention. Even as mother-scholar representations are shifting, an undercurrent of domestic enargeia inheres, appealing to readers through its happy domesticity. To illustrate how innovative, critical narratives can function within existing rhetorical patterns, I reflect upon Hidalgo’s 2016 video essay “Alto Precio: Love, Loss, and Rebellion in Raising Bilingual Children.”

Alto Precio” centers around Hidalgo’s preschool son William’s “stated desire not to speak [Spanish] anymore” and his mother’s commitment, as a cultural rhetorics scholar, to sharing her home language (00:01:22-25). Through her intimate relationship with bilingualism, Hidalgo draws attention to the power differential between dominant and minority languages and the complexities her son faces as “the child of a Latina and a gringo living in Michigan” (00:23:15-17). Hidalgo’s narrative pairs the personal with broader cultural critique. She supports her decision to “keep pushing [William] toward embracing Spanish” (00:01:20-22) with references to scholarly and popular accounts of bilingualism and through interviews with her Venezuelan mother. Translated, Hidalgo’s title “Alto Precio” refers to a “high price,” and her orientation to struggle and achievement is especially striking. In contrast to the “making it” moments interspersed throughout the Composition Studies reflections, Hidalgo readily acknowledges the cracks and fissures in her experiences. These mainly revolve around William’s assertions—all expressed in Spanish—that he finds the language inadequate: “[I]t doesn’t sound good” (00:14:59); “I don’t like it” (00:15:42); “I don’t want it” (00:15:52). Hidalgo doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the complexities of William’s experiences, nor from addressing the structural barriers to her literacy sponsorship. Obstacles like the prohibitive expense and security concerns associated with travel to Venezuela, William’s monolingual school with its weekly Spanish lesson, and his grandmother’s awareness that her relationship with him suffers because he must speak to her in Spanish are readily incorporated into Hidalgo’s project. When she asks, “is all of this wondering and strategizing worth it?” (00:22:59-23:02), she licenses uncertainty, resisting mother-scholars’ conventional depiction of triumph over adversity.

At the same time, Hidalgo’s work arguably calls upon domestic enargeia to move viewers.12 By offering video footage in place of verbal description, the medium enables direct observation. We literally see Hidalgo’s homelife, which spurs our affective response. Her narration accompanies footage of family walks through a wooded park, gatherings with family and friends, and scenes of her children playing on floors strewn with educational toys. Her husband Nate consistently appears on screen. A sense of family solidarity and parental partnership emerges from these scenes. The language of video compounds our engagement, particularly the ample close shots of William’s expressive brown eyes and impish smile. Hidalgo’s camera foregrounds William’s perspective, often panning from a broader scene—including one in which Hidalgo discusses bilingualism with Victor Villanueva—to a close shot of William playing in the background. Thanks to Hidalgo’s editorial choices, we witness her son’s verbal challenges to his mother as if we, too, are in the room. The domestic enargeia, in turn, invites our participation in Hidalgo’s negotiations of language, power, and parenting.

Alto Precio” offers some notable revisions to the mother-scholar genre: the use of new media allows for fresh storytelling possibilities, the narrative grounds personal challenges and accomplishments within broader cultural contexts, and the work’s representation of a Latina mother diversifies the field’s portraits. Yet Hidalgo’s strategic visual appeals also reveal the profession’s entrenched pattern of domestic enargeia. We see a mother who thrives by doing academic work in the presence of her children, even if filmmaking is her scholarly work and her position behind the camera masks it. While Hidalgo expresses her frustrations with her parenting, she demonstrates considerable accomplishment in shooting video while tending to two boys in two languages, gesturing toward a characteristic narrative of personal achievement. She features a heteronormative home with all the trappings of middle-class privilege. These seemingly inescapable conventions raise ethical questions about domestic enargeia’s construction of academic motherhood even in progressive accounts, especially regarding which members of the field it addresses and whom it excludes.


As Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith argue in their discussion of the rhetorical topoi surrounding work, the “mutual construction of work, gender, and technology is not accomplished strictly through material means, but through rhetorical interventions that strengthen certain material arrangements and weaken others” (215). Domestic enargeia constitutes such a “rhetorical intervention.” By bringing images of intensive mothering to the profession, domestic enargeia constructs working motherhood in relation to childcare. Typically invoked in moments of physical or emotional separation, it plays to maternal exigencies in order to normalize the practice of working alongside one’s children. The field would thus be well-served by considering domestic enargeia’s implications for labor, diversity, and professional participation.

Domestic enargeia, I fear, makes mothers especially susceptible to our workplaces’ gender asymmetries. When mother-scholars treat proximity to children as a source of personal and professional fulfillment, their narratives depict our work as capably done in the company of children, repeatedly stopped and started to tend to others’ needs. The parallels between individual flexibility and exploited flexible labor should not be overlooked: an assumption that one can work at others’ convenience, subpar working conditions, lost opportunities for professional advancement, and inequitable financial remuneration. If mothers accept these limitations, we devalue our labor, a risky move in an academic culture with an established wage gap between men and women (Hatch). To publicize this representation at a moment when universities are looking to streamline budgets seems particularly imprudent. In addition to the potential personal costs, the association of writing studies with the domestic sphere fuels institutional stereotypes about the field’s academic rigor (see Miller 51-55). These assumptions impact women disproportionately. Whether we work in departments that identify as writing, English, or humanities, women in rhetoric and composition still face the “nurturing trap”: increased mentoring and advising assignments along with a perceived approachability that makes us vulnerable to unrewarded emotional labor (Ballif, Davis, and Mountford 88-89).13Recognizing how domestic enargeia sustains gendered labor disparities, in turn, may help us to complicate our self-representations.

If domestic enargeia is troubling for the caretaking it reveals, it is also concerning for the perspectives it omits. In appealing to an audience that desires nearness to children and has the socio-economic resources to provide it, domestic enargeia normalizes a privileged vision of mothering. Its practices for balancing work and family, however, don’t apply across the profession. While my nonconformity with the narratives’ portraits is attributable to clinical anxiety and a healthy, if demanding, child, other mother-scholars struggle with more pressing obstacles: inconsistent employment, cramped domestic space, racial and ethnic discrimination, children with disabilities, absent (or present) spouses, elder care, blended or non-heteronormative family structures. Such stories are silenced by domestic enargeia’s prescription for maternal devotion, doubly so because scholars excluded from the established norm may lack the resources or inclination to write about their parenting. Cultivating parenting narratives that authorize a greater range of experiences will be an important challenge for the field to take up.

The omission of queer perspectives merits particular attention. Queer, trans, and gender-fluid academics have children. Yet rhetoric and composition scholars who have used queer theory to examine parenting have focused on its absence, such as Harriet Malinowitz’s “Unmotherhood” and Maria Novotny’s “Failing Fertility.” While these essays interrogate maternity, they draw an equivalence between queerness and childlessness: Malinowitz, a self-identified lesbian, links her “unmotherhood” to reproductive choice (13-18), and Novotny, a “cisgendered heteronormative woman,” uses queer theory to “evolve the rhetoric of infertility” (194-95). Their work upholds the field’s association of parenting with heteronormativity, an unfortunate consequence for authors who adopt queer theory’s resistance to binary thinking. Indeed, Malinowitz and Novotny are on tricky rhetorical ground. The heterosexism surrounding mothering stories infuses critiques of them, including my own. Scholars who have been written out of the field’s parenting narratives would be well-served by David L. Wallace and Jonathan Alexander’s awareness that “articulating a non-normative or queer sexual identity means much more than adding a secondary discourse” (802). This “complex literacy practice,” they write, requires “resist[ing] normalizing rhetorics of identity and family” while also “transform[ing] the discourses” (802). Specifically offered as a description of queer rhetorical agency, Wallace and Alexander’s remarks speak to the intricacies of rewriting any received narrative. Revising the mother-scholar genre to include queer and other underrepresented perspectives may necessitate rehabilitating domestic enargeia, subverting it, or doing away with it entirely. 

Naming domestic enargeia’s current rhetorical dominance helps writers and readers alike to confront its limitations—an unqualified celebration of nurturing, the exclusion of multiple stakeholders, and the promotion of gender roles and sexuality stereotypes. Given its spurious representation of the profession, domestic enargeia merits cautious treatment and selective use. I’m hopeful that future scholarship will put parent-scholars’ mosaic of experiences into productive conversation. One practice would be for conference organizers and editors to sponsor presentations and publications that solicit a range of voices and rhetorical methods, situating instances of domestic enargeia within broader contexts that diffuse their dominance. Another would be to actively seek insights from mother-scholars and other scholars whose perspectives cannot be rendered through domestic enargeia’s white middle-class (hetero)normativity: the underemployed, the too-busy-to-write, mothers of color, fathers, queer and non-binary parents, the neurodiverse, and the differently abled. Taken together, these feminist interventions have the potential to transform the field’s parenting narratives into a site for inclusivity work. By remaining mindful of the limits of domestic enargeia, we stand to make rhetoric and composition a more hospitable place for future generations of scholars and their dynamic family arrangements.


  1. I use the term mother-scholar throughout this essay to reflect the prevalence of mother-scholar narratives in the profession. While I recognize the term’s exclusion of academic fathers and gender nonconforming parents, the scholarship has continued to highlight women’s parental roles, likely because of ongoing professional inequities surrounding childbirth and maternity leave. For a discussion of institutional gender bias related to parenting, see Ballif, Davis, and Mountford (174-75) and Connelly and Ghodsee (7-8).
  2. Kate Pantelides’s 2013 CCC column “On Being a New Mother–Dissertator–Writing Center Administrator” soon followed.
  3. Composition Studies editor Jennifer Clary-Lemon readily acknowledges this dimension of the pieces, referring to one reviewer’s critique of their “middle-class family archetype” and noting the “radically-changed economic climate” since the publication of Women’s Ways (11).
  4. See Heinrich Plett’s study of early modern aesthetics for an example of the former. Plett acknowledges enargeia’s classical origins, yet he deploys the term to emphasize literary descriptions of the visual arts rather than audiences’ responses to those representations.
  5. Following Watson’s translation of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, I use the spelling enargeia throughout. When directly quoting or paraphrasing authors who favor the alternative enargia, I preserve their intended spelling. Similarly, I have italicized terms when sources do, reserving my own italics for occasional emphasis (usually when discussing the term itself, i.e., “the term enargeia”).
  6. Notably, visual texts’ immediacy also facilitates a collective response. In their introduction to Defining Visual Rhetorics, Hill and Marguerite Helmers describe how television coverage of historical “points of crisis” galvanized affective involvement through implied eye witness experience (3). The live broadcasts associated with Vietnam, the Gulf War, and 9/11, they explain, generated a vicarious presence that spurred “a national consciousness of being together as a community” (3-4).
  7. Depictions of children and their caretakers are well-suited to considerations of enargeia because of their characteristic pathos. Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee cite reporter Scott Maxwell’s “Driving on Daytona Beach” to define enargeia in Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students:

    Four-year-old Ellie Louise Bland was doing what most any little girl would do during a glorious day at Daytona Beach this past Saturday—dashing here and there, playing with her family and soaking in the sunshine and salt air. . . . One moment she was holding her uncle’s hand. The next, a Lincoln Town Car driven by a 66-year-old visitor from Georgia ended her life. (185)

    Maxwell’s use of enargeia, Crowley and Hawhee explain, “casts new light on the argument [regarding driving on Daytona Beach] by invoking the innocence of children and the tragedy of their untimely deaths” (186).

  8. Lynn Worsham’s profile speaks to this generational difference and its implications for younger women’s expectations, which are often disrupted by “faculty in positions of power and influence who [still] discriminate against women professors, especially those who start a family while on the tenure track” (316).
  9. Ballif, Davis, and Mountford’s subjects’ pets receive as much attention as children. See, for example, Selfe’s discussion of her Sunday “doggie potluck scrum” with Gracie and Bosco (167, 304), or Worsham’s description of her “companion animals,” including her Abyssinian kitten Pickle (319). Other examples include Glenn’s dog Charley (167) and Sharon Crowley’s cat Lady (163, 226).
  10. Connelly and Ghodsee make a similar observation, cautioning readers that “the trap of flexibility” can prompt women to tend to household responsibilities rather than devoting uninterrupted time to their scholarship (25).
  11. Enoch’s recent Domestic Occupations locates these structural considerations historically, examining how the discursive constructions of home shaped women’s relationship to the workplace during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  12. Hidalgo’s 2017 documentary Teta, a breastfeeding advocacy film about her 22 months nursing son Santiago while working as an assistant professor, follows suit.
  13. Heinert and Phillips’s recent work provides a comprehensive discussion of feminized labor and gendered service, calling for a revaluation of service as a source of institutional sustainability.


