Black/Queer/Intersectional/Abolitionist/Feminist: Essay-ish on the “Deep Sightings” of Black Feminisms during Shock-and-Awe Campaigns of White Supremacy (In Memory of Linda Brodkey)

Part examination, part memoir, and part pissed-off elocution, this essay-ish will honor lessons learned from Toni Cade Bambara’s Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions. Bambara imbued her fictional Black characters with “deep sight” into the past, present, and future who avoided simplistic, binary thinking under white settler occupation. “Deep sight” was thus a kind of divining and illumination process, as if ordained by the ancestors and the futures to come, about the most serious threats to the survival of Black peoples. In this essay-ish, I examine contemporary attacks on Black/queer/feminist thought and praxis. I call on Bambara’s “deep sight,” not as a way out or as a way forward, but as an inward-facing political journey into the “deep sight” of Black feminisms into white settler structures.  

The current shock and awe campaigns of white supremacy all around us catapult many folx into fear and despair: book bans of everyone not white, not-str8, not middle class, not-able-bodied; full-scale blockades on abortion/reproductive rights; legal suppressions of affirmative action/DEI/CRT; state-sanctioned assaults on immigrants; heightened and state-sponsored homophobia and transphobia; hyper policing and prison re-funding; the Global North’s genocidal campaigns against Palestine; and so much more to come. These shock and awe campaigns of white supremacy are meant to scare and scar us into inaction, meant to make us feel as if what we had before was so radical in comparison to now, meant to make us demand less the next time around, meant to make us forget our own power, meant to confuse us about the rootedness of these oppressions in and for white supremacy, and meant to especially quiet those still new to calling out injustice in loud ways. These campaigns also compel us, however, towards “deep sightings” of our actual convictions, real understandings of white settler culture, true reckonings with a past that never left us, and cyphers of coalition-building that don’t mistake clout-chasing and pick-me-visibility for radical redirections of our world. 

This ISH… 

I am calling this writing an essay-ish.  I am deliberately distinguishing my style, flow, and purpose from the individualistic model of literacy, consciousness, and writing that the white, western essay has always represented (Adorno, Lopate). From essays by Montaigne up to Barthes, form and politics have been deeply rooted in a very specific western, patriarchal, masculinist culture, what Sylvia Wynter calls “Man” who over-represents his local self/reality as all of what counts as human while denying humanity to everything else. For me, the essay is the cultural artifact of “Man’s” expression. Closely linked to “the essay” is the objective science report, that style of dull writing that we see too much of the social sciences (introduction, literature review, methods, findings, conclusions) where you report on an object as an absolutely knowable thing, which is just more of “Man’s” preoccupations and arrogances (Kynard, Lather and St. Pierre). This essay-ish ain’t none of that and is clear on why. 

Black queer feminist essay-ish has subverted “Man’s” stylings whether we are talking about the word-work of Audre Lorde or Charlene Carruthers. I link myself to this Black queer feminist break and intervention and call it essay-ish — noun, adjective, and adverb. With the western essay now close to extinction, essay-ish nods to it, yes, but it ain’t tryna replicate, be, and move like it. Essay-ish is politically personal, sassy-attitudinal, coalitional, colloquially rooted in its own here and now, unafraid, Shirley-Chisholm-like in its unbossed and unbought reality, and unapologetically Black.  

I am also calling up ish here in the way Black Language uses it as shorthand for shit. As a compositionist, I am laying down on the line that every word, image, and styling that we put on the page, screen, and world are deeply embedded in centuries of power relations. So, yeah, that ish.   

Coalition with multiply marginalized communities and histories ain’t possible if we cannot even unthink and unwrite a way away from Man’s expressions (Weheliye). So, yeah, essay-ish. 

Red Records 

From jump, imagining that our current political targeting is different from the worlds in which we had already lived smacks of a certain kind of white settler forgetting and white liberalist denial (Grande). I began my teaching career as a high school teacher in 1993 in the South Bronx.  From 1993-2019, I taught a multitude of high school and college students, predominantly Black and Brown, across Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Newark. From 2019 to today, I teach at a predominantly white college in an English department where my focus is on the histories of Black education, Black literacy, Black feminist teaching, and Black writing lives; I work in the state of Texas that boasts, amongst many other white supremacies, the most banned books in the country and the ancestral home of Juneteenth. For thirty years now, I have taught about and because of a whole range of Black Freedom dreamers (Kelley). And in those thirty years, my students have come to my classrooms having heard very little, if anything, about the Black folx we read and learn about.   

I could give countless examples, but I’ll lay my soul-memory down here in this essay-ish with Ida B. Wells, the activist and journalist most noted for her relentless research and social action against lynching, white feminists’ racism, and racist institutions (Royster). Based on her life and impact at the intersections of emancipation, reconstruction, post-reconstruction, world wars, Yellow Fever, the Great Migration, the New Black Press, the New Negro Movement, Black Women’s Club Movement, Plessy vs. Ferguson, and women’s suffrage, Wells’s life and writing are central to many of the classes that I teach (Berry and Gross). In every class where I bring Ida B. Wells to come sit with us, I always ask the same question: who has heard of Ida B. Wells and what have you learned and read? I’ve had thirty years of silence. I have been teaching non-stop since 1993, upward of at least five thousand students given the heavy teaching loads and large class sizes I have faced in many of my teaching positions—and that does not even include the community literacy programs I have worked in. Without ever a single semester off, I have never met a student in any semester who has known deeply about Ida B. Wells’s life and writing.   

In 2020, I did an online workshop for high school teachers about teaching with Ida B. Wells in Texas, because Ida B. Wells is/was part of the Texas content standards. I’ve been in Texas since 2019 where at least 40% of my undergraduate students have attended Texas schools. Ain’t nan one of them heard of Wells and she is IN THE CURRICULUM. I stress this point because you can be IN the curriculum and IN the state standards and still NOT BE IN-CLUDED.   

Image 1: Image of a slide and activity from my online workshop for high school teachers on Ida B. Wells. In the background is a patterned design in purple, gold, black, and white, and in the center is a photograph of Wells. Around the photo are black rectangles, each with a topic related to Wells written in white font.  

Image 1: Image of a slide and activity from my online workshop for high school teachers on Ida B. Wells. In the background is a patterned design in purple, gold, black, and white, and in the center is a photograph of Wells. Around the photo are black rectangles, each with a topic related to Wells written in white font.

And truth be told, unless I have a graduate student who majored in Black Studies, and sometimes not even then, not even graduate students have read Ida B. Wells’s actual words. A book ban or curricular moratorium on texts that center Black feminists like Ida. B. Wells is, at best, redundant as far as I can see.   

I ask students about these learning backgrounds not to shame or judge them, their teachers, or their schools. That’s not my point. Instead, I ask them to really sit with Wells’s impact and ideas and ask themselves why she has been kept hidden from them. I ask students to let her become a new intellectual and political ally to the world they might imagine. This is not about coverage of names and events young people need to know. Though that’s important, you don’t learn about Ida B. Wells to merely memorize her name and historical contributions; you learn about her to develop the audacity and confidence of Black freedom dreaming. What this means for me as a teacher is that I treat any class about the work of the freedom dreams of Black feminist/Black queer folx as an introductory course. It doesn’t matter if it’s sophomores or seniors, high school, college, or PhD students. As far as I am concerned, Black freedom, Black women’s activisms, Black queer critique, and Black feminist creativity have always been banned from schools because my students arrive to my classrooms having experienced none of that. Thirty years and still no one can tell me who Ida B. Wells is even when the state was requiring her! So this next phase of the newest White Supremacist Shock-and-Awe Campaign will look no different than the last 30 years for me. 

I want to also add here that support, praise, or acknowledgment of my Black content has also never happened in any institution where I have taught. It feels like every insult and white-passive-aggressive form of sabotage has been hurled my way. The fools I have worked with have never been successful in derailing my teaching convictions and practices, but they are always foolish enough to keep trying. As far as I am concerned, there has never been a moment when my Black content was welcomed by anyone except by my students. And as it ends up, that’s all you really need. 

While it will be important to argue and fight back on overt white supremacist setbacks in our current moment, we must know we are fighting for much more. As just one example, DEI on our campuses has never meant radical access and educational transformation as Sara Ahmed has continually shown us. Truth be told, no DEI office where I have ever taught has supported my curricular work. The attacks on DEI must be challenged, yes, but, at the same time, we can’t act like that is the sum-total of our demands for a just education. Book bans on queer, disabled and/or BIPOC authors represent a kind of ethnic cleansing that we must attack endlessly in many ways. However, even when/if the book bans are lifted, curricular justice and equity will not be in our purview (Dumas). 

Because I identify as a Black feminist educator, agitator, and dreamer, I understand that transformative classrooms and coalition work require, above all else, imagination. No one today has experienced a western-made institution that regards Black women/ femmes/ gender-expansive folx as fully human and yet we must live and understand ourselves as such anyway.  That is the most imaginative work we can ever do. To think and move beyond white settler structures, we’re going to have to think and be creative while the chokehold of our current political climate aims to block radical political imagining by making us fight in small ways and for small things. 

The latest removals of Blackness/Black Feminism/Black Queer Critique from our knowledge systems, schools, books, and classrooms are hardly anything new. In fact, our own discipline has actively participated in the day-to-day work of whitewashing, no matter how many position statements are circulated (Prasad and Maraj). Instead of turning towards institutions for redress and repair, I turn to Black feminist ideals of freedom and creative imagination.   

The Plagiarism of White Supremacy 

I toggle a range of emotions and responses these days. First, there is obvious worry and rage. Behind these performances of moral authority and care for young people is a white supremacist core that is backlashing at our most recent Movements for Black Lives which was more Black feminist and Black queer at its origins than any movement the U.S. has seen (Ransby, Cohen). The current linking of anti-Blackness and anti-queerness in this moment is thus not a coincidence. And it is no coincidence that the states that with the largest influx of a Great Migration BackSouth/BlackSouth are acting the biggest fools. Just like what Ida B. Wells chronicled in her writings, Black Freedom Movements have always been met with a vicious Post-Reconstruction that re-invents violent methods of Black containment (DuBois, Rodriguez). At the close of the 19th century, that meant lynch law segregation (Marable). At the close of the 20th century, that meant the prison industrial complex (Gilmore). What genocidal processes will white supremacy invent again?  

Alongside my worry and rage, I gotta be honest: there is also deep boredom for me. I can’t even lie about that. White supremacy is incredibly uncreative and unimaginative. All it seems to do is plagiarize itself and regurgitate its past, failed attempts. If you go back to the banned books of the 1980s in the backlash against Civil Rights Movement gains, you will see the same white supremacist stylings. The names of the authors who were banned in the 1980s, many of whom Judy Blume anthologized, are the same folx banned now. The names on the list of banned books ain’t even new— the list just got rebooted.  

I grew up in the Reagan era, first Bush ambush, Tea Party, and so many conservative, super-funded right-wing think tanks that I couldn’t keep up with them. It was a political machine deadset on denying any and all life-chance opportunities to Black peoples, that insisted there were no Civil Rights injustices leftover, that worked day and night to convince us racism was Black people’s own invention cuz white folx were naturally, meritocratically ahead and just.  Folx have just plagiarized this mess from the last time. As Black Diaspora freedom fighters from Sylvia Wynter and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to Walter Rodney always promised though: a colonizing system always produces radicals who slip through its cracks and hack back on all of what the empire so falsely inscribes.  

Anti-DEI/CRT-typa legislation surely is not new to Texas, my current home either. We jump-started this 21st century knee-deep in white hostility towards anti-racist rhetoric, literacy, and writing instruction. If there was ever a time to really understand race and the discipline of rhetoric-composition studies, this is it. No one could really be surprised by today’s deployments if they took the time to remember and honor the legacy of Linda Brodkey! As a reminder that I should not have to offer, the white conservative right came for Brodkey’s neck something serious at the University of Texas at Austin in 1990. It is a lesson well worth remembering, because it wasn’t the state, the governor, or conservative students and parents who sold her out: it was the white literary faculty of her English department. Yeah, remember that because the R&B group, TLC, posed a good question that applies to many of yall: what about yo friends? In 1990, Brodkey and a committee of colleagues set out to redesign the first-year writing curriculum to focus on reading and writing critically about difference in the context of anti-discrimination law and discrimination lawsuits buoyed by what I see as Brodkey’s radical feminist consciousness.  The language of anti-racism and CRT curriculum wasn’t as readily available to them then, but that is surely what they were tryna create. The majority of the then English department supported the new curriculum; however, a small group of literary faculty went to the ultra-right conservative press and think tanks to complain. Unsurprisingly, it turned into a media storm real fast, what some at the time considered the most visible, public argument that writing studies had encountered. The UT administration tucked its tail between its legs and canceled the curriculum without any regard for the expertise of rhetoric-composition faculty. When I began graduate school in 2000, folx were still very much talking about what “happened in Texas.” Most scholars in the discipline wanted to talk about making sure colleges saw rhet-comp scholars as the ones with expertise in writing instruction and/or debate whether Brodkey and crew handled this moment in rhetorically savvy ways. The fear of Texas was quite palpable. After all, if this is what they did to white feminists, what they gon do to women of color like me? Let’s not kid ourselves here: it took almost thirty years before feminists of color really came back in the numbers that we see today in rhetoric-composition studies in Texas and it’s still entirely too white. And you’d be hard-pressed to find large numbers of white feminists in Texas (or in the discipline) going as hard in the paint as Brodkey did. We would do well not to repeat the mistakes of our discipline’s past by de-racing the history of white-washed rhetoric-composition studies, disremembering actual departmental perpetrators of violence against rhet-comp, pretending as if there is no anti-comp sentiment everywhere we turn, and acting as if there is a rhetorically effective way to persuade white supremacy to be inclusive of the genres of human, as Wynter would call it, that it hates and profiles. We gotta do better than that in the fire this time. 

White supremacy never gives us something new. It is never logical. It revolves around lies, distortions, and misdirection. And it always underestimates our resistance.   

Stuck Between a Rock and an Even Harder Place 

This moment is also a bit like being caught between the proverbial rock and a hard(er) place. On the one hand, we have a reinvigorated and emboldened conservative right whose goal is to shut down anything and anyone who centers histories and ideas that are not white, not-str8, not middle class, not-able-bodied. On the other hand, we have performativity and appropriations of Black feminist activisms that are equally dangerous, violent, and anti-black. 

In a recent context, I witnessed support of a job candidate that signaled exactly the kind of violence that performative allyship represents. The candidate was presented, especially to gullible graduate students, as someone with expertise and experience in carceral studies, prison writing studies, abolition, and community literacies. I knew, however, like an old Keith Sweat song, that sumthin sumthin just ain’t right.  Here was a white-male-passing PhD graduate in literary studies who had been incarcerated for 4.5 months for felony narcotics distribution, was now a self-proclaimed prison writing educator, and offered no analysis anywhere of racism or their own whiteness. It started with a full pause for me. 4.5 months of jail-time for narcotics distribution and then relatively easy educational access is literally NOT the experience of any Brown or Black person in the U.S., many of whom are still caged away for minor marijuana possessions even in places where cannabis is now legal. At the exact same time that this candidate did a four-month bid, Kalief Browder was an 18-year-old young Black man from the Bronx, NY who was held at Rikers Island jail for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack that no one has seen or been able to confirm to this day. Unable to afford his $3,000 bail, Browder remained at Rikers for three years awaiting trial. He spent almost two of those years in solitary confinement where he was brutally abused and attempted suicide multiple times. Two years after his release, Browder hanged himself at his parents’ home and is now the ancestral catalyst for activism against the prison industrial complex on the East Coast— a hashtag before there were hashtags. Needless to say, my questions about 4.5 months jail time for a white man’s narcotics distribution are not unfounded given the structural racism of the prison system. 

And I wasn’t wrong. The candidate got busted with distribution-weight cocaine and pills in a police raid of their apartment in the early 2000s in a large southwest metropolis with a prison system as notoriously corrupt and violent as Rikers Island. Mandatory sentencing in that state was, at the time, five years minimum in federal prison for this felony with a maximum of life in prison (states really only began reducing lifetime sentences for drug-related, non-violent offenses in 2021 when they had no choice but concede this level of sentencing was designed to cage Black and Brown men indefinitely). This candidate didn’t have to face any of that: they got 4.5 months in the county jail (because they couldn’t afford bail) and so faced no sentencing or prison time. That kind of grace and leniency isn’t extended to even white people by the prison system. There is only one way to get that kind of non-sentencing: snitching on everything and everyone, which most surely meant Brown and Black peoples. I don’t mean this as a mere exaggeration, suspicion, or doubt. This is fact. The use of criminal informants is highly concentrated in drug enforcement which is, in turn, highly concentrated in poor, Black communities who have been overexposed to snitching as a central methodology of incarceration (Natapoff). After all, U.S. v. Singleton in 1999, a drug charge case, made it legal to bribe witnesses to secure testimony. The state has a long history of rewarding any eyes and ears for testimony against Black communities. The criminal justice system has used informant/snitches to hyper-criminalize Black urban communities since 1980s Reaganomics and is the residue of COINTELPRO’s protracted targeting of the Black freedom movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Mian). Snitches are a central part of structural racism and the prison industrial complex. Either no one in the department had any direct/personal/familial experiences with the actual prison system, has never listened closely to rap or trap, had no real connections to the most vulnerable Black communities, or they were all acting concertedly to protect the innocence and virtue of the white-passing man in front of us, much like the prison system had.  

I looked all through this candidate’s materials for a serious racial analysis and grounding in carceral studies and found nothing. The candidate even went so far as to share incarcerated students’ writing in an online magazine with details describing the contexts of their incarceration. There was no IRB protocol or methodology, even though universities acknowledge incarcerated people as a protected class and do not readily support research about them. The incarcerated folx who the candidate published about could not have legally given their permission to have their writing and sentencings described with such detail in an open, online magazine. In sum, we were co-signing this candidate’s own Tuskegee-esque experiment.  

I was further alarmed by this candidate’s outright appropriations of Black feminisms since that alone is making this topic possible for graduate study today. “Carcerality” and “abolition” were never grounded in Black feminist activism at any point. At one point, the candidate even chauvinistically called abolition scholarship solely about “abstraction” and “stats.” To stand in front of a whole-ass room in 2023, after writing a dissertation about prison literature including your own racially-white-anointed 4.5 months in a county jail, call Ruth Gilmore’s work abstract, and reference your own work as effective/narrative/personable is a level of misogynoir that I should never have been subjected to (and this is what I said in my  lengthy letter about the candidate, most of which is included here). Even more concerning is that one of the candidate’s publications listed on the CV plagiarized a prominent Black feminist scholar’s book. The candidate did not quote/attribute this scholar anywhere and yet the candidate’s text even mimics the scholar’s title, form, and Black cadence– a text that has wide distribution in prisons, amongst folx who are formerly incarcerated, within work centering Black rhetorics/feminisms/composition studies, and especially for scholar-teachers of community literacies. Hijacking the life-story of a Black woman/professor who has survived sex trafficking and Reagan-era poverty/addiction and doing so for white, personal gain is egregiously violent. The only compositionists who the candidate ever deemed fit to even reference were the lily whitest men of the field. For faculty to think you can just mentor/help all that away is to act as an accomplice to this racism.  

When pushed further to discuss abolition, the candidate offered his pedagogy of teaching writing in prison to “them” as the penultimate way to end the entire prison industrial complex and free all these Brown and Black folx from prisons. You can’t do anything but feel sorry for the graduate students who believed this was someone with expertise in community literacies, when literally everything this candidate had to say about the politics of teaching and writing has been challenged for decades in our discipline. Even at our worst, rhet-comp folx do not co-sign white-passing men’s convictions that they alone can unravel an entire prison industrial complex rooted in plantation logics (McKittrick) with the wonders of their approach to writing instruction.  I mean, really. You don’t even need fiction when real life is this outrageous: thief Black women’s work to commit to ongoing anti-black racial violence. 

“It’s Got To be Real” 

So here we are. State-sanctioned violent actors can target abolitionism and radical feminisms in our classrooms with impunity; and at the exact same time, academics can appropriate Black feminist activisms to sustain their anti-blackness and call themselves the most radical answer to social, educational inequity.  

For sure, our schools are under siege. But wasn’t nothing deeply transformative happening in those schools before. They have been hell-bent on maintaining institutional whiteness even without a conservative bogey-man to call up. 

When it all falls down, I still have faith and energy. There was that brief moment circa 2020 when George Floyd was murdered during the pandemic and a performative version of anti-racism swept up the nation. Thankfully, actually, those empty gestures are now gone. Those same people who adorned anti-racist and anti-colonial pedagogies like a new fashion statement ain’t ready for the real risk-taking that kind of work has always entailed. In the words of Cheryl Lynn, it’s got to be real! The rest of us will withstand the backlash because we were risking our lives all along anyway. In our coalitions, we need to remind ourselves that we belong to longstanding traditions of creating spaces and practices that exist beyond— way way way beyond— the current ordering of things and its utter inability to ever contain us. 

Works Cited 

Adorno, Theodor. “The Essay as Form.” New German Critique, no. 32, 1984, pp. 151-171. 

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

Bambara, Toni Cade. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. Pantheon, 1996. 

Berry, Daina Ramey and Kali Gross. A Black Women’s History of the United States. Penguin Random House, 2020. 

Blume, Judy. Places I Never Meant To Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers. Simon and Schuster, 1999. 

Brodkey, Linda.  “Making a Federal Case Out of Difference: The Politics of Pedagogy, Publicity, and Postponement.”  Writing Theory and Critical Theory, edited by John Clifford and John Schilb, MLA, 1994, pp. 236-261. 

