Review of Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan

Fujiwara, Lynn, and Shireen Roshanravan (Eds). Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, University of Washington Press, 2018.

Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics is a collection edited by Lynn Fujiwara and Shireen Roshanravan. I first read the book in the summer of 2020 in the midst of another wave of Black Lives Matter movement calling for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people murdered by the police. This was not only another moment of awakening for me to the racial injustice in this country, particularly against Black people, but also to reflect on my own racialized positionality. Now, I’m reading this collection for a second time, barely a year later, at yet another kairotic moment when six Asian women’s lives were taken by a white terrorist in a racially and sexually motivated crime in Atlanta and the nation is perhaps finally recognizing the racial violence against Asian peoples that has long existed yet particularly heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drawing from multiple disciplinary perspectives, this collection moves toward theorizing an Asian American feminist praxis, contextualized in transnational and transcultural politics and grounded in intersectional and decolonial approaches. It starts by tracing the history of Asian American feminist genealogies in a global context from the work of third world feminist and Asian decolonization in Grace Kyungwon Hong’s chapter to Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s efforts in making visible the differences and tensions between radical and liberal strands of Asian American feminisms developed in the 20th century. This history offers a good foundation for readers to engage with the rest of the chapters approaching Asian American feminisms and politics from a multitude of perspectives.

In this review, I highlight important takeaways from each section, without necessarily going through each chapter linearly but thematically, because this journey of learning and growth for me is iterative and recursive, embedded in my own experiences and positionalities as a Chinese permanent resident living in the U.S., a scholar and student of feminist rhetorics.

Challenging the Dominant Asian American Narratives

Several chapters challenge readers to reflect on the labels we use for Asian Diaspora, such as “Asian American” (107) or “Asian Canadian” women (156): how can we perceive this complex identity in all its multifacetedness? Who may be included or excluded by these labels? What gets erased or neglected? Stephanie Nohelani Teves and Maile Arvin critique the use of the term “Asian Pacific Islanders.” They remind us of the colonial history of Pacific Islanders, and argue that Asian Americans need to recognize their own complicity in marginalizing Pacific Islanders and erasing their histories while offer recommendations for teaching and research in Asian American studies.

In discussing the “South Asian Canadian women” cultural position, Sunera Thobani warns us of “colonial ideologies of passive victimhood and patriarchal cultures characterized by misogynist violence” which neglect the struggles South Asian Canadian women experience against social, economic, and political forces (157). Similarly, Thomas Xavier Sarmiento highlights the importance of a descriptive approach to the complex and multiple identities one might embody. Sarmiento looks to diasporic Filipinx literature for a Filipinx American feminist and queer political orientation to challenge colonial oppression and white supremacy, arguing that “gender liberation must be fundamentally queer” (100).

Erin Khuê Ninh’s chapter on sexual violence in the everyday lives of Asian American women is particularly poignant to read in light of what happened in Atlanta. Ninh calls us to attune to the “gender socialization” that Asian American women may experience, arguing that “Asian American women’s experiences of sexual coercion are ‘culturally’ inflected: sabotaged by the model minority paradigm not as stereotype but as subject formation” (76). She argues to “make coercion structural, not inflictive” and emphasizes that the question of consent should not be that of a “yes/no delineation” but instead “How do you feel?” (77).

I especially appreciate the detailed research accounts by authors who lay bare their own vulnerability, self-reflection, and positionality as they approach their research and activist work (Sarmiento; Ninh; Fujiwara; Kimoto). I resonate with the emphasis on how our positionality in any situation may allow us to “approach resistance movements from varying points of entry and belonging” (Fujiwara 247). There isn’t one Asian American subject, as there isn’t one Asian American feminist subject. We are always already embedded in a contextualized network based on interconnected identity markers and values.

Asian American Intersectional Feminist Organizing

Part four of the book presents inspirational activist work and Asian American feminist organizing, demonstrating how this contextualized examination and reflection of positionality is crucial to advancing feminist causes. Ma Vang’s analysis of a refugee community health organization in the U.S. and theorizing of a Hmong feminist praxis of care pushes the limits of feminist epistemology and centers refugees not as passive victims needing help but active agents of change in their own communities who in turn also shape institutional practices and bridge different feminist formations (185). From a transnational perspective, Gina Velasco rejects the moralistic framework often adopted by international organizations and policies that further exploits gendered Philippine migrant workers by focusing almost exclusively on sexual labor as sex trafficking (202).

Similarly, Priya Kandaswamy calls for an intersectional approach to reproductive justice through the analysis of the criminalization of Purvi Patel in the U.S., highlighting the interlocking factors that shape the regulation of reproductive rights as much as gender: race, class, immigration status, and ability. Kandaswamy critiques the portrayals of Patel, by those who supported her, who prosecuted her, and by media in general that fall into stereotyping Asian women as deceptive, manipulative, and lack of agency, victims of their own patriarchal cultures rather than individuals who can make their own choices (223). Across the three chapters in Part four, we can see authors centering the agency of marginalized Asian American women and their own practices of empowerment while revealing the structural and systemic forces that aim to reduce the complex identities of different Asian American women.

Toward a Coalitional and Multiple Asian American Feminist Praxis

A central theme throughout the book is an emphasis on coalitional politics built across the differences of groups of people who identify as Asian diaspora, rather than essentializing any specific group as representing Asian or Asian American community. Many chapters (e.g., Velasco, Thobani, Kimoto, Sarmiento) challenge simplistic politics of representation and call for intersectional attunement not only along gender and racial lines, but also to historical, economic, social, and political contexts. And authors in this collection have demonstrated how this work can be done with care.

Tamsin Kimoto’s chapter brings forth the historical work underpinning the systemic racializing work in the U.S. that pitted Asian Americans against Black Americans. Referencing Sara Ahmed, Kimoto lays out how whiteness is a standard in reference to which the world is conceived, both as “an implicit and coercive goal” that non-white racialized others are oriented toward and “the barometer by which we [racialized others] measure our own successes” (143). This is why a feminist praxis valuing multiplicity is important. Fujiwara writes:

“a coalitional praxis that presumes the multiple interdependent heterogeneous subjectivities of Asian Americans requires us to utilize the lens of multiplicity, a lens that foregrounds racialized neocolonial systems of neoliberalism and globalization to illuminate incommensurabilities within and across Asian America as sites of coalitional consciousness-raising” (245).

Such lens of multiplicity is particularly important as we see Asian American feminisms and politics embedded in and connected with women of color feminisms more broadly. For example, Kandaswamy’s chapter connects the criminalization of Purvi Patel using feticide legislation to the broader prison industrial complex that disproportionate criminalizes people of color by drawing parallel between Patel’s portrayal as a sympathetic victim with the criminalization of Black women as “crack mothers.” This is not to reduce either group’s suffering, but to actually help us see the “common differences” in how the state seeks to control the reproductive rights of women of color (Mohanty, cited in 221).

Using the case of NYPD officer Peter Liang’s murder of Black man Akai Gurley, Roshanravan warns us the “model-minority racial project” (270). As Asian/Asian Americans, we should be reflexive of our own positionality and must not be disillusioned by the allure of model minority or be blind to the relative privilege that perception might afford us. An Asian American visibility must be achieved horizontally across racial interconnectedness in the “racial third space” with other communities of color without mimicking or co-opting other identification of its own cultural specificity (Roshanravan 268).

In our current context, the fight for justice for the murders of Asian American women cannot lead to calls for more police because we must recognize how police brutality has always been a danger to immigrant communities, Asian American communities and Black communities alike. As immigrants, we must resist the simplistic binary of inclusion/exclusion into a national identity of being American, but to actually challenge and transform that nationalistic construct to one that’s based on care for and celebration of differences.

“Stay in Place and Stay on the Move”

To challenge the ways that Asian Americans have been racialized in proximity to whiteness, I go back to Tamsin Kimoto’s use of “restiveness” in our orientation, which embodies both a meaning to stay in place and to stay on the move.

Restiveness as staying in place may mean staying with the “silence” that’s been associated so much with Asian communities in recognizing both how Asian Americans have been pushed to stay silent throughout history and how that silence has ill served the histories of Asian Americans and other people of color and Indigenous peoples (146). Staying in place in this way means to critically reflect on what has been left unsaid but also what’s been said and amplified. Similar to Kimoto’s example of the “Resistance Auntie” meme of an Asian Trump supporter (147), one might think of the more recent incident where a Texas GOP congressional candidate Sery Kim, a Korean American, made racist comments toward Chinese immigrants (Cole). A “staying-in-place” restive orientation in this case means rejecting both the racist nature of Kim’s comments and recognizing how her positionality is the result of historical and ongoing orientation toward whiteness in this country that has often aimed to pit different people of color communities against each other.

Upon this reflection, Asian Americans can be restive as staying on the move working against the violence toward Indigenous lands and communities in the context of Hawaii (Kimoto 148-149). Similarly, it also behooves Asian American communities to orient toward the struggles of Black communities, such as in the case of Asians4BlackLives campaign (Roshanravan 274). In both situations, we must stay on the move, shifting our investment away from the white heteropatriarchy toward the collective intersectional coalition building across minoritized communities.

I end my review here as I find this dual understanding of “restiveness” a good point of departure for me from this book back to my daily life as a scholar and teacher of rhetoric and composition and technical communication; my positionality as a Chinese woman living in the U.S., researching Chinese feminist rhetorics both in China and globally. As BIPOC researchers and teachers, our positionality in the academy is often already precarious. But our students rely on us, requiring that we be restive, modeling for them a critical understanding and reflection of personal identities contextualized historically, economically, culturally, and politically. For feminist scholars more broadly, this book offers another opportunity to learn about Asian American feminisms and women of color politics, drawing attention to sites where more rhetorical research may be needed.

Works Cited

  • Cole, Devan. “Republican Congresswomen Call Out ‘Hurtful’ Comments made about Chinese Immigrants by Texas GOP Candidate They Endorsed.” CNN, 1 Apr. 2021, Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. -return to text
  • Fujiwara, Lynn, and Shireen Roshanravan (Eds). Asian American Feminisms & Women of Color Politics, University of Washington Press, 2018.


Review of Black or White: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics

Louis M. Maraj. Black or Right: Anti/Racist Campus Rhetorics. Logan: Utah State UP, 2020. 193 pages.

“The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color.” So opens the call for papers for this issue of Peitho, which goes on to elaborate on the claim and to insist that “we need to center the voices of feminist of color . . . to ensure our feminist futures.” In Black or Right, Lou Maraj answers this call, using the Black feminist philosophy of literacy as the practice of freedom and focusing throughout on how Black relational feminist methodologies and ecologies work to establish Black rhetorical agency as one means of disrupting (“mashin’ up de place” xiii) in order to counter white (institutional and individual) defensiveness—and a whole lot more.

Maraj’s book mixes and bends genres, languages, disciplines, and methods to participate in what Christina Sharpe calls “wake work”—undisciplined, disruptive, fracturing, paradoxical resistances that rupture the “immanence and imminence” of Black death both aesthetically and materially “to move toward Black rhetorical agency” (8). Black or Right embodies Maraj’s personal journey to such agency, opening with the “story of arrival” from his home in Trinidad to the “American dream” at a small northeastern liberal arts college, where he learns that a joint newspaper assignment seems to require a white male to accompany his white female partner and him (“It’s strange. Is this what Americans call a ‘date’?”) to cover the story–and that his freshman English teacher would not recognize, much less value “the lavish prose I was brought up on in the British Caribbean education system. . . Americans want a thesis” (4) Maraj quickly moves to provide a thesis as well as the other accoutrements of white academic discourse—but as this book so richly demonstrates, he learned not just to resist but to unlearn such structures as he “grapples with notions of Blackness in white institutional spaces to theorize how Black identity operates with/against neoliberal ideas of difference” (9) and leads the way to proactive antiracist practices.