I am grateful to the Peitho editorial team and blind reviewers for their generative feedback on multiple iterations of this essay. I thank my friend and fellow mother-scholar Sue Loewenstein for her guidance throughout the project.

Works Cited

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“She Is Not Thoroughly Practical”: High School Alumnae Shaping Domestic Science in the Progressive Era

In a democratic time and a democratic place, before a democratic audience, it seems to me fitting that I should select a democratic subject, so I have chosen one which to my mind represents the flower of democracy—‘The High School Girl.’…The High School girl of Louisville is fortunate in having an elder sister to look up to and to advise with in educational, literary and civic matters. She is further assisted in her community training by her elder sister—the alumnae girl.

—Anna J. Hamilton, Female High School alumna (1899)

Speaking at the 1899 dedication of a new Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) building, notable alumna Anna J. Hamilton introduced her audience to what were becoming two key figures in her city: the high school girl and the alumna woman. While Hamilton’s focus was nominally on the former, whom she calls the “flower of democracy,” her shift instead to emphasize the alumnae club and to effectively criticize the high school girl as “not thoroughly practical” in the remainder of her speech reveals an interesting and complicated relationship between these groups which, while close and genealogically connected, had different and even competing interests and needs. The relationship and tensions between high school students and graduates informed and complicated the club’s curricular reform efforts at the turn of the century, revealing much about the function of women’s clubs and the broader pedagogical reforms shaping women’s educational experiences at the turn of the century, particularly domestic sciences.

In this article, I focus on LGHS’s Alumnae Club to ask: How did women’s high school alumnae clubs’ successful rhetorical appeals contribute to the reformation of high school curricula, particularly in regards to domestic sciences? This project brings American high schools into the rhetorical analysis of Progressive Era women’s club work, recognizing the role of the high school in promoting the cultures of service and the rhetorical skills that undergirded the club movement, and, in turn, recognizing the influence of club work on high school curricula and reform.

While Anne Ruggles Gere, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Shirley Wilson Logan, and others have documented the important role of women’s clubs as part of women’s extracurricular learning, providing a space for women’s rhetorical education when more formal outlets were often closed to them, the culture of women’s clubs also became a more formal part of the turn-of-the-century high school experience. In the high school alumnae club, extracurricular and curricular spaces overlapped as students brought club work into the school and graduates used their rhetorical training from high school and the support of the alumnae club to effect curricular change for subsequent students (see Blair; Scott; Beard).

Historians of writing, education, and women’s clubs have each addressed the important work of alumnae clubs for college and normal school students in the past (Bordelon; Farnham; Jeansonne and Bridwell-Bowles; Gordon; Ritter; Scott; Solomon). As L. Jill Lamberton explains, these clubs did more than “simply engag[e] in intellectual formation or rehears[e] new knowledge;” they “changed institutional culture and social expectations through their extracurricular writing practices” (562). The same can be said of extracurricular club work at the high school. Yet little work has been done on high school alumni and alumnae clubs to date. This omission is likely because high school clubs were often not as established and robust as Louisville’s, and they were also often not single-sex organizations (complicating their relationship to the larger women’s club movement that has otherwise been more broadly studied). Among the list of federated women’s clubs from the first decades of the twentieth century, only a small number are identifiable as alumnae clubs, let alone high school alumnae clubs. And the dissociation of these clubs from larger networks or organizations (such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) means that their activities and records may not have been structured and preserved in ways that make them readily available for researchers to study today. Nonetheless, alumnae (and alumni) clubs were pervasive in American high schools, and they are important to recover because they represent a rich site of women’s education and rhetorical practice, merging formal school learning (of “girls”) with informal club-based learning (of “women”) in the students’ home communities. Thus, Louisville’s records—scant as they themselves may be—provide a rare glimpse into the work of a local high school and women’s group in shaping the curriculum available in their community—thereby suggesting potential insights into the experiences of other communities and students as well.

Studying these alumnae clubs is also important for feminist rhetoricians because the high school, more broadly, is a valuable site of research for understanding the history of women’s education. With women in the majority among their graduates from the 1870s until well into the twentieth century, high schools have been an important site of advanced literacy and learning for American women, providing educational opportunities akin to and even, at times, exceeding those of colleges and normal schools in the nineteenth century (Graves xvii). Further, of course, a great deal more women attended high school than college, with women’s high school graduation rates outpacing that of colleges by more than 4 to 1 in 1870 and more than 20 to 1 by 1900 (with both groups expanding exponentially over the intervening decades) (Snyder). The experiences and perspectives of these students are valuable to understanding the history of formal and informal rhetoric and literacy instruction.

Here, I analyze alumnae club members’ rhetorical efforts to reconstruct the culture and pedagogies of the public high school for these students by supporting domestic science instruction. I focus on the early years of the Progressive Era—a term I use as a rough chronological marker of the years spanning from the1890s through the 1920s; I refer to Progressive Era reforms as those heterogeneous reforms initiated during this time, rather than to indicate a singular or coherent ideological reform movement. As historian Daniel T. Rodgers argues, and as this study supports, the political and ideological currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century are too complex and internally contradictory to be cast as a singular “movement” (114). Still, the designation of the “Progressive Era” remains useful for marking a period of sweeping ideological, organizational, and pedagogical reforms in the US, of which high school curricular reform represents a prime example.1

Focusing on the early years of the Progressive Era, prior to the widespread adoption of domestic sciences in high schools, I unearth the tensions and contradictions inherent in these reform efforts by analyzing the public commentary of Alumnae Club leaders. I begin by introducing the club and the domestic sciences school it established and ran from 1898 to at least 1910, at which point domestic sciences were adopted by the high school. To better understand the impetus behind this reform, I provide an outline of its relation to the broader manual education movement, both locally and nationally. I then briefly analyze a notable speech by alumna Anne Hamilton, whose language lays bare some of the pitfalls of domestic science discourse in relation to broader educational goals and trends. I argue that the position of reformers such as Hamilton as alumnae (responding to their own needs as women rather than as students) and as clubwomen (espousing the broader values of the club movement) contributed to increased vocationalism in their conception of domestic sciences for the schools. I conclude by briefly following the adoption of domestic sciences curriculum in the high school and the concomitant social circulation of the club’s values of extracurricular learning and service in the school’s yearbooks by the beginning of the twentieth century, just as domestic sciences blossomed into a national movement. By the first decade of the twentieth century, club work and domestic sciences were increasingly pit against traditional academics of the school, creating a complicated legacy of gendered academic culture in their wake.2

The Establishment of the Alumnae Club

Opened in 1856 as Female High School (alongside Male High School of the same city), the school that came to be called Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) was the first—and for a long time the only—public high school for young women in Louisville, Kentucky. Considered the women’s equivalent of the collegiate courses offered to men through the Male High School, the women’s school instructed students in advanced rhetoric and composition studies alongside the Latin, sciences and mathematics courses that made up what was called an English curriculum (see Lueck). This course of study was framed as integral to the development of learners who would need practical knowledge to contribute to their jobs, communities, homes, and families. But even with its “practical” and “democratic” ethos, LGHS was tacitly an elite institution, available exclusively to white women, largely of the middle and upper classes, and never more than 10% of the high-school-age population until well into the twentieth century3. Students of the school were not insensible to the privilege that their education represented, particularly for women of the time, and they established an alumnae club to further extend their own educations and to benefit other women in their community who may be less fortunate4.

As an early trailblazer among high school clubs, though, the new club’s role and identity was not immediately clear, and there were few models to follow. According to later reminiscences in the school’s literary annual, there had even been initial resistance to the idea of supporting a formal alumnae club for a public high school: though some girls had been holding meetings, the suggestion of “a more formal organization with dues…was received with horror and much talk was indulged in, to the effect that it was not proper for the Alumnae of a public school to ask its members to pay dues” (The Record 23). In short, the idea of paying dues for club membership chafed with the girls’ sense of the democratic values of a free public high school. The prospect of paying dues may have also highlighted existing concerns about social class among students, which were reflected also in the rules of the school board around the time of the club’s establishment.5

For whatever reasons, the young women eventually resolved that it was important and valuable to support the club, dues and all. Established in 1878 under the direction of Principal George A. Chase and then united as a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and a founding member of The State Federation of Women’s Clubs of Kentucky in 1894, LGHS Alumnae Club was formally incorporated in 1898 with a purpose that was both inward looking (towards their shared LGHS experiences) and outward looking (towards their further education and service): “The united efforts on the part of those acknowledging a common Alma Mater, for self-improvement, for the progress of the organization, and for the best and highest interests of the community” (The Record 23). Alumna Anna Hamilton underscored the explicitly educational mission of the club in providing a “further means for the higher education and culture of its members and of the High School girls to bring to them the college and the university, since only a small per cent. of our graduates can avail themselves of the advantages of college life,” and providing the broader community with “the advantage of this same culture development” (Hamilton 11). In this way, the experience of the high school alumnae club paralleled that of college clubs that served to extend the higher learning of their members, as described by Scott: “While women all over the country were busily engaged in trying to make up for their lack of formal education, a small group of women college graduates created an organization for mutual support to carry on the education college had begun” (Scott 121).

The LGHS club supported the higher learning of high school students, alumnae, and the community through various programs. They hosted lecture series and debates on intellectual, cultural, literary, and political topics throughout the year—including a discussion on “Is Woman Shirking Her Duties?,” “The Study of Music Abroad,” and other topics—bringing together students, alumnae and others under the mantle of advanced education (Reports [1895] 82). By the turn of the century, the club was a major force among Louisville’s women’s clubs and a leader in the extension of literacy through the promotion of such public lectures, reading groups, and scholarships, along with other civic, environmental, and educational projects.

The club was also centrally involved in the work of the high school. From at least 1864, the club was regularly featured as part of the commencement ceremonies and other special high school events, and reports of their activities were published along with the annual school board reports for the high school and district. The Superintendent introduced these reports in 1895 by averring that the club’s work had “exercised a wholesome influence upon the school and community” (Reports [1895] 81). The club was even featured regularly in the student yearbook from its first publication in 1908. A full page spread of that first issue pictures the Alumnae Club officers framed by elaborate decorative sketches that far outdid the presentation of the graduates themselves, evidencing the conception of alumnae as a valued part of the school community (see Figure 1). By 1910, the club boasted 215 members, making it among the five largest women’s clubs in Louisville, though membership declined in the years following, down to 137 members in 1916, back up slightly to 186 members in 1918 and 1919, and declining thereafter (Winslow)6.

The inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS's yearbook, features portraits of the Alumnae Club leaders.

Fig. 1. Alumnae Club leaders in inaugural 1908 issue of The Record, LGHS’s yearbook. From the author’s collection.

Domestic Sciences as Manual Education

The Alumnae Club used their intimate relationship to the high school to further one particular educational reform initiative that many clubwomen held dear: domestic science7. Domestic science was an outgrowth of the broader manual education movement, which had circulated in the educational discourse of the Louisville public schools throughout the century, and which culminated there in the opening of a prestigious Manual Training High School for boys in 1892. Inspired by emerging scientific methods and challenging traditional approaches to learning (such as recitations), manual education, as the name suggests, encouraged students to use their hands to discover and engage the world around them. Advocates saw hands-on learning as a way to integrate mind, body, and spirit in a more holistic approach to learning, and so the movement promoted using your hands and body to learn, not developing particular skills or preparing for specific jobs. Indeed, against fears that manual education would limit students’ future prospects to specific manual careers, advocates in Louisville resolutely insisted that “a full course [of manual training] will better qualify a boy [or girl] for any business he may want to follow in after life” (Reports [1895] 89). In alumna Anna Hamilton’s words, the purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12).

