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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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. 

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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. http://www.nytimes.com      –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, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/03/04/sanders-black-women-owning-fur      –return to text (1) or (2)

Disturbing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Student Habitus

As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time. (Margaret Wheatley 34)

It may be easy for antiracist feminist graduate students and faculty to agree with the opening epigraph, even to feel its truth deeply. Yet, for graduate students especially, in a university context whose primary function in society is to house and produce knowledge, “admitting we don’t know” and allowing ourselves to “be confused for a time” can be challenging to embody. Despite important feminist epistemological interventions that have challenged academic norms of objectivity, impartiality, and certainty (Wynter and McKittrick, Collins, Haraway) and despite the simple fact that being a scholar should imply a positive stance towards lifelong learning, contemporary academic cultural norms still demand the steady performance of mastery and certainty. Navigating one’s performance within this paradox can be especially difficult for the university’s newest professional initiates, the graduate students. In a recent study investigating impediments to success in the field of composition, Dana Lynn Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin found that despite not asking interviewees about imposter syndrome directly, over 40% volunteered their (negative) experiences of it. To survive an intimidating environment, graduate students learn to hide away vulnerability and present a knowledgeable front while striving for perfection.

The problem that occupies this short essay is that perfectionism in the graduate classroom1 impedes graduate students’ ability to engage in the vulnerable, imperfect, often deeply uncomfortable self-work of antiracist personal transformation. There is a growing body of scholarship that seeks to make antiracist transformation in higher education not only theoretically acceptable, but actionable (see Condon and Young). This essay invites consideration of actionable transformation at the level of the graduate student habitus, an area that is undertheorized in the larger feminist project of institutional transformation for justice. I will briefly demonstrate the connection between perfectionism and White2 supremacy culture before considering what it might entail for the feminist faculty of rhetoric and composition to disentangle (White) perfectionism from its complicated place in the graduate student habitus.

White Supremacy Culture in the University Habitus

White supremacy culture has always been the dominant culture in the United States and thus has also dominated within United States institutions of higher education. Dismantling Racism Works defines “White supremacy” as “the idea (ideology) that White people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of White people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.” With White supremacy culture’s immanent presence in the United States, those residing in its spaces absorb its beliefs, suspicions, preferences, and “intuitions” inescapably and continuously with varying degrees of awareness. The university offers no escape. At the university, as Barbara Tomlinson writes in Undermining Intersectionality,racist premises and perceptions are always at work, operating “invisibly and institutionally through a series of taken-for-granted procedures and commonsense positions” (24). These “taken-for-granted procedures” and “commonsense positions” help to produce the habitus, a concept I draw from Pierre Bourdieu to reference the always-in-process interaction and interconnection of culture, normalized behaviors, habits, dispositions, ideology and even the socialization of emotions. I maintain that engaging in antiracist transformation is extremely difficult for individuals to do when White norms continue to dominate their community’s habitus. Thus, I argue, an important step in facilitating the conditions for antiracist transformation in the field of rhetoric and composition requires disentangling White norms like perfectionism from its habitus.

Practicing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Classroom

While critiques of perfectionism are likely familiar to feminist scholars, the re-vision for which this essay advocates entails understanding perfectionism as specifically White—a pillar of White supremacy culture—and recognizing how normalizing perfectionism obstructs antiracist transformation in the graduate student habitus.

As a graduate student myself, one especially influential site where I see (White) perfectionism cultivated in ways that forestall antiracist transformation is in the kind of criticism graduate students often learn to practice in the graduate classroom. I suggest that there is a connection between the normalization of what Karen Barad describes as a “destructive” rather than “deconstructive” practice of academic criticism and the perfectionistic lens through which graduate students learn to critique themselves and others. In New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, when asked “Why has critique run out of steam?,” Barad responds:

Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without, but a destructive practice meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down—another scholar, another feminist, a discipline, an approach, et cetera. (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 49)

While it is unlikely that graduate educators intentionally teach destructive practices of criticism, in the absence of explicit “deconstructivist” instruction, and perhaps also because of contemporary “cancel culture”3 outside the classroom, graduate students often resort to finding fault with assigned texts. In Tomlinson’s words, problematic practices of criticism contribute to the “unarticulated fears and social dangers” that “pervade academic culture,” as “graduate students learn to rely on reading practices that attack and disparage texts rather than analyze them” (11). Reading to find fault with the text is White perfectionism as practiced through reading.

Destructive criticism easily transfers to other perfectionistic habits of mind that perpetuate White supremacy culture in graduate student contexts. In “White Supremacy Culture,” an antiracist transformation guide for organizations, Tema Okun explains that in institutions where perfectionism dominates, “little appreciation [is] expressed among people for the work that others are doing.” What is “more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate.” Further, “mistakes are seen as personal…i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes.” When graduate students apply this thinking to themselves and others, consciously and/or subconsciously, it obstructs collective sociality, preserves existing norms and hierarchies, and prevents students from being willing to make the inevitable mistakes required to unlearn internalized racism in community with each other. Damaging in part because they are “used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named” (Okun), naming White supremacy characteristics in the graduate classroom is an important first step towards challenging them. What would happen if faculty invited discussion of these perfectionistic practices and challenged their place in academic norms?

Left unnamed, destructive criticism enables and feeds off “white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility as a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (103). The perfectionistic classroom practices described above—being hyper critical of one’s self and others, looking for fault, confusing “making a mistake” with “being a mistake,” and the threat of being defined by one’s ignorance—breed, I argue, precisely this fragility. Fragility then shows up in the room as defensiveness and as emotional intolerance for “being wrong,” which prevents the norms themselves from being challenged. Though it may not be visible to faculty, graduate students are often tense in the classroom, hypervigilant of how they suspect others are judging their and everyone else’s contributions. Unfortunately for antiracist transformation, hypervigilance and the willingness to be disturbed are mutually exclusive mentalities. One cannot approach the deeply uncomfortable work of introspecting on one’s White supremacist socialization from the perfectionist, competitive, fragile, and fearful disposition that graduate culture often engenders.

Proposing An Anti-Perfectionism Intervention

To dismantle White perfectionism’s long-standing place in the academic habitus, graduate educators will need to reconsider revered concepts like criticism, productivity, and mastery. In what follows, I propose four ideas for how graduate faculty might disturb the grip of perfectionism and instead cultivate conditions that would enable students and by extension, departments, to undertake antiracist transformation.

To counter White perfectionism, Okun proposes cultivating a culture of appreciation. Patriarchy may have coded the concept of “appreciation” as feminine, soft, frivolous, and unacademic in its binary opposition with the tough, cool, masculine rationality of “criticism,” but perhaps for this very reason an appreciation of appreciation may be the antidote feminist academics need to cultivate in a historically patriarchal institution. While the suggestion may seem elementary to seasoned feminist educators, what may be new is the connection between appreciation and antiracist transformation. To read “for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without,” as Barad suggests, faculty could guide graduate students to first summarize and discuss aspects of the text they find useful and only then consider how scholars might build on the work. Historicizing readings for how they contributed in their original context can help students see the processual, always-ongoing nature of scholarly production as well. Students who internalize the practices of a culture of appreciation rather than perfection will likely feel less defensive or “fragile” when confronting their complicity in a problematic system.

