Living and Dying as a Gay Trans Man: Lou Sullivan’s Rhetorical Legacy

Over the course of three years, from 1988–1990, activist Louis (“Lou”) G. Sullivan engaged in a four-part series of videotaped interviews with psychiatrist Dr. Ira B. Pauly. Titled Female to Gay Male Transsexualism, the tapes of the interviews were used for many years after they were created, including by Pauly at academic conferences and by Jamison Green in college classes (Smith, Personal Interview).1 The full recordings of these interview are now held by the GLBT Historical Society and have been recently made available on the Internet Archive and linked to on the Digital Transgender Archive. In addition to the full videos available on the Internet Archive, Reverend Megan Rohrer has made twelve short excerpts from these videos available on YouTube (see Appendix A). The twelve video clips are brief, thematic excerpts taken from the hours of original conversations and they provide a helpful starting point for those interested in beginning to explore Sullivan’s rhetoric. In this short essay primarily focused on one of those clips—“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” (see Fig. 1), which is an excerpt taken from Pauly’s third interview with Sullivan in 1989–my aim is to offer a preliminary introduction to the rhetorical approach that Sullivan used to advocate on behalf of trans people.2 Throughout his conversations with Pauly, Sullivan exercised impressive rhetorical savvy as he worked to educate doctors about trans issues, and in particular, as he argued for the viability of being a gay trans man.

When Sullivan and Pauly came together for these one-on-one conversations, they seemed to be at once meeting as like-minded allies of trans people and facing off in their respective roles as patient versus doctor. From the late-1950s through his retirement in 2010, Pauly had a long and prolific career focused on researching and treating transsexual clients, serving as the president of what is now the World Professional Association for Transgender Health from 1985-1987 and often working alongside Dr. Harry Benjamin (Devor; Zagria). Though Sullivan’s life was cut short in 1991 at the age of 39, he was a highly influential white, gay, trans activist who is particularly known for his creation of peer support networks for trans men and his passionate advocacy for gay and lesbian trans people. Biographer Brice Smith explains that by the end of his life, Sullivan was “credited for the role he played in fostering the trans movement” (231). Sullivan’s legacy has only continued to gain recognition in the decades since. Pauly and Sullivan were thus well-positioned to conduct these conversations, with the one-on-one format casting Sullivan as a spokesperson for trans people while Pauly represented the field of psychiatry and, more broadly, medical professionals who worked with trans patients.

These conversations occurred during a kairotic historical moment when tensions concerning medical treatment for trans people mounted as increasing numbers of trans people sought transition-related medical care and medical professionals rapidly tried to determine standards of care for treatment. Tensions arose as medical professionals determined who was eligible for treatment and what criteria must first be met, often resulting in gatekeeping practices and outright refusals of care. Sullivan himself faced this problem time and again when he sought medical support for his transition from female to male beginning in 1976 and continuing through the 1980s. Sullivan repeatedly experienced discrimination when gender clinics would not take him on as a client and doctors refused to operate on him solely because of his sexuality, because they could not comprehend or support a trans person who was also gay (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”).

In speaking with Pauly, Sullivan uses his personal testimony as a rhetorical strategy, frequently drawing upon his own experiences to explain what it is like for a trans person struggling to navigate the medical establishment. As he explains in the 1989 interview, “I had a lot of problems with the gender professionals saying there was no such thing as a female-to-gay-male and you can’t live like this and we’ve never heard of that” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:04-00:14; Figure 1). Here, Sullivan adeptly sums up three common arguments made by “gender professionals” to prevent his transition:

  1. gay female-to-male people do not exist (“there was no such thing”);
  2. only heterosexual people are worthy of treatment (“you can’t live like this”); and
  3. expertise on this issue was owned by the professionals (“we’ve never heard of that”). Sullivan’s very existence, coupled with his willingness to publicly and articulately testify about being a “female-to-gay-male,” offered a compelling counter-point to all three of these arguments.


Fig. 1. Youtube Video. “Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989.” https://youtu.be/SxgZNNX-v2g
 

Sullivan’s use of personal testimony is all the more striking in moments when he discusses the impact his embodied experiences have had on his activism. He recounts, “when I got diagnosed [with AIDS] and I thought I’ve got ten months to live…and they’re going to hear about this before I kick off. And I don’t want, you know, other people coming into their clinics in two years saying they feel that way [gay] and getting the same line that I did that they never heard of this [a gay trans person] and this isn’t an authentic thing” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:15-00:30).3 Sharing an AIDS diagnosis—an uncommon public disclosure in 1989—allows Sullivan to underscore the urgency of his message. What better claim to exigency than a person with ten months to live spending his remaining time advocating for this issue? Sullivan circles back to his AIDS diagnosis again and again throughout his conversations with Pauly and as he does so, Sullivan forfeits his own privacy in the face of tremendous public stigma for those with an AIDS diagnosis. Despite the personal costs, Sullivan prioritizes his rhetorical aims with precision and focus—his goal is to educate gender professionals in order to enable future gay trans people to receive medical care.

In order to combat the discrimination that gay trans people faced, Sullivan needed to make a logical argument that distinguished gender identity and sexuality, which was not a widely held understanding at the time. As he explains, “I guess even in the gender professionals that this is still kind of a new angle that sexual identity…and sexual preference of a partner are two separate issues. That my gender identity, who I think I am, has nothing to do with what I am looking for in a sexual partner. And I think that these two things have been equated. That, well, it’s normal to be heterosexual and if we’re going to make somebody better, that means that we have to make them heterosexual” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:46-01:22). With straightforward language and a casual style, Sullivan continues to use his own experience in the first person to advance his argument. He then shifts to using “we” to speak with his audience in order to make explicit the implicit assumption that heterosexual is “normal” and “better.” For gender professionals who would object to being seen as homophobic, this argument would likely be quite persuasive.

Pauly acknowledges the impact of Sullivan’s approach, shifting to first person to speak on behalf of Sullivan; “I think coming forward as you have and saying, ‘hey, you know, maybe my lifestyle and my sexual preference is different than most of these other folks, but I believe I’m as deserving a candidate to live my life the way I wish to, as these other people, and I’m willing to come forward and be counted.’ And I think that’s, I know that’s going to be helpful” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 05:01-05:24). Using the first person to speak from Sullivan’s position, Pauly models the very same empathy and acceptance by a medical professional that is the intended outcome for these conversations. He recognizes the power of Sullivan’s willingness to “come forward and be counted,” of using personal testimony as an argument against the narrow parameters of “normal,” of who was allowed to receive medical treatment.

While Sullivan’s personal testimony is the central focus of these conversations, he still subtly creates space for others in his community. The following exchange offers an illustrative example:

Pauly: In the short period of time since I’ve met you, I’ve heard now of several other cases of female-to-male transsexuals who, in their male role, want a relationship with a man and a gay relationship. So it’s interesting, as you define a new syndrome, certainly at the point where it becomes reported or published, then everybody starts looking and these folks seem to come out of the woodwork.

Sullivan: Right, right. I know just from my contact with other female-to-gay-males that they’ve been afraid to say anything, and especially to any of the doctors that have been helping them because they know that they are up for prejudices and that this is not part of the textbook definition and they don’t want to throw their chances off of getting treatment. (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 03:29–04:16)

Pauly’s use of “syndrome” and reference to “reported or published” information lends an obviously clinical tone to his comments. But rather than arguing against Pauly directly and with equally clinical language, Sullivan first agrees (“right, right”) that there are gay trans people. Then, he invokes a larger community that he refers to as “female-to-gay-males,” which is an important revision of “female-to-male” (also shortened to “FTM”), the then-common phrase that Pauly uses repeatedly. Sullivan’s addition of “gay” in FTM inserts a sexual identity where there wasn’t one before. He leaves unspoken that a corollary phrase—“female-to-straight-males”—may seem strange (as naming a dominant position can often be), but it is precisely the unstated precondition for care required by most medical professionals working with trans patients at the time. Sullivan’s use of the new identity term “female-to-gay-male” is one part of his larger effort to explain that there is a broader community of gay trans men whom Pauly, and other gender professionals by extension, are admittedly unaware of. While Pauly may have the sense that gay trans men were “com[ing] out of the woodwork,” Sullivan gently rebuts that by explaining that others have been forced into silence because of the power that doctors wield to withhold treatment.

Given this power imbalance, it makes sense that Sullivan’s target audience in these conversations is the “gender profession,” as he refers to it throughout the interviews. As an advocate for trans people, Pauly helpfully becomes a surrogate for the “gender profession” writ large, modeling for other professionals how to treat trans people as experts by respecting their lived experiences. By casting Sullivan as a subject with knowledge to share (rather than an object of study), Pauly models how gender professionals can learn from trans people as part of their academic and clinical research. Within this framework, Pauly lends a great deal of credibility to Sullivan’s testimony and arguments.

Yet while Pauly is generally sympathetic toward Sullivan and supportive of his aims, there are moments of rupture where he states overtly that he is “a bit defensive about the gender profession” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:16–04:19). As Pauly explains, “we have stuck our necks out a bit in even allowing the classic case to be operated on and giving it our good housekeeping seal of approval” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:23–04:36). Notably, Pauly speaks for the gender profession with a collective “we,” yet trans people have no subjecthood in this framing as he refers to the “classic case” rather than people. After noting that, “there have been some instances in which the people that have been screened did change their mind after surgery and some of us have been involved in legal suits,” Pauly does begin to refer to patients as people and he switches gears to compliment Sullivan and support his arguments (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 04:39–04:49). While many trans people and contemporary viewers of these videos might object to Pauly’s characterization of gender professionals as both courageous trendsetters and sympathetic victims of litigious patients, it’s interesting to consider how effective this approach would have been to the gender professionals in their audience at the time. Indeed, I would argue that Pauly’s position as a representative of gender professionals allowed him to air beliefs that many of his colleagues may have shared, which ultimately may have furthered Sullivan’s advocacy for gay trans men.

In addition to potentially objecting to the content of Pauly’s arguments, contemporary viewers might also struggle to understand how a highly mediated and staged conversation with a trans person could qualify as cutting-edge advocacy work. This distinction in historical context becomes quite apparent within the context of YouTube, an online platform where easy access to vlogging has empowered a generation of trans people to author their own narratives and forge community in ways that were unfathomable in the late 1980s (Raun). While contemporary trans vloggers may take for granted that they are experts on trans experiences and they are able to share those experiences with few barriers, Smith explains that it required a notable amount of resources to videotape the Sullivan/Pauly conversations and it was “unheard of” for a medical professional to position a trans person as an expert at the time (Smith, Personal Interview). Without any other options for spreading his message, Sullivan needed to collaborate with someone like Pauly in order to pursue his rhetorical goals.4

As the two sat together, Sullivan and Pauly not only appear to be allied in their rhetorical aims, but they were also visually aligned as well. In all of the interviews, the two white men sit facing one another, leaning back in their chairs and seemingly very comfortable together. Sullivan wears a shirt and tie in every interview—sometimes also donning a jacket or sweater as well—conveying sartorial ethos that would make him relatable with an audience of medical practitioners who were also, we might safely assume, predominantly white and male. Pauly, while also dressed professionally in button down shirts and sometimes a jacket or sweater, opts not to wear ties. The comparative effect is subtle, but may lend extra credibility to Sullivan, who is clearly comfortable and confident in this situation as he converses with one doctor while trying to change the practices of countless others. Their shared traits—whiteness and maleness, for starters—certainly contributed to their ease with one another and, for contemporary viewers, also offers a helpful reminder that other trans activists seeking a stage for their trans advocacy work would have faced significant barriers the further they were from positions of (relative) power and privilege.

A comparison of Sullivan’s visual presentation across the three-year sequence of videos provides a striking testament to the impacts of disease on his body (Fig. 2). The juxtaposition of video stills taken from across the years shows Sullivan adopting glasses by the second clip, and then becoming increasingly gaunt by the third. His posture, confidence, and professionalism remain consistent throughout the years, but his voice gets softer and his energy is seemingly weakened. It is as if his body is vanishing as the strength of his message is amplified.

This figure shows three images stacked vertically, all of Lou Sullivan. They appear to be still images taken from interviews Sullivan gave from 1988, 1989, and 1990. Sullivan is smiling in each image, but he looks less healthy in each one. In the 1990 image, he his visibly thinner, wearing glasses, and looks paler.

Fig. 2. Still images. Sullivan from 1988, 1989, and 1990, top to bottom.

Sullivan’s experience of AIDS was a complicated, if mournful, terminal illness. As he recounts,

“I feel like, in a way, this AIDS diagnosis, because AIDS is still seen at this point as a gay man’s disease, that it kind of proves that I did do it, and that I was successful. And I kind of took a perverse pleasure in contacting the gender clinics that rejected me and said that, you know, they’ve told me so many years that it was impossible for me to live as a gay man but it looks like I’m going to die like one.” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II”, 26:45–27:12)

Combining his rhetorical strategies of personal narrative and embodiment, Sullivan argues here in the strongest terms for the authenticity of being a gay trans man. While gender clinics may have disavowed his identity, he regains the power of self-identification through his association with a broader community of gay people. Sullivan’s terminal diagnosis provides not only exigency for his activism, but an incredible emotional appeal that underscores the importance of this cause.

Sullivan’s powerful testimony throughout these interviews is not lost on Pauly and he vows to Sullivan, “rest assured that the story will be told and the tape will be shown to the gender profession, as you refer to it” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”, 59:36–59:47). As it turns out, Pauly’s reassurances were accurate and Sullivan’s story continues to be told, perhaps more frequently than either of them could have ever imagined and to a far broader audience than the gender profession. As Susan Stryker discusses in her introduction to a recently published collection of Sullivan’s diaries, Sullivan’s story has indeed found “its way to audiences hungry to hear it,” not only through that book, but through Smith’s biography, a dance company production, several films, and increasing publications (viii).

As a rhetor, Sullivan left a legacy of impactful activism that can be rightfully studied under the emergent framework of Transgender Rhetorics. He spent much of his life advocating as a trans person on behalf of trans people, ultimately leaving a notable imprint on both trans community formation and access to medical care. Even in these interviews that are merely brief excerpts from a lifetime of activist work, we gain a meaningful glimpse into the rhetorical savvy that Sullivan exercised, particularly through strategic deployments of personal narrative, logical argumentation, and embodiment. Ultimately, Sullivan offers us profound lessons, in life and rhetoric, about the incredible power of devoting one’s life to helping make trans lives more livable.

Endnotes

  1. The historical materials referenced throughout this essay use language that has become dated (such as “female-to-male”) or is now considered offensive (such as “transsexualism” and “transvestite”). For the purposes of this essay, I will preserve all historical uses of terminology for accuracy, though I will use “trans” to broadly refer to people who do not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth and I will refer to Sullivan as a gay trans man.
  2. The titles of these video clips were given by Rohrer, not Pauly. Rohrer digitized the videos as part of a project for outhistory.org called Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976-2009, available at http://www.outhistory.org/exhibits/show/man-i-fest.
  3. Our current understanding of HIV/AIDS makes an important distinction between HIV and AIDS diagnoses. However, for historical accuracy, I follow Sullivan’s lead in referring to his AIDS diagnosis.
  4. I am grateful to Brice Smith for pointing out the tremendous differences in historical context that YouTube inadvertently flattens.

Appendix: List of Sullivan/Pauly Interviews Currently Available Online

Title
(Provided in Video)
Date Length Link Notes
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I— Gender & Sexual Orientation 1988 1h1m56s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/4x51hj25d Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II— Living with AIDS [1988] 1988 28m58s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/fx719m69c Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: III [1989] 1989 40m57s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/00000030q Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Trans-sexualism Part IV (One Year Later) [1990] 1990 34m22s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/8336h219b Full-length interview
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1988” 1988 2m52s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGVDPhGIA7g Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1990” 1990 7m18s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hpv7Q9Evc8 Excerpt from
part IV
“Lou Sullivan: Honesty, AIDS, and Transition 1988-1990” 1988–1990 5m09s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j_Zqes8Q8Q Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: AIDS and Sex 1988-1990” 1988–1990 8m29s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xggb5naOppo Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1989” 1989 6m51s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbK5Ye7aSIY Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: ‘Genitalplasty’ 1988” 1988 3m52s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki_p_CyGv4U Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” 1989 6m13s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxgZNNX-v2g Excerpt from
part III
“Lou Sullivan: Top Surgery 1988” 1988 4m51s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2j-LOYuHSc Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: DSM 1989” 1989–1990 1m36s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A-6g0f3nXk Excerpts from
parts III and IV
“Lou Sullivan: Rejected by Gender Clinics 1988” 1988 5m58s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGmD7F0bmu8 Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Changing Standards 1989-1990” 1988–1990 4m23s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw7xOrLBOic Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: No Regrets 1988” 1988 1m31s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epnOWVrGyQU Excerpt from
part 1

Works Cited

“There is No Question About This and There Never Has Been for Eight Years”: The Public Reception of Christine Jorgensen

On December 1st, 1952, the story of Christine Jorgensen—the first American to become widely known for undergoing medical transition—hit multiple news outlets, reporting that she had a series of surgeries in Denmark, had chosen the name Christine, and would soon be returning home to the US. While Jorgensen was not the only transgender figure to receive media coverage during this time period, the attention she received was unprecedented and remained unique, even as other trans people received mainstream news coverage in the following months (Skidmore). She published an autobiography in 1968 (Jorgensen), which was followed by a fictionalized biographic film about her life in 1970 (Kent et al.), both of which also received a lot of media attention. She remained famous until her death in 1989.