Carruthers, Charlene. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. Beacon Press, 2019. 

Cohen, Cathy and Sarah J. Jackson. “Ask a Feminist: A Conversation with Cathy J. Cohen on Black Lives Matter, Feminism, and Contemporary Activism.” Signs, vol. 41, no. 4, 2016, pp. 775–792. 

Dillon, Stephen. “ ‘I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies’: Black Feminism, Vengeance, and the Futures of Abolition.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 28, no. 2, April 2022, pp. 185-205.  

DuBois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1935. 

Dumas, Michael. “Beginning and Ending with Black Suffering: A Meditation on and against Racial Justice in Education.” Toward What Justice?: Describing Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education, edited by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Routledge, 2018, pp. 29-45. 

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007. 

Grande, Sandy. “Refusing the University.”  Toward What Justice?: Describing Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education, edited by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Routledge, 2018, pp. 47-65. 

Kelley, Robin. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Beacon Press, 2002. 

King, Tiffany L.  “New World Grammars: The ‘Unthought’ Black Discourses of Conquest.” Theory & Event, vol. 19 no. 4, 2016. 

Kynard, Carmen.  “‘Oh No She Did NOT Bring Her Ass Up in Here with That!’ Racial Memory, Radical Reparative Justice, and Black Feminist Pedagogical Futures.”  College English, vol. 85, no. 4, 2023, pp. 318-345. 

Lather, Patti and Elizabeth St. Pierre. “Post Qualitative Research.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 26, no. 6, 2013, pp. 629-633.  

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. First Anchor Books, 1995. 

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Crossing Press, 1984. 

Marable, Manning. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society. South End Press, 1983. 

McKittrick, Katherine. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe, vol. 17 no. 3, 2013, p. 1-15. 

Mian, Zahra N. ““Black Identity Extremist” or Black Dissident?: How United States V. Daniels Illustrates FBI Criminalization of Black Dissent of Law Enforcement, from Cointelpro to Black Lives Matter.” Rutgers Race and the Law Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 2020, pp. 53-92. 

Natapoff, Alexandra. Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. NYU Press, 2010. 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Heinemann Educational, 1986. 

Painter, Nell. Soul Murder and Slavery.  Baylor University Press, 1995. 

Prasad, Pritha and Louis M. Maraj.  “‘I Am Not Your Teaching Moment’: The Benevolent Gaslight and Epistemic Violence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 74, no. 2, 2022, pp. 322-351. 

Ransby, Barbara.  Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. University of California Press, 2018. 

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, 1973. 

Rodriguez, Dylan. “Another Moment in the Long History of White Reconstruction.” The Real News Network, 28 Aug. 2017, 

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of A Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. 

Weheliye, Alex. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke UP, 2014. 

Wells, Ida B. (1894) The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States.Donohue & Henneberry, 1895.  

—. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.  New York Age Print, 1892. 

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument. CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, Fall 2003, pp. 257-337. 

Coalition Building Between Subjectivity and Instrumentality: Reflecting on My Experiences in a Militant, Trotskyist Women’s Rights Group in the 1990s


This article contributes to conversations about how coalitions shape relationships among people dedicated to social change by reflecting on some of my experiences in the mid-1990s with the National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition (NWROC)—a militant, Trotskyist, women’s rights organization. In this article, I note that feminist and queer/Latinx scholarship and Trotskyist approaches depict coalition building in similar ways. They agree that coalitions bring together groups of people with diverse perspectives in order to take joint action around an issue, and they support building coalitions through temporary alliances and ongoing relationships. However, they raise different questions about when a group ceases to be a coalition and becomes something else, and why that matters. Guided by this discussion, I reflect on my experiences with NWROC, highlighting my concerns about their approach. In the end, I offer some considerations for teacher-scholar-activists engaged in coalition building.  

Feminist and Latinx/Queer Approaches to Coalition Building  

To contribute to ongoing conversations about the term coalition and attendant strategies for building them, I begin by tracing some of the ways that the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (the Coalition) use it, noting that its use is entangled in the organization’s thirty-year history. Briefly examining this history and the shifting use of the term helps me consider why feminist and queer/Latinx scholarship on coalition building and Trotskyist approaches differ regarding the kinds of relationships that coalitions build.  

Since its inception in 1989, the Coalition has long grappled with both its mission and putting this mission into practice by growing the Coalition and expanding the resources that it offers members. At times, these conversations have made it into Peitho or been included in blog posts published to the Coalition’s website. For example, special issue editors Jessica Enoch and Jenn Fishman coordinated Peitho volume 18.1 in 2015, which offers reflections on the Coalition and its trajectory for its 25th anniversary. Written by long-standing members and leaders, these reflections include “key concept statements.” Cheryl Glenn and Andrea A. Lunsford contributed a statement on the term “coalition,” which begins with a discussion of why the word appears in the group’s name. In the statement, Glenn and Lunsford advance the notion of a coalition as “…a group of distinct individuals who come together to cooperate in joint action toward a mutual goal (or set of goals)—not forever, but for however long it takes” (11). The Coalition serves as a bridge “across differences in academic rank and standing (including students), institutional type, research agendas, teaching interests, and cultural ethnic/backgrounds” (11). Further, they use their definition to argue that expanding the Coalition means “being mindful once again of the importance of difference and of listening long and hard to those with whom we wish to join causes” (12). For the authors, expansion relies on a theory of coalition building and a strategy for building them where relationships among members and potential allies are depicted as paramount.  

Other work published by Peitho that deals with building the Coalition grapples with the impetus behind the organization and the steps that have sustained it, including establishing governing bodies, task forces, and special committees as well as a structure for membership (Gaillet; Graban, et al.; Hidalgo); crafting internal policy documents like a constitution, by laws, strategic plans, and the like (Graban, et al.); moving Peitho from a newsletter to a peer-reviewed journal (L’Eplattenier and Mastrangelo); creating the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference (Gaillet; Graban, et al.; Hidalgo); obtaining 501c3 status (Graban, et al.); reshaping the Coalition’s mission and subsequently renaming it (Bizzell and Rawson; Graban, et al.); and documenting CFSHRC’s long-standing relationship with the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s Feminist Caucus (Graban, et al). Based on these discussions, we see a clear focus on organizational structures as key to shaping relationships within the Coalition.  

Returning to Glenn and Lunsford’s statement, they discuss the potential for the Coalition to expand internationally while also focusing on “inclusiveness at home” (12). This dual strategy speaks to both public outreach and internal restructuring. Within the Coalition, this move toward public work and the need to devote resources to intersectional initiatives has been discussed for decades. However, concrete steps toward these goals have only emerged in the past few years (Bizzell and Rawson; Graban, et al.). The Coalition has long provided a welcoming space for some feminist teacher-scholars of rhetoric and writing. By its own admission, it has disproportionately served white women (Graban, et al.). As some of the articles discussed previously attest, many of these folks consider it a “home,” a term Glenn and Lunsford use, as noted previously. How do these notions of a welcoming space or home inform the relationships that the Coalition has sought to build? Or more broadly, how might this perception of the Coalition as home skew coalition building?  

Long-time civil rights and Black feminist activist and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon argues, “Coalition work is not work done in your home. Coalition work has to be done in the streets…It is very important not to confuse them—home and coalition” (359-360). Home is where you are nurtured, “so you better be sure you got your home—someplace for you to go so that you will not become a martyr to the coalition” (361).  

Furthermore, Reagon warns that coalition building is dangerous work: “most of the time you feel threatened to your core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing” (356). Sandra J. Bell and Mary E. Delaney might not call the coalition they write about dangerous, but it failed to coalesce and achieve its goals. In their experience trying to build a coalition of academics, community organizations, and government officials, participants’ different perspectives and ways of working meant that no one could agree on what a center grappling with domestic violence across Canada should do. Coalition members trace these disagreements back to differences in political agendas, professional benefits, financial motives, and other “instrumental goals” (65).  

Deborah Gould grapples with the lasting impact of another coalition that failed to accomplish the goal that it organized around: preventing the gentrification of Chicago’s uptown neighborhood in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, Gould argues that despite the coalition’s inability to make a lasting impact on gentrification in the area, it had a lasting, positive effect on participants. She notes that two groups that participated in the coalition, Queer to the Left and Jesus People USA, came to relate to one another in surprising ways. Where once they were foes pitted against each other on picket lines in front of abortion clinics, they became “strange bedfellows.” From this experience, Gould determines that “Coalition provides a space to be and do together, and become differently as a result; to sense other possibilities, open toward the unknown, experiment, and learn from mistakes; to develop trust and practices of solidarity; and to build new collectivities and new worlds.”  

Gould’s assessment echoes Karma R. Chávez’s research on coalition building (e.g., Chávez, Queer Migration Politics; Chávez, “Counter-Public Enclaves”; Johnson, “The Time is Always Now”). Chávez argues that a coalition is “a present and existing vision and practice that reflects an orientation to others and a shared commitment to change” (Queer Migration Politics 146). Participants come together in what she calls coalitional moments that “might be a brief juncture or an enduring alliance” (Chávez, Queer Migration Politics 7, qtd. in Licona and Chávez 97). A “coalitional subjectivity” makes this coming together possible (Carrillo Rowe 10, qtd. in Chávez, “Counter-Public Enclaves” 3). As Chávez notes, adopting a coalitional subjectivity means moving “away from seeing oneself in singular terms or from seeing politics in terms of single issues toward a complicated intersectional political approach that refuses to view politics and identity as anything other than always and already coalitional” (“Counter-Public Enclaves” 3). This coalitional subjectivity doesn’t erase difference. Instead, participants come to “see issues, systems of oppression, and possibilities for a livable life as inextricably bound to one another” (Chávez, Queer Migration Politics 147). As Pritha Prasad notes, coalition is a continual and committed practice. This practice relies on relational literacies (Licona and Chávez, citing Londel Martin’s work, 96 and 104). Relational literacies refer to the labor it takes to make meaning across difference. These literacies “are never produced singly or in isolation but depend on interaction” (Licona and Chávez 96).  

Gould, Chávez, Licona, and others point toward relationships as being at least part of the lasting change that comes from coalition building. Reconsidering the question of whether or not a coalition can be a home, I would argue perceiving it as such puts members or would-be allies at risk of being excluded from the coalition. While a coalition can certainly be more welcoming to some people than to others, it can also be rebuilt to make itself open to people and perspectives that have been excluded or ignored. It appears that the Coalition has begun moving away from conceiving of the organization as a home and toward a space where members might develop a coalitional subjectivity, at least in practice if not in parsing terms (Graban, et al.).  

Trotskyist Approaches to Coalition Building  

While traditions on the “old left,” including Trotskyism, might agree that coalitions exist to bring diverse groups together and carry out joint action and that these coalitions can be temporary or ongoing, they depict coalition building very differently. For starters, building a coalition is often focused on what participants can win against an adversary–the bourgeoisie– rather than on the relationships that would be created by the coalition among participants. While it is beyond the scope of this article to chronicle these differences in detail, I present a limited view into how Trotskyists approach coalition building because the organization that I discuss in the next section, NWROC, was composed largely of Trotskyists. His theories and writings informed their work even as other Trotskyist groups would undoubtedly say that NWROC’s work bore little resemblance to Leon Trotsky’s.  

The “old left” says less about “coalitions” as such than contemporary academics do. Instead, they discuss “the united front” as a strategy for forming alliances among workers parties and organizations as well as unaligned workers. In a united front, participants make a joint agreement over a specific list of demands, however small or limited, to achieve a common goal or confront a common adversary (German). Trotsky traced the tactic back to the 1922 Resolutions on the Tactics of the Comintern, arguing that the united front was the building block of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution in October 1917. According to the document, only by drawing the mass of workers into struggle could the revolutionary party convince them of the accuracy of their political program. Additionally, the united front had a better chance of success because it drew on more social power than if a party or worker acted alone, of course.  

After being exiled from Russia in 1927, Trotsky spent much of his life arguing for a united front between the social democratic and communist parties in Germany to quash the Nazis before they rose to power (German). Instead of coming together to fight the Nazis, German social democrats and communists fought one another. The dire circumstances surrounding Trotsky’s approach to coalition building in this context cannot be overstated. (For a brief overview of this context and the failure of the German workers’ parties, see Skinnell.) His instrumental language about the united front was meant to be a wake-up call to German workers’ parties. Building a united front was, or at very least needed to be, a tactical decision. In this context, Trotsky was adamant about a few points:  

  1. Organizations must maintain their independence. He argued that the united front against fascism should “march separately, but strike together! Agree only on how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike!” 
  2. This united front had to be organized around specifics so that the dividing lines between organizations remained clear to the average worker. “No common platform…no common publications, banners, placards!” 
  3. It should be composed of substantial groups of comparable size because it had to be able to deliver something. You did not enter a united front out of moral principle but as a tactical move to prevent catastrophe (German). 

With this approach to coalition building, the immediate goal was not to create a shared subjectivity. The party itself focused on creating “class consciousness”—a shared subjectivity among workers. Creating a united front required little sense of respect for the leaders of the other organizations that you entered into the agreement with, or their politics. As Trotsky implored, “such an agreement can be concluded with the devil himself, with his grandmother.” Instead, the united front was meant to stop losses and build the social power of the oppressed against their oppressors.  

In the aftermath of Trump’s presidency and the current onslaught of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, sexist and anti-choice legislation sweeping the country, I would argue that the question of building coalitional subjectivity must connect with opposition to the “creeping shadow of fascism” and winning gains for oppressed people (Skinnell). With this perspective in mind, I reflect on my experiences in an organization that focused rather exclusively on opposition rather than coalitional subjectivity or winning gains.   

Coalition Building in NWROC  

When I learned about NWROC, it was during my first semester at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany) in August 1993. I didn’t know anyone on campus, and in my first weeks at the university, I was trying to connect with others. In 1993, the bulletin boards that proliferated campus were our “social media.” We used them to find out what concerts and events were going on around campus and in the city. While perusing one bulletin board, I stumbled across a poster for a meeting by a group called Youth Against Fascism (YAF). The poster headline read, “Smash the Fascists: All Out to Auburn, NY September 25!” It called on students to protest a group called the USA Nationalist Party who were holding a rally at Freedom Park in Auburn, New York on Saturday, September 25, 1993–Yom Kippur. Freedom Park is one of the city’s tributes to Underground Railroad leader and long-time Auburn resident Harriet Tubman. The YAF poster advertised an organizing meeting the following week, just days before the rally.  

I attended the meeting—about 50 people convened in the Student Association Lounge in the university’s student union. During the meeting, I learned that YAF was a coalition of student and community groups from across New York state that formed in order to shut down the fascist rally. NWROC was part of that coalition, but it was unclear at that meeting who from YAF was also a member of NWROC. A dozen or so people at the meeting put forward YAF’s platform and organizing strategy, which began with their analysis of fascism. YAF organizers made various arguments about why people needed to fight fascism through direct action, some of these organizers cribbed their arguments from Leon Trotsky’s Fascism: What It Is, and How to Fight It, though I didn’t know it at the time. Some YAF organizers argued that fascism was endemic to capitalism, and they summarized the fascist platform as using the threat of downward mobility to scare white people into joining their ranks; fascists argued that it was “Jews from above; people of color from below; immigrants from abroad; and workers, feminists, and gay men and lesbians from within the white population who were destroying the country.” But as the YAF organizers argued, fascists lied to people because capitalism caused this downward mobility and pitted working class and poor people against one another. From these statements, it was clear to me that YAF was anti-capitalist.  

YAF built their platform around the slogan “No free speech for fascists.” I questioned them about this stance: “Doesn’t that make you as bad as the fascists?” They responded by saying that they did not support the government creating a law to curtail free speech and that “speech is never free.” Any law created under the guise of curbing fascist organizing would be used against activists fighting fascism and racism, not against the fascists. Instead, YAF’s strategy relied on building a coalition of organizations who would call out their members to protest the KKK and neo-Nazis and shut down their attempts to rally in public.  

Some YAF organizers took this argument a step further by saying that protestors should prevent fascist organizing “by any means necessary.” The discussion shifted, and I and other attendees questioned these speakers about their definition of militancy: what does “by any means necessary mean”? NWROC members argued that the crux of the discussion should be about self-defense. At the time, it was unclear to me which aspects of the discussion represented YAF’s politics and which aspects of the discussion represented NWROC’s politics, but I had some sense that there were different perspectives being advanced based on various points that people made. 

In the latter part of the meeting, YAF organizers discussed plans for the counter- demonstration. The coalition organized several vans to shuttle people from Albany to Auburn early on the morning of the 25th, and the vans would return that night. Interested folks could attend for free but should bring food or money for food. Student groups across upstate New York who composed the YAF coalition arranged transportation from their universities, including SUNY Binghamton and Buffalo, Syracuse University, Cornell University, and several others.  

When the meeting concluded, I introduced myself to some YAF members. They asked if I was going to Auburn. I already had plans to visit my family in Binghamton that weekend. I told them that I would be at the next meeting, and I was. I saw NWROC posters around campus declaring victory in Auburn and calling people out to protest the KKK in Indianapolis, IN, a week after the Auburn rally. According to NWROC and others, 2000 counter-demonstrators showed up in Auburn and had chased the USA Nationalist Party members and sympathizers out of town (see fig.1) (Williams). 

An example of a NWROC poster used to build anti-KKK/anti-Nazi work after the Auburn rally. This poster shows black ink on white paper. The heading at the top of the poster reads “SMASH THE FASCISTS! All OUT TO: Indianapolis Oct. 16, Columbus Oct. 23, New Hope, PA Nov. 6” (emphasis in original). The body of the poster presents NWROC’s take on the Auburn counterdemonstration: The USA Nationalist Party rally was “shut down by a militant integrated crowd of 2000 people mobilized from around the state and Auburn itself. The march was not shut down by peaceful protests or by anti-fascists simply expressing that fascism is ‘bad’; it was smashed by 2000 people following NWROC's leadership and chasing the Nazi’s out of Auburn.” 

An example of a NWROC poster used to build anti-KKK/anti-Nazi work after the Auburn rally. This poster shows black ink on white paper. The heading at the top of the poster reads “SMASH THE FASCISTS! All OUT TO: Indianapolis Oct. 16, Columbus Oct. 23, New Hope, PA Nov. 6” (emphasis in original). The body of the poster presents NWROC’s take on the Auburn counterdemonstration: The USA Nationalist Party rally was “shut down by a militant integrated crowd of 2000 people mobilized from around the state and Auburn itself. The march was not shut down by peaceful protests or by anti-fascists simply expressing that fascism is ‘bad’; it was smashed by 2000 people following NWROC’s leadership and chasing the Nazi’s out of Auburn.”

After Auburn, the YAF coalition disintegrated. It was temporary, existing only to organize around the Auburn rally. However, NWROC continued their campaign to shut down KKK and neo-Nazi rallies throughout the northeast and Midwest “by any means necessary.” I learned that NWROC had local chapters in Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI as well as Albany, NY. The midwestern chapters played key roles in organizing future anti-Klan/anti-Nazi counterdemonstrations. I joined NWROC for the action in Indianapolis on 16 October 1993. It was an eye-opening experience that drew me into political organizing. 

The KKK rally took place on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse. Estimates by a student reporter from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN claim that 1000 people were present (Johnson, “Despite Police”). It seemed much larger to me. Officials had created a pen around the Statehouse steps leading into the building. About 100 feet from the steps, they erected a 10-foot-high chain-link fence. On the other side of this area, where you entered the lawn leading to the steps, the city had set up 4-foot-high plastic fencing. Between the fences, the KKK sympathizers and protestors intermingled. There were two or three entrances into this pen that were manned by cops dressed in riot gear. To enter the fenced-in area, you had to go through a metal detector located at one of these entrances. Next to the metal detectors were signs that said “No weapons. No glass bottles. No sticks.” While going through one of the metal detectors, cops made folks empty their pockets, open their bags, and get patted down. Once inside the pen, you could move wherever you liked. If you walked toward the Statehouse steps, you could see an endless row of police in riot gear lined up behind the fence. There were hundreds upon hundreds of cops, who were armed to the teeth. Helicopters flew overhead, but it wasn’t clear to me if they were with the cops or local news stations.  

As the pen filled up, groups of KKK sympathizers and protestors fought. Cops roving through the pen carried plastic zip-tie style handcuffs. Occasionally, they arrested people for fighting and removed them from the pen. More commonly, the cops just let whatever happened happen. After some time, the KKK members took to the steps of the Statehouse. They arranged themselves in a line across the landing at the top of the steps. At the center, their leader stood at a microphone and spewed his BS (Johnson, “Despite Police”). Protestors tried to drown out his speech by chanting “Scum in sheets, get off our streets! Boys in blue you can go too!” or “No Nazi scum. No KKK. No racist, fascist USA.” Despite the chants, you could still hear the speaker because the KKK had a large sound system.  

Fed up with the situation, some protestors attempted to rip down the chain-link fence leading to the Statehouse steps. When this happened, I was standing at the fence next to a Black man who had a small child sitting on his shoulders. They glared at the KKK members but did little else. The weight of the protestors clinging to the fence made it bow. Suddenly, the cops on the other side of the fence panicked. They paced down the line of the fence carrying huge jugs of pepper spray. They sprayed everyone on the other side of the fence. Just before I got sprayed in the face, I saw one cop raise his jug of pepper spray over his head to aim it at the child. I am not sure who, but people led me away from the scene at the fence toward the back of the pen. Tears poured from my eyes. Snot gushed from my nose. A reporter seized the moment to ask me about the experience. I launched into a tirade about how Indiana had spent countless dollars to provide a platform for the KKK who were there to recruit people to carry out a platform of racist terror. The night before the rally at the Statehouse the KKK had a cross burning in nearby Starke County (Johnson, “Despite Police”). I also ranted about how the cops were not interested in keeping the peace or they would not be pepper spraying young children and creating a ring for protestors and Klan sympathizers to duke it out. The discussions I had with YAF and NWROC members poured out of me.  