If another driving force of perfectionistic culture is faculty’s sense of obligation to help students gain “mastery over” a subject area, perhaps the concept of “mastery” deserves reconsideration. I suggest faculty re-imagine “mastery” to reflect existing feminist scholarship about the importance of positionality and partiality to knowledge production and acquisition. Feminist faculty often already teach graduate students the importance of continually interrogating how their positionalities influence their research perspectives. How might faculty apply this existing praxis to revise what “mastery” means in their department? What if the how of approaching scholarship became as important as the what a graduate student must know? Once subject area mastery requires graduate students to demonstrate a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of their own positionality with respect to their subject area to avoid reproducing oppressive structures, then antiracist training could become a more exigent part of graduate training.

Disentangling perfectionism from graduate culture to enable antiracist work might also be aided by bringing mindfulness into the graduate classroom. The work of transformation, whether in the classroom or outside of it, requires individuals to sit with the discomfort of having longstanding, internalized hegemonic ideologies disturbed. Mindfulness practices can cultivate the conditions necessary to sit with discomfort. Similar to “appreciation,” the language of “mindfulness” might raise the hackles of those who have been enculturated to prize “rigor” and “rationality.”4 But I would argue that a mindful approach to learning and being in the classroom enhances one’s ability to think “rationally” and “rigorously” about one’s positionality and the epistemological frameworks in which they have been conditioned to think.

In addition to mindfulness, explicitly championing a “growth mindset” is another way graduate faculty might actively foster a disposition necessary to engage in personal antiracist transformation. A growth mindset sees making mistakes and getting things wrong as necessary to the messy process of learning and growth (Dweck). The contrasting “fixed” mindset that typically results from the American education system prioritizes being or looking “right” over taking the risks required to learn and grow. Imposter syndrome combined with a fixed mindset can leave graduate students unwilling to reveal what they don’t know for fear of exposing themselves as “frauds”. Naming the importance of growth mindset in the graduate classroom could help impart positive affect rather than fear to students’ willingness to “be disturbed,” to engage in difficult conversations, and to interrogate their own complicity in structural harm. In short, growth mindset can help make the classroom a space of antiracist transformative potential.

An Invitation for Further (Re)Consideration

My goal throughout this essay has been to consider how the conditions for antiracist transformation can be created in an environment (the university) whose habitus of perfectionism normally prevents students from being able to take on antiracist transformation as individuals, scholars, and educators. While I hope to have offered some meaningful suggestions to these questions throughout this short essay, my goal, as the call for this subsection of Peitho suggests, is not so much to answer the questions I raise as to provoke their further (re)consideration.

Given that perfectionism functions as a pillar of White supremacy culture, what would it mean for each of us, as scholars, leaders, and educators, to actively push back against our internalized perfectionism in an institution that demands perfectionistic habits? How can graduate programs cultivate in graduate students the humility, the willingness to be vulnerable in community, and the “willingness to be disturbed” that is required for the imperfect process of antiracist transformation?

End Notes

  1. In this essay, I refer primarily to “the graduate classroom” as a shorthand for all of the spaces and sites where graduate students’ academic habitus forms. I encourage readers to consider spaces outside the classroom that contribute to the perpetuation of perfectionism as well. -return to text
  2. In this essay, I capitalize the “W” of “White” to signal that despite perhaps well-meaning intentions to downplay the presence of a coherent White culture, White culture indeed exists and its norms usually dominate in traditionally White institutions like the university. This paper hopes to make the connection between White supremacy culture and the White norms of American universities clear and to provoke readers to challenge White norms that perpetuate White supremacy in American universities. By capitalizing the “w”, I underscore that Whiteness and White ideology are not neutral and require confronting. -return to text
  3. “Cancel culture” is the contemporary American cultural practice of shaming and/or ostracizing a member of the public or of a particular community– professional or otherwise– for making offensive remarks, for engaging in offensive behavior, or for having remarked or behaved offensively in the past, whether intentionally or not. Social media has made it possible for anyone with a social media account to “cancel” anyone else publicly at an unprecedented pace and scale and with an unprecedented permanence. I believe this pervasive cultural practice has seeped into the collective consciousness of at least the current generation of graduate students who may consciously or not self-censor remarks that they fear may be perceived as offensive rather than risk the danger of saying the wrong thing in front of classmates. This also means that making remarks that “cancel” is safer than making remarks that risk being canceled. Cancel culture has quite suddenly made the stakes of even inadvertently offensive speech dire, particularly in professional settings. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that offensive remarks should go unchallenged, only that they should be treated as useful opportunities for learning and dialogue, rather than result in immediate ostracism. The process of learning requires that learners can become aware of what they don’t know and interrogate their existing understandings in order to reconsider and come into better understanding. Cancel culture, in my opinion, hinders learning, growth, and dialogue. -return to text
  4. I enclose these favorite terms of academic culture within quotation marks in order to trouble commonsense assumptions about their meaning and value. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “Structures, habitus, practices.” The logic of practice (1990): 52-65. -return to text
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. routledge, 2002. -return to text
  • Condon, Frankie and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • Diab, Rasha, Thomas Ferrel, and Beth Godbee. “Making commitments to racial justice actionable.” Condon, Frankie, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • DiAngelo, Robin. White fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018. -return to text
  • Dismantling Racism Works, DRworksBook, www.dismantlingracism.org/. -return to text
  • Dolphijn, Rick & Iris van der Tuin. “Interview with Karen Barad.” New materialism: Interviews and cartographies (2012): 48-70. -return to text
  • Driscoll, Dana Lynn, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin. “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 453. -return to text
  • Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008. -return to text
  • Haraway, Donna. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist studies 14.3 (1988): 575-599. -return to text
  • Okun, Tema. “White Supremacy Culture Characteristics.” DRworksBook, http://www.dismantlingracism.org/White-supremacy-culture.html. -return to text
  • Tomlinson, Barbara. Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism. Temple University Press, 2018. -return to text 1 or 2
  • Wheatley, Margaret. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. -return to text
  • Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled catastrophe for our species? Or, to give humanness a different future: Conversations.” Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis (2015): 9-89. -return to text

Hitting the Limits of Feminist Rhetorical Listening in the Era of Donald Trump

Research on women’s rhetorics has tended to center on women whose beliefs align with contemporary liberal feminist politics—usually historical figures such as suffragettes, female preachers, and union organizers—and eliding the rhetoric of conservative women. Back in 2002, Carol Mattingly noted that feminist scholars tended to seek out the rhetoric of groups that “most resemble academic feminists” ideologically regardless of the actual scope of their influence (101). For example, feminist scholars “praise” the leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association because of its liberal values over the more conservative Women’s Christian Temperance Union, although the latter had significantly greater membership (Mattingly 102). In their 2012 survey of the field of feminist rhetorical criticism, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch noted the field’s continued focus on liberal women and stressed the importance of a broader, deeper, and more inclusive view of women’s rhetoric. Royster and Kirsch recommend looking at “places at which we have not looked seriously or methodically before” in the hopes that such analysis will help feminist rhetorical scholars “think again about what women’s patterns of action seem to suggest about rhetoric, writing, leadership, activism, and rhetorical expertise” (72). And yet, in in her review of the field written 13 years after Mattingly’s work and three years after Royster and Kirsch’s, Charlotte Hogg finds, “a continued reluctance to engage conservative women who fall outside our feminist frameworks even as we celebrate the field’s multiplicity and continue calls for further breadth” (393). As a result, Hogg asks, “What can be learned from rhetorical practices that don’t forward the kind of radical women’s agendas that have permeated our scholarship?” (392) Ideally, this research would lead to a more capacious and inclusive definition of feminism.