Jorgensen has already received considerable attention in trans studies (e.g. Ames; Meyerowitz; Rawson and Williams; Skidmore; Snorton), but because of her unprecedented mainstream popularity, she still provides an opportunity to examine how transgender subjects were attempting to construct narratives of themselves in the middle of the twentieth century and how those narratives were received by the larger public. I find the historical news articles about Jorgensen especially useful for such a consideration, as her mainstream popularity pushes back against contemporary narratives that transgender people are a new “fad.” Because of the sheer amount of media attention Christine Jorgensen received throughout her life, she remains an important figure for considering how ideas about transgender people have circulated.

Despite the media’s fascination with Jorgensen, she was not the first trans person to receive media coverage in the US. In fact, Joanne Meyerowitz explains that the 1930s and ‘40s saw a surprising number of stories about “sex changes;” however, “Such stories often appeared on the margins of the mainstream press, in sensational magazines, tabloid newspapers, or publications like Sexology that presented the science of sex to a popular audience” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 164). Jorgensen’s extensive coverage in the mainstream press is important, then, because while some scholars have argued that the medical discourse of sexology helped to give a name to a preexisting identity and allowed trans people to identify new medical possibilities for constructing their own lives and bodies (Meyerowitz; Prosser), Emily Skidmore notes that “it was through the mass circulation press—not medical literature—that most Americans learned about transsexuality” (272). Therefore, because she received an unprecedented amount of publicity, particularly in the US, Jorgensen became the first exposure to such possibilities for a wider American audience. In fact, her autobiography refers to the sheer amount of mail she received from people, and states that “[b]ecause of her celebrity, letters addressed simply to ‘Christine Jorgensen. United States of America’ reached their destination” (Meyerowitz, “Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 175).

Meyerowitz argues that “While occasional reports portrayed [Jorgensen] as an oddity or a joke, in general the press continued to treat her as a woman and a star” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 174). Skidmore reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that “Jorgensen was able to present herself as a respectable woman and continued to be represented positively in newspapers around the country” (278), a privilege Skidmore argues was denied the trans women of color she studies (see also Snorton). The news articles I consider in this essay, however, suggest the public reception of Jorgensen is not as simple as either of these scholars contend. While the news often does present Jorgensen’s own accounting of her life and her experiences, the commentary from the reporters often undermines or casts doubt on those experiences.

To demonstrate the ways in which Jorgensen attempts to construct a narrative of her gendered experiences and the news media’s responses to those attempts, I will examine three news articles about Jorgensen from the Digital Transgender Archive. I chose these three articles after reading every news clipping in the archive’s Jorgensen collection. After setting aside any that did not mention her transition (these were rare), I analyzed the remaining articles for recurring themes around the discussion of her gender identity. In this analysis, I noticed that reporters were relying on similar rhetorical moves to question the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood throughout her life. The three articles I have chosen for this essay provide what I see as some of the clearest examples of the cissexist rhetoric used in the coverage on Jorgensen. By putting these particular news articles in conversation with some of the existing scholarship on Jorgensen, I hope to provide insight into how her attempts at self-narrative were constrained by the popular circulation of her story.

“A New Girl, Blonde, Attractive, and 26:” Jorgensen’s Transition as Rebirth

The December 1, 1952 article “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” which appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News, is often cited as being the first article to announce Jorgensen’s transition. The article included “before” and “after” pictures of Jorgensen and the letter she wrote to her parents the previous June. Meyerowitz suggests that it was not initially clear that this story would become the breaking news it did, but that many other journalists “jumped” at the story and “created Jorgensen’s instant celebrity and then reported on its progress, announcing, for example, the offers she received from ‘night clubs for appearances’ and the ‘bids for a lecture tour, jobs as a fashion model and photographic and magazine articles’” (How Sex Changed, 63). Despite Meyerowitz’s focus on this particular article, however, the New York Daily News was not the only publication to report on Jorgensen’s transition as early as December 1st. On this same day, the Boston American ran a briefer article, titled “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” While less conspicuous (it was not on the front page), and thus probably playing a smaller role in Jorgensen’s quick rise to fame, I am interested in this article because I have not seen it discussed before, despite its release on the same day as the oft-cited New York Daily News article.

Moreover, I find this Boston American article a more interesting response to Jorgensen’s transition because of its framing as a birth announcement, as the article opens by stating “A New York carpenter and his wife said today they were delighted at the news they had become parents of a new girl, blonde, attractive, 26.” By framing Jorgensen’s transition as a birth in this way, the article suggests a “break” between her former and current selves. That is, rather than focusing on her transition from “’ex-GI,’ the quintessential postwar masculine representation, to ‘blonde beauty,’ the hallmark of 1950s white feminine glamour” (How Sex Changed, 62) as Meyerowitz suggests the Daily News headline does, the opening of this Boston American article instead focuses on the joy her parents felt at learning they had a daughter. Throughout this article, Jorgensen is framed as a man whose body was “reborn” through surgical intervention, such as when the second paragraph of the article announces the “new daughter—Christine.”

However, despite framing her as being “reborn” as a woman, the article also frequently casts doubt on her womanhood. It begins with a picture of Jorgensen, post-transition, with the caption, “Ex-GI George Jorgensen As Pretty Woman: Six Operations Change Him To Beautiful Female” (Boston American). While still referencing her “ex-GI” past in the photo caption, and thus invoking her “masculine” past, by only including a post-transition photo, this article visually centers Jorgensen’s femininity in ways the New York Daily News’ before and after photos do not. Nevertheless, because the caption references “George Jorgensen as pretty woman” (emphasis mine) rather than by her correct name, the article suggests she is simply a man playing a role as a woman. The article also immediately follows the statement that the parents welcomed a new daughter with the phrase, “who until recently had been George Jr., a former soldier” (Boston American), again emphasizing her former name and masculine ex-GI role immediately after acknowledging her womanhood.

While the article does switch to the use of “Christine” after this, it rarely uses pronouns, and when it does it uses “he” or “him.” Moreover, most of the article quotes from Jorgensen’s parents and Jorgensen is simply referred to as their “son,” despite a few references to her as their daughter in the first two paragraphs. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when the article states that “The Jorgensens said their son had all of his past Army records officially changed to Christine” (Boston American), thus refusing to continue to acknowledge her as their daughter, even while noting aspects of her legal transition. While Meyerowitz suggests that many early articles on Jorgensen “searched her past for clues to her condition” (How Sex Changed, 63) by referencing how effeminate she was as a child, this article seems to do the opposite, as her father is quoted as saying, “as a young man, his son was ‘all masculine’” (Boston American). Julia Serano notes the way depictions of trans women often frame their femininity as “fake” or constructed, thereby underscoring a perceived essential difference between people assigned male at birth and those assigned female at birth (41-42). This emphasis on Jorgensen’s supposed masculinity, then, works similarly, especially among the frequent references to her as a “son,” as it suggests a “natural” masculinity that has been cast aside for a newfound femininity, thus casting doubt on Jorgensen’s status as a woman.

Despite the framing around her parents’ opinions about her transition throughout most of the article, the reporter does turn to Jorgensen’s own account of her own identity near the end. In a quote from the coming out letter she sent to her parents, Jorgensen says, “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected and I am your daughter” (Boston American). Despite the break between her previous life and her new one the reporter keeps trying to draw through references to a surgical “transformation,” Jorgensen’s statement here works to draw a continuity between her pre-transition and post-transition self through her simple statement that she is her parents’ daughter (not that she has become their daughter, as the reporters frequently state) and that she has simply sought treatment for a pre-existing condition.

To emphasize these points, her letter then turns to a medical explanation of her “condition” which “has now been cleared” because of her surgery, as she explains how hormones work to her parents, states she had a hormonal imbalance “along with millions of other people,” and that gender confirmation surgery has corrected this imbalance. Meyerowitz notes that Jorgensen frequently frames her trans identity as a result of a hormonal balance (How Sex Changed), but importantly, Jorgensen does not present herself as what Jay Prosser calls “medicine’s passive effect” (7), a depiction he claims is common in trans narratives that “emphasize the transsexual’s construction by the medical establishment” (7). Rather, by emphasizing that she has corrected this mistake in her letter, Jorgensen draws on that medical discourse in order present her gender identity as natural, and something that she has authored herself, albeit with the help of medical technology.

The tension around her gender identity remains, however, because the reporter often editorializes in a way that undermines Jorgensen’s agency to craft her own narrative, as shown above by the continued references to her with masculine pronouns. Moreover, the reporter suggests that, despite Jorgensen’s own insistence, she was transformed by the surgeries. For example, before her explanation, the article states she was “transformed through a series of six surgical operations” (Boston American), emphasizing her medical construction, as Prosser would argue, by suggesting she was a passive recipient of a surgical procedure. While turning to Jorgensen’s own account of her identity near the end of the article in some ways validates her own experiences and explanations, the reporter again draws attention to the surgeon by concluding this account by noting that her “long letter” refers to her surgeon as “a great man and a brilliant scientist” (Boston American). Thus, the reporter again undermines Jorgensen’s own account by ending the article with another reference to the surgeon’s achievements. The reference to her surgeon as a “great man” is especially interesting, as it represents another trend in this article of deferring to men and masculinity, much like the reporter was more interested in Jorgensen’s father’s account of her childhood rather than Jorgensen’s own. Moreover, the fact that her account of her transition follows her father’s assertion that she was “all masculine” and the repeated references to her as “their son” destabilizes her own narrative as the reporter grapples with normative understandings about sex and gender and the ways Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own self-narrative outside of these cultural scripts unsettles those understandings.

“There is Nothing to Refuse:” Questions about Legal Gender and Gender Identity

About seven years after the news about her transition broke, Jorgensen attempted to get married. Despite the passage of these seven years, the media continued to report on Jorgensen in similar ways as when she first hit the news, as reports remained preoccupied with her transition and identifying the “truth” of her gender identity. I find the articles about her attempted marriage especially interesting because of the prominent role marriage plays in cisheteronormativity. Were the public media to wholly view Jorgensen as a woman, her marriage to a man would be of no more interest than that of any other minor celebrity. However, it is clear that the media’s interest in her attempted marriage clearly derived from larger questions about the “truth” of her womanhood, for in the Omaha World-Herald’s article “License Next for Christine,” Jorgensen is referred to as a “boy turned girl” in both the subtitle and the first sentence of the article. The Boston Record American, while slightly more respectful, also begins the article “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans” by describing her as “Christine Jorgensen, who was ex-GI George Jorgensen, Jr., until a sex change operation in Denmark in 1952.” I have chosen these two articles about her marriage to analyze, then, because the anxiety about gender and sexuality that reoccurs throughout reporting on Jorgensen becomes much more explicit through these questions of marriage and what that means for a woman like Jorgensen.

While both articles note that the delay in Jorgensen’s ability to obtain a marriage license is due to her fiancé’s lack of proper documentation of his divorce, and not actually about Jorgensen’s gender identity, they also raise questions about Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman and how that may affect the marriage. The Omaha World-Herald, for instance, states that once her fiancé receives the proper documentation, “City Clerk Herman Katz said a blood test certificate in which a physician certifies Miss Jorgensen is a woman should be sufficient.” Similarly, the Boston Record American, after providing a detailed description of her feminine outfit, states that “One reporter wanted to know if she was apprehensive that she might be refused a marriage license because of the sex change surgery.” Therefore, despite Meyerowitz’s claim that Jorgensen’s authenticity as a woman relied on her appearance “in parts because her sexual organs were neither visible nor mentionable” (How Sex Changed, 63), this article questions the validity of her womanhood despite the fact that she was “dressed in a beige wool coat and a beige knitted dress, [and] was every inch the beaming bride-to-be” (Associated Press). Jorgensen’s response to this question of whether or not the marriage license will be denied because of her transition, quoted in the article, was that “There is nothing to refuse…There is no question about this and there never has been for eight years.” After noting that this timeline of “eight years” refers back to the date of her surgery, the reporter then notes that “She said the U.S. State Dept. had altered her passport shortly after her sex was altered to read ‘female instead of male,’” underscoring Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman.

While Jorgensen’s brief response is direct and suggests there is no question about her status as a woman, it’s interesting that she ties the date that her identity has been settled to her surgery. By doing so, Jorgensen uses that surgery to stabilize her identity as a woman by suggesting the medical interventions are what made her a woman, despite her suggestions earlier that she had always been a woman and simply used surgery to correct a biological mistake. Of course, the fact that both articles are raising questions about how the fact that she was “a boy turned girl” will affect her marriage suggests that, to the media, her status as a woman was not as settled as Jorgensen has claimed. The details this article includes about her passport have a similarly ambiguous effect. While, again, the reference to her passport serves to validate Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman, the fact that the article states her passport reads “female instead of male” suggests it’s not that simple, as it’s tying her current recognized gender identity to that which she was assigned at birth—that is, she’s not just “female” but “female instead of male.”

While I do not take this statement that her passport read “female instead of male” to mean the State Department did, at the time, literally write “female instead of male,” the fact the reporter refers to what her passport says in this way highlights the ambiguity around her status as a woman after she has asserted it is settled—that is, there is at least an implicit suggestion one would expect it to read “male.” Moreover, referring to the gender listed on her passport in this way is a rhetorical act that Serano refers to as “third-gendering” (174-176). Serano describes third-gendering as a statement in which binary trans people are relegated to a separate category rather than the categories of “man” or “woman” that they belong, by using terms such as “male-to-female” for trans women, rather than just women. As Serano explains, this act of third-gendering denies the trans person’s identified gender, even when it’s not meant to be derogatory, as it necessarily makes a distinction between them and their cis counterparts. Thus, like the early article announcing her transition, Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own gendered experiences are consistently undermined by this reporter through such third-gendering and questions about her ability to get married, despite her apparent legal status as female.

Unfortunately, questions about legal gender are never as simple as Jorgensen presents them when she says there is nothing to refuse, a fact that many trans people understand too clearly due to the different requirements around changing gender markers on different identity documents.  As Meyerowitz explains, Jorgensen was eventually denied the marriage license. Despite the fact that she presented her passport, which listed her as female, and a letter from her surgeon stating “she must be considered female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51), the marriage license was denied because her birth certificate listed her as male. The news media, of course, took interest in this ambiguity around her legal gender status, and Meyerowitz reports that a front-page headline in the New York Mirror read that she “was denied a marriage license yesterday on the ground of inadequate proof of being a female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51). This reporting on the lack of “proof” of her gender identity highlights that questions about the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood remained several years after the initial reporting on her transition.

Conclusion

The news articles I have considered in this brief essay demonstrate the ways that, despite both Meyerowitz’s and Skidmore’s critiques that Jorgensen was often portrayed positively because of her ability to reinscribe notions of white heteronormative womanhood, her accounts of her identity and her experiences were still often reframed by doubting or dismissive reporters. It is for this reason that I still find the circulation of news articles about her as a valuable source for considering how transgender people are about to find a language for our own experiences. Prosser notes the tendency to read trans narratives as either literalizing essentialist notions of gender and sexuality or deliteralizing those same notions. He suggests this creates an easy binary in which some trans narratives (those that are antiessentialist) are “good” and those that are essentialist are “bad” (15). Attempting to move past this binary, he suggests we attend instead to how trans narratives “rupture the identity between the binaries, opening up a transitional space between them” by considering how these texts “engage with the feelings of embodiment” (16). Following Prosser, then, I think it is necessary to consider how Jorgensen attempted to express her own feelings of gendered embodiment, despite a doubting and dismissive public while drawing on the language available to her (even if at times essentialist or normative). As the articles about Jorgensen discussed above show, this requires a variety of sometimes contradictory strategies—sometimes, for example, resisting the dominant medical narratives, yet, at other times, using them when helpful to legitimatize her own experiences.

Despite Jorgensen’s insistence that “there was nothing to refuse,” my reading of the available news articles about her suggest the questions about the legitimacy of her womanhood persisted throughout her life, despite the varying strategies she used to explain her experiences to a cisgender public. I remain hopeful, however, that the media will eventually be able to move past this constant doubting and dismissiveness of trans people’s experiences. Avery Everhart argues that the “theme of unreliable narration is one that has haunted both the clinical archives of transsexuality and the genres of trans life writing,” an outgrowth from the ways “clinicians may have been trained to, at least historically, be suspicious of the transgender life as narrated by the person living it” (Everhart). Casey Plett, while also acknowledging that “media gatekeepers insisted for decades on a very specific trans story,” one which often “attempts to explain trans existence to an unforgiving world” (Plett), notes in her review of the current state of trans memoirs that there is evidence of a move past such limited possibilities for narratives of trans experiences. To Plett’s surprise, she found there is much more variety in the types of stories that are told in current trans memoirs when compared to what was available a decade ago. This leads her to conclude that it’s hard to discuss patterns among them because “there are so many of us now with more platforms than what we were once allowed” (Plett). While there are certainly those who still doubt trans people’s own accounts of our experiences, there has undoubtedly been an increase in opportunities and platforms for trans people to share our stories on our own terms. This increase has allowed us to maintain at least some control over our narratives, rather than having to rely on news reporters and publishers who are doubtful of our experiences to frame the ways in which they are told.