By the time I regained my vision, the KKK members were leaving the Statehouse steps. Protestors rushed out the pen onto the streets around the Statehouse and toward one side of the building in an attempt to give the KKK some sort of sendoff as they left. At that point, hundreds of cops in riot gear and armed with large shields and nightsticks formed a phalanx in the street. They marched toward the protestors shouting orders to disperse and banging their shields. Most protestors did not move. Then, cops began shooting cans of tear gas at people. I saw one person get hit in the chest and a couple people pick up the cans and throw them back toward the police. It was chaos largely manufactured by the cops themselves. During this chaos, I heard windows of nearby buildings being smashed. At that point, I met up with other folks from NWROC, and we made our way back to our vehicles. My face was raw, and I was shaken. The experience galvanized my political work over the next period.  

After the trip to Indianapolis, I began organizing with NWROC. It was the first time I had been involved in a political organization and the first time I had been immersed in a queer milieu. At the time, NWROC had a couple hundred members, but maybe half of those members were active. NWROC members were disproportionately queer and female [In writing about the counterdemonstration in Auburn, The Buffalo Times referred to the organization alternately as “Marxists lesbians” and a “lesbian rights group” (“Lesbian Rights Group”)]. It was also predominantly white, and most members ranged in age from 18 to 30. My involvement lasted from fall 1993 to spring 1995. This included traveling around the Midwest and northeast to participate in counterdemonstrations against the KKK and neo-Nazis in Columbus, OH, New Hope, PA, Coshocton, OH, and Hamtramck, MI, among others. To build for these demonstrations, I handed out leaflets and talked to students at SUNY Albany. I also participated in NWROC conferences and regional meetings in Albany, Detroit, and Ann Arbor.  

On SUNY Albany campus, I helped build campaigns and carry out various actions that NWROC initiated, including a campaign to protest Binyamin Kahane, Meir Kahane’s son, who was slated to speak on campus in November 1993. In advertising the event, the student group that sponsored it, the Revisionist Zionist Alternative, used a quote from Meir Kahane arguing that Jewish people should “fight our enemies with knives, guns, and fists.” This list of enemies included Black Muslims, among others (“SUNY and Jewish Rights”). This campaign was one of many. I offer it only as an example. At times, it seemed like we were tabling or having informational pickets on campus daily. We also held internal meetings and study circles regularly, which meant that I spent very little time on schoolwork.  

As my time in NWROC progressed, we put less and less resources into building coalitions on campus or with local organizations in the various places where we carried out work, and we devoted more and more resources to carrying out small actions on several different issues where the same dozen or so people participated. For example, in organizing action around Binyamin Kahane’s speaking engagement on campus, NWROC put out a call to protest the event without building an alliance with other campus organizations and individuals who expressed outrage over the speaker and advertising, such as the Albany State University Black Alliance, Rosa Clemente (Multicultural Affairs Director for the Student Government Association), or the International Socialist Organization—another leftist group on campus that was composed largely of graduate students. NWROC’s hyperactivism pushed many members and potential allies away and created a high barrier of entry for new ones. It also shifted the discourse within the organization. Discussions of tactics changed from building coalitions over specific issues to more amorphous talk of rebuilding a Civil Rights Movement (see fig. 2). Eventually, this talk of rebuilding a Civil Rights Movement transformed into talk about providing leadership to the people who showed up at the events that we participated in. First, we provided this “leadership” through our superior political analysis, and when few people responded to the political line in our speeches and leaflets, we provided this “leadership” through militant action on the scene, hoping to inspire others through our militancy. 

An example of a NWROC leaflet used to build work against KKK/Nazi organizing and against racist provocations on the SUNY Albany campus, including the Kahane event. The leaflet uses black ink on white paper. The heading reads, “BUILD A MASS MILITANT INTEGRATED CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT!” The demands advanced in the leaflet culminate in the call for a “STUDENT STRIKE TO DEMAND STUDENT/WORKER/FACULTY CONTROL OF THE UNIVERSITY.” The leaflet ends, “FORMER BLACK PANTHER SPEAKS ON THE FIGHT AGAINST NAZI/KLAN TERROR—THURS 8:00 PM, ASSEMBLY HALL, NWROC NEXT MEETING IS WED 11/3 AT HU110 7:30, NWROC HOTLINE 518-458-3312” (emphasis in original). 

An example of a NWROC leaflet used to build work against KKK/Nazi organizing and against racist provocations on the SUNY Albany campus, including the Kahane event. The leaflet uses black ink on white paper. The heading reads, “BUILD A MASS MILITANT INTEGRATED CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT!” The demands advanced in the leaflet culminate in the call for a “STUDENT STRIKE TO DEMAND STUDENT/WORKER/FACULTY CONTROL OF THE UNIVERSITY.” The leaflet ends, “FORMER BLACK PANTHER SPEAKS ON THE FIGHT AGAINST NAZI/KLAN TERROR—THURS 8:00 PM, ASSEMBLY HALL, NWROC NEXT MEETING IS WED 11/3 AT HU110 7:30, NWROC HOTLINE 518-458-3312” (emphasis in original).

 Moving Forward  

Looking back on these experiences and considering them in light of my previous discussion on how contemporary coalitions need to balance their work building a coalitional subjectivity with the struggles against oppression and the ability to win gains, NWROC’s approach to coalition building taught me a lot about what not to do. In parsing these lessons, I outline a few basic principles and a warning that guide my work:  

  1. Coalition building requires that the basis for action be worked out together with other organizations who are interested in participating in it. It rarely works when one group advances a political line and expects others to sign on to a coalition after the fact.
  2. A coalition needs to be built around specific goals or demands and action plans. An approach to coalition building that shifts focus with every incident risks falling into hyperactivism where allies and members quickly burn out. 
  3. Sustained coalitions often involve multiple goals or demands and action plans that can change over time. Such coalitions require that an infrastructure be developed with involvement from all coalition members or their elected representatives. Even so, there is a risk of losing members who disagree with the changes supported by the majority of the group. A healthy coalition should establish ways for members to express disagreement from the beginning, and these policies need to be respected and maintained throughout the life of the coalition. 
  4. The coalition also risks losing members if the goals or demands are far beyond the group’s reach. For example, a small group that uses an informational picket against a racist speaker on a college campus risks failing miserably if the demands in their leaflets, speeches, and chants focus only on “student/worker/faculty control of the university” and excludes other demands that meet the needs of students, workers, and faculty members. 

Over time, a coalition can cease to be a coalition and become a smaller group with a very high level of agreement. As numbers dwindle, this level of agreement increases. Once relationships with other organizations and the ability to attract new members wither, you’re left with a small group of people, and your actions amount to little more than a demonstration of your beliefs. Refusing to see this change, from a coalition to a home, of sorts, makes it difficult for the organizers to see that their goals, or the way that they implement them, have become a barrier rather than a bridge for new members and for creating change.  

To move forward in this period, the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition might begin by parsing out which organizational goals speak to home building and which goals necessitate coalition building. Next steps might mean prioritizing issues around which to coalesce with others: there are plenty of injustices within our fields, institutions, and regions, which one(s) will the Coalition devote resources to and why? Finally, the Coalition will need to address whether these issues require building a new coalition and drawing other organizations into it or playing an active role in existing coalitions. Based on the scholarship detailing the Coalition’s development discussed previously, the Coalition is beginning to move beyond home building and expanding into coalition building (e.g., Graban, et al.). If we take that as a given, then the Coalition needs to be more deliberate about promoting relational literacy and to work toward promoting a sense of coalitional subjectivity by drawing the membership into discussions of next steps.  

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Johnson, Gavin P. “The Time is Always Now: A Conversation with Karma R. Chávez about Coalition and the Work to Come.” Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal, vol. 3, 2021. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>.  

Johnson, Kenya. “Despite Police, Protestors Persist in Indianapolis.” The Observer: The Independent Newspaper Serving Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s 18 Oct. 1993. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>. 

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Pritha, Prasad. “‘Coalition Is Not a Home”: From Idealized Coalitions to Livable Lives.” Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal, vol. 3, 2021. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>.  

Reagon, Bernice J. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Ed. Barbara Smith. Latham, NY: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. 358-368. Print. 

“Resolutions 1922 On the Tactics of the Comintern.” Marxist Internet Archive, 2018. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>.  

Skinnell, Ryan. “Coalition-Building in the Creeping Shadow of Fascism.” Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal, vol. 3, 2021. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>. 

“SUNY and Jewish Rights Groups Decry Militant Message.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 17 Nov. 1993. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. < -decry-militant-message/?cid=gen_sign_in>.  

Trotsky, Leon. “For a Worker’s United Front Against Fascism.” Marxist Internet Archive, 1932. Web. 25 Sept. 2023. <>. 

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Introduction: Addressing The Barriers Between Us and that Future: (Feminist) Activist Coalition Building in Writing Studies


This Cluster Conversation emerged from a series of experiences each editor dealt with in 2022 as legislators in red states introduced bills restricting higher education and “banning” concepts like critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. This year the Supreme Court also decided to reverse affirmative action, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson eloquently pinned in her response to this decision: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life” (Lithwick The repercussions of this decision–on top of the growing lists of states banning educational initiatives and programs that discuss race, gender, and identity– leave many academics and educators feeling that this will only get worse.  

Intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw describes, is “a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts” (Coaston Crenshaw brought to light the double discrimination Black women experienced by being both Black and women and highlighted legal cases wherein women were required to choose between bringing a case of racism or sexism and could not say they were discriminated against based on both being Black and being a woman. Considering the history of the American legal system, that the Supreme Court reversed affirmative action shortly after the overturn of Roe v. Wade should come as no surprise. The day after overturning affirmative action, the Supreme Court also ruled that business owners now have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples if it conflicts with their religious identity.  

This regressive backlash represents a continual pattern of silencing groups fighting against oppression. While many in our profession, particularly those with activist backgrounds, have entered higher education as a way to liberate ourselves and others through fostering agency, we must reckon with the history of our institutions, and the history of our writing spaces (our programs, our centers, our classrooms). Audre Lorde reminds us that the feminist activist movement will be successful when, “We are anchored in our own place and time, looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, and we are part of communities that interact. While we fortify ourselves with visions of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future” (57). Antiracist, social justice and feminist pedagogies work to support writing practitioners in developing their response to racist agendas that impact our communities in and outside of academia, and to continue coalition building in spite of divisive laws, with a spirit of hope and clarity of vision.  

This Cluster incorporates grounded examples of writing scholars and practitioners contending with regressive backlash, tensions, and obstacles and highlights the subversive and coalition-based tactics they have implemented in their contexts. Contributors reflect on their struggles and how they’re doing the work regardless of the barriers, with a focus on the histories we have inherited, and an eye toward feminist methodologies and practices to move forward, in the hopes of real activist work in academia, of coalition-building, of true solidarity, rather than mutable support, highlighting our differences and celebrating what we learn when we work with difference. This introduction sets the scene for that work by providing each editor’s own narrative account of the contexts that shaped this Cluster, the backlash they represent, and our approaches to resistance. 

Turning Fear into Actionable Coalition

“Fear is the umbilical cord of rage”- Natasha Tinsley 

 Though we do not always wish to acknowledge or accept it, women are afraid; we are afraid. We are afraid for our children, our mothers and sisters, our friends and colleagues, our loved ones and strangers. Women are under attack. Black and Brown people are under attack. Queer and trans* people are under attack. We as academics and women and friends have seen (some have even experienced) how this fear can lead to a silence that stifles intellectual, cultural, and societal growth, preventing us from pushing back against these unjust attacks. Because as Audre Lorde writes in her piece “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” this silence comes from the “fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, or challenge, or annihilation. But most of all…fear [of] the invisibility…where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision…[that]…render[s] [one] invisible through the depersonalization of racism” (42). Because of this fear, it can make sense to allow parts of themselves to be silenced so they do not completely disappear. However, this silencing can lead to a concept Ibram X. Kendi wrote about called “uplift suasion.” After slavery, “[t]he burden of race relations was placed squarely on the shoulders of Black Americans…If Black people behaved admirably…they would be undermining justifications for slavery and proving that notions of their inferiority were wrong” (124). Natasha is the living example of this kind of silencing.  

Since her current university is teaching focused, she thought she could just do that; teach. However, “research shows that African American female faculty…tend to be overburdened with service work… [because they are] looked at as diversity experts…” (Fossett). And research ran her over as not too long after she was hired, members of administration asked her to head up different diversity programs. She did try, creating workshops, compiling reading lists, and gathering reading materials on race, discrimination, and inclusion. But she was not/is not an expert. She did not want to be the Ferryman, leading people across a river of uncertainty. So, she reached out and asked what people felt they needed as it relates to diversity. But around this time there was a change in university administration and the world around us. She sent out a survey to the email gatekeeper (not actual name) to be sent to her colleagues asking for their advice and received the following response, “I am still waiting on a response for approval.” That approval never came and that survey was never sent. The life of an academic took over and she silently moved on. And though she claimed to be relieved to no longer be tasked to do this work, the words sat tasteless on the back of her throat. To be pushed through the diversity door to only have the room suddenly snatched from around her without so much as a whisper felt disrespectful, devaluing, a reminder that Black voices have a specific purpose with an undisclosed expiration date. But just as Lorde and Kendi describe, she allowed herself to be silenced out of fear, for her job, for her position, of non-existence.  

 Now this collection demonstrates how this fear can fester and grow into an emotion that creates an icy heat that burns underneath the skin until it needs to be released. An emotion paramount to rage that is so strong that only action can cool it down. Understand this is not a chaotic, uncontrolled rage, leaving only destruction in its wake. This rage is intelligent, calculated, and channeled, targeted at those who believe that their way of thinking and living is the only way, the only right way.  

This collection consists of experiences that demonstrate how this flame can be used to build collaborations and solidarity, hoping to increase this flame so it soon burns beyond those who already understand the battle being waged. While Natasha does not look to speak for the contributors, for they have definitely demonstrated they are talented enough and capable enough to speak for themselves, her interpretation of fear and rage lives and thrives through all of the pieces included in this collection. But everyone involved did not allow their fear to be a debilitating force that lulled them into submission. Like nutrients from a mother, they let this fear nourish their minds and grow into a necessary anger that will hopefully burn into the minds of those who really need it.  

The Political is (Necessarily) Personal

Regressive legislation and political maneuvering, or “shock-and-awe campaigns,” as Dr. Kynard refers to them in this issue, have been difficult for some to see past this year. As our editorial team started receiving proposals, the 2023 Texas Legislative session began. By the time we received drafts, the session was coming to an end, and it was clear that Senate Bill 17 and other “anti-woke” bills would pass. When Texas legislators released the state’s finalized budget for the next two years, they included $700 million extra in state funding for the state’s public universities. These funds were contingent upon two pieces of legislation becoming law: Senate Bill 17, which bans diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices and programs in Texas higher education, and Senate Bill 18, the proposal to ban or overhaul tenure. Those bills passed, and public universities have access to those funds only if they demonstrate that they are complying with those new laws. The strings that those funds came with felt more like shackles, especially in underfunded public institutions that operate from a place of fear.  

While reading and writing about coalition-building in the face of regressive, anti-woke politicking, and structures of racial and gender domination, Hillary began to feel the urgency around coalitional work in her own institution skyrocket. As Dr. Kynard’s essay-ish (referencing Ahmed) highlights, “DEI on our campuses has never meant radical access and educational transformation,” but in small, regional, public institutions, the majority of an institution’s support for culturally-relevant programming, inclusive pedagogies, and student leadership development may come from a single DEI office.  

While SB 17 was still being deliberated, the primary DEI office at Hillary’s institution was making plans for filling the massive gaps that would be left from their office’s changes. Following the law’s passing, the office conducted surveys and focus groups to help redefine their office’s mission and goals in ways that would comply with the new law. Meanwhile, the institution was scrubbing DEI-related words and phrases from their website and all public-facing texts well in advance of the January 1st deadline. This felt like an abrupt shift from the recently established “Core Values” statements which emphasized diversity, equity, and inclusion, which had also been prioritized in various formal processes including tenure applications, annual report forms, and assessment plans. Also at play in this institutional context are rumors that the university is facing the possibility of declaring financial exigency, not to mention the explicit announcements regarding impending reductions in force. Despite these threats, a small coalition of faculty and staff from across campus continued to devise ways to engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion work and to recruit others into the unpaid, misunderstood, apparently risky labor of best practices in higher education without access to basic institutional resources like reserving meeting spaces, using institutional emails and postmasters, and meetings during staff working hours. Without those resources, the work was, by necessity, both interpersonal and deeply personal. Our informal conversations became our most important workspaces, and it was in those un(der)documented, unofficial interactions that we discovered access to underutilized resources and sources of support. The work in this cluster has been immediately relevant, insightful, and instructive to circumstances like Hillary’s (and so many others), both in terms of illuminating ways to build subversive coalitions within and across oppressive institutions and in terms of addressing the barriers that have thwarted coalition and solidarity among us. As the institutions and organizations from which we earn our paychecks, our credentials, our status, and many of our resources continue to create barriers (expectedly) between us and the future we envision, we cannot ignore or neglect our greatest strength and resource: each other. 

Whiplash from Backlash

At the  “Addressing the Barriers Between Us and That Future: Feminist Activist Coalition Building in Writing Studies” panel discussion at the 2023 Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition Deconference many of the authors gathered in person and via Zoom in this Cluster were able to gather in person for the first time and via Zoom, to discuss how we continue to show up and implement feminists methodologies and coalition building despite the regressive laws that have been passed in the states where we live.  

One of the moderators, Lisa, began the discussion with words she had been trying to pen for weeks as we finished the editors’ introduction. As we approached the final weeks before the deconference, she knew she needed to write, yet, Lisa just didn’t want to revisit the feelings she had back in 2022, when all that we had worked for felt like it was being stripped away. Each time Lisa sat down to write her portion of our introduction, she could see in our shared document that her co-editors addressed the reality of the regressive laws and their current impact on our teaching, writing classrooms and spaces, and social organizations. When Lisa sat before the blank white screen, she could still vividly see the shock in one of her co-editors’, then writing center director, eyes staring back at her from the Zoom box as she explained she had been instructed to remove the Black Lives Statement from the writing center’s website.  

To open our deconference session, Lisa was honest with our audience, she was, and still is, digesting her feelings. When Lisa joined the writing center in 2018, there weren’t many Black faces, but she was welcomed into a writing community whose commitment to social justice was visible. During her tenure, under the direction of Dr. Anna Sicari and alongside her colleagues Hillary Coenen, Fehintola Folarin, and Natasha Tinsley at Oklahoma State University (OSU) they co-founded the Talking Justice Workshop. It was an interactive workshop that taught antiracist strategies for tutors and faculty. 

As assistant directors (graduate students) and directors (pre-tenure professionals), we sought to challenge white supremacy’s prevalence and norms in our writing spaces by building tutor and faculty anti racist training programs that instead of replicating coziness (Camarillo, 2019) exposed antiblackness. Our gears were turning to create writing spaces that intentionally did more than hire more tutors of color (Kynard 2019, Jordan 2021), and while we were aware of the HB 1775 law being passed, this call comes about because we did not fully realize what it would mean for us at our own institutions or institutions across the country who were feeling the impact of similar laws.  

Choosing Love Amidst Fear  

Anna’s experience with the state bill HB1775 (please read Wonderful Faison’s article to learn more about this bill) and facing institutional demand to end anti-racist initiatives in the writing center she directed in Oklahoma was illuminating in recognizing the successful strategies and tactics right wing ideologues are using to isolate individuals and create cultures of fear and loneliness. In all about love, bell hooks writes, “Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience…Fear is the primary force of upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire to not be known” (125). Reflecting on these lines is painful and poignant to Anna, as she experienced this type of fear hooks (and my fellow co-editors) describe, a wish to not be known or seen or recognized for the type of activist work she was attempting to do. It was not until she spoke about these experiences with her colleagues, recognizing that silence can only exacerbate fear, did she better understand the need to share these stories across state lines. Through talking with her colleagues and working with different communities, she recognized the importance of resiliency and strength; in talking with her co-editors, her colleagues and friends in doing this work, she was encouraged to choose love. “The choice to love is a choice to connect–to find ourselves in the other” (hooks 125). 

This Cluster is born from love; love the co-editors have for one another, because of our differences and learning from one another, and love for the authors contributing to this issue, recognizing we’re all doing this work together. The pieces this conversation showcases illuminate a wide range of issues we need to address as a field, and emphasize the importance of feminist work–exposing and posing problems to build more sustainable, just futures. We have articles that discuss explicitly ways in which these state laws have impacted what we can do as educators, and we also have pieces that implicitly show the barriers that exist, have always existed, and how coalition-building with intention across state lines is necessary.  

Coalition-building is rooted in love; and we write this with love to our readers and we write this with hope that you will love the issue. Lorde quote: “How do we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future?” We see these pieces using each other’s differences to build livable futures and we recognize this issue is BIG. Big in size and in scope and big in hope. We made the decision to have this issue be big, as that is what it will take to address the barriers and create new futures–coalition building is difficult, it can be messy, and it forces us to acknowledge and honor differences. We believe this Cluster reflects and represents what coalition building can look like in the field, and allows readers to envision potential futures of resilience and hope. We thank the authors for the work they are doing in their communities and institutions, and we look forward to the resulting dialogue and work that comes from their work.   