Many women’s clubs across the country were invested in manual education as a key issue in education reform as well. Gesturing towards its popularity as a flagship issue for clubwomen, manual education (or manual training) is mentioned in 14 state profiles of women’s club activities in Croly’s The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America in 1898, and is numbered among the primary focuses of federated women’s clubs nationwide.

The manual education movement was the precursor to domestic sciences, which was simply gender-specific manual education8. As historian John L. Rury describes, domestic sciences and home economics courses—established in public schools from the late 1870s—were, like manual training more broadly, also not about what we would call “vocationalism,” but instead were grounded in this earlier, more capacious notion of manual education: “Contrary to the impression given by advocates of home economics later, these early courses were not intended to give women training for the home. Instruction in the domestic arts was simply viewed as another context in which young women could learn manual dexterity and practical lessons about science” (23). For example, Liz Rohan describes the “problem method” of domestic arts and sciences courses as emphasizing the “relationship between thinking and doing” that de-emphasized skills and promoted invention strategies such as a deep knowledge of design as precursors to significant projects (86). As Rohan demonstrates in her analysis of domestic arts curricula, “domestic arts [and sciences] educators made efforts to fuse the development of skill with the acquisition of liberal arts knowledge” (92).

Women saw particular success in advocating for domestic sciences instruction from within their clubs, “establishing courses and departments of domestic science in educational institutions, from vocational schools to the university” (Beard 12). Citing the beginnings of this movement to early sewing and cooking classes in the 1870s, Mary Ritter Beard explains:

Women have been supporters of this movement from the beginning and the Federation of Clubs early took an aggressive position in favor of such addition [sic] to the school curricula. “What you would have appear in the life of the people, that you must put into the schools,” is the idea they had in mind. (11)

Domestic sciences “fit with Progressive ideals aligning work and school and also with the persisting hegemony locating women’s work in the home” (Rohan 88). At the same time, with the strong Progressive Era connections between “the betterment of the home and society,” the idea of domestic sciences moved easily into other realms, such as the work of “municipal housekeeping” for which clubwomen became known, and “graduates of home economics programs did forge their way into the paid workforce” as well (Rohan 88; also see Stage 29). Thus, the interest of the Alumnae Club in domestic science would have reflected a wide range of associations and values that are by no means confined to work in the home9.

Alumnae Club president Mrs. J. Marshall Chatterson got the idea of offering domestic sciences courses at a meeting of clubwomen held in Denver, and by November 1898 fundraisers were underway to support their own alumnae-run school dedicated to these courses (“Kitchen Gardens”; Murphy). The school, which was reportedly the first of its kind established by a woman’s club in the United States, offered classes on the care of the house, laundry, kitchen, dining-room and table, practical sewing, and plain and fancy cooking, targeted to a range of audiences from “society women” and “society girls” to children “in poorer walks of life in order to prepare them for intelligent domestic service in any capacity” (1908 Record; Murphy; “Out Go the Lights”). In offering these courses, the clubwomen argued that domestic science would appeal to all classes of women, and hailed domestic instruction for both homemakers and servants alike as a “solution of the much-vexed servant problem” (Murphy). The school was reportedly popular among a wide range of women, and was well supported by business owners and other prominent members of the community10. 

Building on this success, the clubwomen next desired to incorporate domestic sciences into the formal curriculum of the existing Girls High School, or even to expand their own school into a “sister institution” to the city’s Manual Training High School for boys (Murphy). Indeed, Scott observes that it was a common trend for women’s clubs to lead the way in identifying and addressing public problems or needs before turning the work over to municipal organizations in this way (125; see also Beard 11). A paper by the club president, Mrs. Chatterson, read at the Women’s Club Federation meeting in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1899 explains their goals in this regard: 

This science should be taught in the public schools. The daughters of rich and poor alike should have a thorough training in cooking, sewing and common hygiene. Then the petty trials that burden woman’s life would vanish like snow before the sunbeam. The relation of women’s clubs to household science has been to broaden and enlarge her views. The necessity for an understanding of new civic and industrial conditions has led to increasing interest in all social and economic problems with the science that teaches us how to live. Within the last five years departments of domestic science have been added to the clubs in the General Federation. When club women, schools and colleges work together for so worthy an end, progress is assured and the conquest of public sentiment is at hand. The reign of waste and indigestion, let us hope, will be speedily ended. (“Second Day’s Session”)

Calling for cooperation among the clubs, schools, and colleges aligns these institutions as partners in education and social betterment, a move that was common among women’s clubs and reflective of the Progressive Era more broadly. But this alignment of school with civic and professional practice—the idea, as Mary Ritter had said, that what you like to see in life, you must put into the schools—introduced its own problems. The problem perpetually and increasingly faced by advocates of manual education, generally, and domestic sciences, specifically, was separating the educative function from the vocational or job preparation role of such programs. That is, though advocates insisted that manual training was about developing the full individual—“mind and muscle,” as early manual advocates put it—and not about job preparation, the specter of vocationalism was never far from the conversation in many Progressive Era curricular reforms. We can observe this slippage in commentary celebrating that domestic science students were “now gaining information which will be valuable to each member all her life” (“Learning How to Cook”)—highlighting (quite understandably) the link between today’s learning and tomorrow’s needs. But the emphasis on “information” rather a broader sense of intellectual development and the almost unavoidable slippage into narrowly imagined future applications pulled reformers ever further afield from the ideals of the manual training movement at every turn11.

But what role did the Alumnae Club play in this transformation from liberal arts to vocational approaches, from education to training? What was the nature of this reform effort for these women, and what rhetorical appeals did they make in support of it? In her 1899 speech at the dedication of a new LGHS building, Hamilton explained what this reform meant to her and her colleagues, and how they saw it as further extending women’s educational opportunities in Louisville. I analyze Hamilton’s speech in relation to the larger discourse of manual education and domestic sciences to shed light on the complexity of this educational reform initiative and the role of the women’s clubs in defining and supporting it. Analyzing the discourse of the Alumnae Club below, I argue that the particular position of these women as clubwomen contributed to the slippage of domestic sciences “from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” in the twentieth century (Apple 80).

Anna J. Hamilton: “She is Not Thoroughly Practical”

Anna Hamilton was a graduate of what was then called Louisville Female High School in 1878, the same year Professor Chase, the principal of that school, first helped to arrange an Alumnae Club for graduates. Upon graduation, Hamilton went into teaching, accepting a position in the city’s Third Ward school, where she taught until about 1890, before moving into the position of Commercial Chair and then Principal of the normal school until about 1896. Hamilton returned to her alma mater, LGHS, as head of the English department in 1897, during which time she had also begun serving her first term as president of the Alumnae Club, from 1896-98.

By the time Hamilton took over as president, club work had developed as a powerful force for social engagement and change for women in Louisville and around the country. Hamilton herself twice served as president of the Alumnae club of her high school, and she also served as director of the Woman’s Club of Louisville, president of the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs, vice president of the Jail Matron’s Board, vice president of the advisory board of the Juvenile Court, and member of the library committee for the World’s Fair. These clubs, Anne Firor Scott explains, “provided an alternative career ladder, one that was open to women when few others were” (177).  Scott continues: “As long as women had virtually no access to the professions or business the leadership of voluntary associations was of an extremely high caliber. All the ability that in the male half of the population was scattered in dozens of directions was, in the female half, concentrated in religious and secular voluntary associations” (180). In this way, just as the high school prepared Hamilton for her significant role as a teacher and citizen, the school’s Alumnae Club prepared her for her equally significant work as a clubwoman—identities and roles which overlapped.12

Through appeals to temporal and spatial alignment between the high school girl and alumnae woman, the alumnae club worked to establish solidarity with and influence over the high school. We see these moves in Hamilton’s speech when she applies the intellectual and figurative genealogy of the “elder sister” to describe the alumnae’s relation to the high school girl, before extending it to encompass more literally biological connections as well, asserting that “Two generations have been trained in this school, and it is now not an uncommon thing to see mother and daughter sit side by side in the Alumnae Club” (Hamilton 14). While rhetorically effective, these appeals also enabled a slippage in the identities and therefore the needs of the students and the needs of the graduates, confounding what the mother or “elder sister” needed in later life with what the high school girl herself might need as a student. This is particularly true in relation to the club’s advocacy of domestic science instruction.

By the turn of the century, LGHS alumnae like Hamilton were using their curricular and extracurricular training and the platform of the Alumnae Club to advocate for domestic sciences curriculum in the high school, which Hamilton explains in her 1899 speech. An advocate of a capacious vision of manual training to develop and exercise all the senses, Hamilton explicitly stated, as mentioned above, that its purpose was “not to fit for a certain trade, but to develop the senses, cultivate habits of exactness and precision and to awaken and give exercise to the creative facilities” (12). Instead, it was an answer to what she saw as the limits of “intellectual and aesthetic training,” as only “one-sided training.”

“Our High School girl, alas! Is not well-rounded,” she complained. “She is not thoroughly practical. What she needs to makes her the woman she should be is manual training” (12). This complaint echoes the arguments made by advocates of the boys’ Manual High School in the previous decade, who had contended that the traditional high school “teach[es] boys to earn a living by their wits, and their wits are educated at the expense and to the exclusion of their muscle” (Reports [1895] 89).

Though advocating this broad, non-vocational version of manual education, though, Hamilton herself almost immediately slips into a vocational framing in her discussion, focused not on the development of students’ faculties but instead on their future applications. The current curriculum, she says, is equipped for the “merest minority” and “arranged to meet the requirements of professional life” (12). Already moving into a discussion of appropriate careers and applications that she otherwise disavowed, her critique here is not really that the curriculum is inappropriately vocational by being focused on professional life but that it is focused on the wrong vocation. Instead, Hamilton’s argument forwards home and civic service as the appropriate sphere for woman: “If the hand has been trained only to wield the pen and to be dexterous with crayon and brush, then she is ill prepared for woman’s sphere about which we hear so much” (12). Thus, the “woman’s sphere” of domestic and civic—rather than professional—action is held up as the appropriate vocational goal for students.

Speaking from experience within this “woman’s sphere,” the “elder High School girl,” Hamilton explains, “has discovered that she needs a practical training as does also her younger sister. So she has arranged for a course of lectures on home economies, embracing home furnishings and decorations, plain sewing and hygeinic [sic] cooking” (12). That is, the alumnae’s interest in domestic sciences originated from their own interests first—from the position of worker, citizen and, often, homemaker—not those of the student and learner, per se. This makes sense, of course: the alumnae women were creating programming that reflected their own needs and perspectives, using the club as a platform for that personal and professional development. Plus, the Progressive Era ideology further celebrated the alignment of school and work. But by focusing on the work of the home and club that they were facing in their own lives, the alumnae clubwomen were participating in the process of transforming manual education into vocational training in the high school, focusing not on the broader educative value of “habits of exactness and precision” indicative of the early manual education movement but instead training for housework, in particular. 

Indeed, the effectiveness of the appeal for domestic science may have resulted from confusion about the term itself. Sarah Stage explains that, because home economics could be “whatever anyone wished it to be—conservative or reform, traditional or innovative, scientific or domestic,” advocates “proved willing to trade on traditional views of woman’s place” in order to advance women’s opportunities—“to use traditional terms to cloak untraditional activities” (Stage 9). Hamilton’s speech undoubtedly represents such an admixture of goals and ideals.

But one concern that rises above the rest, to which domestic sciences is most clearly linked in Hamilton’s speech and elsewhere, is the “practical” interests of the Alumnae woman, which are increasingly recognized to be divorced from traditional academics. In this way, Hamilton specifically goes on to argue that “The art of furnishing a home in a sanitary and economical manner is more valuable than Byzantine or Phoenician art, and the chemistry of cooking is more fascinating and more necessary than the study of Browning”—not just proposing an addition but instead pitting the supposedly “practical” against the intellectual and cultural education of the school (emphasis mine, 13). In moments like this, Hamilton’s speech is indicative of the lapse in the discourse surrounding the home economics movement as it developed: that what was once intended to enrich education comes to be set at odds with academics, difficult if not impossible to distinguish from vocational training. What was once conceived as a curricular complement becomes a competition among subjects—an either-or proposition—even within the confines of one speech.

