Asians at Virginia Tech: Recovering an Institutional History of Asians in Appalachia through Intra-Institutional Networks

What Is the Asians@VT project? 

Asians@VT ( is a digital archive of historical materials including recordings of oral history interviews that documents a history of Asians and Asian Americans at Virginia Tech (VT) and the greater Southwest Virginia region. A collaboration among a group of six undergraduate students and the two authors of this essay—a research and teaching faculty member, and an administrative professional faculty member—Asians@VT uses Omeka and Timeline.js alongside the methods of archival research and oral history interviews with alumni and faculty. In doing so, this project recovers and reconsiders the contributions of Asians and Asian Americans who were physically present and engaged within Virginia Tech and its surrounding communities. The university is also located in what the Appalachian Regional Commission has identified as Appalachia. As a result, we understand this project as contributing to ongoing efforts in Appalachian Studies to document a record of people of Asian descent—amongst other minoritized populations—in Appalachia, a place that is commonly imagined as homogeneously white and socio-economically disadvantaged (Allen, Avashia, Cabbell, El-Amin et al., Hayden, Kwong, Thompson, Troutman, Turner and Cabbell).  

This project was guided by feminist rhetorical historiographical approaches as it focuses on recovering the history of a minoritized group. It was also methodologically informed by Terese Guinsatao Monberg’s “Listening for Legacies, or, How I Began to Hear Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay Behind the Podium Known as FANHS” as it attempts to engage in feminist rhetorical listening through oral history “To go beyond what is immediately visible and documented … [through] what Jacqueline Jones Royster calls ‘a habit of critical questioning, of speculating in order to make visible unnoticed possibilities, to pose and articulate what we see now, what’s missing, and what we might see instead’” (87). Like Monberg and other feminist scholars, this work is grounded in a desire to account for diverse knowledges and forms of labor—or community contributions—to our understandings of institutional histories, to rhetorical theory, to understandings of Appalachia, and to knowledge about Asian American communities more broadly. In other words, we intentionally sought to consider how Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDAs)[1] at Virginia Tech not only contributed to the university in direct and apparent ways, but also “behind the podium”—as they have worked to support, make possible, and enable our ongoing presence. This project also involved “strategic contemplation” as theorized by Royster and Kirsch, as we deliberately took “the time, space, and resources to think about, through, and around our work” (21), as we sought to “see and hold contradictions without rushing to immediate closure, to neat resolutions, or to cozy hierarchies and binaries” (21–22), and as we intentionally recognized that the work we were doing relied on the ongoing work of Asian/Asian American and other minoritized people. We were open to learning what we would learn through the research process, as opposed to having specific benchmarks in mind.  

In addition, this project was informed by not only feminist research methodologies but also feminist pedagogies—it looked beyond the traditional classroom to at times overlooked learning spaces, it centered the concerns and interests of the students who participated in the project, and it contributes to the growing scholarship of feminist collaborations such as the work by Judy Wu and Gwendolyn Mink about the “trailblazing legislator Patsy Takemoto Mink, best known as the legislative champion of Title IX.” Moreover, in the vein of Monberg’s pedagogy of “recursive spatial movement” and “writing as the community” paradigm, our project positioned the Asian American students we worked with to “move within their own borders or communities, so they might listen for the deeper textures present in the place(s) they might call ‘home’” (22). We also co-taught this independent study as women whose pedagogy aligns with feminist practices through continued collaboration and communication with each other and encouraging shared spaces and shared visions without competitive or hierarchical power dynamics (Sano-Franchini, Sackey, and Pigg). In other words, we didn’t assume the tenured faculty member should take the lead on things or that the person in student affairs should take a back seat in a research project. We understood that everyone had equally important contributions to make to the project, and that every voice mattered. This is recognized in the fact that we had a contributions page especially devoted to the students, whose profiles appeared at the top of the page. Finally, we allowed for considerable flexibility when we all had to pivot online due to COVID, which started at the middle of the semester; we understood the need to recognize work and personal life balance during a time when many of us had other urgent matters as well as challenges to navigate as the pandemic brought on anti-Asian hate incidences. This was a difficult time for many of us in the Asian American community as so many of us—especially East and Southeast Asians—felt anxieties about being randomly targeted for physical attacks and harassment.  

This Recoveries and Reconsideration essay outlines the context and background for this project, the process used to engage in this recovery work, and the outcomes and implications of  implementing this project, as opposed to focusing on the content included in the digital archive. We hope that by doing so, this essay will encourage readers to consider how this project might serve as an example that can be adapted for their own institutions, in their own efforts to recover much-needed histories that support APIDA visibility and inclusion.  

 Context and Background 

Asians@VT was developed in Spring 2020, while we were both faculty at Virginia Tech, a research intensive predominantly white institution in the mid-Atlantic and Appalachian region. Asian American students made up over 10 percent of the undergraduate student population, making them the largest racialized minority group on campus. At Virginia Tech, like in many institutions of higher education, APIDAs are not considered underrepresented due to the lack of data disaggregation, thereby causing this minoritized population to be underserved and under-resourced, not to mention ignored and at times erased from local histories. Moreover, in some instances, Asians and Asian Americans are not even perceived as minorities, even though they are! As a result, there has been limited attention dedicated to APIDA students’ needs and concerns not only in the university curriculum and student support services but also in terms of institutional narratives and histories. In this context, it is not surprising that the history of APIDAs at the institution was not visible to a vast majority of students, faculty, and staff who came into the university. Thus, we were compelled to instigate and encourage the documentation of APIDA contributions. 

When we first came together to discuss the idea of working on a history of APIDAs at Virginia Tech, Jennifer Sano-Franchini was an associate professor in the English department, and Nina Ha was the director of the Asian Cultural Engagement Center (now the APIDA + Center). Nina invited Jennifer to serve as a Faculty Fellow for the Asian Cultural Engagement Center (ACE Center), a position that was made possible through the generosity and support of the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. We wanted to collaborate on a project that would bring attention to the history of the APIDA community at Virginia Tech ever since Nina began her role at VT in Fall 2019. Jennifer’s interest in recovering Asian and Asian American institutional histories extended from her experience doing archival research on Asian American contributions in NCTE and CCCC (Sano-Franchini, Monberg, and Yoon), and from working with APIDA students on a library exhibit at Virginia Tech. At a previous institution, Nina had experience assigning oral history projects in the classroom, particularly with respect to gathering digital narratives of Japanese Americans who had experienced U.S. mass incarceration during World War II. Therefore, this collaboration that combined archival research with oral histories felt seamless. When we had the chance to co-facilitate an independent study with interested and motivated students, we were excited to do so. Being able to bring attention to primary sources and uncover the stories of the APIDA community is important for encouraging all members of the university community to recognize APIDA contributions to the community, as well as to re-contextualize their own positionality even if they are not APIDAs themselves.  

We recruited six undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines—accounting, political science, math, computer science, Asian studies, and journalism—who were active in working with Nina and at the ACE Center. What compelled all of us to implement and complete this project was a shared desire to not only document but also uncover/highlight this history of a heterogenous APIDA community that is oftentimes overlooked or perceived as invisible. As many of the students note on the Asians@VT website, a large part of their desire to participate in this project was to create and document otherwise forgotten and excluded histories. In this way, we centered students’ interests and concerns through a feminist pedagogical framework. For example, Kenny Nguyen conveyed, “The project has taught me the importance of having our organizations continue to keep adequate records and documentation properly archiving them for reference and research purposes for future generations. If the lived experiences and struggles of our community are painted to be illusory, then through documentation and archival processes, we are able to solidify their place in reality.” Kenny’s comment profoundly highlights how processes of documentation affect not only who is viewed as part of “reality” but also how organizations might conduct their work in the present and future. Underscoring Kenny’s observations is Algae Ngo who wrote, “I hope that this project will spark a stronger drive towards archiving and documenting the presence of AAPIs at Virginia Tech to further establish ourselves and our experiences as an integral part of this university’s history.” Throughout this process, the students insisted on creating a space of belonging that was not temporary; rather, the timeline and archival materials that they uncovered and restored, especially in a virtual format, allows for continued documentation and recordkeeping of an APIDA presence that cannot be erased.  

Identifying students who wanted to participate in this project underscored the value of having an Asian American studies curriculum since all six of the students had previously taken the Asian American History class and/or the Asian American Experience course that had been offered at VT. Through their engagements in either one or both of these classes, the students understood the value of desiring to know more about APIDA contributions and the local histories of APIDAs living in Southwest Virginia. What was also beneficial about these students’ disciplinary backgrounds was that they were also evenly divided into what projects they wanted to cover—three of them chose to work on archival research and three of them participated in the interview process. 

Developing the Project through an Independent Study 

In this section, we discuss the logistics of developing this project, as well as the challenges we experienced as we navigated institutional structures for making this work possible. Because the existing university curriculum at the time—as well as our teaching and administrative assignments—did not include a course on Asian American feminist recovery work, we developed an independent study cross-listed in English and Sociology, through which the students could receive academic credit for working on this project. First, however, we needed to navigate the institutional process for approving the independent study for students from several different colleges and majors. Having students from across the university meant that there were multiple forms that needed various signatures including not only the students’ academic advisors, but also the chairs of their respective departments and the deans from both the students’ majors as well as that of the credit-granting college! When students were majors of different colleges from our own College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, those signatures needed to be gathered in person and not electronically. Therefore, Nina literally had to walk from department to department and building to building to gather original signatures, which was both time-consuming and cumbersome. Additionally, we needed to develop justifications for how the independent study aligned with their major plan of study. Thus, we developed a syllabus that outlined the following learning objectives: 

With successful completion of this undergraduate research, students will: 

  • Understand basic tenets for engaging in historical research in Asian American rhetoric. 
  • Discuss concerns relevant to oral history and/or archival research, including textual imperialism, archives as institutionalized knowledge, and the rhetorics of curation. 
  • Apply feminist historiographical methodologies to a research project documenting a history of Asians at Virginia Tech and in Southwest Virginia more generally. 
  • Analyze historical artifacts and narratives through a feminist rhetorical framework. 
  • Explain the connections between local events and larger sociopolitical movements. 

Through these goals and given the students’ diverse skillsets, we worked together to walk through the process of curating and analyzing interviews or archival and academic materials, including but not limited to Virginia Tech yearbooks, its student newspaper, Collegiate Times, and other local news articles, published histories, and other resources. The independent study was assessed on a Pass/Fail basis because the project encompassed a variety of skillsets that didn’t necessarily lend itself to traditional methods of assessment. In addition, we believed that this option would encourage students to be driven by their own interests and engagement in the project itself, and not be concerned with the pressures of traditional grades, which can lead to students feeling that they need to do what we, “the teachers,” wanted them to do.  

With feminist historiographical theories and pedagogies in mind, students were encouraged to consider the rhetorical implications of the telling of history; how histories both enable and limit the possibility of community, as well as how the telling of history is epistemological and imbued with implications for power, privilege, and marginalization. We began the semester by assigning readings from Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, including the introduction and a chapter by Brandzel and Desai that centers on the context of Virginia Tech, as we believed these works would provide important context for the project on which we were embarking. In addition, we examined existing histories of minoritized groups at the university that were created through Special Collections at the University Libraries. To better frame this project, we reached out to campus partners such as Katrina Powell, who was leading VT Stories, an effort to collect “stories, memories, tall tales, tragedies, and triumphs of all members of the Hokie community,” Jessica Taylor from the History Department who specializes in oral histories, Anthony Wright de Hernandez whose job was to cultivate and acquire materials for the Newman Library’s Special Collections,[2] and Corinne Guimont, also part of the Newman Library and whose focus was on creating a digital record using such applications like Omeka. Having supportive and engaged collaborators is necessary when considering the creation and implementation of a student-led research project like the one that we proposed and fulfilled. That people’s expertise were varied and coming from different disciplines and backgrounds was vital. This project was transdisciplinary, diverse, and intentionally multimodal. Moreover, it was important to us to draw on existing university resources and expertise to support this project and its goals, and to create networks that would raise awareness about the project and the need to include Asians and Asian Americans in institutional histories and historical work more generally.  

Conclusion: Outcomes and Implications 

Upon looking back at this project, there were many challenges as well as celebratory moments that all of us shared. Through Asians@VT, we learned that students of Asian descent had been attending Virginia Tech for more than a century. The first documented Asian student that we found in the archive was Mozaffar-ed-din Khan, who enrolled as an international student from Teheran [sic], Persia in 1914. We noted how this was not long before women were first allowed to attend classes full time at the university in 1921. It was also almost four decades before the university enrolled its first Black student, Irving L. Peddrew III in 1953. The first Asian student whom we could find evidence of having graduated from the university was Tien Liang Jiu from Hong Kong; he graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1924. The first South Asian student we found evidence of was a graduate student who attended VT in 1948, Chittaranjan Ishverlal Almaula from Bombay. The first Asian international and woman student to enroll at the university in 1950 was Yvonne Rohran Tung from Hong Kong. Taken together, this history of Asian international student enrollment demonstrates the slow process by which Asian men from different ethnic backgrounds, and then Asian women were admitted to the university over several decades. At the same time, there is much we have yet to learn, including the history of domestic Asian American students at VT. We found ourselves feeling hope, anticipation, interest, and disappointment simultaneously as we came to learn how much was still missing from our history of Asians at VT. 

In addition, while we began this project meeting in-person at the ACE Center, our project was disrupted as the COVID-19 pandemic started midway into the spring semester. These circumstances forced us to reconsider new ways to approach our methodologies as we all had to pivot to working online as we negotiated new ways for students to take classes as well as for instructors to teach courses, all the while trying our best to get work completed despite many obstacles and restrictions. In the case of the students who were researching in the Special Collections of the library, they now had to find source materials virtually. For the students who had conducted oral histories in-person, they now had to do so via Zoom or other online applications. During this time, both students and faculty had to manage all of this alongside health, caregiving, and other concerns; as a result, our focus necessarily shifted away from the project to an extent.  

Still, what we noticed while planning and implementing Asians@VT was the importance of intra-institutional partnerships—in this case, tenure-track faculty and student support units. Despite the varied ways in which institutions of higher education can be quite siloed and can even deter unique opportunities for collaborating, we recognized the value of creating these transdisciplinary and intra-institutional networks. For instance, Jennifer’s background in rhetoric and the digital humanities nicely complemented Nina’s background in Asian American studies and her professional relationship with Asian American students from a wide range of disciplines, not to mention that of our collaborators in history, the libraries, and the digital humanities. Together, we created a project that was informed by several disciplinary perspectives that no one of us could have created on our own. As our unique teaching styles and pedagogies came together, it became clear to us how it is important to think “outside the box” about whom we might partner with, and the value of considering intra-institutional partnerships, especially between traditional research and teaching faculty and those in cultural and community centers. In addition, this intra-institutional setup meant that our “classroom” was not only at the ACE Center, which served as a kind of meeting hub, but also in the Intercultural Engagement Center’s conference room, the university archives, and interview meeting spaces. This cross-campus spatial arrangement was not just functional but also pedagogical as it meant that students were able to lay claim to these predominantly white spaces and the institutional resources that are available to them. Several students observed this point; for instance, Jessica Nguyen noted that she hopes “our research inspires more groups to see the value in utilizing resources VT Special Collections has to offer.” The students who worked on the project were able to gain firsthand experience in terms of how the university libraries, as an example, is a space that can enable communities to establish our presence and place in the university’s history. Moreover, this engagement, we believe, teaches students about the politics of place-based narratives and that they have the agency to intervene in institutional white supremacist narratives through historical research. We encourage others to consider similar kinds of feminist intra-institutional partnerships as a way of establishing the presence of invisibilized and marginalized groups on their own campuses. 


[1]We sometimes use Asians, Asian Americans, and APIDAs interchangeably; however, we want to underscore the complexities of these terms, which represent diverse groups of people with highly heterogeneous histories and experiences that must be recognized. For instance, Desis (South Asians living in the diaspora) don’t always consider themselves under the rubric of Asians, and at times, Pacific Islanders do not want to be grouped with Asian Americans because of complex colonial histories. Pacific Islanders are also generally recognized as marginalized and differently affected by some common anti-Asian stereotypes. It is challenging to find a term that fully reflects the diverse and heterogeneous experiences of this complex group of people. APIDA underscores the complexity of trying to recognize the diverse histories and experiences of this large and unwieldy group. We are not trying to replicate a white supremacist system and we want to acknowledge this complicated history that cannot be resolved in this paper if it should even be resolved. 

[2]Anthony Wright de Hernandez reached out to Nina when she started working at Virginia Tech in 2019 requesting that she donate materials about APIDAs since Special Collections had so little documentation by and/or about APIDAs. Thus, this feminist historiographical project helped with the curation and accumulation of this knowledge. 


Works Cited 

Allen, Fayetta A. “Blacks in Appalachia.” The Black Scholar vol. 5, no .9, 1974, pp. 42–51. 

Avashia, Neema. Asians in Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place. West Virginia University Press, 2022. 

Cabbell, Edward J. “Black Invisibility and Racism in Appalachia: An Informal Survey.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 1980, pp. 48–54. 

El-Amin, Enkeshi, Angela Dennis, and C. Lee Smith. Black in Appalachia. Accessed 26 January 2024.  

Hayden, Wilburn. “Appalachian Diversity: African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Other Populations.” Journal of Appalachian Studies vol. 10, no. 3, 2004, pp. 293–306. 

Joshi, Khyati Y. and Jigna Desai, eds. Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South. University of Illinois Press, 2013.  

Jung, Julie. Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. SIU Press, 2005. 

Kwong, Lisa. Becoming AppalAsian. Glenview: Glass Lyre Press, 2022. 

Monberg, Terese Guinsatao. “Listening for Legacies, or How I Began to Hear Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay Behind the Podium Known as FANHS.” Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State University Press, 2008, pp. 83–105. 

Monberg, Terese Guinsatao. “Writing Home or Writing as the Community: Toward a Theory of Recursive Spatial Movement for Students of Color in Service-Learning Courses.” Reflections vol. 8, no. 3, 2009, pp. 21-51. 

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

Sano-Franchini, Jennifer, Terese Guinsatao Monberg, and K. Hyoejin Yoon (Eds.). Building a Community, Having a Home: A History of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Asian/Asian American Caucus. Parlor Press, 2017. 

Sano-Franchini, Jennifer, Donnie Sackey, and Stacey Pigg. “Methodological Dwellings: A Search for Feminisms in Rhetoric & Composition.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society vol. 1, no. 2, 2011, Accessed 11 March 2024. 

Troutman, Stephanie. “Fabulachia: Urban, Black Female Experiences and Higher Education in Appalachia.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 252–263. 

Turner, William H., and Edward J. Cabbell. Blacks in Appalachia. University Press of Kentucky, 2014. 

Wu, Judy and Gwendolyn Mink. Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress. New York University Press, 2022.  


Claremont Graduate University’s Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection

Oral histories document a community’s history by recording interviews from community members about their lives. For scholars, these types of first-person accounts serve as useful primary sources for the purpose of archiving a community through the vantage points of its members. While Brad E. Lucas and Margaret M. Stain emphasize that oral histories only reproduce “…a – not the – narrative…” of a community’s experience, they also note that researchers who gather oral histories reveal “inconsistencies, gaps, and silences” in the narrative, making oral histories a valuable space to find voices often underrepresented in academia (Ramsey, et al., Location 3316-3319)[1].For women’s rhetoric scholars, one example of understudied persons include religious women, particularly those who maintain their identity in relationship to their patriarchal structured faiths. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote denotes “well-behaved women seldom make history” because these women are not viewed as avantgarde, which often results in exclusion from a history’s narrative (Well-Behaved Women, 2017). Thus, for feminist and rhetoric scholars, oral history gathering not only operates as a promising site of excavation of women’s experiences to (un/dis/re)cover the missing voices of women in a community, but also serves as a proving ground of rhetorical ability for women’s voices often left out of feminist conversations. 

As potential source material of oral histories from religious women, I introduce Claremont Graduate University’s Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection, a digitally archived collection of transcribed interviews with twentieth and twenty-first century Mormon women from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its offshoots[2]. As an ongoing project with over two hundred oral histories from Mormon women around the world, the Collection allows “scholars, amateur historians, and graduate students… to draw from these primary sources in their writings” and continue the work of making Mormon women’s voices more accessible (“Mormon Women’s Oral History Project”[3]). As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and currently serving in the Church’s women’s organization, the Relief Society, I have found that Latter-day Saint women maintain a rhetorical practice that seeks to access authority within their faith by supporting the power structure of the Latter-day Saint Church and by associating their gendered identity within that structure[4].  

Like many religious women, Latter-day Saint women often contradict the standards of feminism; rather than attempt to access authority by fighting against the prevailing power structure of their religious community, these women instead assert their identity in relationship to it. Yet, several academics have noted that feminist scholars hesitate in examining women’s religiously affiliated texts, as Carol Mattingly observes that some scholars “equate religiosity with conservatism…” (103). Charlotte Hogg further notes that the field of women’s rhetoric maintains a boundary that demonstrates “a continued reluctance to engage conservative women who fall outside [the] feminist framework” where “binary constructions of women as either feminist or not persist” which results in “perpetuating the practices [scholars] strive to dismantle and restricting possibilities for meaning making” (393). By continually resisting the inclusion of religious women in women’s rhetorical studies, feminist scholars end up reinforcing the practice of limiting whose voices take precedent. Thus, to adjust the boundaries of conventional feminism so that religious women can find a space in women’s rhetorical studies, scholars must, as Charlotte Hogg implores, embrace Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch’s call to move beyond the binary of feminist or antifeminist and look to include “women who may not seek to empower themselves or others yet hold rhetorical sway” (397). My intention, therefore, in presenting the MWOH Collection is to offer feminist scholars a potential blueprint for examining religious women’s rhetoric by sharing the Mormon women voices who attempt to access power within their religious community by connecting their identity to the religious framework of their patriarch-oriented faith. 

Showcasing the Histories 

There are currently two hundred and twenty-two oral histories in the Collection, with different interviewers and languages represented. For my initial exploration of the archive, I chose to examine the oral histories conducted by Caroline Kline – current director of the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project and the professor at CGU who introduced me to the Collection[5]. I further reduced my selection of oral histories to the ten interviews conducted by Dr. Kline that are transcribed into English and are interviews with Mormon women affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The themes of Location, Family Relationships, Education, and the Woman Identity emerged as common threads throughout the histories, where each woman sought to explain her identity in relationship to her Mormon faith. Whether by positive or negative association with their religious community, the women of the Collection demonstrate the rhetorical ability of asserting their own identity on their own terms by connecting their identity in relationship to their religion, making Latter-day Saint women notable contributions to expanding feminist methodologies to include women who assert their right to speak in relationship to their sphere of influence or persuasion. The oral histories chosen are as follows: 007, 026, 030, 043, 156, 157, 159, 164, 166, and 178. 


Of the ten oral histories examined, only two originate outside the United States: 156 is from Bolivia, but currently (as of the interview in 2016), lives in Georgia, USA, and 178 is from Mexico. Interviews 007, 026, 030, 043, 157, and 164 are from either California or Utah, while 159 and 164 are from Massachusetts and Georgia, respectively. Given that Claremont Graduate University is in California and Utah’s high Mormon population, the elevated percentage of interviews originating in these two states is not surprising, but may inadequately represent the global Mormon woman experience[6]. 

For interviewees from California, a few note that their family originated in Utah before moving west. 007 shares, “I was born in Los Angeles in 1935, shortly after my parents immigrated to California from Utah in 1933 to find work” (1). Similarly, 030 describes that “My father came to California when he was 18. My mother was from Ephraim, Utah, my father from Salt Lake. He worked for his cousins and then married my mom and brought her to California” (1). For these interviewees, the migration path of their parents from Utah to California was significant because many of the Mormon families that moved from Utah to California had strong ties to Mormon pioneer ancestors. This is the case for 007, 026, and 030. In detail, 030 describes her lineage to prominent Latter-day Saint leader Joseph F. Smith and a former Relief Society General President whose name is redacted in the transcript. Likewise, while 157 is of Japanese descent, she notes that her California uncle has Utah roots, calling him a “born and bred Utah man” (1). While the transcripts of the interviews are inconsistent as to what questions were asked during each interview, the sharing of filial connections to prominent Latter-day Saint figures and/or Utah indicates that these connections provide a level of authority to the interviewee’s Mormon identity. The connection to both prominent Latter-day Saint leaders and the move from Utah to another location signify that these women identify that coming from a strong Mormon heritage is important, and that by moving to a new place, they have brought their religious ancestry and heritage with them, thus granting them an authoritative ethos regarding their Mormon faith.  

Family Relationships 

Early childhood upbringings are a common thread throughout the oral histories. Half come from stable families with both parents in the home, as found with 007, 030, 043, 026, 166 and 178. Several histories suggest that their parents played an influential part in their understanding of how to be a Mormon, with 026 stating, “My childhood was great…My parents were very hands on in terms of our participation in church activities and being what we were supposed to be as Mormons” (1). For interviewees, whose immediate family suffered a parental loss, either through death or divorce, extended family fills the familial void created. 159 reflects that both her parents’ divorce and her own divorce were hard for her, but she later found support from her extended family, noting that “…my extended family on my dad’s side, [is] a cohesive family. I think that we have a lot of shared values and practices that hold us together…I feel really committed to the project of my extended family” (4). While family and ancestral relationships are integral to the Latter-day Saint faith from both a spiritual and secular perspective, the relating of those teachings come through parental and familial examples as well as Church leaders and community members[7]. Therefore, the relating of family connections and their influence in in these oral histories illustrates the strong link between the interviewee’s Mormon identity and their family heritage, a link that speaks directly to how and where Mormon women establish their right to speak within their faith.  