Works Cited

  • Ames, Jonathan. Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. Vintage, 2005.
  • Boston American.  “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” Clipping. 1952. Digital Transgender Archive,  Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • Everhart, Avery. “A New Anti-Heroine of Transgender Literature Emerges, Or, Why Everyone Should Read Kai Cheng Thom’s ‘Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.’” Michigan Quarterly Review, Jan. 27, 2020. Accessed March 15, 2020.
  • Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: Personal Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1968.
  • Kent, Robert E, et al., directors. The Christine Jorgensen Story. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2011.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Sex Change and the Popular Press: Historical Notes on Transsexuality in the United States, 1930-1955.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1998, pp. 159-187
  • Plett, Casey. “The Evolution of the Trans Memoir.” Xtra Magazine, Nov. 21, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2020.
  • Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Rawson, K.J. and Williams, Cristan. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014.
  • Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2007.
  • Skidmore, Emily. “Constructing the ‘Good Transsexual’: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2011, pp. 270-300.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
  • The Associated Press. “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • —. “License Next for Christine.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.

Revisiting Transvestite Sexualities through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s

“This period of assault by Anita Bryant raises the question of whether or not it is time for greater cooperation between the Male Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation movements. As Anita Bryant wins, we both lose. Cooperation does not mean we have to become gay, nor does it mean they have to become ‘transvestites’. It does mean we should unashamedly explore all areas of joint cooperation in pursuit of mutually beneficial objectives.”

(Linda Ann Stephens 3)

In June of 1977, residents in Florida’s Dade County, spurred on by Anita Bryant, voted to repeal the county’s anti-discrimination legislation, which had previously protected gay and lesbian people. Soon after the Dade County vote, the Journal of Male Feminism (hereafter Male Feminism1), the publication of the North American transvestite organization The International Alliance for Male Feminism (hereafter the Alliance), ran a range of reprinted news reports about Anita Bryant, Dade County, and gay liberation. Linda Ann Stephens, the editor of Male Feminism at the time, framed the reprinted stories in her article, “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?” which is excerpted above.

Stephens’s discussion of cooperation between transvestite2 and gay communities served as both a call to action for and a framing of tensions between each group. As Stephens indicates, gay liberationists frequently disavowed transvestites “in a misdirected effort to avoid or overcome the false popular stereotype of gay men as effete, effeminate sissies” and transvestites distanced themselves from gay and lesbian people because “most of us are not gay” (3). While Stephens suggests that there was mutual animosity between gay and trans3 organizations and individuals in the late 1970s, she focuses on the normative investments, concerns about being aligned with stereotypes of effeminacy, that led many gay people to distance themselves from transvestites. Although Stephens notes that transvestites also distanced themselves from gay liberationists, she leaves this as a question of identification. That is, she argues, since most transvestites are straight, they saw little need to be involved in gay liberation. This essay revisits the question of “greater cooperation” between gay and trans movements posed in Stephens’s title with particular attention to the internal sexual norms of transvestite organizations and trans rhetors’ internal and public responses to these norms through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s.

Out of materials in the Digital Transgender Archive, issues of Male Feminism and Drag4 published between 1977 and 1980, I take up the call for this special issue to consider how trans rhetors challenged internal norms of (hetero)sexuality towards a goal of publicly supporting activism around non-normative sexualities in conjunction with non-normative genders. First, this essay addresses rhetorical constructions of the sexually normative transvestite, the “dull hetero TV [(transvestite)],” in issues of Male Feminism concurrent with Anita Bryant’s rise. Then, this essay turns to articles from both Male Feminism and Drag wherein trans rhetors sought to revisit and reframe the terms of normative sexuality within and beyond their communities in response to the exigence of Anita Bryant’s campaign. In this case, trans rhetors’ metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant functioned as an inventional resource allowing them to appropriate the terms of Bryant’s homophobic campaign towards redefining intra-communal norms of respectable trans sexuality and the terms of trans solidarity with gay liberationist movements.

The “plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV”

This section takes up internal discussions in Male Feminism about expectations of sexual normativity to lay the terrain for internal and public challenges to these norms. As Robert Hill shows, through his reading of trans identities in the magazine Transvestia between 1960 and 1980, questions of trans sexuality did not begin with Anita Bryant. For example, Virginia Prince, founder of Transvestia and founder of the heterosexual transvestite sorority the Society for the Second Self (Tri Sigma or Tri Sig5), argued since the 1950s that “true transvestites are 4 exclusively heterosexual” (17). In Hill’s work with Transvestia, he uses “the terms ‘crossdresser’ and ‘transvestite’ interchangeably to refer to genetic males who identify as heterosexual and who enjoy periodically dressing in clothing that their society views as socially and culturally belonging to women” (378). In partial contrast, here I address transvestites who did not identify as heterosexual or who advocated on behalf of non-straight trans people.

In early 1977, the publisher of Male Feminism, the journal known until this point as Hose & Heels, would change its name from the National Alliance for Heterosexual Male Feminism to the International Alliance for Male Feminism. Male Feminism’s organizational and journal name changes were discussed by the journal’s editors on two terms. First, the editors note the turn to “international” to acknowledge a growing Canadian membership, and second, they discuss the removal of “heterosexual” from their name for a variety of reasons. Beyond shortening the length of the group’s name, they state that another factor,

was to reduce what some have felt was an overemphasis on the heterosexual dimension of the Alliance. Although from the formation and foundation of our Alliance, we have always made clear that we had no sexual orientation restriction on membership, some have perceived an overemphasis on the heterosexual component. As with the general population, the major component of our membership is likely to continue to be heterosexually oriented. The Board believed, however, that we had been giving somewhat undue emphasis to this dimension. (3)

As an organization that grew out of and separated from Prince’s Tri Sigma, the Alliance further distinguishes itself from Tri Sigma by explicitly approaching the category of transvestite as inclusive of any sexual orientation.

Although the Alliance’s name change was intended to welcome a wider range of transvestites, in particular those who were not straight or were from outside the United States, in the same statement, they temper an embrace of all sexualities, “the Board was unanimous in believing the International Alliance for Male Feminism should continue to take all reasonable measures to avoid developing even the appearance of a ‘swinger’ or ‘drag queen’ type of image. Persons into that, or into other unrelated areas such as S&M and B&D, should look to other groups to satisfy those interests” (3). In this statement, the editors distinguish certain sexual practices as “unrelated” to their work as a transvestite organization. Thus, while the Alliance sought to open its membership in terms of homosexuality, they maintained that respectable sexual practices—vanilla and coupled sex in this instance—remained a necessity for all in the organization.

Two years later, in a 1979 issue of Male Feminism, both the journal’s editor and a reader, Connie, speak to the terms of sexual normativity within the Alliance as part of a discussion about a possible merger with Prince’s sorority. Connie, a reader from New York wrote, “We should not open our doors to those who wish to practice the ‘oral’ or anal’ bit, the enema thing, extreme bondage or other far from the ordinary sexual processes” (23). As articulated by Connie, “ordinary sexual processes” are re-figured through a trans politic.

In response to Connie, Male Feminism’s editor, Glenda Renee Jones, provides a hierarchy of fetishes that affirms the terms of Connie’s letter, “Most all of the members of both organizations have some sort of ‘hang-up’, quite inoffensive such as undies, high heels, which are parts of the plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV” (24). These comments make apparent the normative attachments that undergird this debate, the “dull hetero TV” offers a center from which deviations can be measured. Jones concludes her comments by noting, “There are a few bi’s in both Tri Sig and the Alliance…I would say the two groups are virtually identical in policy and membership composition.” Apparent here, in contrast to the editorial board’s 1977 statement and the anonymous submission I consider in the next section, Jones asserts that the Alliance remained quite straight, much like the members of Tri Sigma. In sum, Connie and Jones delineate the terms of a normative trans sexuality, indicating that, at best, only “plain, ordinary, basic, dull” homosexual or bisexual transvestites would be welcome in the Alliance.

Responding to the “dull hetero TV”

As the previous section shows how trans rhetors began to make space for homosexual transvestites in their organization by recentering normative—vanilla and coupled—sexual practices as necessary for homosexual and heterosexual members alike, I turn now to how trans rhetors sought to challenge the public and internal terms of normative transvestite sexuality through metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant. In a 1977 issue of Drag, an unidentified author points to Anita Bryant as the “unifying factor” that allowed for record crowds at New York City’s 1977 pride march (“Gay” 18). The author adds that 1977 marked the first time the pride planning committee invited a transvestite, Cocoa, to speak at New York City’s Pride. Susan Stryker describes the birth of Drag and its publisher, the Queens Liberation Front which was founded by “drag queen Lee Brewster and heterosexual transvestite Bunny Eisenhower,” as a response to “how quickly the gay liberation movement started to push aside some of the very people who had the greatest stake in militant resistance at Stonewall” (87).

As the Drag author notes regarding Cocoa’s invitation, “one person moved that she be stricken because only 25% of TVs are Gay, and therefore not deserving of representation” (22). The author argues that these efforts to deny connections between sexuality and trans identity were also apparent intra-communally, the “insidiousness of this blacklisting is actually encouraged by some TVs. Those who deny the gay aspects of some transvestites play right into the hands of those gay militants who detest the concept of Drag” (22). Here, the author links anti-trans gay people to anti-gay trans people who argue that their gender is respectable while decrying transgressive sexualities. Beyond acknowledging that many transvestites are gay, the author also argues that some transvestites not only stayed away from gay liberation because they were not gay, but also because they maintained investments in upholding normative sexual practices in their communities.

The author then invokes Anita Bryant to account for the issue with these positions, “One wonders that if the Gotterdamerung does occur, and all Gays fall victims to Anita Bryant, will a distinction be made to exclude those TVs who don’t suck cock? We think not” (“Gay” 22). The author’s rhetorical question calls for understanding that Bryant’s campaign sought a totalizing response to those considered sexually or gender deviant. The author links Bryant’s positions to homophobia and anti-trans sentiments as articulated within each community.

Similarly, in the same 1979 issue of Male Feminism I previously discussed, one bisexual member of both Tri Sigma and the Alliance, who advocated against the Alliance’s merger with Tri Sigma, addresses the limits of normative sexualities in the organization by articulating normativity with social myths and stereotypes. The author asked to have her name withheld, presumably out of concern about possible repercussions as a result of her views. She wrote,

The Alliance is receptive to this [bisexual] orientation—as it is to all orientations across the gender spectrum. Unfortunately, when I am in the company of my Tri Sig sisters, it’s strictly “Mums a word”…I believe [my Tri Sig sisters] are slighting themselves with their homophobia (Anita Bryant couldn’t be happier)…The issue is freedom from sex role stereotypes…Homosexuals, bisexuals—and, realistically—the entire issue of humanistic sexuality—rely on openness. If the doors are open, society’s myths soon perish. (22)

This narrative positions the Alliance as a more open organization than Prince’s Tri Sigma, and suggests the Alliance should center a fight against all of “society’s myths,” including both gendered and sexual norms. The author’s mention of Bryant’s happiness, in contrast to the silences the author experiences regarding her bisexuality, aligns the leadership of Tri Sigma and the Alliance with Anita Bryant as all seek to restrict sexual freedom. Under the rubric of “freedom from sex role stereotypes” produced through denying “society’s myths” the author identifies a common political struggle for transvestites and gay people, against Anita Bryant, regardless of sexual practices.

While the previous two examples invoke Anita Bryant as an external threat and as a stand-in for homophobic and transphobic beliefs, Bebe Scarpie, editor of Drag, invokes Bryant to address the problem with normative sexual attachments as held by trans people themselves. In her 1980 article, Scarpie challenges the homophobia of trans readers by arguing that guilt is the primary motivation for their anti-gay views. Scarpie writes, “an overt hatred of gayness…would primarily set up a clear demarcation between crossdressers—those whose drag is a prelude to normal sex—and those who crossdress for homosexual reasons, that is, a prelude to ‘abnormal’ sex” (33). Scarpie argues that homophobia, and efforts by transvestites to distance themselves from gay people, relies on an untenable distinction between normal and abnormal sex, allowing heterosexual transvestites to assuage their felt gender deviance through their “normal” sex. Indeed, Scarpie dismisses even the possibility of a normative sexual practice for transvestites

anti-gayness offers proof to the normalcy of the heterosexual TV in terms of our culture. It classifies you in the same corner as Mom, Apple Pie and the American flag—all the same syndrome. Your church will pray for you. The politicians will endorse you. Maybe even Anita Bryant will come to your town to lead an anti-gay rally with you…He cannot deny his crossdressing, yet he must somehow atone for this faggot-type thing. Everything is freakish about transvestites; from masturbating with satin around the penis, to being submissive to a dominant woman. (34)

Scarpie’s invocation of Anita Bryant, as a symbol alongside apple pie and the flag, marks Bryant a source of legitimation and normativity for transvestites seeking to alleviate their own “freakishness.” In Scarpie’s view, the “dull hetero TV” becomes an impossibility, a fantasy of self-hating trans people, like being supported by Bryant, that is only produced in the minds of trans people who fail to come to terms with their own desires. Further, Scarpie calls for an embrace of transvestites as “freakish,” a recognition that a conservative straight world would find little to celebrate in trans people, regardless of their “normal” sex.

Across this essay I show how the rise of Anita Bryant in the late 1970s provided trans rhetors with an opportunity to contest the norms of sexual respectability within and outside of their communities. In the context of discussions around normative expectations of transvestite sexuality, trans rhetors invoked Bryant as a stand-in for a threat to not only gay and lesbian people but also to all trans people. For the trans rhetors considered here, joining gay liberationists and advocating for pro-gay stances within trans organizations was necessary for the survival of all trans people. They challenged trans community members to face the terms of their own normative sexual attachments and recognize that Bryant, and a larger straight world, would view trans people with the same scrutiny as “militant homosexuals.” Linda Ann Stephens concludes her article, which opened this essay, by calling for transvestites to “take a stand” alongside gay liberationists against the homophobia and transphobia of Anita Bryant’s campaign (3). Her conclusion sums up the calls of the trans rhetors I have addressed here, “Societal attitudes do change! The direction of that change is determined, in part, by your actions or lack thereof. What is your responsibility and how well are you carrying it out?” (Stephens 3).

Endnotes

  1. The term “feminism” in the journal’s title refers to femininity rather than the feminist political movement.
  2. The rhetors considered here use the terms transvestite, crossdresser, and male woman, at times interchangeably, to generally refer to assigned-male individuals who cross-dress some or most of the time for a variety of reasons including, for some, sexual pleasure. While these terms are often considered offensive today, I maintain the original terms used by each rhetor I consider.
  3. While this use of trans is anachronistic in relation to the late 1970s, the term’s contemporary, if contested, usage as an “umbrella” for a range of non-normative gender identities allows for a consideration of the authors in Male Feminism and Drag without making wider assumptions about their particular unstated identities.
  4. These two publications represent the bulk of original indexed references to Anita Bryant available in the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) from 1977 through 1980. While Bryant is also mentioned in DTA-held publications such as Gender Review and Les Girls, she is referred to tangentially as part of news reporting or in republished news stories.
  5. Although Virginia Prince’s Society for the Second Self is most frequently remembered as Tri-Ess, the documents I address here exclusively refer to her organization as Tri Sigma or Tri Sig.

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Connie. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, pp. 23-24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Gay Pride March ’77.” Drag, vol. 7, no. 25, 1977, pp. 18-22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Hill, Robert. “Before Transgender: Transvestia’s Spectrum of Gender Variance, 1960-1980.” The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 1st ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 364-79.
  • International Alliance Board. “Alliance Modifies Name, Broadens Base, Makes Other Changes.” Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 1, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Jones, Glenda Rene. “Editor’s Note.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019. Prince, C. V. “Homosexuality, Transvestism and Transsexuality: Reflections on Their Etiology and Differentiation.” International Journal of Transgenderism, vol. 8, no. 4, 2005, pp. 17-20.
  • Scarpie, Bebe. “HOMOPHOBIA: Fear of Homosexuality.” Drag, vol. 8, no. 27, 1980, pp. 33–34. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stephens, Linda Ann. “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 3, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal Press, 2008.

Writing Groups as Feminist Practice

We locate ourselves in this essay as three women (along with two others1) who have been writing and sharing writing together for almost a decade, women who initially came together as graduate students at different stages in our degrees, and who have steered one another through many changes in our writing, jobs, and lives. This essay is a story about our writing group, one that is about more than just scholarly writing. It is a story that continues by virtue of the women we continue to write alongside and of a history of women before us, writing and “making it” together (Baliff et al.).

Initially we imagined that peer review of articles, chapters, proposals, and the like would be our group’s main purpose. But while review certainly remains a part, our writing group is much more a capacious co-mentoring network that nurtures our very lives and the feelings that underlie—more truly, constitute—our writing and professional processes still today. Indeed, as our group reveals, writing (and its support) is never really about just writing but always everything else—a perspective, we argue, that can enrich support for graduate and early-career writers. Much of the graduate-level writing support we see increasing across disciplines emphasizes rhetorical features and scholarly genres—approaches that, while useful, can nonetheless atomize and contain writing, cleaving it from its dizzying affective, embodied, and material dynamics.