In the words of historian Karen Graves, we see Hamilton here advancing the development of the domesticated citizen over the female scholar by the turn of the century, which came to be evidenced in sex-specific differentiation of course offerings in the twentieth century. As Graves illustrates in a case study of the St. Louis high schools, “Once society accepted that schooling ought to differ among students so as to prepare each for her or his place in the social order, educators across the United States maintained that sex differences were an important factor in determining one’s appropriate course of study.” The differentiation of the curriculum (reinforced by extracurricular activity) “led to academic decline…, altering girls’ high-school experiences, and it served to restrict girls’ access to certain kinds of knowledge, most notably mathematics and science” (xviii). In this way, the advanced intellectual curriculum that had arguably created the engaged, political clubwomen and educators in the Alumnae Club—such as Hamilton herself—was displaced in favor of a more “practical” curriculum increasingly focused on the work of the home. 

By 1908, the graduates of LGHS were no longer learning from one uniform academic curriculum, with training in the rhetorical and pedagogical skills to develop as teachers and active civic participants, as Hamilton had. Instead, their curriculum by that time had been divided into increasingly specialized tracks, including commercial or business programs, a normal (or teacher training) program, and an academic program, which were all separately managed, sometimes administered in separate school buildings. LGHS also later did take on responsibility for domestic sciences programming from the Alumnae Club, offering a system of electives that included home economics by 1911, and by 1913, school leaders in Louisville (and across the country) were calling for a transformation of manual and domestic science instruction into overtly vocational programs (Voegtle 1-2; First Report, 79). Later still, domestic sciences would become further institutionalized into the curriculum on a national level, overseen by legislation such as the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 and the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917. LGHS offered a full four-year home economics course of study by 1924 (Voegtle 1-2).

The changes wrought to LGHS’s curriculum and culture had lasting effects for the school, which continued to develop gendered vocational offerings and even merged with the boys’ manual training high school by 1950. A later teacher and alumnae club leader would characterize the 1899 dedication ceremonies of the high school and the speeches given there (such as Hamilton’s) as marking “a new epoch in [the school’s] career, which was the beginning of increased efficiency, attractiveness and usefulness” (8). That writer remarked that Hamilton’s “prophetic language” about manual education had been “fully verified” by the time of the author’s writing in the 1930s (Girls High School 8).13 And this new pedagogical and civic epoch—which, for many commentators, came to characterize the Progressive Era more broadly—had implications for women’s writing and speaking at the high school into the twentieth century.

The Complicated Legacy of the Alumnae Club Reforms

The story I have presented here traces the fate of one high school’s Alumnae Club as they worked to reform public education in their city. In its early days, the work of the Alumnae Club had been almost indistinguishable from the work of the high school itself, pointing up the significance of such clubs in the history of women’s higher learning as they extended and shaped existing educational opportunities. But the club’s critiques of the high school in time contributed to the attenuation of academic opportunity for women students, both in terms of changed curricular offerings and the alteration of the academic culture of the school. The key here is the (inadvertent) emphasis on vocationalism. Insofar as traditional academics did not lead to many viable career paths for women, appeals to vocationalism undercut the apparent value of these subjects for students as the Progressive Era value of school and work alignment prevailed.

Encouraged to see school as a means to an end and perhaps uncertain about their access to a broader range of careers outside the home, students were no longer encouraged to see their traditional high school subjects as preparing them for meaningful engagement with and contribution to the world around them. Their club work, however, did prepare them in this way. Thus, the values and practices of club work were increasingly divorced from the academic goals that the club’s early mission had embraced, and what emerged in place of these academic subjects, in part, was the club itself, as the social and civic work they engaged there remained one of few viable professional and cultural outlets for women. Thus, in time, a club dedicated to supporting and extending academic opportunity for women became pitted against traditional academics, presenting women with a choice between engaging meaningful civic work and pursuing traditional academic success.

As the Alumnae Club and its high school counterpart, the Alethean Literary Club, became more socially and civically engaged, they increasingly pitted this engagement against more traditional academic experiences in the school. A story written by an anonymous student and published in the 1908 student annual under the title “A Tale for High School Girls” illustrates this tension well. Its narrative evidences changing ideas about gender and schooling among students, which, though not directly addressing home economics curricula, does reflect the culture of the “domesticated citizen” and the values of the club movement, including its emphasis on “practicality” and the particular notions of citizenship that influenced many Progressive Era curricular reforms.

The story begins with a flirtatious, youthful rivalry between a schoolboy and schoolgirl, Tommy and Peggy. Meeting in the street, Tommy teases Peggy for her bright red curls. But young Peggy deflects the criticism of her appearance with a boast about her academic accomplishments, which are a point of pride and identity for her in her early years: “I reckon I can spell heaps better’n you can, and I’d heaps rather know lots than be just pretty,” is young Peggy’s rejoinder (“A Tale”).

As Peggy enters high school, then, she has plans to “walk off with the honors all through High School, make a triumphant entry at Vassar, absorb a large amount of learning, and in the end become a ‘big Mathematics teacher’”—in short, to “consecrate herself to the goddess of wisdom, and become a paragon of learning” (np). Meanwhile, though, she discovers the high school’s Alethean literary club—which, perhaps surprisingly to modern readers, is a more social than academic club, and which serves as the feeder to the work of the Alumnae Club. The club presents a conflict for Peggy, who finds she needs to balance her academic goals with her club goals. She learns this through watching the fate of her friend Julia, who is not invited to join Alethean because, although “she’s smart,” the girls believe she is “bound to be narrow-minded, and unentertaining, when she gives every minute of her time to lessons and improving her mind” (np). Julia is a symbol of the old sense of propriety and academic values that are transforming in the Progressive Era high school. In contrast to the ill-fated Julia, Peggy begins to neglect her studies in favor of participating in club work at school: “She worked to make the Alethean more attractive and interesting than ever. She didn’t criticize. She was enthusiastic about her school affairs. And she was enjoying life in the fullest” (np). 

One day her father intercedes in this development, reminding Peggy of her academic goals and prowess. But Peggy insists that she “couldn’t do any good studying for first honor,” and instead she is learning more in her own way through her school activities, through which she “did more for the betterment of the school than in that long ago Freshman year of unmissed Latin lessons. She still stood high in her school, but in a different way” (np). For Peggy, the idea of social engagement and “doing good” has been fully severed from the idea of academics.

Some years later, just before graduation, Peggy meets Tommy once again on the street, and the students revisit their old rivalry and banter, with Peggy averring that she can still spell better than him. Significantly, though, Tommy gets the last line of story, underscoring the moral of the tale (and, perhaps notably, his own authority to name it): 

I’m glad you’ve made up your mind that knowing lots isn’t the only thing after all….I tell you, they’re the sort of people, girls and boys, that make a school, or a city, or even a nation—that make life. It doesn’t pay to be narrow. It takes just that sort to get the most out of life for themselves, and other people, too. I certainly am glad that there is one girl who has decided not to get the first honor, and spare us from a commencement essay. (1908 np)

In this narrative moment, it is not the academic goals of the school but the broader (and vaguer) citizenship goals of the extracurricular (and club) experience that are celebrated and affirmed. Peggy’s youthful ambition is dismissed as outdated and “narrow-minded,” recognizing the real work of women as not in Vassar or in front of the math classroom but in “how much you learn to know other people, accept their view of things, and understand, sympathize with them” (np). In short, a club for extending higher academic opportunities to women is no longer the needful thing, and instead young women are invited to frame their educations specifically in terms of the domestic and social roles that they will play in their community and in their homes. One cannot help but hear echoes of Hamilton’s speech about “one-sided education,” and the call to leverage domestic sciences and club work to become “what nature intended her to be—a perfect woman” (12).

But if attention to the “practical” subjects at high schools across the country undercut academics, as Graves argues and Louisville’s history supports, the case of LGHS also demonstrates the influence of graduates over their own alma mater, accomplished through their organized action as a club. This is a story of women using an intellectual and academic club to advocate for their own educational advancement and reform, embracing domestic science as an enriching intellectual and practical area of study of which they found themselves needful. In short, it evidences the rhetorical effectiveness of these women towards a cause in which they believed. Though its legacy might be complicated from our present perspective, this story reveals women intervening in higher learning to shape it to their own needs and experiences, heralding an era of domesticated citizens that were, nonetheless, soon to actually be citizens, and—through such club work—equipping themselves to define and pursue their own interests as such.


  1. Further complexities within Progressive-era education reform include the tension between what David Labaree terms “administrative” and “pedagogical” progressives—the former shaping many of the actual policies in American schools from the turn of the century onward, while the latter has dominated the ways we speak of schooling (and also, notably, the ways we characterize what the Progressive Era itself meant, writ large). I use the term Progressive Era as a shorthand throughout this piece without further exploring these contradictions and complexities, though they are important to note.
  2. Other work on domestic science in the field (such as that of Maureen Goggin and Liz Rohan) has usefully highlighted the ways domestic science constituted its own rhetorical literacies and professional opportunities. I do not argue with this claim. In what follows, however, I do hope to show how a certain version of domestic sciences—a specifically vocational approach—produced some of the less inspiring educational outcomes often bemoaned in relation to domestic sciences and manual education in the twentieth century. As I hope to demonstrate, those pedagogies and values of vocationalism are not a necessary aspect of domestic sciences, and are actually characteristic of gendered differentiated education more broadly.
  3. The low enrollments were, in part, due to the fact that there were no compulsory school attendance laws in the state until the 1920s (see Kleber 212).
  4. Like the segregated school itself, this sense of community would also have been largely limited to white women. In this way, the LGHS Alumnae Club is unfortunately in line with the trends among white women’s clubs, which remained unwelcoming to women of color through much of their history (Scott 127).
  5. Specifically, in 1873, the school board added a disciplinary rule that “The pupils of the Female High School are expected to dress in a plain, neat style; the wearing of costly dresses and jewelry is highly disapproved by the Board of Trustees, and should be discouraged by the Faculty. It is hoped that hereafter there will be less ostentatious display of dress at the public examinations and the Annual Commencement of the school” (1873 29). This rule was noticed and ridiculed on a national level, first by the New York Evening Post and then the Boston Globe, before being reprinted in the local Courier Journal (“Girls’ Clothes” 12 August 1873). Changes in the school rules also reflect a growing awareness of students as gendered, and with gendered needs, as indicated by another new rule added at that time that “any pupil may be excused from recitation in any subject upon application of the parent or guardian and a certificate of the family physician stating that the health of the pupil is so delicate as to necessitate a withdrawal from school unless such an excuse be granted” (27). Such a rule, exclusive to the women’s high school, suggests a changing understanding of students increasingly reflective of feminine ideals of True Womanhood—pit against their ability to engage in the exertions of academic effort. In this context, the formation of a club to support the extension of literary and cultural opportunities among students might have taken on additional import, as women’s bodies and activities were becoming increasingly visible at the high school.
  6. Data drawn from several volumes of Winslow’s Official Register of Women’s Clubs: 1910-1911, p. 86; 1916, p. 88; 1918, p. 113; and 1919, p. 130.
  7. As Liz Rohan observes, “[n]aming and describing the categories of home economics is difficult” (83). I use the term “domestic sciences” throughout this piece because it is the term used by the Alumnae Club members and because it is generally presented as an umbrella term for this area of study. I use the term “home economics” or other terms when source material does so.
  8. Manual training was linked also to the kindergarten movement, and the work of the Alumnae Club’s domestic science school and “kitchen garden” is explicitly described as a kindergarten: “The students are taught in the same way that kindergarteners receive their instruction, with toys and gifts to illustrate each subject given consideration” (“Some of the Purposes”). The relationship speaks further to the broader educational atmosphere undergirding early domestic science instruction.
  9. For a complimentary argument on the complicated gains and losses of domestic science instruction, see Jordynn Jack, Science on the Homefront.
  10. Consumerism and consumer culture was a major aspect of the sense of the “home” being imagined in this program from its beginning. For example, according to several news reports and advertisements, the sale of gas ranges supported the work of the club, in part; in turn, the retailer of those ranges gave free tickets to the domestic science lectures to those who purchase a new gas range.
  11. The impulse towards practical applications of education is gendered, raced, and classed, reflective of changing demographics in the public schools; as such, the vocational transformation of the domestic science is also linked to changes in audience. As Rima D. Apple explains, “changing demographics, developments in pedagogical theory, and political circumstances transformed home economics from a female version of general liberal arts and science education to skills-oriented vocational training” (80). In this way, a report in 1900 celebrates: “Probably the most interesting work, from a philanthropic standpoint, is that which is now being done by a large colored class organized in connection with Presbyterian mission work” (“Alumnae Club’s School of Domestic Science”). As another report further explained, “The popular sentiment throughout the city as to the introduction of sewing as a part of the curriculum for girls in the colored district schools of Louisville is that cooking and the rudiments of domestic science are needed far more than the higher mathematics by the average colored child’” (“School Chat”).
  12. Hamilton was acknowledged to be a noteworthy person in her own time. Her active professional travels and activities were tracked regularly in the local newspaper and she was also profiled in Frances Willard’s Women of the Century collection.
  13.  Some of the same language of practicality and efficiency describes Hamilton’s approach to her own English courses when she served as a teacher in the school, when her composition instruction was described as “mak[ing] the work as practical as possible…aiming at rapidity and correctness in expression” (Reports [1896] 119).