Inspired by these calls, my intended sabbatical project was to conduct 20 long-form, semi-structured interviews with women ages 19-25, who identified as conservative and religious. I wanted to know: How do these women articulate the intersection of their female, religious, and conservative identities? When I began talking about this project, people warned me that the interviews would be too hard to listen to, or that students would refuse to talk to me at all because I have a reputation as a “liberal” or “feminist” professor (true). Nevertheless, I persisted, because I had done this before. Previously, I did a yearlong ethnography of a sorority on my campus, where I heard a variety of things I disagreed with on a visceral level and I was able to listen with an open mind. All my publications were ethnographies rooted in interview data; I knew how to get an interviewee to open up and how to shift directions when an interview was not going well. I had a semester-long sabbatical yawning before me to figure out how I wanted to analyze and frame my data.

And yet, in the fall of 2019, after conducting only eleven out of the twenty interviews I had planned, I stopped interviewing.

I quit, I think, because I was unprepared for the physical and emotional experience of listening. Please listen with me to a segment from an interview. I invite you to also pay attention to your own physical, embodied experience of listening to this segment.

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Madison: I don’t know if I fully understand the whole definition of what being a feminist is. I am completely for women standing up and making change. And I think, for me, being the president of College Republicans, that was one reason. The [past president] was male, and he came to me and he said, “When I was thinking about who I wanted [to be president], essentially, the president of College Republicans is the face of the GOP here on campus. That’s who we are.” And he said, “I couldn’t think of anybody else that would uphold it better than you, which is why I’m asking you to do it.” And so I very firmly believe in women stepping up and moving this country forward, I think that we’ve played a huge role. And I think that a lot of times, it is undermined. And sometimes I’ve wondered about that too, saying that I’m a woman and I’m the president of College Republicans. How I feel sometimes, that if someone stood up and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m a woman and I’m the president of College Democrats,” that would be applauded. But if I say that I’m a woman and I’m the president of College Republicans, I feel like that’s going to get downplayed. Again, why would you want to do that? [Because Republicans] don’t believe in progressivism for women? And that’s really not true, they do. We do. And I think that’s very much emphasized in the fact in Trump’s cabinet, I think if you look at it, he has a lot of women that are working for him. . . Back when he was initially starting up his real estate business, he had a lot of women who were sitting in positions for his business. And when he decided to take over as President of the United States, he made Ivanka the head of Trump International. And I think that’s huge, because here we are, here we have the President of the United States, here is a man that is considered the leader of the free world, and he’s stepping up and saying, “I want a woman to take over what I have to leave in order to lead this country.” And I think that that was something that was very powerful. And I wish people understood that a little bit more and understood and saw how many women he has employed for him too, because I think that that would lead them to say he does believe in women and having equality for women.

In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe stresses the importance of listening for “cultural logics,” or the way someone makes sense of the world (26). This segment presents much to analyze in terms of cultural logics. For Madison, Trump’s promotion of women to positions of power is enough to label him as an advocate for women, setting aside the beliefs Donald Trump may have about women or other ways he has treated them. She also believes that a woman in power should not be criticized because she does not hold a specific set of beliefs, but rather that all women should be honored for their achievements. Madison advocates for a kind of conservative feminism where men in power appoint women to powerful positions, paralleling the president of the College Republicans who asked her to be the future president, and Trump’s appointment of Ivanka Trump to lead Trump International.

The analysis I’ve just done, however, is the easy part. This analysis was also completed from the comfortable remove of my home office, on sabbatical, in slippers and stretchy pants while the kids were at daycare.

The reason I quit interviewing was not this privileged moment of scholarly remove: it was in the moment. The hard part was the discomforts and tensions I experienced sitting across from Madison and the other women I interviewed. In the moment of listening—the face-to-face embodied experience—my face gets hot. I feel panicky. My hands get sweaty. As Laura Micciche writes, “The extralinguistic quality of emotion leads to messier, harder-to-clutch meanings that circulate around and through texts, people, classrooms and cultures—a set of meanings best accessed through a conjoined emphasis on performativity and embodiment, because the body is the site through which emotions are imbued with liveness” (51). The “liveness” of my emotions on my body overrides other parts of my brain telling me that I need to continue the interview, be a good listener, and keep an open mind. Reviewing my transcripts, I can see how often I change the topic when I begin to feel this way or I end the interview entirely.

I turn to other ethnographers who have dealt with the problem of listening to disagreeable voices, but there too I find a kind of safe theoretical distancing that doesn’t tell me what to do in the moment. In Angels’ Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of Everyday, Ralph Cintron argues that “an ethnography of emotions would [assume] that emotions have a public dimension, that anger and nastiness, say, do not well up from the interior of a person but are distinctly shaped along systemic lines” (130). Cintron’s solution is to avoid looking at “nasty” individuals, and instead to look at the “ideologies that shaped their conditions, beliefs, and action” (130-131). This is a gracious way to theorize a difficult interviewee from the comfortable remove of the ethnographic write-up, but I’m still caught in the moment of sitting across from this person (and I’m thinking about how the word “nasty” has a dramatically different resonance in 2020 than it did for Cintron in 1998). In her 2008 article about racism in an all-white high school, Jennifer Seibel Trainor argues that some of the students’ racist beliefs aren’t about race at all, but that “school scaffolds the emotioned frameworks within which racist discourses become persuasive” (85). Like Cintron, Trainor looks at the systemic lines that shape her interviewee’s belief systems, noting how these systems support and feed racist beliefs.

Both Cintron and Trainor strike me as inordinately generous to their interviewees, an emotion that feels like it was in abundance before 2016. Being able to analyze your data with some remove implies that you survived the interview in the first place. Both Cintron and Trainor acknowledge these in-the-moment feelings but seem to be able to persist beyond them because they are able to look at where these emotions come from. But I am not inspired to persevere and keep analyzing, because these conservative discourses join the conservative discourses that we have been awash in for the last four years.

Returning to Ratcliffe for help, I find that listening is described as a largely pleasant experience. Ratcliffe calls it “a stance of openness” (1), like a yoga pose. She talks about listening to both “harmony and discordant notes”(25), as though listening to conservative political rhetoric is similar to listening to my 4-year-old sing “Let It Go” charmingly off-key. Ratcliffe inverts the common idea of “understanding” to standing under—“Standing under discourses means letting the discourses wash over, through, and around us and then letting them lie there to inform our politics and ethics” (205)—as if listening is like lying on the beach and letting waves wash over you. At worst, Ratcliffe writes that listening may make us “uncomfortable” but that is “good” because “such discomfort simply signifies already existing problems and underscores the need for standing under the discourses of ourselves and others—and listening” (210).

But ever since 2016, conservative discourses are not washing over me; I am drowning in them. My phone’s “push” notifications sometimes feel like someone is actually shoving me. “Uncomfortable” is how I feel in my overheated office in the dead of winter; “running away and joining a commune” is where I’m at now. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed argues that “emotions can move through the movement or circulations of objects. Such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension” (11). In the current political climate, conservative discourses have become so fully “saturated” with intense negative affect for me that the “personal and social tension” I feel when hearing more conservative discourses becomes overwhelming.

Previous scholars tackling conservative discourse have done so from the safe remove of archives or other secondary sources (see for example McRae). While these constitute a type of rhetorical listening, historical scholars do not experience the in-the-moment anxieties I experienced (nor are the voices they are listening to likely to vote in the next election).