Inspired by the reach we’ve discovered in our own group, we ask our feminist colleagues to reconsider writing groups as more than extracurricular sources of feedback focused on genres and products. Writing groups are also essential mechanisms of access, inclusion, and professional sustenance. As a feminist pedagogical practice, writing groups illustrate the nature of writing itself and its role in our daily lives; the blurred lines between writing support and mentorship; our need for community and security both professionally and personally; and the value of mentorship beyond traditional vertical hierarchies. Such support may allow those who are seen (or see themselves) as disciplinary outsiders to combat feelings of impostership, confront experiences of exclusion, and participate in a wider range of professional activities, as our group has done for us. Indeed, publishing, reviewing, editing, serving on national committees, and even mentoring colleagues and graduate students is still the province of only a fraction of our field’s members and mastery is often an assumed prerequisite (Almjeld et al.; Blewett et al.; Enos; see also Chakravartty et al.; Jones; Law and Corrigan; Verzosa Hurley et al.). Writing groups can facilitate professional entryways into—or even grant “permission”to endeavor in—the profession, as well as highlight the value of multiple perspectives and partial knowledges, thereby increasing the range of voices represented in and leading our field(s) activities.

Our “Open Writing Group”

Our origins stretch back to 2011, when our friend (and fellow group-member) shared Claire P. Curtis’ Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “The Rules of Writing Group” with the idea that we should start a group of our own. Curtis advises forming writing groups composed of exactly three members, each one assigned a different week to submit writing for feedback, and requires group members to attend all meetings (her group has “met with infants in tow, sick children upstairs, and through crises both personal and professional”). We tried at first to abide by these rigid rules but quickly discovered this strictness and smallness didn’t suit us, nor did the focus on review alone. While other friends in our graduate program at the University of Cincinnati occasionally dropped in, what eventually stuck was a regular five-person community of reader-writers. Our core group initially met in a coffee shop once a week (rotating among four Cincinnati neighborhoods) to sit and write together. We designated one or two of those meetings each month as “sharing” days when anyone could bring writing and receive feedback. Likely owing to the strong collegiality and collaborative spirit of our grad program, we named the group OWG, or the Open Writing Group.

This consistent yet fluid, less rule-bound structure has defined and made possible OWG’s success. Rather than a “you must” imperative, OWG is guided by an affirmative “I should” motivation, built around the recognition that there’s value to presence—to showing up, to being together, to reading and responding. Writing groups (like Curtis’s) often focus exclusively on reading and critique in their time together. We, however, have found value in doing writing and reviewing it together. Even as we labelled OWG meetings “reviewing” or “writing” days, that distinction productively blurred. During writing days, for instance, we could look up from a sentence and ask our group members for help with a word we struggled to think of, a citation we couldn’t recall, a conceptual problem that just arose. We could, in other words, get in-the-moment response, making the isolating experience of writing more social and supportive.

Our group built upon friendships already established and forged new ones. Friendship, we believe, is one of the reasons our group persists. As Pamela VanHaitsma and Steph Ceraso note in their discussion of horizontal mentorship, “[c]hoosing the right peer mentor is crucial” to maintaining a successful and productive relationship (215). Having someone who is supportive, invested, and empathetic matters. For us, even as graduations and jobs across the country have brought changes to the group dynamic, OWG still reflects this same core commitment. We meet about once a month over Google Hangouts to share our writing, send out last-minute email requests for feedback, support each other with accountability check-ins over Facebook Messenger on writing days, talk about our personal lives, and share advice with one another on political situations, tenure, salary negotiations, starting a business, leaving the academy, peer review, writing program administration, and more. As we’ll continue to illustrate, OWG acts still now as a capacious site of support of all kinds in our careers and our growth as academics, as writing groups have done for others outside of exclusionary institutions and systems.

Potentials from a History of Women’s Writing Groups

While writing groups can be found today in academic settings (Armstrong et al.; Shaver et al., Sonnad et al.), women’s formal and informal writing groups have existed for hundreds of years, as sites of educational, interpersonal, and professional support. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s access to college education and professional training and networks were limited (e.g., Adams; Woolf). In response, women created their own clubs for professional development; one such women’s club, Sorosis, was formed by journalist Jane Cunningham Croly in 1868, after she was barred from attending a Dickens reading at the Press Club in New York City (Gere, Writing Groups 42). Sorosis became a space for women professionals to network, gain feedback, and expand their careers in writing—all functions echoed in our present-day writing group.

Writing groups have also been critical collectives for subverting exclusionary, often racist, structures and norms. African American women in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Buffalo, and Rochester, for example, formed literary societies in the 1800s to meet and provide one another feedback on their writing (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These groups “embraced writing’s capacity to effect social and economic change, to enact their motto, ‘lifting as we climb’” (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). These societies gave women opportunities to network and publish their own writing, but, perhaps even more critically, opened access to literacy for others. African American women in the South created secret schools, “comprised of one person who could read and write and a group of individuals who wanted to learn,” with the mandate that graduates would continue teaching others (Gere, “Kitchen” 84). Here we emphasize the overt activist potentials of writing groups historically, their capacities through social connection to make space where there wasn’t any before (and do so acknowledging that we have not personally experienced all these facets of barrier breaking, as three cis-identifying-women, two of us White and one of us mixed race and White-presenting). Comprised entirely of women, our own writing group routinely shares gripes about and brainstorms strategies to dismantle (sometimes sneakily, sometimes loudly) the routine sexism and gender assumptions baked into everyday life in the academy. Indeed, writing groups have potentials to open access for more diverse voices in our scholarly conversations—minoritized or othered voices, the voices of single mothers, those with high teaching and service loads, adjuncts and other contingent faculty, or those who lack equal access to research resources (see Cole and Hassel; Sharer).

In addition to creating critical socio-material space, writing groups also provide writers with productive critique from a community of peers. For example, the co-ed Harlem Writers Guild, founded in 1950, gave writers like Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, and Audre Lorde “support and encouragement while at the same time acting as critic—sometimes harshly—pushing its members to work harder and do better” (Moss et al. 1). As Beverly Moss and coauthors note, the Harlem Writers Guild used critique not just to improve writing but to help “members grow and succeed as writers” (2; emphasis added). We see this dynamic echoed in our experience in OWG. We have gotten to a point of comfort and trust where we can almost “say anything”; we don’t have to dance through politeness before questioning,  offering direction, or giving advice. Indeed, on the infrequent occasions when our drafts or writing plans are thoroughly undermined in the group, we still feel relief, even excitement, about moving forward. Perhaps our long friendships and familiarity with each others’ successes and setbacks helps. But this openness to feedback also is due to our regularly writing alongside one another as well as our willingness to review and discuss projects in any stage of development—all of us have failed to deliver a draft we promised and so have instead submitted notes, an abstract, or even just a talk-through of ideas. This openness to “come as you are” (rather than meet a strict deadline) amplifies the sociality of invention, acknowledges the disorderliness of process, and, above all, supports the writer not the development of products.

Writing Groups Today

As the brief overview above demonstrates, women’s writing groups have emerged out of necessity and survival, making progress possible not just for individuals but collectives. Reconsidering writing groups is particularly imperative in the context of today’s improved-yet-still-limited conversations on graduate student writing and professionalization. These issues are all-hands-on-deck exigent in light of the glut of PhDs competing in the ever-narrowing academic market in writing studies and related fields (e.g., “Final Report”; Kramnick). Some have responded to this critical need with a focus on transferable skills and preparation for alternative-academic (alt-ac) or humanities careers. We see writing support as an under-considered locus of intervention that might unify efforts to aid graduate students no matter where they locate careers. A focus on writing—which, again, from the perspective of the writing group, is about much more than writing “skills” alone—could help graduate students more richly imagine their lives, work, and potential.

Every doctoral student writes, a lot. And yet, writing instruction in graduate programs, both in practice and in the literature, is still “largely barren territory” (Micciche with Carr 485). When attention has been paid, writing scholars tend to advance approaches informed by WID and rhetorical genre studies that focus on decreasing the “invisibility” of genre and discourse conventions like voice, presentation, and epistemology (Brooks-Gillies et al.); demystifying the “hidden curriculum”—or unstated assumptions behind disciplines and their conventions (Sundstrom); or providing insight on “the subgenres of the dissertation” (Autry and Carter; see also Clark). Although such approaches help writers navigate the complexities of academic discourse, they also hyper-focus on writing products. But, as writing groups teach us, writers need support, trust, confidence, safety, camaraderie, permission, belonging, and more-than-just-technical aptitudes or skills.

Interdisciplinary and other workshop models (Gradin et al.; Micciche with Carr; Phillips; Rose and McClafferty) do emphasize these social dimensions alongside demystifying unfamiliar discourse communities. But the realities of working in(to) scholarly communities feels rather different than it’s often described. Scholarly communities can be quite small and their criteria for belonging nebulous. Discourse communities are fickle and disunified; they have enormous power differentials and dynamics; they are layered with implicit biases and exclusionary practices; they are constituted at once by shared and divergent knowledges. Scholarly genres are wiggly and unstable; they overlap and deviate; they are always more than just a collection of textual conventions. Writing is always much more than just getting the forms right or executing discourse. Writing in graduate coursework and into varied careers is chiefly and even painfully social: disorienting, uncertain, unfair, and so on. These social and affective layers are the reasons why we wonder if graduate writing instruction would benefit from more overt overlap with mentorship. Graduate writing and mentorship have seen increased attention, but separately. Writing processes (and mentorship and professionalization) can’t be tidily cleaved from sociality, guidance, affirmation, contexts, institutions, care, professionalization, advice, self-reflection, or, in sum, the very lives we make through and beyond the academy. If graduate student writing groups aim for their participants to better “understand the process of writing and the rhetorical function of language in their disciplines as those components are articulated through conversation” (Gradin et al.), then they should also recognize how much bigger those processes are than written products or rhetorical savviness alone.

To this end, writing groups can encourage genre study and workshopping, intertwined with what we might recognize as horizontal mentoring. For example, VanHaitsma and Ceraso emphasize that their horizontal mentorship relationship started with their intent to be “job market buddies,” focused on the genres of applications, interviews, and campus visits (211). But their focus expanded to all manner of considerations, including book development (a work requirement they both shared) right alongside whole-person questions including “discussing and re-framing the concept of work-life balance” (222) or “acknowledging and celebrating successes (even small ones)” (225). By imagining writing and mentoring unified in the work of writing groups, we resist atomizing academic life; we make the question not of genre acquisition or improving one’s interviewing skills, but of how we “‘make it’ together—in conversation and collaboration with supportive peers” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 215).

The dynamics of horizontal mentorship in writing groups also recognizes that mentorship need not, even should not, rely on mastery. Peers have something valuable to offer us; we grow in return from advising them. In OWG, we have grown in confidence from giving, and trusting in each other’s feedback, even when it contradicted more “established” advice. The choices this peer mentoring has led us to have sometimes been small, like taking writing group suggestions for focusing a seminar paper over those of the faculty member teaching the course. But sometimes they are larger, such as opting to conduct a search with both in- and out-of-field positions, or leaving a tenure-track position at a doctoral-granting institution to start a business.

Our meditation on writing groups only begins to explore their potentials as feminist pedagogical practice. We have illustrated their ability to build broad professional support; propel a sense of belonging, even access; provide critique, which not only strengthens products but grows processes and motivates writers; enrich genre-based graduate instruction with a profoundly social orientation; and enact horizontal mentoring. With these histories, our experiences, and the landscape of higher ed today, we are left lingering on these questions:

  • How might the ethos and histories of writing groups inform everyday professional practice?
  • How can writing groups support graduate student writing as professionalization and mentorship?
  • How might making institutional space for the sustaining dynamics of writing groups in some measure dismantle the “sexist, racist, classist, and/or homophobic systems and microaggressions within academic life” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 216)?
  • What other models of feminist collaboration, community, writing groups, mentoring are available to advance our thinking about graduate literacy support?

Endnotes

  1. The two other founding members of the writing group we describe, OWG, are Allison D. Carr, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College, and Kathryn Trauth Taylor, founder and CEO of Untold Content.

Works Cited

  • Adams, Katherine. A Group of Their Own: College Writing Courses and American Women Writers, 1880-1940. SUNY P, 2001.
  • Almjeld, Jen, Meg McGuire, and Kristine L. Blair. “Organic Mentorship: A Feminist Model to Support Scholars and Leaders.” Cole and Hassel, pp. 216-224.
  • Armstrong, et al. “Learning Wisdom Through Collectivity: The Women Writing Women Collective.” NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-18.
  • Autry, Meagan Kittle and Michael Carter. “Unblocking Occluded Genres in Graduate Writing: Thesis and Dissertation Support Services at North Carolina State University.” Composition Forum, vol. 31, Spring 2015. n.p.
  • Baliff, Michelle, Diane Davis, and Roxanne Mountford. Women’s Ways of Making It in Rhetoric and Composition. Routledge, 2008.
  • Blewett, Kelly, Christina M. LaVecchia, Laura R. Micciche, and Janine Morris. “Editing as Inclusion Activism.” Scholarly Editing: History, Performance, Future, special issue of College English, vol. 81, no. 4, 2019, pp. 273-296.
  • Brooks-Gillies, Marilee, Elena G. Garcia, Soo Hyon Kim, Katie Manthey, and Trixie G. Smith. “Graduate Writing Across the Disciplines, Introduction.” Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, vol. 12, no. 3, August 2015, n.p.
  • Chakravartty, Paula, Rachel Kuo, Victoria Grubbs, and Charlton Mcllwain. “#Communicationsowhite.” Journal of Communication Studies, vol. 68, no. 2, 2018, pp. 254–266.
  • Clark, Irene L. Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Entering the Conversation. Prentice Hall, 2007.
  • Cole, Kristi, and Holly Hassel, editors. Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership. Routledge, 2017.
  • Curtis, Claire. “The Rules of Writing Group.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 March 2011.
  • Enos, Theresa. “Gender and Publishing Scholarship in Rhetoric and Composition.” Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Todd Taylor and Gary Olson. SUNY P, 1997. pp. 57–72.
  • Final Report from the Committee on Professional Employment.” MLA, December 1997.
  • Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 1, 1994, 75-92.
  • —. Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications. Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
  • Gradin, Sherrie, Jennifer Pauley-Gose, and Candace Stewart. “Disciplinary Differences, Rhetorical Resonances: Graduate Writing Groups Beyond the Humanities.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 2006, n.p.
  • Jones, Stacy Holman. “Making Our Stories Count: Racial, Gendered, and Sexualized Antagonisms in the Academy.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, vol. 7, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1-7.
  • Kramnick, Johnathan. “What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 09 December 2018.
  • Law, Martin, and Lisa M. Corrigan. “On White-Speak and Gatekeeping: Or, What Good are the Greeks?” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 326-330.
  • Micciche, Laura, with Allison D. Carr. “Toward Graduate-Level Writing Instruction.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 3, 2011, pp. 477- 501.
  • Moss, Beverly J., Nels P. Highberg, and Melissa Nichols. Writing Groups Inside and Outside the Classroom. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.
  • Phillips, Tallin. “Graduate Student Writing Groups: Shaping Writing and Writers from Student to Scholar.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 10, no.1, 2012, n.p.
  • Rose, Mike, and Karen A. McClafferty. “A Call for the Teaching of Writing in Graduate Education.” Educational Researcher, vol. 30, no. 2, 2001, pp. 27-33.
  • Sharer, Wendy. “Opening the Scholarly Conversation.” Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack, Parlor Press, 2019, pp. 183-202.
  • Shaver, Lisa, Elizabeth Tasker Davis, and Jane Greer. “Making Feminist Rhetorical History Five Pages at a Time: A Cross-Institutional Writing Group for Mid-Career Women in the Academy.” Peitho, vol. 22, no. 1, 2019. n.p.
  • Sonnad, Seema S., Jennifer Goldsack MChem, Karin L. McGowan. “A Writing Group for Female Assistant Professors.” Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 103, nos. 9 & 10, 2011, pp. 811-815.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela and Steph Ceraso. “‘Making It’ in the Academy through Horizontal Mentoring.” Peitho, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017, pp. 210-33.
  • Verzosa Hurley, Elise, Amanda Wray, and Erica Cirillo-McCarthy. “Rhetorics of Interruption: Navigating Sexism in the Academy.” Cole and Hassel, pp. 258-269.
  • Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own (1929). Harcourt, 2012.

Early Quaker Women and Civility Rhetorics

Recently I have been thinking about civility. Given the current state of U.S. political discourse, this is likely not surprising. More specifically, I am thinking about how civility is contested and complex—it is both an aspirational mode of disagreement in a diverse and pluralistic society and a tool of exclusion used to silence opposition and dissent. Civility is an important issue for feminists today because women, especially women of color, are often vilified for pushing back in public disagreement. Three notable examples of popular book-length manifestos about the power of women’s political anger include Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Mona Elthahawy’s The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Rhetorical studies scholars have also analyzed how the very concept of civility disallows or significantly diminishes the public political participation of marginalized groups. In their recent edited collection, Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch gather essays that explore “ethical unruly rhetorical practice” (14) as disturbances that “highlight both the precarity of lives and conditions of being as well as the insufficiency of prevailing or dominant platforms for public conversation” (15). And in an account of civilizing strategies of the academy and specifically within rhetorical studies, Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore powerfully critique “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race as well as calls for more ‘civil and courteous’ exchanges that don’t offend white sensibilities” (331).1 As this work makes clear, civility discourse can be a mechanism to disenfranchise marginalized groups in any number of institutional contexts; strategies to counter delegitimizing practices can include both engaging in unruly speech and action as a form of ethical political expression, as well as historicizing, redefining, and displacing “norms” of civil discourse.