Works Cited

  • “Alumnae Club’s School for Domestic Science.” Courier-Journal June 24, 1900: B5.
  • “A Tale for High School Girls.” The Record 1908. TS. Filson Historical Society Library, Louisville.
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  • Blair, Karen J. The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Woman Redefined, 1868-1914. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “‘What Should Teachers Do to Improve Themselves Professionally?’: Women’s Rhetorical Education at California State Normal School Alumni Association in the 1890s.” Rhetoric Review 30.2 (2011): 153-169.
  • Croly, Jane Cunningham. The History of the Woman’s Club Movement in America. New York: H.G. Allen & Co., 1898.
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  • First Report of the Board of Education of Louisville, Kentucky, From January 1, 1911 to July 1, 1912. Louisville: John P. Morton & Company, 1913.
  • Farnham, Christie Anne. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
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  • Goggin, Maureen Daly. 2002. “An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sampler-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Praxis.” Rhetoric Review 21: 309 – 38.
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  • Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope and Care.’”Rhetoric Review 34.4 (2015): 391-408.
  • Jack, Jordynn. Science on the Home Front. University of Illinois Press, 2009.
  • Jeansonne, Christine and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles. “Women, Work, and Success: Fin de Siècle Rhetoric at Sophie Newcomb College.” Peitho 19.1 (Fall/Winter 2016): 28-53.
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  • Knupfer, Anne Meis and Christine Woyshner. The Educational Work of Women’s Organizations, 1890-1960. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
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  • Logan, Shirley Wilson.  Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.
  • —. “We Are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
  • Lueck, Amy. “‘High School Girls’: Women’s Higher Education at the Louisville Female High School.Ohio Valley History, vol. 17 no. 3, 2017, pp. 44-62. Project MUSE.
  • Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.1 (2002): 99–107.
  • Murphy, Ethel A. “Out Go the Lights.” Courier-Journal, November 27, 1898: A2.
  • Record, The. Louisville Girls High School Yearbook. 1908. TS. Filson Historical Society Library, Louisville.
  • Reports of the Louisville School Board. Louisville, KY: Bradley & Gilbert, 1895.
  • Reports of the Louisville School Board. Louisville, KY: Courier Journal Job Printing Company, 1896.
  • Ritter, Kelly. To Know Her Own History: Writing at the Woman’s College, 1943-1963. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.
  • Rodgers, Daniel T. “In Search of Progressivism.” Reviews in American History 10 (1982): 113-32.
  • Rohan, Liz. A Material Pedagogy: Lessons from Early-Twentieth-Century Domestic Arts Curricula.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture vol. 6 no. 1, 2006, pp. 79-101.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.
  • Rury, John L. “Vocationalism for Home and Work: Women’s Education in the United States, 1880-1930. History of Education Quarterly 24.1 (Spring 1984): 21-44.
  • “School Chat.” Courier-Journal May 6, 1900: B7.
  • Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History. University of Illinois, 1991.
  • “Second Day’s Session of Women’s Clubs Federation.” Courier-Journal June 3, 1899: 4.
  • Sharer, Wendy. Vote and Voice: Women’s Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
  • Snyder, Thomas D. 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993. Web.
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  • “Some of the Purposes.” Courier-Journal March 5, 1899: A3.
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  • Talbot, Marion and Lois Kimball Rosenberry. The History of the American Association of University Women, 1881-1931. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931.
  • Voegtle, Anna. “The Louisville Girls High School.” PAMPHLET 379 V887 Filson Historical Society Library, Louisville, KY.
  • Willard, Frances and Mary A. Livermore (Eds.). A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life. Buffalo: Charles Wells Moulton, 1893.
  • Winslow, Helen M. (Ed). Official Register of the Women’s Clubs in America. Vol. XII. Boston: Helen Winslow, 1910. HathiTrust.
  • –. Official Register and Directory of Women’s Club’s in America. Vol. XVIII. Boston: Helen Winslow, 1916. HathiTrust.
  • –. Official Register and Directory of Women’s Club’s in America. Vol. XX. Boston: Helen Winslow, 1918. HathiTrust.
  • –. Official Register and Directory of Women’s Club’s in America. Vol. XXI. Boston: N. A. Lindsey, 1919. HathiTrust.

Feminist Practices in Digital Humanities Research: Visualizing Women Physician’s Networks of Solidarity, Struggle and Exclusion


Feminist historiography of rhetoric has increasingly emphasized recovering not only individual women rhetors but also recovering the communities and collectives of women who work together (Gaillet and Gaillet; Gries and Brooke; Ryan, Myers and Jones). Following this momentum, our project studies a community of early 20th century women physicians and draws on the Woman’s Medical Journal (WMJ)—the only medical journal published by and for women physicians—as a primary source to study how women created community, shared resources, and collaborated across geographically distributed communities. Utilizing both digital humanities (DH) methods as well as critical imagination (Royster & Kirsch), we explore the ecology of this community, its evolution over time, and the rhetorical strategies that supported the building of community.

In particular, we pay attention to how women negotiated solidarity and inclusion, while remaining mindful of exclusions within this community. We ask: Community for whom? Solidarity for whom? From this archive we gain insights about community and collaboration, about the politics of in- and exclusion, and about the affordances and limitations of white feminist solidarity.

We began this feminist project because we admire how the editors of the WMJ deliberately set out to foster the community, collaboration, and professional networks of women. The journal published not only medical research, case studies, and treatment plans, but also notices, announcements, and listings of women physicians, personal and professional; women graduates of medical schools; opportunities for positions, fellowships, internships; advanced clinic training; and international travel. In short, the WMJ appears to have functioned as a print-based form of social media. We identified an opportunity to use DH methods to map key actors, institutions, and centers of activity (and power) to better understand this extensive influential social network platform of early women physicians.

Additionally, once we began closely studying the WMJ, the racist logics of the times quickly rose to our attention. We noticed the exclusions of African American women physicians from the WMJ and from the opportunities presented and documented in the WMJ. We therefore expanded our research beyond the WMJ to deliberately search for sources that document when, where, and how African American women physicians entered the medical profession and created their own professional networks. As Tessa Brown argues in her cultural rhetorics critique of white feminist discourse, there is an “ongoing and unresolved history of white supremacy in the United States women’s activism” (234). We seek to study this unresolved history by researching two overlapping, yet separate communities: those of white women physicians featured in the WMJ, and those of African American women who were largely excluded from the journal and community.

Our analysis is composed of two overlapping methods: first, we employed DH methods to create social network analyses of the community of women documented in the WMJ in the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes of the journal. From this distant reading analysis we make claims about how these white women used the journal as a means of social networking to support one another and challenge sexist institutions. We further support these claims with close reading of one smaller community that is documented in the WMJ in order to highlight the importance of attending to local contexts and analyzing the rhetorical strategies that women developed to support one another.

Because DH methods are a relatively new key tool for feminist historiography, we questioned how these tools may support feminist research practices. We asked, what can we learn about social and professional networks of women by employing DH methods? What do we learn about key actors, institutions, and centers of activity (and power)? What changes and movements can we trace over time? What can we learn when pairing DH methods with feminist rhetorical practices? What remains hidden, invisible, or excluded in the visualizations created via DH methods?

Second, we practice critical imagination to recover the African American women who were excluded from the WMJ. We conducted research beyond the WMJ to integrate African American women physicians into the social network analysis. We employ the feminist method described as critical imagination, a method that calls on scholars to search for and collect all available evidence in order to imagine, create, and visualize what might have been. In our case, this meant creating visualizations of the networks of African American women physicians based on extended research, and then superimposing those images onto the visualizations of white women’s networks. Creating an overlay of these two social networks is a practice of critical imagination that calls into relief the exclusions from the white community as well as the robust, supportive social network that African American women sustained.

Medical Education in Early 20th Century

Medical education in the US should be understood in the context of the Progressive Era (Luker). While this period was a time of dramatic and substantive social and political activism and reform, the changes made did not benefit all Americans equally. There was progress in matters such as government reform, women’s suffrage, scientific management, and academic professionalization. Simultaneously, however, racist laws and regulations were instituted that repressed and undermined opportunities for African Americans. The “separate but equal” racial segregation legalized in 1896 by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v Ferguson decision continued well into the 20th century, as did the Jim Crow laws, white terrorism that led to the Great Migration, and voter suppression.

Racism informed even one of the most crucial strides for women: birth control. Margaret Sanger’s revolutionary work in family planning, birth control options, and women’s reproductive freedom was paired with the espousing of eugenics and sterilization for population control of communities of color. Found throughout the WMJ during this time are racist medical practices and beliefs of eugenics, sterilization, and racist stereotyping.

At the time, white women physicians perceived their tireless efforts fighting sexism to be paying off. In 1900, the editors of the WMJ were buoyed by signs of progress. The number of women in medical school and women practicing medicine seemed to be increasing steadily: up to 5% of all physicians, estimated at approximately 7,000 women total (Morantz-Sanchez, “So Honored So Loved?” 232). However, by 1920 this celebratory climate had dissipated. As early as 1910, the number of women practicing medicine and attending medical school began to decline, and continued to decline for many decades. As medical historian Ellen More writes,

Between 1904 and 1915, many financially weak medical schools succumbed to external pressures to close their doors, while others—taking their cue from Abraham Flexner—drastically curtailed enrollments…Women graduates declined from 198 to 92, a decline of 54% … (“American Medical Women’s Association” 166)

The American Medical Association’s Committee on Medical Education had asked the Carnegie Foundation, led by educator Abraham Flexner, to conduct a survey of all American and Canadian medical schools. Published in 1910, the Flexner Report provided a comprehensive survey of medical educational practices and training standards, which at the time were widely variable. The report led to a dramatic tightening of the medical curriculum along with standardization of educational expectations and scientifically-based training requirements.

As a result, many women’s medical colleges began to close their doors. The new standards required more time, resources, and funding than were available to them. Within this context, the women’s rhetorical strategies in the WMJ evolved to address these additional challenges and foster solidarity among a shrinking number of women physicians within a context marked by increased struggle and marginalization (More, Fee, and Perry, “Introduction”).

In like manner, following the recommendations of the Flexner Report, 5 out of the 7 black medical schools in existence closed. In “Creating a Segregated Medical Profession: African American Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1846-1910,” (a report commissioned by the AMA Institute for Ethics to analyze “the roots of the racial divide within American medical organizations” and published in 2009 in the Journal of the National Medical Association), the authors report that the Flexner Report led to the creation of a medical system that was “separate, unequal, and destined to be insufficient to the needs of African Americans nationwide” (Baker et al. 501) during a time when 90% of the 9.8 million African Americans living in the US lived in the segregated south (501). Further, the authors of the report, Robert Baker, Harriet Washington, Ololade Olakanmi, Todd L. Savitt, Elizabeth A. Jacobs, Eddie Hoover, and Matthew Wynia, note,

In the United States, organized medicine emerged from a society deeply divided over slavery, but largely accepting of racial inequities. Throughout this period, racism was pervasive, and pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority were common. Hospitals, training programs, and many medical and nonmedical organizations, in addition to the AMA, accepted or enforced racial segregation (510).

The AMA further institutionalized racist exclusion in the organization, the authors explain, by using parliamentary maneuvers to shift power to state medical associations in the selection of delegates, which obstructed African Americans from participation. The professional organization of women physicians would also exclude African American women from its founding in 1915 well into the 1940’s (More “American Women’s Medical Association” 169).