As a white woman, I’m also aware that my whiteness, as well as my position as a heterosexual, married, middle-class mother of two, offers me what Charles Gallagher calls “methodological capital,” which builds trust and cooperation and encourages the women I interviewed—all of whom were white—to speak to me frankly about their political beliefs. In “White Ethnography: (Un)comfortable Conveniences and Shared Privileges in Field-Work with Swedish Migrant Women,” Catrin Lundström writes of her own whiteness as methodological capital that “was not necessarily a spoken characteristic, but still constituted a feeling of something we had in common, and could be seen as a prerequisite for telling ‘white stories’.” (76). Lundström expresses concern that interviewing spaces where “white stories” are told have the potential for merely reproducing hegemonic beliefs rather than critiquing them (76).

In my interviews, I too heard “white stories” because regardless of my actual beliefs or my reputation on campus, my whiteness created a safe space for these women expressing the white narratives of anti-immigrant sentiment or defense of police officers. Ethnographer Amy Best argues that whiteness is an “ongoing interactional achievement” because the ethnographic is interview is an “interactional context through which the researcher’s racial identity and the racial identities of those under study are actively managed, negotiated, and solidified” (897). My whiteness, which offers me the methodological capital to conduct the interview in the first place, also allows in the rhetoric of whiteness, which exhausts me. In the interviewing moment, I am using my whiteness as a tool to get my interviewees to open up to me, but when they do, I realize I don’t want to engage in their particular brand of whiteness talk. Thus, I want to quit everything.

I ask myself: Who else is going to listen to conservative women if not me as a privileged, post-tenure white woman? If I bail on this, am I becoming the privileged white men in my department who delight in refusing to do service work, oblivious to the fact that that work still has to get done and likely will be done by junior faculty, often a woman or person of color? Is this just more white fragility? If so, do I just “tough it out”?

If we are going to be responsible feminist rhetoricians in the present and future political climate, we need to be able to see conservative women in their contradictions and complexities without canceling them. Feminist standpoint theory has taught us to embrace the many lived experiences of women for all of their complexity because “a representation of reality from the standpoint of women must draw on the variety of all women’s experiences” (Jagger 64). So here are the question I pose to feminist scholars:

  • If certain discourses become saturated with negative affect, how can we listen anew and fresh? To work the metaphor, how do we wring out the sponge?
  • How do we listen to discourses that don’t just make us “uncomfortable” but which trigger anger or pain? Or exhaustion and frustration?
  • How do we use our privilege responsibly to listen to “white stories” and how do we write about them in a way that does not merely maintain their hegemony?

I will offer one small success here, which, for me, has entailed abandoning the idea of interviewing as peaceful communion. Qualitative researcher Douglas Ezzy offers the metaphor of “communion” for understanding the goal of a qualitative interview. In communion, the interview is “largely based on an understanding of friendly feelings and intimacy, to optimize cooperative, mutual disclosure and a creative search for mutual understanding” (164). Post-2016, the new “communion” might be bonding over things that really piss us off and reminding ourselves and each other that the patriarchy is the reason we are mad. Since the election of Donald Trump, I have made a concerted effort to introduce gender as a factor when women share their frustrations with me about being the only competent one at their office, or having work dumped on them, or worrying about their appearance, the tone of their emails, or that they’re coming off as bossy. “Men never worry about that,” I say. I did so in an interview with Hannah, a senior psychology major enrolled in ROTC who identifies as “Republican” and “personally very conservative, but also . . . socially more liberal and economically more conservative.”

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Hannah: Yes.

Interviewer: Okay. Tell me about that.

Hannah: I think the term feminism is under attack because . . . everyone should be a feminist because the definition is equal rights and it’s not against men in any way. But definitely being in male-dominated organizations such as ROTC, [my feminism has] gotten much stronger since I started [in] that organization because I realize the power dynamic between men and women and the issues that causes for women.

Interviewer: Can you give me an example of that?

Hannah: Yeah. So, just . . . There’s a big issue in the army and ROTC with sexual harassment and assault. I think, especially with the Me Too movement, things like that, men are very wary of their interactions with women. So, male cadres [supervising officers] have different interactions [with female cadets] than they do with the male cadets. So, that kind of gives the male cadets a leg up because they’re able to interact with them in a more personal level without offending them in any way.

Interviewer: Well, that’s crap.

Hannah: Yes.

Interviewer: Oh, okay. So, they’re more cautious around you?

Hannah: Yes.

Interviewer: Interesting. And you can tell this?

Hannah: Yes.

Interviewer: It’s just like the vibe you get, or . . .

Hannah: Right.

Interviewer: Okay.

Hannah: And then, I also call it the bro culture. The army has been called a lot of times a “boys club” because they . . . There’s the more innocent end of making sports references and things like that, to the more extreme end of just straight up favoritism . . . If there’s a really great performing male cadet and female cadet, the male cadet will be ranked higher. If there’s a really poor performing male and female cadet, the male cadet will be ranked higher, and people tend to agree with this trend.

Interviewer: I’m sorry that happened.

In this embodied moment, I was able to validate Hannah’s frustration, and (I hope) offer her an outlet for someone who would listen and believe her. And we share an eye roll together, and that’s a real moment of communion. In Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister writes that one of anger’s most important role’s is as “a mode of connection, a way for women to find each other and realize that their struggles and their frustrations are shared, that they are not alone, not crazy” (230). I worry that as an ethnographer, as a rhetorical listener, and as a woman, I have been conditioned to tamp down my anger in the name of fostering “friendly feelings and intimacy” (Ezzy 164). This is unhealthy for me, but it also disconnects me from other women, like Hannah, who are also mad but conditioned to tamp down their anger as well. Maybe the one thing that unites us as women is that we’re pissed.

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. -return to text
  • Ezzy, Douglas. “Qualitative Interviewing as an Embodied Emotional Performance.” Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 16, no. 3, 2010, pp. 163-70. -return to text
  • Gallagher, Charles A. “White like me? Methods, meaning, and manipulation in the field of white studies.” Racing Research, Researching Race. Methodological Dilemmas in Critical Race Studies, edited by France Winddance Twine and Jonathan W. Warren, New York University Press, 2000, pp. 67–92. -return to text
  • Hogg, Charlotte. “Including Conservative Women’s Rhetorics in an ‘Ethics of Hope and Care’,” Rhetoric Review, vol. 34, no. 4, 2015, pp. 391-408. -return to text
  • Jagger, Alison M. “Feminist Politics and Epistemology.” The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. Sandra Harding, ed. New York, Routledge, 2004. pp. 55-66. -return to text
  • Lundström, Catrin. “White Ethnography: (Un)comfortable Conveniences and Shared Privileges in Field-Work with Swedish Migrant Women.” NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2010, pp. 70-87. -return to text
  • Mattingly, Carol. “Telling Evidence: Rethinking What Counts in Rhetoric,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-108. -return to text
  • McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie. Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York, Oxford University Press, 2018. -return to text
  • Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Portsmouth, Boynton/Cook, 2007. -return to text
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. -return to text 1 -return to text 2
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. -return to text
  • Trainor, Jennifer Seibel. “The Emotioned Power of Racism: An Ethnographic Portrait of an All-­White High School.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 82­-112.
    -return to text
  • Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2018. -return to text


The Praxis of Listening in Feminist-Relational Research

I sat in a circle of women I had never met before. Strangers to each other, we had gathered to sample a themed writing course about women and aging at a non-profit communal writing center called Women Writing for (a) Change® (WW). We engaged in freewriting about our current and future lives, or simply followed our muse, and then shared passages with the group who were encouraged to take notes. Listening to women’s reflections—for example, how life was supposed to be about them, their dreams, even as they shared life with others—and noting the phrases that resonated within the group created an intellectual and emotional connectivity among us (Blewett and Boehr 24-5). In reading back, women collectively crafted a new text woven from shared experiences. Intrigued by this dynamic relational environment, I decided to dedicate my dissertation research to explore women’s motivations, experiences, and responses to writing in a gendered community (Enabling Spaces 22(1)). Focusing on three women who had suffered traumatic experiences, I knew that the praxis of engaged listening needed to build the framework of my methodology (75).