The oral histories explore the connection between education and traditional gender roles within the family. At least six of the histories state that their mother played a key part in their early education. 043 describes that, “My mother taught all of us [the interviewee and her 7 siblings] to read by the age of five…,” (2), while 007 offers two pages of transcript describing her mother’s work as a teacher and principal of a California school that transitioned from a segregated school to an integrated school. For the interviewees, their own success as a mother is measured against their children’s religious accomplishments. While 030 and 043 go into some detail about their children, 007 explains, “All of our children have chosen to be active members of the church and have all married active members and work very hard at being the best Mormons they can be” (12). 007’s sentiments indicate that Mormon women find success as a mother based upon their children’s accomplishments of becoming ‘the best Mormons they can be.’ Her sentiments relate to Latter-day Saint beliefs of traditional gender roles, where “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children” which indicate that Latter-day Saint women find access to power in the family unit by accomplishing their traditional family roles of educating their children in secular and spiritual matters (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1995).  

Most of the interviewees also noted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotion for women’s education. 156 describes that as a convert to the Church in Bolivia she was surprised to see her church friends attending school. She states, “I saw a lot of people in the church who were attending university. It was a culture totally different than the one I grew up with. The Mormon church had more of a culture of education” (4). While all the interviewees express positive support regarding their education, Oral Histories 026, 043, 030, and 159 feel the Church encourages education for women, but only as something women do until they get married and become mothers; as 164 describes, an education is “Plan B” for women of the Church (10). Interestingly, of the ten histories I examined, nine hold a bachelor’s degree, and eight hold advanced degrees, which indicates that these Mormon women both found support and sought access to power through higher education, despite feeling like the Church views women’s education as secondary to their future roles of wife and mother. The high education levels of these women, while remarkable, is a point of discrepancy for the Mormon woman experience. According to a 2016 Pew Research Poll states only 33% of all Latter-day Saint members have completed a college degree, and therefore, the over representation of well-educated women in the Collection creates an incomplete narrative of the Mormon woman experience, indicating the need for further oral history gathering from Mormon women with lower education levels (“Where do Mormons Rank…?”). 

Woman Identity  

Each interviewee presents parallel ideas about their woman identity within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The expanding presence of the woman voice in the work of the Latter-day Saint Church is a pressing identity issue for women in the Collection, one that dovetails with recent feminist and rhetoric scholarship on the recovery of women’s voices as found in Gaillet’s Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work (2019). Many of the women feel their identity ties directly to the Church’s assertions of traditional gender roles, a notion that also correlates with academic scholarship regarding women’s identity in traditional patriarchal communities, such as in Pompper’s Rhetoric of Femininity (2017) and Yadgar’s article Gender, Religion, and Feminism (2006). A common woman identity shared in the histories are that of the “good Mormon,” with several histories either using the term explicitly – 007, 030, and 043, – or implicitly – 026, and 164, – where the idea of a ‘good Mormon’ implies one who actively lives the Latter-day Saint faith and participates in all Latter-day Saint activities. The oral histories also demonstrate an evolving “good Mormon” woman persona one who embraces a more “liberal” stance regarding Latter-day Saint beliefs. History 157 tweaks the ‘good Mormon’ girl characteristic to embody Latter-day Saint women who are “insane” and “always tired” because “they do a hundred million things, but they know themselves to be powerful women” in their faith and do not need the help of men to exercise their beliefs (8).  

Several of the women also find themselves rethinking their faith and the role of women in the Church. They question doctrinal statements like The Family: A Proclamation to the World where gender is described as eternal, a concept that frustrates some of the women because it limits their access to ordination to the Priesthood (where currently only men serve) and expansion into the male-led leadership of the Church (“Oral History 026,” 6). For these Latter-day Saint women, they feel like their patriarchal-based religion inhibits the progression of their gender by withholding access to activities and leadership responsibilities reserved only for men, a sentiment that resulted in women, like 157 and 159, to leave their faith for a time. Not all the histories, however, feel slighted by the Church’s doctrinal positions regarding gender roles. As History 178 states, “It does not feel like women have a lesser part when it comes to church. We have different responsibilities and that’s okay” (4). As 178 describes, she feels a connection to her Mormon identity because she feels valued for the work she performs in her roles as a Mormon woman. Even though more than half of the histories express doctrinal objections, all the women examined feel a connection their religious community. Under the heading “Best and Hardest Part of Mormonism,” 159 shares that she thinks community is the best part of the faith, adding, “I think that because Mormonism is a pretty high-cost religion – you have to give a lot in order to be a member in good standing – the payoff is that you really feel like you are part of something…” (6). So, while some Latter-day Saint women struggle with their Mormon woman identity as it relates to the Church’s doctrinal gender roles, all the women maintain that belonging to the Mormon religious community positively impacts their woman identity.  

Another Mormon woman identity theme is the intersectionality of race and gender. As an Asian American, 159 describes herself as not knowing how to identify, stating, “I think race was an issue for me although I didn’t think about it very explicitly until later, but I think I always felt a little bit like I didn’t fit [in the Church]” (2). 164 expresses a similar disconnect within the Church due to her biracial heritage, saying, “As I moved through racial identity development, how I was able to conceptualize those experiences is that I was a novelty…” (2). For scholars, these sentiments reinforce the need for academic scholarship on women’s intersectional identities, as found in Carastathis’ book Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons (2016) and Marchal’s article Difficult Intersections and Messy Coalitions (But in a Good Way) (2014), as well as continued Latter-day Saint scholarship on the intersectionality between race, gender, and identity, and the Latter-day Saint woman[8].

Future Considerations 

The Mormon Women’s Oral Histories Collection provides a wealth of new materials to scholars in the fields of rhetoric, archival studies, and women’s studies that provide insight into the women of the Mormon tradition. Through further examination the Collection, scholars can find ample material to consider, such as:  

Consideration 1: Addressing Archival Methodology Inconsistencies 

For archivists, the Collection lends itself to analysis on how to initiate, organize, and share ground-up archives with the public, as well as provides research opportunities such as organizing a finding aid for the Collection or contributing to the Collection by conducting interviews to submit. Since the Collection lacks a finding aid and does not provide details regarding transcription practices, further work in these areas would help scholars navigate the material. 

Consideration 2: Other Entry Points into the Collection 

There are multiple entry points into the archive, including the following suggestions: 

Examine the works by another interviewer: 

    • Consider looking at different interviewers to assess the interviewers potential focus or bias as a researcher,  
    • Analyze different oral histories gathered by one interviewer to discover themes or patterns, or  
    • Put different interviewers into conversation with one another by comparing different themes, interviewer/interviewee focuses, or assess the evolution of the Collection as it has grown since its inception. 

Examine the histories by location of the interviewee:  

    • Mormon Women originate from various parts of the world, with many coming from diverse cultural traditions that have little connection to Mormon American history. Therefore, examining the oral histories from a specific location may indicate how women who do not originate from pioneer Mormon ancestry identify with the faith.  

Examine the histories by a random sampling: 

    • A random sampling of the Collection allows scholars to look at the broad scope of the archive. Examining the oral histories from various locations, interviewers, and ages can present a larger view of how Mormon women view their identity across several spectrums, potentially allowing scholars to identify gaps in the Mormon women’s narrative.

Examine the histories by language: 

    • Reading the transcription of an oral history in the native tongue of the interviewee provides insight into how non-English speaking Mormon women navigate their intersectional identity in a community whose origination roots are grounded in a white, American, English language tradition. 

Consideration 3: Examples of Intersectionality 

  • As the dominate Mormon faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown into a worldwide faith with members around the world. Today, there are more Latter-day Saint women of different races, classes, ethnicities, and disabilities for scholars to consider. As the Collection grows in representation of Mormon women from around the world, so will scholars’ opportunities to examine patterns of women’s intersectional identities in relationship to their faith. 

The voices of these Latter-day Saint women are critical to creating a more complete narrative for the women’s rhetoric archive as their voices contribute to the work of religious women who desire autonomy over their identity, yet express their position as a relationship to their traditional faith. While research and information gathering through oral histories about religious women is growing in scholarship, further gathering is needed – a work that requires scholars to “examine the less radical, more conservative women who shape cultural beliefs” if we are to avoid potentially creating a biased perspective in the narrative of (un/dis/re)covered voices (Hogg 392). Therefore, by continuing to examine religiously affiliated women in the context of women’s rhetoric, while actively identifying potential gaps or erasures found in the narratives generated, scholars can more fully answer the call to find the voice of women wherever and however they speak.  


[1] For further information on oral history gathering as a research practice see Kurkowska-Budzan and Zamorski Oral History: The Challenges of Dialogue; Charlton, Myers, and Sharpless Handbook of Oral History. 

[2] For a detailed description of the Mormon Tradition and its various denominations, see Davies’ Mormon Identities in Transition; Shields’ Divergent Paths of the RestorationWhen referencing members from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I have chosen to use the term “Latter-day Saint” in place of “Mormon” where applicable. See the Church’s Style Guide reference for further guidance on use of naming the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Style Guide – The Name of the Church:

[3] See Kirsch and Rohan’s Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process on creating an archive from oral history gathering; Ramsey, et al., Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, especially part four, on the benefits of oral history archives as research material; Wetzel’s article Layered Feminist Historiography: Composing Multivocal Stories through Material Annotation Practices on annotation practices in oral history compilations.

[4] Also see Ramsey, et. al, Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition for detailed essays regarding the role of positionality in archival work; Jones, et. al, Seeking Glimpses: Reflections on Doing Archival Work on how positionality influences scholarly archival work. 

[5]For further research on the role of Serendipity in Archival and Rhetoric research see Goggin and Goggin’s Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research; Bishop’s The Serendipity of Connectivity: Piecing Together Women’s lives in the Digital Archive.

[6]See World Population Review ( or the Facts and Statistics Page of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website for further details ( 

[7]See Doctrine and Covenants Sections 131 and 132, and The Family: A Proclamation to the World (1995) regarding Latter-day Saint beliefs on gender roles and family relationships

[8]Scholarship on Latter-day Saint history, cultural stances, and religious ideologies are emerging in the academic setting. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints houses a robust collection of primary sources in their Church History Library. From these materials, the Church has published multiple archival works, including The First Fifty-Years and At the Pulpit, both historical collections of Latter-day Saint women’s writings and public speaking. More recent scholarship on Latter-day Saint women includes Tiffany Kinney’s Legitimization of Mormon Feminist Rhetors. References to race relations in the Church are found in Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People, particularly chapters 7 and 8. 

Works Cited

Carastathis, Anna. Intersectionality: Origins, Contestations, Horizons. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

“Claremont Mormon Studies.” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library,, Accessed 4 March 2022.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1995.

Gaillet, Lynee Lewis, and Helen Gaillet Bailey. Remembering Women Differently: Refiguring Rhetorical Work. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

“Home.” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library,, Accessed 7 February 2022.

Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an “Ethics of Hope and Care.”” Rhetoric Review, 2015, vol. 34 no. 4, pp. 391-408. DOI: 10.1080/07350198.2015. 1073558

Kline, Caroline. “Re: Introductions.” Received by Tiffany Gray, 25 June 2021.

Lucas, Brad and Margaret M. Stain. “Keeping the Conversation Going: The Archive Thrives on Interviews and Oral History.” Writing in the Archives, Edited by Alexis Ramsey, et al., Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, Kindle Version Location 975-1138.

Marchal, Joseph A. “Difficult Intersections and Messy Coalitions (but in a Good Way).” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 30, no. 2, Fall 2014, pp. 158-61. EBSCOhost.,shib&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn3770748&site=eds-live&scope=site&custid=gsu1. Accessed 10 September 2022.

Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-108. JSTOR, Accessed 28 Oct 2020.

“Mormon Women Oral History Project: Our Story.” Mormon Women Oral History Project at Claremont Graduate University,, Accessed 1 March 2022.

Pompper, Donnalyn. Rhetoric of Femininity: Female Body Image, Media, and Gender Role Stress/Conflict. Lexington Books, 2017.

“Oral History 007.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2009, \. Accessed 4 February 2022.

“Oral History 026.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2010, Accessed 7 February 2022.

“Oral History 030.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2009, Accessed 8 February 2022.

“Oral History 043.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2010, Accessed 8 February 2022.

“Oral History 156.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2016, Accessed 20 February 2022.

“Oral History 157.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2017, Accessed 20 February 2022.

“Oral History 159.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2016, Accessed 24 February 2022.
“Oral History 164.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2015, Accessed 24 February 2022.

“Oral History 166.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2015, Accessed 1 March 2022.

“Oral History 178.” Interviewed by Caroline Kline, “Claremont Mormon Woman Oral Histories
Collection,” The Claremont Colleges Digital Library, 2015, Accessed 1 March 2022.

“Oral History: Defined.” Oral History Association, 2022, Accessed 22 April 2022.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Sister Saints: Mormon Women since the end of Polygamy. Book Review. BYU Studies, vol 58 no 1, 2018. Accessed 3 November 2022.

“Where do Mormons Rank on the List of Most Educated Religious Groups?” LDS Living, 2016, Accessed 1 March 2022.

Yadgar, Yaacov. “Gender, Religion, and Feminism: The Case of Jewish Israeli Traditionalists.”
Journal for Scientific Study of Religion, vol 45, no. 3, Sept. 2006, pp. 353-70.

Religious Limitations, Mislabeling, and Positions of Authority: A Rhetorical Case for Beth Moore

As the first woman to partner and publish with Lifeway Christian Resources, a Southern Baptist media production company [1], Beth Moore has become a cornerstone of women’s ministry. Garnering international success, Moore has authored nine books and over 20 Bible studies that have been translated in more than 20 languages. Additionally, both Living Proof Ministries’ (Moore’s official ministry trademark) annual “Living Proof Live” events and Moore’s Twitter account with one million plus followers have likewise reached audiences worldwide. This success across multiple mediums and platforms has built Moore’s authority as a mainstream religious figure. Most importantly, this success has come in spite of limitations to her right to teach in Biblical contexts.  

While her work has proven ubiquitous across many religious denominations, Moore remained a faithful member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—a denomination that does not acknowledge or endorse women in pastoral roles—for over 40 years. During this time Moore consistently rejected the title of “pastor,” in accordance with SBC policies that reserve ministerial and pastoral roles to men. Still, her position as a prominent evangelical figure gave her a particular authority to speak out in moments of necessity. Her departure from the SBC in March of 2021 is one such moment.  

Moore’s influence within the Christian sphere establishes her as a dynamic figure in religious rhetoric, in part, because of these limitations imposed on her religious authority. In this way Moore’s success presents an opportunity to recognize that the women’s fight for religious authority is not strictly an 18th and 19th century issue, which has been explored by scholars like Roxanne Mountford (The Gendered Pulpit). Rather, this issue of contesting women’s roles in the church is alive and active in one the largest and most prominent 21st century Christian denominations. In this way, scholars like Stephanie Martin, and T.J. Geiger have published articles featuring Beth Moore, specifically, and her role in raising the issue of sexual abuse, exploitation, and women’s rights to speak out within religious settings. Still, there are more contexts in which to understand Moore’s impact and influence within the evangelical sphere.   

Moore’s official Twitter account is the gateway into bringing feminist scholarship of 18th and 19th century religious women into our current moment. Thus, this essay invites an interdisciplinary audience of feminist scholars to consider Moore’s role as a rhetor and living pioneer of women’s ministry to further expose the ongoing challenges of evangelical women who at once adhere to and challenge limitations to their authority to speak out against abuse within religious settings by looking at key posts from Moore’s Twitter account. Ultimately, this essay argues that Moore’s marriage to and divorce from the SBC provides a new critical lens by which we should explore this role.   

The Authority to Speak: Beth Moore’s Place in Feminist Scholarship  

Throughout her near thirty-year career, Moore has been a leading contemporary representation of the trajectory by which evangelical women pursue the Christian life. Still, her history with the SBC is complicated. Moore worked to develop and lead the rise of women’s Bible studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s to date. Speaking candidly, in early 2020 during an episode of Ainsley’s Bible Study on Fox and Friends about her own experience, Moore stated simply that she “fell victim to a childhood sexual abuse within [her] own home” (“Beth Moore Says”). So, Moore’s opposition to Donald Trump as the SBC’s choice conservative presidential candidate because of his disrespect toward women sparked her proactivity against sexual abuse. For Moore, the leaked audio of Trump’s “locker room talk” [2] should have been grounds to disqualify him from holding office. In a 2016 Twitter thread, part of which is seen in Figure 1 below, Moore summed up her distress by ending quite simply, “We’re tired of it.” (@BethMooreLPM 2016).  


Beth Moore Tweet from October 9, 2016 Twitter thread in response to evangelical support of Donald Trump following leaked audio of his “locker room talk.” Text: “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”

Figure 1: Beth Moore Tweet from October 9, 2016 Twitter thread in response to evangelical support of Donald Trump following leaked audio of his “locker room talk.” Text: “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”

This Twitter thread was not intended as an endorsement for any opposing candidate during that election. Rather, the rhetorical action here is what Stephanie Martin in “Resisting a Rhetoric of Active Passivism” defines as an enactment of evangelical citizenship that promotes women to at once “believe in Jesus and also agitate as agents of change against patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, and a long-entrenched evangelical posture that encouraged—even praised— female silence” (321). Indeed, the predominant issue surrounding Moore’s opposition to Trump was whether or not she had the authority to speak at all.   

Throughout a series of Tweets and blog posts over the next few years, Moore continued to go up against the “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women” that she felt was manifesting through the SBC’s support of Trump (Moore “A Letter”). In February of 2019, an “Abuse of Faith” report released by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonia Express news detailed an investigation into sexual abuse and misconduct among SBC pastors, leaders, and prominent members. “2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off,  “don’t tell me more”) or tantalized (moves in, “oh tell me more”),” Moore wrote in a responding Tweet on February 10, 2019 (@BethMooreLPM). As T.J. Geiger in “Forgiveness is More than Platitudes […],” Moore’s point was to “urge [the SBC] to move away from platitude-based forgiveness” if the SBC as a whole would ever uphold their own standards of tradition and doctrine (166). For Moore, this tradition and doctrine is null and void when women of the SBC are marginalized.  

Figure 2: Moore’s Tweet from February 10, 2019, which is her response to the Abuse of Faith report from the Houston Chronicle. The article is linked in her Tweet. Text: “It’s monstrously common for victims to be abused again by one they thought safe to tell. 2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off, ‘don’t tell me more’) or tantalized (moves in, ‘oh tell me more’). Both heap shame upon shame.” 

Figure 2: Moore’s Tweet from February 10, 2019, which is her response to the Abuse of Faith report from the Houston Chronicle. The article is linked in her Tweet. Text: “It’s monstrously common for victims to be abused again by one they thought safe to tell. 2nd wave abuse occurs when those told are either scandalized (backs off, ‘don’t tell me more’) or tantalized (moves in, ‘oh tell me more’). Both heap shame upon shame.”


Important to note here is that though she has consistently rejected the title of preacher, Moore’s critics, particularly those within the SBC, label her as such any time she speaks publicly. The intention behind this mislabeling, and Moore’s understanding of it becomes an interesting point for further study. One example, Figure 3 below, is a Tweet from 2019, which Moore posted in response to fellow Christian author Vicki Courtney. Courtney tells Moore that she would be preaching for Mother’s Day, to which Moore responds that she was “doing Mother’s Day too” but that they shouldn’t “tell anyone this” (@BethMooreLPM May 2019). That both women play on the idea that these preaching engagements should be kept secret illustrate the aspect of rhetorical silencing that the aforementioned mislabeling embodies.  

Figure 3: Christian author Vicki Courtney responds to a Moore Tweet by acknowledging she will be preaching three service at her Southern Baptist (SB) church. It is clear that both women play on the idea that their preaching engagements should be kept secret. Text: Vicki Courtney: “Your PS made my day. (crying-laughing emoji) Yours truly is PREACHING 3 services at a SB church on Mother’s Day. (raising hands emoji) But, shhhhhh. (shushing face emoji) (winking face emoji).” Beth Moore: “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.” 

Figure 3: Christian author Vicki Courtney responds to a Moore Tweet by acknowledging she will be preaching three service at her Southern Baptist (SB) church. It is clear that both women play on the idea that their preaching engagements should be kept secret. Text: Vicki Courtney: “Your PS made my day. (crying-laughing emoji) Yours truly is PREACHING 3 services at a SB church on Mother’s Day. (raising hands emoji) But, shhhhhh. (shushing face emoji) (winking face emoji).” Beth Moore: “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.”


Citing the marginalization of its women as one a key factor, Moore announced her separation from the SBC in April of 2021. This decision to leave the SBC is a rhetorical act that demonstrates Moore’s understanding and utilization of her own authority to speak, or what Martin terms as “renegotiating [her] citizenship” within the confinements of necessity (317). Again, what becomes most interesting when we argue for Moore’s importance as a feminist figure to study is that her career has been built on an ideal of renegotiation.   

Becoming Beth Moore: Teaching, Writing, and the Rhetoric of a Ministry  

As mentioned, Moore capitalized on the available means of reaching her intended audience through teaching women’s aerobics classes and speaking at women’s luncheons. She self-published her first book Things Pondered in 1993 and went on to become the first woman to publish a Bible study for Lifeway Christian Resources. Though this near thirty-year partnership ended after Moore’s separation from the SBC in 2021, her work still lines the shelves in every Lifeway store, alongside the work of other prominent Christian women like Priscilla Shirer, Lysa TerKeurst, and Jennie Allen.   

To illustrate her messages Moore pulls in examples of her own unique life experiences, which includes building a career while attending to motherhood, homemaking, and keeping up appearances. In this way, women from multiple denominations can easily situate themselves within the context of what she is teaching. Today, as Kate Bowler explains in The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, “with over 11 million of her products sold, Beth’s name has become synonymous with women’s Bible studies” (23).   

In 1994 Moore founded Living Proof Ministries (LPM), an organization “dedicated to [encouraging] people to come to know and love Jesus Christ through the study of Scripture” (“About Beth”). Through LPM, Moore has headlined and hosted Living Proof Live events that have reached 22 million women worldwide. In 2008, the first simulcast of one of these events reached “70,000 people meeting in 715 places” at once (Baptist Press). “Moore’s success,” Emma Green wrote in a 2018 article for The Atlantic, “was possible because she spent her career carefully mapping the boundaries of acceptability for female evangelical leaders.” These boundaries have kept Moore within the ideals of the faith that ultimately helped her to create her own authority as an evangelical woman who has been called to reach other women through Biblical study. These boundaries, likewise, accommodate her various rhetorical activities and the ways in which she both understands, pursues, and renegotiates her religious position and authority.

Confronting the Limitations of Beth Moore  

I’m not looking to take a man’s place…  

I’m just looking for my place.  

–Beth Moore, Living Proof Live, Norfolk, VA. 2016  

From humble beginnings as a Biblical aerobics choreographer to amassing various speaking invitations, Moore rose to fame by following her calling: teaching scripture to women. Understanding her own authority in this way exposes the positionality of both her subject matter as well as her citizenship within the evangelical community. Sensitivity to the moment manifests in Moore’s proactivity against the silencing of women in religious contexts. We know that Moore’s rejection of the SBC’s embracing of Donald Trump stemmed from personal experiences of sexual abuse. She saw this embracing combined with other rising allegations in 2016 of sexual abuse with the SBC as a “tolerance for leaders who treated women with disrespect” (“Bible Teacher Beth Moore”). In other words, the marginalization of SBC women was simply not important to leaders on the grand scale. As T.J. Geiger in “Forsaking Proverbs of Ashes” points out, Moore “mobilized a costly rhetorical grace that encouraged spiritually grounded shifts in perception” (324). Summarized succinctly, Geiger clarifies that the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” lies within the application of accountability (“Forsaking” 320). While opposition to Moore’s authority to teach and ultimately speak out from leaders in the SBC operates under a concern of modifying tradition and doctrine, this idea of rhetorical grace allows us to apply a more critical lens.   

On May 22, 2022, a year after Moore announced her separation, “a previously secret list of hundreds of pastors and other church-affiliated personnel accused of sexual abuse” within the SBC was released to the public (The Associated Press). Moore quickly responded. A Twitter thread (Figure 4) from May 23, 2022, shows her frustration. The last Tweet in this thread sums up her main speaking points: “It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with [SBC women]” (@BethMooreLPM May 2022).  

Figure 4: Moore’s Twitter thread the day after news broke of the investigative report concerning the list of SBC pastors and leaders accused of sexual misconduct and abuse. Text: (first tweet) “If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived. You are part of the deception. If you can go on” (second tweet) “your merry way in your SBC organization and carry on like nothing happened and like none of this convention rot concerns you, it will not have been “they” who decayed a denomination. It will have been you. With this I will do my best to close my mouth in regard to the SBC:” (third tweet) “If you can dismiss or explain away this investigative report or do the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, still denying that your men’s club mentality was in any way complicit, my head covering’s off to you. Lottie Moon’s tiny little body is rolling over in her grave.” (fourth tweet) “I loved you. You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.” [Editor’s Note: Lottie Moon was a prominent Southern Baptist missionary who is remembered in the Southern Baptist Convention; each year congregations collect a Lottie Moon Offering to benefit missionary work.] 