In pointing out how civilizing strategies within and across historical sites have resulted in the silencing and punishment of unruly rhetorical practice, feminists—especially feminists of color—have argued for theories and practices that acknowledge the legitimacy, necessity, and value of angry speech and action.2 English scholar and cultural historian Carrie Tirado Bramen has examined how nineteenth-century reformer and activist Ida B. Wells “understood the limits of niceness…[and] continually had to negotiate between niceness and outrage while combating Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction South” (242). In her famous essay about women and racism, Audre Lorde reminds us that anger is a catalyst for positive change: “[e]very woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” (280). Sara Ahmed echoes Lorde in her assertion that “[a]nger is creative; it works to create a language with which to respond to that which one is against” and that feminism is the tool through which “associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures” (176). Thus, while feminist anger can be vulnerable to charges of incivility in which “the terms of its reception may ‘undo’ its claim,” it can also be a productive site of invention and dialogue (Ahmed 177).

The contested nature of civility claim, and, relatedly, the delivery and reception of women’s public anger in specific historical moments are central to my research. In my work on political participation by women in England in the mid-seventeenth century, a time of intense conflict and experimentation, I examine a range of women who inserted themselves into the emerging public sphere to write about principles guiding personhood and sovereignty, contracts and oaths, and persecution and toleration. Despite prescriptive and normative decrees against early modern women’s public speech and writing, women from various social groups vigorously participated in heated political debates in print. Pamphlets, books, petitions, letters, and manifestos were an important mode of women’s public political engagement during this time, and the 1640s mark a dramatic turning point for women’s print output. The quantity and range of women’s print publications increased considerably in the 1640s and 1650s—from 1621 to 1640 the total number of new print publications by women was 24, and from 1641 to 1660 that number increased almost tenfold to 236 (Crawford 265).

Despite the significance of this surge in political participation by women in print, these texts comprise an understudied resource for scholars interested in women’s and feminist rhetorical history and historiography.3 In the next section I will present examples of “uncivil” political rhetoric by women in England in the early Friends movement (called “Quakers” by antagonists who mocked their exuberant embodied practice of trembling, sighing, and groaning in worship) to suggest how deployments and assessments of in/civility are historically and culturally contingent. I believe that these examples offer a rationale for feminist scholars in rhetoric and composition to engage the past in ways that help us see that our civility crisis is not new. I will end with resources to access early Quaker writing by and about women. In presenting possibilities for future work that looks to the more distant past, I hope to heed Jen Wingard’s call for analysis that moves “between past and present with an eye toward how each time period is not static, but rather a conversation point in a larger feminist project.” 

“Their Language is too irreverent for a Temple, and too uncivill for a Tavern”

Of the many radical dissenting Protestant sects and congregations that formed in England in the 1640s and 1650s, in part due to the lifting of restrictions on speech, printing, and ways of worship, Quakers were reviled as the most “uncivil” (5). In Donald Lupton’s 1655 anti-Quaker tract he writes that male Friends “sco[r]ne their Superiours, and truly give no man his Due” and that female Friends “impudently rush, and run into all places, not to hear but to controul the Preachers Doctrine: women are called houswives, they should in modesty keep at home; but these are Gadders and Rovers abroad“ (14, 19). When Lupton portrays Quaker women as unfixed and aimless, subverting social order by straying from their proper place of home and eschewing conventional feminine ideals of modesty and silence, he is drawing on a misogynist tradition going back to the Bible (see Proverbs 7) and Aristotle (see The Politics, Book 1, 1260b, 28-31).  Although Lupton’s depiction of Quaker women’s public preaching is gendered and sexualized, all members of the religious group rejected social conventions. Women’s public participation in the movement was enabled by a sect-wide emphasis on the spiritual equality of all humans and a core belief that within each person dwells the light of Christ (called the “inner light”), as well as an emphasis on preaching, prophesying, letter writing, and petitioning. Given the highly individualized and relatively egalitarian nature of the movement, Friends rejected conduct that demarcated and reinforced hierarchical social difference: women traveled and published pamphlets and men refused to remove their hats in deference to social superiors. These factors contributed to the development of Quaker women’s rhetorical-political skills in recruiting and ministering; organizing meetings; engaging in acts of protest, dissent, and disruption; and appealing to public figures in the name of promoting their rights and the rights of other Friends.

Scholars have cited the generous hospitality of Margaret Fell (1614-1702), a founder of the movement, in sustaining the sect by providing her home as a “crashpad” for itinerants, a communications hub for a letter network among Friends across the country and abroad, and a safe space for meetings. One of the most prolific Quaker preachers, writers, and activists of the later seventeenth century, Fell’s best-known tract in defense of women’s public preaching, Women’s Speaking Justified (1666), is widely anthologized.4 But examining rhetorical activities by a broader range of early Quaker women is important in analyzing civility discourse given that all members of the movement were expected to disrupt polite and ordered everyday social interactions in order to draw attention to its message.

Given the role of Quaker women in the history of civility discourse, and the relevance of civility in feminism today, I would like to offer brief but suggestive excerpts from three Quaker texts that engage questions of civility/incivility related to social differentiation.5 Like other egalitarian religious movements of the seventeenth century, Friends embraced women’s preaching and writing by invoking the Christian belief that the low, the poor, the weak will in the end be first. Although deep-rooted cultural traditions and values supported the widespread belief that women were weaker than men in body and mind, the Bible’s edict that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) was frequently summoned by the community. This belief granted women spiritual authority and the grounds to challenge political and religious figures; such challenges were framed as markers of incivility, especially given that women from lower social groups largely made up radical sects like the Friends, and so their refusal to pay deference challenged both gender and class hierarchies.

My first example is a 1654 tract by Anne Audland describing her imprisonment in Banbury for blasphemy. In the tract she describes being unjustly accused of creating “a tumult” in church. In describing how she was violently abused by both minister and churchgoers for speaking back to the preacher, she calls into question the very legitimacy of the church building and, by extension, the state and religious institutions that impart it with authority: “Oh blush, and be ashamed of that which you call your Church, who are so suddenly in a tumult…never call it a Church, who are fighters and strikers, scoffers and scorners, tumulters and false accusers” (230). Shaming her supposedly devout accusers, Audland points out the hypocrisy of her rough treatment and imprisonment, and reframes the terms of the charges against her. As she implies, if a church is both a sacred place of worship and a collective of pious individuals gathered in the name of God, then she should have been welcomed and not abused. The violent treatment she endures within the church building by its members disqualifies it from being recognized as such.

My second example is a letter written in 1657 by Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, to angrily reprimand him for overseeing the persecution of Friends: “When thou wast low, the Lord was thy strength, but now thou hast departed from him, and thy strength is in man…. [T]hou hast chosen the glory of this world, and art as a stinking dunghill in the sight of God…and instead of serving the Lord, thou hast served thy own glory and thy own pleasures” (114). Public letters to political and religious leaders were a common genre of Quaker writing, and women produced twice as many of these types of tracts than men.6 Here Howgill disciplines Cromwell for abusing his power and elevating his own importance, a critique rooted in the Scriptural belief in raising the frail and bringing down the mighty (“Exalt the humble, and humble the exalted,” Ezekiel 21:26). To vividly compare the head of the English republic with a smelly pile of excrement, while undeniably exceeding the bounds of decorum, also reinforces the Biblical idea that God sees earthly riches and glories as repulsive, degraded, and foul. Howgill’s letter carries a clear warning for Cromwell that because he persecuted Quakers, God “is coming for thee…and all thy gallant glory will he bring down” (116).

My third and last example is Priscilla Cotton and Mary Cole’s tract co-written in 1655 from prison for disrupting church services to reframe the terms of the civility charges so often leveled at them: “[T]wo of your Priests came to speak with us; and when they could not bear sound reproof and wholesome Doctrine, that did concern them, they railed on us with filthy speeches, as no other they can give to us, that deal plainley and singly with them, and so ran from us” (101). Here Cotton and Cole contrast their practice of proper and skillful rhetoric with the priests’ improper and indecorous speech. The women describe admonishing the priests and offering healing doctrinal knowledge, positioning the priests as incorrect and at fault and themselves as authoritative teachers. In response, the men are shown to uncivilly hurl insults and then flee and foreclose further debate. Through this exchange the women not only portray themselves as more skillful rhetors, but they also point out power dynamics undergirding rhetoricity, in which the men are granted an undeserved authority by their gender and their social positions, and the women, who, as the more highly skilled and ethical rhetors, win the argument but are nonetheless punished with imprisonment.

Lessons from the (Distant) Past

I hope that, with these few examples, I have illustrated why feminist rhetoricians should study what medieval historian Judith M. Bennett calls the distant past. Bennett argues that women’s history needs to be more explicitly feminist and that feminist politics needs to engage a longer and deeper historical view of women’s lives. I direct feminist rhetoricians to Bennett’s call to recognize and forge more substantive connections between the distant past and today’s feminist concerns. One of Bennett’s claims is that women’s history has become truncated to mostly focus on contemporary history. In her survey of major English-language women’s history journals and women’s history conferences, she finds little coverage of women’s history before 1800 and most attention on the twentieth century (30-53). Following Bennett I did a quick-and-dirty review of chronological coverage in Peitho, looking for historical articles in its last ten years of publication, both in its current form as a peer-reviewed journal from Fall/Winter 2012 through Spring 2019 and as a newsletter from Fall 2009 through Summer 2012, and my findings are similar. Although my review is not exhaustive or comprehensive, it demonstrates that Peitho’s historical coverage trends significantly toward the present, with a majority of historical articles covering the last century. While there is some coverage of eighteenth- and nineteen-century women’s rhetorical activities related to feminist political issues such as abolition, suffrage, education, and literacy, there are only three articles covering the ancient or pre-modern period (before 1500).7 There are no articles for the period from 1500-1700, which is troubling. Of course articles in Peitho are not representative of all scholarly work on women’s early rhetorical activities, but given the journal’s charge to support “the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media,” I invite us to reconsider how our field is being shaped by our attention to the past. How can feminist rhetoricians allow our imaginations to reach back further in time and space to see how and where and when the past affects our own research?

As I have argued here, early Quaker women’s writing counts as a rich resource for the examination of a more distant history of women’s rhetorical agency and the role of women in shaping emerging political ideas such as public sphere(s), toleration, and rights. Identities and identifications related to gender, sexuality, race, and class in civility discourse during this time period, within religious sects and in mainstream culture broadly, is an important area for future consideration. Given my own interest in the seventeenth century I would be thrilled if more feminist rhetoricians were curious about the lives of women of that era, but I believe that what is at stake is a more historically informed feminism. Like critical race studies, queer studies, and disability studies, three theoretical-political undertakings to gain momentum in employing modern terminologies and critical approaches while taking a longer temporal view, feminist rhetorical studies can benefit from broadening its view to understand historical change and continuity in women’s lives, and to identify feminist practices and patriarchal ideologies in and across time.8 For example, as a feminist who studies early modern women and rhetoric, I turn to history to understand today’s charges of incivility against marginalized groups, while drawing on feminist methods to be aware of the differences among the women whose rhetorical practices I study. Further, locating the ideological structures and practitioners of in/civility discourse in specific historical contexts can help to craft more rhetorically effective political approaches to exposing systems of injustice and inequality, then and now. Given that early modern formulations of civility were situated within British imperial and colonizing imperatives, these discourses also reveal histories of racial thinking, practices, and institutions that created social and cultural hierarchies that, while rooted in specific institutional conditions and frameworks, persist today. As we think about our feminist commitments and our feminist scholarship, I hope that we will look to the distant past and consider how history can help us see persistent power imbalances and opportunities for rhetorical agency today.

Select Resources for Quaker Women’s Writing (pre-1700)

Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection

This free and open resource contains full text and page images of more than 500 individual Quaker works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Early English Books Online

This subscription database contains more than 125,000 mostly English works printed between 1473 and 1700. While digital archives and texts enable the work of scholars and students unable to visit physical archives, access to EEBO can be limited by the lack of an institutional subscription.

Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655–1700

Teresa Feroli and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, eds. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Toronto: Iter Press; Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018. This collection of forty texts written by Quaker women covers major genres such as warnings, directives/letters to authorities, and sufferings, and is contextualized in a thorough and engaging introduction by the editors.

Women and the Literature of the Seventeenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography based on Wing’s Short-title Catalogue

Hilda L. Smith and Susan Cardinale, eds. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. An indispensable reference book on seventeenth-century works by, for, and about women. It offers descriptions and assessments of just over 1,600 items written between 1641 and 1700 (637 by women and 973 for and about women).

Endnotes

  1. Báez and Ore are part of a growing number of scholars in rhetoric, writing, and communications studies who critique how these fields marginalize and exclude scholars of color. See also Chakravartty et al, Law and Corrigan, and Wanzer-Serrano.
  2. For a discussion of tensions between invitational rhetoric and civility see Lozano-Reich and Cloud, especially 220-222.
  3. To be sure there are excellent historical studies of women’s rhetorical practices and theories in the early modern era, notably Glenn, Donawerth, and Graban. More, please.
  4. See Donawerth and Lush’s recently published excellent edited collection of Fell’s writings.
  5. All three texts from which these excerpts are taken can be found in the Feroli and Thickstun edited collection.
  6. Feroli and Thickstun 26.
  7. “A Selection of Secondary Texts Concerning Ancient Women” by Cara Minardi in Peitho 12.1/2 (2010), “Claudia Severa’s Birthday Invitation: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Earliest Artifact of Latin Written by a Woman’s Hand” by Richard Leo Enos and Natasha Trace Robinson in Peitho 18.2 (2016), and “Reviewing Conduct Books as Feminist Rhetorical Devices for Agency Reforms” by Florence Elizabeth Bacabac in Peitho 21.1 (2018).
  8. The work of scholars Heng, Traub, and Bearden engage historical, methodological, and political questions related to race, sexuality, and disability in the premodern and early modern eras.

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2015.
  • Alexander, Jonathan and Susan C. Jarratt. “Introduction.” Unruly Rhetorics: Protest, Persuasion, and Politics, edited by Jonathan Alexander, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch, U of Pittsburgh P, 2018, pp. 3-23.
  • Audland, Anne. “A True Declaration of the Suffering of the Innocent.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 226-236.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Bearden, Elizabeth B. Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space, and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability. U of Michigan P, 2019.
  • Bennett, Judith M. History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.
  • Bramen, Carrie Tirado. American Niceness: A Cultural History. Harvard UP, 2017.
  • Chakravartty, Paula et al., “#CommunicationSoWhite,” Journal of Communication, vol. 68, no. 2, April 2018, pp. 254–266.
  • Cooper, Brittney. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. St. Martin’s, 2018.
  • Cotton, Priscilla and Mary Cole. “To the Priests and People of England, we Discharge our Consciences, and Give them Warning.” Feroli and Thuckstun, pp. 94-102.
  • Crawford, Patricia. “Women’s Published Writings 1600-1700.” In Women in English Society 1500-1800, edited by Mary Prior, Routledge, 1985, pp. 211-282.
  • Donawerth, Jane. Rhetorical Theory by Women Before 1900 and Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Woman’s Tradition, 1600-1900, Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Donawerth, Jane and Rebecca M. Lush, editors. Margaret Fell: Women’s Speaking Justified and Other Pamphlets. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 65; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 538. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Elthahawy, Mona. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. Beacon, 2019.
  • Feroli, Teresa and Margaret Olofson Thickstun, editors. Witness, Warning, and Prophecy: Quaker Women’s Writing, 1655-1700. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 60; Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 527. Iter Press and Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois UP, 1997.
  • Graban, Tarez Samra. Women’s Irony: Rewriting Feminist Rhetorical Histories. Southern Illinois UP, 2015.
  • Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge UP, 2018.
  • Howgill, Mary. “A Remarkable Letter of Mary Howgill to Oliver Cromwell, called Protector.” Feroli and Thickstun, pp. 112-117.
  • Law, Martin and Lisa M. Corrigan, “On White-Speak and Gatekeeping: Or, What Good Are the Greeks?” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 326-330.
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1997, pp. 278-285.
  • Lozano-Reich, Nina M. and Dana L. Cloud, “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric and the Problem of Inequality,” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 73, no. 2, April-June 2009, pp. 220-226.
  • Lupton, Donald. The Quacking Mountebanck Or the Jesuite Turn’d Quaker. London, 1655. Early English Books Online. Accessed 10 August 2019.
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  • Traub, Valerie. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015.
  • Wanzer-Serrano, Darrel. “Rhetoric’s rac(e/ist) problems,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 105, no. 4, Oct 2019, pp. 465-476.
  • Wingard, Jen. “Editor’s Welcome.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2018, p. v.

Feminist Citational Mapping as Recovery and Reconsideration: A Methodology for Analyzing Citational Practices

Click below to read the article. An accessible copy of the article is available as a Google Doc linked here.

Feminist Citational Mapping as Recovery and Reconsideration

Alternatively, you can read the article at https://spark.adobe.com/page/r9nqMvwvLEuZK/.

Museum of Modern Art’s “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers”

Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr sitting on the grass and smiling off camera. Barr is wearing a long-sleeve dress and large brim hat.

Fig. 1. Margaret Scolari Barr in Venice. Miller, Lee (1907-1977) © Lee Miller Archives. Margaret Scolari Barr in Venice, Italy. June, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4″ (14 x 21 cm). Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, I.E.2. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.© Conde Nast Publications LTD. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Margaret Scolari Barr, wife of the Founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, is recognized as her husband’s collaborator, co-author, translator, and helpmeet; however, her pivotal feminist work is less well known. This essay introduces Barr to a larger, interdisciplinary audience, inviting feminist scholars interested in not only contemporary art history but also innovative educational practices, grassroots social justice collaboration, co-authorship, archival research practices, and alternative academic work to visit her archival materials housed at MoMA.