As a non-native speaker of English who has lived in different countries, I am sensitive to difference and change. I was curious to examine what writing towards change can mean to individuals and how it may connect with rhetorical practices and surroundings at WW. As a participant observer, I engaged in class activities and conducted semi-structured interviews with ten selected participants, eager to learn about their responses to practices and interactions. Specifically, I wished to excavate women’s voices from enforced or chosen silences and make them heard (10-1).

Writing scholars Beth Daniell and Peter Mortensen posit that research as an “accumulation of knowledge about gendered literacy is not aimed at constructing generalizations about women . . . [but] about putting diverse representations of women’s literacy practice on display so that we can begin to understand how literacy rewards women and what it costs them” (emphasis original, 31). To me, “and” was the operative word. To reveal the many aspects of gendered literacy, particularly to recover and amplify women’s voices, we need to listen closely and empathically. In this essay, I reflect on my experience using Carol Gilligan’s(1) voice-centered Listening Guide (LG) as an analytical method to deeply engage in listening to women’s stories and remain alert to contextual elements and my own positionality.

Psychologists Jeanne Marecek, Michelle Fine, and Luise Kidder suggest that qualitative research aims to “unravel mysteries, to be surprised and jostled by what turns up . . . embark[ing] on an intellectual adventure without a map or even a clear destination” (31). As I unraveled the stories of participants in this study, I was moved by the intensity with which women relived their stories and lifted the protective layers from their truths about audience, environment, and change—dimensions that proved important across all participants. I felt empathy and bewilderment, even irritation, during these interviews. Inhabiting the roles of a participant, interviewer, and analyzer taught me to listen with attention, care, and critical self-reflection.

I remember sympathizing with one woman as she talked about loss—her absentee father, her self-value, and ultimately her physical voice as a psychosomatic reaction (Enabling Spaces 143(2)). I recall becoming distracted, even irritated, as another participant kept interrupting and talking over my voice (148). I realized that I physically shifted away from one interviewee and needed to remind myself to keep an open mind while she expressed her conservative political beliefs and controversial view of feminism in what I perceived as an aggressive manner (100). Using Gilligan’s(2) LG as an analytical method helped me to probe into women’s stories and examine the different dimensions of voice in a relational and sociocultural context. Paying attention to these dimensions enriched my stance of empathy and engaged openness as a feminist-relational researcher (Schultz 2003; Ratcliffe 2005) and guided me towards a deeper connectivity and understanding, particularly in difficult and controversial communications.1

A Polyphonic Relational Method

After each class session, I wrote reflective personal vignettes to maintain a record of my observations, emotions, and positionality. I also kept a journal to help me organize my thoughts and keep track of arising questions and concerns. Jotting down random notes and documenting the decisions I made along the way helped me to funnel my emotional reactions to women’s stories and make meaning. After the 2016 presidential election, I wrote about the “shock, disbelief, and a highly emotional atmosphere . . . One woman cried and articulated her shock and grief about the situation . . . . [while another] expressed discomfort with last week’s discussion about the two presidential candidates. She wrote that as a Republican, whose views about candidates and politics differed from most women’s, she had felt lectured and disenfranchised. She had kept her silence. I asked myself whether this particular woman had not felt safe and trusting enough in the circle as a container or safe holding space of their words to speak out against others, to speak a different truth” (Personal Vignette).

In the 1980s, Gilligan’s LG was designed as a feminist relational method to surface the voices of those who had been muffled or silenced by socio-cultural contexts. As my research focused on three women who had survived traumatic experiences, I was particularly interested in exploring what helped them break their silences and embrace change (75-6). Gilligan, et al. emphasize that the LG “is a method of psychological analysis that draws on voice, resonance, and relationships as ports of entry into the human psyche” (“On the Listening” 157). While paying attention to presence, silences, suggestions, and interruptions in interview situations represents good practice in qualitative research (Lucas and Strain 269), tuning into the nuances of participants’ articulations of self in connection to others challenges a researcher to further engage with the whole person in context. This associative approach expands the notion of voice as it analyzes narrative “for understanding the ways research participants make meaning of their experiences” and surroundings (Sorsoli and Tolman 497(1)). Specifically, Gilligan aimed to establish a non-binary, not masculine gendered, approach to examine voice in its complexity so that researchers can explore the interactive dynamic of emotion and reason, self and others, seclusion and context. Analyzing voice as a multilayered and corporeal form of communication allowed me to tune into women’s realities, revealing the interconnection between different voices, and how they may align, contradict, “interrupt or silence one another or weave in and out . . . in counterpoint” in their struggle to make sense of the world (“The Listening Guide” 70(3)). Engaged and mindful listening helped me to follow this meandering path, while its recursive and rigorous process demanded my full attention on a psychological, intellectual, and emotional level.

For the semi-guided interviews, I had prepared an Interview Guide that focused on my overarching research question broken into smaller, open-ended ones “to orient the interviewee and engage . . . her with . . . [my] research interest” and make her feel comfortable (Josselson 41). Taking handwritten notes of reoccurring terms and phrases helped me to stay focused and develop further, “experience-near” questions that evolved from each situation (47).

Analytical Rigor as Feminist Ethos

The LG(4) demands a minimum of four successive readings, called listenings, of each verbatim transcribed interview. Each listening focuses on a different lens to illuminate the dimensions of participants’ inner thoughts, feelings, and reactions to reliving events and the interview situation.2 In the first listening for the plot, I aimed to identify major themes that emerged from the narrative. Leaning on entries in my journal, I reflected on the relational aspects that framed the interviews to remain critically aware of my own emotions and stance. This listening served as a critical apparatus to support a feminist-relational approach and limit the risk of overlaying the interviewee’s voice with mine. Its self-reflective mode and attention to contextual elements prepared further interpretative entry points to make audible the different strands of identified voices. As I was reading, I color coded line by line what I heard as evolving and reoccurring topics. I marked key words and added comments in the margins as to how topics may connect to my research interest and develop into major themes. Transferring these color-coded and loosely grouped dimensions to a different sheet of paper served as a mnemonic visualization, a colorful map to detect places of interest for further analysis.