Figure 4: Moore’s Twitter thread the day after news broke of the investigative report concerning the list of SBC pastors and leaders accused of sexual misconduct and abuse. Text: (first tweet) “If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived. You are part of the deception. If you can go on” (second tweet) “your merry way in your SBC organization and carry on like nothing happened and like none of this convention rot concerns you, it will not have been “they” who decayed a denomination. It will have been you. With this I will do my best to close my mouth in regard to the SBC:” (third tweet) “If you can dismiss or explain away this investigative report or do the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, still denying that your men’s club mentality was in any way complicit, my head covering’s off to you. Lottie Moon’s tiny little body is rolling over in her grave.” (fourth tweet) “I loved you. You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.” [Editor’s Note: Lottie Moon was a prominent Southern Baptist missionary who is remembered in the Southern Baptist Convention; each year congregations collect a Lottie Moon Offering to benefit missionary work.]

Moore as an Inspiration for the Future of Religious Feminist Study  

It is interesting to consider the ways Moore’s complicated membership in the SBC provides a certain platform on which she establishes her religious authority, particularly as she enacts this authority through her Twitter account. Here, we move beyond the limitations of evangelical women to focus on how those limitations have been used as rhetorical tools in the fight against the sexualization and marginalization of women in religious settings. That is to say that particular aspects of one’s identity remain the same regardless of the circumstances. This is especially evident as we consider an identity that is based on religious faith. It is this religious faith that allows the individual to determine appropriate authority which ultimately depends on a willingness to analyze both the self and the situation. Again, Martin’s idea of renegotiation and Geiger’s point of rhetorical grace become key. Still, we are left wondering where exactly Moore fits not only in terms of her authority to speak but also in her right to be heard.  

Regarding the previous point, Charlotte Hogg offers some valuable insight. In “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope of Care,’” Hogg utilizes the framework of Royster and Kirsch’s “ethics of hope and care” to situate two “parameters that feminist scholars are comfortable with: radical and sophisticated” (392). Explicit and direct challenges to patriarchal and antifeminist systems usually constitute what defines a feminist. Traditionally, and presumptively, these parameters have been attached only to women who have challenged oppression in ways that place them comfortably within particular standards of feminism. Hogg clarifies in the article “What’s (Not) in a Name”: “As the sense of audience shifts for each rhetorical situation, tracing a discernable trend with regard to our nomenclature proves somewhat elusive, though faint patterns do appear” (194). Trends in this way refer to basic understandings; or, to relate back to the first Hogg’s reference, the two parameters most comfortable for feminist scholarship.  

Moore’s departure from the SBC is evidence that adherence to particular Biblical traditions and customs do not exclude today’s conservative evangelical women from dynamic conversations in feminist rhetorics. Perhaps, then, Moore serves as a catalyst for elevating research on 21st century women who achieve mega influence in spite of imposed limitations to their religious authority by the denominations with which they identify; such influence that separating their name from that particular denomination becomes mainstream news. Following the work of Geiger, Hogg, and Martin, we can seek to expand our focus to acknowledge and amplify Beth Moore’s separation from the SBC as a key rhetorical act in the fight against the abuse and marginalization of 21st century religious women. Some questions to ponder, then, are: In what ways did the SBC’s mislabeling of Beth Moore’s role serve to establish her religious authority? With an eye on Moore’s use of Twitter, to what extent does this mislabeling help us to understand Geiger’s idea of rhetorical grace and Martin’s point of renegotiation? Lastly, how does the specific case of Moore’s departure from the SBC help us to better understand mislabeling and limitations to authority? 

Works Cited  

@BethMooreLPM.  “I am one of many…” Twitter, 9 October 2016.  

@BethMooreLPM. “It’s monstrously common for victims…” Twitter, 10 February 2019.  

@BethMooreLPM. “I’m doing Mother’s Day too! Vicki, let’s please don’t tell anyone this.” Twitter, 27 April 2019.  

@BethMooreLPM. “I loved you…” Twitter, 23 May 2022.  

About Lifeway, 2023,   

“About Beth.” Living Proof Ministries, 2021,  

“Abuse of Faith.” Houston Chronicle,   

“Beth Moore Simulcast Reaches 70,000 -.” Baptist Press, 

“Beth Moore Says Memorizing Scripture Helped Her to Heal from Sexual Abuse.” Christianity Today, March 2, 2020. 

Bowler, Kate. The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Princeton University Press, 2019.  

“Events.” Living Proof Ministries, 2022,  

Fahrenthold, David A. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women in 2005.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Oct. 2016,   

Geiger, T.J. “Forsaking Proverbs of Ashes: Evangelical Women, Donald Trump, and Rhetorical Grace.” Peitho, vol. 20.2, 2018, pp. 315-337.  

Geiger, T.J. “Forgiveness is More than Platitudes: Evangelical Women, Sexual Violence, and Casuistic Tightening.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 2019, pp. 163-184.  

Green, E. (2021, May 17). “The Tiny Blond Bible Teacher Taking on the Evangelical Political Machine.” The Atlantic. 

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

Hogg, Charlotte. “What’s (Not) in a Name: Considerations and Consequences of the Field’s Nomenclature.” Peitho, vol. 19, no. 2, 2017. 

Martin, Stephanie A. “Resisting a Rhetoric of Active Passivism: How Evangelical Women Have Enacted New Modes and Meanings of Citizenship in Response to the Election of Donald Trump.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 106, no 3, 2020, pp. 316-324.  

Moore, Beth. “A Letter to My Brothers.” Living Proof Ministries Blog, 31 May 2018, 

Moore, Beth. Living Proof Live. Norfolk, Virginia. 29 April 2016.  

Smietana, Bob.  “Accusing SBC of ‘Caving,’ John MacArthur Says of Beth Moore: ‘Go Home’.” Religion News Service. 19 Oct. 2019.   

Smietana, Bob. “Bible Teacher Beth Moore, Splitting with Lifeway, Says, ‘I Am No Longer a Southern Baptist’.” Religion News Service. 9 March 2021.  

“Southern Baptist Leaders Release a Previously Secret List of Accused Sexual Abusers.” NPR, NPR, 27 May 2022, 


[1] Lifeway Christian Resources was started in 1891 by Dr. James M. Frost after gaining approval and recognition from the Southern Baptist Convention. Lifeway remains “an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.” (About Lifeway)  

[2]An audio recording of Trump making lewd and sexualized comments about women leaked in 2016 during his run for president. Trump denounced the recording, calling the comments simply “locker room talk.” (Fahrenthold 2016)

Selvedge Rhetorics and Material Memory

Donna Haraway and Sharon Traweek teach us that when we tell stories these are performative…there is no important difference between stories and materials. Or, to put it a little differently: stories, effective stories, perform themselves into the material world—yes, in the form of social relations, but also in the form of machines, architectural arrangements, bodies, and all the rest.” – John Law, “On the Subject of the Object” 


Peitho readers who work with fabric materials are likely aware of the “selvedge,” the final edge of a bolt of fabric that is both warp and weft that keeps it from fraying. Selvedges, coming from “self-edge,” represent a moment in material making in fabric production that is finite and finished. It is true that most often selvedges are thrown away, the edge of a bolt of fabric that is not like the rest. It provides information like manufacturers’ names, dye runs from light to dark known as color registrations (or more colloquially “traffic lights,” as that is what they resemble), or particular pattern numbers or designers’ names. Yet each of these, I argue here, also functions accretively as a textual addition to the fabric itself. These throwaway pieces have been used contemporarily by fabric workers of all sorts as a way to repurpose and make use of scraps and often take contemporary forms as rag rugs, quilts, handbags, pillows, placemats. Rather than focus on selvedge repurposing, however, instead I focus on the ways that selvedges can reveal a particular life to the material that allows materials themselves to point a researcher towards interesting questions, histories, connections, and recoveries.  Selvedges, as material-rhetorical practices, advance our ability to affectively think-with objects as a way to engage with material feminism in service of social justice work. 

Material Practices and Accretive Methods: Theoretical Framing 

The notion that the material is central to the life of feminist recovery work is not new. Indeed, to “read” fabric as I do in this short piece brings together insights put forward by feminist scholars, rhetorical scholars, new material and posthuman scholars, decolonial scholars, and scholars doing work at the forefront of crafting and maker communities. In her Key Concept Statement, “Material,” published in Peitho in 2015, Elizabeth Fleitz details the centrality of material practices, bodies, material conditions, objects, and spaces to women’s rhetorics. Since Flietz’ statement was published, an abundance of work has pointed attention to this emergent commonplace. This is evidenced by scholarship that has examined material-rhetorical rendering of the vibrant networks that surround both objects and identity politics.  

Such examples of this scholarship abound: Sarah Hallenbeck’s  work on bicycles as “active creators and shapers of new arguments” surrounding women’s bodies in the nineteenth century (198); Minahan and Cox’s examination of cyberfeminist roots of the “reclaiming of feminine craft” through Stitch’nBitch clubs (Minahan and Cox 10); and Kirtz’s reconsideration of collaborative fiber arts movements that examine textiles as data storage are all models of the intertwining between feminism and the material. Working with textiles in particular offers up a re-materialization of making, considering that contemporary mass industrial sewing practices dematerialize those who labor to create them—primarily women and girls working in the textile industry (see in particular Propen; Cloud). To that end, it is my aim to join not only in ongoing conversations around fabric and textile-oriented scholarship that engages making (see, for example, Shivers-McNair), quilting (see Arellano), and feminist material objects (see Goggin, Sohan), but also to join scholars like Iris Ruiz and Sonia Arellano in participating in productive calls to engage with tactile and haptic rhetorics to contribute to alternate ways of knowing that might better “facilitate knowledge production in positive ways for marginalized people” (151).  As they assert, and as Arellano extends with her conception of feminist-materialist Quilting as Method (QAM), quilting in particular materially joins intellectual and creative labor, resulting in different kinds of knowledge production (Ruiz and Arellano 158). Peripheral materials such as selvedges, literally marginal to quilting, can contribute in small but significant ways to thinking about feminist material-rhetorical practices and the histories they invoke. I aim to showcase here how one example of textile making can engage in processes of reclamation—not of the histories of migrant laborers, as Ruiz and Arellano do—but of women and girls who disappear in recounting traditional history of the textile industry in contemporary documents, such as those that appear on websites and in marketing materials. 

This turn to craft as revealing important intersections between material, agency, power, and ethics is captured by Leigh Gruwell’s Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialism, in which she turns to craftivism in particular to demonstrate the relationships between material, women, and political life. Craft, she argues—and more specifically, the agency that craft exerts on makers, technologies, artifacts, and relationships—serves to “illuminate the interdependence of materiality, power, and rhetorical action” (6). Thus, to engage seriously with scholars working in areas of both decolonial and new material theory, revisiting our methods and widening our approach to materials can be a careful extension of this line of thinking. 

I have argued elsewhere that examining an artifact not just as part of a system of things or a mediator of knowledge allows for “tactics for invention which emphasize networks over discrete discursive elements” (Clary-Lemon, “Museums”). Such a framework allows for an examination of the depth of textual circulation and emergent contexts, both present and past. I have also argued that materials themselves—like finding aids in archives—play a major agentive part in shaping our research questions and methods (Clary-Lemon, “Archival”). In other words, to borrow from Law’s epigraph, I’ve found it central in these cases to examine how stories perform themselves into the material world. In both cases I have found Vicki Tolar Burton’s notion of rhetorical accretion, adapted into a research method, particularly useful.  

Burton defines rhetorical accretion as “the process of layering additional texts over and around the original text” (547). Much as an oyster builds up accreted layers of nacre over an irritant to create a pearl, or the way layers of light gather around a black hole to create a luminous disk, allowing us to infer its existence, examining discursive-material artifacts like fabric selvedges in this way give us both a starting place and a methodological grounding to our analyses. We might read accreted layers around an object, like a fabric selvedge, that are myriad:  material (in the makeup of cotton, dye, and shuttle loom machinery), tactile (in the making and touching of a fabric project), affective (in our feelings as we engage in making or engage in research recovery), discursive (in the layers of new text, meaning, or context we discover), cultural and historical (in situating materials in a particular place and time), and social and embodied (in recognition of the relationships which make up the making and examination of the project). A scholar performing a material analysis might take any one of these layers as a way in to feminist recovery work. In the remainder of this piece, I forward an accretive analysis of one  particular selvedge in a single quilt square. 

Affective and Embodied Domains: Selvedge Meaning-Making 

To situate this discussion, I turn to the social, embodied, tactile, and affective domains of a selvedge project, and later turn to its historical and cultural traces. It begins with a 12-selvedge quilted square that was pieced and sewn by my mother, Ramona Mattix (see Figure 1). The amalgamated quilt square is made of twelve individual selvedges. While this short article examines only one selvedge in the square, it should be noted that there are countless ways that a researcher might examine such an artifact: 

Figure 1: 7×7 Quilted Selvedge Square Made from 12 Fabric Selvedges. Image description: a square of fabric selvedge strips. The strips are neutral colors (white, tan, beige, black) on top, with a colorful print strip toward the middle containing a line of 14 hearts, each in a color from the print, and more neutral selvedge strips in the bottom half in animal print. The lines of text on the selvedges read (from top to bottom) “Edwards of NORTHCOTT,” “Timeless Treasures ® For Hi-Fashion Fabric,” “© All Rights Reserved PATT # WILD-C 2047,” and “Cranston Print Works Co. Printed in the U.S.A. www.cranstonvillage.” The rest of the URL is cut in order to fit the square

As I looked closely at each selvedge and used these pieces as an impetus for research, additional layers of rhetorical meaning emerged: company names and websites (“”); copyrights and registered trademarks (©, ®); pattern numbers (“PATT # WILD-C 2047”); designers’ names (Judy & Judel Niemeyer”); and color registrations showing the numerical order in which the dye was applied to the fabric (“traffic lights” and rainbow hearts). While it is true that any number of these discursive details might be found, for example, in print documents—online advertisements, sewing or pattern booklets—my point here is to focus attention on the material itself. These are our finding tools of fabric archives, and a testament to material-discursive arguments.  

Any number of these clues might be taken up to “read” fabric in particular ways to understand the textual amalgamation and accreted rhetorical layers that make up this one, re-pieced square, yet it’s also important to note the research value of affectual proximity—what Solberg defines as “the intellectual and emotional investments and orientations that drive a researcher’s choice of topic” (67)—or what Sara Ahmed more eloquently describes in her article “Happy Objects,” as how we are “touched by what we are near” (30). Fabric—and those who work with it, bring it close, create with it and give it as gifts of love and labor—constructs a particular affectual proximity. I am close to this 7×7 inch square of fabric because I am close to my mother, and those proximities have relationally and affectively shaped my choice of research design. It affects why I sit writing this piece today, why I’m connecting it citationally to others the way that I am, and exerts a kind of “craft agency” (Gruwell 7) on me that both points me toward its most discursive bits, and allows for historical analysis to come.  As a rhetorician, I am drawn to the most discursive selvedge in the square, the bottom strip which reads “Cranston Print Works Co.,” which points me to a textile manufacturer located in Cranston, Rhode Island, and to a particular small piece of recovery work, which the next few pages reveal. 

Historical and Cultural Traces: Fabric as Archive 

Scholars doing work in the area of women’s labor history and early industrialization, particularly in New England, will be somewhat familiar with the role that the “Lowell Mills” of Massachusetts played in the American Industrial revolution. It gave rise to the “mill girls,” rural women who would move to cities to work in textile mills but had to spend most of their income on boardinghouse fees. These histories gave rise to some of the first female workers’ unions in the United States in the late 1840s. However, before the Waltham-Lowell power loom methods were adopted in Massachusetts, placing the entire process of textile manufacturing under one roof, there was an industrial precursor. That precursor existed in Rhode Island with the emigration of Samuel Slater from England in 1789. Slater, known as “Slater the traitor” in the UK for developing new spinning and carding techniques stolen from Richard Arkwright in England, owned many small mills (known later as “Slater Mills”) all over Rhode Island, one of which, the Old Green Mill, later became the Cranston Print Works Company (“Our History”). 

We collectively know that textile manufacturing has long been a feminized workplace of questionable safety.  The Rhode Island Slater mills, like the Cranston Print Works Company, show us a similarly problematic historic backbone to our love for warp and weft. Gail Fowler Mohanty notes that “the introduction of spinning, roving, and carding mechanisms in the late 18th century served as a catalyst for changes in workshop management” (5) and used spinning frames, namely the Arkwright model that Slater imported, with which to do so. The Rhode Island mills often relied on “hand-spun cotton, woolen, or linen warp” (6), and thus different parts of the carding, spinning, and weaving processes would take place in different locations, unlike large-scale manufacturing offered by the power loom. These two models manifested a long-seated rivalry between the Rhode Island and Massachusetts systems: the industrial water-powered mills in Massachusetts which had the capacity to run the power looms by women under one roof, and the smaller, dispersed cottage system of the Rhode Island mills. Thus in order to employ factory labor to run the various new machines in the Rhode Island system, Slater’s brainchild was to employ child labor, particularly children living in poverty between the ages of 7 and 12 working 12-16 hours a day, six days a week with a forced “Sunday School” on the 7th day (Tucker 22).  

The Slater Mills, and in particular the Cranston Print Works’ historical evolution from them, draws our attention from the common narrative of women working in large textile factories and instead toward rural poor children given room and board in lieu of wages and forced to attend religious school. Although histories of the industrial revolution suggest farm children were raised on hard work (see Simonds, Stearns), they were not in any way raised for exploitation. Like other histories of trauma and abuse that become paved over and sanitized in favor of master narrative of progress—Slater has been called the “father of the Industrial Revolution”— histories of capitalism and industrialization tend to tout the revolutionary nature of the power loom in manufacturing without actually touching a story of sending a seven-year-old child to work, often through the night, operating dangerous machinery. 

Of course, this system became untenable as families complained about the lack of wages and the treatment of their children, which included whipping and other corporeal punishment. Thus, Slater turned to what is now deemed the “family system” of labor, a deeply patriarchal system dependent on the notion of a male householder who “owns” familial women and children. Under the village, or “Rhode Island System,” a rather sanguine “Early Industrialization in the Northeast” open-access U.S. History text has this to say: 

…families were hired. The father was placed in charge of the family unit, and he directed the labor of his wife and children. Instead of being paid in cash, [often] the father was given “credit” equal to the extent of his family’s labor that could be redeemed in the form of rent (of company-owned housing) or goods from the company-owned store.  

Such compensation in the family system is represented by Figure 2, taken from Edith Abbot’s “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America,” which she culled from an 1815 manufacturing memorandum book from Poignaud and Plant Papers. 

Figure 2: Compensation from the Family System (Abbot 28) Image description: a written table of salaries for each member of a family. One section of the table is a list of salaries of a man and his children. The family members’ names, ages, and relations are written on the left side of each line, and a series of dots separates the person from the salary amount. The top section reads: Himself $5.00, His son Robert Rier, 10 years of age 0.83, Daughter Mary, 12 years of age 1.25, Son William, 13 years of age 1.50, Son Michael, 16 years of age 2.00. Underneath Michael’s salary is a line and the total for the family, 10.58. The bottom section reads: His sister, Abigail Smith 2.33, Her daughter Sally, 8 years of age 0.75, Son Samuel, 13 years of age 1.50. Underneath Samuel’s salary is a line and the total for Abigail and her children: 4.58.

While men were valued the most highly, they did not work alongside their children, but rather, negotiated terms of their employment and collected their wages (Tucker 22). In supplanting manufacturers’ discipline for fathers’ and husbands’, as Tucker notes, the Slater system “sought to strengthen patriarchy, not challenge it” (22). In 1817, ten years after what is now the Cranston Print Works Company opened, the Niles Register (a weekly national magazine of some import) noted that “the work of manufacture[r]s does not demand able-bodied men…but ‘is now better done by little girls from six to twelve years old’ (qtd. In Abbott 24). Because of the Slater village system, Rhode Island led the nation in child labor throughout the 19th century.i It should be noted, too, that before child labor laws were introduced, these children were whipped and slapped for failure to perform or for falling asleep in their 12-14 hour workday (which was often followed by household chores and evening school), often worked without access to bathrooms, and were not allowed to sit down while working (Tucker 23; Abbott 33). [1] 

Layers of Fabric, Layers of Meaning: A Conclusion 

So what impact does such a discursive-material rhetorical reading have on feminist rhetorical work? In part, it is central to recover the difficult histories of labor and who is affected by those untold stories that rest in materials in order to work against simple narratives of progress. The Cranston Print Works Company has a history, as all industrial textile mills do, that is obscured today. Its current company website lauds Slater’s life and work, highlighting words like “expansion” and “innovation;” yet a different story is made available by a particular kind of affective proximity to the material and an accretive research process. It also helps us recover specific directions for reconsideration of women’s histories and marginalized communities that add to our already existing rhetorical histories of labor mills and women’s work (see Propen; Cloud). Although many are familiar with contemporary and historical connections between the poor conditions of textile work and the living conditions of women (at least in the late 18th century and early 19th century) women had far more comparative agency than those who remain the most invisible and vulnerable in the histories of textile work: children, particularly those living in poverty, or, by the 1840s, immigrant children. What working with textiles and materials in the form of selvedges may allow us is a tactile entryway into a history of an industrial colonization of families and an extension and solidification of a dominating patriarchal system that preyed on the defenseless: children raised to be both obedient and deferent to those they trusted.  

My point is not to suggest that an examination of every selvedge, or every scrap, or every craft might necessarily lead to such recovery work. Still, the possibility of material agency’s exertion on rhetorical work—even in the smallest of artifacts—is nonetheless one worth reconsidering.  When we research such traces, such object-stories, we are brought closer to suffering, to outrage, to deep sadness. As Ahmed suggests, we are “moved by things” (33). What material-rhetorical research allows is an account of such movement; an account of how we might generate a small window into connecting present and past in the spirit of feminist recovery and reconsideration. In urges us to consider differently the layering together of subject and object, to ask complex questions of our research processes. For example, how might we use contemporary or historic selvedge fabrics as starting points to trace not only the histories of child labor in a patriarchal system, but the emergence and decline of textile manufacture as they responded to women’s rising power in production? How might we imagine selvedge and other fabric research as part of what might bring us closer to other recovered histories: of cotton dust into lungs, the affects of chemical carcinogens in dyes, of bodies maimed by roving frames? How might we use material to pay closer attention to bodies, material conditions, spaces, and women’s rhetorics? And how might this kind of research help us understand that there is no important difference between stories and materials? It is central to recover in these fabric archives the bodies who have labored to produce them. 

End Note 

[1]An 1831 Friends of Industry report chronicled that of 4,691 children working in cotton factories in New England, 3,472 of them were from Rhode Island (Abbott 30).  

Works Cited 

Abbott, Edith. “A Study of the Early History of Child Labor in America. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 15-37. 

Ahmed, Sarah. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and  

Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 29-51. 

Arellano, Sonia. “Quilting as a Qualitative, Feminist Research Method: Expanding Understandings of Migrant Deaths.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 41, no. 1, 2022, pp. 17-30. 

Burton (Collins), Vicki Tolar. “The Speaker Respoken: Material Rhetoric as Feminist Methodology.” College English, vol.  61, no. 5, 1999, pp. 545-73. 

Clary-Lemon, Jennifer. “Museums as Material: Experiential Landscapes and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.” Enculturation, vol. 20, December 2015,  

—. “Archival Research Processes: A Case for Material Methods.” Rhetoric Review vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 381-402. 

Cloud, Dana L. “The Null Persona: Race and the Rhetoric of Silence in the Uprising of ’34.”  Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 2, no. 2, 1999, pp. 177-209. 

“Early Industrialization in the Northeast.” U.S History, OpenStax College. OSCRice University,  7 May 2014.  

Fleitz, Elizabeth. “Material” Key Concept Statement. Peitho, vol. 18, no. 1, 2015, pp. 34-8, 

Goggin, Maureen Daly. “Visual Rhetoric in Pens of Steel and Inks of Silk: Challenging the Great Visual/Verbal divide.” Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004, pp. 87-110. 

Gruwell, Leigh. Making Matters: Craft, Ethics, and New Materialist Rhetorics. Utah State UP, 2022.

Hallenback, Sarah. “Objects, Material Commonplaces, and the Invention of the ‘New Woman.’”  Rhetoric, through Everyday Things, edited by Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle, U of Alabama P, 2016, pp. 197-211. 

Kirtz, Jaime Lee. “Textiles and Technology: Needlework as Data Storage and Feminist Process.”  Feminist Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman and Lisa Rhody, U of Illinois P, 2022, in press. 

Law, John. “On the Subject of the Object: Narrative, Technology, and Interpellation.”  Configurations, vol. 8, no. 1, 2000, pp. 1-29. 

Minahan, Stella, and Julie Wolfram Cox. “Stitch’nBitch: Cyberfeminism, a Third Place and the New Materiality.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 5-21. 