Organizational & Institutional Analysis & Critique

When done well, coalition work helps contributors realize and understand how the organizations and institutions we engage with create barriers to equity and perpetuate injustice. In the first section titled “Organizational & Institutional Analysis & Critique,” authors take a critical eye to organizations and the practices, programs, and policies that have shaped feminist activism and intersectional coalition-building either through their regressive policies or through their attempts to become more equitable. Don Unger’s reflection on his experience with a women’s rights group in the 1990s grapples with definitions of coalition and how different approaches to and understandings of coalition influence the nature of those relationships, and in doing so, he outlines principles that offer guidance for building coalitions that can help establish coalitional subjectivity. Carmen Kynard’s essay-ish  asserts that “campaigns of white supremacy are meant to scare and scar us into inaction,” and it illuminates the continued “attacks on Black/queer/feminist thought and praxis,” highlighting how this white supremacist dominance goes well beyond the “shock-and-awe campaigns,” and is embedded in our white-washed, neoliberal institutions in everyday ways that demand “deep sightings” in order to be recognized and uprooted. Authors Holly Hassel and Kate Pantelides chronicle the history of feminist coalition building of the Feminist Caucus from the early 1970s and expose the challenges faced by advocates for feminist issues related to the forming of the women’s committees, the use of sexist language, and access to child-care during conferences. Liz Rohan’s article focuses on her feminist activist efforts as a tenured faculty member where austerity measures specifically harm students from low-income backgrounds, as she details the experience of the writing center budget being cut and her efforts to collaborate with students, contingent faculty, and campus organizations to advocate for more resources. Walker Smith’s discussion on his work in the archives of the Southern Baptist Convention reveals how institutional ethnography can disrupt, unsettle, and delegitimize the meaning-making power of a broad range of organizations, including religious and educational institutions.   

Mentorship and Interpersonal Advocacy

When Jacqueline Jones Royster was asked what advice she had for newer faculty in a recent conference session titled “Radical Self-Care as a Rhetoric of Resistance for Women of Color in the Academy,” she urged listeners to “find your people.” Aligning with Royster’s advice and this Cluster’s theme of love and hope, the largest section in this Cluster, “Mentorship and Interpersonal Advocacy,” highlights how we demonstrate care and advocacy for ourselves and others. Kendra N. Bryant Aya’s brilliant poem draws support from and celebrates her coalition with “family members, mentors, teachers, and literary figures” to illuminate her experiences as a Black lesbian pushing back on “heteronormative capitalist patriarchy” even in her writing spaces at HBCUs, which she illustrates are also influenced by “anti-Black racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and ageism.” Also acknowledging that institution does not love us, Wonderful Faison offers readers poignant examples of how HBCUs, who have oftentimes made due with less, can demonstrate and exemplify the impact of institutional support and solidarity for “subvert[ing] anti-CRT legislation” by having campus leaders willing to assert their intent to “defy, dissent, disavow, and disobey” current or new legislative restrictions on CRT or DEI. Eunjeong Lee, Soyeon Lee, and Minjung Kang describe “their effective labor against colonial and anti-Asian barriers,” which builds upon decolonial feminist methodologies and works toward affective connectivity and relationality. Continuing this thread of intentional coalition-building, Jennifer Burke Reifman, Loren Torres, and Mik Penarroyo deploy Black intersectional feminist theory and alternative modes of mentorship and collaboration to argue that concepts of expertise and/or legitimacy exist to keep diverse student voices out of institutional conversations surrounding assessment, curriculum, and retention in order to reify white, patriarchal practices. Natalie Shellenberger and Nataly Dickson explore burnout as the exigence for their focus on creating intentional co-mentoring practices for graduate students, particularly graduate students from marginalized communities, and narrate their relational experiences to provide strategies and tactics for feminist mentoring practices in the future. Drawing upon counterstories, Amanda Hawks and Bethany Meadows highlight the necessity to denounce the ideas that Writing Centers are inclusive “safe spaces” and call them out on the gatekeeping practices, advocating that Black Feminism and transformative justice can bring grievances to light and give further evidence of the white supremacy oppression that still thrives to this day.  

Subversive Classroom Practices

Bringing coalition building and feminist activist work into the writing classroom, the section on “Subversive Classroom Practices” highlights how we can address regressive backlash and work toward solidarity through teaching. Romeo García and Gesa Kirsch share pedagogical narratives and assignments to show what a commitment to “being-with” others looks like and showcase two stories-so-far and possibilities of new stories from student authors Valeria Guevara Fernandez and Nicole Salazar. While creating equitable environments sometimes feels impossible, Callie Kostelich and Michelle Cowan demonstrate how they sought to resist institutional harms by collaborating with first-year writing instructors in a labor-based grading contract initiative at their institution. In another dialogue, Shewonda Leger and Chantalle Verna reveal how the pedagogical strategies they deploy in Florida draw upon their lived experiences as Haitian women and incorporate decolonizing and Black feminist principles. Elitza Kotzeva, Sona Gevorgyan, Lilit Khachatryan, and Nairy Bzdigian conversational piece discusses their unique experiences with gender-based oppression and activism in Armenia. Galen Bunting reminds us of the value of inclusive, intentional, and practical teaching practices like those he describes employing in classrooms in Oklahoma, despite backlash.  

Lisa, Natasha, Hillary, and Anna invite you to join in this conversation by reading this BIG and excellent collection of feminist, womanist, and queer scholars in the field of writing studies doing the work. In her remarks at the opening keynote during the 2023 National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Kimberlé Crenshaw reminded  the audience the “war against diversity, equity and inclusion started as a backlash and now has metastasized to the college board basically taking Black feminism, Black queer studies, intersectionality, structural racism out of Black studies.” This collection comes at what Crenshaw labels a “critical moment. It’s a question of how much the knowledge that has been produced over the last three-quarters of the century can sustain an organized effort, not only to silence and suppress but to completely rip out of even our own histories the knowledge that our experiences have produced.” With that in mind,  please share these conversations widely–as they offer both strategies and tactics for coalition-building, as well as telling stories that help us break down and move away from fear and isolation and choose action and love. 

Works Cited  

Camarillo, Eric C. “Burn the House Down: Deconstructing the Writing Center as Cozy Home.” The Peer Review, vol. 3, no.1, 2019, 

Coaston, Jane. “The Intersectionality Wars.” Vox, 28 May 2019. Accessed 1 Nov 2022.  

 Fossett, Katelyn. “Burnout, Racism, and Extra Diversity-Related Work: Black Women in Academia Share Their Experiences.” Politico, 09 July 2021, Burnout, racism and extra diversity-related work: Black women in academia share their experiences – POLITICO. Accessed 14 Aug. 2023. 

 hooks, bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2000.  

 Jordan, Zandra L. “Flourishing as Anti-Racist Praxis: ‘An Uncompromised Commitment’ to Black Writing Tutors.” Writing Program Administration: Special Issue: Black Lives Matter and Anti-Racist Projects in Writing Program Administration, vol. 44, no. 3, 2021, pp. 36–40. 

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Bold Type Books, 2016.  

Kynard, Carmen. “Administering While Black: Black Women’s Labor in the Academy and the ‘Position of the Unthought.’” Black Perspectives in Writing Program Administration: From the Margins to the Center (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric), NCTE, 2019, pp. 28-50.  

Lithwick, Dhalia. “Ketanji Brown Jackson Exposed the Supreme Court’s ‘Colorblind’ Lie.” Slate, 29 June 2023. Accessed 1 Nov 2022. 

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984. 

Feminist Resistance, Resilience, and Concession: Historical Moments of Activism by NCTE and CCCC Feminist Groups (or, “Whatever You, Betty, and Nancy Think Ought to Be Done”)

Twenty-twenty-three has been a rather momentous year for American feminist histories. We just fell short of the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, although Ms. magazine was able to celebrate its 50th birthday, and along with that the many changes to both the material lives of women and evolving perspectives on women’s social roles that the magazine has chronicled. In the field of Writing Studies, we passed the 50th anniversary of the creation of what became the  Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC) Feminist Caucus, and we’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the landmark passage of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language (now known as the Statement on Gender and Language).  

Since our recent disciplinary feminist history is middle aged, it is perhaps feeling the same things American women are often invited to feel at middle age: less visible, less cool, less spry than we once were, inviting some familiar questions: Where have we gotten? How did it happen? Who made it happen? Where should we go from here? In parallel, the coauthors, as former co-chairs of the CCCC Feminist Caucus, also seek to make sense of our “affective inheritance” (Ahmed), do the “difficult work” of “acknowledging [our feminist] history” (CFP) and thus, continue coalition building within the field, learning from both our successes and missteps.  

We draw from NCTE/CCCC organizational documents spanning from the 1960s to the present several key moments of solidarity and feminist effort within the organization to identify some of the real and manufactured barriers to achieving feminist movement. We focus on three key events and their attendant processes: the creation of the CCCC committee on the Status of Women in the Profession itself, the development of the Guidelines for the Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications, and the ongoing effort to offer onsite childcare at the conference. Each action utilizes similar coalition building  tools, but ultimately, they demonstrate the continuum of feminist advocacy strategies, ranging from stealth advocacy, to rewriting the sexist rules of the organization, to adhering to the strict rules set forth in order to effect change. We show through these historical events and artifacts how organizational processes and individual resistance created barriers to moving feminist work forward. We identify some of the common strategies (rhetorical and logistical) deployed by those with decision-making authority used to resist inclusive practices and policies. In tracing these barriers and strategies, we aim to offer insight to feminist practitioners in the field doing both disciplinary and outward-focused justice work, insight that provides both an opportunity for disciplinary reflection and accountability as well as a variety of advocacy strategies for future work.   

Event 1: Forming a CCCC Committee on Status of Women in the Profession  

The first of our three examples of feminist advocacy strategies stems from the creation of the NCTE and CCCC committees focused on women, exemplary disciplinary coalition building.  NCTE was inspired perhaps by the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) committee on women, charged in their December 1968 meeting. NCTE followed suit in 1970, asking Barbara Friedberg, Kay Hearn, and Virginia Read to develop a Committee on Women, which was constituted officially as the NCTE Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession (just rolls off the tongue). Their early work included gathering quantitative data about women’s involvement in the organization, counting how many women were represented as presidents, members, award winners, and other recognized positions within the organization.  

Janet Emig was charged in November 16, 1971 as chair of the NCTE committee (Full charge, Appendix A, 1971 NCTE EC). In his letter of invitation to Emig, NCTE Executive Director Bob Hogan suggested, “You might […] want to begin thinking of the group’s focus. Is it to deal only with the college, where most of the inequity seems to be, or does the public school woman teacher need to have a means of expression and a hope of redress?” (2). The initial language here suggests that though the group’s work took place through NCTE, even the initial charge focused heavily if not primarily on college English teachers, underscored by the appointment of Professor Emig as the chair.  

College faculty spearheaded much of the work of the early NCTE committee, and it seemed natural that an effort to establish a similar group specifically within CCCC would emerge. However, the establishment of such a group required significant bureaucratic and administrative effort, much of which was stymied by Hogan. The negotiation over the formal charging of the CCCC committee illustrates some principles of what we call “stealth advocacy” deployed, in particular, by two figures in the archives, Betty Renshaw (CCCC secretary at the time of the committee formation and a professor of English at Prince George’s Community College), and Nancy Prichard (NCTE staff liaison to the CCCC Executive Committee and Associate Executive Secretary of NCTE). Of course, as is the case with most feminist advocacy, many people were involved in the development of the committee, but Renshaw and Prichard played a particularly satisfying role.  

The archival record suggests that specific requests to form a CCCC committee started in earnest in the late 70s, with Lou Kelly, revolutionary University of Iowa Writing Lab Director and early leader and member of the NCTE Women’s Committee, directly asking “Jix,” 1977 CCCC Chair Richard Lloyd-Jones, to charge the group. She reasoned that there was more work than was possible for one committee, and that the NCTE committee had been doing much of their work for CCCC. It only made sense to have a committee focused on the needs of CCCC constituents within the organization. Yet, there was reluctance by some members to have more than one committee focused on the needs of women. In fact, once the committee was voted into existence, Bob Hogan shared his specific concerns with Lou Kelly. He wrote:  

One thing I don’t like about myself is that I put off doing the things I feel uncomfortable doing. But, damn them, they just won’t go away. So I’m taking up one of them in this letter…Although the officers of CCCC did authorize in principle the formation of a women’s committee under the aegis of CCCC, that’s all they did. Had I been alert during that part of the officer’s meeting, I would have asked for a delay. But what I thought was merely a report of a request relayed through Betty Renshaw, turned out, in Betty’s and Nancy’s notes, as a formal motion, seconded, and carried.  

The letter details Hogan’s opposition to the formation of a “Woman’s Committee” in CCCC, which he characterizes as “a call for volunteers without any battle plan,” a “duplication of effort,” and lacking both financial and staff support. Despite these concerns, the CCCC committee was formed (June 21, 1977, “Letter to Lou Kelly”). We excerpt the letter at length in part because it’s rare that people use falling asleep in a meeting as an excuse to explain their disagreement (“Had I been alert during that part of the officer’s meeting, I would have asked for a delay”) but also because we are inspired by Renshaw and Prichard’s stealth feminist advocacy, which captures the spirit of the moment in the archive, a moment when women’s committees in NCTE, MLA, and, finally, CCCC were organizing and pushing for greater representation within English Studies.   

In full (see Appendix B) Hogan’s letter typifies bureaucratic forms of resistance deployed to stall organizational change work, and his honesty about his desire to stymie Betty’s and Nancy’s[1] work is instructive for the committee history that follows. In just this brief excerpt Hogan openly admits that he didn’t pay much attention to Betty and Nancy, and had he been aware of them, he would have used his power to “delay” and ultimately subvert their efforts. But like many feminist stalwarts across the years, “damn them, they just won’t go away.” This latter bureaucratic strategy is particularly effective in spaces where progressive advocates are in the minority. We saw this recently in the Tennessee and Montana legislatures, where minority, progressive representatives were expelled and silenced because the rules allowed such action. Why argue with your opponents when you can just ignore them? 

What stands out to us in Hogan’s appeal to bureaucratic convention is the contradiction that the bureaucracy was apparently in place (the officers did authorize in principle the formation of a women’s committee under the aegis of CCCC), yet Hogan simultaneously suggests that the protocols were not followed. From a rhetorical/tactical perspective, Hogan essentially wants to have his cake and eat it too: rules were followed, but he wasn’t following. Hogan further appeals to Lou Kelly’s sense of wise stewardship, writing that the NCTE is now “disciplined” with its budget and discontinuing a practice of approving expenses incurred without prior approval.  He asserts that “at this point there is no money to spend,” which is intended to derail the group’s request to convene and distribute a newsletter. This appeal to efficiency is further discussed when Hogan suggests that the CCCC-specific group would be a “duplication of effort,” connecting again to the idea of resource constraints.  

Like many rhetors committed to maintaining the status quo in the face of calls for change, Hogan invokes in his letter an ethos of benevolence and protection for women in his employ and for the women making the appeal themselves. In particular, he cites the problem of staff support, noting that “Linda Reed works for the NCTE committee out of her own commitment and good will, and largely on her free time […] A full-time job, a husband, three children, liaison responsibilities for one NCTE committee, and nurturing her own spirit may be enough of a load” without adding to that support of the CCCC Committee, appealing to the readers’ presumed desire not to impinge on the time and labor of (another) woman staff member. In this way Hogan effectively demonstrates the difference between support and solidarity. By paternalistically framing Linda Reed’s “support role,” and his actions as protective of her time, he is able to prevent her from supporting feminist solidarity work, work that ultimately changed the working lives of women in the discipline rather than only drawing on their support.  

Despite Hogan’s numerous concerns, Renshaw and Prichard persisted, using pronoia –  “tactical foresight” or long-term strategic thinking to set up future kairos (Mueller et al.) – when they saw their opening to formalize the group. They used their “subordinate” roles as secretaries to create space for feminist advocacy. They took a leap of faith. And because Robert Hogan was snoozing, it worked.  Another way to frame Betty and Nancy’s work is in terms of stealth advocacy, enacting change through the tools of bureaucracy: meeting notes, the limited tools at their disposal. In subsequent communication about the creation of the committee, Jix writes to Beverly Henegan of Renshaw’s power: “Betty’s letter makes it clear that I was supposed to appoint you to whatever you, Betty, and Nancy think ought to be done. I’d be more specific, but Betty is the one who says what we decide…If Betty tries to make any evasive actions about what she can’t do by claiming she is just the secretary, you are free to point out that I took even her indirect suggestion as an order.” In such work advocacy might not always appear as such. It might just, as in this key feminist moment, manifest as meeting notes, declaring the existence of a new coalition. Feminist histories are often humble histories. Subsequently, feminist change might not be immediately recognizable, and will likely not be written up in a press release. It may take the form of microactivist strategies, tools for feminist invention in spaces particularly resistant to change. 


Event 2: The 1975 Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications  

The second example we draw attention to is the development of the 1975 Guidelines for Nonsexist Use of Language in NCTE Publications (referred to throughout as Guidelines for the reason that it illustrates quite different sets of strategies and advocacy used by the NCTE Women’s Committee to write, gain approval for, and implement this set of guidelines. The 1974 NCTE convention included a resolution to create such a document, and the November 1975 Board of Directors meeting at the convention in San Diego included the decision for NCTE to “encourage the use of nonsexist language, particularly through its publications and periodicals” (page 1, Guidelines). Just four years after the NCTE Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Profession was formally charged, they, along with the NCTE Editorial Board, authored the Guidelines. Although the direct audience for the Guidelines was editors such that they could ensure their publications adhered to the discipline’s preferred language conventions, the authors note that “eliminating sexist language can be useful to all educators who help shape the language patterns and language usage of students and thus can help promote language that opens rather than closes possibilities to women and men.” The Guidelines content includes examples of problematic, sexist language and presents different methods for revising them using nonsexist language alternatives.  

Though the Guidelines themselves were seemingly approved at the NCTE Executive and Board of Directors levels with minimal fuss, operationalizing the Guidelines was another matter. This process gave rise to a series of complicated tensions and resistance, with mixed reactions from members and extraordinarily hostile responses from some well-known leaders in the field. What we want to illustrate in this section are some of those tensions that emerged and the strategies that the NCTE Women’s committee used to push back in public, assertive ways. From the start, there was a concern with whether and how to identify sexist language, and with what tone sexist language should be addressed. Committee member Marilyn McCaffrey’s letter (29 Sept. 1975) congratulating Linda Reed and Susan Drake on the Guidelines exemplifies such conflict: “It is clear and thorough and the tone is one of reason rather than militancy. All of this pleases me.”  At nearly that same time (9-30-1975) Ed Corbett[2], then the editor of College Composition and Communication and, at that time, member of the CCCC officers team, wrote a strongly contrasting letter to the authors detailing extensive objections to the Guidelines 

Right from the beginning, I have not been in sympathy with the movement to neuterize gender in our language. The Women’s Liberation movement has fought some good fights on important issues–equal job opportunities, equal pay for equal work, etc–and I am wholeheartedly behind them in those fights. But when women’s groups charge that terms like chairman are discriminatory, I can only conclude that some of the women in the movement have lost sight of the important issues and are wasting their energies on trivia.[…]  

Let me say that one of the most sensible statements on this matter is Murel R. Schulz’s “How Serious Is Sex Bias in Language,” which I published in the May 1975 issue of CCC 

Like Mr Milquetoast, I’ll probably buckle under to these Guidelines if they are officially adopted by NCTE for its publications, but I will be a disgruntled male chauvinist all the while I am kowtowing. 

In the Schultz article to which Corbett effectively lays claim in his letter, she writes of the myriad problems of adopting congressperson and chairperson in lieu of congressman and chairman, as the Guidelines suggest, “[A] difficulty with -person is that men resist accepting the new label. Why should they accept the neutral term chairperson? Chairman, statesman, congressman, and workman have served long and well. Why should these terms be obliterated by feminine decree?…The problem of pronouns stubbornly resists solution. The use of the generic he reflects the fact that our language is male-oriented” (164). Schulz suggests also that “person” means “woman,” since “man” is the obvious default, and discounts the possibility of “sex-free pronouns” gaining traction, though she does note the use of “they/them” as a useful possibility. Schulz’s prescient words typify the reluctance to adopt nonsexist guidelines for publication. Since men have power, she suggests, and language reflects that power, there is no impetus for men to relinquish any of their power. Schulz makes this observation without recommendations to address the imbalance, instead rightly noting that language reflects society and is difficult to change, particularly for those in the dominant majority.  In other words, a resistance strategy on the part of those invested in the status quo, such as Corbett, can include co-opting the voices of members of marginalized groups to support the dominant stance. Given Corbett’s reluctance to “neuterize” language, it is little surprise that he was happy to publish Schulz’s argument and indirectly claim responsibility for her work.  Certainly as one of the most influential and powerful members of the field at the time, the objection from Corbett would have been impactful. 

The Committee was interested not just in having guidelines but in thinking about how to operationalize them; they used a variety of direct activist strategies to institutionalize the guidelines and ensure that they were, despite Corbett’s objections, “officially adopted by NCTE for its publications.” For example, the Committee issued a call for manuscripts, noting “A CCCC resolution directed a task force to prepare materials to aid college teachers in implementing the NCTE resolution on Sexist Language” (appears in October 1977 issue of CCC, p. 256, and was also noted November issue of College English that same year). They also offered a “service” to NCTE publications, providing feedback on their relative success implementing the Guidelines. You can imagine the popularity of this effort: everyone loves being told that they’re sexist and how to change that.  