The “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” (the collection contains materials from 1883-1989, but the bulk of documents and artifacts come from 1925-1987) comprise 38 linear feet and include documents addressing MoMA founding, operations, and exhibits collated between the years 1930 and 19671. As primary curator at MoMA, Barr’s correspondence, notes, museum ledgers, and public event materials are of interest to scholars wishing to research the founding of the museum, orchestrated in tandem by Alfred and Margaret Scolari Barr. Yet, perusal of other materials germane to Barr’s life (including her personal correspondence, research materials, draft manuscripts, newspaper clippings, datebooks, photo albums, travel scrapbooks, and household accounts) reveal a deeper understanding of an influential and activist woman leader. Barr’s advocacy and educational activities are compelling, warranting recovery and wider retelling through a feminist lens of recollecting. Letizia Guglielmo repurposes re-collecting as a “feminist rhetorical act of gathering or assembling again what has been scattered.” She explains that this process has “connections to public memory and remembrance, highlight[ing] the agency of both the re-collector and the subject whose story is recovered or retold” (2). In this vein, re-collecting Barr’s varied life work seeks not only to preserve the scope of her public memory, but also suggests new avenues for feminist research guided by the interests of the investigator and her intended audiences. Projects from this archive (historically associated only with the history and preservation of modern art) hold the potential to build upon and extend current feminist research discussions and case studies (see contributors to Enoch and Jack 2019; Gaillet and Bailey 2019; Gold and Enoch 2019), specifically inviting feminist scholars to re-envision Barr’s lifework as they “ask different questions, challenge received scholarship, test the efficacy of staid research methods, and chart new scholarly agendas” knowing full well “that their answers may only be provisional, may serve best as a stepping stone or even revision point for the next researcher” (Enoch, Jack and Glenn 5).

In addition to fascinating MoMA ephemera (including photographs of famous artists, exhibition details, and acquisition correspondence), the Margaret Scolari Barr archive includes rich personal correspondence and manuscript materials detailing the research and composing practices of co-authoring with her husband (they called their joint projects “campaigns”), insights into Barr’s life as an adjunct teacher in the first half of the twentieth-century (including job search documents and position negotiations), and innovative pedagogical art history materials she created for all-girl classes. For over forty years, Barr taught art history at the Spence School for Girls, founded in 1892, as well as teaching at Vassar while a student there. These topics dovetail with other emerging micro-histories about erased collaborators and women teachers from this period (see 2019 essays by Bordelon, Grohowski and Hart, Myatt, Myers, and Shirk in Remembering Women Differently). The collected materials also provide rich ground for putting current discussions of archival research methods in conversation with rhetorical scholarship, as illustrated in the final section of this essay. As K.J. Rawson explains in “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression,” the “selection, organization, and labeling” of archives “functions not only for bureaucratic and access purposes, but for epistemological ones as well” (327).

Margaret Scolari Barr, “Protector and Defender of Modern Art”

Before listing possible research topics suggested by the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers,” I want to highlight a fascinating avenue of research buried within this MoMA collection, the topic that initially led me to the archive and one that resonates with twenty-first century social justice issues: Barr’s use of her position as wife of the Founding Director of MoMA to sponsor European artists and their family members following the 1940 collapse of Paris during WWII2. Alfred Barr did not have the required time or language skills to assist artists seeking asylum, so asked his wife to shepherd this effort. In a grassroots movement, Margaret Scolari Barr organized and collaborated tirelessly with art dealers and owners (including Peggy Guggenheim), artists, writers, museum employees, and the Emergency Rescue Committee based in Marseilles to obtain detailed documentation, affidavits, and the $400 necessary for each applicant for artistic sanctuary in America. In a life and death endeavor, Barr went far beyond the efforts of the government to ensure the safety of artists, particularly since the “activity at the State department was described as a ‘bottleneck,’ and the whole process as ‘laborious’” (Roob 18).  Barr herself explains in a 1980 autobiographical manuscript (“Rescuing Artists in W.W. II”) that she is not sure how many artists were saved by the cooperative, for several reasons:

  1. She received a great many requests that were initiated but left incomplete because of “formidable hurdles” and delays at the State department (who required proof that the artist was neither leftist or Communist),
  2. Artists changed their minds about immigrating or found other solutions, and
  3. Artists were detained and sent to concentration camps (MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).
Archival photo of 14 men wearing suits and posing for the camera. Two of the men stand behind the others who are sitting. Most men appear to be middle aged.

Fig. 2. Artists in Exile. ‘Artists in Exile’: Exhibition at Matisse Gallery March 3-28, 1942. Left to right, first row: Matta Echaurren, Ossip Zadkine, Yves Tanguely, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Fernand Lger; Second row: Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Amdee Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchew, Kurt Seligmann, Eugene Bermann. Research photograph associated with the exhibition, “Matta.” September 11, 1957-0ctober 20, 1957. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographer: George Platt Lynes. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

We do know from Barr’s unpublished manuscript that MoMA was responsible for saving “Tanguy, Masson, Ernst, Chagall, Mondrian, Lipchtiz, some with and some without wives” (Barr 12). However, we are only now discovering just how many refugees the Margaret Scolari Barr cooperative sponsored through examination of her papers housed at MoMA and elsewhere (see works by MoMA Fellow Christina Eliopoulos and MoMA Curator Rona Roob published in the MoMA Newsletter). Interestingly, from the archivist-researcher point of view, there is another critical reason that Barr and MoMA’s immigration assistance efforts aren’t more fully documented. Varian Fry, an American journalist who ran a rescue network in Vichy and was recognized as “Righteous among the Nations” by the State of Israel for risking his life to save those persecuted during the Holocaust, borrowed the museum’s rescue operation papers while writing a book about his activities during WWII. The papers were subsequently either never returned or lost, despite Barr’s exhaustive search for them in her home and the museum (39, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).

Scholars interested in contemporary Do-It-Yourself activism can learn much from Barr’s 1940’s participation in coalition building to define and execute an emergency solution for saving lives, one that the MoMA Director himself and government officials could not adequately address. Yes, Barr collaborated with high-profile folks like Fry and Guggenheim (who rescued Max Ernst and subsequently married him), but Barr also recognizes the tremendous rescue efforts of women occupying support positions. In particular, she singles out Alfred Barr’s assistant Elizabeth Litchfield, who raised funds to cover immigration costs at social events; Barr recalls Litchfield once saying at the end of the workday, “Well—I’m off to a cocktail party—I’m going out fishing [for donors]” (38, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY).  Barr also praises Ingrid Warburg, a “heroic” and “very tall reassuring and authoritative” woman who worked with the Emergency Rescue Committee and made connections with Fry in France; Barr says of Warburg, “In the blackest moments she could find a way or at least invent a new path worth pursuing” (3-4, MSB III.A.22, MoMA Archives, NY). This feminist coalition building was instrumental in procuring necessary resources to sponsor mostly male fleeing artists. This area is ripe for broader investigations from feminist perspectives. As the Margaret Scolari Barr finding aid asserts, “[a]n examination of Scolari Barr’s biography from a feminist perspective warrants further consideration.”

Access and Ideas for Future Feminist Engagement

The subdivisions of the  “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” suggest a range of possible topics that will resonate with feminist researchers and correlate with current rhetorical and archival scholarship. Divided into nine series, the collection is easily searchable and accessible, and the MoMA archivists are helpful, quick to suggest where to find salient materials both within the museum and at external locations. After I reached out to archival librarian Christina Eliopoulos, she immediately and graciously provided links to corollary digitized materials, conference presentations, and published articles that paved the way for my visit to the archive—located adjacent to the museum and accessible through a rear entrance.3 Below are descriptions of the archives’ subdivisions (taken from the online finding aid) followed by a list of possible research topics grounded in feminist rhetorical and archival scholarship.

Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr and her husband Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The couple is sitting on a bench in a museum talking to each other. Behind them hangs four large paintings.

Fig. 3. Margaret and Alfred. Miller, Lee (1907-1977) © Lee Miller Archives. Margaret Scolari Barr and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in a museum in Venice, Italy. June 1948. Gelatin silver print, 5 112 x 8 1/4″ (14 x 21 cm). Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, I.E.2. The Museum of Modern Art Archives.

Series I:

Biographical Material (divided into 6 subsets) provides materials for studying Scolari Barr’s entire life and includes materials prior to her immigration to the United States in 1925; ephemera documenting her studies as a linguistics major at the University of Rome, her time at Vassar College (from 1925-1929), and her brief work as a graduate student in art history at NYU; lecture notes and administrative material related to her forty-year tenure as an art history teacher at the Spence School for girls in NYC; documents detailing her marriage to Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in 1930 and the birth of their daughter, Victoria Barr; genealogical research conducted by Scolari Barr; autobiographical notes and writings along with notes for her oral history interview housed at the Archives of American Art; obituary and eulogy. Possible research topics include:

  • Education of a feminist activist (early twentieth century)
  • Education of girls
  • Italian genealogy and early immigration experiences
  • Oral history
  • Biographical archival collation
Series II:

The largest section of the archive, comprising over 400 folders, including copious and prodigious correspondence between Scolari Barr and her husband Alfred, her contemporaries working in art history, and her family and friends.

  • Husband-Wife Professional Collaborations
  • European Art and History
  • Female Life of Letters
Series III:

Publications, Writings, Lectures, and Research contains documents and reminiscence on Scolari Barr’s participation in the Emergency Rescue Committee and MoMA’s early history; Scolari Barr’s translation work; research materials, correspondence, and partial drafts of her publications; correspondence and bibliographic material relating to Alfred’s posthumously published works; chronology of the Barrs’ “campaigns” at MoMA. According to the finding aid, “when the materials in Series III are considered cumulatively it is made apparent that as a writer and art historian, Scolari Barr was capable of producing scholarship across several mediums, genres, and time periods.”

  • The WWII Emergency Rescue Committee
  • Coalition Building
  • Translation Work
  • Analyzing art history
  • Editing
  • Co-authorship
  • A woman’s writing life
Series IV:

Museum Matters includes correspondence, exhibition research materials, and press clippings about the life of MoMA.

  • Acquisition and Curation
  • Fund Raising and Donors
  • Community Building
  • Public Writing
  • Founding of the Museum
Series V:

Photographs and Scrapbooks includes hundreds of informal and personal black-and-white photos that document the entirety of Scolari Barr’s life (1901-1987).

  • Archival photo preservation and collation
  • Museum events
  • Women as wordsmiths and imagesmiths
  • Local history
  • Public Memory
  • Individual artists
Archival photo of Margaret Scolari Barr and Salvador Dali at an exhibition opening. Barr is wearing a floor-length gown with her hair done up. Dali is wearing a tuxedo. Barr's back is to the camera while Dali looks off in the distance.

Fig. 4. Margaret and Salvador. Margaret Scolari Barr and Salvador Dali the opening for the exhibition “Art in Our Time: 10th Anniversary Exhibition” [The Museum of Modern Art, Exh. #85-89, May IO-September 30, 1939]. 1939. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 7 15/16″ (25.4 x 20.2 cm). Photographer: Eliot Elifoson. Margaret Scolari Barr Papers, V.21. The Museum of Modern Art Archives. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Series VI:

Notebooks and Datebooks are handwritten and chronicle daily life. The series includes travel diaries, daily calendars, and miscellaneous notebooks dating from 1948 to 1987.

  • Daily Life
  • Salons
  • Women’s Diaries
  • Travel
Series VII:

Barr Art Collection documents the Barrs’ personal art collection, including legal correspondence concerning appraisal estimates, loan and photography requests from other institutions, and art events.

  • 20th-Century Art
  • Public Memory
  • Fund Raising
  • Community Sharing
  • Local Interpretations of Global Art and Artifacts
Series VIII:

Financial and Legal Documents is restricted and available to the public in 2040.

Series IX:

Miscellaneous includes ephemera such as receipts, bills, deeds of ownership, Christmas cards, phone numbers, invitations, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and recipes.

  • 20th-century history
  • Artifact and ephemera collation
  • Storytelling
  • Local life
  • Biography

Conclusion

Interdisciplinary collections like the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” located in the Museum of Modern Art provide rich opportunities for feminist rhetorical research. Our work occurs across disciplines, in collections that may initially seem unlikely, and in response to critical imagination, as outlined by Royster and Kirsch. I’ve suggested a few research topics connected to the collection’s contents; however, the possibilities are limited only by researchers’ interests and imaginations. Other scholars may find a wide range of additional topics to investigate in any given collection, as we all know. I recommend the “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers” to readers, in hopes that you can find other hidden research gems housed here.

Endnotes

  1. The collection includes 47 5″ manuscript boxes; 4 5×12″ card boxes; 1 9.5×12.5″ storage box; 2 8×12 1/2″ storage boxes; 1 11×17″ flat box; 5 25×19″ flat boxes; 2 16×20″ boxes; 1 flat file.
  2. Throughout my archival research, I’ve sought historical antecedents to current issues and events. MSB’s sponsorship of persecuted artists (collaborating with like-minded others when governments lacked resources or determination to do so) serves as a model of social-justice activism; the groups organizational strategies may appeal to readers interested in current issues of economic migration, environmental justice, intersectionality politics, and youth activism.
  3. Correspond with librarians and request materials prior to scheduling a visit to the archives. Also be prepared to store your personal items with an attendant on a separate floor from the reading room, which is protected by access-controlled elevators.

Works Cited

  • Barr, Margaret Scolari. “Rescuing Artists in W.W II.” Unpublished manuscript. 7 January 1980. TS. “Margaret Scolari Barr Papers.” MSB III.A.22. New York: Museum of Modern Art. New York. 44 pages.
  • —. “Our Campaigns: Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and the Museum of Modern Art: A Biographical Chronicle of the Years 1930–1944.” The New Criterion, special summer issue 1987, 23-74.
  • Bordelon, Suzanne. “Please Cherish my own ideals and dreams about the School of Expression”: The Erasure of Anna Baright Curry.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 118-134.
  • Cordova, Elena. “The Margaret Scolari Barr Papers: Now Open for Research at MoMA Archives.Inside/Out, MoMABlog, 13 October 2015.
  • Eliopoulos, Christina. “In Search of MoMA’s “Lost” History: Uncovering Efforts to Rescue Artists and Their Patrons.Inside/Out. MoMA Blog, 22 June 2016.
  • Enoch, Jessica and Jordynn Jack, editors. Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Parlor Press, 2019
  • Enoch, Jessica, Jordynn Jack, and Cheryl Glenn. “Introduction: The Endless Opportunities for Feminist Research.” Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, edited by Jessica Enoch and Jordynn Jack, Parlor Press. 2019, pp. 3-15.
  • Gaillet, Lynée Lewis and Helen Gaillet Bailey, editors. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. South Carolina UP, 2019.
  • Gold, David and Jessica Enoch, editors. Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor. U. of Pittsburgh P, 2019.
  • Grohowski, Mariana and Alexis Hart. “Not Simply “Freeing the Men to Fight”: Rewriting the Reductive History of U.S. Military Women’s Achievements On and Off the Battlefield.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 91-108.
  • Guglielmo, Letizia. “Re-Collection as Feminist Rhetorical Practice.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 1-17.
  • Margaret Scolari Barr Papers in The Museum of Modern Art Archives.” Finding Aid.
  • Myatt. Alice Johnston. “From Erasure to Restoration: Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the DNA Structure.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 39-55.
  • Myers, Nancy. “Turning Trends: Lockwood’s and Emerson’s Rhetoric Textbooks at the American Fin D’Siècle.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 242-256.
  • Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Roob, Rona. “From the Archives: Refugee Artists.” Inside/Out, vol. 6, 1991, pp. 18-19.
  • Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Shirk, Henrietta. “The Audubon-Martin Collaboration: An Exploration of Rhetorical Foreground and Background.” Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work, edited by Lynèe Lewis Gaillet and Helen Gaillet Bailey, South Carolina UP, 2019, pp. 109-117.

The Rhetoric of Letter-Keeping

When I was young, I could always count on a birthday card in the mail. This card was handmade, a sheet of printing paper folded and decorated with a penned sketch. Every year my brother who left when I was nine would send his apologies for his absence. I dreaded these birthday cards, storing them out of sight, but I kept them. These painful documents leave a question in my mind: Why do we keep painful writings? In an effort to answer this question, I sought cases of women who have acted as family archivists1 by keeping letters that document painful events. What I discovered is that women act rhetorically not only through letter writing but through letter keeping.

This study rhetorically analyzes two artifacts, a breakup note and a set of memorial letters. To analyze these items, I use imaginative reconstruction—a method feminist researchers such as Jacqueline Jones Royster and Zosha Stuckey use to conjecture multiple, most-likely narratives for incomplete histories—to assemble possible narratives for the artifacts. To support my analysis, I draw from epistolary and women’s rhetoric. This combination of scholarship sheds light on women’s rhetorical work guarding, editing, and facilitating family histories through their practices and methods of keeping letters. I conclude with a call for researchers to search garage/estate sales as uncommon archives where lost voices can be rediscovered.