Mohanty, Gail Fowler. “Experimentation in Textile Technology, 1788-1790, and its Impact on  Handloom Weaving and Weavers in Rhode Island.” Technology and Culture, vol. 29, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1-31. 

“Our History.” Cranston Print Works Company. 2019.  

Propen, Amy D. “‘I Have Sometimes Seen the White Cloth Winding over the Rollers … And I Have Thought it Beautiful’: Reading the Mill Girls’ Narratives as Artifacts of Material Rhetoric.” Material Culture Review, vol. 77 78,  2013, pp. 107-122. 

Ruiz, Iris D., and Sonia C. Arellano. “La Cultura Nos Cura: Reclaiming Decolonial Epistemologies through Medicinal History and Quilting as Method.” Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions, edited by Romeo García and Damián Baca, NCTE, 2019, pp. 141-68. 

Simonds, Christopher. Samuel Slater’s Mill and the Industrial Revolution. Silver Burdett, 1990. 

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Westview, 2013.  

Solberg, Janine. “Googling the Archive: Digital Tools and the Practice of History.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, vol. 15, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53-76.  

Shivers-McNair, Ann. Making, Marking, Mattering: What We Can Learn about Writing, Rhetoric, and Technology from a Makerspace. 2017. U of Washington, PhD Dissertation.  

Sohan, Vanessa Kraemer. “But a Quilt is More: Recontextualizing the Discourse(s) of Gee’s Bend Quilts.” College English, vol. 77, no. 4, 2015, pp. 294-316. 

Tucker, Barbara M. “Liberty Is Exploitation: The Force of Tradition in Early Manufacturing.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 19, no. 3, 2005, pp. 21-4. 

SCUM Manifesto as a Rhetoric of Domination

You are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. -bell hooks 

Feminism has brought me language, liberation, and purpose. That’s not to say it doesn’t come with challenging questions and contradictions. Feminism continues to be a contentious ideology, within and beyond feminist discourse. If we are to understand and embody feminism as a politics of equity, I believe we need to sort out some baggage. This article responds to Sarah Ahmed’s call to think about feminist futures by tending to legacies of feminist pasts. For rhetoricians, reflecting on historic texts from a contemporary feminist viewpoint can create the space to consider how rhetorical and communicative choices align with or contradict the values of an ongoing movement. In this analysis, I consider the implications of positioning Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto as representatives of feminist resistance in contemporary critical feminist discourse. In what follows, I argue that this feminist rhetorical analysis of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto [2] reveals ethical pitfalls for a rhetoric of feminist resistance. By enacting compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, the manifesto reproduces a rhetoric of domination that confirms, rather than challenges, the power of hegemony (Foss and Griffin). Solanas’ attempt to transpose oppression and dominance on the gender binary does not actually change the conditions of the social apparatus. Rather, it maintains violence and sexism as key organizing functions of society. This attempt to subvert the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination–she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices. 

I come to SCUM Manifesto as a budding scholar interested in the space between feminism, femininity, and popular culture rhetorics. In contemporary mainstream media, Valerie Solanas has resurfaced as a feature and a historical reference in popular culture. Solanas was first immortalized in I Killed Andy Warhol, a film by Mary Harron first screened at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and shown again at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016. Lena Dunham played Solanas on an episode of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Cult (2017), entitled “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” where her character served as a plot device to expose the continued presence of feminist rage in the sociopolitical climate. Swedish author Sara Stridsberg published Valerie: or, The Faculty of Dreams: Amendment to the Theory of Sexuality (released in English in 2020), a historical fiction novel inspired by Solanas, preceded by a play entitled Valerie Jean Solanas for President of America (2006). features SCUM Manifesto at number 81 in the list of top 100 “Best Feminist Books” among authors like Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, George Eliot, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Publishers continue to profit off of the manifesto with a celebratory tone. Avital Ronell’s reconsideration of the text was published by Verso Books in 2004, bringing SCUM into conversation with Derrida’s “The Ends of Man” (written in the same year) and Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech. AK Press published a version introduced by Michelle Tea in 2013 as “classic is a call to action.” Despite the fifty-year time lapse, Solanas continues to surface as an icon in contemporary feminist resistance efforts. 

As a result of her notoriety, SCUM[3] Manifesto has had a tumultuous rhetorical life, translated for global readership, heralded by some as and condemned by others. Valerie Solanas’ life was characterized by a series of extremes: She was abused by her parents and grandparents, became a truant, and had a child taken away by social services all before graduating high school (Latson; Ott). Carrying her traumas, she earned a psychology degree with honors from the University of Maryland and pursued some graduate school (Latson; Ott). Clearly, she was a person with intellect, ambition, and grit. If SCUM wasn’t complicated enough in its message, it was further complicated by Solanas’ attempted murder of Andy Warhol one year after its completion[4]. The attempt was informed in part by Solanas’ suspicion that Warhol was planning to plagiarize a screenplay she’d asked him to produce entitled Up Your Ass (Pruitt). Solanas’ message, tone, and her steadfast ownership of it had a polarizing effect on the Women’s Liberation movement and shaped the Radical Feminist Movement[5] (Fahs).  

Radical feminism became a social movement that advocated for a radical reconstitution of society and the elimination of male supremacy in all socioeconomic contexts. According to Ellen Willis, a prominent radical feminist activist and theorist, radical feminists understood society as inherently patriarchal. The objectives of radical feminism were to abolish patriarchy by pressurizing 1) capitalism as an institution and 2) the sexual objectification of women as a social norm. Tactics to reach the objectives included raising public awareness about issues such as rape and violence against women and to challenging the concept of gender roles so that anatomical differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis). With this in mind, this article comes from a question of values: How do strategies of communication affect the alignment of the message with the shared values of a social movement? What happens when the message is distorted by rhetorical choices? I believe it is important to check in with historical figures and artifacts as society learns (and unlearns). This practice is important for conscientious reproduction of rhetorical praxis and for determining how we construct a critical feminist lineage (Ahmed).  

I make a critical choice in my engagement with SCUM Manifesto by choosing to analyze it at face-value. That is, in a sea of satirical uptakes of the manifesto, this response operates from the perception of Solanas’ attempted assassination of Warhol, an influential male artist, as proof of her dedication to the beliefs represented in the document. If critics dismiss this event (perhaps in a case of “life imitating art”), it is possible to make arguments for the manifesto as a site of resistance through rhetorical tropes such as parrhesia and diatribe (Kennedy). Ahmed herself has appraised SCUM as a feminist snap, as an affective manifesto that draws power from its own literalism. But what’s missing from the analysis of language, form, and rhetoric within Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto is a sense of accountability from a feminist perspective—rather than the heterosexist, patriarchal dismissal of Solanas’ power and rage. On the contrary, this analysis is necessitated precisely because of Solanas’ powerful and influential rage, a rage that need not be undermined or diluted by layers of perceived irony and satire.  

Manifestos and Rage 

Sara Ahmed suggests the concept of a feminist snap as a requirement of feminist praxis—that feminists must utilize their rage to enact social change. “From a shattering,” she writes, “a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection” (183). In other words, affinities may emerge from a snap. According to her, the snap may manifest as a willingness to snap bonds that no longer serve, a site of feminist work where the violences of experience become visible, and a form of optimism without attaching specific future outcomes (194). “We snap. We snap under the weight; things break. A manifesto is written out of feminist snap. A manifesto is feminist snap,” says Ahmed (255). Feminist movements have procured manifestos for the cause since the suffrage movement (Campbell 1989). If there was ever a time for Solanas to procure SCUM, it was the 1960’s, a time where manifestos were a main mode of feminist communication.  

As a rhetorical genre, manifestos are commonly recognized as a declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of their creators. Other radical feminist texts include the New York Radical Feminists’ “Politics of the Ego: A Manifesto,” “Redstockings Manifesto,” and Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics: A Manifesto for Revolution.” Interestingly, these examples are representations of a collective with a specific mission. Solanas’ individual enactment of the manifesto genre embodies a neoliberal, phallogocentric style of the manifesto misaligned with a satirical reading. With SCUM’s references to the status quo situated in 1967 U.S. society, principles for a new distribution of power pertaining only to women, and protocol for enforcement including murder of the non-compliant (Solanas 14), Solanas chose a form that would forward her ideas as social action (Miller).  

With Solanas composing in a genre used to inscribe patriarchy into society since the 1600’s, I note that her writing may be constrained by the genre of the manifesto itself–including the often hyperbolic tone that the genre engenders. Kimber C. Pearce argues that “generic appropriation” may constrain feminist rhetoric “to the prior discourse of the patriarchy to which they were opposed” (307). She uses generic appropriation here to mean “making over and setting apart” as one’s own substantive, stylistic, and situational rhetorical form (307). Through the notion of generic appropriation, I recognize that Solanas’ language may have been shaped by the conventions of the manifesto even if her intention was to diverge from them. In turn, Solanas makes an attempt to subvert the genre, yet employs rhetorical devices that preclude her intention to resist. While I recognize this aspect of generic constraints, they should not be cited as a means to see all rhetorical artifacts in a positive (or redeemable) light. It is important to listen beyond any shocking assertions in order to identify how the artifact functions as a product of patriarchy.  

As a feminist, I can understand how and why SCUM came into existence and recognize its power. In Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Soraya Chemaly’s points to a commonality among women who experience rage: They have faced the phenomena of open dismissal and pathologization of their anger[6]. When men display anger, it reaffirms gender norms and traditional assumptions of masculinity—business as usual. What typically follows is rewards: men gain power from reproducing these assumptions of masculinity, often despite the effect of their anger on others. It follows that when women express anger, they transgress gender norms (defying the agreeable object role historically assigned to women), resulting in powerlessness. Feeling powerless is distressing, conditioning women against expressing their anger in the future and toward a mode of communication that prioritizes the comfort of others. Clearly, something has to change. This is the reason that feminist rage, along with feminine rage in general, needs to be visible and appreciated as a justified human reaction. Texts like SCUM provide rich ground to examine the presence of such feeling but, as a reader, I’m left wondering what I am supposed to take away from the text in terms of next steps for feminist activism. As a rhetorician, I have concerns about alienating potential allies and inspiring hatred.  

With a compassion for the personal and historical context in which Solanas authored SCUM, it is useful to frame the manifesto as an Ahmedian feminist snap. Solanas had endured long-spanning and varied trauma that shaped her perception of the world—and created within her a burning rage. As Ahmed states, ​​ “A [feminist] snap is not a starting point, but a snap can be the start of something” (194). Often met with violent consequences, physical or otherwise, women have come to understand the costs of displaying anger and are compelled to reconstitute, disregard, redirect, or minimize it. As an embodied experience, anger takes up cognitive real estate and will manifest in bodily reactions such as short temperedness, discontent, and an impairment of overall health. This “anger feedback loop” is often a direct implication of unacknowledged social injustice (Chemaly). All one has to do is wait for the…SNAP.  

Rhetoric of Domination   

As feminists, we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin reveal hermeneutic and ideological boundaries that limit the possibilities for rhetorical feminism (331). They understand Aristotelian rhetoric, or rhetoric-as-persuasion, as a conscious intent to change others, which is centered on competition and dominance. A rhetoric of domination constitutes patriarchy, where “some people are less valuable than others” (335). According to Foss and Griffin, patriarchy does not recognize inherent worth in people; value must be “earned, achieved, or granted” and is measured “only in relation to some outside standard” (336). That is, one’s adherence to the unwritten rules of belief, attitude, and behavior that constitute civility in patriarchy shapes the perception of the already raced, sexed, and gendered subject[7]. Critical to the functioning of patriarchy is a hierarchical structure that controls and oppresses ways of knowing and ways of being in the world (335). Foss and Griffin characterize a rhetoric of domination with four primary rhetorical strategies that “confirm the power of the system” (336): Compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal. In what follows, I define and trace these rhetorical strategies to expose the way Solanas builds a rhetoric of domination in the SCUM Manifesto.  

While I explore the use of all four rhetorical strategies in the composition of the text, I do not believe they are all equally deployed or equally impactful. Rather, my goal is to thoroughly demonstrate a multitude of pitfalls that Solanas succumbs to in the making of the manifesto and the implications of uncritical subversion. It is also worth mentioning that this analysis does not take issue with the presence, the guiding light, of rage. After all, as Soraya Chemaly writes, “Anger isn’t what gets in our way — it is our way. All we have to do is own it.” This analysis hinges on a difference between leveraging rage toward patriarchy and condemning all male-presenting persons. It is possible to assess each instance of male subjugation as a critique of patriarchal values. However, without maintaining patriarchy as an institution that prescribes power dynamics between the genders, one would find themselves, as Solanas has, forwarding eugenics under the guise of a feminist snap. Feminist criticism hinges on an understanding of patriarchy as a cultural hegemony responsible for the systemic oppression of non-males[8], not simply an intentional and individualized domination of women (Becker; Freedman; Offen).  


Foss and Griffin define compliance in a rhetorical context as “acquiescence to the requirements of the system” (336). In other words, a compliant rhetor judges and responds to a rhetorical situation on the basis of patriarchal standards. In her attempt to persuade readers to join the SCUM movement, I identify argumentum ad hominem as one stylistic technique through which compliance operates. By personally attacking the interlocutor on the basis of perceived character, this technique represents compliance with patriarchy because it functions on the basis that there is a “better” sex and that there exists a male essence. Solanas’ attacks on her opposition preclude a possibility for her manifesto to embody the feminist value of equity by disenfranchising the entire male population through a definition of maleness as an irreparable, non-human condition.  

Argumentum ad hominem[9] (Greek; “argument to the person”) has a long history in the rhetorical tradition. While there are various forms that this device can take, such as circumstantial or tu quoque, the form of relevance to this assessment of the SCUM Manifesto is defined by Graciela M. Chichi as the abusive type. She writes, “the…‘abusive’ variant of the ad hominem-fallacy, which is a dialogue move, but not an argument” consists of a personal attack on the interlocutor (334). It is particularly striking that this rhetorical choice is not regarded as an argument, rather as a baseless attack on the opposition based on their perceived character or social group; in this case, the opposing argument is not considered at all (Chichi 342). Solanas may have relied on argumentum ad hominem as a persuasive strategy because she could not identify an argument that all individual male-presenting persons make. Rather than refer to patriarchy, an identifiable system of oppression, she essentializes “male” as the source of female oppression.  

There are several identifiable instances of argumentum ad hominem in the manifesto, especially in the introductory sections. Within her attacks, I identify exaggerated statements (hyperbole), that I imagine Solanas used to enhance her “argument.” However, rather than enhance her point, I argue that her employment of hyperbole in conjunction with argumentum ad hominem serves to essentialize her opposition (in this case, males). From a contemporary feminist standpoint, this move undercuts her credibility as a feminist rhetor and aligns her with a system that does not recognize inherent value in all beings. Solanas writes: 

The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection of tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can’t relate to anything other than his own physical sensations. (1)

In this section, she begins to describe the consequences of the “biological accident” that are males (1). Rather than defining “maleness” as a socially-constructed and performative identity category, she writes that “maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples” (1).   It follows that her language in this passage would be constructed through the negative, or a lack, save for the use of the adverbs “completely” and “entirely.” I hear these adverbs as hyperbolic hinges for her prescribed constituents of maleness. If her manifesto was written as a response to patriarchy, she would be able to define it as a hegemonic power structure. However, since her manifesto is an opposition to all male-presenting persons, she binds herself by this definition that does not account for intersectional manifestations of personhood, a core value of contemporary feminist praxis—and one that applies to men!  

While intersectionality (Crenshaw) entered feminist discourse about twenty years after she wrote the manifesto, it is also useful to point to the way she bound herself in the context of radical feminism. Intersectionality conceived as theory, methodology, heuristic, or all three, has unleashed an astoundingly fertile and interdisciplinary archive of feminist critical inquiry at this new standard. Deborah L. Rhode’s “Feminist Critical Theories” identifies two central commitments addressed across feminist analytical frameworks: 1) They seek to promote equity between sexes and 2) they seek to identify the fundamental social transformations necessary for full equity between the sexes. Both Freedman and Rhode underscore values that, as Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin say, construct a feminist rhetorical theory which “challenge[s] the reality the system has created” (336). Rhode’s exploration is useful for contemporary feminist rhetorical analysis because her study was constructed to “underscore the importance of multiple frameworks that avoid universal or essentialist claims and that yield concrete strategies for social change” (619). By bringing together frameworks that maintain validation of subjectivity and recognition that identity comes from a matrix of systems, Freedman and Rhode’s thinking inform this study as an exigence to yield useful principles for intersectional feminist research that grapples with activism and social movements.  

If one objective of the radical feminist movement was to challenge the concept of gender roles so that genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally (Willis), a biologically-determined understanding of maleness serves to reify the position that sex and gender are genetic predispositions that determine personalities. With Solanas basing her argument on males as a biological accident from the beginning of the text, she continuously relies on the binary of female-male that, along with the normalization of gender roles and compulsory heteronormativity, is imbricated in patriarchy. Thus, I argue that the basis of her argument reifies the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society. This compliance results in a failure to resist patriarchy and capitulates to anti-feminist rhetoric. 


Foss and Griffin define manipulation in this context as a delusion of control when a rhetor believes they are not complying with the system, but still accept the system’s terms, unspoken rules, and values. In other words, a manipulative rhetor will attempt to redress the conditions of the system to suit their needs or desires. In this case, I identify dehumanization as a rhetorical device through which manipulation operates in the manifesto. For example, equating a person or population to pests, deadly animals, parasites, disease, filth, zombies, or demons would qualify as dehumanization (Szilagyi). By shifting a focus away from systemic inequity and oppression, onto males as non-human succubi, Solanas’ message preys on the reader’s capacity to empathize with male-presenting persons. Dehumanizing rhetoric employs terms that interpolate different groups of people as any number of non-human beings that have a particularly negative connotation.  

In SCUM, Solanas graduates from using animal metaphors, to genocide, and finally to eugenics as a means for social change. For example, Solanas writes: 

He is trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes, and is far worse off than the apes because, unlike the apes, he is capable of a large array of negative feelings—hate, jealousy, contempt, disgust, guilt, shame, doubt—and moreover, he is aware of what he is and what he isn’t. (1) 

In this passage, she makes the case that men are not apes because they possess a self-awareness and a nuanced emotional capacity. In general, this kind of rhetoric supports the diminishment of boundaries between verbal abuse and physical abuse by influencing the way people think and act toward each other. In fact, she draws comparisons between male-presenting persons and apes at three separate occasions throughout her manifesto. In some cases, she utilizes the metaphor to draw physical comparison; in other cases, she employs the metaphor to illustrate a minimized IQ. Another animal-based metaphor she takes up is comparing male-presenting persons to dogs at two occasions in her work. At one point, she writes: 

Just as humans have a prior right to existence over dogs by virtue of being more highly evolved and having a superior consciousness, so women have a prior right to existence over men. The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy. (12) 

In this passage, she crosses the line from dehumanization to genocide. This statement blatantly forwards the superiority of one sex over the other as a way to disenfranchise that “lesser” sex. With one sex having the right to live over the other, Solanas frames genocide as an advisable path toward revolution. Implicit in this passage is the notion that this genocide would come from a place of compassion and charity. By laying out the groundwork that men are sub-human, she begins to reduce the ability for the reader to relate to the “apes” and “dogs” to which she refers. This manipulative language aims to deceive the reader from their own morality in order to justify SCUM’s agenda.  

Eventually, Solanas moves away from animal metaphors and speaks in terms of degeneration, referring to deterioration that can only be prevented through the eradication of the invasive actor (Szilagyi). Solanas posits: 

As for the issue of whether or not to continue to reproduce males, it doesn’t follow that because the male, like disease, has always existed among us that he should continue to exist. When genetic control is possible— and soon it will be—it goes without saying that we should produce only whole, complete beings, not physical defects of deficiencies, including emotional deficiencies, such as maleness. Just as the deliberate production of blind people would be highly immoral, so would be the deliberate production of emotional cripples. (12) 

In this passage, Solanas discusses the birth of male babies in terms of pathology, with eugenics as a viable cure for the degeneration of society. However, male presenting persons are not the only population implicated in the statement. By stating that “whole, complete beings” are the only ones with a right to life, she negates the worth of disabled persons. Solanas has demonstrated that she does not believe in the immanent worth of all people, and this section shows that she does not believe in a person’s right to life either. By devaluing subjectivities that stem from a diversity of lived experiences, Solanas aligns herself with patriarchal notions of abstract objectivity and ableism. In short, arguing for eugenics separates this work from artifacts that represent feminist ideology.  


Foss and Griffin define rebellion in a rhetorical context as a refusal or challenge that counterproductively serves to harm the rebel, rather than the system (336). In Solanas’ endeavor to persuade readers that males are worthy only of extinction, I identify calls to violence as one way rebellion manifests in this particular case. In her attempt to justify genocide and eugenics, Solanas contradicts her own stance against violence that she frames as a rudimentary male stimulant. Throughout the manifesto, Solanas spends time condemning men for their obsession with violence as a phallocentric compensation for the sexual satisfaction they cannot attain as “incomplete females” (1). She writes: 

The male’s normal compensation for not being female, namely, getting his Big Gun off, is grossly inadequate, as he can get it off only a very limited number of times; so he gets it off on a really massive scale, and proves to the entire world that he’s a ‘Man’. Since he has no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, proving his manhood is worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own—his own life being worthless, he would rather go out in a blaze of glory than to plod grimly on for fifty more years. (“War” 2).  

Since males are aware that “men are women and women are men” (2), Solanas argues that they are motivated to prove their manhood and choose violences as a means to do so. In protest, she frames compassion and relatability as valuable characteristics, which prevent the need for violence toward the self or others. Solanas argues that women are superior to men largely in part for their emotional competency, which I hear as an essential understanding of an affective female, or feminine, disposition. At any rate, SCUM forwards that males are “completely physical” (1) without these characteristics and seek to “get off” as a compulsory response to avoid passivity and their true womanhood (2). Her unproductive subversition of maleness and femaleness serves to reify the subjugated, subordinate, and inferior position of femaleness in the system of patriarchy. Thus, violence is a defense against the desire to be female. 

Later in the work, Solanas writes:  

The male is eaten up with tension, with frustration at not being female, at not being capable of ever achieving satisfaction or pleasure of any kind; eaten up with hate—not rational hate that is directed at those who abuse or insult you—but irrational, indiscriminate hate… hatred, at bottom, of his own worthless self. Gratuitous violence, besides ‘proving’ he’s a ‘Man’, serves as an outlet for his hate and, in addition—the male being capable only of sexual responses and needing very strong stimuli to stimulate his half-dead self—provides him with a little sexual thrill. (“Hatred and Violence” 11) 

In this section, she identifies “indiscriminate hate” born from self-loathing as the root of “gratuitous violence.” Throughout the manifesto, she juxtaposes the male or incomplete female to “groovy chicks” whose “function is to relate, groove, love and be herself, irreplaceable by anyone else” (5). I problematize her binary by extrapolating that if groovy chicks love themselves, then there is no need to turn to violence as an outlet for hate. If groovy chicks believe they are irreplaceable, then they won’t feel the need to “go out in a blaze of glory” (2). If her differentiation between male women and female men is based in self-worth, SCUM’s rebellion as a destructive killing mob collapses the opportunity for female empowerment outside of a patriarchal structure by adopting tactics that undermine her own categorical identifications. Of the revolution, she writes: 

SCUM will keep on destroying, looting, fucking-up and killing until the money-work system no longer exists and automation is completely instituted or until enough women cooperate with SCUM to make violence unnecessary to achieve these goals, that is, until enough women either unwork or quit work, start looting, leave men and refuse to obey all laws inappropriate to a truly civilized society. (15) 

In SCUM, she advocates for a completely automated society so that women won’t have to spend time doing mundane tasks. Yet, her calls to violence enact rebellion as a strategy of the rhetoric of domination. After spending the first thirteen pages establishing the frailty of males for their institution of violence as a means to compensate for their own passivity, she turns to those who would be her followers and asks them to take up the same contemptible violence to create a utopia. Turning “patriarchy” into “matriarchy” may seem like feminist revolution, but the power dynamic lives on through a patriarchal mode of communication that hinges on sex and gender roles. Based on the enactment of rebellion, I argue that taking up Solanas and SCUM as models for feminist resistance distorts the principles that guide contemporary feminist praxis.  


Foss and Griffin define withdrawal in this context as a separation between rhetors and information and/or resources vital to their freedom or survival (336). In other words, a withdrawn rhetor will remove herself from company that can benefit her well-being or the success of her message. In this case, Solanas embodies this rhetorical strategy in two ways: 1) by choosing not to address a feminist audience in her manifesto or aligning herself with a community, and 2) through her rejection of feminist aid during her trial for attempted murder. However, I must say that, both of these choices align with Foss and Griffin’s feminist rhetorical principle of self-determination in decision-making. While she made the decision for herself as to who would represent her and how she would represent her ideas, her choices manifest as a withdrawal that adds to the rhetoric of domination she built in her manifesto. 

Intriguingly, Solanas did not frame her manifesto as feminist. For example, the only appearance of the term “feminist” in the manifesto is in it’s antithetical form. Solanas writes, “‘Great Art’ proves that men are superior to women, […] being labeled ‘Great Art’, almost all of which, as the anti-feminists are fond of reminding us, was created by men.” In the construction of this passage, she refers to anti-feminists as “them” and aligns herself with “us,” which may be interpreted as “the feminists” or as “groovy chicks,” the latter of which she addresses repeatedly throughout her piece. While creating a new profile of womanhood is not explicitly anti-feminist, she implicitly denies association with feminists and creates an abstract category for the kind of women who are fit for the SCUM revolution.  