Even once the guidelines were officially adopted and implemented, there were concerted efforts to subvert the change. In particular, in 1978 at the end of the NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, Harold Allen presented a sense-of-the-house motion endorsed by the Commission on Language to weaken the Guidelines, such “that the policy opposing the use of sexist language in NCTE publications shall not be so construed as to prevent the use of such language by an author if the accompanying editorial comment indicates its presence is the result of an author’s express stipulation.” Although this first motion failed, a subsequent motion the following year passed, though we’re not aware of anyone availing themselves of the opportunity to mark their work as purposely sexist in NCTE publications (we aren’t able to address this fascinating negotiation in the depth it deserves here, but please stay tuned).  

Despite the pointed critiques and reluctance by some powerful members of the discipline, the Guidelines were written and shared by 1975, and implemented and adopted with just the one amendment by 1979. In contrast with the development of the Committee on Women itself, which required stealth advocacy and decades of requests before officially being charged within CCCC, the work of the Guidelines was completed on a startlingly fast timeline and with direct advocacy. Further, the work of the Committee extended beyond its immediate members and significantly changed the workings of NCTE writ large. The far reach and its lasting impact are characterized by their continued mention in each NCTE and affiliate conference program, and the multiple revisions to the document that have helped it reflect current language practice. Instead of remaining a distinct aspect of NCTE, relegated to “women’s work,” the Guidelines were adopted within the organization itself and officially taken up by leadership.  

Event 3: The Movement for On-Site Childcare at the CCCC  

The implementation of the Guidelines was hard won, representative of the discursive “role and image” of women in the profession. Our third key moment, however, addresses another priority of the Women’s Committee, the presence of women in the discipline, and, in particular, at the convention. In 1978 during the Women’s Exchange at the CCCC Convention, Ginny Kirsch is credited in a newsletter with asking “Do motherhood and rhetoric mix”? The emphatic response from various iterations of the committee[3] has been to try to make parenting and active participation in the discipline more possible. Certainly since the CCCC Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession (CSWP) was officially constituted in 1983, one of its primary purposes was “to continue to promote the participation of women in the annual convention, on CCCC committees, and in positions of leadership within CCCC,” and while of course not all women are or want to be mothers, it is well documented that being a mother and an academic often conflicts (Gabor, Neeley, Leverenz; Sallee; Ghodsee and Connelly; Mason, Wolfinger, and Goulden; Siegel; Slaughter; Sallee). Targeting childcare support was identified early on as an important strategy to support the aim of increasing women’s representation at the convention. In fact, one of the nine charges put forth for the 1971 NCTE Committee on the Role of Women in the Profession and the Council, a progenitor of the Feminist Caucus, included “responsibility to focus its attention on” “sources or lack of sources available for child day care so that women with children can successfully pursue graduate study and/or half- or full-time teaching” (Appendix A).  

Despite this immediate focus and the fact that childcare was regularly requested as a need in yearly reports, it was decades before childcare was formally offered at the convention, and then only for a brief time (2009-2010). In 1988, the CSWP asked the EC for financial support – $50-100 – to research the need for and feasibility of offering daycare at future CCCC conventions. They requested polling members in the exhibit hall or including a question about childcare needs on a “ballot going out to members at officer election time.”  In 1990, the CSWP submitted a formal memo requesting that the EC “institute childcare facilities at its annual convention on a three-year pilot basis to begin in 1991” (Childcare at the CCCC Conventions memo, April 17,1990). Yet, the EC responded that after having polled the membership, they learned that only 5% of conference participants would take advantage of childcare at the convention should it be offered. They “concluded that, given what seemed to be a need among a relatively small percentage of the membership, it would not pursue the issue further at this time” (Response to CSWP from EC). Of course, the CSWP did not agree with the EC’s finding, calling the decision “troubling” and arguing that they “consider providing childcare facilities for the children of parents (both men and women among our membership) who participate in our conference to be an ethical commitment, not a luxury.” The flaw of these data, of course, is survivorship and/or sample bias. That is, it’s quite possible that members with children had simply disengaged from professional activities of this kind in order to balance the demands of mothering with the professional obligations that participation in the CCCC convention created.  

Although the EC did not provide a budget for childcare following the formal request, they did allot space for parents at the following convention in 1991, specifying that “CCCC assumes no responsibility for any aspect of the day-care cooperative except to provide the meeting room.” The Child-Care Cooperative invited participants to use the room as needed and meet in the morning to organize care for the day together (See Figure 1).   

Figure 1: 1991 Convention Program Information about the Childcare Cooperative. Image description: screenshot of archival conference program giving the hours and location of the Child-Care Cooperative: 8am-8pm, Nantucket Room, 4th Floor. 

Figure 1: 1991 Convention Program Information about the Childcare Cooperative. Image description: screenshot of archival conference program giving the hours and location of the Child-Care Cooperative: 8am-8pm, Nantucket Room, 4th Floor.

In 2004, the CSWP report cites “concerns related to maternity” as a primary focus of the committee and again requests that the EC prioritize childcare at the conference. In response to these repeated requests, the ad hoc Committee on Child Care Initiatives was formed following the November 2007 meeting of the Executive Committee. They were charged to explore child care options in New Orleans and for four subsequent conventions. As the newly appointed chair of the CSWP, Eileen Schell was a member of the CCCC Committee on Childcare Initiatives, chaired by Susan Miller Cochran. Members of the committee also included Rosalyn Collings Eves, Roger Graves, Sue Hum, Gerald Nelms, and Blake Scott.  

The Childcare Committee did extensive research and advocacy toward the goal of offering childcare at CCCC. They had four research priorities: researching childcare in New Orleans, articulating the “the pros/cons of pursuing an informal option in New Orleans,” identifying peer organizations’ practices, and considering liability (Susan Miller Cochran committee communication). They found that many other organizations offer childcare, often through KiddieCorps (who provided onsite childcare at MLA 2007) or Accent on Children’s Arrangements (who ultimately provided onsite childcare at CCCC 2009), commercial service groups that offer childcare for specific events such as conferences. Other iterations that surfaced in their research included babysitting co-ops organized by conference participants, recommendations for local childcare options provided through the convention center/hotel, and vouchers meant to offset the cost of childcare. A 2007 Chronicle article entitled, “Bring the Kids,” detailed one such approach by the Association for Jewish Studies that offered childcare for $40/day for all interested faculty at their annual meeting. Perhaps the strangest option that arose in their research, and one that is indicative of the many hoops participants must often jump through to receive “help,” was from a Linguistics Conference, LSA (January 2008), that provided the following stipulations for parents to receive a Childcare Referral or Stipend:  

(1) They are presenters on the LSA program. (2) The caregiver they secure is a graduate student or unemployed linguist.[4] [This person will also receive a complimentary Annual Meeting registration.] (3) The caregiver has agreed to provide child care for no more than two children for 8-12 hours. (4) The parents notify the Secretariat no later than 1 November 2007”.  

Although the intention of the requirement that childcare stipends go to “unemployed linguists” is understandable, one has to wonder how many busy parents were able to take advantage of such a narrow requirement or were comfortable approaching graduate students to make such a (inappropriate?) request. Liability was a consistent concern that came up in conversations about childcare, particularly in such informal iterations, but the two large organizations had liability insurance to cover both themselves and the organization, making this the most expensive, but most appealing option.  

Given the reality of the convention calendar in which funds and space are allotted so far in the future, it wasn’t possible to get childcare up and running for the convention until 2009 in San Francisco. Ultimately, there seemed to be support on all sides for the work of the committee and the fact of childcare at the convention in the future (See Appendix C for relevant information distributed by the group to stakeholders and report information submitted to the CCCC officers, notably that a professional service was contracted and a childcare collective was created). Thus, childcare options were offered for the New Orleans convention, just not the on-site childcare option that the committee identified as necessary for effective inclusion of parents in the convention. We don’t have documentation of how many parents participated in the informal options offered in New Orleans, but “Bring the Kids,” as well as the extensive research by the Committee on Childcare Initiatives demonstrates that informal babysitting among conference members and individual sitters in guest hotel rooms are not preferred by most parents.   

Spurred on by their work toward the 2008 New Orleans convention, in their Report to the CCCC EC, the Committee on Childcare Initiatives resolved that there would be formal onsite childcare at the 2009 San Francisco convention calling for further solidarity regarding the CCCC initiatives around childcare (see Appendix D for the full motion), resolving that: “the Conference on College Composition and Communication contract with a professional childcare provider to provide childcare at the 2009 CCCC convention and beyond. Further, we urge that this service be provided at a subsidized rate for graduate students and contingent faculty” (March 18,2008 Committee Report to the EC). They were committed to getting a jump on the convention calendar and ensuring necessary space and effective communication. A significant part of the committee’s work leading up to the 2009 convention itself was making the childcare option visible. There were numerous concerns that the opportunity wasn’t made clear to registrants, which would preclude them from taking advantage of the service in San Francisco. The committee was understandably concerned that if the service wasn’t made use of, it would be hard to build momentum for the long term on-site childcare solutions they were working toward. They had much to contend with. In addition to identifying a reliable, safe provider and communicating the available service on a tight timeline, they had to work against the perceived “prevailing attitude/assumption […] that people were not supposed to bring their kids to professional meetings” (Roger Graves, personal communication, 2023). Roger Graves, a member of the Committee on Childcare Initiatives, describes how he and his wife, like other academic partners, alternated caring for children and attending sessions, or taking turns going to the convention each year.   

Finally, at the 2009 San Francisco convention, Camp CCCC came to fruition. The Committee Chair, Susan Miller-Cochran, announced the options, which were also included in less detail in the program: 

This year we are offering an on-site activity center for childcare, Camp CCCC, during the convention from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday right in the Hilton Hotel. Children ages 6 months to 12 years old are welcome. The center, staffed by experienced CPR and Pediatric First Aid certified professionals, will provide age-appropriate entertaining and educational activities, including storytelling, hands-on crafts, games, the “Build It Zone,” and the “Boogie It Zone.” Infant care stations, rest areas, and “SecurChild®” photo check-in and check-out will ensure a safe, secure environment.  

The San Francisco Childcare Pilot was a success, noted in both the yearly reports for the Committee on Childcare Initiatives and the CSWP, whose members and work necessarily overlapped. CCCC allotted $3000 to offset participant childcare costs. Fourteen families used the services, all of whom unanimously said that the existence of childcare at the conference enabled them to participate. Still, the childcare option wasn’t very visible, and, though they didn’t track a waiting list, the provider noted that at least ten parents visited the childcare center and noted that they would take advantage of the service at the following convention since they didn’t become aware of the it until they were at the convention. The Committee on Childcare Initiatives asked that the EC fund childcare at $4,640, the amount “needed to hire professional providers for on-site care” (2009 email from Eileen Schell regarding childcare), beyond the $3000 they had agreed to. Cengage sponsored the initiative with a $1500 donation, and both the Childcare committee, CSWP, and the EC suggested that external sponsors of childcare might be a useful direction for long term support of the service.  The 2010 Convention in Louisville again offered onsite childcare through Accent on Children’s Arrangements.  

Unfortunately, CCCC’s commitment to supporting childcare for at least four years at the convention (usage of which very likely may have increased over time as awareness grew) changed. Though the exact set of decisions that led to the evaporation of childcare options is unclear, several motions from relevant EC meeting minutes suggest a few explanations. First, in March 2009, a “crisis” emerged in which dozens of manuscripts were accepted to CCC without sufficient page allotment to publish them, requiring the reallocation of a significant amount of funding, upon a vote by the EC, to cover the cost of publication and expansion into CCC online. Though it appears funds were preserved for the 2010 convention, a review of CCCC EC minutes from November 2009, March 2010, and November 2010, along with the Childcare Committee’s two reports that same year, suggest that somewhere during that 2010 time period, no funding was actually preserved for supporting childcare efforts at the convention. A Sense of the House motion in support of subsidized childcare did pass at the convention in 2010. However, there is no formal documentation that the Childcare Committee’s request for 2011 funding was ever acted on by the EC.  

The perfect storm of relatively low participation in the childcare service given its newness, the journal’s fiscal crisis, and somewhat misleading responses to CCCs survey of members about the need for childcare (the survey asked who would take advantage of on-site childcare without asking if the member needed childcare at all), resulted in an early end to the pilot. In rejecting the committee’s funding request for professional, on-site childcare, Program Chair Marilyn Valentino instead recommended working with the “the local arrangements committee to find suitable, safe, and reliable services close to the convention site, perhaps through a university’s childcare service or similar venue.” Yet, in the June 7, 2010 Committee on Childcare Initiatives Report, they underscored the importance of on-site childcare in lieu of other options, noting that its purpose,  

…is to help make childcare more safe and reliable, and less of a burden, to members who require this service in order to attend the convention. While we realize that childcare is not an immediate concern of every member of CCCC, we believe that providing this service sends an undeniable message about who is welcome in our organization, how inclusive we are, and how much we value the diversity of membership that such a service supports. CCCC will need to continue to commit to a long-term childcare solution for future conventions. Our concern for the well-being of contingent faculty, junior faculty, and graduate students, and our desire to be as inclusive as we possibly can, demand that we address this issue consistently.”  

Despite this rebuke, the Childcare Committee concluded its three year existence, was not reconstituted, and on-site childcare was not offered again at the convention after 2010. Although rooms continued to be provided for nursing parents, space for a childcare Co-op was not allotted, nor was the babysitting swap continued. It is perhaps telling that the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession was reconstituted from 1983-2015, suggesting that the work of this committee was not finished, yet the Childcare Committee only existed for its three-year term. Subsequently, the requests for childcare once again returned to the CSWP’s report requests, unheeded as they were for the previous two decades.  

In 2015, the CSWP again proposed an academic day camp at CCCC, which was not funded; however, the EC provided support for new Childcare Grants, $300 each/10 grants, the same original budget that had been allowed to lapse four years earlier. Concurrently, the CSWP helped distribute information on the new SIG Academic Mothers, another indicator of the continuing relevance of Ginny Kirsch’s 1978 question, “Do motherhood and rhetoric mix”? Since then, the Childcare Grants have been renamed Care Grants, and they are offered to any dependent caregiver. In keeping with the committee’s original, consistent priorities, graduate students and contingent faculty are given preference if the allotted funds run out. MLA, which also at one time offered onsite childcare, has moved to a similar voucher program in which conference registrants can submit childcare receipts up to $400. Preference is also given to graduate students and contingent faculty. Like many changes to higher education, childcare vouchers offer individual support rather than systemic change that could improve the community writ large: support rather than solidarity.  

However, the goal of onsite childcare, briefly realized more than a decade ago, has not been revived as a request. The Care Grants have become the long-term solution, although peer organizations, from the American Chemical Society to the American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature have onsite childcare, and, for its part, KiddieCorp has been offering their services for going on 38 years. Yet in 2024, what will conference participation even look like? What is the continuum of desires for support as the equity gap across institutions widens? What are the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reduced travel funding for professional engagement, movement of conference-going to virtual spaces, and how will this affect the participation of different member groups with these kinds of historically important professional opportunities? Within the broader considerations of the Feminist Caucus and other feminist groups within rhetoric and writing studies and their intersectional goals of inclusion, what should access look like going forward?  


It’s worth considering the relative success of these three efforts at feminist activism and disciplinary coalition building in terms of intentions and actions, and ideological versus material commitments. The development of the CCCC Women’s Committee and its evolution to the Feminist Caucus demonstrates the success of Betty Renshaw and Nancy Prichard’s stealth efforts and the impact of Robert Hogan’s kairotic moment of meeting sleepiness. It took 15 years for the committee to be formally charged within CCCC, but its fiftieth birthday suggests that the committee has had staying power, and its archive demonstrates effective advocacy on behalf of its constituents (elsewhere we have also written about the missteps and complex history of the Caucus, see Graban, Hassel, and Pantelides). Further, the work of the Guidelines is memorialized in the discipline’s annual convention programs, and has been so successful that the addendum allowing the use of sexist language when indicated by an editorial footnote has not – to our knowledge – ever been utilized. The efforts of what became the Feminist Caucus insured implementation of the Guidelines with assertive, unwelcome insistence of its adoption.  

Yet, the childcare initiatives, called for consistently beginning in 1971, stalled in each of their iterations. For a “feminized” (Schell, 1998), applied field such as ours to continually ask for on-site childcare and only have it offered for two of our fifty years suggests the vast difference between ideological and material feminist responses, between support and solidarity. No feminist change is easy, and both the creation of the Committee and the development and implementation of the Guidelines demonstrate how difficult it is to bring about linguistic change and inclusive practice. But on-site childcare required the operationalization of the beliefs undergirding feminist changes in the discipline. They also required budgeting. Thus, it is particularly metaphorically appropriate that on the cusp of institutionalizing childcare at the conference, funds were diverted for scholarship.  

Our discipline has long been torn on how to include the “teaching majority”:  instructors in our field who are not represented in our scholarship, who are teaching the majority of our courses, who we say we value but whose influence is devalued (see Larson, 2018; Hassel, 2022). During the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher-scholars made this visible through a variety of multimodal projects and traditional and nontraditional academic texts (see, Prielipp; Lumumba; Michaud, and other essays in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics’ special issue on Carework and Writing during Covid, and Lindquist, Strayer, and Halbritter’s 2022 anthology of ‘documentarian tales,’ collected stories of teacher-scholarship-care work during the early months of the pandemic).  

Making visible the strategies that feminist teachers and scholars have used to bring about change is one start, and creating scholarly spaces like the JOMR special issue and documentarian tales are how we might make more visible our feminist humble histories and the daily work of members of our field whose labor is marginalized and devalued. As long as the material needs of the teaching majority are viewed as peripheral to their participation in the professional conversations of the field, however, we will have an incomplete picture of who we are. As the CFP for this cluster conversation notes in quoting Audre Lorde, “We are anchored in our own place and time, looking out and beyond to the future we are creating, and we are part of communities that interact. While we fortify ourselves with visions of the future, we must arm ourselves with accurate perceptions of the barriers between us and that future” (57). We take heart in chronicling the feminist coalition building of the Feminist Caucus and its early iterations, yet our primary barrier remains: operationalizing our values, prioritizing access for all members of our coalitions, demonstrating not just support, but solidarity.  


Works Cited 

Gabor, Catherine, Stacia Dunn Neeley, and Carrie Shively Leverenz. “Mentor, May I Mother?” In Stories of Mentoring: Theory and Practice, edited by Michelle F. Eble and Lynee Lewis Gaillet, 2008, pp. 98–112. Parlor Press. 

Ghodsee, Kristen, and Rachel Connelly. 2014. Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 

Hassel, Holly. 2022. “2022 CCCC Chair’s Address: Writing (Studies) and Reality: Taking Stock of Labor, Equity, and Access in the Field.” College Composition and Communication, 74 (2): 208-228.  

Larson, Holly. 2018. “ Epistemic Authority in Composition Studies: Tenuous Relationship between Two-Year English Faculty and Knowledge Production.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 46, no. 2, 2018, pp. 109-136.   

Mason, Mary Ann, Nicolas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden. Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013. 

Mueller, Derek, Kate Pantelides, Laura Davies, Matt Dowell, Alanna Frost, Mike Garcia, Rik  Hunter. “Polymorphic Frames of Pre-tenure WPAs: Seven Accounts of Hybridity and Pronoia.” Kairos, vol. 21, no. 1, 2016.  

National Council of Teachers of English. Committee on the Status of Women Archival Files from the University of Illinois-Champaign library.  

Lindquist Julie, Bree Strayer, and Bump Halbritter.  Recollections from an Uncommon  Time: 4C20 Documentarian Tales. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2023. 

Lumumba, Ebony. “Starved for Color: Work, Mothering, and Covid,” Journal of Multimodal  Rhetorics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2022.  

Michaud, Christina. “Read, Write, Cook, Repeat: The Intertwining of Pandemic Parenting  and Scholarship.” The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2022.  

Osorio, Ruth, Vyshali Manivannan, and Jessie Male, eds. Special issue on Carework and  Writing during COVID, Part 1 and 2. The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 6, no. 1 and vol. 7, no. 1.  

Prielipp, Sarah. “It’s So Hard: Caregiving during Covid.” Journal of Multimodal  Rhetorics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2022.   

Seigel, Marika. Rhetoric of Pregnancy. University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

 Slaughter, Ann-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Atlantic, July/August 2012. -it-all/309020/. 

Sallee, Margaret W. “Gender Norms and Institutional Culture: The Family-Friendly versus the Father-Friendly University.” Journal of Higher Education, vol. 84, no. 3, 2013, pp. 363–96. 

Schell, Eileen. Gypsy Academics and Mother-teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction. Boynton, 1998.  



[1] We affectionately refer throughout the piece at times to “Betty and Nancy” because of how often they are referred to in the archival documents together.
[2] At the time of these events, the CCC editor was a member of the CCCC Officers’ Committee. That structure has changed such that the representative editors of CCCC-associated publications serve ex officio, non-voting roles on the Executive Committee.
[3] The history of the group’s structure and evolving naming is as follows: The NCTE Committee on the Role and Status of Women in the Profession, the NCTE Women’s Committee, the CCCC Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, the Standing Group on the Status of Women in the Profession, and the Feminist Caucus.
[4] We can’t help but remark upon the strange unstated assumption that the skill sets of graduate students or unemployed linguists would overlap with the skill set of providing competent childcare.