The first chapter, “’Are you Black, though?’” explores one such practice, an autoethnographical approach, defined as “an application of African indigenous methodological ‘self-knowledge’” to explore the dynamics at work in one of his classrooms. Recently graduated from his primarily white undergraduate institution, Maraj is now a graduate student instructor teaching a second-year writing class at primarily white Midwestern State University, a class with only three Black-identified students, including “T,” who persistently challenges Maraj, asking him on more than a few occasions “Are you Black?” Maraj uses such encounters to frame a careful analysis of Blackness, informed by Black feminist and indigenous African understandings of relationality and to put forward the concept of Black autoethnography as a rhetoric “to theorize Black, potentially antiracist, agency within rhetoric, writing, and literacy studies” (25). You’re going to want to read Maraj’s full account, as T makes it clear that in his view Maraj’s position “at the front of the classroom” at this mostly white institution calls his Blackness into question–and as he and T negotiate layers and definitions of Blackness and of Black agency; like so much of the rest of the book, this chapter is a page-turner. The Black autoethnographical approach featured in this chapter includes a helpful review of this tradition in rhetoric and literacy studies—in the work of Geneva Smitherman, Keith Gilyard, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Carmen Kynard, Vershawn Young, and June Jordan. These and other “griots-as-scholars” use autoethnography, performativity, and relationality as they theorize, often in narrative ways that contrast with the “standard fare” of academic research.

Chapter 2, “Composing Black Matter/s,” offers hashtagging as another potentially Black-centering and anti-racist practice. In Maraj’s analysis, hashtags “make and remake,” they “permeate” they “code and decode,” representing a “marginalized out of school literacy” (44, 54). Drawing on deep analysis of Black Twitter as well as on scholarship surrounding activities on this site, Maraj argues that hashtags offer a space for Black students to practice resistance at primarily white institutions while at the same time reshaping what we think of as writing and reading—and even thinking. Situating this discussion in the long historical context of commonplace collections/commonplace books, Maraj shows how hashtagging can both challenge and remediate these tools for shaping understandings of the world. My grandmother, whose father fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, kept a commonplace book that she gave recitations from on “elocution days” in her elementary school. My mother kept a commonplace book all her life, pasting in inspirational passages she wanted to “know by heart” and collecting wisdom she wanted to pass on to her children. Understanding hashtagging as a continuation of this tradition but also and more importantly as a challenge to and reshaping of it—that is, understanding hashtagging as “a creative, analytic composition process with potentials to build, curate, archive, protest, and continue histories that interact with, and themselves constitute, social acts”—well, that’s a brilliant move that I believe will inspire teachers and student writers across the country. Building on Jay Bolter’s concept of “remediation,” Maraj shows how remediated commonplace books/hashtagging can help Black students resist dominant ideologies through communal practices to shape what counts as knowledge even as they guard against co-optation by white institutional ideology. “We’ve heard the fake news,” Maraj says. “Let’s unmake it,” Finally, this chapter also includes a thorough description of Maraj’s “Tumblr as Commonplace Book” assignment, brilliantly illustrated, as well as a provocative discussion of #blacklivematter and #BlackLivesStillMatter, highlighting the dialogic potential of hashtagging, which draws on the historical importance of African-based oral, dialogic traditions.)

#blacklivesmatter plays an important role in Chapter 3, “’All My Life I Had to Fight’” as Maraj reshapes and reimagines literacy events as digital and embodied as well as print or textual and then explores the #blacklivesmatter movement through the lens of what he terms inter(con)textual reading, a practice that looks at the dense web of associations among three particular literacy events: Alicia Garza’s 2014 “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” rapper Lamar’s 2016 performance of “Alright,” and a Black Lives Matter Syllabus created by NYU’s Frank Leon Roberts in 2016. This inter(con)textual reading of these literacy events

helps us to not only see connections but also gaps, offering possibilities for meaning to create, fill, and exceed them, or compelling us to seek other texts, subjects, or rhetorical bodies as related foci for analysis. In these ways, Black inter(con)textualality reads/writes Blackness dynamically. (99-100)

This inter(con)textual reading is, as Maraj rightly notes, deeply rhetorical, but its framing within Black feminist relational thinking shows, in his words, “the outside-inside-ness of Blackness in white worlds” and its potential for destabilizing those spaces.

Black Inter(con)textual reading provides a method for carrying out the rhetorical reclamations featured in chapter 4 of Maraj’s book. Defined as “acts of turning stigmatizing racialized attention mapped onto Black identities back onto the gaze of historically white institutions to publicly question/critique their power in moment of fracture,” such reclamations illuminate Black agency at work in white spaces to counter white defensiveness. This multilayered chapter showcases Black disruption through an analysis of three particular literacy events: Black Lives Matter in Classrooms events; a series of public safety alerts; and a YouTube Video (“Administration Threatens Expulsion”), all occurring in the spring of 2016 at Midwestern State University, the not-so-anonymous campus where Maraj was teaching at the time. The detailed description of these events makes for a deeply depressing and distressing—though not surprising—demonstration of just what Maraj means by “white defensiveness,” in this case white institutional defensiveness that every reader of Peitho will recognize. In every instance, Black students speak the truth of racism, clapping back and speaking back to create a rupture or fracture that then allows for rhetorical reclamation of the meanings and instrumentalities of Blackness: “the student protester rallies race conceptually in critiquing the very idea of racialization, in antiracism” in one memorable instance. Especially chilling is Maraj’s discussion of the “public safety” announcements, all of which are deeply racist, and which are resisted and at least partially reclaimed through Black rhetorical agency that rearticulates the “situations we are put with/in in Black non/Being,” where “we were never meant to survive” (131-32).

Maraj’s conclusion, a meditation on “De Ting about Blackness,” takes him back home for the first time since beginning his tenure track position at Pittsburgh—home with its familiar furniture and photos and memories, and with his Mother—where he receives a message from a departmental administrator who wants to make sure that his upcoming undergrad course, “Projects in Black Rhetoric,” is “global” or “transnational” enough to market to other departments. “How Black are you in these fractures?” Maraj wonders: “De ting about Blackness is that thing that also surrounds it, co-constitutes it with its ghosts.” (134) Maraj’s meditation on the word “ting” in Trinibagonian usage shows it to be a verb, noun, pronoun, or “what have you,” and maps its amorphous and elastic qualities that allow for Being and for Doing. This sense of being and doing inside/out, with/in, in/between, both/and are signs of Black disruption and of its “generativity, its polysemy, a multiplicity of possibilities for Blackness to mean and how Blackness could mean” (144). Throughout this meditation, as throughout the entire book, the foundation of Black feminist thinking and practice holds strong, supporting and enabling Maraj as he tries to “undiscipline,” to “mind fractures to find the kind of rest that keeps me waking up as de ting about Blackness always outside of me, asking, other/wise/.” (147). Maraj ends this book with words from Fanon, urging a “true leap” to introduce “invention into existence.”

It seems to me that this is precisely what Maraj has done in Black or Right—introduce invention into existence in a whole panoply of ways. Adding to the work of Royster, Logan, Smitherman, Kynard, Gilyard, Banks, Young, and other griot/scholars, Maraj’s book brings us closer to perceiving and understanding the contours of a complete and robust African American rhetoric, one that is thoroughly theorized as well as practiced

This realization is nothing short of thrilling: I have learned so much from reading and engaging this text, in trying to read it rhetorically, inter(con)textually when possible, to not just hear what Maraj is saying but to listen to his voice and the voices of all the Black feminists who echo through these pages—and to listen to all their messages with purposeful, striving intention. For an old(er!) white woman, it has not been easy to listen in this way. But oh has it been worth the effort.

Work Cited

  • Sharpe, Christina. On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016. Print.    -return to text

Review of Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice

Jordan-Zachery, Julia S., and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd. (2018). Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. SUNY P, 2018. 275 pages.

Introduction: Personal Intersections

Many years ago, I covered local politics for a progressive newspaper in a mid-sized, progressive Southern town. I reported the election of its first female mayor and, a few years later, its first Black mayor — Terry M. Bellamy, who was also the town’s youngest mayor ever. Soon after her election, a white, male reporter at the mainstream newspaper asked Bellamy how she was going to balance motherhood, a private-sector career, and the part-time job of mayor. She countered, “If I was a man, would I be asked this question?” The unspoken answer was, and still is, of course not. In my own later interview with the mayor, we laughed about the incident. We did not, however, talk about its racialized, class-based subtext. The town’s first female mayor came from modest privilege, a housewife-activist whose children were grown, her husband a prominent doctor. I am a white, queer woman with working-class roots. Our experiences with sexism and misogyny were by no means exchangeable. What, then, does it mean to call ourselves feminists in the 21st century?

My current research project, for example, explores the rhetorical ecology in which #nastywoman rhetorics wrangle with election-season representations of Kamala Harris, the first Black / South Asian woman to become vice president of the United States of America. For this project, I have visited such works as Deborah Atwater’s history-oriented overview, African American Women’s Rhetoric, and Gilyard and Banks’s On African-American Rhetoric. My search also steered me toward an anthology edited by two leaders in political science and gender studies: Julia S. Jordan-Zachery and Nikol G. Alexander-Floyd, editors of the interdisciplinary, activist tome, Black Women in Politics: Demanding Citizenship, Challenging Power, and Seeking Justice. In this review, I offer intersectional reflections and summaries of the book. That is, rather than proceed chapter by chapter, I begin with an overview of the book’s scope and purpose; move on to discuss the book’s thematic yet topical structure; discuss several exemplary chapters; and finish with a short reflection.

Overview: Intersectionality as Activism

I say “activist” because Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection with Black feminism’s explicit call for social justice, supported by intersectionality as a “generative” framework. In the co-written introductory chapter, “Black Women’s Political Labor,” they seed this ground with a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired metaphor of Black women tilling the soil not for others but for themselves. Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe how Hurston situates Janie, a fictional character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, at the intersection of race, class, and gender. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd briefly demonstrate, a Black feminist, intersectional analysis reveals how Janie deals with multiple, multidimensional oppressions and how she becomes a woman tilling the land for herself. They extend the metaphor to academia, asking:

“Black women academics and others have asked: For whom are Black women tilling? Is their labor for their liberation or solely to be used as part of the liberation efforts of others? And how do Black women [scholars as well as others] envision the manifestations of their political labor?” (xv)

Their answer is Black Women in Politics. From section to section and chapter to chapter, the editors present topics as wide-ranging as Black women’s health in the UK, Black nationalist women’s work in a World War II-era US newspaper, author Toni Morrison’s democratic-literary praxis, and former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. Such topics are arranged by section, such as Black Feminist Policy Analysis (see Table 1). Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd also present a variety themes, including “Black Women’s Self-Actualization” and “Moving from Silence to Voice” (see Table 2). The women who explore such topics and themes come from diverse disciplines — historian Keisha N. Blain, scholar-activist K. Melchor Hall, health educator Jenny Douglas, political scientist Keesha M. Middlemass, and English professor Judylyn S. Ryan. Though I was mildly disappointed to find no works by rhetoric or composition scholars, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s collection opens new and fertile ground, giving us both a rich, interdisciplinary resource as well as a challenge for continued research.

To orient readers to these aspects of the book, in the co-written introduction, they remind us that intersectionality was defined by Black feminists in the 1960s and ’70s and later formulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as three-dimensional (structural, political, representational). As such, it has long been focused on “investigating the multiple dimensions of Black political women” (xix), from community activists to elected officials to women affected by (and affecting) public policies and practices. Reaffirming intersectionality’s Black feminist roots, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd cast the collection around citizenship, power, and justice. That is, they not only center the selected works on Black women’s political labor but also on the labor of Black scholars committed to tilling new academic fields. Such co-labor is needed, they argue, because most of the research related to Black women has been limited to descriptive, often one-dimensional work. Worse, say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, most of the Black women working in masculinized fields like political science have been invisibilized, their research inadequately supported, their findings omitted or tokenized.

In one of her two solo chapters, Jordan-Zachery declares, “Research is a political act” (30). It matters whose work gets published, what their research is about, and whether other scholars cite those works. Therefore, research should not only expand our knowledge but make a difference in the policies and practices that affect Black women as well as the representation of Black women in a variety of forums. Thus, Black Women in Politics is an academic anthology but also a political act.