At the time of Solanas’ arrest, Ti-Grace Atkinson[10], then the president of the National Organization of Women (NOW), partnered with Flo Kennedy to form Solanas’ defense team in the Warhol case. Atkinson and Kennedy offered to take Solanas’ case despite instruction from Betty Friedan to distance herself from Solanas to avoid “connecting violence and feminism” (Fahs 577). Friedan declared, “desist immediately from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas. Miss Solanas’ motives in [the] Warhol case [are] entirely irrelevant to NOW’s goals of full equality for women in truly equal partnership with men” (Pan). While Friedan became a controversial figure in her own right, she saw a danger in responding to Solanas as a soldier for the feminist cause. From jail, three months after her arrest, Solanas wrote to Atkinson,  

I know you, along with all the other professional parasites with nothing of their own going for them, are eagerly awaiting my commitment to the bughouse […] I want to make perfectly clear that I am not being committed because of my views or the “SCUM Manifesto” […] Nor do I want you to continue to mouth your cultivated banalities about my motive for shooting Warhol. Your gall in presuming to be competent to discourse on such a matter is beyond belief. In short, do not ever publicly discuss me, SCUM, or any aspect at all of my care. Just DON’T. (Pan) 

Clearly, Solanas had no interest in aligning with feminist leaders of her time.[11] These choices represent withdrawal because her rejection of legal counsel showed that she would rather risk conviction than accept free aid that may grant her freedom. However, Atkinson felt compelled to aid Solanas despite her initial refusal because “[Solanas] had done something appropriate to the feelings [women] were all having. She was fighting back” (Fahs 576). Here, Atkinson refers to the affective undercurrent of rage that maintains a presence in resistance efforts. Although, I am pressed to argue that not all resistance can be characterized as feminist resistance.  


Despite her initial inclination to help Solanas get through her trial, Atkinson inevitably cut ties with Solanas. In an interview with Breanne Fahs, Atkinson said that Solanas’ interpersonal nature was to “dominate and abuse you and she was very manipulative” (578, my emphasis).[12] At least Valerie Solanas is consistent. At any rate, Atkinson’s ruminations on her time with Solanas and on the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s reflects the core of my argument in this study. When Fahs asked Atkinson if she felt that Solanas was a feminist; she answered a simple “no.” When asked to elaborate, Atkinson said: 

She’s part of my archive, but I don’t think of her as part of my feminist archive. 

She was a glitch, a mistake. The fact that she keeps coming up, you could say that means we as women, as feminists, yearn for some violence, or somebody to fight back, and she looked like she was fighting back. (Fahs 579; my emphasis) 

In her own words, Atkinson describes phenomena that wove SCUM into the tapestry of feminist history. Solanas was fighting back, but she wasn’t fighting a fight in the name of feminism. Her anger and her resistance gave the impression of a fight inspired by the feminist movement. By sacrificing the principles of feminist ideology, Solanas maintains a rhetoric of domination that becomes another cog in the wheel of systemic violence.  

This research responds to the call to extrapolate theoretical principles from the practices of women to suggest alternative ways of viewing rhetoric from specific historical periods and engaging with it from a contemporary standpoint (Colman). Revisiting artifacts with a tumultuous rhetorical life, such as SCUM, can help us reflect on the kind of legacy we want to create. In her interview with Breanne Fahs, Ti-Grace Atkinson shared: 

Later, I kept seeing people who were interested in Valerie and who responded with a kind of excitement. I asked this one woman, “Why does she attract you?” because I realized she really wasn’t interested in deep feminist questions. She said, “Well, she seems to have some panache, some style about it; you know, she shot somebody.” In a way I have to say that was probably what attracted me too. I was filled with rage and I thought it was somehow appropriate to “just shoot them all!” It certainly seemed deserved, but it was a misreading of what was going on. (Fahs 580) 

 As this exchange shows, Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto are lightning rods, stirring interest in change (to say the least) for five decades—and are prone to “misreadings”. Clearly, her commitment to her beliefs and demonstration of rage draw an audience to her. But as Atkinson observes, the excitement the rhetor and her rhetoric engender are not necessarily for the benefit of feminism. Working to eschew the trap of patriarchal rhetoric does not mean that feminist rhetoric should be left only with civility on one hand and confrontation avoidance on the other. In fact Nina M. Lozano-Reich & Dana L. Cloud point out that power imbalances in economic, political, and social context make these options quite difficult to adhere to (221). However, the question of audience becomes increasingly important here. Solanas is writing (in part) to an audience of females (based on her use of “we” and “females” throughout the manifesto), to bring them together to create the maleless utopia she illustrates. This subversion of the status quo is undone by the maintenance of a rhetoric of domination—she entangles her feminine rage with the persuasive power of oppressive linguistic practices. This is the hinge from which this assessment comes.  

This analysis sought to unpack SCUM Manifesto by thinking through its claims with a contemporary feminist lens, resting on the notion that the affective undercurrent of anger and rage instantiated an alignment between Solanas’ rhetoric and the historical moment. Seemingly by virtue of kairos, this particular manifesto has been imbricated in the iconography of second-wave feminism and the radical feminist movement. This alignment misrepresents the ideological principles of equity that feminism seeks to generate. This misalignment adds to the symphony of observations that that the metaphor of feminist “waves” does a disservice to the understanding of the history of feminism. Lumping all woman-centered activism of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s into the “second-wave” of feminism represents all resistance efforts as a unified phenomenon. However, feminism is not an umbrella for all rhetorics of resistance and positioning it as such serves to distort the personal and political goals of a feminist ideology. In fact, this may be one of the only acknowledgeable examples of “reverse sexism,” which, without the backing of a system of institutional power, isn’t even a recognized prejudice in social justice discourse (Bearman).  

By reproducing a rhetoric of domination through the rhetorical strategies of compliance, manipulation, rebellion, and withdrawal, Solanas confirms, rather than challenges, the power of cultural hegemony over meaning-making (Foss). For one, the basis of her argument complies with the binary opposition that defines identity and relationships in patriarchal society—the reductive heteronormative ideology remains so when the sexes are reversed. While setting up her version of the binary, she employs hyperbolic language to dehumanize male-presenting persons in the effort to justify genocide and eugenics. However, reproducing linguistic violence as a condition to meet a desired end traps her message in the rhetoric of domination and separates her work from the trajectory of feminist resistance—and pits populations against each other. In other words, not all resistance should be thought of as feminist resistance if it forgoes feminist commitments in the in the process. If there is any takeaway from this particular manifesto for feminism, it is to maintain feminist integrity by avoiding assimilation to patriarchal rhetorics of domination.   

Future Research 

As alluded to earlier, this analysis is but one addition to the various readings of SCUM, and I suspect that many more will continue to emerge. Thinking ahead, what might we also gain from a distanced reading that considers affect and not pure intention? An interesting approach might be to analyze the manifesto as through a rhetoric of queer aesthetics. In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam writes that “the queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (88). Failure gives an idea of what may not serve the cause, information that may ultimately aid in long-term or alternative successes. More information allows for critical decision-making and a reduction of risk. Deemed failures give an idea of what certain choices look like, what they reflect, and they demonstrate the parameters of a discourse community. These facets present the opportunity to reproduce the results or to shift direction. Solanas’ manifesto can be read as a failed feminist resistance because it capitulates to patriarchal rhetoric.  

A productive outcome from engaging with SCUM as a feminist rhetorician lies in its potentiality as a model by which one may appraise the imbrication of patriarchy in a seemingly anti-patriarchal text. This type of rhetorical failure of resistance is productive only when we are able to, as Ahmed writes, “accept our complicity,” “forgo any illusions of purity,” and “give up the safety of exteriority” (94). There were and there are versions of feminism that condone that “the elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy” (Solanas). That’s to say that we are responsible for the circulation of our politics and we need to be aware of the ways in which our politics will be used against us. How can we advocate for a more just future if we don’t question the lineage of the feminist standpoint? The failure is productive in that it gives us a location from which to critically curate a feminist rhetoric of accountability.

End Notes

[1]See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.

[2]See Appendix A for a summary of the content in SCUM.

[3]Solanas denied that SCUM was an acronym, rather that it refers to the hierarchical position women held in society (scum of the Earth). However, there has been speculation that it stood for the Society for Cutting Up Men.   

[4]When I approached this project, I had a few assumptions regarding uptake, especially that Solanas’ reputation would have become a terministic screen for interpreting the possibilities in the manifesto (rhetorical and otherwise); the screen could come from an understanding of Solanas as a heroine who embodied her beliefs or as a murderous paranoid schizophrenic who needed medical help.

[5]Apparent in the staunch stance against males as oppressors; a desire for more idealistic, psychologistic, and utopian philosophy; and stance against sex work. 

[6]This norm is experienced by and is commonly understood among different kinds of women, despite unique experiences of those multiply-marginalized.  

[7]Civility has been used as a form of racial, sexed, and gendered discipline. Examples include patriarchy’s framing of women as hysterical and unfit to participate in a public forum, to colonialism’s address of BIPOCs as uncivil savages, to heteronormative understandings of LGBTQIA+ sexualities as deviant. In each case, the idea of civility is reserved for the dominant class and is symbolically and materially unavailable to othered populations. For more on civility and inequality, see Cloud and Lozano.  

[8]With particular favor toward white, cisgendered, and able males. 

[9]Argumentum ad hominem ranks second-to-last in Paul Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement just above “name-calling.” 

[10]While Atkinson’s relationship to Solanas helps me ground my argument in a historic context, I am compelled to disclose that she is an author of the “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Criticism of ‘Gender’” statement. Written, signed, and circulated by Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), this statement 1) argues for the exclusion of women who have undergone M>F transition from “RadFem” conferences and 2) undermines the validity of gender theory. Atkinson is cited in this article because her affiliation with Solanas during her trial makes her first-hand account a relevant perspective for the purposes of this article. 

[11]It is important to note that these leaders represented the women’s liberation movement, from which radical feminism derived.

[12]I can’t help but be amused by the coincidence in word choice here. 


Appendix A: Summary of SCUM 

SCUM Manifesto begins by urging “groovy chicks” to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and eliminate the male sex” (1). Then follows with a theory that males are deficient females through an identification of the Y chromosome as an incomplete X chromosome. It follows that the biological deficiency manifests in emotional incompetencies such as a lack of emotional intelligence and personal passions. Since males lack empathy and are unable to relate to anything or anyone, Solanas reads them as narcissists who cannot feel anything outside of their own physical sensations. She continues through a subverted Freudian analysis of “pussy envy” (which I discuss later), and posits that males spend their lives attempting to become female and overcome their inferiority. Due to the biological, emotional, and social inadequacies of the male sex, she identifies twenty-two socio-economic shortcomings of male-centered social systems (patriarchy, but never names it as such).  

The manifesto is broken into sections as follows: War; niceness, politeness, and “dignity;” money, marriage and prostitution, work and prevention of an automated society; fatherhood and mental illness (fear, cowardice, timidity, humility, insecurity, passivity); suppression of Individuality, animalism (domesticity and motherhood) and functionalism; prevention of privacy; isolation, suburbs and prevention of community; conformity; authority and government; philosophy, religion and morality based on sex; prejudice (racial, ethnic, religious, etc.); competition, prestige, status, formal education, ignorance and social and economic classes; prevention of conversation; prevention of friendship and love; “Great Art” and “Culture;” sexuality; boredom; secrecy, censorship, suppression of knowledge and ideas, and exposés; distrust; ugliness; hate and violence; and disease and death. She uses these sections to justify the elimination of the male sex. In order to accomplish these goals, Solanas proposes that a revolutionary vanguard of women be formed. This vanguard is referred to as SCUM, which “criminal disobedience” in order to destroy the system. The manifesto ends by describing a female-dominated utopian future in which, without men, violence will be rendered obsolete.

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Yogmaya Neupane: The Unknown Rhetorician and the Known Rebel

Yogmaya Neupane (1860-1941) was a feminist, activist, rebel, and political and social thinker in Nepal. As a thinker and an activist, she organized people and initiated awareness against stereotypes, superstitious religious practices, the caste system, child marriage, discriminatory treatments of women, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth, among other issues. During the early 1900s, Nepal was ruled by Ranas, whose regimes are considered to be the dark period in the history of Nepal; their rigid adherence to Hindu systemic discrimination had perpetuated superstitious religious practices such as Sati— the practice of immolating the wife into the pyre of the husband after the husband dies. Yogmaya established Nari Samiti, the first women’s coalition in Nepal, around 1906 to fight against the injustices and discriminations against women, such as the practice of Sati (Aziz, Hutt, Yadav). Nari Samiti became a viable medium to officially pressure the governmental system which was exerting autocratic power. Through political activism and social awareness approaches, she forced the then government to eradicate the system of Sati from the country.  

But a system of Sati was not the only trial of Nepalese women during that period. Women and girls in Nepal during the 1900s were considered second-class citizens: they were secluded from political and legal rights and subject to polygamous marriage and widow discriminations. In addition, child marriages were prevalent practices, which were legally and morally sanctioned under the Hindu legal system (Muluki Ain 1854). Yogmaya fought for “alms for righteous governance”—a system of government based on justice and truth, in her words (Aziz 59). After spending more than thirty decades on activism and revolution, when she discovered that Ranas’ systems of autocracy were adamant about secluding women and other marginalized castes, she decided to sacrifice her life to threaten the government. Because murdering a Brahmin or forcing a Brahmin to take her life was considered a sin in Hindu philosophy and was also punishable by the Nepali civil code (Muluki Ain 1854), she used the threat of ending her life as a resistance technique to shake the government. Being from a so-called pious Brahmin family, whose harm was considered as harm to God, she used her embodiment to threaten the government and political system.  She arranged self-immolation by fire in 1938 along with 204 followers, but she was instead arrested and put in prison. After spending more than three months in prison, she again marched for self-immolation, this time in the water. On July 5, 1941, she threw herself into the river Arun, where she died. Sixty-seven of her followers also followed her path and jumped into the Arun. 

Before dying, Yogmaya had composed Sarvartha Yogbani, which includes her teachings and philosophies. Even after her death, most of her living followers regarded her book as their fundamental tenet. In the Yogbani, she denounced the caste system, subordination of women, economic disenfranchisement of working-class people and appeals for establishing justice. It is an enriching resource for social activists, philosophers, and writers. However, the book was banned in Nepal until 2000. Not only were her activities considered blasphemous by misogynist patriarchal values, but she was also vilified as a prostitute, wayward, mad, and crazy by the patriarchal norms. As a result, official Nepalese history did not account for the name of Yogmaya even after half of the century of her death. After the death of Yogmaya, Nepal went through great political reformations and enjoyed a vibrant period of democracy that was largely critical of the Rana regime, the legacy of the eradication of the Sati system from Nepal remained credited to Rana rulers, and the erasure of Yogmaya was perpetuated. This is to say, regardless of the political system that was in power, females have continued to be politically marginalized while Yogmaya’s contributions have failed to be realized in official history. While there were records of Yogmaya’s existence, nonetheless, the records of her contributions were “burned for fuel on some chilly winter nights” (Aziz 68).  

Remembering Yogmaya 

As a young girl growing up in Nepal, I heard about the system of Sati before I “heard” about Yogmaya, who had forced the government to ban it. I first learned about the system of Sati in the Nepali Literature class around seventh grade. When my Nepali literature teacher, a bold and vocal woman, talked about the custom of burning women in the pyre of their husbands. Goosebumps came all over my body. For the first time in my childhood years, I became afraid of being female. I became afraid of being female before I realized I am a female.  Even scarier was to think about my grandmother, my mother’s sister, and other women whom I had seen without husbands throughout my life. How did they escape that fate after their husbands died?  That day after school, I went straight to my mother’s sister’s home, who used to live a couple of houses away from my parent’s home. I asked my mother’s sister, who was born in the early 1900s, was married at the age of seven and became a widow at the age of nine, “हजुर चै सति किन नजानुभको ?” translated in English as “why did you not go Sati?” Her response was, “They did not ask me to”.  Who did not “ask” her? Who would have had the power to force her to Sati and, in contrast, who emancipated her? Did she know 

Like Yogmaya, my mother’s sister was married at the age of seven to a boy who was nine. She was allowed to live in her parents’ home until she reached the age when she could do errands herself. But when she was nine, her husband, along with most of his family members, died due to the cholera epidemic. She became a widow at the age of nine for a husband she barely knew. Although my mother’s sister did not have to go Sati, she sacrificed her whole life for the husband who died when she was only nine. She never wore colorful clothes, never went to public places without accompanying the male family members and lived a secluded life. The reply that I got from her, “They did not ask me to”, becomes meaningful only now as I am strategically contemplating the life she lived alongside the life and contributions of Yogmaya. I realize that my mother’s sister was not forced to go to Sati only because of Yogmaya’s contributions. Did she know that she and many like her were fortunately absolved from duty of Sati because of Yogmaya? Most probably not!  

My mother’s sister wanted to believe, like my schoolteacher, that she was absolved from her duty of Sati by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (1901-1929), on 8th July 1920.  Her generation was raised to doubt that an average Nepali woman like herself could be courageous enough to challenge the patriarchal structure. And it was hard to imagine the ramifications of doing so.  Since repressive erasure of Yogmaya’s contributions past almost three generations and the oral history about her was limited to women in the Arun River Valley only, it was discomforting for the women of my mother’s generation to challenge official narrations (Connerton; Hamilton,and Shopes). It took my entire school years and even prior years at the university to convince myself that what my schoolteacher told me was only a version of official history.  

Context for Feminist Rhetorical Recovery 

Others have tried to research Yogmaya before me. Yogmaya Neupane has been extensively studied from anthropological, sociological, literary and historical perspectives. In anthropological and sociological study, Yogmaya and her works are considered rebellious and revolutionary, aiming to bring social change (Aziz; Hutt). First among them is an ethnographic account produced by Barbara Nimri Aziz, whose work is iconic in studying and recovering the story of Yogmaya as a rebel. Aziz’s work is revolutionary also because she compiled the collections of her poems in her book Heir to silent Song Two Rebel Women of Nepal, which would otherwise be banned by the government. Yogmaya is also portrayed alongside the Hindu mythic figures and her works have largely been analyzed from a Hindu Vedic perspective (Neupane, Bhandari, Shrestha). In addition, feminist and historians like to date her social movement practices as some of the first feminist movements in Nepal representing her as a first feminist (Yadav, Lama, Karki, Shrestha). Similarly, in most of the literary references to her, such as in works by home-grown writers such as Uttam Prasad Panta and Lekhnath Bhandari, she is highlighted as a literary figure and her poems as radical.  As Michael Hutt opines in his critical analysis of the “forcible forgetting” of the history of Yogmaya in “nationalist and teleological history” (Hutt 383) and the recent narrativist revival of her in ahistorical accounts and studies, literary studies of Yogmaya were a prominent factor for her recent revival in Nepal. Referring to Uttam Prasad Panta’s article on the literary contributions of Yogmaya, at one point, he recognizes that literary identification of her was the safest way of seeking public recognition —”an initiative that enriched the literary pedigree of the national language and identified new icons to enhance the kingdom’s Hindu identity that? would not be frowned upon” (Hutt 349). However, even critical research such as this represents her as a female ascetic, political revolutionary, feminist, and literary artist only. Although historical, sociological, anthropological, feminist and literary methodology have immensely contributed in establishing and recovering her works and contributions, which would have been erased, lost, forgotten and repressed. But looking at the past and reconstructing it in a crude academic fashion may not be enough for recuperating feminist rhetorical practices, let alone rewriting the feminist contributions in the history. In the case of Yogmaya, her recovery efforts have largely been concentrated in recovering her rather than recovering her practices—consequently, erasing the revolutionary practices of her along with a large number of her followers whose contributions were equally important. In addition, recuperating efforts may require us to theorize her practices; in another words, redesigning her practices as what decolonial feminists want to call “praxis” (hooks)  

A Transnational Feminist Rhetorical Practice for Recovering Yogmaya 

I want to add one more historiographical account along this line: Yogmaya is the first female rhetorician of Nepal. Reading anthropological and historical research on Yogmaya, while providing greater possibilities, was still generally reductive, reading more like a fairytale for women of the democratic era to believe that a woman could jump into the river for a greater good, let alone burning into the pyre of a husband following the traditions. Based on the description of her in the first half of the essay, I want to reiterate 1) the initiative that she took for female liberation, 2) her teachings and philosophies in Sarvartha Yogbani, and, finally 3) her embodied resistance through the practice of Jal Samadhi (mass immolation in water) expounds her rhetorical skills and strategies. For me, these feminist principles rest on how I envision my locality through the feminist rhetorical perspective, for instance, imagining critically into questions such as what forced Yogmaya to jump into the river? Or what saved my mother’s sister from being Sati? In this case, imagining critically means to rhetorically envision local feminist efforts of Yogmaya by examining the history lived by her and women like her, further pondering rhetorically into the reason she chose her rhetorical practices or the reason she chose a particular rhetorical practice. However, this is a complex endeavor given that it invites more questions than answering one. For example, the question that made me numb was what am I to write about a woman who flowed herself into the thundering Arun River, never to return, for a cause which was then called fanatical? What am I to say, about a woman whose history was never talked about and even forbidden in my culture? Legacy is not a word that was made to suit her in history; she was ostracized, defamed, and vilified. Further, the history writers cleansed, dumped, forbade, and erased her. Opening her story is like excavating a memory that has now become a myth. Ashes were rare things, and an archive is impossible for her archaeology. In fact, the effort to recover the feminist rhetor in the culture where rhetoric is yet to be defined in western academic terminology is an innovative process for the reason that it helps in designing a new methodology or employ the foreign methodology in a new way.  

To begin this recovery effort, I contacted Barbara Nimri Aziz, who pioneered Yogmaya among scholarly circles. I scheduled a couple of meetings with her, which she affirmed and appreciated with intellectual wit. In our first phone conversations, she recalled her 1980’s visit to Nepal— where Yogmaya had lived, preached, and performed her resistance and protest in the 1900s. She had visited the place nearly forty years after the death of Yogmaya. In our extensive phone conversation, she shared that it was like finding her own foremothers’ stories. Being a daughter of Arab immigrants, she found her affinities and shared values as soon as she discovered Yogmaya’s contributions. In her book, Heir to Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, she writes “I didn’t imagine in Nepal I might find activists similar to Mother Jones and Sojourner Truth… How could a woman raised in America and England, even though she was of Arab origin, imagine she might find her true ancestors in Nepal?” (Aziz 28) 

When Barbara visited Nepal, she met Manamaya, the pupil of Yogmaya and a respondent in Barbara’s research who is also, along with a number of other followers, used to reciting the verses from the book Sarvartha Yogbani. This recitation was private, and Barbara writes, “I noted how, when either Manamaya or Bhaktini Aama sang [them] for me, they did so in the privacy of their small dwellings, and at night” (Aziz 39). But those brave followers of Yogmaya wanted the message to be spread and the story to be heard by all the people. So, Manamaya invited Barbara into her small hut one night and handed the book which she had wrapped in a cloth-like “sepia brown booklet” and kept inside the bed mattress (Aziz 39-40). In my research process, when I was searching for the original book of Yogmaya and asked Barbara about it she wrote me, “The entire set of available Yogbani is included as an appendix to my book Heir to Silent Song: Two Women Rebels of Nepal. It represents the only written collection yet available of Yogbani. Such a treasure to be given to me in 1981 to share with all. These conversations between Barbara and me, two feminist researchers distanced by generation and nationality but made closer by rhetorical ethos— the ethos of care and humility— helped me to engage in a compassionate argument, collaborative practice, and negotiation. At one of our conversations, she explicitly advised me that a Nepali woman should study and explore on Yogmaya. Perhaps, while saying this, Aziz listened to Patricia Sutherland who advises that the feminist methodology of primary research is garnered from women’s primary experiences. It encouraged me to commemorate my position as a researcher and to navigate my gendered and transnational experience. 

