The Rhetoric of Letter-Keeping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 1. Box of memorial letters.

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

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

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

Fig. 2. Breakup Note.

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

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

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

Fig. 3. Latched compartment open on compact.

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

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

Fig. 4. Detached mirror from compact.

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

Dr. Battey’s Ovariotomy, 1872-1878

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

Charles E. Rosenberg

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

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

Diseases and Illness Attributed to Ovaries

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

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

The Role of Morphia and Opium

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

The Gaze of Success

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

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

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

Contentions in the Field

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

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

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

Questions for Further Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 1. African Beads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Recoveries and Reconsiderations: Introduction

I am so very happy to present the first “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” section of Peitho! Perhaps the best way to explain the goals of this new feature is to draw on our initial call for submissions. As we stipulated in that call, one fundamental goal is to highlight and enhance the generative, recursive, and collaborative nature of research experiences:

We envision that “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” will…serve as a forum for sharing innovative perspectives on and application of existing feminist work, as well an incubator for new feminist research projects…In addition, we intend to provide a venue within feminist scholarly publishing that explicitly values the processes of discovery, invention, reflection, and complication. (“NEW Peitho Feature”)

With this objective in mind, we directed submitters to “close with a section that provides readers with questions to consider and/or ideas for future feminist engagement with the materials on which a submission focuses” (“NEW Peitho Feature”). This guidance, and the larger goal it supports, seeks to make scholarly research and publication less of an individual or small-group effort by encouraging scholars to share ideas and resources and by expanding the contexts in which scholars engage in what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch call “strategic contemplation.” Royster and Kirsch urge feminist scholars to take time to “pay attention to how lived experiences shape our perspectives as researchers and those of our research subjects” (22). Strategic contemplation, they elaborate, is essential for scholars wanting to produce more robust, and more ethical, scholarship:

[S]cholars have only recently begun to value the different layers of knowledge and understanding that can emerge when we attend to the world around us and in us: paying attention to the material realities of scholarly work, being mindful of the locations we visit (both archival sites and places where historical subjects lived)…By claiming a space for contemplation, reflection, and  meditation, by observing without rushing to judgment, by noticing without the immediate need to analyze, classify, and establish hierarchies, we allow new vistas to come into view, unexpected leads to shape scholarly work, and new research questions to emerge. (22)

“Recoveries and Reconsiderations” is intended, in part, as a space for collaborative strategic contemplation, a place where scholars invite others to assist with uncovering “different layers of knowledge and understanding” through observation of materials, locations, and phenomena without a rush to judgment and without the foreclosures of an immediate leap to extensive analysis and classification. In this section, we hope that both readers and writers will witness new research vistas, engage unexpected scholarly leads, and identify new, generative research questions.

To this end, each contribution to this initial offering of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” concludes with questions for readers to engage, descriptions of materials for further research, and/or suggestions for building upon the brief, contextualized accounts provided in the article. Mavis Boatemaa Beckson, for example, describes the value and power of beads among the Akan people of Ghana in order to emphasize the potential and necessity of (re)considering rhetorical objects in cultural, ethnic, and familial contexts beyond those that have, for too long, centered scholarship in Western, white rhetorical situations. The questions that conclude Beckson’s article can guide readers forward as they pursue this essential work. In a similar effort to support and propel other scholars, Kristina Lucenko offers a list of resources that might launch further study of the civility-challenging rhetorics of early Quaker women, and Lynée Lewis Gaillet includes details from the finding aids for the Margaret Scolari Barr papers at the Museum of Modern Art. Amber Nicole Brooks, too, supplies questions for others to consider when investigating the rhetorical contexts of gendered medical treatment in the late nineteenth century and when engaging the broader field of feminist rhetorical studies of health and medicine.

While many of the items that follow invite readers to reconsider the materials on which we focus our inquiries and to recover texts and objects that have been effaced through traditional approaches to the study of rhetoric, other contributors ask readers to reexamine our research, writing, and mentoring practices. Cheyenne Franklin calls attention to the overlooked and under-studied rhetorical tradition of letter-keeping among women and directs us to search for primary sources in unlikely sites, and even in hidden compartments. Janine Morris, Hannah J. Rule, and Christina M. LaVecchia use their experiences with writing groups to ask readers to consider how feminist writing groups might thoughtfully and powerfully blend professionalization and mentoring. Lastly, Liz Lane, Lori Beth De Hertogh, and Jessica Ouellette capitalize on the digital nature of Peitho by providing a venue for Peitho readers to collaboratively re-see our scholarly conversations through feminist mappings of the sources we cite (and thus amplify) through our publication choices.

The contributions in this issue are generative and the contributors generous in sharing them. Contributors also, as a group, reflect a related foundational goal of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations”: to welcome and empower more people to participate in Peitho, and, thus, to further the mission of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC). The CFSHRC mission stipulates that the organization and its affiliated publication should promote “the advancement of feminist research and pedagogy across histories, locales, identities, materialities, and media,” and “the education and mentoring of feminist faculty and graduate students in scholarship, research methods, praxis, and the politics of the profession” (“About the Coalition”). To accomplish these ends, “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” is structured to accommodate a wide variety of the institutional and personal contexts that feminist researchers, teachers, and scholars inhabit. As the call for submissions explains,

With “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” we wish to provide a space for more voices to enter our scholarly conversations. Contributions need not require the extensive time commitments of full-length articles and, thus, may be amenable to the working situations of many feminists in the field. (“NEW Peitho Feature”)

Efforts to enable further participation are reflected in the length parameters for contributions to the section. Traditional articles in Peitho run 6,000-8,000 words, while “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” articles are typically less than half that word count (“NEW Peitho Feature”). The items appearing in this issue, along with the large number of submissions received in response to our first call for submissions, suggest that this shorter format is valuable to many feminist scholars. And while no single offering can capture the full array of locations from and within which scholarship emerges for feminist rhetoricians, contributors to this first “Recoveries and Reconsiderations” section come from an impressive variety of institutions. Also notable, most of these contributors are assistant professors or graduate students. Given that each of the thirty submissions received was peer reviewed by two scholars in the process of selecting the items that follow, the format of the section appears to be amenable to both rigor and broad participation.

In keeping with the forward-looking spirit of “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” I close with an invitation for you to submit your work and, in this way, expand participation even further. Peitho welcomes your descriptions of and observations about materials, sites, and methods of feminist research and practice in our field. The seven items that follow provide an excellent sampling of approaches that contributors might take in future installments, and there are many other areas for generative inquiry and conversation, including feminist digital and multimodal rhetorics, feminist pedagogy, feminist administration, and intersectional rhetorical feminism, to name but a few. For more information about submitting your work to “Recoveries and Reconsiderations,” head to our website at

Works Cited

  • “About the Coalition.” Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Accessed 24 May 2020.
  • “NEW Peitho Feature: Recoveries and Reconsiderations.” Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Accessed 24 May 2020.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.