Your Good Deed Could Save the World: Fighting Austerity is a Feminist Must

Some might consider a fight against institutionalized austerity to be beyond their pay grade, or work for which they do not have capacity. While recognizing that some people might have barriers for fighting austerity, I argue that fighting austerity is not just care work but also rhetorical and cultural work for which members of our field are of course well-trained to undertake. Through some scenes of my journey as a witness to growing income inequality enabled by my institution, I show how austerity affected my self-efficacy, led me to a new way of seeing and made me consider how feminists can take the lead challenging austerity. Borrowing from Annica Cox and Rachel Riedner, I identify some of my work as a “feminist institutional citizenship,” a generative set of practices with its centerpiece–collaboration across silos. Feminist institutional citizenship can be in tension with the dominant demands of academic work that values individualist goal-making. I rely also on reflective methods that Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch call “strategic contemplation” and associate with feminism, “an ethics of hope and care” which can inspire “responsible, rhetorical action” (147).   

Strategic contemplation can be a means to kairos, reading the room. It requires paying attention to, engaging with and even composing texts that could be considered “ordinary, routine, even mundane” (Royster and Kirsch 147), Significantly, strategic contemplation can be used to interpret and critique pertinent circulating narratives the stories “we are in,” that shape and affect our work. These texts can even include the landscape–place. Strategic contemplation ultimately had me assess austerity culture, supported by its rhetoric, as patronizing, discouraging and, unfortunately, ubiquitous. As Vicki Dabrowski points out,  austerity has an emotional component—prohibiting its recipients from “adapting and planning for the future” when their expectations are compromised, their dreams seem impossible (152). Fighting austerity is care work because it challenges a culture that relies on hierarchies between people and fails to acknowledge the self in Other, the I in thou. Austerity advocates promote it as financially necessary, but I show that the rhetoric and budget models at my institution suggests austerity is ideological, a choice. Moreover, the dynamic between the three campuses that make up my institution is a microcosm for a larger higher education budget model and its corresponding culture that seems necessary to critically assess. I emphasize next my efforts to take responsibility for my privilege by confronting austerity showing that I have also been a victim of austerity which in turn shapes my insight. My experience suggests that an “ethics of hope and care” (Royster and Kirsch) cannot flourish in an austerity culture. Fighting austerity therefore is a feminist must. 


My transformative confrontation with austerity took began during a research trip to Minneapolis traveling from an Airbnb on a bus to the National Federation of Settlement archives housed at a University of Minnesota library. Most US settlements were closed in the 1950s as low-income people were moved from their neighborhoods to public housing high-rises to make way for highways and neighborhoods built for the middle class. I study the culture in Detroit in particular, the Motor City, at the epicenter of mid-century highway and urban renewal development. I wanted to look closely for evidence of any rhetorical engagement with powerful stakeholders among settlement leaders about the closing of settlements that accompanied the demolition of low-income neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this research was interrupted in more ways than one when I got an inconvenient phone call from my associate dean as I got off the bus at the library, a call that would profoundly change my relationship with the institution where I was educated and educate. 

As I stood outside the library leaning on a fence, this dean hinted strongly that the funding for the writing center position I was about to take over from a retiring lecturer would not be funded moving forward. I was shocked and devastated to hear the news. I had gotten my start in Rhet/Comp through writing center work. It had also taken a while for my turn at this job when I meanwhile had waited it out with other small administrative gigs.  

My work at the archives in Minneapolis those next three days was doomed. I had trouble concentrating and focusing. Archival material is fuel that can carry me for a year or even years, but this time the work felt black, my note taking mechanical.  

A month later I was invited to a meeting where the writing program director and I were told by dean administrators, which included the financial manager, that indeed the positions for the writing program director and writing center program on our regional University of Michigan campus in Dearborn, were being cut indefinitely because of a budget crisis. At one point in the discussion, I mentioned the expansively funded and staffed writing center at the flagship Ann Arbor campus. The financial director said firmly, “We are not Ann Arbor.” I guess I was supposed to be satisfied with that response. I was not. During my entire adulthood, I have witnessed the rich get richer and the poor get poorer with the University of Michigan as my primary case study.  

Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Me 

Whether or not by deliberate design, the relationship between Ann Arbor and its regional campuses Dearborn and Flint is a prototype showing how income inequality, and its partner austerity, is enabled through a calculated financial culture that benefits powerful investors. The funding formula works out so that each Ann Arbor student receives four times the funding than Flint and Dearborn students. Dearborn and Flint campus students are considerably more low-income, nearly half of them Pell-grant eligible, about the same percentage of Pell-grant eligible students in Michigan overall (“Facts and Figures”). As Charlie Eaton argues, endowment “spending has primarily benefited students from privileged backgrounds” (1) Endowment-rich schools like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor can afford to spend more per student as meanwhile lower-income and less privileged students, who more typically attend schools like mine, are supported by tax dollars stingily appropriated. As a result, lower-income students who attend regional universities are disadvantaged by debt upon graduation compared to their wealthy peers. As Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier explain, “This ‘new normal’ of disinvestment, privatization, and regressive imposition of increasing charges on working-working class and poor students further exacerbates…inequalities” (98). The wealthy, whose taxes could be used to better fund schools like mine, are incentivized by tax breaks to invest in endowments that in turn benefit more privileged students who attend schools like the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (Eaton 119). 

As an alumnus of the Ann Arbor campus, I had already been long alarmed about the proliferating opulence on the Ann Arbor campus vis-à-vis the austerity culture on my campus, and comparable austerity also on its other regional comprehensive universities in Flint. Ann Arbor’s central administration’s reliance on its endowment and out of state tuition favors itself over its comprehensive campuses. These comprehensive campuses statistically better serve the 51% of Pell-eligible Michiganders. Dearborn’s campus is even especially credited for enabling economic mobility (“Top Performers”). Having received my BA in 1990, I was among the last in-state college students to pay relatively affordable tuition as the current culture of austerity in US higher education was established. Beginning in the mid-80s, states began disinvesting in higher education as policies eliminating taxes on endowments benefitted investors. Schools like the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor grew their endowments, enabled via cozy alumni networks of the well-heeled. Ann Arbor’s endowment has grown precipitously since 1985 from one billion to ten billion by 2015 and nearly doubled itself again to 17.2 in the past eight years (Castilla 3, Jordan). All the while, opportunistic financiers established a student loan culture as low-income students have bridged the gap of rising tuition through self-financing (Eaton).   

Rhetoric Buoys Austerity 

Ann Arbor’s rhetoric affirms and parallels its culture of inequality and hierarchy, which enables austerity. I have more status on the Ann Arbor campus as an alumnus–a potential or actual donor, who might also peddle the university’s brand by wearing its clothing and attending its sporting events–than as a faculty member on one of its regional campuses. As a micro example, when I sought online help from an Ann Arbor library a couple of years ago, I was asked in the menu to identify my “status.”  My choices, in order, were:  UM Undergraduate, UM Graduate Student, UM Faculty, UM Alumni and, last, Other* (example, includes visitors, people not associated with U-M as well as Flint and Dearborn members).”  It seemed not cool to be identified as “Other.” I complained to the library’s communication’s director about this language and some of it since has been reworded (Rohan). I would consider communication with library higher-ups about its list that Othered its regional campus members as an anti-austerity move and a feminist must if considering “ethics of care” and “responsible rhetorical action” as a component of feminist work. As Royster and Kirsch also point out, an ethics of care requires engaging with communities respectfully “as we join the world in theirs and work with them to set in motion a different, more fully rendered sense of rhetoric as an enterprise with a future” (147). Rhetoric can reflect and enable austerity culture. Confronting it can improve the institution, and thus the lives of most vulnerably affected by its policies when considering that austerity can inhibit hope in the future. 

Whomever came up with this list unself conscious of the term “Other” to describe its Dearborn and Flint campus colleagues likely didn’t know or consider that so many of our students are low-income, first generation or people of color disproportionately (“Facts and Figures”). Rhetoric by central administration also unproblematically emphasizes hierarchies between faculty on the Ann Arbor campus and its regional campuses. As typical, the former president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, has argued that the budget model is fair because “[w]e [the university] have one global research university and two regional campuses that are much more local in their focus”” (Saikh). But Dearborn students reportedly hail from 78 countries (“Facts and Figures”). This hierarchical language parallels claims on central administration’s current public affairs website that UM-Ann Arbor has “high research activity” and “competes for faculty and students with other national and international institutions that do similar levels of research” but that “UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn are regional schools whose faculty and academic programs are held to different standards than UM-Ann Arbor” (“Our Three Campuses”). Indeed, faculty on the Dearborn and Flint campuses teach more classes than those on the Ann Arbor campus relying on a teacher/scholar model, and some if not most faculty do less research quantitatively than Ann Arbor faculty. However, in what field, is it not unfair or even corrupt to judge a scholar by their institution or even rank? Our Dearborn campus has in fact been named as a top producer of Fulbright scholars (“Top Producers”). The term “different standards” sounds patronizing, Othering even. 

The emphasis on hierarchical differences between Ann Arbor and its regional campuses in central administration’s rhetoric has been a necessary defense because it rationalizes the status quo budget model. We hear the argument that the Ann Arbor endowment is not for Dearborn and Flint students because this endowment has been earmarked for specific purposes by donors. The donors are entitled to their goals with the money, so any resources from it going to the regional campuses would be unethical. As Fabricant and Brier put it, “The ever greater reliance on new sources of private revenue for public goods [i.e. higher education] has led to an especially deleterious effect on those least able to pay” (23). The institution in this way has strayed from its original mission. The University of Michigan was established to serve the state through a land grant from the US government with money officially appropriated for its growth in the mid 1800s. Even though the university has a long history of gaining private donors, it has been and is still a state-supported public institution (Castilla and Hodgeson 6).  

Collaborating to Fight Austerity, a Formula for Feminist Institutional Citizenship 

I was able to run the writing center for one year as a lame duck director. I enjoyed the work immensely, particularly the training of the writing center consultants with faculty guest speakers across the campus. The loss of not being able to run the center did not entirely hit me until the following year when I was no longer running it, which contributed to feeling like my career had dead-ended.  

Overall, I just felt alienated. The future seemed bleak. As when October 2018 I dragged myself to Ann Arbor for an event showcasing research projects that incentivized collaboration across the three campuses, called the “Cube” research initiative. Maybe I could reignite some excitement about my research working with others? As it would turn out, the research I found most interesting featuring place-based learning was being conducted by faculty on my campus who were presenting a poster at the event, research I already knew about and was peripherally involved in. The psychic effort it took to attend an event like that which earlier in my career I had thrived on, this time brought me to tears and felt like a bust. I was preoccupied, could not “unsee” Ann Arbor’s lavish resources that made me think of inequality vis-à-vis the growing austerity on our campus, as strategic contemplation helped me put my experience into a greater context I was only beginning to fathom. The Cube event’s accoutrements were a sucker punch: a barely touched spread of expensive food and rows of plastic nametags for attendees not picked up, mine ironically not there even though I signed up for the event. Attendees also got a “goodie bag,” flashing LED-lit ice cubes for… I don’t know, to remind attendees like me about austerity on the Dearborn campus in contrast to extravagance on the Ann Arbor campus?   

I put the LED-lit cubes in my freezer for a while, which affirmed my alienation when I opened it. Eventually the lights in the cubes died so the cubes migrated–still in their dolled-up purple mesh bag–to a drawer in our house where batteries and LED-lit items await a second life in vain. Of course, financing the three campuses equitably is very complicated I might be told. The LED-lit cubes, their purple mesh outfit, and the unclaimed plastic name tags, come from an entirely different funding source than the writing center director position in Dearborn. At least the take home goodie bag did not include cake. “Let them eat LED-battery-powered purple-meshed dressed up not real ice cubes!” was trickier.  

As my energy to complete traditional academic research felt sapped, I became energized otherwise in fighting the austerity that led to my alienation and lost productivity. I began to speak out when encouraged by others as I transitioned from a more individualistic to collaborative mindset. In 2018 the Ann Arbor campus had just initiated a scholarship program called the Go Blue Guarantee for all students whose family income was less than $60,000, but a program as such had not been developed for Dearborn and Flint. I posted a speech questioning that decision which I had given at a regents’ meeting on Facebook. A U of M Ann Arbor librarian Facebook friend commented that Ann Arbor’s campus stakeholders claim to value diversity, equity and inclusion, but their passivity regarding their regional campuses’ austerity culture suggests its policies lack legitimacy and efficacy. She suggested I make my post public. 

Inspired by that, with some help from my friends I went a little guerilla warfare on the University of Michigan Alumni Facebook page after it took down an infograph I put up there with statistics about the unequal funding between Ann Arbor and Flint and Dearborn’s campuses. The Webperson, presumably as a response to my torn down infographic, posted an article bragging about the Go Blue Guarantee. In comments, my friends pointed out that the Go Blue Guarantee was not extended to Dearborn and Flint students. We accidentally maybe provoked some online posters, who stumbled upon our online conversation, to admit that Ann Arbor could not give this scholarship to Flint and Dearborn students because too many of them needed it! I guess I was becoming an activist taking on the University of Michigan’s PR machine.  

In a way the work was too easy, the claims too lame. But since it had the power, it needed not to have integrity, class, or even peddle or ponder the truth. Elitism was a cloak like a sweatshirt worn to a football game or a cap worn jogging. As several alumni punctuated in comments on this development of the Go Blue Guarantee in Ann Arbor that was not extended to students on the Flint and Dearborn campuses: “Go Blue.” Go Blue is in reference to the schools’ colors, maize (yellow) and blue. Doesn’t really matter if the matter is complicated: just say Go Blue and feel good? As my colleague who witnessed this online debate posed, “Have the words Go Blue replaced, ‘keep calm and carry on’ as a way to steamroll over the [regional] campuses, which some alumni seem to read as business liabilities.” An ethics of hope and care in this case when fighting austerity with responsible rhetorical action was engaging with the average person on the street, or on the Facebook page in this case. This exercise also reveals how austerity can be identified and perpetuated by ordinary texts produced by ordinary people carrying water to norm larger scripts of inequality they are not fully aware of. It seemed ethical, care work, to point out to these alumni that their comments, had they understood the greater context, were cruel. 

Thereafter I began collaborating and engaging more fully with the developing movement called One University or IU, that included part-time faculty, full-time faculty and students across the three campuses all working to confront those in power enabling austerity. The work has been fundamentally rhetorical as we brainstorm strategies which included meeting with regents, meeting with legislators, and writing op-eds.  

Showing Up and Speaking Out: Feminist Institutional Citizenship in Action  

Our most successful activity fighting austerity in the past three years has been promoting and providing data for a rally in spring 2021 that was organized by the three student governments from Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint, called “Fund our Future.” Students demanded that the university’s central administration commit $10 million per year to Flint and Dearborn campuses for at least five years (Kosnoski and Held, Benevidas-Colon). Considering that austerity can rob people of their ability to plan and imagine the future, the agenda had kairos. Dearborn and Flint students spoke on their campuses and then took buses to Ann Arbor for the main event, a set of speeches on the steps of Rackham Hall in Ann Arbor.  

Funding our Future could be regarded as a “big bang coalition” (Eaton) when groups otherwise siloed bond and organize through collective effort for a shared cause. Efficacy might be especially achieved if a coalition ‘bargains with bankers’ to hold powerful actors accountable for the financing enabling austerity. In California for instance, 2,000 students marched to the “flagship branch of Bank of America” and “put a face on those who don’t pay their fair share” (Eaton 178). While those confronting a big bank might not consider themselves feminists, nor did all members of our Funding the Future crowd, these efforts show how activist work can be defined as feminist work when it implements ethics of hope and care through responsible rhetorical action. 

Our “big bang” rally ended with a march past then President Mark Schlissel’s house. Some students told me they were uncomfortable with that idea and thought the planned chants about Schlissel were going too far. Some Dearborn students in fact went back on the bus instead of marching. A student walking next to me also happened to tell me she was uncomfortable about the idea but was marching anyway, too. I told the student that in this case, Schlissel had kind of asked for it. He created division with his rhetoric and made loads of money. So, she should feel empowered by speaking up if she was upset about inequality and interested in social justice. I understood why the student was unsure about following the crowd, but the crescendo of the rally in front of Schlissel’s house felt authentic. As wealthy capitalist Nick Hanauer warns, “If we do not do something to fix the glaring inequalities in our society, the pitchforks will come,” I was at home with my anger and frustration about austerity and the rhetoric justifying it—poorly so. When it comes down to it, the bad rhetoric crafted and encouraged by those with power that misrepresents our students bothers me the most. Hence, confronting it as care work. 

After this grande finale walking to my car, I passed by a church with a marquee that said, “Your good deed can save the world.” Ann Arbor was talking to me. A good sign, literally. This was the old Ann Arbor, before she became so corporate thanks to the university’s growing endowment the past thirty years and before the bankers took over. When higher education was more substantially funded, hippies had been in charge of the place. Poetry littered Ann Arbor on building walls and bathroom stalls. Aware of strategic contemplation as a method with my work with IU thus far, I pondered whether my participation in the rally was a good deed and thinking about my conversation with the student reluctant to march. The effort was collective. I didn’t spearhead it. I just drove 50 miles from my house and showed up. However, returning to my “alma mater” to fight like a mama bear for many students who have not had some of my privileges, but for whom I feel a connection, who I love, felt destined and uncorrupted.   

I have suggested how identifying, confronting and speaking out against austerity-enabling rhetoric is care work and I think my experience mentoring students at this rally is the best example of how fighting austerity can have a feminist dimension and is a form of “feminist institutional citizenship.” This is a phenomenon when, as Cox and Riedner assert, the “expertise of a broad range of stakeholders com[e] into coalition” (22). Faculty and students across three campuses had rallied for our future together—maybe like a family. Relatedly, while I shared some hesitation in physical activism that day, marching, the mentoring with student activists I engaged with that day comfortably fit with my ongoing work as a teacher. This mentoring could be regarded not only as teaching but, again, as care work which Cod and Riedner also identify as a component of feminist institutional citizenship (21). That day, I reflected foremost on the sense of responsibility I felt not only to confront inequities sponsored by my alma mater but to fight for the future of my students. Our action was collective. Our future was collective, too. Hope and care for students had become more fully integrated with my healing, my own lost hope from the austerity measures that stymied what I thought would be my career trajectory. 

I wished more faculty were there though. I understood that my colleagues first might be too busy responding to austerity to fight austerity or were just exhausted–particularly the women considering that Covid-19 pandemic mitigation disproportionately burdened women with childcare and academic care labor responsibilities (Altan-Olcay and Bergeron). Furthermore, not everyone experiences austerity the same way (Dabrowski 68). Even if austerity can dampen a  faculty member’s optimism about the future as resources are cut or compromised, feminist institutional citizenship might seem like a distraction from the more pressing requirements for succeeding in academe. Faculty are taught to “keep going, and otherwise ignore gendered organizational practices [austerity in this case]” as a survival tool in a publish or perish culture (O’Meara 353). As Suzanne Bergeron and Özlem Altan-Oclay point out, “Definitions of academic work and success continued to be based, for the most part, on the idea of the autonomous entrepreneurial academic subject working to meet existing performance expectations” (5). We are rewarded institutionally for thinking individualistically. Some might rightly feel like activism would hurt their chances at future opportunities inside institutions if alienating higher-up leadership. Untenured faculty might not take the risk of working for a committee not regarded as official by the institution like IU. However, feminist institutional citizenship should be a frontload essential for improving institutions, or even saving them, so we can continue with the work we have been trained to do, are rewarded for and value such as teaching and research. 

This activism can even move the institutional needle, benefitting students, situating this activism as care work. Shortly after our rally university regents announced that the Go Blue Guarantee, earlier just for Ann Arbor students, would be extended to Flint and Dearborn students (Jesse “U-M Extends Go Blue Guarantee”). Although this new program would turn out to be not so guaranteed, the decision by regents suggested to those of us on the IU committee what could happen if we all worked together with students and across campuses as a collective “agentive practice” (Cox and Reidner), working across silos, hierarchies and rank. 

Feminist Institutional Citizenship and Strategic Contemplation: Speechmaking Across Silos 

As another example of an agentive practice that could be regarded as feminist institutional citizenship that at the same time shows the mental challenge of activism, IU organized a bigger stunt to further our agency born by coalition for the December 2021 regents meeting that was in Ann Arbor: coordinating 3-minute speeches by faculty, staff and students from three campuses. Collectively our speeches emphasized how austerity measures were compromising the learning of students on our campuses who were already stressed economically and not to mention by the Covid-19 pandemic and its mitigation policies.  

Reflection, that would turn out to be strategic, was built into that day’s events for me. I arrived early to Ann Arbor for this meeting and took a walk across campus. To get to the building where the regents meeting would start, I cut through the large parking lot near the football stadium. If Ann Arbor was talking to me again, she was either proud or pointing out ridiculousness by showing who was important. Every coach, and assistant coach, and related staff member, had their own parking space. Of course, this is big money Big Ten sports, but what a super strange culture for someone arriving to earth from a spaceship. I wondered where the noble laureates and nobel prize winners parked. I knew the answer: in their driveways or the parking garages like everyone else. 

I was having my doubts. Was making a speech to the regents as a collaborative project to fight austerity another good deed—that is care work–or distraction from my work back on my campus finishing up finals, an inevitably not collaborative and quite pressing chore? Coming to Ann Arbor to big bang coalition and inventing agentive practices in so many meetings prior, took a lot of energy. Feminist institutional citizenship can be an intimidating calling. 