This authentication of Yogmaya as a rhetorician was possible through juxtaposing my narrative, which explored and discloses attachment, about how the history of Yogmaya was deleted from the public narrative. For doing this, I have relied extensively on feminist rhetorical practices to weave my personal experience of Yogmaya and the women’s issues she advocated for with my recovery of her rhetorical work. The gap of nearly a half-century after her death (the anniversary of which elapsed without mentioning her name), wherein the country went from the autocratic system of Rana to democracy, and from a British system of the monarchy to a quasi-Chinese system of federalism, was possible to recuperate through decolonial feminist methodologies that debunk traditional objective methodological practice ( Bizzel’s ‘function of emotion,” Royster’s “storytelling and telling history,” Kirsch and Royster “critical imagination, strategic contemplation, and social circulation,” Sutherland “primacy of gendered experience,” Enoch “local narrative,” Garcia’s “community listening”). Employing these methodologies was challenging because it helped in closely examining the research around her, requiring answers in regard to coherence in translations and interpretations. For example, in Aziz’s works one of her bani (verse) from Sarvatha Yogbani is translated as “Though I am the one who is despised by society, and discarded I have to prove my innocence” (Aziz XV). The original verse was “ भगवन हैन, समाजले तिरषकार धृणा गरेको नारी हु ।“ (Aziz 57). The question that one can raise in the translated version is: did she really believe that she needs to “prove” her innocence?  As feminist researcher in Nepal, Kumari Lama, notes,  

Yogmaya develops immense rebellious feelings towards discriminatory Brahmanic social values since her young age. She executes her dissenting characteristics very gracefully in her life. She challenges Hindu religious authority eloping with a man she loves despite being a child-widow. Undoubtedly, her elopement exhibits her resistance as well as her strong punch against patriarchal authority that incarcerates women’s freedom. (Lama 18) 

Reading the above translations (rather mistranslation) of her bani alongside the examination of her feminist practice gives the dual picture of her feminist efforts as someone who wants to “prove” her innocence to the social practices against which she had relentlessly fought. I find the translation problematic, an inaccurate version of how she was, in contrast to how she was interpreted.  In fact, if this would have been translated by any Nepali feminist, they would translate it along the lines, “I am the one who is despised and discarded by society, God I am not”. Given that original translations if kept intact would seriously counter all her sacrifice and contributions, it is also important to examine the way an inaccuracy in translation represents another kind of erasure. 

Secondly, examining her rhetorical practices helps in authenticating feminist praxis in Nepal within the larger spectrum of global feminist practice. Until now, answering the question in regard to feminist praxis in Nepal is hard since one has to either rely on western feminism or the feminism in the border.  Even growing up outside of the West, I heard of Yogmaya long after I was introduced with Simone De Beauvoir, Helene Cixous, Betty Friedan — however, the feminist movement led by Yogmaya preceded them. In fact, Yogmaya’s contemporaries were suffragists in the United States. With a deep sense of humility, before writing this paper, I contemplated all those dormant periods of my academic life—periods when I used to feel that the feminist revolution is western conduct and periods when I lived in oblivion, with the assumption that the Sati system was eradicated by the Ranas in Nepal— When reading canonical scholarship in feminism and rhetoric, I would think of Beauvoirian ideas from the perspective of my mother’s sister, and sometimes even Spivak and hooks from the perspective of Yogmaya. Meanwhile, Indian feminists, close to home, even the one who decried the western feminist portrayal of “Indian Suttee” (Narayana) are as distant as any other western feminist given that Nepali feminist fought different battles and employed different resistance principles (Mohanty; Spivak). In Yogbani, Yogmaya criticizes the structure of patriarchy and systemic inequality. She diatribes against the caste system, corruption, Brahmin value, and huge economic disparity among people. In one of her bani, she declares her denouncement of caste by saying,  

Before I owned a caste 

Belonging to the Brahmin clan. 

Now look, I have no caste. 

Ho, I chucked it there in the hearth (Aziz 60) 

In the above lines, Yogmaya declares the renouncement of her Brahmin caste. Symbolically, her practice of renouncing caste, is a denunciation of entire Brahminism which has played a vital role in exerting power politically, socially, and economically. Her rhetorical tool of anti-brahminism bespeaks about her feminist praxis which distinguish her from feminist across culture. Similarly, her relentless appeals to dharmarajya (Alms for righteous government) shows that her resistance praxis are borne locally. Below, she decries government corruption and appeals for restorations of justice. She says, 

Kill the corrupt; behead the thief. 

Judge with virtue, eliminate lies. 

When our charioteer arrives, truth will reign. 

And smash kings and courtiers too. (Aziz 68) 

Finally, recovering and rewriting the rhetorical practice of feminism in the global south requires deep personal reflections alongside bringing the solidarity amongst the feminist across borders. As a Nepali woman, I grew up listening to the tale of my mother’s sister. When I listened to Barbara and her ethnographic account, it overlaps with listening to my mother’s sister along with my personal reflections to my own contemplative witness of her life that I saw as a kid. The collage of listening and mindful contemplation allowed me to think ‘dialectically and dialogically, to use tension, conflict, balances, and counterbalances as critical opportunities” (Krisch and Royster 652). In another word, listening to Barbara layered and broadened with listening to my mother and her sister, which became more viable when I collaged what Romeo Garcia calls community listening.  For me, community listening is listening to my mother’s sister, whose experiences were relational if not akin to the subject in question, made me feel that these women have stories to tell which I can never find in the history books. Through the practice of collaging, merging, and juxtaposing of different methodologies into one, I find that in a uniquely transnational situation like this one, methodological experimentation and conflict necessitates and procures recoveries and reconsideration of feminist rhetoricians. In another word, in the course of this research, I often intersect Garcia’s community listening and Sutherlands’ advice for negotiation and collaboration, and subsequently look to these methods from Kirsch and Royster’s idea of critical imagination and strategic contemplation; examining alone through one of these techniques deeply hinder (and sometimes limits) the possibility of reestablishing Yogmaya, whose rhetorical history lies under the teleological history of Nepal, the false lesson that was “asked” to transfer to me through my school teacher, and perhaps in the anecdote of my mother’s sister. 

**Acknowledgement: This paper went through the several phases of thinking, thinking the “thinking,” researching, writing, and revision. This work would not have been possible without the valuable comments and feedback from my mentor, Amy Lueck, associate professor at Santa Clara University, in all these phases of writing.


  1. In Nepali language, Sati is referred as both noun and verb. While using it as a noun, usually, during the time of Sati system, a woman would become Sati after their husband died. In that case, like widow, women would be referred as Sati. Sati is also used by referring to a practice, a verb. While, in both of these usages, “S” is capitalized.  
  2. I prefer to use the word Nepali (नेपाली) to Nepalese while referring to the people from Nepal. Nepali is directly derived from Nepali language, where it is called. In contrast, Nepalese is a word refer to people from Nepal usually by the British.  

Works Cited 

Aziz, Barbara Nimri. Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal. Center for  Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), 2001. 

—. Message to Asmita Ghimire, Messenger, 16 August, 2020. 

—. Yogmaya & Durga Devi: Rebel Women of Nepal. Mandala Book Points, 2020. 

Bhandari, Lekhnath. “साहसिक सुधारक” [Courageous Reformer]. Kantipur, 2013. 

Bhandari, Lekhnath.“ त्य पहिलो विद्रोहिणी योगमाया” [Yogmaya, the First Woman Rebel], 2057 B.S, 34–39. Asmita Publication, Nepal.  

Bizzell, Patricia. “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make?” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, 2000, pp. 5-17. 

Chapagain, Ninu. “प्रसिद्ध कवि योगमायाको ल्याकन[An Evaluation of the Progressive Poet Yogmaya]. In सामाजिक जागरणमा महिला विद्रोहको प्रस्थान [The Starting Point of Women’s Rebellion in Social Awakening], edited by Lekhnath Bhandari, 2003: i–ix. Kathmandu: Vivek Sirjansil Prakashan. 

Connerton, Paul. “Seven Types of Forgetting.” The Present Word Culture, Society and the Site of Literature, edited by John Walker, Routledge, 2017, pp. 150-65. 

Enoch, Jessica. “Changing Research Methods, Changing History: A Reflection on Language, Location, and Archive.” The Best of the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals 2011, Parlor Press, 2013, pp. 119-49. 

García, Romeo. “Creating Presence from Absence and Sound from Silence.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, pp. 7-15. 

Hamilton, Paula, and Linda Shopes, editors. Oral History and Public Memories. TempleUniversity Press, 2009. 

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. 1994. Routledge, 2014. 

Hutt, Michael. “The Disappearance and Reappearance of Yogmaya: Recovering a Nepali Revolutionary Icon.” Contemporary South Asia, vol. 21, no. 4, 2013, pp. 382-97. 

Karki, Govindamansingh. “समाजसुधारक योगमाया” [The Social Reformer Yogmaya]. Kathmandu: Sajha Prakashan (B.S. 2069). 

Karki Niharika, Neelam. Yogmaya. Sangri-La Books, 2018. 

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

Lama, Kumari. “Yogmaya and Durga Devi: Different Modes of Resistance to Patriarchy.” The Outlook: Journal of English Studies, vol. 12, 2021, pp. 16-23. 

Mohanty, Chandra. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.”Feminist Review, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 61-88. 

Narayan, Uma. “Essence of Culture and a Sense of History: A Feminist Critique of Cultural Essentialism.” Hypatia, vol. 13, no. 2, 1998, pp. 86-106. 

Neupane, Dipesh. Amar Jyoti Yogmaya. Kathmandu, Yogmaya Foundation, 2018. 

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40. 

Shrestha, Mathura Prasad. “योगमायाबिर्सिन नसकिने/ बिर्सिन नहुने एक ीरांगना.”[Yogmaya: Unforgettable Rebel] सामाजिक आन्दोलनकी अग्रणी तथा कवि : योगमाया, edited by Matrika Timsina, Nepal Adhyan Kendra, (B.S. 2057): 175-178. 

Shrestha, Tina. “The Life and Work of Yogmaya Neupane: A Representation of a Historical, Non-Secular and Political Subject.” Social Sciences in a Multicultural World, edited by K. N. Pyakuryal, B. K. Acharya, B. Timseena, G. Chhetri, M. Uprety, and D.P. Chapagain, Kathamandu, SASON, 2008, pp. 206-18. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?.”Die Philosophin, vol. 14, no. 27, 2003, pp. 42-58. 

Sutherland, Christine Mason. “Feminist Historiography: Research Methods in Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 109-22. 

Timsina, Matrika. नेपालको सामाजिक राजनीतिक आन्दोलनमा योगमाया [Yogmaya in Nepal’s Social–Political Movement]. In सामाजिक आन्दोलनकी अग्रणी तथा आदिकवि योगमाया [Yogmaya, Leader of a Social Movement and Founder Poet], edited by Matrika Timsina, L. S. Kunwar, (B.S 2057): 138–166. Kathmandu: Adhyayan Kendra. 

Upreti, Bishnu R., Drishti Upreti, and Yamuna Ghale. “Nepali Women in Politics: Success and Challenges.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2020, pp. 76-93. 

Yadav, Punam. “White Sari—Transforming Widowhood in Nepal.” Gender, Technology and Development, vol. 20, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24. 

Overlooked Sources of Feminist Material in Unlikely Archival Collections: Recoveries and Reconsiderations of Writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ (1844-1911) Letters to 19th Century Physician S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)

Highly successful 19th century physician S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) is known in feminist circles for his development of the controversial rest cure for hysteria, which evolved from his work with malingering soldiers during the Civil War to whom he would assign “the most disagreeable jobs, so that after a few weeks in the latrines they were eager to return to the front” (Showalter 298).  Mitchell recognized that women were “house caged,” but his rest cure still “prescribed obedience and sent them home[2]” (Cervetti 91). Mitchell believed that a woman would happily return to the mundane circumstances of her day-to-day life after being forced to spend weeks in utter boredom. Mitchell, a leading specialist on injuries of the nerves, worked with Civil War amputees at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia and maintained a clinical practice along with his son John in the same city. He also was well-known for his work with women with mysterious mental health conditions (Schuster).  

American writer and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was, arguably, the most famous patient to undergo the rest cure—a treatment she found much more harmful than helpful. In a letter which Gilman poignantly and hopefully wrote to Mitchell to seek out his help, she wrote, “I understand you are the first authority on nervous diseases. Are you on brain troubles too? There is something the matter with my head.  No one here knows or believes or cares.  Of course, they can’t care for what they don’t believe. But you will know” (Knight 274).  Gilman sensed that she was suffering from something that was “brain”-based.  She was quite right; if we were to venture a contemporary guess: Gilman had postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, the rest cure made her feel much worse. 

Feminist researchers have found women’s contributions in archival collections that are largely dedicated to preserving the life and work of male family members and friends. Mitchell’s archives, though, would not be an obvious source of feminist material since he is a known misogynist. In this essay, we ask readers to reconsider Mitchell’s archives via letters a strong feminist woman—American writer and intellectual Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911)—wrote to him. These letters show how a woman responded to and interacted with Mitchell’s notoriously misogynistic notions of women’s worth. In so doing, we seek to offer a description and contextualization of specific material in an archival collection that we believe could be of potential interest to Peitho readers.  

Using Phelps’s letters as a case study, we argue that notoriously misogynistic historical figures’ archival collections might house important material for feminist researchers and that these texts should be recovered and reconsidered for their value in potentially identifying previously unknown or unacknowledged roots of contemporary feminist theories and terminologies. That is, feminist researchers might overlook the papers of figures such as Mitchell as potential sites of feminist work due to their notorious misogyny, yet such collections may house remnants of little-known resistance to that misogyny. Mitchell often turned to women for emotional support (Cervetti 225), especially to published writers who could offer feedback on his own writing endeavors; among them was American author and intellectual Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911). Phelps leaves compelling nine letters only behind in Mitchell’s archives (1884-1897), yet we focus here on Phelps as her letters present a clear and assertive feminist engagement challenging Mitchell’s problematic views on women; these extant letters are ultimately a reflection of a 25-year friendship of equals. Phelps’ letters to Mitchell, along with letters from other women (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Anne K. Williams Mitchell, his daughter-in-law), are part of the archival material housed in the Mitchell Papers, at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Below, we offer samplings from Phelps’ impressive feminist texts to show how even archival collections that would seem to be mere celebrations of dominant misogynistic figures could house women’s relevant articulations of independent (and early) feminist stances. We hope readers are encouraged to seek out similar texts in other unlikely collections.  

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911): The “Professional Invalid” 

Born in Boston in 1844 to a religious father and a literary author mother, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was a prolific fiction writer whose work explores a transitional period in women’s lives—a departure from Victorian models, and an opening of professional spaces for women during the second half of the 19th century (Stansell; Tuttle). When she began to write back-and-forth with Mitchell, the forty year-old author was already a self-determined “professional invalid” with an established literary career. Activist, intellectual, frail, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps became a keen observer of her social experiences. Importantly, her health informed her fictional and personal writings as well as her friendships. While she regarded Mitchell on occasion as an acquaintance only, Phelps’ friendship with Mitchell as it comes across in her letters to him reveal her efforts to assert her worth and the validity of her embodied knowledges of health via the relationship.  

While Phelps’ letters persistently portray the author as sickly, she draws from these and other embodied experiences—frail health and bouts of insomnia included—to inform her foremost intellectual self. Her exchanges with Mitchell are sustained peer engagements in which she makes sense of her own condition (or rather surrenders to it and counters his claims to have treatments that could help her) and articulates the difficulties of a professional career in writing for women. She does so while offering Mitchell praise and criticism on his fictional characters and responding to his comments on her work with either gratitude or vigorous distance. Her willingness to engage in a professional literary friendship through letters with this man is an exercise in the art of “personal comprehension between a man and a woman” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, Thanksgiving Day, 1884)—a rare occurrence and a modeling of gender equality on her part, and a much-needed intellectual practice between the genders, so she thought. Their professional friendship—her literary feedback, his medical interest in her health—continued for 25 years, until her death in 1911. 

In her letters to Mitchell, Phelps pushed back against his misogynistic views of women in three ways: through articulations of her embodied experiences of constant weakness, exhaustion, and insomnia, which only she could comprehend; via feedback on Mitchell’s fiction; and through the creation of an ideal care provider in the form of the protagonist and title character in her novel Dr. Zay. Far from merely a fictional character, though, Dr. Zay was an aspirational figure she hoped to make manifest in a specific way—a truth that comes through in her references to her attendant habit of giving financial support to women in medical schools. Indeed, Phelps’ references to her patronage of young, aspiring female doctors alongside her polite refusals to succumb to Mitchell’s brand of treatment—allopathic—stake out strong feminist positions worthy of recovery and reconsideration.  

Phelps’ Embodied Experiences  

Sometimes deferent to her physician friend, Phelps nonetheless manages to articulate a complex identity in her letters to Mitchell—at once health broken, yet determined and confident in the validity of her observations, both medical and literary. One kind of awareness—her health—is not severed from her professional awareness—her writing and reviewer sage. In one letter, she claims to have an appreciation of Mitchell’s medical training, yet she is clear that she also has a great deal of medical knowledge “from [her] long, varied, and more or less intimate acquaintance with [his] profession” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). Repeatedly, too, she asserts her authority as a woman who, though enduring a “pretty serious” condition (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884), acts upon her patient status rather than solely being acted upon. While she acknowledges, for instance, that drugs have indeed been prescribed, she is clear that she knows they won’t help her. In one letter, for example, she makes it clear that while a prescription medication may help her debilitating insomnia, she nonetheless won’t take them. As she puts it to Mitchell, “Thank you for your kind wish to do something for me. The main trouble with that is that I am a devout homeopathist … I do not think it right (for me) to take drugs … I have been torn to shreds by insomnia.” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 3, 1884).   

Ahead of her time, Phelps was well aware that her condition was likely chronic and that she would not see a cure in her lifetime. Her letters make it clear that Mitchell continually offers to treat her and believes he can help her, yet she consistently shows her confidence in her own self-knowledge when she makes it clear that she will not be cured via his methods and that she does not fully trust his type of medical authority. Phelps tells Mitchell: “I thank you for your kind offer of medical help. It is good in you, and I have meant to say so before now (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 16, 1884). She is clear, then, that she will not be availing herself of his medical help and that the nature of the correspondence is not that of a doctor-patient, but of literary and intellectual peers.

Feedback on Mitchell’s Fiction  

In her letter dated February 27, 1884, it is clear that the exchanges back-and-forth began not with an understanding of her need for his medical help, but with plans to exchange manuscripts for literary feedback. In her notes to Mitchell on how the relationships between men and women should be represented in fiction, she is clear in her desire to offer him feedback on his writing and to do so from her vantage point as a woman. As she notes, “The novelist, especially, needs ample room for his hero and heroine to develop that most difficult of arts—personal comprehension between a man and a woman. I think it very rare—very rare; and the lack of it is the saddest thing in the world; especially in women’s worlds” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, Thanksgiving Day, 1884).  

Ever the intellect, Phelps read not only Mitchell’s fiction, but also his work published in medical journals. Phelps offers comments about this man’s medical stories (per his request), yet is careful to bolster the validity of her observations on Mitchell’s fictional writing—especially his characterization of women—by referring to her embodied experiences in health and medical settings:  “I greatly enjoy the vividness of your characterizations and balance of constructions, and the result of the special training brought to bear upon your material. This last I can perhaps peculiarly appreciate, from a long, varied, and more or less intimate acquaintance with your profession” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). As she also notes, “Having been a ‘professional invalid’ in ‘good and regular standing’ for almost half my life, I have a realizing sense of the ‘points’ in a well-drawn Doctor, and am rather alive both to the weaknesses and the nobility of the race” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, January 25, 1884). 

Phelps also is careful to buffer her observations with deference to Mitchell’s status as a doctor, yet she still makes space to assert the criticisms in her observations; as she wrote: “The saddest thing about the profession is that it inculcates a kind of self-defence, that may be almost brutal in the tenderest man; to save himself from being spent and wrecked by sympathy, or its correlative thoughtfulness, he may force himself into a coat-of-male that bruises—if not kills—a patient. But what a lecture on the profession. I should beg your pardon” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884).  

In response to a critical review of his work, Mitchell must have said that he should not write any more fictional accounts of doctors, to which Phelps replied with encouragement to simply vary his representations: “So. Do not say you will write no more doctors. Write the Other kind of a Doctor. Analyze a nobler one—Say some things no one but a Doctor can say” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884). In all of her correspondence related to his literary works, Phelps is clear that she considers herself his peer in writing and that while she does respect his authority as a medical doctor, she suggests that he should, likewise, respect her authority as longtime consumer of medical care.  

The Creation of Dr. Zay  

As is clear above, resistance, awareness, and agency took the form of her treatment choices—she trusted homeopathy, a practice which allowed her to merge her life with her writing. Phelps also displayed these strong traits in her fiction writing, perhaps most notably in her most known novel.  Phelps’ novel Doctor Zay was published in 1882 as was well-received, and she used references to her strong female character to further assert her value in her letters to Mitchell. “Touching the doctors of fiction,” as she put it, Phelps introduces Mitchell to her fictional character Doctor Zay, a physician, a woman, a homeopathistRhetorically, using knowledge of her condition, and her acquaintance with male and female doctors, both allopathic and homeopathic—she crafts a woman doctor, doctor Zay, which in the eyes of an ill, male, fictional patient appears to have strong, yet feminine hands. The patient perceives “… a woman of medium height, with a well-shaped head. … [and] … dress and carriage of a lady” (Phelps, Doctor Zay, p. 44). Confused, ill, posing no further resistance, the patient yields, “I am in a woman’s hands!” (Phelps, Doctor Zay, p. 44). 

Mitchell’s reception of Doctor Zay must have been carping. Phelps was equally blunt. In a letter to Mitchell dated November 18, 1884, not only does she disapprove of his comment, but she points to his male ways of knowing. In a related correspondence, she observes: 

As to Doctor Zay … Were I an old friend, instead of a very new one—or, I ought rather to say, new acquaintance—I should take you to task a little for what you say of women physicians. It doesn’t seem to me quite fair; or else you really don’t know! … and most men Doctors do not. I know women physicians thoroughly. For some years my most intimate friend was one of them. I know the career from matriculation to success or failure. I have directly, or indirectly, been the means of putting four [our emphasis] young women into the profession; who have all honored it, so far.  (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, November 18, 1884) 

Phelps defends women physicians from experience, as patient, observer, and, as she makes clear in this letter, a financial supporter.  

She argues rigorously for Mitchell to accept the authenticity of the representation in the form of Dr. Zay: “Although a woman and a homeopathist, you will be liberal enough to grant her professional courtesy, I think” (Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, February 3, 1884). Her insistence on the validity of Dr. Zay as a representation of a medical professional alongside her support of women wishing to become medical doctors impart her strong feminist views in letters written to a man who’d not, by all accounts, held women in very high esteem in professional spaces, and in particular, in medical professions.  


Overall, we contend Elizabeth Stuart Phelps—the “professional invalid,” the constant patient—embodies ways of pushing back against medical authority and mainstream medicine and uses writing—novels and letters—to advocate for alternative perspectives. Phelps expressed her dissatisfaction with public medical discourse and practice through her critique of Mitchell’s literary works. Beyond simply resisting traditional medical advice, Phelps reconfigures it to suit her needs in her creation of Dr. Zay and attendant financial support of women in medical schools. Phelps’ letters are, thus, examples of early feminist work in agency, in professional and personal authority stemming from marginalized persons’ knowledge of their own embodied experiences and intellect. Phelps’s writing is likewise invitational, visionary, stubborn. She breaks through Victorian “morals” and writes her voice into science. Rather than staying mute, Phelps engaged in an epistolary professional friendship with Mitchell to articulate an alternative experience. In Phelps, readers will find a strong writer who challenges a then-prominent medical doctor on medical and literary grounds. The existence of these letters point to important recovery work for contemporary archival feminism—to identify notorious patriarchs and misogynists and to elevate the voices of the women in their lives who dared to challenge and resist their ideologies. After all, it is misogyny and patriarchy we have to blame for the fact that Mitchell is most remembered, quoted, celebrated, and reviled from the 19th century letter writers represented in his archives. We, thus, ask Peitho readers: 

  • What other feminist texts might be hidden in notoriously misogynistic male archival collections, and how can these texts be identified and recovered? 
  • How might epistolary exchanges and other ephemeral sources of feminist activism inform contemporary practices of feminist scholarship? 
  • How might archival materials like these help scholars to recover a fuller feminist timeline such that it could inform a more robust set of contemporary feminist archival methodologies? 

End notes

[1]Charlotte Perkins Gilman, of course, was arguably the most famous patient to undergo the rest cure—a treatment she found much more harmful than helpful. In a letter Gilman poignantly and hopefully wrote to Mitchell to seek out his help, she wrote, “I understand you are the first authority on nervous diseases. Are you on brain troubles too? There is something the matter with my head.  No one here knows or believes or cares.  Of course they can’t care for what they don’t believe. But you will know” (Knight 274).  Gilman sensed that she was suffering from something that was “brain”—based.  She was quite right, if we were to venture a contemporary guess: Gilman had postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, the rest cure made her feel much worse. 


[2]As Mitchell put it in his 1877 volume Fat and Blood, “When they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and have one nurse—who is not a relative—then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine, and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about when the doctor issues a mandate which has become pleasantly welcome and eagerly looked for” (41). 

Works Cited 

Cervetti, Nancy. S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician. State Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. Print. 

Knight, Denise D. “‘All the Facts of the Case’: Gilman’s Lost Letter to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.” American Literary Realism 37.3 (2005): 259-77. Print. 

Mitchell, Silas Weir. Fat and Blood. Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott, 1893. Print. 

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Doctor Zay: Afterwards by Michael Sartisky. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993. Print. 

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Letters to S. Weir Mitchell, 1884, 1887, 1897. Series 4.3, Box 9, Folder 278. Silas Weir Mitchell Papers MSS 2/0241-03. Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. 

Showalter, Elaine. Hysteria Beyond Freud. Oakland: University of California Press, 1993. Print. 

Schuster, David. “Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870-1914.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79.4 (2005): 695-722. Print. 

Stansell, Christine. “Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: A Study in Female Rebellion.” The Massachusetts Review 13.5 (1972): 239-256. Print. 

Tuttle, Jennifer. “Letters from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward) to S. Weir Mitchell, M.D., 1884-1897.” Legacy 17.1 (2000): 83-94. Print.  