That is, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd’s specific activist aim is to create a garrett, which they define as a productive space promoting “justice as the goal of academic inquiry” (xxxiii). Such a space allows allies and Black women scholars alike to examine the issues that Black women face and respond to, from crime and punishment in the US to the masculine geopolitics of the Caribbean (xxxiii). The garrett is also a place in the sense of a site for mentoring and fostering scholars at various levels in their career, for sharing knowledge across disciplines, and for inspiring new inter- / intra-disciplinary work. On the other hand, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd acknowledge that intersectionality has been critiqued as too focused on identity politics and its activist inclination somewhat diminished by popularity and misuse. They insist, nonetheless, that intersectionality “has always been aimed at assessing and challenging those forces that impeded full expression of political participation and facilitating personal, social, and communal well-being” (xviii). It is more than a multidimensional framework, in other words. Reconnected with its Black feminist roots, intersectionality is a social-justice project.

Structure: Sections, Chapters, and Themes

If readers drop into one chapter initially, as I did, they may miss an added element of the book as a whole: The editors arrange it as an intersectional matrix from the first chapter to the last. That is, the arrangement of sections, chapters, and themes supports their arguments about intersectionality, Black feminism, and interdisciplinarity. The arrangement is further supported by the variety of disciplines and perspectives represented by the authors of individual chapters. Thus, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd offer multiple entry points into the collection. First, they divide the book into four topic-based sections. These sections are intersected by four broad themes explored via various disciplines, for a total of 12 chapters. Sections converge and diverge, inviting readers to trace themes, delve into sections, or focus on specific areas (such as history, literature, politics, or public-health policy). Section titles group the featured works at a topical or content level: “Black Woman Doing Intersectionality Work,” “Black Feminist Policy Analysis,” “Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena,” and “Discourses, Movements, and Representations” (see Table 1).

Table 1: Sections in Black Women in Politics
Introduction (“Black Women’s Political Labor”)
Section I: Black Feminists Doing Intersectionality Work
Section II: Black Feminist Policy Analysis
Section III: Diasporic Black Women and the Global Political Arena
Section IV: Discourses, Movements, and Representation

Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd describe these sections as “content areas” that deal with “various cases and a wide range of methods to analyze how Black women, nationally and globally, are working or ‘tilling’ in service of themselves’” (xxxiii). For example, cases include Jamaica’s first woman president in Section III (“Diaporic Black Women”) and US public policy regarding HIV/AIDS orphans of color in Section II (“Policy Analysis”). Methods vary from interviews to discourse analysis, examining measurable data as well as detailing the broader contexts not just in the US but in the UK, the Caribbean, and Central America. In the opening section, for example, Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd explore a topic (“Black Feminists Doing Intersectional Work”) by quantifying the lack of published scholarship and sharing their own experiences.

Themes, on the other hand, weave through sections and chapters: “Moving from Silence to Voice,” “Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures,” “Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics,” and “Space Making and Self-Actualization” (see Table 2). For example, the “Voice” theme describes Middlemass’s chapter on post-incarceration Black women. As the second article of the second section, its overall theme concerns “locating and giving voice to diverse Black women,” say Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd, while its overall topic, content, and section “explore[s] policy boundaries and how Black women respond to such” (45). Black women are often silenced, individually and by group, overtly and covertly; this erasure affects how Black women deal with public policies, cultural stereotypes, and so forth. In terms of both section/topic and theme, therefore, Middlemass introduces readers to women like “Eve and Janaye … who poignantly articulate how policies consistently fail them and other previously incarcerated Black women” (xxv). Their powerful stories, which Middlemass delves into via phenomenological methods well suited to interviews, surface the failure of the policies and practices that these women encounter at the intersection(s) of being Black, female, and a felon navigating post-incarceration, everyday life.

Table 2: Critical themes in Black Women in Politics
Moving from Silence to Voice
Invisibility and Unmasking Power Structures
Black Women’s Self-Actualization and Black Masculinist Politics
Space Making and Self-Actualization

Content: A Chapter Sampling

The Middlemass chapter represents one entry into the book, but I was first drawn to Grace E. Howard’s Section IV chapter on former first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The section includes Ryan’s analysis of author Toni Morrison’s oeuvre and Tonya M. Williams’s examination of activism and reproductive justice in three Southern states. Morrison, in her chapter, covers all major themes presented in the book. She undertakes a discourse analysis of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign by exploring the intersection of Black stereotypes, media representations, masculinized political arenas, and the (quite white) cultural constraints of being a first lady. For example, Howard examines gendered, racialized characterizations of Michelle Obama in mainstream media; the characterizations stem from long-standing tropes about Black women as “the obese Mammy … [or] the sexually voracious Jezebel … [or] the Welfare Queen” (224). Howard argues that Michelle Obama “deracializes” or distances herself from such tropes, thus establishing her own space (self-actualization) but in many ways reifying white, elitist, masculine hierarchies. Howard’s work, as all the chapters do, demonstrates depth and complexity.

Another rich work comes in the “Diasporic” section from Thame, who looks into the political rise and fall of Jamaica’s first female president, Portia Simpson-Miller. Thame documents how Simpson-Miller, aka “Mama P,” rose through the ranks of a very masculinized political system in which she made space for herself as both nurturing mother and disciplinarian, ultimately failing to “shift the context of gender power” (155). While similar to the triple bind faced by Black US women running for public office, Simpson-Miller’s case is particular to Jamaican culture and socioeconomics — a point that reinforces the editors’ assertion that Black women’s actions and experiences are not monolithic.

The book hits its most powerful stride with chapters on public policy. I group four chapters in this vein, which Jordan-Zachery calls “intersectionality-based policy analysis” or IBPA: Jenny Douglas’s examination of Black women’s health policies in the UK, Jordan-Zachery’s own research on HIV/AIDS orphans in the US, Middlemass’s “Hiding in Plain Sight,” and Tanya Williams’s work on Black Women’s reproductive-justice activism. Three of these works are situated in the analysis-oriented Section III, while Williams’s work is in the final section (“Discourses, Movements, and Representation”).

Douglas, whose background encompasses women’s studies, virology, and sociological research, focuses on how Black Caribbean-born women in the UK are marginalized by racialized and gendered discrimination in the workplace, their communities, and the country’s healthcare system. For instance, both male and female Black Caribbeans are at high risk of hypertension, but males are more likely to receive treatment in the UK, while the women are not even included in studies that might inform a workable approach to their health concerns. A key strength to Douglas’s work is that she provides valuable background on Black Caribbean culture in the UK, historic migration patterns, the UK health system, and much more. In short, she demonstrates the interconnectedness and multiple dimensions of the topic.

Jordan-Zachery explores a similarly complex field in her solo “Lost Tribes” chapter, using intersectionality to critique policy and practice gaps. In particular, she points out that the US pays more attention to HIV/AIDS orphans in other countries than it does at home, and that non-positive Black children, found at the intersection of already marginalized, stigmatized, often poor Black women, are particularly invisibile in the system.

Williams’s chapter, on the other hand, takes an alternative approach to IBPA: She looks at the issue from the perspective of activists and nonprofits that “always resist” — Black women and Black women-led groups fighting for reproductive justice in the context of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., “Obamacare”). Williams draws on interviews with activists in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas but also provides an in-depth look at the ACA’s application in three Southern states. This approach allows Williams to dissect the mainstream, single-axis approach to health policies and practices that are overly focused on Black women’s limited access to health services while ignoring the entangled issues of poverty, environmental issues, and health literacy.

In another example of giving voice by way of interviews, Hall did extensive fieldwork in Honduras for her research about the Garifuna women who turn communal bread making into political action. An overarching theme of her findings is “Space Making,” set in the “Diasporic Black Women” section. The Garifuna women — whose people were dubbed “Black Carib” by British occupiers, classified as “Negro” by the state, yet recognized by the World Council of Indigenous People — practice “nontraditional political resistance” (118). That is, without engaging directly with the Honduran state, they make, sell, and market their ereba (cassava) bread. This communal practice enables them to push back against land-grabs of their ancestral homes, against masculine-feminine delineations within their own culture but also in government, and against a socioeconomic, political system that favors mestiza women at the expense of indigenous and/or Black women. Making bread also very much supports the transmission and preservation of their culture.

Another aspect of cultural transmission comes in Ryan’s chapter on author Toni Morrison’s work as political engagement. Ryan first situates Morrison’s body of work in the broader context. For example, she says that Morrison, like Ralph Ellison, demonstrates a “literary preoccupation with US democracy” (196) but, on the other hand, represents a cast of Black women connected in some way with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s (Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, for example). In particular, Morrison demonstrates a commitment to presenting characters “who would otherwise … be considered marginal” (198). In A Mercy, for example, Morrison’s portrayal of a Black woman character writing during the early colonial period in the US helps explore aspects of slavery, class, and trauma that we (Americans) tend to forget or whitewash.

Writers far less known are the subject of Blain’s chapter on the Black nationalist women who wrote for New Negro World from 1940-1944. These women supported “universal Black liberation” (165) but labored in a field dominated by men. Furthermore, where current scholarship tends to focus on the many mainstream Black-owned and Black-run publications of the day, Blain focuses attention on Black nationalist women who “articulated a vision of Black emancipation and endorsed Pan-Africanism.” That is, they aligned with John Garvey’s controversial version of “Black pride, African redemption, economic self-sufficiency, racial separatism, and political self determinism” (168, 170). Blain, in short, recovers a little-known history of Black women carving out a space for themselves in a masculinized movement.


Earlier in this review, I mentioned disappointment that no rhetoricians or compositionists were featured in Black Women in Politics. However, I took a cue from Alexander-Floyd’s quantification of political science research and scanned the past year’s issues of Rhetoric Society Quarterly: I found only one article title including the words “Black woman,” three that mention “women” or “woman,” and only one that includes the word “racist.” A more detailed review would likely show that scholarship about or by Black women in rhetoric is just as scarce as their scholarship in political science. As Jordan-Zachery and Alexander-Floyd argue, there’s work to be done. Rhetoricians, compositionists, graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and other researchers should be inspired by Black Women in Politics to till new fields or help expand the garrett. Like me, such readers and scholars will find Black Women in Politics very helpful for understanding the power and potential of intersectionality in the 21st century.

Review of Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place

Fredlund, Katherine, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette. Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place. University of Alabama Press, 2020. 290 page.

In feminist rhetorical studies, there is a long history of interest in both historical rhetoric and digital rhetoric. However, as Katherine Fredlund, Kerri Hauman, and Jessica Ouellette demonstrate in their edited collection Feminist Connections: Rhetoric and Activism Across Time, Space, and Place, these two subfields have had limited overlap in recent years. The editors introduce a new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, to provide a mechanism for identifying and investigating the shared rhetorical practices that emerge across historical and digital work. The collection, which features essays that span a wide range of eras, locations, media, and contexts, invites us to find compelling parallels between current feminist activism and antecedent feminist rhetorical work. This collection is an invaluable contribution to the field of feminist rhetorical studies (FRS), and builds successfully on previous works, such as Royster and Kirsch’s Feminist Rhetorical Practices.

Feminist Connections is made up of thirteen essays that explore feminist rhetorics from a wide range of locations, time periods, and modes. Tarez Samra Graban, in the foreword “Writing Against Reactionary Logics,” frames Feminist Connections, noting that the contributors’ cross-historical approach allows us to reframe our understandings of both feminist and digital rhetorics; Graban writes that, through this collection, “readers can gain insight into how historical conversations about the feminist and the digital came to be subsumed under nonfield paradigms” (xv). Graban also introduces the importance of including interstitiality in feminist research, explaining that interstitiality provides a frame to “recognize what occurs between organizations, their archives, their practices, and their beliefs that cause some figures to come perpetually under erasure due to systemic ways of looking” (xii). Like Royster and Williams, Feminist Connections pushes us to consider and attend to the “spaces left” in both the historical record and our contemporary work.