In the second listening, I focused on distilling participants’ I-voices from the text as a representation of self in context. According to Gilligan, “voice is embodied and resides in language . . . ground[ing] psychological inquiry in physical and cultural space” (“The Listening Guide” 69(5)). In other words, voice provides ways to explore how a person experiences the self in relation to surroundings, documenting “the interplay of inner and outer worlds” in their complexities (69(5)). Extracting each I-phrase (pronoun and verb) and “record[ing] these phrases in the order of their appearances in the passage” created an associative path of the individual psyche (Gilligan and Eddy 78). The distillation of self from other voices also helped to identify competing positions that might warrant further exploration. Re-reading my color-coded lines and following each voice strand at a time, I then marked other pronouns and their respective verbs in the passage. In so doing, I followed the I-voice, or “self voice,” alongside a potentially contemplative or outreaching You-voice and other personal pronouns and documented them in separate lines (Sorsoli and Tolman 502(2)). The resulting I-poems verbally and visually revealed women’s presentations of self in relation to others. For example, as Anne talked about her depression and writing as a lifeline within her isolation, the corresponding I-poem visualized her solitude in one singular column of I-phrases: “I lived alone/I felt/I felt terrible/I had no voice/I had no audience” (lines 529-31(1)). In contrast, when talking about a receptive audience and writing in community, she shifted to present tense, and her words exude joy and anticipation: “I can play/I can create/I can design words/I can feel good” (lines 556-60(1)). Probing deeper into aspects of community, her depiction of self becomes more nuanced, shifting from a reflective self voice, “I have to go back/I have a feeling/. . ./I think” (lines 694-704(1)), to desiring a space in which women can grow together: “We are connected/We live in community/We all are programmed/We need other people” (lines 697-8(1)).

Tuning into the rhythm, moves, and use of pronouns in women’s voices during the third (and fourth) listening for counterpoint, I followed their close dance in relation to my research interest. Innovative to the LG, this step employs “the musical aspect of listening . . . for nuance, for modulations and silences” to complicate findings and validate complexity (“The Listening Guide” 72(6)). Focusing on passages with multilayered strands of identified voices, I re-listened to one at a time for potential tensions and contradictions between them. This phase challenged me the most as I felt drawn into women’s stories. Anne’s emotional intensity still resonated within me, and I wrestled with her words to make meaning, reflecting that “writing is a tool, but a receptive audience is an umbilical cord to the world . . . Despite my temporary disconnection, or rather irritation because of being talked over, I feel deeply connected when she describes her suffering in loneliness, writing to her self, feeling almost schizophrenic, and hoping that God—someone—would listen” (lines 531-2(2); Personal Journal).

In Anne’s story, the first listening had identified three major thematic voices: breaking isolation, writing as a journey towards self-discovery, and change. The second listening had confirmed her goal to escape physical and emotional seclusion and the joyful experience of a new-found receptive audience. Writing was her lifesaver, and she seemed ready to experiment with language and share her stories with a wider audience. However, I sensed a tension in her voice of change as it remained intertwined with the strands of self-discovery, the need for a non-judgmental audience, and issues of gender. The contrapuntal listening revealed that she still needed the safety of a gendered space to continue on her journey and strengthen her confidence to, eventually, reach outward.

Listening and Change

As I worked on the final cross-case analysis, I realized a change in my sensitivity to the words of others and reflected how the LG might be used in other interactions and research. Listening repetitively made me re-think my positionality, question preconceived notions, and double-check associations. In what other situations might learning to listen instill this urgency to remain open and connected to women’s different truths as a manifestation of respect? How else might we use recursive listening to explore the interconnection between women’s self-portrayals, silences, and experiences of self among others? What other possibilities might this method offer for difficult kinds of communication?

I realize that without listening for tension in intersecting voices, I would have missed important insights, such as Anne’s need for the shelter of a women-only space, or another woman’s vulnerability and self-deprecation veiled by what I had initially interpreted as aggressiveness. I encourage others to explore how the praxis of listening offers socio-political agency and propels feminist research to make heard the voices of marginalized populations and reveal opportunities for growth deriving from difference.

End Notes

  1. See Enabling Spaces, pp. 106-60, for the in-depth analyses of three women; see pp. 161-207 for the analysis across participants. -return to text
  2. See Enabling Spaces, pp. 67-105, for methodology. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Anne (pseudonym). Personal Interview. 5 December 2016. -return to text (1) or (2)
  • Blewett, Kelly, and Christiane Boehr. “Women Writing for (a) Change: Nurturing Voices, Enriching Lives.” 3 December 2014. Topics in Composition, U of Cincinnati, Student Paper. -return to text
  • Boehr, Christiane. Enabling Spaces: A Rhetorical Exploration of Women Writing in Community. 2019. University of Cincinnati, PhD dissertation. OhioLINK Electronic Theses & Dissertations Center. http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=ucin15535133573856. -return to text (1) or (2)
  • —. Personal Journal. 26 May 2017. -return to text
  • —. Personal Vignette. 14 Nov. 2016. -return to text
  • Daniell, Beth, and Peter Mortensen, editors. Women and Literacy: Local and Global Inquiries for a New Century. Taylor and Francis, 2007. -return to text
  • Gilligan, Carol. “The Listening Guide Method of Psychological Inquiry.” Qualitative Psychology, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 69-77. doi: 10.1037/qup0000023 -return to text (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), or (6)
  • —, et al. “On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method.” Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, edited by Paul M. Camic, Jean E. Rhodes, and Lucy Yardley, American Psychological Association, 2003, pp. 157-72. -return to text
  • —, and Jessica Eddy. “Listening as a Path to Psychological Discovery: An Introduction to the Listening Guide.” Perspectives on Medical Education, vol. 6, no. 2, 2017, pp. 76-81. doi: 10.1007/s40037-017-0335-3 -return to text
  • Josselson, Ruthellen. Interviewing for Qualitative Inquiry. The Guilford Press, 2013. -return to text
  • Lucas, Brad, and Margaret M. Strain. “Keeping the Conversation Going: The Archive Thrives on Interviews and Oral History.” Working in the Archives. Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, edited by Alex Ramsey et al., SIUP, 2010, pp. 259-77. -return to text
  • Marecek, Jeanne, Michelle Fine, and Louise Kidder. “Working between Two Worlds.” From Subjects to Subjectivities, edited by Deborah L. Tolman and Mary Brydon Miller, New York UP, 2001, pp. 29-41. -return to text
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. SIUP, 2005. -return to text
  • Schultz, Katherine. Listening. A Framework for Teaching Across Differences. Teachers College Columbia UP, 2003. -return to text
  • Sorsoli, Lynn, and Deborah L. Tolman. “Hearing Voices. Listening for Multiplicity and Movement in Interview Data.” Handbook of Emergent Methods, edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy, The Guildford Press, 2008, pp. 495-515. -return to text (1) or (2)

Students’ Written Responses to Holocaust Survivor Nessy Marks

My five friends and I made a commitment to each other in the ghetto… Whoever survives must teach and tell the others. I am the only survivor, and I have kept my promise. (Nessy Marks)

Holocaust survivor Nessy Marks’ letter archive came to us – the students and faculty in a Feminist Methods seminar1 – because the other archives to which it had been offered could not give it a home. When Marks passed away in 2011, numerous museums and archives took her personal papers and artifacts, but one of her most valued possessions, a collection of thank you letters written by the thousands of American students to whom she spoke about the Holocaust during her lifetime, was not one of the items they selected for preservation. Luckily, Dr. Elyce Rae Helford, director of Jewish and Holocaust studies at MTSU, saved this archive and gifted it to our class. As the epigram for this manuscript highlights, Marks committed to tell her story of the Holocaust were she to survive, and she lived out this promise by speaking to school-age children, the people she believed would be most important to reach in order to prevent future violence. Our class worked together as a research team to document and categorize each artifact within the recovered archive, and with the help of Lauren Blade, a Research Assistant for the project, we were able to digitize the collection and add metadata. Our next step is to create a searchable database so that other feminist scholars can access and use the archive for further research.

