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.

Revisiting Transvestite Sexualities through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s

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

(Linda Ann Stephens 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to the “dull hetero TV”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

Writing Groups as Feminist Practice

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

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

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

Our “Open Writing Group”

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

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

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

Potentials from a History of Women’s Writing Groups

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

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

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

Writing Groups Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

Early Quaker Women and Civility Rhetorics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the (Distant) Past

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

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

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

Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection

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

Early English Books Online

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

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

Feminist Citational Mapping as Recovery and Reconsideration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access and Ideas for Future Feminist Engagement

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

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

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

Series I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series VI:

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

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

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

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

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

Series IX:

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

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


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


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

Works Cited

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