Strategic contemplation, reading and interpreting the story I was in, had helped me be long sensitive to big picture messaging on the part of our institution, messaging that laid bare its austerity culture and celebrated unapologetically our main campus’s flush resources and lavish plans. One presentation at the meeting showed the blueprints for yet another building for students, Ann Arbor’s, of course, not ours. A $25 million dollar donation from a wealthy donor, Larry Leinweber of the Leinweber Foundation, made possible the planning of a sprawling new science building for which the state of Michigan was also kicking in matching funds (“UM receives $25M gift,” “University of Michigan Regents Meeting”). In between speeches we held up paper tombstones naming programs that had been cut on Dearborn and Flint’s campus such as the Africana Studies program on Flint’s campus and, also, of course, the writing center on our campus.  

I fell in love with everyone who spoke for IU. One speech stole the show, difficult to do. A Flint undergraduate student laid out poignantly the major problem at hand: he felt like “a second-class citizen, a sideshow, an afterthought.” Precisely. That was the message we were supposed to internalize with the policies, the culture, the rhetoric. I would tie myself to the railroad tracks if I could, were not giving a 3-minute speech at a regents’ meeting the watered- down equivalent, to get any upper-administration mucky-muck to respond substantially to critique of regressive policies that might lead any hardworking, low-income, self-made and minority person to feel like second-class citizens at the University of Michigan.  

At the very end of the meeting, a statuesque, elderly African-American gentleman stood up and asked to talk to President Schlissel. As the man began talking for what would turn out to be about ten long minutes, his booming voice was quivering, his pain palpable. He introduced himself as Chuck Christian, said that he was dying of cancer and that he drove to Ann Arbor from Boston. He spoke about his lifelong trauma having been sexually abused by a University of Michigan doctor, Robert Anderson, whose actions were under investigation (Jesse, “Ex-football player”). He had put off his treatable cancer treatment because he feared doctors.  

Christian’s words were disturbing. They stayed with me the whole next day in competition with the afterglow of our group’s collaborative mash up “big bang” speech happening. Austerity: death by a thousand cuts. I struggled to process how the entire experience added up along with my maybe not so charitable knee-jerked thought: Christian’s expressing pain over his abuse by Anderson, and by proxy the University of Michigan, had stolen IU’s thunder that afternoon. I remembered later, after finals were over, my thoughts walking through the athletic compound parking lot on the way to the meeting, the parking spaces just for coaches. On second thought, Christian didn’t steal our thunder. He was our thunder. Christian’s pain, although in a whole other category than the collective pain of austerity our group had laid out, punctuated the effects of an institution that was not in the habit of listening, that rewarded some actors over others and in some cases, to a destructive effect, destroyed bodies and lives. While the people with power in that room could be moved to have empathy, their institution had allowed corruption to continue for years, in the case of a doctor who was a sexual predator. Ignoring profound problems had been trending for a long time and was baked into the culture of the place, the built environment even, its material space. The athletic compound parking lot showed a culture: who was important and had priority at an institution that was resource-rich but also enabled resource starvation, that is, austerity. 

The silence after Christian spoke, no doubt in part because of shock, symbolized perhaps that this administration really didn’t need to respond substantively to individuals without institutional power, even if these individuals were making good points, their facts and logic hard to argue with. But as a collective voice, IU and Christian’s standing up was a powerful collective blueprint. As Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier suggest, austerity needs to be fought along with “other progressive campaigns for social justice” (5). Thinking inclusively about our speeches and Christian’s, suggests a formula for action that might be activated writ large, when those suffering from a culture of corruption and disinvestment find common ground and fight power with truth together. Feminist institutional citizenship can include those outside of the academe who might not even share the same experiences with academics but who have the similar goals in seeking justice, equity, and the transformation of institutions.  

As it would turn out the Go Blue Guarantee designed for Dearborn and Flint has not been as substantial as the Ann Arbor scholarship program, which suggests the strong hold austerity culture can maintain even when confronted. Unlike the Ann Arbor’s program, the Dearborn and Flint program has a grade point average requirement, which eliminates a portion of our students from the scholarship. Ann Arbor, which has a higher-grade point requirement for acceptance than its regional campuses, does not have the grade point requirement for its Go Blue Guarantee (Kosnoski and Held). In this sense an Ann Arbor student, after acceptance to the university, could maintain their scholarship, even if getting a 2.0 throughout their college career. Dearborn and Flint students could lose their scholarship with its 3.5 grade point requirement on the other hand and would not be able to get this scholarship in the first place with say at 3.3 or 3.4 grade point that otherwise could get them accepted to the university. That students on Dearborn and Flinte campuses would need to be exceptional students rather than just accepted students, fits with the larger cultural picture that has enabled inequality between the campuses in the first place. As Fabricant and Brier put it, “Students not defined as ‘elite’ or ‘gifted’ are expected to bear the costs of diminished investment in education” (136). The caveat that those students on our campus receiving the Go Blue Guarantee must be extra special, not just accepted students who are also low-income, parallels also claims made by the writers responding to my friends and colleagues remarks on the University of Michigan’s alumni Facebook page. Funding low-income Dearborn and Flint students would be too much to ask because there are too many low-income students.   

  Maintaining elitism on the one hand while touting inclusion on the other—shape up and you can get your money—University of Michigan’s central administration, with Schlissel at the helm, had been doing its job. The job perpetuating inequality through policy that leads low-income students to borrow money to finance their education inside a larger system that disinvests in regional campuses like mine (Fabricant and Brier 138). A poor rhetorician, Schlissel was a pretty good messenger for the system that rewards elitism. He did fall on his own sword shortly after the roll out of the Go Blue Guarantee 2.0, that kind of includes Dearborn and Flint students now. He was caught violating a university code of conduct when sexually harassing an employee and was fired (Jesse “University President”).   

Austerity and Greater Contexts 

It would turn out that feminist institutional citizenship fighting austerity was not just care work but scholarly work as well. If at first it seemed that feminist institutional citizenship work, that relied on collaboration and also producing and circulating non-scholarly yet persuasive and potentially efficacious texts, was taking me away from producing the work I was trained for, one-authored, peer-reviewed research. Yet, it was eventually emotionally resonating and serendipitously scholarly that I found out about the cuts to my position as the writing center director when on the way to the archives that June day in 2016 in Minneapolis to pursue the completing a scholarly case study. I had gone to the archives to get a better sense for why those running settlements in 1950s did not fight back very hard when their work was downsized or destroyed. I eventually put together some parallels between higher education’s austerity culture and the austerity culture that pushed poor people out of their neighborhoods, and also pushed out the settlement leaders who were mostly women running settlement boards in 1950s Detroit. I hadn’t at first considered neighborhoods being raised, and settlements also being raised and closed, as an austerity project. In the historical case, powerful and layered policy–enabled also by a new brand of social worker that normed the removal of the poor from their existing neighborhoods to public housing that was considered better. Social service agencies that had begun as grassroots place-specific funding organizations merged with the United Way mid-century and became more bureaucratic when cooperating with government agencies. Although money was available for building public housing, settlement homes were regarded as too expensive, white elephants (Trolander 29). Again, austerity is an ideological choice not a financial necessity. There was plenty of money circulating for urban renewal and the construction of public housing compounds, but not for maintaining already established low-income neighborhoods. 

The policies hamstringing the settlements struggling to survive in the 1950s remind me of the policies shaping the austerity culture on campuses like mine. The US government has created policies that rate college campuses using a set of metrics, such as time-to-graduate reporting and efficiency plans, that puts disproportionate stress on colleges that serve low-income students and students of color. Colleges with wealthier students and large endowments have fewer students taking out loans and struggling to graduate in the socially-constructed-as-ideal four-year time frame (Fabricant and Brier). In each case, mid-century urban renewal culture and higher education austerity culture, the lives of the most disadvantaged have been and are hyper-measured without their consent or collaboration. Social disinvestment coupled with austerity disposes people (Fabricant and Brier 32). Likewise by extension, I felt disposable as a writing center director within this culture that values accountability to spreadsheets not people or big picture goals of student success and faculty development that might even improve the bottom line down the road. But as Vicki Dabrowski points out, “If you have no value for capital, the state makes it harder for you to live” (150). Non-elite colleges don’t typically produce profits for investors. As a result, these institutions as engines of mobility are undervalued, even devalued, and at the very least not important enough to have curiosity about—as with Schlissel using the term “local” to describe our diverse regional campuses. Rhetoric shapes and reflects passivity about inequality and austerity at my institution, and by extension higher education as a whole. Coalition building with the formula of feminist institutional citizenship can bring together people to hold institutions accountable for the policies that are not just financially damaging but psychologically damaging as well–such as extreme austerity leading its victims to lose hope. Fighting austerity is care work. 

It was ironic therefore that I got news about the writing center position being cut as I was walking into the archives with questions about the policies that led to the downsizing of female-run settlement culture. I had gotten a good taste of how someone in a leadership position in a neighborhood vulnerable to elimination by an austerity move might have felt. I also understood on two levels–personal and scholarly–why fighting back would be complicated even for those with privilege. Austerity can be so embedded in a culture aided by policy that it appears impenetrable, unfightable, even the natural order of things, for which passivity about it might seem the only course.   

Fighting Austerity as Emotional Repair Work 

The day after the meeting July 2016 when I learned that my dream to run a writing center was dashed, my family went to hang out with our friends who were finishing a Great Lakes regatta that ended on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Sailors on shore having been on a boat for three days are genuinely happy people and are fun to be around. I can’t say the drunken sailor is a stereotype. Reeling still from the meeting, I had a respite from my broken heart when I got sucked into a crowded dance floor of sailor friends and acquaintances at the island’s Horn Bar.  The place was packed, the space between people was comically zero. While I am normally claustrophobic and crowd phobic, to participate in that happy crowd was a comfort, a strong contrast to how I had felt in the meeting the day before. My emotions had me consider how austerity divides us unnaturally and destructively. It forbids compassion and denies our dependence on one another. It forces us to perform as isolated individuals, passive actors taking marching orders from a bureaucracy designed by elites valuing profit over other values such as the mobility of first-generation, working-class college students needing support for example. Austerity to me is the opposite of love, not hate but indifference. Austerity disposes of people by making dreams harder if not impossible not only to imagine but to achieve. It does not nurture. Feminists must fight it. As Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers argue: “We have identified ourselves as separate and have tried to protect ourselves from one another. We have used rules and regulations as weapons and fought to make ourselves safe. But there is no safety in separation” (64). There was no separation between bodies and selves at the Horn bar. Dancing was a metaphor: love and joy between friends and strangers as a default human behavior. Austerity is fundamentally unnatural. As physicist and feminist Karen Barad’s theorizes, “‘others’ are never very far from ‘us’” (178-79).  

We might be at the tipping point as institutions can no longer rely on austerity to function. As I wrote this essay, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor graduate students were on strike demanding a living wage drawing attention to the university’s reliance on cheap labor to run itself. By starving its regional campuses, the main campuses may also have gone too far enabling austerity. As schools like mine cut programs and lack money for tenure-track hiring, Research-1 schools like Ann Arbor are training graduate students for jobs that no longer exist, another microcosm of a larger system which more and more relies on efficiency, not care.  

Large scale protests and the mobilizing of graduate students who can’t make a living while training for full-time employment that might not exist also hints to a problem with austerity that Jewish civilization scholar, Jacques Berlinerblau calls “faculty fratricide.” University leaders complicit in severe budget cutting compromise academic freedom, faculty governance and the tenure system. One of my colleagues calls this phenomenon “eating our own.”  

Those who embrace ethics of hope and care should challenge a culture that disposes of those who aren’t interesting to the powerful. Again, not everyone will experience austerity the same or have the same power to fight it, and these differences can be legitimate barriers for collaboration. Yet, as Lee Nickoson and Kris Blair point out, listening can help mend division: “listen[ing] to voices of students, our community, to those who experience the world differently” (14). My fellow alumni writing “Go Blue” on a social media post that, if read closely, celebrates some low-income people but not others getting their college funded goes to show the ease with which otherwise good people can passively accept the status quo, too trusting of institutions or too tribal in their affiliations. Complicity was also the norm with those in power who went along with public policy that destroyed neighborhoods and moved the poor without their consent in the 1950s urban renewal cultural era.  

My experience with austerity culture, my activist work in response to it and some loneliness with it, might inspire more transparency about the material constraints on our work across rank and region, particularly recently. In this essay I promote feminist institutional citizenship which challenges an “individualistic mindset” (Cox and Riedert). On the other hand, there need not be formulas for fighting austerity but rather missions for which practices emerge from shared values. In my case, these practices have included collaborating, coalition building, mentoring, reflection, and identifying injustice through rhetoric: writing, speaking and editing. I associate these practices with feminist work when holding my institution, that happens to be my alma mater, accountable to better care for its most vulnerable students. As philosopher and Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs put it, “I want to ask people to ask themselves and each other what time is it on the clock of the world.” Put it another way, Barad, the feminist theoretical physicist, encourages us to “meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role we have in the world’s differential becoming” (396), I have shown how I confronted austerity when ‘taking responsibility for the world’s differential becoming,’ when reading the landscape around me, paying attention to institutional rhetoric and holding those with power accountable for it–practices of strategic contemplation that are tied to feminist ideologies and goals.  

I think it’s time we all stop accepting austerity as the norm in our respective higher education cultures.  

Your good deed could save the world.  

Works Cited 

Alton-Olkay, Özlem and Suzanne Bergeron. “Caring Times in the Pandemic: Rethinking  Meanings of Work in the University. Gender, Work and Organization. 25 May 2022. Web. 

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007. 

Blair, Kristine L. and Lee Nickoson. Introduction: Researching and Teaching Community as a  Feminist Intervention.” Composing Feminist Interventions: Activism, Engagement, Praxis, edited by Kristine L. Blair and Lee Nichoson. UP of Colorado, 2018, pp. 3-17.  

Benevides-Colon, Amelia. “UM Students Call for Equitable Investment, at Flint, Dearborn  Campuses.” Detroit News. 16 June 2021 ﷟HYPERLINK “” equitable-investment-all-campuses/5295125001/ . Accessed April 21, 2023. 

Berlinerblau, Jacques. “Hamline’s Free Speech Controversy Shows the Collapse of the  Professoriate.” 13 January, 2023 ﷟HYPERLINK “”opinion/hamline-professor-hamin-prophet-muhammad-rcna64949. Accessed April 19, 2023. 

Boggs, Grace Lee. ”What Time Is It on the Clock of the World at Almost 100 Years Old.” The Boggs Blog. 6 September 2014. ﷟HYPERLINK “” on-the-clock-of-the-world-by-grace-lee-boggs/. Accessed April 21, 2023. 

 Cox, Anicca and Rachel Riedner. “Persistence, Coalition and Power: Institutional Citizenship and the Feminist WPA. Peitho, vol 24, no. 2, 2023, pp 14-28. Accessed April 1, 2023. 

Dabrowski, Vicki. Austerity, Women and the Role of the State: Lived Experiences of the Crisis.  Policy Press, 2020. 

Eaton, Charlie. Bankers in the Ivory Tower. The Troubling Rise of Financiers in US Higher Education. University of Chicago Press, 2022. 

Fabricant, Michael and Stephen Brier. Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. JHU Press, 2016. 

“Facts and Figures.” 21 April 2023. 

Hanauer, Nick. “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats, the Pitchforks Are Coming.” Youtube. Accessed 21 April 2023. 

Jesse, David. “University of Michigan Extends Free Tuition Go Blue Guarantee to Flint Dearborn Campuses. 17 June 2021. Detroit Free Press. ﷟HYPERLINK “”tuition-go-blue-guarantee/7731779002/. Accessed 19 April 2021.  

—. “University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel Fired by Board After Investigation.” Detroit Free Press. 16 January 2022.   mark-schlissel-fired-board-investigation/9162810002/. Accessed 21 April 2023. 

Jesse, David. “Ex-Michigan Football Player : If I Could Talk to Bo Schembechler Now, I’d Ask ‘Why?’” Detroit Free Press. 16 June 2021 Accessed 23 April 2023. 

Jordan, Don. “University’s Endowment Saw Modest Growth in FY ’22. Michigan Record. 20  October, 2022. 12 April 2023.  

Kosnoski, Jason and Daille Held. “Op-Ed: The Flint and Dearborn Funding Models Perpetuate Inequality. Michigan Daily. 19 September 2021. Accessed 21 April 2023. 

O’Meara, KerryAnn. “A Career with a View: Agentive Perspectives of Women Faculty.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol 86, no. 3, 2015, pp. 331-59.  

“Our Three Campuses.” Vice President for Communications, Public Affairs, The University of  Michigan. Accessed 21 April 2023. 

Rohan, Liz. Email to A. Pinon. 20 September, 2021. 

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

Shaikh, Amara. “Schlissel: We Are Very Much a Confederation of Three Campuses.” Michigan Daily. 11 March 2019. Accessed 21 April 2023.  

“Top Performers in Social Mobility.” US News and World Report Accessed 21 April 2023. 

“Top Producers of Fulbright U.S. Scholars and Students.” Higher Education Chronicle. February, 2020.    scholars-and-students-2019-20/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in. Accessed April 21, 2023. 

Trolander, Judith Ann. Professionalism and Social Change: from the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers 1886 to the Present. Columbia University Press, 1987. 

“U-M Receives $25M Gift to Build Leinweber Information Building.” Accessed 21 April 2023. 

“University of Michigan in Labor Dispute with Graduate Students.” Michigan Today. 17 April 2022. Accessed 20 April 2023. 

“University of Michigan Regents Meeting—December 2021.”  9 December 2021. Youtube.  Downloaded 18  April 2023. 

Wheatley, Margaret and Myron-Kellner-Rogers. A Simpler Way. Bennett-Koehler Publishers, 1999. 

Archival Research as Institutional Critique


Ever-increasing threats against the local LGBTQIA2 community in the city where I taught at the time of conducting this research (Louisville, KY.) have wrought even more undue violence: already in 2023, the Kentucky State Senate passed a bill that endangers the lives and wellbeing of queer and trans students; community programming has been continually canceled in response to DHS domestic terrorism alerts; and the removal of a transgender woman from a school-sponsored fraternity event through verbal and physical harassment has resulted in the “Silent Wars” standoff between students and administration at the University of Louisville, where I conduct this research project. In my last five years serving as a volunteer archivist for Church Clarity, an organization that scores the accessibility of Protestant Christian churches’ policies on gender and sexuality, I have deeply engaged with the evangelical messaging that has long fueled the ongoing national debates over how queer and trans people are permitted to exist and participate in American society, and that continues to implement violence in cities like Louisville. 

In my position at Church Clarity, I have read, analyzed, and repurposed thousands of church policies on marriage, which we volunteers often use as evidence of a church’s affirming or non-affirming status (i.e., listing the levels of spiritual participation that are extended to or rescinded from queer and trans members). In this process, I was struck by how often church leaders appealed to their own institutionality, or the illusion of their permanence, stability, or universality across millennia, and this argument is regularly used by evangelical leaders as a violent rhetoric that attempts to justify homophobia and transphobia in our communities. The Southern Baptist Church (or SBC), for example, has long served as a key resource for churches who seek to recirculate this argument by providing pre-written policy language. Sometimes, they argue that marriage is universal because it was divinely created—God’s “first institution” and his “basic unit of society,” later by “reaffirmed” by Christ—“rather than simply a human social construct” (“On Covenant Marriage”; “Resolution on Homosexual Marriage”; “On ‘same sex Marriage’”). In other policies, they claim it’s the church who has remained unwavering on the definition of marriage to maintain “a healthy society” (“Resolution on Protecting…”). These policies are remarkably influential, as I have personally witnessed how their phrasing is recycled and spread across marriage policies of at least hundreds of different evangelical denominations. 

Rooted in 18th and 19th century revival events that “refocused” Protestantism around “personal conversion and piety, and mobilized adherents to social action and proselytizing” (Cope & Ringer 107), evangelicalism is not a specific denomination but a marker of a Christianity that is strictly adherent to the Bible as “the ultimate authority on all matters” (Camper 410)—and enforces a rigid genre set of possible interpretations that is almost always inflected by conservative politics. On gender and sexuality, evangelicals frequently prescribe a fundamentalist “bad rhetoric,” in Sharon Crowley’s terms, imposing “unities that transcend temporal and local contexts” and limiting any “available alternatives” outside of the marriage of one cisgender man and one cisgender woman (130). Such appeals to stasis, or the devolution of rhetorical capacities, are intended to “[constrict . . .] the role of the rhetor” who “is given less agency” to respond to pastoral teachings or attempt to make sense of scripture on their own (Amorose 137), which is traditionally afforded to evangelicals through “a conversion experience that brings the believer into a relationship with God” but severely restricted in how members are permitted to express their gender and sexual identities (Mannon 143). The only path typically provided to queer and trans Christians who seek membership in an evangelical setting is to violently conform to the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous marriage institution as it is written, or secondarily to permanent celibacy and/or detransition, through whatever means necessary. 

Personal narratives collected by Church Clarity volunteers have demonstrated that church leaders hide under the veil of universalizing claims provided by marriage policies (e.g., “marriage has always been defined as…”) that enable them to skirt the responsibility of mounting a defense to counterarguments and even to modify (those supposedly universal) definitions as exigencies, contexts, and organizational needs shift over time. Using Church Clarity’s archival training and resources, I unearth multiple versions of marriage policies from one influential evangelical denomination (the SBC) in an effort to expose the definitional shifts that occur when appeals to institutionality govern what can be said: In other words, I ask, how are institutions like evangelical marriage changed over time by organizational leaders, and how are these changes deployed as a rhetoric that exploits their own supposed institutionality? In the CFP for this special issue, the co-editors remind us that “it’s important to understand how these systems developed in order to properly understand the backlash that has been created to keep these systems in place.” I echo their reminder and emphasize here that tracing the SBC’s historical development not only aids us in understanding their organizational processes but also provides tactical practitioners with the evidence they need to challenge abuses of power and hold them publicly accountable. Thus, archival research is posited as a performance of institutional critique that disrupts and unsettles the meaning-making power of organizational fields like the evangelical church. 

