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?
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.
Interviewer: Oh, okay. So, they’re more cautious around you?
Interviewer: Interesting. And you can tell this?
Interviewer: It’s just like the vibe you get, or . . .
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.
- 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.
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- Traister, Rebecca. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2018. -return to text