Recoveries and Reconsiderations: Feminist Coworking Spaces as New Sites for Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry


I walked into The Riveter, a coworking space “built by women for everyone,” and took a deep, calming breath as natural light poured in from the floor to ceiling windows that made up one wall of the two-story, loft-like space. I felt a sense of relief as I took the tour of their flagship location, realizing that the combination of a supportive community and inclusive-oriented space could be the jumpstart I needed for my dissertation. Though I had finished data collection a month before, a combination of anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome had paralyzed my writing progress; I needed a change of pace. The Riveter, my tour guide explained, approaches coworking spaces differently, re-imagining the working body as a woman. She pointed out things that are purposefully designed to empower working women: artwork of women by women, conference rooms named after feminists, bathrooms with free menstrual products, showers with cruelty free products and blow-dryers, a yoga studio available for personal use and classes, healthy snacks and sparkling water, a meditation room, etc. As we walked from the main floor—an open concept kitchen, community tables, call rooms, and conference spaces—to the lower level—individual and small group offices, community couches, a kitchenette, meditation room, a yoga room—I realized that this was the first workspace where I felt like I belong, like the space was designed with my needs in mind. In the next three months of dissertation writing, fueled by engaging conversations with members, inspiring self-care classes, and energizing meditation and yoga breaks, I became enamored with a space that felt so completely made for me—and interested in how I could replicate its strengths when I returned to the university setting. But, now, as I sit writing this article, considering how coworking spaces like The Riveter might be a new site for feminist rhetorical inquiry, I wonder: would I have felt that deep sense of belonging at the Riveter if I was a woman of color, of a different socioeconomic background, or inhabiting a differently abled body?[1]   

My experience at The Riveter led me investigate what I have identified as “feminist coworking spaces,” or the growing collection of coworking spaces that are designed to support the needs of working women and their allies. I identify them as feminist, which I interpret as the “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks 1). I conducted this preliminary research in the hopes that I might better understand how to change my pedagogy to be more inclusive—and to advocate for the thoughtful design of spaces on our college campus. Though the coworking spaces I identify in this project often invoke feminist rhetorics of women empowerment, equity, and access, the vast majority do not self-identify as explicitly “feminist.” Therefore, I adopt Royster and Kirsch’s methodology of “critical imagination,” looking for feminist activity “in places at which we have not looked seriously or methodically before” (72) by considering how some niche coworking spaces function as incubators for feminist activity.   

Rhetoricians have studied coworking spaces (Spinuzzi, “Working Alone Together”; Spinuzzi et al) and workplaces more broadly (Spinuzzi, “All Edge”), along with the rhetorical practices of working women (Applegarth; Enoch; Gold; Jack; Skinner; Wells) and work-related rhetorics more broadly (Hallenbeck and Smith)—but none to date have considered the rhetorics of spaces that I identify as “feminist coworking spaces,” or coworking spaces that name and practice values of bell hooks’ interpretation of feminism in their conceptualization and design[2]. These coworking spaces are important sites of inquiry for rhetorical feminists because they can give more insight into the way feminism can imbue the rhetorics of a workplace while providing models that can inspire the design of our classroom and university workplace settings. Rhetorical feminists have done the important work of acknowledging how “work, workspaces, and work training are extremely important dimensions of the rhetorical life of women” (Hallenbeck and Smith 206), but work-related rhetorics remain an under-represented area of inquiry in feminist rhetorics and coworking spaces have yet to be studied by feminist rhetoricians. In this Recoveries and Reconsiderations article, I present feminist coworking spaces as a new area of inquiry for feminist rhetorics, mapping the topoi of why these feminist coworking spaces exist— community, inclusivity, and empowerment—while giving insight into future research related to each topos. I conclude with lingering questions about the extent to which these spaces might give insight into how to use classrooms and other university settings to create equitable work environments for undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty.  

Feminist Coworking Spaces: A New Site of Inquiry  

Because of the increasing need for office space that caters to remote employees, start-up companies with limited employees, and freelancers, coworking spaces are the newest iteration of office space (Davis, Sundararajan); they are “shared working environments in which independent knowledge workers gather to create knowledge and benefit from it” (Spinuzzi et al. 113), or put more simply, a place where people gather to “work alone together” (Spinuzzi 229). Coworking spaces first emerged in 2005, beginning with a space in San Francisco that Brad Neuberg created as a way for independent workers to gather in a community to work (Jones et al.). The number of coworking spaces has grown rapidly since 2005 with 15,500 coworking sites reported in 2017  (2018 Coworking Forecast) and a projected growth to 40,000 coworking spaces worldwide by 2024 (Global Coworking Growth Study 2020).[3] Though there are no demographic statistics available of who makes up the population of coworkers, the general coworking population is typically thought of as white and male; though, the “overall population of freelance workers is growing…with black workers making up just under four percent of that population of both incorporated and unincorporated self-employed workers” (Dorsey). In 2020, only 14% of U.S.-based coworking spaces were black-owned, but “black women, for example, are currently the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America—so are spaces for them” (Garrett). Though coworking owners are predominantly white, black-owned coworking spaces are a growing group of coworking spaces, and they tend to be located in diverse neighborhoods and designed to support people of color’s needs and interests (Wingard).  

As coworking spaces have become more popular, some owners have chosen to design and cater to a specific interest or demographic like women, working parents, the LGBTQ community, or artists—creating an influx of niche coworking spaces that “some feel are the future of coworking because of the other services they offer” (Coworking Resources). In 2011, Herahub emerged as the first international women-only coworking space, and other coworking spaces quickly emerged. One such U.S.-based women-only coworking space, The Wing, has gotten so popular that its members are well-known in their industries, its social media following attracts the likes of modern feminist icons, and its community events attract presidential candidates (Riley); journalists have gone so far to suggest The Wing, and other coworking spaces like it, function like a modern-day version of women’s clubs (North and Lieber). Feminist rhetoricians are uniquely poised to consider historical archives alongside artifacts of these coworking spaces to consider the validity of these claims—and I encourage future researchers to consider that noteworthy project. This Recoveries and Reconsiderations project serves as a mere conversation starter to this topic of feminist coworking spaces: I introduce feminist rhetoricians to coworking spaces as a site of inquiry while illuminating the topoi for why feminist coworking spaces exist so that we might emulate their successes in our own feminist pedagogies.   

To do this research, I began by investigating U.S.-based coworking spaces that limit membership to women allies[4]. Though all of the coworking spaces I have selected for this study name and practice values of feminism, it is important to recognize that not all of these coworking spaces are indeed successful at their goals at embodying intersectional feminism[5]. The Wing, for example, has functioned as a safe haven for many working women worldwide and has diversity and inclusion initiatives—and yet is often critiqued as elitist and overwhelmingly white, with racist behavior reported from members of colors (Reghay). LC Johnson, founder of Zora’s House (a black-owned, women-owned feminist coworking space in Central Ohio) whose website proclaims it helps women of color and their allies “to live their best lives and do their best work” argues that coworking spaces can function as what she calls “fourth places” or “a community gathering space that centers the ideas and identities of a particularly marginalized group” (Johnson). In her TED Talk, Johnson discusses how she hopes that Zora’s House and spaces like it will help alleviate what she calls the “brain drain,” or the mental energy subconsciously used from POC who are the only (or the few) in the room—mental energy that could be used innovating. Therefore this article specifically includes research on the budding group of U.S.-located, black-owned feminist coworking spaces found through researching each of The Plug’s List of Black Co-Working Spaces to find the women-owned coworking spaces (Blackbird, Browngirl Project, Camp Workspace, Ethel’s Club, and Zora’s House), along with sampling twelve U.S.-located feminist leaning coworking spaces found through researching women-owned and women-only coworking spaces (AllBright, Circle+Moon, EvolveHer, HeraHub, Sesh, The Assembly, The Coven, The Hivery, The Perlene, The Riveter, The Treasury, and The Wing). Upon selecting these 17 sites, I modeled my methodology after work-related rhetoricians Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, who used topoi to trace reasonings for why people work, and developed new topoi to describe the lines of argument for why these feminist coworking spaces emerged, using the homepages and “about us” sections on the seventeen coworking websites. Preliminary findings suggest that feminist coworking spaces use the following topoi: community, inclusivity, and empowerment. To better situate my findings with the lived experiences of people designing and working within those spaces, I then surveyed leaders and/or members of the different feminist coworking spaces from the list above. The next section details my findings, while suggesting lingering questions that feminist rhetoricians might take up in future research.  

Tracing Rhetorical Topoi and Considering Implications

Research shows that community in coworking spaces are “driven by the logic of the market” (Spinuzzi et al, 133), and coworking spaces are built as places for solo-workers to gather “with an explicit purpose of social belonging” (Garrett et al. 822). At feminist coworking spaces, community seems to be for more than “social belonging” but for empowerment. Preliminary analysis suggests that what sets feminist coworking spaces apart is how they define community (as inclusive)—and what they hope that community will help folks do (empower women). The Treasury, for example, markets themselves as “a community of women who believe we are successful when we support each other,” which indicates that the community is for networking and sharing expertise so the community as a whole can succeed. The Coven explains, “We hold space for the magic women, non-binary and trans folks create when they come together as their whole-selves” (The Coven). In their mission, we see a commitment to an inclusive community— in the hopes that the collaboration between members will lead to “magic,” or the betterment of themselves (and perhaps others).   

Black-owned coworking spaces, in particular, “[center] access and cultural consciousness” (Martinez), and initial findings indicate that feminism imbues black-owned, women-owned coworking spaces. The New Women’s Space announces, “We envision a world where all people—regardless of their color, culture, gender identity, expression or presentation— are affirmed with dignity, respect and are given abundant access to the resources and opportunities they need to prosper and thrive”and Brown Girl Project’s about us section explains, “For Black women, community is often paramount as we navigate life in predominantly white, and inherently anti-Black, spaces” (Brown Girl Project). For these coworking spaces, community empowers women in the coworking space but also works to uplift the broader neighborhood or the WOC community more generally. Given that feminist coworking spaces have not been studied by rhetoricians yet, I posit more research into these topoi of community, inclusivity, and empowerment at feminist coworking spaces could complicate findings about the purpose of community and collaboration in coworking spaces. Feminist rhetoricians could gain insight into how the rhetorics of feminism shape the rhetorics of community and collaboration in a workplace.  

Feminist coworking spaces support community-building by organizing collaborative activities like mentorship events, self-help workshops, or online message boards that are central to the coworking space (Shaver et al.). In interviews, many members suggested that feminist practitioners should employ similar tactics in their classrooms by “fostering inspiration through collaboration” and creating “event-based activities” where students could learn from each other and/or invited community members. This suggestion to make collaboration central to pedagogy makes sense; fifteen of the seventeen feminist coworking spaces that I researched offer a membership for people who do not need the coworking space, but still want access to the in person and/or virtual community. Though feminist rhetoricians have already suggested “horizontal mentoring” as useful for professionalization in university settings (VanHaitsma and Ceraso), perhaps more research into the success of feminist coworking spaces’ mentoring could give even more insight into how to better institute formalized community mentoring.   

The kind of community that feminist coworking sites strive to curate are inclusive, leading me to locate the second topos as “inclusivity.” Though feminist coworking spaces intend to be inclusive, I am not trying to suggest that they always succeed in that goal. Feminist rhetoricians can and should do more research into the membership of these feminist coworking spaces when investigating this topos further: we should research the demographic diversity of these self-proclaimed inclusive coworking spaces’ membership and compare to other coworking spaces without an inclusivity commitment and/or to companies of similar size. As another leadership interviewee explained, she was a member of a women-only coworking space and “quickly learned that [she] was not their target audience,” so she decided to open her coworking space because “women, especially women of color need to feel empowered, seen, supported, and safe.”  Feminist coworking spaces clearly indicate their goal of inclusivity; for example, Ethel’s Club’s promises of “no ‘-ists,’ ‘-isms,’ or ‘-phobias,” and The Riveter’s proclamations that “equity of opportunity should be a reality, not a promise” (The Riveter). Though this move towards inclusivity is a purposeful choice, only one of the seventeen spaces listed accessibility specifications for differently abled folks. It seems, instead, like the main focus is on diversity as it pertains to race, culture, sexuality, and gender-expression. As one leadership interviewee explained, “coworking spaces generally, much like academic spaces, have been critiqued as white-washed spaces—and with their kegs and ping pong tables, it was just another boys club.  

We’re hoping to do something different; something where folks who are underrepresented and othered in the workforce—like people of color or LGBT or gender non-conforming folks—might find a safe and supportive environment.” Member interviewees valued inclusive workspaces so much that they suggested, we, in our role as teachers, could “[bring] in a diverse set of practitioners to speak to students to foster discussion” and “[create] spaces that are both independent and collaborative [because it] allows for people with different abilities to be comfortable.” Because office space design reflects industry and workplace values (Ashkanasy et al.), we could also consider how the spatial rhetorics of feminist coworking spaces are indeed inclusive of both the needs of their intended membership population and the population that the coworking space actually attracted. For example, efficiency and cost-saving values are present in cubicle set ups while networked-thought is valued in office space with movable furniture (Dennis). A spatial rhetorical analysis of feminist coworking spaces could help illuminate if the projected value of inclusivity was one echoed in the spaces’ design—or if other values seem to be indicated. Though universal design might be outside of our traditional purview as feminist rhetoricians, it raises the question of whether feminist rhetoricians might lobby for more inclusive classroom and university workspace design.  

Feminist coworking spaces often tied their missions to a topos can be broadly defined as empowerment. For example, Blackbird claims that “creating positive change in the world requires a balanced approach to life and work,” and Camp Workspace shares a quote from the founder, stating “The mission is simple: to create a world where people understand their influence, and know that it can be used to sustain their lifestyle and help them accomplish their wildest dreams.” This attention to the relationship between self-actualization and community activism might be an interesting site of inquiry for those interested in shifting topoi of work-related rhetorics. Further research into this topos might help us understand the growing trends of healthy food in workplaces, gym-membership discounts, and onsite child care—and the rhetorics that surround them. Perhaps popularized rhetorics of self-care have become intertwined with work-related rhetorics. It certainly seems to be the case in these coworking spaces, who claim to support both “working and personal lives” (Sesh) with one feminist coworking space going so far as calling itself a “wellness club” (The Assembly) rather than a coworking space. Perhaps feminist rhetoricians could consider the extent to which these spaces attention on self-care and community-activism does indeed contribute to the empowerment of the members and the surrounding community.   

Though these topoi are new contributions to rhetorical feminist scholarship, the seventeen coworking spaces that I investigated for these preliminary findings are not comprehensive of the multitude of feminist coworking spaces that exist, and therefore the topoi presented and research suggestions are merely preliminary findings presented to inspire conversation and future research. I am hopeful feminist rhetoricians will take up the multiple projects I have suggested: archival projects considering the connection between women’s clubs and feminist coworking spaces; case studies that consider the extent to which feminist coworking spaces are the inclusive, empowering workplaces they claim to be; rhetorical analysis of how feminist coworking space’s community events shift national and local conversations about women’s issues, mental health, and politics in work places. Regardless of what kinds of research projects ensue, I project that future research into feminist coworking spaces might have important ramifications for feminist pedagogy, much like how research in makerspaces has influenced composition pedagogy (Kaupf), along with implications for workplace design in our university settings. Research studies on feminist coworking spaces has the potential to be a robust area of scholarship, and I look forward to the ways that research about feminist coworking spaces will contribute to feminist rhetorical scholarship, and in turn our pedagogies and workspaces. 

End notes

[1]I am indebted to a reviewer of this article, whose critical questions about my experience at The Riveter as being so comfortable because of the body I inhabit, helped me consider this question. This reviewer not only shifted my thoughts about why I felt comfortable in this space, but also re-shaped the scope of this project, making the discussion of race and class at the forefront of the analysis in this Recoveries and Reconsiderations article.  

[2]When I use “feminism” in this essay, I draw from bell hooks’ commonly cited interpretation of feminism that I cite earlier: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (1).  

[3]Though Covid-19 has affected the coworking industry and caused some to close their doors, many have shifted to lower capacity protocols or digital memberships that incorporate online networking and virtual events to remain in business.  

[4]For the sake of brevity, I narrowed my sites to coworking spaces that had U.S. locations (perhaps in addition to other European locations), but future research can and should be done on feminist coworking spaces with attention to a more representative global sampling. Feminist coworking spaces are a global phenomenon.

[5]Like the feminist movement in general, the feminism that is practiced in coworking spaces can be flawed. Some of the coworking spaces can attract and work best for white, upper-class, able-bodied, neurotypical women. I chose to study them anyway because they do try to function as intersectional feminists: they value diversity and try to support it by having scholarship options for members; invite speakers of color and/or inhabiting queer and differently abled bodies; and work hard to listen to their members to fix their accidental but still not excusable incidents of racism, classism, homophobia, or discrimination.   

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Enoch, Jessica. “A Woman’s Place Is in the School: Rhetorics of Gendered Space in Nineteenth-Century America.” College English, vol. 70, no. 3, 2008, pp. 275-95.  

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Garrett, Brianne. “The New Wave Of Co-Working Is Black-Owned, Inclusive And Serving The Underserved.” Forbes. 2 February 2020. Accessed 1 March 2020.   

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Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. Print.  

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Reghay, Nayomi. “The Wing’s inclusive, exclusive approach to diversity.” Daily Dot. 27 Jan. 2021. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.  

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Research on the Literate Practices of Field Matrons on the Hopi Reservation

Figure 1: “View of lower village road” (Idella Hahn) with her shadow c. 1913-14. Image description: a wide shot of flat land with short shrubs. In the foreground is a shadow of a woman in a long dress.

This is a research story about my great-great grandmother, who was a field matron on the Hopi reservation in the early 1900s. The field matron program was part of the colonial project that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples. Other such programs included native children’s forced attendance at boarding schools, the reservation system itself that supported landholding and property concepts, and farming/employment programs that disrupted traditional activities and lifeways. Although government intentions were framed as benevolent in public discourse, and some employees who implemented these programs might have believed that their actions were coming from the best intentions, the effect that they had was to destroy native culture. This colonial project served to support the dominance of white culture in the United States, which benefits white people such as myself to this day. I am a white female scholar, writing about my white female ancestor and her relationship with the Hopi people she worked with on the reservation. I feel obligated to tell this story because I feel that such destructive governmental programs should not be allowed to exist – that if the history of the field matron program is forgotten, it could be repeated, and that if there is any chance for restitution and reconciliation with Indigenous people, it is important to have this conversation.   

I grew up hearing fantastic stories about my great-great grandmother Idella Senour Hahn (1869-1969), who worked as a field matron on the Hopi reservation in Arizona in the early 1900s. She left her midwestern home in Bourbon, Indiana, after the untimely death of her husband Daniel Hahn from tuberculosis on May 9, 1909, and the death of her mother Sophia Baylor one year later. Idella had two young sons, 13-year-old Harold and 10-year-old Donald. They moved west to Dickinson, North Dakota, where Idella’s brother George A. Senour lived. Idella supposedly inherited land there, but her sons were too young to work the farm. She also was trained to give music lessons and thought of opening a music store, but there was not much interest in music in the rural town. 

Figure 2: Idella Hahn c. 1913. Image description: a headshot of Idella Hahn, who would have been in her mid-40s. She has short curly hair and is dressed in a white blouse with a dark bow at the throat. She is looking directly into the camera with a serious expression.

So, her brother recommended that she seek work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as the Sioux and Mandan Indians had settlements nearby. She passed the Civil Service Field Matron Examination on September 10, 1913, which included home economics subjects such as “keeping accounts,” “elementary sewing,” “cooking and general household management,” “sanitation, hygiene, care of the sick, care and feeding of children,” “home gardening and poultry raising,” and “methods of social work” (U.S. Civil Service Commission). She hoped to be assigned work nearby in North Dakota, but she was instead given a post at the Moqui[1]  Agency at Stearns Canyon, Arizona, and she was notified that “This Agency is remote from the Railroad and there are no school facilities for your sons,” despite the fact that there was a school on the reservation for the Hopis, which was not considered suitable for her children (U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Education – Appointments”). Idella would be paid $660 a year (which was equivalent to about $18,000 in 2021 purchasing power), but she was responsible for paying her own way to the reservation, which would include travel by train, car, and then buckboard or stagecoach (U.S. Dept. of the Interior, “Education – Employees”). 

When my family would tell her story, they would bring out an old photo album, newspaper clippings, and other documents that gave evidence and context to Idella’s life. They had a box of Indian artifacts that Idella had collected, either given to her as gifts (as I was told) or purchased, including moccasins, a braided rug, and woven baskets. Idella donated many pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History after it was founded in 1920. My family sold some of the pieces when I was a child, but some are still in boxes in my possession or stored by other family members. I considered donating the items that I had to the natural history museum, some arrowheads and a rug, but then learned about the Hopi reclamation efforts, especially of kachina dolls, from museums around the country and world when I visited the Hopi reservation. The repatriation of such artifacts is important to the Hopi people, and so returning them to the ancestors of the people who made them is a step toward restoration of Indigenous sovereignty. 

My family also had essays that Idella had written about the Hopi snake dance, the naming of a Hopi baby, and her “Plea for the Indian” that sought the right for the Hopi to continue their dances and cultural practices (Hahn, “Description,” “The Naming,” and “Plea”). My family characterized her work by claiming that “she was a teacher” on the reservation, or that “she taught at a school” there. They also said that she wrote one of the first Hopi-English dictionaries, and that it was kept in the Library of Congress or records of the Bureau of the Interior[2]. These artifacts and stories made me curious about Idella’s life and work. 

When I decided to write a biography of Idella Hahn in 2015 and started researching the field matrons and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I found a very different view of their work in the history books. Field matrons were employed by the U.S. government to conduct the cultural assimilation of Native American women (Emmerich “Right in the Midst,” “Marguerite Laflesche Diddock”; Simonsen “‘Object Lessons,’” “Making Home Work”). They were supposed to help improve sanitary conditions and aid in medical matters, but most were not nurses. They taught Native American women how to cook, clean, sew, and act like American farm women (Bryson & Hansen). Field matrons were not formally trained, but instead brought their own understanding of their role to the job and received guidance from “circulars” and letters sent from their supervisors. The program, although ostensibly acting as a form of social work to aid Indigenous peoples, resulted in the further destruction of native culture (after their land was taken and they were moved onto reservations) and created a rift between native women and their communities. For almost 50 years, mostly white field matrons were sent to Indian reservations around the country in the hopes that by assimilating native women in the home through normative domestic practices, native children and the community would also be more easily assimilated. 

Field matrons were the embodiment of the program created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help solve the Indian “problem,” having direct contact with the targeted population, and so their writings provide a window into the moral struggle that they must have felt when they became the instrument of forced assimilation. They joined the service with a Christian missionary spirit to help and “civilize” tribal women, but when they realized the results of their work, and saw the hardships and reality of life on the reservation for Native women, many quickly left their job (Hancock, Trennert, Wunder). This was considered “women’s work,” with field matrons primarily focused on Native women’s housekeeping, childbirth, and health care practices. Not all the work that field matrons did was bad for Indigenous people – they helped take care of sick family members, assisted in childbirth, and showed Native women ways that their handiwork could improve their homes and provide extra income for their families. Some features of this education would have been useful to women who wanted to assimilate to dominant white settler ways of life. However, the forced nature of this education on Indigenous women was unethical. How field matrons’ writings changed over time, during their tenure on the reservation, shows an evolving understanding of their purpose and the role set out by the government. The changing focus of correspondence between field matrons and their supervisors over time also shows the development of the program’s goals and ultimately its discontinuation in favor of providing general nursing assistance. 

Representing Indigenous versus Assimilating Rhetoric 

U.S. government policy, as enacted by field matrons, forced Native women against their will to accept the dominant culture and ways of acting. However, as Scott Lyons asks, “What do Indians want from writing?” He says, rhetorical sovereignty: “the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse (449–450). He shows this by relating the history of Native American use of rhetorical sovereignty to create laws and treaties to govern their lands and claims that one “pillar of sovereignty” is self-government (457). This is important because “Indigenous people … may constitute the world’s most adamant refusal of current expansions of global capitalism and imperialism that plagues many and benefit so few” (462). He calls for prioritization of the study of American Indian rhetoric (and that of other minorities) in curriculum, including their treaties and laws, both historical and contemporary, with an eye toward social change. 

Malea Powell asks how Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and Charles Alexander Eastman, two Native Americans, used language to survive and resist colonialization. The problem, she sees, is the “Western Eurocentric focus of the American academy” (“Rhetorics of Survivance” 398). She calls for an “imaginative liberation of indigenous peoples from the stories being told about them that insist on nobility or ignobility, that cannot afford to see Indian peoples as humans” (399). She answers her question by giving some historical background and “critically engaging with Native texts,” two memoirs written respectively by Hopkins and Eastman: Life Among the Piutes (1883) and From the Deep Woods to Civilization (1916). Powell states that “I pay close attention to the language of survivance (survival + resistance) that they, consciously or unconsciously, use in order to reimagine and, literally, reconfigure “the Indian” (400). She says that “my hope is that we can begin to reimagine ourselves, our pedagogies, our scholarship, our discipline in relation to a long and sordid history of American imperialism (428). Powell seeks a critical reimagining of the field of rhetoric and composition to right the colonial wrongs that have been done to many peoples. 