The Woman’s Medical Journal in Context

Published from 1893-1952, the Woman’s Medical Journal (later renamed the Medical Woman’s Journal), published research articles that report case studies, best practices, and research on medical findings and treatment. In addition, the WMJ published a range of editorial articles, reports on medical education and the status of women physicians, news items and social announcements, which were listed in sections titled “Items of Interest” and “Miscellany.” By printing editorial and miscellany content, women physicians used this venue to connect an internationally distributed community, announce professional opportunities, amplify their efforts, warn of inhospitable communities, and empower each other by outlining strategies for talking back to sexist institutions. Elsewhere, we closely analyze these announcements, noting that they include successes, collaborations, struggles, cautionary tales, and setbacks (Kirsch and Fancher). We conclude that the WMJ provides a fascinating portrait of the growing women’s medical community where “we find struggle on every page” (25-26). Along similar lines, both Susan Wells and Carolyn Skinner demonstrate, in their rich rhetorical studies of 19th century women physicians’ scientific writing and professional ethos, respectively, that these women had to negotiate the double bind of performing the feminine ethos of caregiving and a medical ethos, which required typically masculine performances that may not have been socially acceptable for women.

To use contemporary feminist language, the WMJ was conceived as being a venue for, by and with women physicians, not only “about” women. In the January 1899 volume, for example, Dr. Eliza Root1, the editor, reflects on the strides that medical women had made and articulates the hopes she has for the upcoming year and new century. She writes:

The Woman’s Medical Journal is yours for such an effort. Our mission is yours, and our columns, our strength, our influence is at your service. Let us make the year eighteen hundred and ninety-nine a memorable one to women in medicine. (10, emphasis added)

Here, Dr. Root calls upon readers to join forces and participate actively in shaping the future of the profession. Further, she urges her fellow women physicians to own the platform that the WMJ provides (“our mission is yours”), share their work (“our columns, our strength, our influence is at your service), show a united front (“with united, concentrated effort”) and advance the medical profession (a year of “great achievements”). In short, the editor appears conscious of her role as an advocate, educator, and sponsor of medical women as demonstrated in her frequent calls for action, participation, and involvement in the medical profession and in her explicit description of the WMJ as a collaborative forum for the advancement of women in medicine.

Yet once again, we note that the calls for community, collaboration, and solidarity did not include women of color. In 1915 the WMJ became the official organ of the newly founded Medical Women’s National Association (MWNA), which was a professional organization supporting women’s advancement in medicine. However, the MWNA denied membership to African American women. As More notes, “Shamefully, on the issue of racial equality in the profession, the MWNA did no more than keep pace with American health care institutions in general, most of which remained segregated until the 1960s… As late as 1939 the organization continued to reject applications for membership from otherwise eligible African American physicians” (“American Women’s Medical Association”169).

Employing Digital Humanities Methods: Affordances and Challenges

In rhetoric and composition, numerous research projects have utilized distant reading methods in order to visualize large-scale shifts in technology (Denson; Palmeri and McCorkle), rhetorical trends (Faris; Gatta; Gries), and social networks (Mueller “Grasping”; Mueller Network Sense). The power of DH methods, and distant reading in particular, lies in the ability to draw on large sets of textual data to reveal patterns, trends, and changes over time that are not visible with close reading and rhetorical analysis alone.

In an effort to better understand the history of medicine, a group of digital humanities scholars explored network analysis as “an object of study, a tool for analysis, a framework for collaboration, and a means of scholarly communication” (Viral Networks 4), not as a definitive representation of a problem or community. Used as a tool for interpretation, social network analysis offers ways for humanities scholars to “approach a problem in a different way, or understand what is missing in their sources or interpretations” (Viral Networks 5), identifying previously unseen connections and correlations. For instance, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Kirsch have reflected about the use of digital tools for studying the WMJ with the goal of “stepping back from the specificity of rhetorical analysis of artifacts and processes of communication to gather other layers of evidence in order to detect larger patterns of action” (“Social Circulation” 176).

We use digital humanities (DH) methods for distant reading because these methods can be strategic, innovative methods for studying women’s rhetoric. Jessica Enoch and Jean Bessette define distant reading as a technologically enhanced form of “not reading” that invites us into “a different way of encountering evidence” and foregrounds visual analysis and interpretation based on “pattern, repetition, and aggregation, a new type of resource” that prompts new types of questions (645).

At the same time, the use of DH methods has been taken up with care and caution by feminist scholars. Enoch and Bessette, for instance, caution us to recognize that distant reading may be counterproductive for the feminist goals of listening carefully and honoring the unique context and challenges of participants (621) and may reproduce some of the gaps and exclusions that are present in the archives (645-46). Like Enoch and Bessette, we hold reservations regarding distant reading and ask: Might distant reading reduce the complex lives of the women associated with the WMJ into simple data points on a graph? How might we attend to gaps or exclusions in the archives and reveal them in the visualizations? How might feminist rhetorical practices work with or against digital humanities methods? We offer our experience with DH for feminist research as an essay, an attempt that we enter into cautiously while recognizing its limitations.

Our methodology is further inspired by the work of Leah DiNatale Gutenson and Michelle Bachelor Robinson, who narrate their journey of searching digital archives for traces of two important African American 19th century educators, Susie Adams and Lottie Adams. As Gutenson and Robinson discovered more erasure than inclusion, they caution that even big data digital archives exclude African American women and conclude “that ‘open’ in digital spaces is not synonymous with inclusion, and in some ways it can actually be ‘closed’ to many underrepresented groups, particularly African American women” (73).

Gutenson and Robinson specifically address how digital archives are created and curated in ways that can perpetuate the exclusion and marginalization of African American women. They write,

In order to assure that the newly emerging field of the Digital Humanities and Historiography of Rhetoric and Composition attracts the work and perspectives of people of color, we must become race-cognizant multimodal scholars….We would argue that if we ignore the ways we utilize technology to construct the digital archives, these virtual spaces may continue to serve the majority culture and status quo rather than provide opportunities for revisionist inclusions. (87 emphasis ours)

Taking up Gutenson and Robinson’s critical approach to digital humanities research, we attempt to practice “race-cognizant multimodal scholarship” by revising and rethinking our distant reading methods to avoid perpetuating the exclusion of African American women physicians. Subsequently, we made the choice to read beyond the original scope of this project, the contents of the WMJ, in order to amplify the work and words of women of color, resounding within and against the discourse preserved in the WMJ. If we had used only the archival material from the WMJ, then our research would not have included any African American women. However, this is not a sign of silence on the part of the African American women physicians. Rather, the African American women were speaking loud and clear. They were largely excluded from the community of white women physicians and their published discourse.

We also recognize our responsibility as white women scholars not to perpetuate the racial exclusion of African American women in our research on women’s rhetoric. Instead, we seek to both recognize the rhetorical strategies that white women physicians employed to build solidarity in the face of severe sexism (Bonner; Morantz-Sanchez), and we seek to recognize the limits of their solidarity by calling attention to the exclusion of African American women physicians. Finally, we recover a portion of these African American women’s voices in order to listen to them speaking back to the community of white women physicians with whom they worked. It is not enough to simply note these silences, but instead, we highlight excluded African American women physicians by employing “critical imagination” (Royster and Kirsch, Feminist Rhetorical Practices) and create enhanced social network analyses that allow us to see two distinct, overlapping yet separate communities.

Analysis I:

Social Network Analysis: Visualizing White Women Physicians’ Networks in the WMJ

The first stage of analysis involved integrating both distant reading through social network analysis and close reading that situates the broader trends in particular women’s lives. As we designed our methodology, we were particularly inspired by Katherine Hayles who advocates for combining both distant and close reading to facilitate different ways of interpreting texts and discourses.

We want to emphasize that our methods began and ended with close reading. Coding hundreds of pages of the WMJ—whether a research article, an editorial, or a miscellany item— required us to gain a greater familiarity with the content because we recorded each and every item. We then used the visualizations to identify trends, patterns, and networks by viewing at a distance. These visualizations represented the discourse from a new point of view, which opened up new questions and lines of inquiry. From this new point of view, we returned to a close reading of the WMJ. This close reading allows us to view the community of women physicians in their embodied particularity and historical context.

We designed the social network analysis to visualize the relationships among people and institutions that are documented in the WMJ and that represent the relative connections among these actors2. We coded the WMJ for actors, defined as any person, group of people, or institution named in each article. Institutions most typically included medical schools and universities, hospitals, professional organizations, and state and regional medical societies, and community groups. The location of each actor on the network is determined by the number of connections: the more connections an actor has, the more centrally the actor is located in the graph.

We coded the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes because these years represent the community at the beginning of each decade3 and mark important milestones for the WMJ. In 1900, the editors celebrate their previous accomplishments and look with optimism to the new century. By 1910, the year of the Flexner Report publication, the WMJ evaluates women’s medical training, cautions women of the challenges that lay ahead, and encourages women to become active members of state and national medical associations. In 1919, the editors report on women’s efforts in World War I and the recovery work that followed, often internationally, and largely under the auspices of the American Women’s Hospital Association.

We also recognize the limitations of our coding choices: we selected only three years and were only able to include a selection of the people and institutions named in the WMJ. Subsequently, our visualizations do not include every person and institution mentioned in the journal. In addition, the editors WMJ did not include every woman physician or every important member of the community. Rather, they made choices regarding who and what to publish. Moreover, we made choices regarding the scope of our research, which affected who and what was included in the project. Hence, the visualizations do not represent the community as it was in reality or in completion. Rather, the visualizations represent a partial version of the community, as curated by the editors of the WMJ and as interpreted by ourselves as researchers.

Reading Social Networks in the WMJ

From the furthest distance, we see a discursive trend towards greater connectivity, centralization, and collaboration within professional organizations. Figs.1, 2, and 3 below illustrate this trend while also including labels that highlight select actors. To view the social networks without the obstruction of labels, see the appendix with Figs, 6, 7, and 8.

Fig. 1. The WMJ 1900 volume social network

Fig. 1. The WMJ 1900 volume social network


In Fig. 1 (above), we visualize a network of people and institutions included in the 1900 issue (see Fig. 6 in the appendix for image without the labels). This social network is relatively dispersed, with numerous smaller clusters distributed across the image. Dr. Elizabeth Backwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, is centralized and connected to many people and institutions, indicating her continued leadership among women physicians.

The institutions that are central and include the most connections are primarily women’s medical colleges, especially Northwestern and the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Often, the editors of the journal would highlight a woman’s professional credentials by listing membership and leadership roles in professional communities. The New York State Medical Association hosted professional events, which many women physicians attended.

The institution with the most connections is the American Medical Association, which women physicians were actively trying to join and participate in. At the time, the AMA appears to be the most significant professional organization for women physicians. Women were technically allowed to become members of the AMA; however, they first had to be selected and approved by their state medical society (Baker et al. 507).

Fig. 2: The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 2. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 2 (above) illustrates the social network of people and institutions included in the 1910 issue (see Fig. 7 in the appendix for image without the labels). The first change in the network shows that, by 1910, the social network appears more densely connected. There are more people and institutions tightly bound in the center of the image. Like the 1900 social network, the AMA is the central professional organization, which indicates its continued relevance for white women physicians. In addition, the AMA Health Education Committee, which produced the Flexner Report, is also central. We note another change in network: women’s organizations appear more centralized and are connected to more people, especially the Women’s Medical Societies of New York and Colorado.

As in 1900, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is a central figure. She died in 1910, and the journal dedicated many pages to documenting and celebrating her long career and many contributions to women in medical professions. Dr. Eliza Mosher also appears in the center of the network, connected to many people and institutions. Dr. Mosher was the long-time editor of the WMJ and worked tirelessly to advocate for women in medical professions.

Fig. 3: The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 3. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 3 (above) visualizes the social network of people and institutions included in the 1919 issue (see Fig. 8 for image without the labels). The most significant change in the network is that, again in 1919, the network appears even more dense with people and institutions. There is a tight, dense cluster in the center with relatively few marginal or unconnected clusters of actors.