Although “hard to change,” institutions are “changeable,” Porter, et al. write, because they are “rhetorically constructed human designs” that are structured by “rhetorical systems,” or “processes of decision making” (610-611, 625). As the rules, norms, and beliefs that describe reality and determine legitimate actions, institutions are malleable genres, sedimented over time, that have been continually adapted and reused to respond to recurring situations in an organization. The origins of evangelical institutions can sometimes be traced to and through lineages of archival records and multimodal ephemera. Buried in digital traces, Church Clarity volunteers enable institutional critique by unearthing, exposing, distributing, and revising marriage policies and their various roots, ending the violent cycle of “affective inheritances” that are reintroduced by each invocation of the policy against a queer or trans member (Ahmed). As Stoler reminds us, “to understand an archive one needs to understand the institutions it served” because it can expose “taxonomies in the making” (Stoler 88, 91). In this case, archival research performs institutional critique by revealing the definitional labor of maintaining marriage as it is currently understood. 

Church documents demonstrate SBC leaders’ efforts to transform one public (Southern Baptists) into the public (America and its territories, and ever-expanding beyond it). In this essay, I follow Church Clarity’s example of transforming archival research into institutional critique by reading a variety of church documents (convention proceedings, committee reports, public resolutions, sermons, presidential addresses, and pastor’s conference press packets) that span over a century. I identify just one (of many possible periods) in 20th century SBC history in which leaders rhetorically refit the marriage institution to serve different policy needs and organizational goals. This essay is not a complete history of the SBC’s teachings on gender and sexuality, but an interrogation of how institutions continually change so that an organization may retain its legitimacy to make meaning in certain arenas of our lives. I draw from artifacts in the Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives (SBHLA), which is a settler archive, meaning that the marriage institution (and the many other institutions it serves) are rhetorically imbricated with both the history and the presence of colonialism. Marriage was and is a key mechanism for Baptist missionaries to impose Western frameworks of being (gendered and sexed) and sold to and enforced upon new members as a Christian practice that would elevate one’s status to a legitimate American citizen. In doing so, they manipulate audiences by presenting genres like marriage policies as a priori realities, so that they appear unchangeable and universally applicable—in other words, they were here before us, and they will be here after us. Rather than renaturalizing the marriage institution as a pre-existing given (e.g., “the SBC has always defined marriage as between one man and one woman”), I challenge how institutionality itself is deployed as a rhetoric, and I invite other rhetoric and writing studies scholars to reconsider their archival research as both rhetorical recovery and an intervention in present-day argumentation.  

Marriage in the City: The Home Missions Board up to 1912 

Marriage is the SBC’s weapon of domestic imperialism and evangelism. Because the American home represents the “achievements and imperatives of civilization,” other homes and living spaces were often targeted as a space in which missionaries could assimilate non-believers (Simonsen 12). Marriage was the path to religious conversion from other faiths to a Baptist practice of Christianity, and the reconstruction of the home shaped gender and sexual identities and expressions, thus facilitating an association with the ideal of nationhood. This violent work was not only facilitated by material force, but also required “the public work of writers, artists, anthropologists, bureaucrats, and reformers” in “literary, legal, and aesthetic” arenas (Simonsen 3). Long before the turn of the twentieth century, “bad housekeeping” had become a symbol of racial and thus religious “inferiority” (Simonsen 3). In this section, I demonstrate how SBC marriage policies are but one tool of many that disseminated, legitimized, and maintained oppressive hierarchical understandings of normative gender and sexuality, garnering their institutional status, before the next section where I trace the cycle of change that the genre underwent. 

Dating back to 1845, the SBC’s annual convention, which still meets today, is a gathering of the denomination’s highest-ranking leaders to discuss the organization’s missions, agendas, policies, budgets, and public-facing and political concerns—all of which undergo continual revision. While the meeting itself is insular, it often has ripple effects in its own community of Nashville, TN., even today. For example, its Nashville Statement on gender and sexuality in 2017 was rebuked by the mayor of Nashville (Schmidt), and it once caused the city’s first COVID cluster after gathering restrictions were lifted (Kelman & Meyer). Throughout the busy two days of the convention, certain pastors are selected to give sermons on the hot topics of the time or elected to serve on governing committees, and delegates known as “messengers” travel from SBC churches from every region of the country and around the world to report on their activities and observations over the last year, which are then used to inform the next round of agenda setting and topic invention for sermons and educational materials. 

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, SBC leaders installed and perfected a cycle through which committees, reports, resolutions, and motions all reflected the shifting values and exigencies that they agreed to prioritize for the remainder of each year until they met again at the next convention. Policy changes appear most often in the form of the report-resolution-motion genre cycle, which is not unique to the SBC and long predates the SBC’s founding in various legal and corporate contexts. In reading the archival records of conventions, I found that leaders use these gatherings to elect subcommittees to research particular concerns, such as alcohol or gambling, and those subcommittees spend the next year traveling to churches and discussing issues with pastors and collecting data related to that concern. At the next year’s convention, their findings will influence the writing and publication of a resolution clarifying the SBC’s stance related to that concern. If the resolution is not considered enough of an action, leaders will pass a motion to take a specific action, and often, that action may be to fund more research from that committee, which restarts the cycle. 

For nearly every majorly debated (and often minor or non-existent) political issue in American history post-1845, the SBC published a resolution detailing their stance on the matter. As I read through documents across three centuries, I kept my own personal list anytime I noticed an SBC writer invoking a moral panic, which I define as an anxiety presented for the purpose of persuading the reader through fear or threat. They are affective arguments that help rhetors to frame some broad entity (society, Christianity, civilization, etc.) as always under severe risk. Sometimes, these anxieties are real events that should concern everyone living at the time, some are social trends that are exaggerated for persuasive effect, and others are entirely fictive and born of bigotry. I share the list below in alphabetical order, with the warning that its contents range from humorous to grim, to demonstrate that no issue is considered outside of the purview of SBC’s authority: 


  • Automobiles 
  • Child labor 
  • Child marriages 
  • Dancing 
  • Divorce laws 
  • Divorce ranches 
  • Immigration 
  • Industrialization 
  • Kinsey’s studies on sexuality 
  • Marriage market towns 
  • Motion pictures 
  • Nudist colonies 
  • Popular fiction 
  • Population increases 
  • Racetrack gambling, especially the Kentucky Derby 
  • Rum-running ships 
  • Syphilis 
  • Urban centers 
  • Wage labor 
  • Watergate 
  • Whiskey traffic 
  • White slavery 
  • Working on the Sabbath 


Clearly, the SBC envisions itself as America’s protector from what it considers to be moral decay, and this is most evident in the committee now generally recognized as its public policy arm: what is today called the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Prior to 1913, though, it was primarily its missionary wing, known at the time by its first name, the Home Missions Board. With Arizona’s inclusion as a U.S. state in 1912 as the last territory before Alaska and Hawaii, the evangelical mission was determined to Christianize the peoples of the land that had been acquired through colonial expanse, as well as the newly arriving immigrants in increasingly urban American cities. This colonial project was not necessarily focused on new land acquisition and state expansion but with the erasure and transformation of other cultures on lands that were already owned, or “the Homeland” (1912 proceedings 34). 

At the 1912 Southern Baptist Convention, the Home Missions Board reported on its findings from the last year and unsurprisingly targeted parenting as its great concern. Having previously created a subcommittee on “Cities,” which “increase rapidly in size,” and “Foreigners,” who “multiply rapidly on our streets,” the report’s concerns ranged from industry and urbanization to the “virgin territory” of the Southwest, “her dazzling mineral wealth,” and the Native tribes that resided there (1912 proceedings 29, 35). What the two spaces have in common for the Home Missions Board is that both are in “the kingdom of Christ” and thus need “winning the lost, and training them to win other lost” (1912 proceedings 31). In response, they clarify that the primary task of the Board is “to Christianize the sons and daughters of the Homeland and develop and conserve their sacred energies for the conquest of the world” (1912 proceedings 34). Additionally, they redefine Home Missions as “Christian patriotism organized for action, and engaged in the sacred business of enthroning Christ in the homes of the Homeland” (1912 proceedings 34). This move unites religion and nation as embedded projects and prioritizes the family “home” as the mechanism through which the two become one. 

In each space of the “city” and the “territory,” marriage panics are invoked, yet in different ways. Southern cities are depicted as once-ideal spaces for humble farmers to trade goods who now face a “teeming and crowded population in the poorer districts,” in large part due to “foreigners who have never known a pure Christianity, and have not lived according to the holy ideals of our American Christian civilization” (1912 proceedings 30). Because immigrants were believed to “[carry] the taint of its low standards of life and morals,” cities are thus understood to pose multiple threats to evangelical marriage (1912 proceedings 30): 

It shows itself in the amazing multiplication of cheap forms of amusement, which solicit the young to spend their evenings outside the family circle and amidst glare, glitter and excitement; provide along with the things that amuse, and which in themselves might be harmless, suggestions by means of words, attitudes and pictured scenes, that stimulate frivolous, violent and lustful emotions; and tend to produce an impulsive and exciteable populace, that will reason little and put emotion in the place of conscience… (1912 proceedings 29-30) 

The Home Missions Board presents the entertainment provided by increasingly diverse cities as a slippery slope from “amusement” to “perverted thoughts” (1912 proceedings 29-30). They question how “strong and godly families” can maintain themselves in such environments, while also charging them to resist the allure of “fragrant suburbs” where many Christians had escaped (1912 proceedings 30). Instead, they charge Baptist families to take up the evangelical mission: to remain amidst the “temptations, perils and tragedies of the weakened and deteriorated communities” and convert them to Christianity by providing a strong moral example through marriage (1912 proceedings 30). In the city, marriage is seen as both under threat by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration—all of which the SBC opposed at the time of the policy’s recomposition—but marriage is also presented as the firm foundation of the religion and the most powerful tool for fighting these supposed social problems. 

In contrast to the city, younger states further West are imagined to be suddenly overflowing with Native American and Mexican communities, who are framed as “multiplied thousands of alien folks now offer themselves to the molding of true religion” (1912 proceedings 35). Evangelical missionaries to Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico are encouraged to fight liquor traffic and federal laws that restrict their behavior, such as attempts to ban teachers from wearing “religious garb” in “Indian mission” schools (1912 proceedings 74, 85). While the Home Missions Board doubted their ability to counteract the entertainment of the city, it’s the lack of attractions in the Southwest that make its current residents seem more amenable to religious conversion, so long as they can keep the focus on education and putting more prohibition laws in place. 

Their edict, “We must evangelize our schools and educationalize our churches” that their mission out West is/was settler colonial, which I use to imply that colonialism cannot be reduced to the event of land theft, such as the Oklahoman “Sooners” who illegally jump-started the Land Run of 1889, but to refer to colonialism as an ongoing structural campaign that has the permanent cultural erasure and transformation of Native communities as its long-term end goal (1912 proceedings 33). Wolfe defines settler colonialism not as “an isolated event” but as a “structuring principle […] across time” (399). He uses the “logic of elimination” to explicate the transition from Native removal to Native assimilation, which works within “the colonial rule of law” to eliminate non-dominant ways of knowing and being (Wolfe 399). Christian missions are one core faction of the larger program to establish material and ideological control, and this is seen in how the Home Mission Board prioritizes the institution of marriage as the foundation of settler society, or the “holy ideals of our American Christian civilization” (1912 proceedings 30). 

What we see in the 1912 Home Missions Board report is the annual (re)setting of an agenda that has long been in place. As “stabilized-for-now” actions, genres are consistently adapted over time to serve social and institutional needs (Schryer 200). The report genre, which influences future actions/genres like missions, sermons, motions, and resolutions, is crucial to sustain the evangelical institution of marriage. The report accomplishes this sustenance by reanimating the definition of marriage’s primary exigencies according to whichever social “ills” the SBC is targeting that year. At the same time, marriage’s institutional qualities are exploited to further promote the Home Mission Board’s activities, as seen in how marriage is the basis for arguing that missions are necessary in the first place. In this case, the Board invokes colonial hierarchies predicated on onto-epistemic racism to keep the appearance that the institution of marriage is under threat, while also invoking its strength as a “cure” for a rapidly expanding colony. Through this cycle, marriage plays one part in legitimizing and funding a vision of coloniality that “has been imported, expanded, and disputed for 500 years and counting” (Cushman, et al. 10).  

Marriage Under the Influence: Reinventing Home Missions as Social Service (1913-1920) 

At the 1913 SBC annual meeting, the Home Missions Board was reborn as the Social Service Commission. The change was only made possible by the complete rehauling of the evangelical institution of marriage. Though this move was not overt, it regardless helped to install and perfect a generic “report-motion-resolution” cycle in which marriage’s appearance of institutionality not only sells the idea that marriage is an institution but also provides leaders a moral platform to take action against any supposed threat that may weaken the marriage “institution.” Up to 1912, marriage had been defined as the SBC’s cornerstone of a “civil” settler society and deployed as a violent tool to enforce Christianity and its restrictions onto all genders and sexualities of all peoples everywhere. Marriage was a mechanism through which the idea of a Christian nation was sold to communities where missionaries traveled. 

However, after the Home Missions Board’s anxieties about the liquor traffic increased, marriage was entirely redefined and resold to SBC stakeholders as under threat in a new and different way: drunken and under the influence of liquor. In response to the popularity of whiskey, the Board’s campaign shifted from crafting marriage as a strong moral example that would spread and populate (more marriage = good), to actually preventing marriages from happening and increasing the amount of restrictions placed on legal marriages (more marriage = bad). Marriage was recrafted as a tool to wage a legal war against the federal government and influence liquor laws without blatantly violating their supposed values for separation of church and state. 

To argue for the transformation of Home Missions into Social Service, the 1913 report began to pin other social ills to “whiskey traffic,” from “white slavery” to “child labor,” specifically blaming industry titans like John D. Rockefeller (1913 proceedings 75). Defending the “Homeland” now encompassed more than just converting Native and immigrant souls by enrolling them in marriage preparation, the motion broadened the purview of the committee: “Whereas” liquor and other social problems threaten the marriage institution, “be it resolved that” Social Service will address “such wrongs which curse society today, and call loudly for our help” (1913 proceedings 75). By the following year, the committee was able to articulate the primary concern that brought together all of their concerns under the umbrella of Social Service (even though it uses the term “institution”—a rule, norm, or belief—in the way that I would define the term “organization”—the group of people who enforce that rule): 

As a social institution embodying the divine ideal and responsible for its fulfillment in all the sections and activities of human life, the Church imposes its standards upon all other social institutions: (1) The family it protects by insisting upon the single standard of purity and health, and by maintaining everywhere Christ’s limitation of divorce.  (1914 proceedings 37) 

New to this rebranded definition of marriage is a focus on “purity and health.” In the Home Missions Board era, marriage was an inherently strong moral example to nonbelievers, and the only threats to strong marriages were entertaining temptations that would distract from participation in the family unit. In the Social Service era, we see new categories for marriages introduced: marriages that start with hasty, drunk decisions; marriages that involve “impure” participants (meaning those who have contracted an STD); or marriages that end in divorce. 

In the years leading up to the federal enactment of prohibition in 1920, the Social Service Commission used temperance as a moral panic that drastically amplified their missions efforts in all other areas that they were already actively evangelizing, and the urgent shift in tone is clear in the new reports from 1914-1919. “Unrestricted immigration” remains a “DANGER to American institutions” (1914 proceedings 307). Commending themselves for the success of converting the “Five Civilized Tribes” to Baptist doctrine, they charge missionaries with converting who they believed to be the remaining half of the “330,000 Indians in the United States,” specifically focusing on “wild” but “wealthy” tribes like the Pawnee (1914 proceedings 307). Missionaries were given the singular goal of abolishing the space of the “saloon” before it could replace the church as the “social center” for the “Indian,” who “is still our ward” (1915 proceedings 82-83; 1919 proceedings 78). 

Interestingly, though, marriage was rapidly returned to its previous form as soon as the 18th amendment banned the sale of liquor in 1920 and the committee celebrated the abolition of the saloon. The celebration comes with a grim reminder of the importance of marriage, without which “the very foundations of our social order crumble,” and how it is continually threatened by the entertainment forms found in urban areas, matching the organizational rhetoric of marriage prior to the rising popularity of whiskey (1920 proceedings 124). Replacing alcohol as the primary threat is the film industry: 

The motion picture, as now conducted, is undoubtedly another cause that contributes to this sad condition […] Nearly every film put upon the screen contains somewhere evil suggestion, calculated at first to bring the blush of modesty and virtue to the cheek and then to remove it and bring in its stead the flush of passion and the blanching purpose to do wrong. Many of the films are based on the “eternal triangle” and the suggestions of disregard if not open breach of the marital relation. (1920 proceedings 126) 

Even though they are mocked by local newspapers for their disdain of cinema, the committee remained committed to enacting stronger censorship laws, as well as divorce laws and stricter legal requirements for pre-marital STD testing, as evident in the next few years of reports. 

Many reports, which inform the “Whereas” statement, result in the publication of resolutions, which inform the “Resolved” statement, and that clarify and promote the stance of the SBC. The cycle of presenting reports and passing resolutions repeats itself throughout the 1920s and 1930s, regenerating and fixating on a new moral panic each time a new social trend emerges. Dance halls replace movie theaters, and so on. In each iteration, marriage serves as the seemingly unending and unchanging institution, always the foundation of a civil society, and always under threat of moral decay. Its rhetorical leverage here is its appearance of institutionality: the SBC can target and attack whatever it desires because it is protected under the guise of that ever-permanent marriage institution. The generic cycle enables the SBC to sustain a rotating agenda while spreading their missions efforts into increasingly broad public arenas: from churches to schools, Eastern to Western states, state to federal legislation, and global missions efforts. 


In rhetoric and writing studies, the archive has served as a site of institutional critique by assisting projects that deconstruct identities and rebuild communities. For example, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn are a site for retroactivist efforts to “compose and appropriate versions of the past toward present identification and politics” (Bessette 3). Violent representations of the past are denaturalized and remixed to “co-opt, challenge, modify, and replace these versions of the past with complex, experiential, and queer compositions” (Bessette 11). However, where Bessette and the LHA productively deploy archival records to foster connections across the past and present, recreating old and new possibilities for (dis)identification, this essay follows the lead of our volunteer work at Church Clarity to use archives to challenge claims and hold church leaders accountable for what they say—deconstructing any possibility of (dis)identificatory connections. Through a rhetorical analysis of SBC archival records, potential religious trauma of queer and trans members is reduced and in some cases prevented altogether by intervening in arguments that church leaders are actively making today, forcing policymakers to answer for recycled fallacies of institutionality. 

Instituting a particular vision of reality and projecting it onto non-believers was not and is not easy work for SBC leaders, who seek to establish and maintain onto-epistemic hierarchies that typify and sort members into categories of existence with an ascribed set of acceptable behaviors or styles of inhabiting the world. García defines settler archives like the SBHLA as those that were “invented and placed strategically to help attune the world to both ideal representations of knowledge, understanding, and humanity and to the promises of salvation, progress, and development” (125). Specifically, they make possible one’s “humanization only by their conversion to Christianity, civilization, and/or modernization” (García 125). He argues that it is the rhetorician’s task to unravel how church-settlers have “used language to disseminate and sell ideas rhetorically,” how such ideas have traveled through the crafting of various institutions, “economic, authorial, political, and knowledge,” and how such institutions have established “structural logics of management” and “control” that persist today (García 124). Envisioning our own archival research as institutional critique affords feminist and queer coalitions like Church Clarity the opportunity to disrupt the “affective inheritances” of contemporary arguments. In this case, the “histories of thought and activism that precede us” are actually violent institutionalized genres that are continuing to enact religious trauma by repeatedly “[moving] through moments of reinvention” (Ahmed 47-8; Cram 15). Archival research is one method of performing institutional critique and is a vital option for coalitions who have access and/or means to trace the archival records of organizations. If it is the archival rhetor’s task to investigate how ideas have been disseminated and sold through language and action, then it is the institutional rhetor’s task to shine a light on what/who is excluded when organizations circulate rhetorical appeals to their own permanence, stability, or universality—to expose, delegitimize, and unmake the visions of reality installed through their institutions. 

Institutional rhetorics (IR), then, is not just a subfield that studies how groups of people persuade each other to act, but is also a study of the generic processes of institutionalization that help certain rhetorics stick around and others dissipate. Skinnell recently argued that too many rhetorical studies of institutions define them solely based on the context of the academic study and apply no other substantial definition. Here, I adopt a definition of institutions as the rules, norms, and beliefs that describe reality and determine legitimate actions in an organization, which is largely influenced by organizational theorists (Alvesson; Barley and Tolbert; Brown, et al.). This definition can be adopted by other studies of genres that travel in organizations and that are continually reused often enough that they become institutionalized in that organization’s stock of acceptable knowledge. This move opens IR scholars to new questions that we should be asking, such as: How are claims to institutionality also rhetorical? What happens to its members when an organization calls a genre an “institution?” What are the material and ideological conditions of working with and living in an organization that universalizes its genres as “institutions?” There are real consequences often felt by an organization’s most vulnerable members. How leaders sell this idea, not just once but many times throughout one’s life, as a necessary requirement for successful participation in a particular organization is of great importance. I seek to push IR scholarship to be able to account for the social context at the moment in which a particular genre is institutionalized, as well as account for the genre’s ability to remain institutionalized in an organizational field over long periods of time, reappearing in many new and recurring contexts. 

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