In their introduction, “Exposing Feminist Connections,” the editors present the collection’s central intervention, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology (RTM), and explain how this methodology provides a way to draw connections between digital and historical feminist work in rhetoric and composition. Using RTM, researchers can find pathways and common ground between rhetors that might not share time, space, or place. This methodology emerged out of the editors’ realizations that despite the disconnections between these two subfields, “the same rhetorical practices” have been discussed in both of these subfields (3). RTM works to illuminate the rhetorical strategies and practices that connect digital and historical work, with the goal of “allowing researchers to uncover rhetorical practices that are used repeatedly by specific groups with specific goals (across time, space, social identity markers, technology, etc.)” (4). This methodology aims to decenter “linear conceptions of time, fixed ideas about space, and a privileging of content and media,” and has uses both in and outside of feminist rhetorical studies (5-6). Each chapter in Feminist Connections takes up this methodology, finding shared threads through time and space. In the nonlinear spirit of RTM, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette have chosen to organize the collection according to “three feminist rhetorical frameworks: revisionary rhetorics, circulatory rhetorics, and response rhetorics,” rather than by time period, or “by rhetor or purpose” (12-13). This organization of the collection clearly expresses the editors’ intervention, and the essays that make up Feminist Connections work together to demonstrate the efficacy of finding parallels across feminist rhetorical strategies throughout history.

Revisionary Rhetorics

Kerri Hauman introduces the first section, “Revisionary Rhetorics,” writing that this group of essays “acknowledges and builds on the fact that revision is something FRS scholars have been doing for decades in order to expand the definitional and location scopes of rhetorical action” (17). The four essays in this section attend to complexities of temporality; Hauman writes that these chapters “provide FRS scholars with additional models of revisioning intended to build on and reckon with past feminist rhetorical action as well as cautionary tales intended to benefit future feminist rhetorical actions” (21). The section begins with Jill Swiencicki, Maria Brandt, Barbara LeSavoy, and Deborah Uman’s “Seneca Falls, Strategic Mythmaking, and a Feminist Politics of Relation,” which interrogates the importance of Seneca Falls as a feminist “origin myth” through a description of the Seneca Falls Dialogues, a two-day event that aims to make “feminist connections…that account for and acknowledge past injustices and engage in activities that create different, more just relations” (23, 25). The authors examine their practice of “strategic mythmaking” that both acknowledges the symbolic power of Seneca Falls and simultaneously “transforms the epistemic privilege of that place, valuing the interstitial spaces that contemporary, intersectional feminist connections require” (36). Next, Tara Propper’s “Epideictic Rhetoric and Emergent Media: From CAM to BLM,” examines both the activism of the Say Her Name movement as part of “a much longer history of black women’s use of emergent media and public memorialization as a means of interrogating and participating in in the public spaces, resources, or spheres of representation that were historically denied to black citizens,” including Pauline Hopkins’s Famous Women of the Negro Race column, which appeared in the turn-of-the-century periodical Colored American Magazine (41). More specifically, Propper highlights the epideictic nature of both of these forms of public memorialization, and argues that “feminist media activists then and now have been able to navigate such hurdles by appropriating technologies of literacy, including mass media and social media outlets, to recuperate a history of black stories, experiences, and activism, allowing readers to see themselves as part of a larger public sphere of actors” (57). In “Recruitment Tropes: Historicizing the Spaces and Bodies of Women Technical Workers,” Risa Applegarth, Sarah Hallenbeck, and Chelsea Redeker Milbourne analyze recruitment rhetoric that encouraged women to take up jobs as telegraphers, stenographers, and coders at various points in history and argue that “recruitment discourse…contributes to gendered divisions within emerging proessional fields” (60). The authors use RTM to highlight patterns in recruitment discourse through time and caution that “we must be wary of how recruitment tropes sometimes draw loosely from feminist discourses of empowerment but produce long-term effects that are disempowering” (71). The section concludes with Kellie Jean Sharp’s essay “Take Once Daily: Queer Theory, Biopolitics, and the Rhetoric of Personal Responsibility,” which studies how the birth control pill “has mediated current understandings of gender of sexuality” to better understand how medications such as the HIV preventative Truvada may “influence bodies, identities, and sexualities now and in the future” (76). Sharp argues that while these medications have had positive effects for many individuals, the author’s analysis is also “a caution against relying on one resource or tactic in the fight for sexual liberation” (86). Collectively, these essays explore ways scholars in FRS can expand our understanding of revisionary histories and rhetorics, in order to better connect historical and digital work.

Circulatory Rhetorics

Section two, “Circulatory Rhetorics,” features another four essays that employ a framework of circulatory rhetorics that Ouellette describes as a framework that “speaks to the evolving nature of rhetorical encounters and interactions” and “investigate[s] those interactions and intentions through analyses of the rhetorical practices and strategies employed by and between feminists of different spaces, places, and eras” (90). Essays in this section engage with the participatory nature of digital media, while also “reflecting on, remediating, and revisiting feminist strategies of the past” (90). First, Kristin Winet’s chapter, “She’s Everywhere, All the Time: How the #Dispatch Interviews Created a Sisterhood of Feminist Travelers” argues that in addition to viewing interviews as a method, feminist rhetorical studies should consider “the interview as genre…that can foster a space for coalition building” (96). Using both historical and contemporary digital travel media interview series as a lens through which to view interviews as a feminist practice, Winet concludes that “the interview series is a tale of circulation, of solidarity, and of community building” and that “we must critically examine the ways in which our everyday communities use interview series to ideologically shape, constrain, and ignite social relations in digital spaces” (105). Building on Winet’s description of feminist rhetorical practices in digital spaces, Kristin E. Kondrlik’s essay “From Victorian Noves to #LikeALadyDoc: Women Physicians Strengthening Professional Ethos in the Public Sphere” draws parallels nineteenth-century writing about female physicians’ ethos and the 2016 #LikeALadyDoc conversation on Twitter. Through analysis of both popular fiction and digital media, Winet demonstrates that “both nineteenth-century and contemporary women physicians engaged popular media to circulate re-articulations of what it means to be a physician and a woman in a time of shifting gender norms” (123). In “Feminist Rhetoric Strategies and Networked Activist Movements: #SayHerName as Circulatory Activist Discourse,” Liz Lane explores the Say Her Name movement’s blending of social media discourse with “traditional black rhetorical strategies such as the African tradition of nommo (a performative naming tactic), the discursive practice of call-and-response (a circulatory tool), and the Greek storytelling practice muthos (a narrative mechanism)” (127). In combining these rhetorical strategies in a digital space, Lane argues that “networked hashtags create kairotic, decentralized social movements that circulate feminist identities” (139). To round out the section, Lisa Blankenship’s “From US Progressive Era Speeches to Transnational Social Media Activism: Rhetorical Empathy in Jane Addams’s Labor Rhetoric and Joyce Fernandes’s #EuEmpregadaDoméstica (I, Housemaid)” works to connect two women dedicated to labor rights, turn-of-the-century American reformer Jane Addams and contemporary Brazilian labor and women’s rights activist Joyce Fernandes, and “explores how rhetorical empathy functions in the labor rights rhetoric of these two complex, compelling women, one hundred years00and in terms of digital technology—light years removed from one another” (146). Using both Addams’s Columbian Exposition speech and the stories Fernandes has shared on social media from domestic workers, Blankenship shows that while “both Fernandes and Addams compel their audiences to view domestic workers as individuals with lives and histories of their own,” juxtaposing these two figures reveals “a significant shift within intersectional, transnational women’s rhetorical practices” (156-157). The essays in this section of Feminist Connections highlight the ecological nature of feminist rhetoric—the complex networks inherent to all communication and rhetorical engagement.

Response Rhetorics

The collection’s third section, “Response Rhetorics,” contains the final five essays, which expand our understanding of response. Fredlund writes that “the chapters in this section use RTM to consider how those without power use rhetoric to respond to those with power—recognizing that our theories of rhetoric all too often fail to consider how hostile or unreceptive audiences impact rhetorical choices and effects” (161). The section starts with Skye Roberson’s chapter “‘Anonymous Was A Woman:’ Anonymous Authorships as Rhetorical Strategy,” which connects women’s anonymous writing in Victorian-era periodicals and on Reddit. Roberson asserts that this chapter “demonstrates how women resist the traditional boundaries of authorship by subverting our ideas about authorial identities, agency, and silence” (169). In “Tracing the Conversation: Legitimizing Mormon Feminism,” Tiffany Kinney examines similar rhetorical strategies employed by Mormon feminists in both the 1970s and 2010s to “forge connections among women and establish Mormon women’s legitimacy” (182). Kinney asserts that these women’s rhetorical invention processes and delivery strategies work to create legitimacy both for “long-term change” and to “forge pathways to immediate incremental changes” (194). Next, Clancy Ratliff examines commonplaces in the images of the suffragist movement and in early feminist blogging in “The Suffragist Movement and the Early Feminist Blogosphere: Feminism and Recent History of Rhetoric.” Ratliff argues that RTM should be applied to “work in the recent history of rhetoric,” and that “we can also study online discourse as feminist histories of rhetoric, not only as digital media artifacts or pedagogical strategies” (197). In “Mikki Kendall, Ida B. Wells, and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: Women of Color Calling Out White Feminism in the Nineteenth Century and the Digital Age,” Paige V. Banaji highlights Mikki Kendall’s creation of the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag and Ida B. Wells’s critique of Frances Willard’s lack of support for the antilynching movement, demonstrating that “in these two stories, two women of color, separated by over a century, engage in the feminist response rhetoric of calling out” (215). Banaji argues that “calling out and listening are necessary rhetorics of response to white feminism” and that these strategies are also important for the “health” and “growth” of feminism overall (224-226). Bethany Mannon’s “The Persuasive Power of Individual Stories: The Rhetoric in Narrative Archives” examines three collections of personal narratives—letters that appeared in Ms. magazine, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back, and the digital storytelling project My Duty to Speak—to explore how personal narratives “connect generations of feminist activism” (232). Mannon writes that “personal narratives have been a productive way to bring dissension and conflict to the activist table” and that these narratives “respond to existing power structures” (242). Taken together, the five essays in this section show the wide range of strategies employed by feminist rhetors to respond to challenging audiences or exigencies.

Conclusion: Looking Across Time, Space, and Place

To conclude the collection, Kristine L. Blair’s afterword, “(Techno)Feminist Rhetorical Action: Coming Full Circle,” reflects on the collection, noting that Feminist Connections works to “triangulate three diverse modes of inquiry, the historical, the feminist, and the technological, simultaneously deploying concepts of interstitiality and intersectionality to avoid essentializing both women and feminists as universal groups” (246). Blair also highlights how successfully this collection allows the past and present to “speak to each other…grounded in an emphasis on revisionist, circulatory, and responsive rhetorics that call readers to action” (250). This interconnectedness sets Feminist Connections apart and demonstrates the value of RTM to scholars in FRS and other disciplines. In my own work, I anticipate using RTM to connect my interests in both digital rhetoric and in archival research. As a graduate student, I have “tried on” both of these subfields as I begin to narrow my research interests and identify long-term projects. For example, though my interest and research regarding ethics and representation has primarily been focused on archives up until now, these same concerns are replicated in the rhetoric of social media and digital media. While these threads have previously felt disparate, Feminist Connections and Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s methodological intervention provides a way to take these projects on together and find pathways between historical and digital rhetorics.

Other readers of Feminist Connections might take up this new methodology and incorporate it into new and emerging research projects, as RTM provides an opportunity to frame projects in both historical and digital rhetorical research, especially those related to activism and social movements. Moreover, readers can enact RTM in ongoing research projects; the methodology might uncover novel ways of approaching an existing research site or present a fresh approach to research questions. This collection will be valuable to scholars in FRS and beyond—perhaps even in fields such as women’s studies or history. In addition, Feminist Connections would fit well in any number of graduate-level classes, especially those focused in the history of rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, or research methods.

Feminist Connections is a timely collection of important work in feminist rhetorical studies. The editors’ new methodology, Rhetorical Transversal Methodology, provides an excellent framework for rhetorical research both in FRS and in the wider field of rhetoric and composition. Rather than remaining tied to chronologically- or geographically-bound strategies of organization, Fredlund, Hauman, and Ouellette’s RTM offers a new way to approach research in rhetoric and composition, and allows us to locate “transversals” between historical and contemporary rhetors. RTM makes room for broadening our research beyond traditional boundaries of time, space, and place.