Alanna Frost asks how Dakelh (British Columbia, Canada, Native Americans) literacy practices can inform the field of rhetoric and composition. She studies the lifework of two prominent Dakelh “literacy stewards,” Mary John and Doreen Patrick, includes a brief history, and comments on their practices in their communities. Frost states, “This term, literacy steward, can be applied to any individual who demonstrates persistent dedication to the practice or promotion of a literacy considered traditionally important to his or her community (56). She uses the term steward instead of Brandt’s sponsorship because with sponsorship, a “dependence on funding sources has implications for how and when cultural composing happens” (56) and is limited by the sponsor’s agenda and is market-based. She finds that the “Dakelh use of memory-in-place offers an example of alternative ontologies that directly relate to literacy practices with which community members engage during public and private affairs” (61) in a traditional survivance practice. Literacy stewards are interested in the grassroots development of noncommodified resources. 

Malea Powell also writes about Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha), asking how Native Americans have used language to navigate relationships with European Americans. She answers this question by recounting history and evaluating La Flesche’s writing, stating that “La Flesche’s way of dealing with European Americans … is, for me, powerfully persuasive evidence of the alliance and adaptation tactics some Native people engaged in … (“Down by the River, 49). Powell takes up the term primacy, or status given to “official” (dominant) viewpoints in relation to the devalued “practices of the everyday, and the knowledge of those who function in this context” (Royster & Williams qtd. in Powell 42). She believes that learning about La Flesche’s literary tactics can help rhetoric and composition scholars form an alliance against the “prime” narrative of Western Eurocentric ideology. 

These scholars study the rhetoric of Indigenous authors to define their methods of resisting colonization by European Americans. They make these Native people’s lives visible and reproduce the meanings of their texts to both preserve the history of their culture and add to the field of rhetoric and composition’s knowledge base. In the discipline of literacy, rhetoric, and composition and academia in general, minorities have not been well represented, and their cultural practices have not been as valued in research and pedagogy. In the struggle to address Western ethnocentrism, gender bias, and ableism, there have been recent moves to recover minority and non-Western writings from the archives that were not previously noted or recorded (Wu, Takayoshi). In a feminist methodological response to erasure of women’s experience from the archives, I am recovering the experiences of these field matrons and bringing them to light. I hope that study of the writings of field matrons will lead to greater understanding of assimilation processes in society so that they can be dismantled and avoided. 

Feminism in the Archives 

Feminist methodology is central to this type of research, and there are certain aspects of this broad methodology to unpack (Enoch and Bessette; Bizzell). First, is the epistemological stance of studying women’s history. The researcher wants to bring greater historical context and coverage to the history of women; therefore, the choice of the subject of study reflects this focus. This is the systematic recovery of historical information that would otherwise go untold or become lost in the archives. This research also helps tell the story of field matrons’ relations with Indigenous peoples and the Hopi tribe, a group that has experienced systematic discrimination from the U.S. government. Therefore, the site of research is also reflective of a focus on a marginalized population living on the fringes of U.S. society. 

Taking this feminist methodology also means acknowledging the role that participants play in developing the knowledge that is obtained from the research and including them in the interpretation of the data (Powell and Takayoshi). Anything that is learned should be reciprocally shared with participants and the researcher should do whatever is possible to return the favor of their time and effort on the project. It is also imperative to be self-reflexive—keenly aware of personal biases and background in the understanding of events from the past and how the researcher’s status as influenced by their identity plays into their research design, data collection, and evaluation of results. This can be done by reflectively analyzing interpretations critically for faults in logic because of misconceptions or assumptions (Kirsch and Rohan). 

This methodology is also generative, where one piece of information will lead to another important piece of the puzzle, because rebuilding historical information is a constructivist process. The meaning of events from the past can only be understood through the contextualization of social situations from history, but these are also negotiated by present-day ideologies in the representation of knowledge (Cushman, Gaillet, Gold). This methodology takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining rhetoric and composition, archival historical research, sociology, and ethnography. 

The Journey

I started out collecting information about Idella Hahn from my family, and then I looked to external sources. First, I traveled to Bourbon, Indiana, and Chicago in February 2016 to see where Idella grew up and went to school. Then, I traveled to the Hopi reservation that Marchwhere spent 5 days tracing the steps of my great-great grandmother and visited the places she had likely been, locating scenery in photographs that she had taken and speaking with residents. I wanted to get a sense of what it must have been like for her to move all the way from Indiana to Arizona, leave her children behind, and work with Native people. had contacted the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation to ask the tribe for their permission to use my great-great grandmothers’ writings and photos about life on the reservation in the biography. I was invited to meet with legal researcher at the Office of Cultural Preservation Terry Morgart, on the reservation in Arizona, where I also met the Hopi archivist and ethnohistorian Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa, who agreed that the project should proceed, and that they would be willing to work with me on it[1].

Figure 3: “My house Oraibi” (Idella Hahn) c. 1913-14. Image description: a long, one-story ranch style house seen from far away on flat land with a fence and a line of trees in front. On the left is another structure: another house or a barn. In front of the fence are three adult women and a child.

I had many questions about ethics to consider because thedid not want my research to impinge on their cultural privacy. The Hopis do not allow photography on their reservation, and they informed me that some of the ceremonies described in Idella’s essays were not usually open to outsiders. Some of the ceremonies described in her writings were not appropriate for Hopi children to read about until they were adultsIn addition, I could not speak reliably about their culture while in the process of writing the biography of a field matron because I am not a Hopi. So, I asked Mr. Koyiyumptewa to work collaboratively with me on the project on sensitive cultural issues. He asked in return if I would share my photographs with him, and so I gave him a USB drive with digital copies of all the photographs that Idella had taken and the notes that she had written on them about location and date. I also offered to give 10% of any proceeds if the biography was published to the Hopi Education Endowment Fund, which Mr. Koyiyumptewa found to my surprise is still housed in a building that existed near where Idella lived on the reservation.[3] 

Figure 4: “Looking north view from my front gate. The Drs. house. I made an X on the sheep corral up on the side of the hill. It is quite steep” (Idella Hahn) c. 1913-14. Image description: a small one-story house with a large rock formation behind the house in the background.

In my search for archival records, I was told that most of the historical documents about the Hopi reservation that would have been kept at the local Keams Canyon office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been moved to the National Archives at Riverside, California. There were some documents available at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, so I traveled there to read correspondence between the superintendent dated around 1906–09 (Moqui Indian Agency [Ariz.]). These documents show how schoolteacher Elizabeth Stanley and field matron Miltona Keith acted as intermediaries to try and defuse the “trouble” at Oraibi, when the government forced parents to send children in the village to a boarding school and caused a split between parents who agreed to send their children (called “friendlies”), and those who refused (“unfriendlies” or “hostiles”). There was an armed uprising, during which many Hopis were captured and imprisoned on Alcatraz Island. The event caused a split in the community, with the unfriendlies moving to the nearby town of Hotevilla in the canyon, and the friendlies staying in Oraibi. Stanley says in her report to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis E. Leupp, “My school is nearly all over in the Hostile camp. I am thinking of turning hostile myself, and then maybe you will put me with them. It is hard to give them all up but I hope to stay at Oraibi.” History books that describe these events (of which there are not many) do not usually discuss the role that these women played. This split in the community still existed when Idella arrived in Oraibi in 1914. 

In 2019, I traveled to the National Archives in Riverside, California, after receiving funding through a Graduate Student Research Award from Kent State University. I digitized the correspondence of several field matrons and documents pertaining to their service in the early 1900s (U.S. National Archives “75.4 General Records,” “75.19.46 Records”). The documents that I collected at the National Archives are the official records of their field reports and the journals and correspondence with their supervisors. These are called “Circulars” because some of the messages were circulated throughout the reservations toward the management of operations by the Superintendent in charge. They show a progressive professionalization of the field matron job through imposition of a uniform (that each field matron had to sew out of bolts of fabric provided by the BIA), an increasing number of circulars describing how they should do their jobs, and training programs provided at weeklong conferences across the west. On the reservation, there was no running water and “traditional” white settler ways of farming and crops were forced on a land that could not sustain it. This greatly reduced the community’s food sovereignty, which put stress on the reservation’s ability to feed its people independently, and resulted in further dependence on government assistance through supplemental food rationing (Wilbur, “Food Sovereignty”). There is mention of how the field matrons should keep track of Hopi births and deaths, a pamphlet called “Indian Babies – How to Keep Them Well” (1916), and correspondence about a “baby contest” meant to showcase their work with Hopi mothers that had to be canceled last minute because of an outbreak of disease on the reservation. The difficulties of various epidemics and World War I are evident from circulars that describe food shortages, prescribe quarantine procedures, and institute a ban on the government employment of U.S. citizens with German heritage in 1917. 

Although Idella did not have a German background, her husband’s family did, so because of her husband’s last name that she still carried (Hahn) she was forced to resign her duties in 1918. This was particularly ironic because both of her sons served in World War I, and her job as a cultural assimilator ended because her personal cultural heritage was invalidated by the very government that had hired her. As recorded on her “Efficiency Report” dated April 25, 1918: 

Mrs. Hahn apparently is loosing [sic] interest, evidently largely due to the fact that she expects to leave the service on or before the coming July 1st. She has two sons in the America [sic] army, now in France. She is American, regrets the handicap, as she expresses it, her German name, her deceased husband having been a German. (Nat. Archives at St. Louis) 

It is now 2021, and I feel that having just lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have even greater empathy for my great-grandmother’s loss of her husband to tuberculosis, the difficulties dealing with epidemics on the reservations, and how she patented a design for burial clothes in 1940. Before this year, I thought the last fact strange, but now I can see how there would be a need for this, especially living through the last great influenza pandemic and between the two world wars. I hope that over time, I will develop an even greater understanding of what her life was like and what it means. 

In contemporary society, there are a multitude of social service programs that intrude on the home life and privacy of citizens, especially for those who receive government assistance. These types of intrusions, especially regarding medical health tracking, have become increasingly common through modern technological advancements for people at all socioeconomic levels of society. While there are no more field matrons sent out to assimilate people in the United States, many Native people who live on reservations still receive government assistance and social services, and experience high poverty rates. Understanding how intrusive government policies become normalized in historical women’s discourse will help reveal the process of policy formation and social norm formation so that such invasive and damaging programs can be dismantled and avoided in the future. 


How did American women who worked as field matrons for the Bureau of Indian Affairs react to the colonizing forces of their job assignments? What did the field matrons experience on the job, and how did they justify their work to themselves and their superiors? How did they reconcile the underlying ideology of ethnocentricity with the purported aims of improving living conditions of Hopis on the reservation? 

What are the ethics of working with archives of groups that the researcher is not a part of? What are the ethical practices for working with culturally sensitive materials? How do we approach working with rhetorical materials that may represent oppressive/colonialist views, especially when the author might be perceived as sharing the same cultural/racial identity as the colonizers? 

In what ways does the recovery of women’s writing from the archives change the cultural memory of historical events and social processes? Aside from increasing the perceived value of women’s writings and traditionally feminine topics, does a contemporary change in ideology that increasingly values women’s work also call for an adjustment in the historical record? Or does it simply fill in the gaps where knowledge was missing, to reinforce history as it is already understood? 

How can family stories and histories, passed down from generation to generation, add to our shared cultural heritage and understanding of history writ large? The genre is usually viewed as subjective and potentially inaccurate, but when women’s stories are so often erased from the written record, family lore is an important way to transmit historical information about women. How can accuracy be ensured, or at least attempted, in the changing oral stories of family members?


[1]The word Moqui was originally used by the Spanish to denote the Hopi people, but the word came to be pronounced in a way that means “dead” in the Hopi language, and is therefore seen as derogatory by the Hopi, although it was used by the U.S. Department of the Interior to refer to the Hopi until 1930.

[2] I have been unable to find a copy of, or official reference to, this dictionary. It is possible that it was redacted from government records because of the use of the Navajo language (which is similar in etymology to Hopi) as a secret code during World War II.

[3] Special thanks to Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa for reviewing this article for accuracy and cultural sensitivity before publication. 

Works Cited 

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Bryson, Stephanie A., and Karen V. Hansen. “Satisfactory Accommodations: Cleanliness, Culture, and Compromise in the Fort Totten Field Matron Program, 1913-1915.” American Sociological Association, n.d., pp. 1-21. 

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Enoch, Jessica, and Jean Bessette. “Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 64, no. 4, 2013, pp. 634-60. 

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Hahn, Idella. “A Plea for the Indian.” c. 1915. Personal collection. 

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—. “The Naming of the Little Black Eyed, Brown Skinned Hopi Baby.” c. 1915. Personal collection. 

Hancock, Christin L. “Healthy Vocations: Field Nursing and the Religious Overtones of Public Health.” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 113-37. 

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Lyons, Scott Richard. “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want From Writing?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 447-68. 

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DIY Invitational Rhetoric: Engaging with the Past, Promoting Ongoing Dialogues, and Combating Racism

Although invitational rhetoric’s roots reach back to 1995 when Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin published “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric,” invitational rhetoric merits only a brief mention in many composition and communication publications. In fact, Susan Kirtley noted that “for all of its value, invitational rhetoric rarely appears in composition textbooks. When it does come into focus, it is highlighted only briefly as an alternative to argument, and sometimes, in contrast with Foss and Griffin’s description, as merely a less adversarial argument” (340).  Foss and Griffin define invitational rhetoric as a type of rhetoric grounded in “equality, immanent value, and self-determination” that involves audience members “listening to and trying to understand the rhetor’s perspective and then presenting their own” (5). The goal is not simply to exchange ideas. Ideally, “the rhetor and the audience alike contribute to the thinking about an issue so that everyone involved gains a greater understanding of the issue in its subtlety, richness, and complexity (Foss and Griffin 5). As a result, rhetors do not assume their position is superior to their audience’s beliefs. In fact, rhetors “view the choices selected by audience members as right for them at that particular time, based on their own abilities to make those decisions” (Foss and Griffin 6).

Despite invitational rhetoric’s steps toward peaceful communication, two major obstacles diminish the effectiveness of dialogues via invitational rhetoric. The first obstacle involves a lack of engagement with past rhetors. Invitational rhetoric focuses only on present dialogue between living rhetors. Without engaging the past, dialogues remain within the bounds of living rhetors’ knowledge and experiences. Contentious issues often rooted in the past require rhetors to engage with the past to be well informed of the history of an issue. A failure to engage with past rhetors diminishes diverse perspectives that fuel the meaning making process of invitational rhetoric.

The second challenge is a lack of a mechanism to generate ongoing dialogues. Contentious issues deserve more than a “one and done” approach to dialogue. By making private dialogues public, rhetors foster ongoing dialogues that extend beyond their social circles. Diversity resulting from an ongoing dialogue with an increasing number of participants multiplies perspectives while amplifying understanding and meaning making. Ongoing dialogues taking place over a long period of time allow for reflection periods between dialogues. The cumulative dialogues over a long period assist rhetors in articulating their position in the current time and permit them to shift positions as they uncover new meanings in future dialogues.

With the aforementioned challenges in mind, in this article, I argue for a more useful type of invitational rhetoric as I reconsider Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric through a new application that I refer to as DIY invitational rhetoric and utilize Jasmine Sanders’s New York Times article “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy. In the concluding section, I highlight DIY invitational rhetoric’s value as a feminist rhetorical strategy for combating racism.

Defining DIY Rhetoric

So, how is DIY invitational rhetoric different from Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric? Underscoring the significance of DIY, I build on Foss and Griffin’s theory by adding two new steps that emphasize actions individual rhetors complete before and after dialogues, Before engaging in a dialogue on a specific topic, individual rhetors engage in dialogues with past rhetors through what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch refer to as “critical imagination” (71 (1)). To describe critical imagination in action, Royster and Kirsch provide the example of engaging with historical women: “. . . this process involves interrogating the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices of women who are no longer alive to speak directly on their own behalf. We use critical imagination as a tool to engage, as it were, in hypothesizing, in what might be called ‘educated guessing,’ as a means for searching methodically, not so much for immutable truth but instead for what is likely or possible, given the facts in hand” (71 (2)). Using critical imagination, rhetors engage in primary research to listen to the voices of past rhetors as well as formulate questions and possibilities while linking the past with the present. Critical imagination as a DIY process serves as a type of self-education. Questions, patterns, and understandings that emerge through critical imagination unleash fruitful insights that prove useful in dialogues with living rhetors.

Extending the definition of DIY rhetoric, I note the final DIY step I have added to Foss and Griffin’s invitational rhetoric. To promote ongoing dialogue, private dialogues must be made public in order to reach beyond the social circles of a small group of rhetors. For scholars, professional publications serve as outlets for sharing dialogues with a large group of readers that possess the potential to keep the dialogue going orally with their colleagues and in a public written response. For those inside and outside of academia, social media, blogs, podcasts, online videos, and websites serve as mechanism for cascading conversations. Online outlets provide an asynchronous space for rhetors to reflect on cumulative dialogues that have taken place over a long period to arrive at new understandings and maintain a fluid position that continues to evolve with each new dialogue.

Applying DIY Invitational Rhetoric

I now turn to Jasmine Sanders’s “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” to illustrate the efficacy of DIY invitational rhetoric. During an interview with NPR’s Robin Young, Sanders recognizes a need for dialogue. Considering she will one day inherit furs, Sanders contemplates how she will feel about owning her mother’s elegant, beloved fur coats during a time when PETA’s powerful antifur messages permeate social media and television. She recalls the words of her mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving: “We live on the south side of Chicago. I don’t see those people [PETA] here. They don’t seem to want to be speaking to me anyway” (Sanders, “The Significance”(1)). Sanders echoes her mother’s sentiments by citing a quote from Paul Marie Seniors’s mother: “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy,” D1(1)). The two mothers’ comments illustrate a lack of communication between some African American women, PETA, and others in white communities who hold strong positions related to using animal fur in fashion. In reality, it seems impossible for Sanders to bring the diverse parties together for an actual dialogue, so she engages in invitational rhetoric as she holds her own discussions with African Americans, PETA, and the Zimbals, Wisconsin mink farm owners. Throughout her individual dialogues with the aforementioned groups, Sanders practices Foss and Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric as she and her fellow rhetors engage in listening, presenting their positions, trying to understand each other’s perspectives while refraining from persuading with the intention to change the others’ perspectives (5). To illustrate DIY invitational rhetoric’s efficacy, I will focus on Sanders’s use of two DIY steps: engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing dialogue and meaning making amongst a large group of diverse rhetors.

Prior to engaging in dialogues with PETA and mink farmers, Sanders engages with the past rhetors. Sanders’s mother, Vivian Jarrett-Irving, provides a starting place for Sanders’s research as she reveals the cultural significance of fur for many African American women. For Jarrett-Irving, fur coats, imbued with cultural significance for many African American women, served as a “personal luxury item,” “an important investment,” and reminder of the “six million black migrants who were propelled north by the tenuous hope of something better” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(2)). Jarrett-Irving, remembering her own mother’s inability to own a home in the early nineteenth century, states, “Federal housing codes that barred fair loans from being offered to black people, as well as other forms of housing discrimination, rendered home-ownership impossible for many black families, and arduous for those who could attain it. So money was put toward other markers of personal prosperity, the kind that retained value and could be passed down to the next generation” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy,” D1(3)). Like houses and land, fur became a vehicle for social mobility in its representation of prosperity that could be passed down to future generations.

To further illuminate her understanding of many African Americans’ position on fur, Sanders explores eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth-century resources and employs critical imagination to uncover questions and possibilities that enrich her understanding and transform her into an informed rhetor. From her research, Sanders learns about the role enslaved and freedmen played in the fur economy and notes fur’s significance in the Harlem Renaissance and its worth in terms of self-expression for modern famous public figures such as Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (“A Black Legacy” D1(4)). Sanders unearths past voices to deepen her understanding.

Delving into the past through critical imagination allows Sanders to “interrogat[e] the contexts, conditions, lives, and practices” of past Africans Americans’ connections with fur (Royster and Kirsch 71(3)). Through Sanders interrogation of the past rhetors, she uncovers racist practices in the fashion industry. As noted above, Sanders recalls Paul Marie Seniors’s mother saying, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé” (“A Black Legacy” D1(5)). The abrupt shift in fashion trends moving away from fur highlights the role racism plays in fashion. Fashion serves as a dividing force that separates people of color from whites, and sudden changes in fashion prevent many women of color and lower-class women from wearing the latest fashions. The fashion industry through price and frequent shifts in fashion control what people of color wear and the meanings attached to their clothed bodies.

Through uncovering past racist practices via critical imagination, Sanders becomes an informed rhetor equipped with a foundation for improving her understanding of complex present perspectives and practices. In “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” Sanders addresses PETA’s position as she recounts footage from their advertisements and includes the following statement from PETA’s past senior international media director, Ben Williamson: “We like to think of ourselves as P.R. for animals” (Sanders, “A Black Legacy” D1(6)). Although Sanders disapproves of PETA’s cruel letter to Aretha Franklin for wearing fur and their juxtaposition of marginalized people’s suffering and animals’ suffering in commercials, Sanders communicates her understanding of PETA’s position. In turn, PETA expresses an interest in Sanders’ position, so Sanders meets with a spokesperson from PETA to discuss her position. She tells PETA’s spokesperson as well as NPR’s Robin Young that she is “fur ambiguous” (Sanders, “The Significance”(2)). Justifiably, Sanders’s “fur ambiguous” position stems from her acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue (“The Significance”(2)).  As a person who values conservation and veganism, Sanders could easily assume an anti-fur position, but through critical imagination and dialogue, she recognizes the complexity of the issue.

In applying the final DIY strategy, making private dialogues public, Sanders ensures dialogues continue with diverse groups. Sanders shares information about her dialogues in “A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur” in The New York Times and in an NPR interview with Robin Young. NPR invited listeners to voice their perspectives on NPR’s online forum. By making private dialogues public through publication and providing an online forum for ongoing dialogue, Sanders exemplifies DIY invitational rhetoric’s relevance in twenty-first century. Dialogue involving contentious issues deserves more than a “one and done” approach. Ongoing dialogue amongst diverse improves rhetors’ understanding of complex issues.

As diverse rhetors listen and contribute their own perspectives, the online forum serves as a space for “giving the world a chance to explain itself” (Barrett 147). In this example of DIY invitational rhetoric, Sanders’s readers and listeners are invited to enter multiple rhetors’ worlds to enhance their understanding and share their own perspectives in NPR’s online forum. Dialogues taking place amongst listeners around the world in the online forum showcase a diverse range of truths as rhetors articulate their positions regarding racism and fashion, animal cruelty, and environmental concerns related to the faux fur production. With each new post, rhetors weave together new strands of discourse as their positions and understandings continue to evolve.

Closing Remarks

To conclude, I want to recognize two ways that DIY invitational rhetoric serves as a vehicle for feminist intervention in the deteriorating public discourse of our time by combating racism.

Ethical Representation and Giving Voice to the Oppressed 

DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination and making private dialogues public for ongoing conversations provides an opening for rhetors to ethically represent the oppressed and fight racism. As mentioned earlier, Sanders’s mother along with other African American women were never afforded the opportunity to explain to those outside of their culture why they wear and value fur. Invitational rhetoric allowed Sanders to listen and attempt to understand her mother’s position as well as past rhetors’ positions. Through her work, Sanders serves as a “negotiator, someone who can cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (Royster 34). As a translator, her work with DIY invitational rhetoric helps to produce ethical representations of communities misrepresented due to racism. To outsiders, African American fur enthusiasts appear as proponents of animal cruelty. However, Sanders’s research and dialogues disclose many African Americans’ historical ties to fur as tool for social mobility in a racist world that impeded their social mobility. Through a published dialogue and interview, Sanders, as a negotiator, crosses boundaries as she translates African Americans’ connection to fur for readers outside of African American communities.


Helping to combat racism, DIY invitational rhetoric’s emphasis on engaging with the past assists white rhetors in self-education prior to engaging in dialogues related to race. In “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle to Master’s House,” Audre Lorde emphasizes the need for self-education: “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women . . .” (113). Lorde underscores the need for individuals, specifically white men and women, to do their own racial and cultural work, meaning work to educate themselves instead of relying on others to serve as educators. Engaging with past rhetors via critical imagination gives current rhetors valuable insight prior to engaging in dialogues centered on race.

Works Cited

  • Barrett, Harold. Rhetoric and Civility: Human Development, Narcissism, and the Good Audience. State U of New York P, 1991.     –return to text
  • Foss, Sonja K., and Cindy L. Griffin. “Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for an Invitational Rhetoric. Communication Monographs, vol. 62, no. 1, 1995, pp. 2-18.     –return to text
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 110-13.     –return to text
  • Kirtley, Susan. Considering the Alternative in Composition Pedagogy: Teaching Invitational Rhetoric with Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, 2014, pp. 339-57.     –return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29–40.     –return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.     –return to text (1), (2), or (3)
  • Sanders, Jasmine. “A Black Legacy, Wrapped in Fur.” New York Times. 4 Mar. 2019, p. D1.      –return to text (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)
  • —. “The Significance of Black Women Owning Fur.” Interview by Robin Young. WBUR, 4 Mar. 2019,      –return to text (1) or (2)