In a 1987 article, Micaela di Leonardo identifies a sphere of women’s work called kin-work, community-building activities including phone calls, social visits, and letter writing (442). Although men occasionally participate in letter writing, historical research has revealed the way women specifically have used the genre as a rare space for feminine rhetoric. Because letter writing was often a part of family and household affairs, society preceding the Women’s Rights movement accepted women’s participation in the practice (Johnson). Lucille Schultz reveals the rhetorical importance of the practice when she notes that letter-writing instruction in the U.S. informed nineteenth-century virtues (118). Women, therefore, learned to use this domestic genre to comment on social justice (Buchanan), religion (Hoermann), and politics (Wallace; Sowards; Martin and Patrowski). Pamela VanHaitsma details a poignant example of such rhetoric in her article “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic Letters, Genre Instruction, and Rhetorical Practice.” VanHaitsma analyzes two twentieth-century African American women who reinvented letter-writing practices to accommodate their queer relationship. These women challenged letter-writing tradition which taught that letters should be either for business alone or romance with the intention of marriage. These revolutionary women, however, mixed the romantic with the professional, also nurturing a romantic relationship that in their time could never resolve in marriage. With epistolary writing, women adorned the guise of conservativeness, but they also found an available means by which they coped with and influenced society.

Discourse studies such as VanHaitsma’s show the incredible rhetoric behind women’s letter writing, but research has overlooked a second rhetorical act that women often participate in when handling letters: letter keeping. As the following case studies demonstrate, women enact an additional set of kin-work through letter keeping. By keeping letters, women document ancestors’ successes, guard family secrets, and connect community members.

I uncovered both of the following collections at separate estate sales, inside unexpected containers: the breakup letter in a makeup compact and the box of memorial letters inside a trunk. Unlike brick and mortar archives, which typically store artifacts in standard boxes and files, private archives often house items in meaningful containers. In many stories2 of discovered documents, the containers themselves play a critical and, I suggest, rhetorical role. Therefore, the following analyses consider the rhetoric of both the keeping of letters as well as the materials involved in that keeping.

The first collection includes a series of letters written by a mother to her deceased son, Ronny.3 This mother collected her letters in a holiday greeting card box (see Fig. 1, below) stored in a trunk. This archive consists of twelve letters, seven photographs, fifteen personalized newspaper clippings, and two short religious writings (a tract and a newspaper cutting). This pairing of items, as well as the box’s storage, says something about the purpose of the mother’s letter keeping. Like an undertaker who meticulously arranges a corpse, this mother carefully constructed her son’s memorial, using items that depict her favorite version of him: stories of him as a boy (told in her letters), a photograph of the granddaughter who resembles her father, and pieces of the faith the mother is certain her son also shared (Dec. 7, 1984, Letter). Additionally, the location where the mother stored the memorial is telling. Instead of choosing a location where she could daily view the memorial, the mother chose to hide it in a closed trunk. I imagine that, like her choice of materials, the choice of where to store the box was due to the mother’s desire to control the memory of her son. She kept her favorite parts of him for her own private viewing when she felt capable of fully engaging with her suffering. This collection represents a safe and contained place where she could give in to her pain. She could uncover the box, gaze upon the contents, and add another reflective letter as she attempted to find closure. The methods by which this mother kept her memorial letters shows minimal, yet incredible control. She could not undo the pain of her son’s death, but she could control how and when she remembered him. By creating and keeping this memorial, the mother enacted kin-work, keeping herself connected to her son.

Photo of an old box, about the size of a shoe box, with letters inside. The box has an image of a horse-drawn carriage and holly leaves on it, with faded and peeling tape holding it in place.

Fig. 1. Box of memorial letters.

In addition to her own memory, the mother also used letters as an attempt to control her son’s public memory. Overwhelmingly apparent in all the mother’s letters is her work to keep her son connected to family. In one of the earliest letters, written only four months after Ronny’s death, his mother spends a quarter of the letter listing for Ronny the names of those who attended his funeral, who still speak of him, and who have taken his death the hardest. The woman also used the letters to update her son on what his daughter, wife, and other loved ones did each year. She describes holidays, moves, purchases, and illnesses and includes direct quotes from his daughter who had only just turned two when he died. In addition to these letters which she kept private, the mother kept certain letters publicly in a newspaper. Here she published notes that assured her son that he was missed on Easter, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, his birthday, and the anniversary of his death. Each of these announcements appears in the form of a letter, addressed to her deceased son. Unlike her handwritten letters, she chose to print these notes in the newspaper. This act indicates that even though the notes were addressed to Ronny, the woman intended them for a wider audience. It is likely that in this act, the woman was again performing a complicated attempt at kin-work by reminding her community to remember her son. Each note ends by assuring Ronny that his family will never forget him. Publicly printed, this closing would also remind others that they too should remember him.

Analyzing the breakup note (see Fig. 2, below) in the compact requires speculation since the letter offers few clues about its surrounding circumstances. In the top-left corner of the note is a man’s name. I have changed the name and concealed it in the photo to retain anonymity, but the real last name is popular in romance-language populations. Since this is the only name present and it does not appear in the left corner where we would expect the name of the recipient, I assume this is the author’s signature.

Photo of an old note typed on a yellowing sheet of paper and dated September 14, 1954. The note reads: "I will respect your wishes--and I will not call or write--But always when the sun goes down--My heart will say goodnight--And always when the stars appear--I shall remember all the words--You ever whispered, dear--And seek the ship that might have sailed--To bring you back to me--I may not ever find your smile--Or hold your hand again--But every image will be bright An beautiful as then--And truly as I promised you--The moment that we met--I will love you always and--I never will forget.

Fig. 2. Breakup Note.

Based on these sparse clues, we can infer that the author of the note likely had Spanish or French ancestry but wrote in fluent English. The man was clearly a romantic, given that he chose to deliver his goodbye in the form of a poem and must have held a great deal of affection for the recipient. None of this tells us anything about the woman who kept the note, though. All we can glean from the note about her is that, for some reason, she requested that the couple end communication. From this request, we can deduce that calls and written communication had been the norm for the couple. The reasonable conclusion from these details is that the two were romantically involved and that the note marked the end of the relationship. To better understand the woman who kept the note, we again have to depend on the discourse expressed in the rhetoric of her keeping the note and the material way she went about this keeping.

When it comes to the materials involved in this collection, the most overtly meaningful is the compact that houses the note. I found the note folded and tucked inside a latched compartment inside the compact (see Fig. 3, below). This compartment would have originally held a blotting cloth, now replaced with the note. In the fifties when the note was written, a woman would have kept a compact among her most personal items, likely stored in a vanity or purse, perhaps the only safe spaces where her husband and children would not prowl. This choice suggests two possible scenarios: the woman kept the note close as either a frequent reminder or to guard it from prying eyes. In the first scenario, one possible explanation for her wanting to keep the note as a reminder is that she was punishing herself for a choice she regretted. A more optimistic explanation is that the note offered her comfort because it provided her a gateway into a time when she was admired. In preserving the note, she also preserved this admiration, regardless of who she later became. Whatever her reason for keeping the note, the act ensured that she would reserve a closeness to this admirer. In the second scenario, the letter is not just close but hidden. Typically, secrecy is kept for one of two reasons. The possessor of the secret fears either the shame of the secret or the anger that could result from another’s knowledge of the secret. If the woman married, or was married to, another man, she likely would have kept the note hidden to keep her family intact. Therefore, the woman did not initiate kin-work by writing the note, but she did continue kin-work in the way she kept the note. Keeping the note preserved a bond between her and her admirer. Keeping the note hidden possibly preserved the family she built after the relationship.

Photo of a small square compact that opens and unfolds from the top and left sides. The top side is a mirror. In the main compartment of the compact there appears to be small folded notes.

Fig. 3. Latched compartment open on compact.

The memorial letters demonstrate how significant paired items can be for kept letters. The same is true of the breakup note. Although the breakup note is alone in its latched compartment, the main compartment holds a broken mirror, detached from the lid so that it flops and clatters when the compact is opened (see Figure 4, below). We cannot know how long the mirror has been broken, but the image recalls for me a line from the 1960 film The Apartment when Fran Kubelik tells “Bud” Baxter that she carries a broken mirror because “it makes me look the way I feel.” Perhaps our mystery woman carried the breakup note alongside the detached mirror because she also felt detached and consequentially broken. The note represents an attempt to remain close to a time or person that made her feel loved, but the attempt is flawed just as the note’s container is also flawed.

Photo of the small square compact (from Figure 3) with the mirror removed from the top side. Brown and gray residue remains where the mirror was attached.

Fig. 4. Detached mirror from compact.

Based on these case studies, I suspect that we have underestimated the rhetorical role women play in keeping written artifacts. Letter writing is just the beginning of women’s kin-work and rhetorical means. When they keep letters, they continue their work for the family by guarding the secrets, memorializing the events, and bridging the gaps between distant or deceased relatives. The mother used private and public letters to stave off emotional detachment from her son. The breakup note bound the woman to her admirer, despite physical and relational distance. In preserving and protecting such letters, women preserve and protect their loved ones, continuing the kin-work initiated in the original act of writing the letters.

Kin-work offers a new lens through which we can study women’s rhetoric, which does not always fit conveniently into traditional rhetoric. Future discussions might consider what rhetoric emerges when women’s acts/materials are re-read through this lens. Furthermore, a rich discussion could be had concerning the ethics of “reading” such sensitive and often secret materials. What, for instance, happens to a deceased author’s rights when a family sells her private writings? Can we justify the publicizing of these writings for the sake of continuing the community kin-work started by an author’s initial authorship? Archival research can specifically gain from these case studies. Carol Mattingly and Barbara Biesecker argue that women’s rhetoric should highlight new styles of rhetoric that diverge from the classical, machismo styles from which women were largely excluded. If we are to reap knowledge from women who lack positions of public power, we have to look to uncommon archives for quieter, domestic writings. Garage/estate sales can be prime archives where we can discover such writings. As was the case with the artifacts studied here, women’s rhetorical letters can surface at sales when benefactors edit their inherited collections. By meeting these inheritors halfway, researchers of rhetorical and archival materials can tap into lost remnants of woman’s rhetoric and kin-work.

Endnotes

  1. For this study, I use Rawson’s expanded definition of archives as used in “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression,” which includes any aged documents of historical value even if they have not been formally arranged by an institution (329).
  2. See for instance Jason Whitely’s “Hidden Letters Discovered in Old Desk Reveal Tragic Story of WWII You Haven’t Heard.”
  3. I have changed the name and concealed it in the photo to retain anonymity.

Works Cited

  • Biesecker, Barbara. “Coming to Terms with Recent Attempts to Write Women into the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 25, no. 2, 1992, pp. 140-161.
  • “Breakup Note.” 1954. MS. Personal Collection.
  • Buchanan, Lindal. “Motherhood, Rhetoric, and Remembrance: Recovering Diane Nash.” Peitho, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 14-39.
  • di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs, vol. 12, no. 3, Spring 1987, pp. 440-453.
  • Hoermann, Jackie. “Speaking Without Words: Silence and Epistolary Rhetoric of Catholic Women Educators on the Antebellum Frontier, 1828-1834.” Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric, vol. 9, Spr. 2012, pp. 19-30.
  • Johnson, Nan. “‘Dear Millie’: Letter Writing and Gender in Postbellum America.” Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
  • Martin, Andrea and Tyyne Petrowski. ” ‘Are You “Doing Your Bit?’: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg.” Manitoba History, no. 82, 2016, pp. 4-12.
  • Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-108.
  • “Memorial Letters.” 1983-1989. MS. Personal Collection.
  • Rawson, K.J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Royster, Jacqueline J. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • Schultz, M. Lucille. “Letter-Writing Instruction in 19th Century Schools in the United States.” Letter Writing as a Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall, John Benjamins Publishing, 2000.
  • Stuckey, Zosha. “‘What has become of Jimmy Thornton?’: The Rhetoric(s) of Letter-Writing at The New York State Asylum for Idiots, 1855-1866.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3, 2011, p. 11.
  • The Apartment. Directed by Billy Wilder, performances by Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Adolph Deutch, Joseph LaShelle, and Daniel Mandell, The Mirisch Company, 1960.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic Letters, Genre Instruction, and Rhetorical Practice.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-24.
  • Wallace, Patricia D. “Feminine Rhetoric and the Epistolary Tradition: The Boniface Correspondence.” Peitho, vol. 24, no. 3, 1995, pp. 229-246.
  • Whitely, Jason. “Hidden Letters Discovered in Old Desk Reveal Tragic Story of WWII You Haven’t Heard.” WFAA, 23 July 2019. Accessed 23 Dec. 2019.

Dr. Battey’s Ovariotomy, 1872-1878

“The reality is obviously a good deal more complex; disease is at once a biological event, a generation-specific repertoire of verbal constructs reflecting medicine’s intellectual and institutional history, an occasion of and potential legitimation for public policy, an aspect of social role and individual—intrapsychic—identity, a sanction for cultural values, and a structuring element in doctor patient interactions.”

Charles E. Rosenberg

Medical journals from the 19th century provide rich information about diagnoses, treatments, and contentions within the field at the time. It’s important to place these primary sources in historical context, and close study can also reveal broad trends in how diseases are framed at specific points in history. Specifically, there is a long history of attributing many diseases and symptoms to the female reproductive organs.1 For example, Terri Kapsalis explores the “wastebasket diagnosis” of hysteria through time, from Plato’s wandering uterus to Silas Weir Mitchell’s rest cure. From the years 1872 to 1878, Robert Battey’s normal ovariotomy, a surgical procedure to remove the ovaries, was publicized in various professional medical journals, such as the Atlanta Medical and Surgical Journal, Gynecological Transactions, and The American Practitioner. George J. Engelman published a piece in the Transactions of the American Medical Association titled “Difficulties and Dangers of Battey’s Operation,” which is ultimately an endorsement of the procedure. C.H. Rauschenberg published “Ovulation and Menstruation, and Dr. R Battey’s Operation of Normal Ovariotomy,” highlighting disagreement over the role of the ovaries in menstruation.

Through analysis of these primary sources from the late 19th century, we can note four broad observations: the sheer variety of diseases and illnesses attributed to the ovaries, the role of opioids in everyday use and medical procedures, the specific gaze adopted in the assessment of success, and contentions surrounding the surgical procedure in the professional field. These archival materials provide a rich bounty for further feminist rhetorical analysis. Rhetoric scholars, in particular, may be interested in how diseases are framed historically, insofar as medical discourse embodies and perpetuates cultural assumptions, and produces identities; specifically, rhetoric scholars may investigate portrayal of women’s bodies as pathologized throughout history and how these portrayals have real-world consequences for medical diagnoses and interventions, even today.

Diseases and Illness Attributed to Ovaries

The most interesting part of this analysis might be the sheer number and variety of illnesses attributed to the ovaries. These afflictions include but are not limited to cardiac malady, hemorrhages from stomach and rectum, paroxysm, nervous disturbances (Battey, “Normal” 322-325), vascular excitements, pernicious ovulation, ovarian neuralgia, ovarian insanity, nervous prostration, insomnia, vicarious menstruation from bowels, lungs, and skin (Yandell 3-13), suffused countenance, convulsions epileptiform in character, mania, hysteria, unbalanced mind (Battey, “Extirpation” 2-5). Battey argues that his normal ovariotomy is a last resort intended to treat diseases that cannot otherwise be cured by any other method. Somehow, removing the ovaries in order to prompt menopause is thought to be beneficial. The attribution of so many various ailments to the ovaries is not unlike misunderstandings about what causes and transmits disease throughout history. For example, we can look to the miasmatists for their misguided framing of cholera2 or to the various attempts to quell the transmission of malaria throughout time.3 Misunderstandings of illness and disease can come from lacking knowledge about vectors and microbes, and it can also come from concepts and frames that rest on long-held cultural assumptions.

One difficulty of looking at medical publications from the late 1800s is that further research is needed in order to fully understand the time-specific definitions of many terms. For example, what is ovarian insanity? What did it mean about doctors’ knowledge that rectal bleeding might be called menstruation from the bowels? Despite these difficulties of interpretation, the types of ailments described throughout these documents can fall into several categories: symptoms related to menstruation, descriptions of symptoms that seem to describe what we now call epilepsy, symptoms that seem to describe heart disease, symptoms that seem to indicate a type of cancer or infection, and symptoms that have to do with mood disturbances and emotional liability.

The Role of Morphia and Opium

The development of anesthesia in the 1840s, and antiseptic later in the century, facilitated a boom in surgery in the late nineteenth century (Porter 148). In his publications, Battey provides detailed accounts of his patients’ case histories as well as detailed accounts of the surgical procedure. Two important parts of the procedure, which are granted detailed descriptions, are the anesthetization of the patient before surgery and the pain relief treatment administered after surgery. For initial surgery, Battey used chloroform to sedate patients. Then, morphia and/or opium were used for pain management. In some of these cases, it appears that the patient already had a daily regimen of morphia (morphine): “For the past four months, she had been entirely bed-ridden and constant sufferer. She vomited her breakfast daily but retained nourishment at dinner and tea. She required each day two or more grains of morphia, and every night sixty grains of chloral” (Battey, “Extirpation” 7). One has to wonder if drug use was not the cause of various symptoms of these patients. Would periodic withdrawal from an opioid cause many of the documented complaints? Did doctors at the time understand the addictive properties and side effects of these various substances? Rhetoric scholars might consider how a focus on pathologizing women’s reproductive systems could obscure other areas of investigation.