Works Cited

  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Gesa Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. -return to text
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones, and Jean C. Williams. “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 4, 1999, pp. 563–584. JSTOR, -return to text

Review of The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance

Chavez, Karma R. The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance. University of Washington Press, 2021. 246pp.

Cover art of book being reviewed

As I sat down to record my reflections on Karma Chávez’s new book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, news broke that the Biden administration had directed the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (HSS) to hold unaccompanied migrant children at the detention camp in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Originally built to shelter oil field workers, the Carrizo Springs facility will now serve as a COVID-19 quarantine station for more than 700 unchaperoned teenagers, many of whom are fleeing conflict and climate catastrophe in Central America (Foster-Frau). The proposed ten-day quarantine period has been met with opprobrium by migrants’ rights advocates, immigration lawyers, and human rights activists who argue the policy breaks US law, which states that minors can only be held at the border for 72 hours before being transported to another facility or reunited with family (Amnesty International). While government officials maintain that this coerced, unlawful quarantine is a temporary pandemic containment measure, rumors abound that the HHS is looking to reopen another notorious child detention camp, this time in Homestead, Florida, which was unceremoniously shuttered in 2019 due to unsanitary living conditions, rampant abuse allegations, and corruption (Foster-Frau).

Borders. Containment. Disease. Quarantine. These are the recurrent themes in news reports of the country’s shameful treatment of migrants. They are also all central foci of Chávez’s immediately urgent and immensely creative monograph. Continuing her career-defining interest in the rhetorical dynamics and transformative political potential of transnational, queer coalition building, The Borders of AIDS is a rhetorical history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that centers the experiences of groups typically obscured by mainstream and queer histories of the AIDS crisis: migrants, Black sex workers, and HIV-positive Haitians. Spanning the first 12 years of the crisis in the United States (roughly 1981 – 1993), Chávez contributes important additions to the AIDS archive by shifting focus from the work accomplished by mostly white, mostly middle class, cosmopolitan AIDS activist groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Instead, Chávez draws from queer of color, migrant, and feminist traditions to recover an alternative history of AIDS, one that is attuned to how the epidemic affected (and continues to affect) those on the borders of civic and national belonging.

Despite being written largely before the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, The Borders of AIDS provides a prescient conceptual framework for understanding how the real or imagined threat of contagious disease inheres diffuse (trans)national struggles over the nature of belonging, citizenship, and the stability of the nation state’s ideological and material boundaries. Wisely, when Chávez does reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic in her book’s prologue, she avoids and, indeed, even urges against the impulse to make easy, reductive comparisons between the AIDS crisis and our immediate moment. “There are some important ways that AIDS can help us understand COVID-19 that do not require analogies,” she maintains, favoring a more measured, contemplative approach that looks for ways that the AIDS epidemic helps us “understand the deep logic of white supremacist, anti-Black, settler colonial nation-states like the United States” (vii). And, in fact, as her book demonstrates so well, when we refrain from engaging in over-motivated comparison, we are able to notice how contagion simultaneously powers and articulates the dynamic, exclusionary violence undergirding the hegemonic machinations of democratic citizenship itself.

Chávez convincingly argues that the segregating, exclusionary, and necropolitical forces that emerged during the early AIDS epidemic were manifestations of a larger organizing principle, which she names “alienizing logic.” For Chávez, an alienizing logic “refers to a structure of thinking that insists that some are necessarily members of a community and some are recognized as not belonging even if they physically reside there” (5). Readers will likely find ample areas of overlap between Chávez’s notion of alienizing logic and existing radical democratic critiques of liberal democracy. However, whereas that scholarship often limits itself to the properly political realm, Chávez’s alienizing logic is more dexterous and portable. Alienizing logic contours both the political and the quotidian. In fact, the utility of her term comes precisely from its mobility, or, to use her phrasing, its “blurriness” (5). Alienizing logics don’t fortify firm, concrete, unchanging borders between those enveloped within the ambit of legally legitimized citizenship and those positioned outside of it. Instead, alienizing logics structure flexible exclusions that are concerned more with one’s imagined fit within the white supremacist, anti-Black, heterosexual, cis nation state. Alienizing logic can be attached to any minoritized and queer(ed) subject, though this attachment manifests and is experienced differently. Throughout her book, Chávez takes pains to distinguish between those who are alienized as the result of non-conferred legal status and those who, despite possessing legal legitimacy, are nonetheless rendered “alienized citizens” (9). Theorizing and tracing the implications of alienizing logic are Chávez’s most important additions to feminist and cultural rhetoric’s critical repertoire. A sensitivity to the scalar operations of alienizing logic compels a cultivated sensitivity to how the shifting privileges conferred by the nation state both reinforce and destabilize traditional societal divisions. Indeed, it is in the space between reinforcement and destabilization that unexpected coalitions can be forged as groups work toward greater solidarity with those positioned across diverse continua of oppression.

The Borders of AIDS charts the various ways that immigration and citizenship status come to “matter as additional sites of power and oppression that impact people’s experiences with HIV/AIDS and the ways that HIV/AIDS becomes an opportunity to enact alienizing logic” (p. 11). The book develops over the course of five chapters, which are broken into two sections. The first section, “Alienizing Logic and Structure” outlines how official and mainstream discourses coalesced to render both the quarantining and banning of people living with HIV/AIDS as a natural, commonsense response to the problem of AIDS. Section two, “Resisting Alienizing Logics,” tells the story of the surprising and sometimes turbulent coalitions built by queer and otherwise marginalized activists as they struggled against alienizing HIV/AIDS quarantine policies. Together, these two sections weave poignant, richly contextualized case studies to recover a necessary history of how America’s pernicious, exclusionary citizenship practices get activated in moments of biomedical crisis.

Chávez uses the first chapter to establish her book’s historical and conceptual foundations, presenting readers with an expansive rhetorical history of quarantinism in the United States. Rather than accounting for the epidemiological legitimacy of quarantine as a disease mitigation strategy, Chávez is more concerned with unpacking the term’s “symbolic baggage.” “Quarantine,” Chávez argues, “raises specters of plagues, leper colonies, yellow warning flags nailed to the doors of the infected, and deadly epidemics” (23). Putting into conversation more than two hundred years of official and popular texts about the mitigation of infectious disease, Chávez demonstrates that the impulse to quarantine runs parallel to more defuse geopolitical anxieties about the promiscuous (trans)national movement of people, practices, goods, and intimacies. As Chávez points out, the alienizing impulse of quarantine is inherent in its definition. Unlike its close associate, isolation, which denotes the cornering off of people actively displaying signs of sickness, quarantine technically refers to the preemptive segregation of those who might have been exposed to a contagious disease (21). While seemingly slight, this semantic difference has important implications for the book’s critical orientation: calls for quarantine operate along familiar lines of social exclusion, where a group’s proximity to pathologized social conditions such as Blackness, poverty, foreignness, and sexual difference, functions diagnostically to warrant coerced confinement or, worse, expulsion from the nation state itself. Chávez suggests that the widespread use of the word quarantine to describe both the isolation of the sick and the containment of the possibly ill attests to the persistent strength of alienizing logics as well as contagion’s capacity to subject differently marginalized groups to continued biopolitical discipline and surveillance under the auspices of public health (22).

Chapter two, “AIDS and the Rhetoric of Quarantine,” queries how it was that the quarantining of those newly diagnosed with AIDS became a popular, though never truly realized, AIDS mitigation strategy, despite early scientific agreement that AIDS was not transmitted through casual contact. Chávez argues that the force of AIDS quarantine rhetorics resulted not as much from a desire to prevent the spread of AIDS but rather from the impulse to discipline recalcitrant socio-sexual behavior. That the criminalization of AIDS resulted from sex negativity has long been a staple of gay and queer accounts of the AIDS crisis. Chávez veers from these familiar critiques, however, by studying how powerful political actors used the epidemic to exaggerate the threat posed by Black HIV-positive sex workers. As a mode of disciplinary visibility, quarantine relies on perpetual surveillance and monitoring. The felt intensity of quarantine is amplified when it targets those already deemed deviant. Chávez explains that “Black women’s lives are frequently subject to surveillance, scrutiny, and confinement” (53). The possibility of an AIDS quarantine, therefore, puts the vulnerable, already over-surveilled Black sex worker at risk in two ways: first, it would shine light on labor practices that rely on opacity; second, and relatedly, it would further isolate Black sex workers from larger AIDS activist networks, making coalition building difficult. Through deftly handled, pathos laden accounts, Chávez challenges her readers to notice how quarantine rhetorics perpetuate Black social death. Crucially, however, she does this without rendering HIV-positive Black sex workers inert and non-agentive (49). By centering the complexity, vibrancy, and humanity of HIV-positive Black sex workers, Chávez constructs a work of recovery in the truest sense, providing rhetorical scholars with a clarifying rubric for how to work against the pervasive anti-Blackness found within domestic alienizing logics.

While the alienzing logic surrounding HIV/AIDS was not strong enough to warrant the quarantining of people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as a domestic public health policy, it did shape immigration law. In chapter three, “National Common Sense and the Ban of HIV-Positive Migrants,” Chávez again demonstrates the malleability of alienizing logic, this time as it structured the debates surrounding the eventual codification of a blanket exclusion of HIV-positive migrants from pursuing legal recognition or entering the United States. Despite widespread disagreement about whether or not a ban would sufficiently lower staggering national HIV/AIDS rates, Chávez shows how seemingly incommensurate positions were bridged with appeals to what she terms “national common sense.” Chávez’s national common sense announces an inherently nativist impulse within the social imaginary that “encourages judgements that ‘everyone’ knows are good for the nation,” namely “the protection of national borders and the protection of the proper citizenry” (76, emphasis in original). Of course, this “everyone” indexes only those who are granted legitimate recognition within the nation state. Chávez demonstrates that bipartisan appeals to a national common sense alibied the canard that AIDS was a foreign disease that penetrated the membranes of the national body and thus “reinforced deeply conservative views about the importance of national borders and the limits of belonging to a national community” (76).

In chapter four, “Boycotts and Protests of the International AIDS Conference,” Chávez pivots from explicating the various ways that alienazing logic structured the US’s domestic and foreign policy, drawing attention instead to the unexpected, transnational coalitions that formed in resistance to the decision to host the 1990 and 1992 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in the United States. Both international AIDS activists and leading AIDS researchers threatened to boycott the IAC in protest of the US’s ban on HIV-positive migrants. Chávez persuasively argues that these collective efforts attest to the rhetorical value of boycotts as an agitational protest tactic that uses “moral and political pressure,” not just economic incentives, to affect change (108). Beyond recuperating the boycott as a legitimate strategy for forging coalitions across difference, the chapter also productively intervenes in unnuanced mainstream histories that pit AIDS activists against members of the medical establishment. Chavez’s reading of the IAC boycotts shows how activists ushered both IAC’s organizers and AIDS experts into a rhetorical protest space, one that used “the threat of possible death through withdrawal of participation” to send a “powerful message” to politicians about the urgent need to overturn the immigration ban (129).

Chapter five, “AIDS Activist Media and the ‘Haitian Connection,’” continues Chavez’s investigation of transnational coalition building by studying how queer alternative media (re)presented the plight of HIV-positive Haitians. The chapter works toward two ends – one historical, the other conceptual. First, Chávez makes a much-needed contribution to the early AIDS archive by recovering the implications of the so-called “Haitian Connection,” which is a euphemism for the popular, acutely racist idea that AIDS somehow originated in Haiti. By reading together initial media reports on AIDS in Haiti and the eventual indefinite quarantining of HIV-positive Haitian refugee seekers at Guantánamo Bay, Chávez shows that Haitians were targets for both constitutive elements of alienizing logic: quarantine and ban (133). Second, the chapter functions as a case study in alternative media’s capacity to fashion transnational solidarity among differently marginalized groups (134). Without diminishing the tremendous consequences of queer media’s pervasive whiteness, Chávez considers how queer outlets like the New York Native and ACT UP’s DIVA TV challenged the alienization of HIV-positive migrants. She argues that queer media reflected the geopolitical and cultural complexity of AIDS in Haiti in a way that was absent from scant mainstream coverage. More specifically, Chávez zeros in on the ways that members of the queer media sought to build solidarity with HIV-Positive Haitians by articulating the racist, contradictory as well as militarized and criminalized treatment of Haitians (150). Chávez thus makes a compelling case for the historical importance of alternative media, especially as it makes visible the conditions of subalternity that are obscured in the official, public memory of the AIDS crisis (156).