Nessy Marks’ Life

Nessy Wolpert Marks was born in Pӧszeiten, Lithuania in 1924. In October 1938, the Nazis occupied Pӧszeiten, and Marks, along with her parents and four brothers, were relocated to the Kovno ghetto. In order to survive the relentless cruelty of the Nazi regime, Marks was at first sent into hiding with a local Catholic family in the hopes that she might have a chance for survival. She later accepted transport to a farm in northern Germany where she stayed until liberation in 1945.

In December 1947, Marks relocated to Tennessee to live with family in the United States. Soon after, she met and married her husband and gave birth to their four children. When she died in 2011 at the age of 87, she had travelled the U.S., speaking to students about her experiences during the war. Marks had kept the promise she made to her friends while in the Kovno ghetto: to tell their stories to the world (Tennessee Holocaust Commission). Upon recalling her vow in an interview, she stated:

it devastates me to this day but I do go into schools, I do go into churches and I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of people by now. I have files and files, when I was young and dumb I threw the thank you letters, threw the letters away but I still have on file at least 1500 letters, you know, of students and teachers. (Oral History)

In this interview extract, Marks demonstrates an awareness of the value of these letters, and our research team concurs that these texts hold significant power and insight.

Description of the Archive

In total, the archive is composed of more than 1500 letters and personal artifacts from Marks’ life, such as newspaper clippings, conference programs, and photographs. The letters, which are the focus of our study, were written between 1960-2006 by students ranging in age from 9 to 19 years old. It is likely that some of these children would have had immediate family members who survived the Holocaust, adding another layer of nuance to their reception of Marks’ survivor narrative.

Marks’ documents are preserved in the order and state in which we received them – eight binders with letters encased in plastic sleeves. The letters are organized such that student letters from a particular class are adjacent to each other; however, instructor name and grade level are not always noted. Further, different classes are not organized chronologically within binders. We include sample letters with our findings below and have removed identifying features from these donated letters.

Feminist Approach to the Archive

Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber posits that a project can be “considered ‘feminist’ when it is grounded in the set of theoretical traditions that privilege women’s issues, voices, and lived experiences” (3). Marks’ personal archive of student letters represents such a project – one that demonstrates the effect her lived experiences had on those with whom she shared her story of survival. Approaching Marks’ letters with a feminist lens allows us to not only consider the potential knowledge to be gained from undervalued texts (such as handwritten letters) and undervalued rhetors (such as adolescents), but brings forth a marginalized voice whose commitment to telling her story of the Holocaust and warning future generations about the repercussions of unfettered violence was her life’s work.

As feminist scholars have well-demonstrated, “thousands of men’s lives have been recognized and recorded for centuries across cultures, [but] women’s life stories have been documented far less often, even forgotten” (Brooks). Marks was a volunteer educator, wife, and mother, but because these titles go largely unacknowledged as part of the domestic sphere, her work has not received the attention and understanding it deserves. Marks’ story is particularly important because “the problem of integrating victim testimony into the history of Nazism and the Holocaust has emerged as one of the new developments in recent Holocaust historiography” (Betts and Wiese 6). The purpose in recovering this archive, then, is to highlight Marks’ contribution and claim such space as worthy of feminist scholarship and research.


Our research team worked together to establish agreed-upon codes for our data analysis. We shared and discussed our findings collectively, recursively honing and revising codes, and subsequently analyzing the trends we observed in individual artifacts. We acknowledge that the context in which we conducted our research – a feminist research methods graduate course – influenced how we interpreted our data, and reflecting on our own subjectivities was focal to our coursework. Practicing such reflexivity of course prompts “researchers to account for their personal biases and examine the effects that these biases may have on the data produced” (Hesse-Biber 3).


The first letter (Figure 1) that we examined was written by a fourth grader in 1968. The student thanks Marks for her visit and notes how “exiting” (sic) Germany must have been during the Holocaust. In fact, the student notes, without judgment, that after her talk “Some of the fourth graders were playing [Holocaust] on the playground.” Although there was a collective gasp in the room when we read this aloud together, upon further reflection we came to recognize that this reaction – students playing – was the way they were able to make sense of something so horrifying, something that defies sense-making.

More troubling than this student’s admission of “playing Holocaust,” however, is the number of students who seemed detached or disconnected from Marks’ often graphic retelling of her experiences, though we recognize such a reaction, again, as a common response to difficult material. This apparent dissociation demonstrates what psychologists in trauma studies have identified as “compassion fatigue.” In “The Fragility of Empathy After the Holocaust,” Carolyn Dean cites this condition as a common concern in Holocaust education, as people become numb to narratives and images of suffering as a form of self-protective dissociation.

Of course, the accounts represented in these letters are not necessarily “true” representations of student perceptions of the Holocaust. Instead – we suggest just as interestingly – they offer differing written responses across ages and places to a survivor narrative. For instance, some students only refer to Marks’ “experiences” but do not use the word “Holocaust,” and some simply avoid reference of either term.2 Further, we were surprised by the relatively low percentage of students whose letters – in any capacity – mentioned violence, not only because of the centrality of violence in any account of the Holocaust, but especially because Marks’ retellings focused on the atrocities that surrounded her.3

This absence – of direct references to the Holocaust in much of the discourse within the archive – underscores the real threat of discarding these letters: forgetting the violence that occurred under the Nazi regime and opening ourselves up to the possibility of recurrence. Decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitic hate crimes remain widespread. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.,” and anti-Semitism is rising globally, with over one-billion people expressing anti-Semitic views in a 2014 poll. As our research team worked with this archive, our goal became clear – to keep Marks’ voice alive and make this archive accessible to others to help prevent detachment and avoidance of Holocaust narratives.

Image of a letter from a student to Nessie Marks thanking her for speaking with them about communinism, fascism, and being in the concentration camps.

Figure 1, Letter B3-L4

Within the corpus of student letters written to Marks, two strategies emerged for affiliating with and demonstrating care for Nessy Marks as a survivor. In particular, 1) writers used collective pronouns to affiliate with Marks and construct themselves as patriotic protectors taking on what they saw as American responsibility;4 and 2) letter writers identified ancestry as a strategy for affiliation, accepting Marks’ story either as one that absolves them of guilt or connects them to painful narratives.5

Attention to Pronoun Use: Representations of Patriotism and Empathy

The changing use of pronouns in the letter archive was particularly notable and reflective of what communication scholars Kathleen Haspel and Karen Tracy have identified as ways that authors use pronouns to affiliate or disaffiliate with particular groups or ideas. For instance, in their analysis of the discursive strategies used during a disagreement at a school board meeting, Haspel and Tracy note how the use of “we and they simultaneously express alignment and affiliation with some people and disaffiliation and nonalignment with others” (148).

Similarly, we noted as particularly marked letters expressing students’ patriotism and militarism through the use of inclusive pronouns. One set of letters, dated from 1986, are largely characterized by their expressions of a sense of American duty and responsibility to world security, with “we” rhetoric heavily relied upon. The use of this repeated collective pronoun throughout the corpus, particularly in the late 80s, suggests a common belief among the students that the United States “won” the war and “saved” the Jewish people from the Nazis; this ideology aligns with a renewed sense of patriotism constructed in America in the 1980s (Rajecki et al.).

Although many of the letters utilize “we” to demonstrate care and community, violent expressions of force and/or military use are often written in first person. The desire for violent reactions to Marks’ story are expressed in a singular way through the use of the pronoun “I,” while expressions of guilt and patriotism are usually demonstrated in a collective sense. The following letter excerpt (Figure 2) is a representative example of the students’ use of violent notions of duty or responsibility to save the Jewish people, as in, “When I really think about it, I wish I could have formed an army and killed Hitler.”