The Gaze of Success

When writing about the success of the surgical procedure, Battey primarily records his own observations as a physician. However, Battey also, at times, folds in the perspectives and observations of husbands and other household members. For instance, “She now does unaided the house-work of her family” is touted as an indicator of success (Battey, “Extirpation” 4). Similarly, we can ask where the “definitely known” information originates in the following passage:

Does this operation impair the aphrodisiac power of the subject? I answer there is not reason to suspect this in any of my cases, and in most of them it is definitely known that such is not the result. There is no loss of the womanly graces, but on the contrary the patient gains flesh and becomes even more attractive. (Battey, “Extirpation” 19)

How does one measure womanly graces or attractiveness in medicine? What kinds of metrics are these, anyway? At the very least, we can assess that they are metrics accounted for, and devised, by men.

Contentions in the Field

From these archival documents, three contentions surrounding this procedure emerge:

  1. vaginal versus abdominal surgery for removal of ovaries,
  2. the role of ovaries in ceasing menstruation, and
  3. the proper name of the procedure and the medical meanings of the words “normal” and “abnormal.”

For the first contention, Battey, after beginning with the abdominal surgery method, shifts to the vaginal surgery method, arguing that this is best. Engelman, although largely in support of Battey’s ideas, argues that the abdominal method is indicated in most cases (3-4). Rauschenberg, on the other hand, questions the very premise (and, therefore, purpose) of Battey’s procedure (1-2). Battey argues that his goal is to induce “change of life” by the removal of the ovaries, and that this will relieve the litany of otherwise uncurable diseases. However, Rauschenberg argues that the link between the ovaries and menstruation is not yet well-established and that removal of the ovaries may not necessarily cease menstruation (4). Throughout these publications, there is various discussion of the procedure title, whether normal ovariotomy is appropriate. In the Yandell and McClellan interview, Battey explains he has given up his initial name for the procedure but has yet to rename it (9). It seems the contention surrounds the word “normal,” as many of the ovaries Battey ends up removing are inflamed or cancerous: abnormal. Of course, the surgeon cannot know this until surgery, but this contradicts Battey’s premise that the normal (non-diseased) ovaries can cause a plethora of debilitating symptoms in women as a matter of course.

Questions for Further Research

Is Battey a maverick surgeon of his time, or is this level of experimentation typical?

Andrew Scull, author of Hysteria, certainly sees the popularity of this operation as a dangerous experimental period, describing that “a veritable mania for ovariotomy swept the United States” (89). Surgery, as a profession, was booming during this time, in part due to the introduction of anesthesia in the 1840s and the emergence of antiseptics, popularized by Joseph Lister in the mid-1800s (Porter 126). Further research is needed to better situate Battey in surgical history.

Many of these patients seem to have pre-existing “morphia” use. Do doctors at this time recognize the side effects and dangers of morphia?

It would be interesting to do a more in-depth study of the evolving medical understanding of addiction, and specifically opioid addiction, throughout time. In Battey’s time, we understand that women with means could easily take morphine or opium daily. How were withdrawal symptoms understood, if at all? What was the social context surrounding the use of these drugs?—what were the norms? When do controls on substances emerge, and why? What is the longer arc we see with doctors using and prescribing opioids? One could also take the contemporary opioid crisis as a starting point for analysis and move backwards with historical critique.

In the late 19th century, were doctors treating men’s nervous, cardiovascular, or mental disorders with removal of the testes?

It stands to reason that if all of women’s otherwise incurable diseases can be treated by removal of the ovaries, then, in tandem, all of men’s otherwise incurable diseases can be treated by removal of the testes. If, for example, it was thought that the removal of a woman’s ovaries would cure epilepsy (Battey, “Extirpation” 13), were men with epilepsy being treated with removal of the testes? More broadly, what was the medical consensus, at the time, regarding the functions of these organs? If no comparable treatment is found for men, then we can ask:

Where does Battey’s normal ovariotomy fit into the broader historical trend of targeting women’s reproductive organs as the source of many maladies?

Scull argues that “In this instance, the assault on the ovaries was in line with long-standing folk beliefs about the origins of women’s emotional liability, beliefs that had acquired a new veneer of scientificity with the development of reflex theories of nervous action” (90). This assertion dovetails nicely into research on contemporary manifestations of the hysterical woman4 in various discourses.

Battey’s normal ovariotomy provides a historical comparison for use with research on framing women’s diseases, and rhetoric scholars can investigate the historical trends and contemporary implications of the medical discourse surrounding women’s bodies. In what ways are women’s bodies characterized as inherently abnormal or pathological? In what ways are women characterized as liabilities due to their reproductive organs? In what ways are women’s bodies described and defined by the male-gaze? Where are the women’s voices and accounts, historically? Where are the women’s voices and accounts, within medical discourse, today? The scope of archival materials discussed here is limited by this researcher’s personal time, and there is undoubtedly much more material to uncover.

Endnotes

  1. See Scull, Andrew. Hysteria: The Disturbing History. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  2. See Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map. Riverhead Books, 2006 and Rosenberg, Charles. The Cholera Years. The University of Chicago Press, 1962.
  3. See Packard, Randall M. The Making of a Tropical Disease. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007 and McNeill, J.R. Mosquito Empires. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  4. See Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Random House, 1978.

Works Cited

Transforming Feminist Narratives and Participation of African Marginalized Women through Ceremonial Beads

As a Ghanaian and an Akan woman, I grew up learning the significance of using objects to create uncommon meanings. Within the Akan maternal ethnic group, objects such as beads are considered an important gesture of communicating and creating a cultural connection between people within and outside the Akan group. Put differently, the Akan people of Ghana regard beads as sacred material that signify one’s status, cultural belonging, and, importantly, African womanhood.

My very first gift upon coming of age at sixteen was a bead specially designed by my mother to represent my African femininity and the cultural values I embody. Even before the gift presentation, I remember having many conversations with my mother about beads and their aesthetic symbolism, but she never said anything extraordinary except that wearing beads made a woman look more feminine. I also remember the special times when my mother would bring out every bead she owned and share their individual stories with me. I grew up cherishing such intimate moments between us. As a result, I started collecting beads so I could continue that tradition one day with my future daughter. Little did I know that my process of collection was tied into the complexity and the exploration of being in a culture that often excludes women—a culture that is heavily loaded with sexism.

Although beads are used by Akan women and men, they are often worn by women for both religious and non-religious rites and practices. The color, size, or shape of a bead can indicate the mood of a person, her social achievement, and her status within the community. Beads are an emblem of feminine identity, beauty, socio-cultural and family connection, and a relationship between mother and daughter. For instance, during a marriage ceremony, Akan mothers often pass down beads to their daughters as gifts that represent their bond.

Beads have also been reclaimed as a symbol of African femininity and recuperated as African feminist artifacts due to their ability to perform an agential role and their social significance within the Akan community and Ghana at large. As an Akan woman and an African feminist, I advocate that we pay attention to the materiality of beads because it helps us to redefine and negotiate the vital connection between objects and bodies, especially how both human (body) and non-human materiality (beads) play a prominent role in enabling the margins of what meaningful and outstanding actions might become.

Image of African beads in yellow, tan, black, and navy blue. The beads are looped in circles, four in total.

Fig. 1. African Beads.

In this essay, I interpret African beads as a symbol of African womanhood and as a unique feminist artifact, intervention, and variant of African feminism that seeks to redefine participation and activism while also reconceptualizing the cultural specificity of what feminist activism can look like in a transnational location like Ghana. I reconsider African beads as objects that can be used to challenge marginalized African women’s experiences, and I reflect on how the materiality of the body and object work together in shaping cultural, social, and political relations. Lastly, I suggest that beads as representative objects can be used as a tactic to disidentify with hegemonic dialogues and thus help to define a feminine and feminist African subject and way of performing feminist activism.

Although I focus on Ghanaian women in this essay, my goal is to highlight the unique forms of performance, participation, and delivery that have been adopted and practiced by African women and feminists. Let me make clear that I am by no means insinuating that one is given a platform to make changes just because they are wearing beads. Women can still be in disempowered positions regardless of what they wear or display. However, as Karen Barad asserts, objects can act as an “agential intra-action” (135) to create e/affective actions and hopeful possibilities. The dynamic entanglements among humans, society, and environment has been explored further by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, who argue that material feminism is pivotal in understanding and reflecting upon the relationship among objects, histories, bodies, and place. They assert that using this point of view can enable scholars to “describe nonhuman agency in a scientific or ‘cultural, historical, biological’ context…and redefine our understanding of the relationships among the natural, the human, and the nonhuman” (7). The work of these scholars is crucial for contemplating the relationships among objects, bodies, experiences, sensual connections, and their narratives within cultures, while also not privileging one aspect over another.

Important perspectives on these relationships also come from Peta Hinton, Tara Mehrabi, and Josef Barla, who focus on “the very processes through which bodies marked by race, ethnicity, nationality, sex/gender, and species come to matter” (2). Their approach calls attention to new materialism as a site for knowledge production (3) and challenges new materialist scholars to critically reflect on how the othered come to matter within and beyond their locations. It is here that I argue once again that focusing on how beads are used by African (Ghanaian) women offers a different approach to how feminist practices are enacted through material objects and demonstrates how othered women within different geographical contexts respond to problematic narratives and hegemonies and defy colonial practices through a complex form of cultural practices, power, religion, and agency.

Living and doing feminist or feminine work in Ghana can be difficult for various reasons. The multiple connotations of the term “feminist” in many African locations have negative associations and maintain a complicated identity and position for many African women. African women who identify as feminist are liable to being labeled as “rude,” “unhappy,” “women who cannot find husbands,” “white women in Africa,” and “women who have neglected their African heritage.” As African feminist scholar Ruvimbo Goredema states, “if African women identify themselves as feminist, they run the risk of being automatically linked to the white feminist ideology” and creating actions and making movements that intend to “implement freedom can be interpreted and regarded as a reinforcement of mainstream white feminism” (40). That is to say, feminism is not considered a part of the African culture. In short, as Chimamanda Adichie attests, the term “Feminist is considered un-African” (10) and many African women who identify as such as are “labelled as women who have been influenced by Western books” (10).

In response to the charge of feminist being un-African, some African women activists, like Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Onyeronke Onyewumi have developed strategies and terms that can enable African women to use their agency to engage in women’s work and to set their experiences apart from the white mainstream feminist. One such strategy is to use the term African feminism to classify any feminist action by African women that is conducted within and beyond the African context. This strategy can be regarded as a choice consciously made by African women to use their identity and subject position (which is often presumed non-existent to make significant changes within their varying locations. Goredema defines African feminism as a “feminist epistemology and a form of rhetoric that has provided arguments, which validate the experience of women of Africa and African origin against mainstream feminist discourse” (34) as well as a position of “justice that aims to create a discernible difference between women who were colonized and those who were deemed the colonizers” (34).

While the term African feminist certainly gives hope and a grounded identity for women who openly challenge dominant discourses and apparatuses within African societies, it is not enough to label women of such complex realities as African feminists. The label feminist is still regarded as a foreign concept that is aligned to white middle-class women who often lack empathy for women of color, especially non-Western women. Furthermore, the label complicates our subject position and interferes with the societal expectations of African womanhood. Despite these complexities, the term African feminism is an intervention that can empower African women to change the negative connotation of feminist actions within our locations and redefine the representation of African women. In an effort to preserve our cultural identity as African women, African feminists have taken a different route to originate a space where African women’s voices can be heard, be unique, and be distinct. They willingly made it a part of their objectives to maintain some African traditions through objects (beads, hair patterns, clothes), and form alliances with African men while exploring and discussing the inappropriate and partial treatment of women in Africa. This objective is affirmed by African women scholars like Filomina Chioma Steady, who maintains that African feminism does not seek to separate itself from men but to critique some traditional African practices without degrading those practices (28).

This deliberate display of identity can be regarded as an innovative performance tactically developed to help African women use their position to make memorable and positive impact while keeping their feminine and feminist identity culturally specific. For example, the Akan women who have chieftaincy titles or roles often shave off their hair and wear beads as a symbolic and performative act that aims to distinguish their positionality and voice within society. From a new materialist perspective, this display can be considered a deliberate gesture in which hair and beads signifies an embodiment of the material nature of physical bodies connected to constrained narratives, places, and complex epistemologies. Thinking through the role of objects and bodies in this context also allow us to reimagine human nature, materiality, performance, and experience not as idealistic or free from social inscription, but as something that is closely linked to the historical, social, and cultural practices of a place. For instance, women with such titles in the Akan ethnic group generally wear beads designed with gold whenever there is any traditional function or when they must represent the interests of the community. Here, the ceremonial beads become representative of Akan women’s authority, identity, and cultural connection, and afford them the privilege to enact feminine and feminist practices as well as serve as a protective mechanism and ethos which allows them to engage in conversations and contribute in roles which they otherwise would not be allowed to perform. Indeed, as Cheryl Glenn puts it in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope “identity determines who may speak, who merits an audience,” and ultimately what the results of the speech will be (25).

I started collecting beads to continue my mother’s tradition with my future daughter; however, my current outlook on collecting and wearing beads has changed. I no longer collect beads because the activity reminds me of my childhood experience; rather, I do so because the display of beads and its material meaning and history in Ghanaian feminist and feminine activism allows Ghanaian/African women to explore and understand transnational women’s practices as potentially or already feminist. Ghanaian women and feminist activists have found a way to use objects such as beads to map their indigenous identity as African women who embody African values with good intentions for society. Women activists may wear beads as a form of social approval while simultaneously calling attention to the social and political stance they embrace, illustrating how non-human objects can help us to redefine and imagine feminist epistemological spaces as fluid sites of perceptions and interpretations.

For example, prominent Ghanaian female advocate, journalist, queen mother, and television show host, Gifty Anti, is well-known for wearing beads as a means of showing her Africanness whenever she speaks about women’s exclusion and activism. While she does not identify as a feminist, her “apparent feminism” performance (to borrow Erin Frost’s term), is sometimes responded to with hostile comments on social media. However, Gifty is also commended for doing feminine work in a way that is notably African. This situation can be interpreted in at least two ways. First, Gifty’s physical body and its relationship with the beads and place show how the embodied perception and reflection of non-human materials can take form socially and culturally and can silently create powerful narratives where they are situated. And crucially for a feminist inquiry, the connection of the beads on her body with her audience not only establishes her ethos but also can be regarded as a skillful feminine move to enter spaces, make her voice heard, and create possibilities and potential for feminist activism in varying forms.

For me and many other Ghanaian women, wearing beads represents a grassroots performance that strives to create a space for negotiation. This space can be envisioned as an ethical possibility where we can negotiate our Africanness, reclaim ourselves and our memories, and feel a sense of connection to culture, environment, and history while we work to establish socio-cultural transformation. Most importantly, wearing beads while performing women’s activism gives me a sense of agency and the voice to share stories from a personal perspective and engage with listeners in a respectful relationship of reciprocity.

As an Akan woman, I believe that the material elucidation of the beads—their dynamic relationship, influence, and connection with the body—presents new possibilities for transformation and spaces where other young women like myself can engage in active feminist work without the fear of losing part of our identity. By wearing beads, we surround ourselves with African feminism—precious objects, feminine objects—and practice a unique form of activism that goes beyond colonial practices, prioritizing our needs even if they are not of concern to our dominant culture, and inviting a redefinition of feminist activism.

Wearing beads as feminine and feminist activism gives us hope: the hope to keep transforming our narratives within and outside our location, the hope to re-define the representation of African women and create spaces for African women to become visible, and the hope to create alliances and transnational networks with other feminists. These forms of hope are what Glenn discusses as the potential that keeps rhetorical feminists alive. They help rhetorical feminists discover themselves, create new possibilities for change, and forge new and stronger alliances with other feminists, both marginalized and non-marginalized (197-201). It is this kind of hope that African feminists hold onto to reconfigure our struggles not only for ourselves but for women who may not identify and name themselves as African feminists.

I conclude with two questions to spark investigations into the value of African feminism in new materialist studies and to invite rhetorical feminists to delve deeper into how transnational processes of participation and transformation offers different insights into what feminist activism can achieve:

  1. How can rhetorical feminists seriously consider transnational feminist activism and its delivery through objects particularly in non-Western locations?
  2. In what ways can the study and practice of African feminism offer a potential space for revising and problematizing the misrepresentation of non-Western women?

These questions highlight new materialist and transnational feminist studies as sites of inquiry where both the othered and privileged can make meaning of their material agency and set up conversations about how identity, place, and body construct resistant strategies that might destabilize dominant social narratives.

Works Cited

  • Adichie, Chimamanda N. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor Books, 2015.
  • Alaimo, Stacy and Hekman, Susan. “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 1-23.
  • Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 123-154.
  • Frost, Erin. “Apparent Feminism as a Methodology for Technical Communication and Rhetoric.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-28.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Goredema, Ruvimbo. “African Feminism: The African woman’s Struggle for identity.” African Yearbook of Rhetoric, vol.1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33-41.
  • Hinton, P., T. Mehrabi, and J. Barla. “New Materialisms/New Colonialisms” (Online self-published work-in-progress). 2015. pp. 1-15. https://newmaterialism.eu/content/5-working-groups/2-working-group-2/position-papers/subgroup-position-paper-_-new-materialisms_new-colonialisms.pdf
  • Steady, C. Filomina. The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Schenkman Publishing, 1981.