The potency of Chávez’s alienizing logic is in full display in her book’s conclusion, “Against the Alienizing Nation.” If the preceding chapters evidence the term’s heuristic value by showing readers how the threat of contagious disease affected the multiply marginalized, then this final chapter pushes us to imagine ways of organizing against alienization. An exemplar of critical rhetorical analysis that could be taught on its own, the chapter probes the expansiveness of alienizing logic, showing that “alienizing potential” is at the heart of the United States’ political imaginary, where the only “inalienable right” bestowed to the nation’s chosen sons is the “right to alienize” (164).

Chávez writes that one of her hopes was that “by thinking through alienizing processes, we will begin to grasp the ‘alien’ as a coalitional position that incorporates seemingly disparate groups within its purview” (159). The “alien” refuses tidy distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, citizen and foreigner. The “alien” reveals the material and ideological violence perpetrated by white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal nationalism while holding itself accountable to the unequal distribution of that violence. It shows us that emerging out of the dire consequences of alienizing logic are the mutually inflected forces of agitational resistance and coalitional networks of (trans)national care. Ultimately, while I agree that the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic are not analogous, when viewed from the coalitional stance of the “alien,” they both have the potential to remind us of something important: if contagious disease belies the impossibility of the nation state’s boundaries, then the networks of solidarity, aid, and fellow feeling that also grow out of biomedical crises are themselves boundless.

As a white gay man, I have grown accustomed to emplotting myself within a static AIDS narrative. This narrative begins in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first identified signs of advanced immune collapse in men who looked like me, acted like me, and had sex like me. It ends around 1996 with the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), the so-called AIDS cocktail. Along the way, these same men who looked, acted, and had sex like me protested, marched, lived, fucked, loved, and died by the tens of thousands to demand government action and public attention. While the indomitable influence of these efforts cannot be denied, this crude narrative itself circulates an alienizing logic that suggests AIDS and AIDS activism somehow belongs to white gay men. Recently, Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Juhasz, and Nishant Shahani have urged for a pluralized understanding of the AIDS crisis, contending “[t]he Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is not merely a crisis in epidemiological terms; rather it is an uneven and varying spatialization and temporalization of crises” (1, emphasis added). Through her development of alienizing logic, Chávez offers rhetorical critics a way to pluralize and track the turbulent distribution of not just the crises surrounding HIV/AIDS but also the crises that structure the conditions of life and struggle under contemporary liberal democratic regimes.

Works Cited

    • “Carrizo Springs Detention Facility Cannot Become Status Quo for Children.” Amnesty International USA, -return to text
    • Foster-Frau, Silvia. “First Migrant Facility for Children Opens under Biden.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Feb. 2021, -return to text

Review of Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance

Sohan, Vanessa Kraemer. Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance. University of Alabama Press, 2019. 232 pp.


As I finish this review in late 2020, the electoral college has officially named Joe Biden the President of the United States. When Vanessa Kraemer Sohan was working on her project, Donald Trump had just been elected. The past four years has offered a soap opera complete with outsized characters whose antics are repeated and circulated on the national stage. In this era of hyperbole, a book on “the courage of ordinary Americans” is a welcome reprieve.

Lives, Letters, and Quilts dips into three very different moments in time and place: 1930s Oregon, 1860s Civil War America, Gee’s Bend Alabama in the early 2000s (though the quiltmakers’ art exists from the 1800s), and 1940 in South Dakota (one artifact). Sohan narrows in on specific figures that served as background characters of larger historical moments, but she argues that they employ “everyday rhetorics” when “faced with “a desperate problem” (146). For Sohan, they “[respond] heroically without resorting to heroic measures” (146). The book begins with the Townsendites, a group advocated for “old age pensions” after the Great Depression. Sohan zeroes in onone particular chapter president Pearl S. Burkhalter. Following this discussion is a chapter on the ministry of Eliza P. Gurney and, especially, her correspondence with President Lincoln during and after the Civil War. The Gee Bend Quiltmakers round out her case studies with a more contemporary group that found recognition in the “high art” community during the 20th century, though African American women have been practicing this art since the beginning of slavery.

Sohan takes up an old question about women rhetors: “where were the spaces in which women chose/were permitted to speak?” While the work is grounded in feminist rhetorical theory, Sohan primarily investigates the question via theories focused on textual composition. While both “recontextualization” and “translingualism” have been used in various fields, Sohan is interested in the ways they help us think about literacy, language, and writing practices especially as methods for “adopting more democratic and descriptive approaches to language and modal practices…” (9). While scholars of translingualism/transmodalism, that she most often cites, are concerned about the ways college students creatively adapt “across languages and modes,” Sohan is “interested in how composers outside university contexts, and across history, engage in such work—albeit by using more obviously monolingual resources—and how they adapt to and change the system as a result” (15). To take up this challenge, Sohan explores an Oregonian woman in the 1930s who joined the Townsend Movement, a Quaker minister in the mid-1800s attempting to influence the course of the Civil War, and the Gee’s Bend quilters, African American women in Alabama who have been creating quilts for generations as both a functional material good and a form of resistant art and some Townsendites that also used quilting to do rhetorical work.

Chapter 1: The Pen as Sword: The Townsend Letter-Writing Campaigns and the Case of Pearl Burkhalter

The historical analysis of both the Townsendites and Pearl S. Burkhalter, in particular, is the strongest case study in the book. Sohan first outlines the Townsend Movement started by Francis Everett Townsend’s 1933 letter to a California newspaper arguing for a sales tax to fund a pension for citizens over 60 that becomes “the Townsend Plan” and spawns populist “clubs” across the country. She then focuses on one member, Pearl S. Burkhalter. Sohan’s careful discussion of the Townsend Movement as a counter to FDR’s New Deal and social security system, offers an overview of an important movement in the history of American governmental policy and populism that is particularly noteworthy considering current populist movements. Sohan focuses, not on the founder, but on one particularly enthusiastic female member, who eventually becomes a chapter president in Oregon City, Oregon. Sohan scours the archival treasure left by Burkhalter, a prolific writer, to produce a detailed study of her unique rhetorical choices. For her members, Burkhalter models an aggressive letter writing style, though she, herself, did not follow the polite, conservative models provided by the national leadership. This lively and compelling history offers a glimpse at a woman attempting to simultaneously embrace politically conservative and gendered norms and her desire for power beyond those norms.

Chapter 2: With Pen and Prayer: The Life and Ministry of Eliza P. Gurney

Sohan’s discussion of Eliza P. Gurney, a Quaker minister, who engaged with President Lincoln presents a slight twist on previous scholarship on this woman rhetor. Unlike Burkhalter, some scholarship has been written about Gurney’s letters and work (one of her letters was in Lincoln’s pocket when he was shot). This chapter attempts to reject characterizations of Gurney as simply a “‘pious, loveable old Quaker woman’” (71) and demonstrate the subtle ways Gurney both strategically used Quaker rhetorical practices and parted from them to claim the right to speak beyond prescribed parameters. Sohan argues that Gurney was particularly adept at seizing kairotic moments and finding ways to personally relate to prominent figures like Lincoln as a way to gain influence. Following a strong tradition of scholarship on women rhetors who use religion as an avenue to gain public agency, Sohan’s discussion adds another example to this list.

Chapter 3: “The Needle as the Pen”: Recontextualizing the Discourse of Quilts and Quiltmaking”

In the final short case study, Sohan turns from letter writing to the quilt making of the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, especially Mensie Lee Pettway and Annie Mae Young. Following a look at the difficulties the Gee’s Bend quilters faced once white audiences began viewing and critiquing their work as “high art,” she concludes with quilts made by members of various Townsend clubs in the 1930’s and highlights their very different motives. To make the jump from text to quilt (pen to needle), Sohan employs Elaine Richardson’s argument that quilts are “African American female literacy practice” (118). It is well documented that quilting is an important material rhetoric, especially for women, and a rhetorical form that has simultaneously served as household staple, art, protest, memory and memorial. Quilt making is, unmistakably, a vital node in feminist rhetorical study. While Sohan’s chapter offers a reminder of the value of the rhetoric of quilting, the transition from the introductory theory is less seamless than in the first two chapters.

There is a long and complex history of scholarship on resistance (variously named activism, civil disobedience, social movements, and protest) that can be found in rhetorical studies, communication studies, political and social science (among other fields). Sohan comes at the study of resistance, specifically “everyday resistance” from composition and writing studies (which, of course, is influenced by these other fields) that brings a pedagogical, teacher/student dynamic to this study. While it made the shift to quilting a bit rocky, it did offer an angle on resistance that highlights the everyday acts of folks existing within organized systems, systems that do not always respect or even acknowledge the different experiences and language practices they bring to the table, much in the same ways students must work within institutions of higher learning. This is a choice that also allows Sohan to focus on writing.

Sohan’s conclusion points readers toward more traditional activist scholarship (like Pezzullo and Striphas, Feigenbaum, and Kynard) and provides an attention to the daily, slow, thoughtful work of resistance. As Sarah Ahmed recently encouraged in Living a Feminist Life, feminism is “homework,” a way of living infused in all of our daily acts (7). The readers of Peitho are all familiar with the recovery work that launched feminist rhetorical studies. This work reimagined the narrative of the history of rhetoric to include prominent, public women in the canon. I see Sohan’s work as part of Recovery 2.0. In this next phase, we see/have seen scholarship on rhetoric from “the kitchen, parlor, and nursery; the garden; the church; the body” as Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald acknowledged in 2001 in Available Means (xvii). As Sohan asserts, not everyone can or wants to be a traditional, public hero. We owe the election of Joe Biden to the women and men, and let’s be honest, mostly Black women, who did the everyday work to cajole, humor, force, argue folks to registration tables, to the polls. The rhetors we choose to study and teach begin to create a canon cementing ideas about who makes change and how. What might it look like to focus on artifacts from a small town PTA that made a significant policy change rather than the Department of Education? What methods can we use to assess the strategies of quiet leaders who don’t make the headlines but spent 30 years shifting policies and ideas about race and gender and class one human at a time: ethnography, film? What does it mean for our careers to study folks who made change, but changes we mourn or disagree with? I look forward to more scholarship on these everyday creative efforts.

Works Cited

  1. Ahmed, Sarah. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press, 2017.
  2. Ritchie, Joy and Kate Ronald. Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

Review of Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity

Flynn, Elizabeth A. and Tiffany Bourelle, eds. Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity. The Ohio State University Press, 2018. 286 pp.

The three words that subtitle the collection of essays in Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition: Choice, Chance, and Serendipity (Flynn and Bourelle, eds.) actually describe the origin of this very book review. As a forty-eight-year-old first year Ph.D. grad student, my professors advised me to write a few book reviews to beef up my CV that lists the lone literary analysis I wrote twenty-three years ago.1 Choosing this book as my very first book review turned out to be a serendipitous one since I am beginning a new journey and I am looking for connection, inspiration, and place (space) in my professional career. In this collection of fifteen thematically linked narratives grounded by an illuminating preface and informative introduction, I travelled the journeys these professional women took/are taking as rhetors, teachers, activists, creators, and renegades and fortunately found myself in these stories. Flynn and Bourelle’s collection of essays could be a kind of an introductory primer for new scholars of rhetoric and composition who, like me, can relate to the personal and surprising beginnings and transcendental movements in the various paths of life. While reading these narratives, I recognized and related to the fears, the risks, the choices, the mentors, and the euphoric moments when everything just clicks: the explosive kairotic stillnesses in time that motivate us to keep going. Like all of these women, I have made choices that have given me great fulfillment, yet I still want more: more writing, more collaboration, more experience, more research, more learning, more change, more chances to make choices, and more moments of serendipity.