We also note significant changes regarding what institutions are central. In 1900 and 1910, national, male-dominated professional organizations, especially the American Medical Association (AMA) and subcommittees of the AMA, are at the center. In 1919, women-led professional organizations, especially the National Medical Women’s Association (NMWA) and the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH), are at the center and include dense connections. We also find it important to note that Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, though not as central and connected, still appears toward the center of this visualization. Even 9 years after her death, the editors of the WMJ continue to invoke her name, reputation, and legacy as a mentor and trailblazer for women in medical professions.

Interpreting Social Networks in Context

It is important to interpret the trends that we see as indicative of a rhetorical discursive phenomenon. In other words, the community appears more centralized and connected in the 1919 visualization (Fig. 3) than it does in the 1900 visualization (Fig. 1). This may or may not mean that the actual community of women physicians was experiencing greater connectivity and collaboration. Rather, this visualization indicates that their rhetorical practices began to emphasize great connectivity, solidarity, and collaboration.

When we put this trend towards greater connectivity in historic context, the choice to highlight women’s organizations in 1910 (Fig. 2) and then even more so in 1919 (Fig. 3) can be interpreted as a rhetorical response to continued struggles and sustained setbacks. The numbers of women physicians practicing began dropping after 1910 and continued to decline for decades. More notes that, “From a steady rise to 6% of all physicians in 1910, the number of women practitioners dropped back to the 5% level by 1920. Never were women in medicine more in need of a powerful, united voice” (“American Women’s Medical Association” 166). In response to this decline, the WMJ placed a strong emphasis on solidarity and collective support for women in medicine.

The primary rhetorical discursive trend that this social network analysis makes visible is the important rhetorical strategy of naming. The editors include long reports naming every woman who participated in an event or contributed towards public health initiatives. They publish directories of all white women physicians practicing in a specific area, city, or hospital. Whenever they named a woman physician, they would also list her professional credentials, including degrees, places of employment, internships, and professional memberships.

The importance of these naming practices can be identified in the figures above. For instance, in Fig. 3 from 1919 the American Women’s Hospitals is central and is connected to a thick network of people. In monthly reports during 1919, the WMJ would list every woman who contributed to the vast, international humanitarian work undertaken after the end of WWI through the American Women’s Hospitals.

The naming practice is an important feminist rhetorical choice. These women likely struggled for recognition in the male dominated journals, hospitals, and local communities. The editors’ use of naming practices—identifying, listing, and acknowledging individual women physicians—serves as a record of accomplishments and praises women for their tireless and fearless work. It also establishes women’s credibility, expertise, and professional ethos (Skinner) and brings visibility to their successes and struggles.

In addition to making visible the work of women physicians, this naming practice served another rhetorical purpose: the WMJ facilitated collaboration. Readers of the WMJ could learn about the work of other women physicians and connect to these physicians and associations for support, questions, and collaboration. The connections that we see in the WMJ were not exclusively on the page. The women were gathering for meetings, to collaborate on public health projects, and to discuss medical as well as social issues. The editors included many invitations to meetings, conferences, and even invitations to tea. By choosing rhetorical practices such as naming and inviting, the editors of the WMJ made visible the labor of the women physicians and facilitated further collaboration.

In order to illustrate the importance of this rhetorical practice of naming, we examine one community of white women physicians based in Colorado. Their network is visible in all three of the years as a cluster that attached to the center through their connection to the American Medical Association and the Medical Women’s National Association. While connected to the center, this community is also located to the side of the primary central cluster, suggesting that the community is tangentially connected to the community based in New York City. In particular, it appears that Dr. Laura Liebhardt was a leader and mentor in this community, appearing in 1900, 1910 and again in 1919 (included in Fig. 1, Fig. 2, and Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Close-up view of Colorado-based women physicians from the “Denver Letter” in the WMJ February 1910.

Fig. 4. Close-up view of Colorado-based women physicians from the “Denver Letter” in the WMJ February 1910.

Fig. 4 (above) highlights this Colorado-based community and their rhetorical practice of naming. We can see the extensive—and powerful—rhetorical practice of identifying individual women physicians and their credentials. For instance, the 1910 February issue contains the annual meeting report of the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, titled “Denver Letter” (35-36). First, the report names elected officers of the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, including Drs. Liebhardt, Mary Phelps, Kate Lindsey, Lucy Wood, and Kate Yont, along with their institutional affiliations and locations (35). This network of officers is visualized in figure 4. Second, the Denver Letter includes the verbatim address delivered by Dr. Liebhardt, who, like the WMJ editor, employs the practice of identifying women physicians by name, in this case, the women working on the AMA educational committee.

Through these extensive naming practices we can trace a rich set of primary and secondary connections—the local Colorado network and the national AMA network of women physicians, with a total of fifteen women identified in the Denver Letter. Moreover, the report includes observations about the social nature of the event, stating that “the ladies then adjourned to the banquet table, where matters previously suggested were more fully discussed and where a delightful social hour was enjoyed” (35). This report represents a rich example of the continued, extensive naming practices employed by the WMJ editors and members of women’s medical societies, allowing us to trace several clusters of women physicians, both at the local and national levels.

Who Is Missing? Not Naming as a Means of Exclusion

While we note the powerful practice of naming, these distant reading methods also made visible the scale of exclusion. The visualization we created do not include any African American women. The editors of the WMJ did not name any African American women at all during the years 1900, 1910, and 1919. Thus, while they deploy a rhetorical practice of naming to support white women, they also deploy a racist rhetorical practice of not naming as a means of exclusion.

While this community supported and advocated for white women, we again ask: who may be missing from this network? And again we find the answer that African American women have been excluded. For instance, in 1901, Dr. Justina Laurena Ford became the first African American woman to be licensed to practice medicine in Colorado. Dr. Ford moved to Denver and began practicing at the same time as Dr. Laura Liebhardt, discussed above. Dr. Liebhardt’s name appears in every single social network. However, Dr. Ford’s name was not included in any visualization. She was not invited to tea nor was she included in “Denver Report” in the WMJ.

Dr. Ford practiced medicine for 50 years, becoming well-known in the city for delivering over 8,000 babies and caring for African American and immigrant patients who often would not be treated by white doctors. Dr. Ford applied for entry and was consistently denied into the Colorado Medical Society, the Denver Medical Society, the Women’s Colorado State Medical Society, and the American Medical Association. This racist exclusion had real effects on Dr. Ford’s career. Only doctors who were members of the Denver or Colorado Medical Societies were permitted to practice in the Denver Hospital. Because the medical societies did not admit African American doctors, the hospitals then would also not allow Dr. Ford to practice there. Dr. Ford was persistent. She applied and reapplied for membership to the medical societies. In 1949, she petitioned again writing, “many patients wonder why I do not go to hospitals. I see it establishes an inferiority complex in their minds. It has required patience and fortitude to endure as I have, from 1902 to 1949” (letter published Riley, 37-39). After nearly 50 years practicing medicine in Denver, she was admitted to Denver Medical Society in 1950, just two years before her death.

In the next section, we will continue to address the extent of racist exclusion and also practice critical imagination so that we do not reinforce this racist exclusion in our archival research.

Analysis II:

Critical Imagination: Recovering African American Women Physicians’ Legacy

Thus far, we have interpreted what we see in the social network visualizations. As feminist scholars of rhetoric, we must also ask: Whose voices are missing? What are the gaps, blind spots, and omissions? As Gutenson and Robinson found, digital archival research may be open to all, but that does not mean inclusive of all, especially for African American women.

Royster’s and Kirsch’s discussion of archival research methods offer us the analytic concept they call “critical imagination,” which asks us to gather all the available evidence and then imagine what might have been, filling in the gaps, silences, and omissions as we learn more about the historical contexts and times. We draw on the definition of critical imagination as first introduced by Royster in Traces of a Stream, which prioritizes “a commitment to making connections and seeing possibility… and functions as a critical skill in questioning a viewpoint, an experience, an event, and so on, and in remaking interpretive frameworks based on that questioning” (83). Following this definition, we first question the viewpoint offered through the distant reading by asking “who is included” and “solidarity for whom”? From there, we continue to practice critical imagination by “remaking interpretive frameworks.” In this case, we sought to enhance our own interpretive framework, created in the first social network analysis, by “making connections and seeing possibility.” In particular, we use critical imagination to remake the critical framework so as to render visible African American women’s presence and contributions to the medical professions.

First, we compiled a list of African American women physicians practicing between 1900-1919. We identified 37 in total4. Then, we used the digital search tool in the Hathi Trust to search for these women’s names in the digital archive of the WMJ. In our original research, we included only the 1900, 1910, and 1919 volumes. In those volumes, the editors of the WMJ did not name, publish, or cite any of the 37 African American women physicians. In order to further pursue the presence or exclusion of African American women from the WMJ, we expanded the scope of our research. We searched every volume from 1900 through 1919 for each of these African American physician’s names.

In the 240 WMJ issues published between 1900-1919, six African American women are named:

  • three announcements of professional achievements (Dr. Nellie Benson 1903, page 95; Dr. Georgia R. Dwelle 1904, pg. 182; Dr. Matilda Evans 1911, pg. 107 and 1915, pg. 42),
  • two death announcements (Dr. Sarah G. Jones 1905 pg. 162; Dr. Susan Maria Smith McKinney Steward 1918, pg. 90), and
  • one article by an African American woman (Dr. Isabella Vandervall 1917, pp. 156-58).

The WMJ was in the practice of publishing an annual directory with names and addresses of women physicians practicing medicine in each state. None of the 37 African American women who we identified are included in these directories.

Critical Imagination: Reading the Gaps

Figs. 1 through 4 were generated computationally, using an algorithm to generate the network. Below, Fig. 5 is based on secondary research and was created using critical imagination. Starting with the list of 37 African American women physicians, we identified how the African American women physicians were connected to each other and to the medical institutions. From that research, we imagined how a social network analysis might represent this community, and overlaid these African American women and the institutions that they were a part of onto the network from the 1910 issue of the WMJ5. From this imagined social network, we highlight how the African American women were often connected to the same schools as the white women’s community, excluded from the white professional communities, and how the women supported organizations by and for African American communities.

Fig. 5: African American women physicians overlay on 1910 network.

Fig. 5. African American women physicians overlay on 1910 network.

The visualization above, Fig. 5, illustrates our critical imagining of a social network that African American women created to support each other and provide care to African American communities. Dr. Rebecca Cole was placed closest to the center of the network because she was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. She is connected to both Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Eliza Mosher because she worked with both of these leaders among white women physicians. The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) is a centralized institution for African American women as well because several African American women earned their medical degrees from this college, including Dr. Rebecca Cole, Dr. Caroline Still Anderson, Dr. Isabella Vandervall, and Dr. Matilda Evans.

While African American women physicians were excluded from many of the professional organizations and also from the WMJ, they supported each other and supported African American communities by creating and leading organizations including the National Medical Association and its journal6. We have tried to make this visible on the social network above. The National Medical Association, the professional organization by and for African American physicians, is connected to four women—Georgia Dwell, Isabella Vandervall, Caroline Still Anderson, and Matilda Evans—because all of these women were members, and both Dr. Dwell and Dr. Evans served as Vice-Presidents. In addition, these women created new organizations to support African American communities, which we highlight by drawing connections between these women and the professional organizations that they helped to found.

Next, we highlight the work of three of these women—Dr. Dwell, Dr. Evans, and Dr. Vandervall—in order to feature how each build professional networks and to highlight their struggles against racist exclusion from white women’s professional communities. We focus on Drs. Dwell, Evans, and Vandervalls’s stories because they are three of the six African American women mentioned in the WMJ, and because they were accomplished physicians and distinguished leaders in their communities.

In 1904, the WMJ included an announcement detailing that

Dr. Georgia R. Dwelle graduated in medicine recently from the Meharry Medical College, Walden University, Nashville, Tenn. She took the examination of the State Medical Board of Georgia. She gained an average of 97 and stood second in a class of about fifty. She will practice medicine at her home, Augusta, Georgia” (182).

Dr. Dwelle (1884-1977) later established the first “mother’s club” to care for and support African American mothers. She established the first African American-serving clinic for venereal disease, which was located in Athens, Georgia. Dr. Dwelle held leadership positions in professional and social clubs for African American communities. Notably, she served as Vice-President for the National Medical Association (Changing the Face of Medicine, Georgia R. Dwelle).