Image of a letter to Nessie Marks from a student teeling Nessie that her talk with them was "great," that the student didn't like what happened to the Jews during the holocaust, and that the student believes the US should have stepped in sooner to help save lives during the war.

Figure 2, Letter B4-L6

In further constructions of empathy,6 the frequent use of the pronoun “I” demonstrates affiliation with Marks as a survivor. While we would expect “I” to be used frequently in a personal letter, “I” seemed to function metonymically, such that the child writer stood in for the Jewish people in the context of the thank you letter. This tendency is illustrated in the following excerpt (Figure 3): “I will never forget when you said that children with dark hair were thrown into trucks and suffocated. I realize I am the only person in my family with dark hair, and I could have been mistaken for Jewish, but I’m really Polish.”

Image of a letter to Nessie Marks from a student thanking her for coming to talk to them and sharing the student's realization after that talk that the student would have been the only child of their family killed for having dark hair.

Figure 3, Letter B8-L13

Letters we coded as empathetic are also marked by their use of collective pronouns “us” and “we.” These samples demonstrate a sense of solidarity and a shared need to atone for the atrocities suffered by Jews during the Holocaust. The letters coded as sympathetic overwhelmingly utilize the pronoun “you” as a mechanism for expressing concern while also using Marks’ story as a transferable lesson for a universal audience. These expressions of concern and words of advice are demonstrated in Figure 4: “[I] hope you can sleep tonight” and “You should never come home and say you are starving.”

Image of a letter to Nessie Marks from a student thanking her for telling them about Hitler and the Holocaust, relating the lesson the student learned from the talk, and offering the hope that Mrs. Marks would be able to "sleep tonight."

Figure 4, Letter B8-L7

Ancestry as Connection to Narratives of Guilt and Pain

While pronoun use is one significant strategy to affiliate with Marks, many letters also use heritage as a way to connect to Marks and her experiences. In particular, students of Jewish descent shared expressions of inherited pain and solidarity. One student writes, “A lot of what you [Marks] said has really affected me because many of my distant family either died or did survive the Holocaust. So many things you said also happen[ed] to my family.” This account attempts to establish a direct connection to Marks’ experiences in order to form a common bond with Holocaust victims.

Conversely, in Figure 5, one letter writer claiming to have ties to Germany thanks Marks for not condemning her descendants: “I am of German descent and I really would like to thank you for saying it was not our fault my grandma’s aunt’s boyfriend Adolf Hitler turned against the Jews and other races.” This account expresses a sense of inherited guilt that was demonstrated in several of the letters written by students claiming German heritage, but it simultaneously takes pains to connect the writer to Hitler, a strange tension worthy of further analysis.

An image of a letter from a students to Nessie Marks thanking her for coming and talking with them about the Holocaust, conveying the inspiration the student took from it to learn more about it, noting that the student, being of "of German decent," is thankful that Marks said Hitler and the Holocaust were not the fault of the student's family.

Figure 5, Letter B2-L21


If we do not properly document and preserve historical materials such as Marks’ letters, what stories of Holocaust survivors will stop being told? What lessons will we fail to learn? It is our responsibility as feminist scholars and researchers – the people who strive to recover the voices of the underrepresented – to ensure that the voices of Holocaust survivors such as Marks continue to have a presence in our history, scholarship, and collective memory.

This archive represents a way to keep Marks’ story alive – through the letters written to her from appreciative students, and the personal documents that give us small glimpses into her lived experiences as a Holocaust survivor. We have only begun to discover the rich experiences within this archive. Our goal is that the recovery of Marks’ personal belongings and the digitization of these letters will allow others to find value in this archive and, perhaps most importantly, allow Marks to continue to keep her promise to those five friends she lost in the Kovno ghetto so long ago.

Questions & Considerations for Future Engagement

This study demonstrates the importance of examining non-traditional forms of knowledge (such as underappreciated archival material and works produced by children) critically and seriously in order to broaden the definition of what is considered worthy of academic study, particularly for scholars interested in feminist recovery work. Marks’ archive of letters represents an untapped opportunity for feminists in rhetoric, writing studies, communication, archival studies, Holocaust studies, discourse analysis, and beyond. The following research questions offer only a starting point for further exploration.

  • In what ways does this archive demonstrate the power of storytelling and its ability to keep a community (Holocaust survivors) and a historical event (the Holocaust) alive?
  • What knowledge can be gleaned from examining changes in children’s responses to the Holocaust over time? (Especially in times of war and/or violence)
  • What implications does this archive offer for teaching social justice to adolescents? How can we make sense of their reactions to violence?
  • In what ways does this archive contribute to public memory of the Holocaust in America?
  • What does this archive reveal about the discourse of heroism in American society?
  • How can public engagement with this archive provide a generative opportunity for learners at all stages? (Particularly at a moment when hate speech and crimes are on the rise in our country)

End Notes

  1. Our research team included Elizabeth Williams (first author on this manuscript), Kate Pantelides (faculty member), Katherine Musick, Michelle Joyner, Nailah Herbert, and Helen Wilds. Their contributions are included in this summary of our work in progress. -return to text
  2. Michelle Joyner’s research focused on the element of detachment in the student letters. -return to text
  3. In one sample of letters, for instance, 30% mentioned violence, torture, etc. in broad, general, or vague terms; only 21% mentioned specific acts of violence. -return to text
  4. Helen Wilds and Nailah Herbert focused on this aspect of the archive. -return to text
  5. Katherine Musick focused on this aspect of the archive. -return to text
  6. Nailah Herbert was especially interested in this aspect of the letter in her analysis. -return to text

Works Cited

  • “Anti-Semitism in the US.” Anti-Defamation League, 2020, www.adl.org/what-we-do/anti-semitism/anti-semitism-in-the-us. -return to text
  • Betts, Paul, and Christian Wiese. Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination: Saul Friedlander and the Future of Holocaust Studies. Continuum, 2010. -return to text
  • Brooks, Abigail. “Feminist Standpoint Epistemology: Building Knowledge and Empowerment Through Women’s Lived Experience.” Feminist Research Practice. Edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia L. Leavy, Sage, 2007, pp. 53-82, doi: 10.4135/9781412984270. -return to text
  • Dean, Carolyn J. “The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust.” Cornell UP, 2004. -return to text
  • Haspel, Kathleen, and Karen Tracy. “Marking and Shifting Lines in the Sand.” The Prettier Doll: Rhetoric, Discourse, and Ordinary Democracy, edited by Bruce E. Gronbeck et al., U of Alabama P, 2007, pp. 142-175. -return to text
  • Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy. Feminist Research Practice. Sage, 2014. -return to text 1 or 2
  • Marks, Nessy. Oral history interview with Eric Epstein. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 24 July 1996, www.collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn513419. -return to text
  • “Nessy Marks.” Tennessee Holocaust Commission. 2009, www.tnholocaustsurvivorsarchive.org/people/nessy-marks/. -return to text
  • Rajecki, D. W., et al. “Documentation of Media Reflections of the Patriotic Revival in the United States in the 1980s.” Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 131, no. 3, June 1991, pp. 401–411, doi: 10.1080/00224545.1991.9713866. -return to text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Appendix: List of Sullivan/Pauly Interviews Currently Available Online

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Works Cited

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