“Feminist Rhetorical Resilience”

Editors Elizabeth A. Flynn and Tiffany Bourelle are two forces of nature who have created, collaborated, resisted and changed the field of rhetoric and composition. Notably, Flynn co-authored with Patricia Sotirin and Ann Brady Feminist Rhetorical Resilience, the text that inspired this new essay collection, and Bourelle has “designed and currently runs eComp, a fully-online program that utilizes a multimodal pedagogy, helping distance education students acquire twenty first century literacies” (245).

As chance would have it, I am in the middle of a transcendental unit with my accelerated English III and AP Lang students that includes the reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God. The chances, choices, and serendipitous moments in Janie Starks’ journey of self-discovery align with those narratives in Women’s Professional Lives. Hurston writes, “Now, Women forget all the things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. So the beginning of this was a woman” (1). Each woman in this collection of narratives recalls the expectations and challenges as times in which their core selves battled for individuality and as their dreams changed into their truths. And given choices, chances and serendipity, these women “act[ed] accordingly.”

In their introduction to the text, editors Flynn and Bourelle remind the reader of the center argument from Feminist Rhetorical Resilience: “feminist conception of resilience is best seen not as fundamentally psychological but as rhetorical, relational, and contextual” (Introduction). Incorporating the “metaphors feminist rhetoricians have used recently to describe the present-day and historical situation of marginalized groups,” Flynn, Sotirin, and Brady claim “like borderlands, streams, silence, listening, geographies, advocacy, motion, and walking and talking, resilience resonates with concerns about feminist agency and rhetorical action in the face of pernicious social and material forces” (“Introduction”). Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition develops this concept as the authors explore metis and fifteen journeywomen act in the “intersection of agency and accidental sagacity” (5). These travelers have been “unusually resilient,” have “exhibited considerable agency, especially in taking risks and have made decisions in serendipitous ways and at kairotic moments” (15). Like Janie Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the women in these essays chronicle transcendental movements of the individual rhetor/scholar/teacher and her intimate relationships to place and others as she journeys to within and for herself. 

“Metaphors [and] Feminist Rhetoricians”

A central image of a pear tree for the metaphor of creation weaves through Hurston’s novel as the protagonist Janie searches for her own voice. Hurston writes, “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (8). Words and images are kin that center themselves in the study and practice of rhetoric and composition. Writers Malea Powell, Shirley Rose, Libby Falk Jones, and Suellyn Duffey contribute moving essays to Women’s Professional Lives in Composition and Rhetoric that also incorporate powerful metaphors of creation to frame their stories. In “Word by Word, Bead by Bead: Making a Scholarly Life” Malea Powell begins with “this story is a making, a tracing of relations, a beadwork of choices, of words, stitched around and through an accumulation of stories, anchored with poetry, shot through with chance” (124). As she instructs us in the making of her art, she “construct[s] a beadwork story-sculpture for how [she] became the scholar” she is (128). In her assertive tone she advises the reader to not be “afraid of what happens between asking and listening. Don’t be afraid to take a chance, to listen, to practice, to tell (136). Similarly creative, Shirley Rose‘s “What I Learned about Teaching, Administration, and Scholarship from Singing with the Scottsdale Chorus” reflects upon lessons both learned and remembered through becoming a member of the competitive Chorus. Through her creation of song and the development of her voice as it enhances the voices of others, Rose transcends the boundaries between student and teacher, follower and leader, seeker and finder. Poet Libby Falk Jones presents her essay woven with stanzas of poetry, “words and image” (74) that offer a “continuous and a discontinuous” narrative “speak[ing] to the new identity” she creates (84). She provides two poems in her essay that lay bare the emotions and snapshots of intersectionality in her life and she “defines [her]self as poet and photographer. In yet another artistic expression, Suellynn Duffey embraces “kinesthetic elegance” and claims that “we, as women in rhetoric and composition, move with a different choreography through dances that show diverse ways in which one can ‘make it’” (105). As a student of dance, “physical realms…. A sort of bodily experience in the mind” is both a “metaphorical abstraction” and “an embodied reality” of her life (89). Narrative is a form of art and metaphors, analogies, and connections are strong ways to speak to audience. Art both shapes and reflects life providing both aspiration and validation. These feminist rhetoricians and Hurston’s Janie, and writers Powell, Rose, Jones, and Duffey see incorporate these artistic expressions that begin as seeds but develop into branches, expand, and flourish. 

“Exhibiting Considerable Agency”

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s life was managed first by Nanny, then by her husbands Logan Killicks and Joe Starks and the town of Eatonville, and finally, by the racial inequality of pre-civil rights era America. Similarly, each essayist in Flynn and Bourelle’s collection describes expectations from families, from societies, and from circumstances that curse? bless? her to follow paths that required choices and action. The women exhibited considerable agency in battling the barriers they faced personally and professionally. Lisa Ede’s “desire” to collaborate with Andrea Lunsford was “challenged” by university departments as “shocking—even dangerous” (22). Lynn Z. Bloom’s marriage “defied [her] parent’s expectations” and her choice to have children were “defiant rebuttals to the stand advice for 60’s women, which equated maternity with professional suicide” (61). Jacqueline Rhodes was a “transient student, physically speaking, living in [her] own poverty in order to escape her families.” Rhodes continues: “those multiple paths, too, served as queer ways…queer time…was ‘unscripted’…by any conventions of straight temporality. It was disorderly and strange, the ‘constantly diminishing future’ indeed hovering like a storm cloud” (145). Irene Papoulis exposes her anxiety and struggles with shame in her career in the academic world as her essay “explore[s] how the social realities of the field of composition fueled her status anxiety” (204). Natasha N. Jones was “aware of and, almost immediately confronted with the stereotypes about black, single mothers and the challenges that [she] would face because of the gendered and racialized perceptions that are entrenched in our society” (222). Iklim Goksel’s emigration from Turkey and her study of ethnography to “give voice to women’s non-Western forms of linguistic and cultural rhetorical choices” employ the term “kismet” that “does not represent a ready-made world but rather entails a remaking that suggests inquiry, capability, resilience, choice, chance and serendipity” (192). Linda Adler-Kassner‘s “threshold concepts of writing studies” and her incorporation of Timmermans’s definition of “troublesome knowledge” are “central for growth and contribute to a sort of resilience through which growth can occur” (110). These women exercise resilience in the face of their obstacles in that they do not resign, but again, “act accordingly.” In Hurston’s novel, Janie’s resilience to have the faith to act on her dream is called upon when she meets Tea Cake after years of living a silent life. Tea Cake acts as mentor to hear Janie speak, telling her “Have de nerve tuh say whut you mean” (Hurston 109). Like Janie, Flynn and Bourelle also acknowledge the mentors who influenced them to take agency of their voices. Other mentors and influence came for Papoulis with Peter Elbow, and Susan Miller guided Duffey, Rhodes, and Ede. Every essayist regards influential texts that mentored her in her career, such as Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives for Rhodes, and “Technologies of Serendipity” by Paul Fyfe for Bourelle. Families, high school teachers, spouses, and groups of other women act as mentors supporting these women as they acknowledge the journey to discover self does not have to be a lonely one. After starts and stops and other branches in the road, these women, like Janie, ultimately find the power of their individual voice.

“…Like Borderlands, Streams, Silence, Listening, Geographies…”

Malea Powell writes “as human beings, we are all intimately connected to the land… you live in a geography, a particular space writing on a place, a body of land. …our lives happen on the land, in places practiced into spaces of discovery, of rhetoricity…” (136). The collection of essays does not name a higher power or mention religion, but the reverence for serendipity is clear, and often, inspiration is taken from nature and place. Bloom calls her life a “garden of serendipities” (59) and Bourelle looks to the “aspen trees that line the Rio Grande beginning to turn yellow and orange” (173) before beginning her recollections. Flynn cultivates gardens on her home farm and both Anne Ruggles Gere and Duffey describe hiking in the mountains. Bloom “listens to the lingua franca flutes, guitars, and the throbbing drums carried high on the western wind” (70). Many of the writers feel a connection to their universities and students and augment the culture of these places. In their retellings, the writers urge the reader to recognize those moments in order to be open to taking the chances provided. Serendipity can happen in times of great joy or despair. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie and the others “seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were questioning God” (160). After the devastation from the hurricane and events after that irreparably change Janie’s life, Janie returns home with a ‘package of garden seed that Tea Cake had bought to plant” (191). The writers in this collection also began with the stuff of possibility, often faced events that irreparably changed their lives, but still they drew upon their resilience and embarked on journeys to nourish their “packet of seeds.” In their personal lives they created families, in their professional lives they also created “democratic classrooms,” and writing groups, such as Gere’s Puget Sound Writing, and Beth L. Hewett’s OWI and GSOLE. Like Hurston’s pear tree that gives and receives, these women create and re-create themselves often in and around a constellation of others. These women teach, encourage, direct, research, engage, and challenge their audiences with their application of individual voice and purpose.

“Rhetorical, Relational, and Contextual”

The intention of the book is to provide guidance both professionally and personally since, as many of the essays describe, the two areas of life are inextricably entwined. I referred to it as an introductory primer for rhetoric and composition, but it is also transcendental primer for someone like me. Like Janie, I have a dream that has become my truth and prompted me to “act accordingly.” Like Lisa Ede’s and Iklim Goksel’s transition between academic disciplines, I am an English teacher transitioning from American Literature into a new space of rhetoric and composition. The narratives in this collection remind me of my resilience and validate my choices. My story is not without metaphor, agency, and space. I have navigated the waters of public high school education in Mississippi with the serendipitous fortune of teaching at a school where I have a voice. Encouraged by the narratives of these women, I can bravely blend my literary past with the new horizon presented in the discipline of rhetoric and composition. From these women, I am equipped with a reading list to expand my knowledge and bolster my teaching style such as “Border Crossings: Intersection of Rhetoric and Feminism” (Ede, Glenn, Lunsford), or A Writer Teaches Writing (Murray). As a reader/student, I learned new terms of this field such as “ethnography,” “queer theory,” andanti-modernist feminism.” I can hear myself in the singing in the constellation of these women’s voices here, in my own space, in my own classroom. Like Janie and these feminist rhetoricians, I search for more chances and hope to change rhetorically, relationally, and contextually. Women’s Professional Lives paints the journeys and the ultimate, profound kairiotic moments where “old thoughts [come] in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (Hurston 32). I choose to live and love this journey since, like them and Janie, I am not “finished thinking and feeling” but will “pull in [my] horizon like a great fish net” (Hurston 192). Illustrating the “feminist perspective of resilience” that is “rhetorical, relational, and contextual,” Women’s Professional Lives in Rhetoric and Composition breathes with the lives of choices and chance. It offers the reader—regardless of the path she is now onthe power to recognize her own resilience and the faith in the agency of serendipity.


  1. Keane-Temple, Rebecca. “The Sounds of Sanctuary: Horace Benbow’s Consciousness.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, Special Issue: William Faulkner, 1997, pp. 445-450.

Works Cited

  1. Flynn, Elizabeth, Patricia Sotirin, and Ann Brady, Eds. “Introduction.” Feminist Rhetorical Resilience. Utah State University Press, 2012. 
  2. Halberstam, J. Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005.
  3. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper Perennial, 2006.


Review of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018. 296 pages.

I began work on this review of Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope in the summer of 2020 feeling distinctly devoid of hope. Outside of the academy, people were dying—from illness, from state-sanctioned violence. They still are. I felt cynical: What was I doing studying rhetoric? Why did it matter at a time like this? I had a hard time answering these questions while isolated during quarantine. I was suffering from the misconception that the subjects we treat as academic inquiries are somehow separate from the activist commitments that drive us. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope points out that these divisions are artificial by providing necessary insight into how the field of feminist rhetoric emerged and, more importantly, how it can be used right now to advocate for social justice projects.