In 1911, the WMJ announced that Dr. Matilda A. Evans (1872-1935) was a physician in charge of the Taylor Lane Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina (107), the hospital she founded in 1901. In February 1915, the WMJ included a second announcement (pg. 42) about the second hospital Dr. Evans founded, St. Luke’s Hospital (“Historic Columbia”). This was the only hospital to care for the African American residents of Columbia, a city with over 10,000 African American residents. Dr. Evans, born in Aiken, South Carolina, grew up amidst the turmoil of reconstruction and the threat of violence from white supremacists. Upon graduating from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, she returned home, becoming the first African American woman to be licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina (Hine).

Dr. Evans built her reputation as a top-rate medical professional and committed herself to advocating for the economic and medical needs of African American communities. As medical historian Darlene Clark Hine explains, “concepts of soul, caring, racial uplift, and alleviation of suffering shaped Evans’s evangelical understanding of her medical missionary stewardship and sense of calling in Jim Crow South Carolina” (17).

Dr. Evans was denied membership and leadership opportunities in many predominantly white medical communities and professional organizations. Nevertheless, she served as the president of a state medical association, the Palmetto Medical Association. She founded the Negro Health Association of South Carolina, a nurse training program with a focus on public health initiatives, and she edited its official journal, The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina.

The commitment of Dr. Evans and Dr. Dwell to organizations for African American medical professionals also enacts the community-centered rhetoric practices that Jacqueline Jones Royster identified in the 19th century club movement among African American women:

From the shared space of club work these women articulated a ‘common good,’ charted courses of action, raised voices in counter distinction to mainstream disregard, and generated at least the capacity—if not the immediate possibility…to make themselves heard and appropriately responded to. By this process, the club women sustained their roles as critical sources of support for the educational, cultural, social, political, and economic development of the African-American community. (217)

Dr. Evans and Dr. Dwell both worked tirelessly within African American communities in South Carolina and Georgia to promote health and medical care, as well as support the next generation of women in medicine, especially the professional development needs of African American nurses, women, and children. Both women worked as actively in the medical professional as they did in education and activism, thereby serving as historical models for what Tamika Carey describes as “rhetorical healing,” the importance of education and knowledge that allows African American women to focus on self-help and wellness campaigns during the last twenty-five years.

In Fig. 4 above, we have highlighted their connections to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and the National Medical Association as well as several medical organizations led by and for African Americans. We could only include a few of these professional organizations on the visualization above. Therefore, we emphasize that these women were active leaders in many more medical communities, as well as in literary, social, educational, and religious communities, as rhetorical scholars Shirley Wilson Logan, Beverly Moss, and many others document so richly.

In the only WMJ article authored by an African American woman, entitled “The Problems of Women of Color” from 1917, Dr. Isabella Vandervall (later Vandervall Granger) describes her experience of both racism and sexism as she pursued an internship in a hospital. She argues that the new requirement of an internship was a major roadblock to African American women. She describes her experience applying to three different internships, all of which rejected her explicitly on racist grounds. One hospital sent her an acceptance letter, but when Dr. Vandervall arrived, they immediately rescinded the offer, saying, “You can’t come here; we can’t have you here! You are colored! You will have to go back!” (158).

Dr. Vandervall, who was at the top of her graduating class, turned to her trusted mentor, a white woman who taught at the New York Woman’s Medical College. In an attempt to reassure Dr. Vandervall, the woman explained that “she had never thought of me [Vandervall] as colored; she simply thought of me as one of the girls…but now that I was applying for a position as intern the situation was different” (157). This teacher’s reaction is significant because we can see the point at which solidarity was denied. The teacher accepted African American women as students and even professed to be “color blind.” However, she would not accept her own African American student to work alongside her as a colleague and practicing medical professional.

Dr. Vandervall writes with conviction, care, and commitment to her work as a physician, especially for other women of color who are so often denied medical care. She ends by directly addressing progressive white Americans:

It casts a serious reflection upon those white people—democratic and philanthropic Americans—who lavishly endow colleges and hospitals and allow colored girls to enter and finish their college course, and yet, when one steps forward to keep pace with her white sisters and to qualify before the State in order that she might do the same service for her colored sisters that a white woman does for her, those patriotic Americans figuratively wave the stars and stripes in her face and literally say to her “what do you want, you woman of the dark skin? Halt! You cannot advance any further.” I ask, is this fair? (158)

The entire letter is a critique of a racist system with a focus on Dr. Vandervall’s particular experience. In the conclusion, Dr. Vandervall broadens her critique beyond her own experience in an indictment of white people broadly and white women in particular. This conclusion is especially potent. Here, Dr. Vandervall’s speech act can be placed in the long rhetorical tradition of Black Women “talking back” which bell hooks describes as,

Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice. (9)

Because Dr. Vandervall is demonstrating her qualifications as a top medical student as well as her rhetorical skill, this letter also fits in the rhetorical tradition that Gwendolyn Pough identifies later in hip-hop as “bringing wreck,” which Pough defines as Black Women’s rhetorical performance of both resistance as well as excellence. In her conclusion, Dr. Vandervall identifies the limits of solidarity: white women may say good words and have good intentions to “give aid” to African American communities, but only as long as they remain a step behind white women. Dr. Vandervall finds that the gesture towards solidarity is revoked when African American women strive to work side-by-side with white women.

By publishing Dr. Vandervall’s critique of racist white women, the WMJ editors make at least one gesture to acknowledge racist exclusion. However, Dr. Vandervall’s experience is dismissed in the next issue. The WMJ published a response in which Dr. Emma Wheat Gillmore offers statements of empathy, while, at the same time, suggesting that the prohibition against African American women may be warranted. Dr. Gillmore both dismisses Dr. Vandervall’s experience of racism and suggests that Dr. Vandervall may lack qualifications. As medical historian More explains, Dr. Vandervall was not alone in these struggles: “few [African American women] could obtain internships; even fewer could secure one at an integrated hospital” (110). Disturbingly, many internships were denied to African American physicians well into the 1940’s.

This exclusion is just one historical example of what Kimberlé Crenshaw has identified as intersection oppression, which describes African American women’s experiences under both racist and sexist systems of oppression. African American women have been and continue to be excluded and marginalized on the basis of both race and gender. In the case of the community of women physicians identified in the WMJ, this oppression means that while white women extended solidarity and support for one another to improve the status of white women, African American women physicians were excluded, as we can see detailed in Dr. Vandervall’s article.

Our research on African American women physicians is just beginning, and we hope to have opened more questions and lines for future research. For instance, more work could be done to study the professional organizations and mentoring networks that these women engaged in to sustain themselves and support other African American physicians. Our research began with the WMJ and the white women’s community. We could ask, how might the social network analysis appear differently and lead to different conclusions if we center on the discourse and community documented in the Journal of the National Medical Association, the professional organization for African American physicians which continues to publish to this day? We have highlighted just three African American women’s lives and careers. But there were many others; more research could study their writing and social networks in order to examine how their medical practice was committed to racial uplift and empowerment of African American communities. In this article, we have focused on the relationship between white and African American women physicians, but further research could explore the complex role of international women physicians who do appear relatively regularly in the pages of the WMJ.


We initiated this project recognizing that early women physicians, struggling against severe sexism in the medical profession, built communities of solidarity that have been preserved on the pages of the Woman’s Medical Journal. As we continued to read and engage with their work, we also saw more clearly the complexity, limitations, and exclusionary practices of these white women and the community they supported. As we conclude this article, we also seek to make visible the limitations and racist practices they enacted, all the while professing solidarity among women physicians. The white women’s discourse both articulated a strong need for solidarity and gender equality, and at the same time their practices refused solidarity with African American women and perpetuated racial injustice. This is a contradiction that continues to plague contemporary feminist communities.

For our analysis, we employed two main methods: First we employed DH methods to create social network analyses of women’s professional networks over time and combined these analyses with close reading to allow for describing specific women in historical contexts. When we primarily close read, we clearly hear women’s calls for solidarity and mutual support, amplified in a resounding way from the pages of the WMJ. However, when we step back and read from a distance, we notice not only changes across networks, social conditions and influential actors, but we can also discover silences, erasures, and missing voices. With distant reading alone, we can call attention to the exclusion of African American women physicians. Two, we employed critical imagination to go beyond simply noticing absent voices and racist practices of exclusion. Instead, we decided to search for contributions of African American women physicians, foreground their writing, and locate their work in relation to the community of white women in the WMJ. Importantly, we hope to begin documenting African American women physicians’ leadership and legacy within the African American community and beyond, thereby suggesting avenues for further research.

This research is especially important now given that white feminist communities continue to fail in efforts to build solidarity with African American women and work for racial justice. As we move forward, we continue to ask about our own feminist communities: Solidarity for whom? On whose terms? Whose voices are included? And whose voices are excluded?


  1. We have added the title “Dr.” for women with M.D. degrees throughout this article because the journal editors themselves used this title consistently in their effort to establish and reinforce women’s professional ethos, credentials, and achievements. Hence, we find it imperative to honor this practice as we tell these women physicians’ stories and accomplishments more than a century later.
  2. In coding, we included up to 5 people and up to 5 institutions per article, announcement or report. For the vast majority of the articles and announcements, we included every person and institution named. However, if articles or announcements included long lists of names and institutions, then we only included the first 5 people and 5 institutions. We believe that our sample size includes the majority of the actors and is large enough to represent the general trends of the community. To make the actual visualizations, we collaborated with University of California Santa Barbara data science student, Raul Eulogia, who created the social network analysis by processing the data in R and then added interactive features using JavaScript.
  3. We included all original content of the WMJ as we coded the years 1900, 1910, and 1919 while noting two caveats. First, two months of the 1919 volume were not available through the Hathi Digital Trust, the digital archive we used for our coding and analysis. Two, we only coded from January through September of 1900 because this volume was over twice as long as every other volume. Subsequently, we coded an equal number of pages from each volume. If we had included every page of the 1900 volume, then the network analysis would be weighted towards 1900. In total, this included 30 issues, 1017 pages, and 745 separate articles or announcements.
  4. For lists of African American women physicians see Bettina Aptheker’s list of African American women graduates of medical school (100) and the Black Women Physician Project hosted at the Legacy Center archives and special collections at Drexel University. We cannot be sure of the completeness of our list of 37 women, given that the historical records are partial, and that the various numbers that we found from secondary sources vacillate between 20 to 100 African American women physicians in the late 19th and early 20th century (see Aptheker 92; Ward 53). Our list includes women physicians practicing or in medical school between 1900-1920 who were included in the Black Women Physicians Project. We also verified these names in secondary sources and double-checked for additional names in research by More, Morantz-Sanchez, and Wells.
  5. We created this overlay for the 1910 network because it allows for the best visual representation: it includes black women’s professional organizations in relation to several regional white women’s professional organizations. The networks are more spread out because the national women’s organizations were not as centralized as in 1919. Hence, we were able to create a visualization that allows us to superimpose two networks without losing readability.
  6. For a discussion of the Journal of the National Medical Association, published by and for African American physicians, see Savitt.


Our research depended on collaboration, mentoring and support from our own broad community. First, this research benefited greatly from the expertise and care of the Kairos Camp faculty, especially Cheryl Ball, Douglas Eyman, Kristin L Arola, Karl Stolley, David Rieder, Madeleine Sorapure, Jeff Kuure and the funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additionally, Patricia Fancher would like to thank the CCCC for supporting this research with an Emerging Research Grant, which offered the gift of time and technical support. The Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara supported undergraduate research assistants, Ari Gilmore and Pranati Shah. We thank Raul Eulogio, data science student at UCSB, for his expertise, time, and patience as we collaborated to create the social network analyses. Gesa Kirsch would like to acknowledge the support of a National Humanities Summer Stipend that offered her opportunity to dive deeply in the Woman’s Medical Journal. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Gesa Kirsch also would like to thank Bentley University for providing research and travel support for this collaboration. Alison Williams appreciates the research and travel support from Chapman University’s Wilkinson College, and the scholarly support particularly from Ian Barnard, Doug Dechow, and Jana Remy.

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Fig. 6: the WMJ 1900 volume social network.

Fig. 6. The WMJ 1900 volume social network.

Fig. 7. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 7. The WMJ 1910 volume social network.

Fig. 8. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.

Fig. 8. The WMJ 1919 volume social network.