Cheryl Glenn leverages her experience with research, teaching, and administrative work to give her readers a look into what it means to live a feminist life as a rhetorical scholar. Her concept of rhetorical feminism serves as the connective tissue for this book. In her introduction, she identifies rhetorical feminism instead as “a theoretical stance—that is responsive to the ideology that is feminism and to the key strategy that is feminist rhetoric” and is “[a]nchored in hope,” a critical touchstone for the book—and for those of us living through crisis (4). She differentiates rhetorical feminism from feminist rhetoric, which she instead defines as “a set of long established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (3). While these two terms may initially seem interchangeable, they are symbiotic; rhetorical feminism is the principle that guides the use of feminist rhetoric that creates material change. Glenn reminds readers that rhetoric ought to “do something,” and she shows how feminist rhetoric can carry out rhetorical feminism’s vision of the hope for a more equitable future that recognizes the value of all voices, especially the ones that have been most marginalized in the past (4, emphasis in orig.). This reminder is what makes the text stand out amongst other works in the field. Glenn’s articulation of rhetorical feminism offers us a cogent way of making the discipline of rhetoric more inclusive and is a crucial read for anyone wondering what rhetoric should do in our everyday practices. In the spirit of rhetorical feminism, this book is not argumentative. Instead, Glenn asks us to listen as she presents her decades of experience and shows readers how rhetorical feminism should exist in all facets of academia. As such, Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope is an essential read for anyone new to the field and an important reminder to veteran scholars. Glenn’s book reviews the work we have done as feminist rhetorical scholars and points out the work we must continue to do to enact our commitments to inclusivity and justice.

Chapter one, “Activism,” reveals how rhetorical feminism has guided activists historically. Glenn begins her analysis with the U.S. suffrage movement and ends with Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Highlighting exemplars, or “Sister Rhetors,” who used feminist rhetoric in service of their activism, Glenn calls attention to rhetorical feminism’s long-standing advocacy in pursuit of the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, “the greatest good for all human beings” (5). She analyzes the speeches of Black and white suffragists, such as Maria W. Stewart, Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth, to show how they disidentified with hegemonic prescriptions of womanhood to argue for their enfranchisement. While this chapter touches on the racial schisms in the suffrage movement, further exploration of the political fissures that historically dissolved the alliance between African American suffragists and white women may be useful for clarifying current challenges around how rhetorical feminists can make differences a point of understanding, not contention. Nevertheless, by looking to the present moment at the end of this chapter, Glenn reminds us that it is imperative to build on activist legacies to secure real democratic equality in the U.S. With the November election looming and with the ongoing uprisings in pursuit of racial justice, this reminder of how rhetoric can serve activist goals feels especially urgent.

The second chapter, “Identities,” focuses on rhetorical feminism’s grounding in experience and, consequently, the obstacles to and possibilities for coalition-building across difference. The underlying question of “Identities” is not just who speaks but who they speak for and who is listened to. Glenn highlights the role of agency and audience as they relate to identity in different rhetorical strategies for coalition-building, She demonstrates the important challenges in actualizing these theories with historical examples of how feminists disidentify with each other, most notably Audre Lorde’s public critique of Mary Daly. Glenn points out that white feminists must prioritize “the rhetorical feminist precepts of silence and listening to Others” and acknowledge the limits of their experience without erasing different identities (42). Only with this mutual communication can rhetorical feminists form coalition around what they have in common while accepting the gravity of their experiential differences and “come together in their advocacy of human rights and social justice” (46). This is an especially timely reminder to white feminist rhetoricians, myself included, who must prioritize being effective allies to our BIPOC peers. Glenn’s acknowledgment of the epistemic potential of identity grounds the rest of the book’s exploration of rhetorical feminism as she repeatedly returns to the role that identity plays in determining the efficacy of one’s rhetorical actions. This insight urges rhetorical scholars to remain attentive to how the experience that underlies all rhetorical action is always informed by an embodied sense of identity. This principle can act as guiding force for our field, both professionally and in our activism.

Chapters three and four, “Theories” and “Methods and Methodologies,” focus on the disciplinary development of rhetorical feminism. “Theories” begins with the suggestion that “mainstream rhetorical theories remain mostly untouched by feminism,” leading Glenn to point out the main “conceptual actions” of rhetorical feminism in a loose taxonomy (50; 51). These conceptual actions include disidentification with hegemony, transformation of traditionally masculinist rhetorical tactics like argument and objectivity, reimagined uses of rhetorical appeals, and new methods of delivery. Glenn captures the breadth of these feminist rhetorical theories by drawing from a wide range of feminist scholars (Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Krista Ratcliffe to name just a few), highlighting the enormity of the work already done in this area. These theories each emphasize speaking from experience, emotion, silence, listening, and dialogue as core components of feminist rhetorical styles. This chapter’s identification of these theoretical movements can help us create a more expansive understanding of what rhetoric is and what it can do. “Methods and Methodologies” explores how rhetorical feminists carry these theories out in their work. This chapter focuses mostly on historical inquiry, drawing on Glenn’s background in feminist rhetorical history. She highlights Jacqueline Jones Royster’s and Gesa Kirsch’s ideas of critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization as the key practices that guide historical recovery while also pointing to the need for feminist historiography that questions accepted histories and reimagines the rhetorical tradition. Glenn also emphasizes the ethical imperative to listen to others involved in qualitative research, namely ethnography and interviews. Taken together, these chapters instruct researchers on how feminist precepts already are, and should continue to be, present in all facets of rhetorical scholarship.

In the second half of the book, Glenn switches from her examination of rhetorical feminism’s foundations to explore its guiding presence in other academic actions. In her meditations on rhetorical feminism’s place in our teaching, mentoring, and administrative work, Glenn reveals how we can use our rhetorical orientations to change the institutions we are a part of, a critical lesson for our current moment. Chapter five, “Teaching,” begins with a bleak, but honest, review of the state of education in the U.S. Perhaps because of this grim account of dwindling funding, program cuts, and the erasure of tenure, Glenn insists, “teaching is hope embodied. It is a forward-looking endeavor, one that has the power to change lives—our own, our students’” (125). Glenn suggests that rhetorical feminist teachers should acknowledge their own positionality, respect students’ experiences, and help students investigate patriarchy and other compounding injustices in the world. Equipped with this background, students are prepared “to develop rhetorical agency” and change the status quo, prompting us to see how our work matters and how our political commitments can guide our professional actions (148). Similarly, Glenn’s sixth chapter, “Mentoring,” calls attention to this essential component of academia and asks readers to practice alternatives to traditional, master-apprentice models of mentoring. She highlights how rhetorical feminist mentoring is non-hierarchical, mutual, and networked. It relies on real, supportive relationships built on honesty and shared trust. Glenn also points out that such mentoring is the way rhetorical feminists give each other hope and make space for each other in what has traditionally been a privileged and exclusionary white, male space. Chapter seven, “(Writing Program) Administration,” offers Glenn’s own experience securing new hiring lines and guiding curricular changes while directing the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University as an example for how rhetorical feminism can make real, material changes in higher education. She balances the “feminization” of composition that leads female scholars to languish in an overworked, undervalued position and the “demands of a masculinist academy” with the possibility that WPAs can leverage their rhetorical savvy and expertise for more resources and inclusive education (176; 179). The basis of this work is collaboration, communication using silence and listening, and “mutual understanding” (186).

The final chapter, “This Thing Called Hope,” resists arriving at a neat conclusion, which is one of its greatest strengths. Glenn spends much of this conclusion ruminating on the consequences of the Trump presidency. She asks readers to wonder with her about what hope might look like in this political moment. She points to disciplinary successes of rhetorical feminism but suggests that this work is not done. There are more possibilities for inclusive scholarship, intersectional coalitions, and better teaching and mentorship. That potential, she implies, is “this thing called hope” that we must all work towards together (212). While this book is a valuable read for anyone already invested in the overlap between feminism and rhetorical studies—indeed, for any feminist pursuing rhetorical studies and hoping to work in academia, as “Mentoring” aptly shows—it is also the summation of decades of work in rhetorical feminism, making it a worthwhile read for the field at large that may be less aware of these histories and ongoing work. Additionally, any student who is new to rhetorical studies can benefit from this thorough synthesis of the pitfalls and successes of our rhetorical feminist forerunners. When the constant motions of research, teaching, and service wears us down, Glenn’s book reminds us why we do this work. As such, it is an incredible resource for those of us who seek to use our rhetorical repertoires to make changes in the world, whether this is in the classroom, in our day-to-day interactions, or in our marches. 

In the two years since the publication of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, the future has become increasingly uncertain. Now, more than ever, hope is necessary. Glenn’s book urges us all to practice our rhetorical feminism: to listen, for example, when we hear people urge that Black Lives Matter, to be allies and amplify those voices, and to use all of the means available to us to make change in our world. Why study rhetoric? What can rhetoric do? It can help us enact ethical change if we use it well. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope encourages to shed our naivety about the past and the present and to build on the work of other rhetorical feminists to create a more just future. It dares us to hope.

Review of Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education

VanHaitsma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019. 162 pages.

We read Pamela VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education as two feminists, a student and a teacher, both queer women embarking on queer archival research projects. We studied VanHaitsma’s book in order to develop our own methods for queer archival research. VanHaitsma addresses many of the questions that we grapple with in our own work: How can we engage in archival research of queer lives when queerness has been systematically silenced? How can we interpret queerness in the past without projecting our contemporary standards? What interpretive practices can researchers adopt to attune to queer rhetorics in the archives? To answer these inquiries, VanHaitsma draws upon previous feminist and queer methodologies and, through her own research, demonstrates how to apply them.

VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education demonstrates that queer romantic letter writing builds upon heteronormative standards in ways that resist binaries between public and private, erotic and civic, to queer traditional genre expectations. VanHaitsma invites readers to consider queer romantic letters as rich sites of rhetorical education and civic participation. Further, she offers readers a methodology for queer archival research: “Methodologically queering binary distinctions between public and private life, my archival research turns historiographic attention to romantic engagement while exploring its civic implications within instruction and practice” (21). Her work of “methodologically queering binary distinctions” has a long precedent in both queer rhetorics and feminist research methods, upon which VanHaitsma builds her methodology.

Queering Romantic Engagement expands upon previous work in queer rhetorics and contributes to an emerging conversation on queer archival methodologies. Serving as an important grounding for queer rhetorics, Jean Bessette’s queer rhetoric in situ pairs queer theory and rhetorical analysis to effectively analyze queer rhetorical practices across historical contexts. In her article, Bessette defines queer rhetorics in historical and cultural contexts that identify both the dominant norms and what it means to queer those norms. Bessette’s approach to queer rhetoric has been important for queer scholars who need to define queer within historical contexts. Further, Bessette’s book, Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives, is important for understanding the constructed, curated nature of archives and for theorizing lesbian identity through archival materials.

One of the most important contributions to queer archival research can be found in KJ Rawson’s archival theories and archival work on the Digital Transgender Archive. Rawson identifies the rhetorical and political significance of archival infrastructure, metadata, and access. This is important because Rawson identifies how heteronormative logic erases queer experiences and at the same time reimagines and rebuilds archives to make queer lives and experiences accessible to scholars. Of course, VanHaitsma’s own previous work has already outlined a queer methodology that includes gossip, genre analysis, and storytelling. From this work, she demonstrates her deep commitment to methodologies that resist stable definition and encourage imaginative interpretation. Released in the same year as Queering Romantic Engagement, Ames Hawking’s These Are Love(d) Letters similarly offers a queer archival methodology that breaks distinctions between personal and public, past and present, text and author. In addition, Hawkings performs the queer genre-bending that VanHaitsma identifies a feature of queer rhetorics.

In this review, we first offer these key terms that are central to VanHaitsma’s queer archival methodology:

  • Queer Failure: By failing at heteronormative instructions and genres, writers make visible how literacy practices discipline hetero norms and how writers can recreate and invent new queer rhetorics. (pg. 45-48)
  • Queer Practices: Actions, relations, and practices themselves are defined as queer, which allows an archival researcher to identify queer rhetorics without imposing an identity category that a person did not chose for themselves. (pg. 10-14)
  • Queer in Context: Each genre, situation, and archive is placed in historical context, first outlining the hetero standard in order to feature queer failures and queer inventions.
  • Queer Intersectionality: Queer rhetorics are defined in relation to intersections of oppression that include race, class, and gender. (pg. 61-63)


How does [instruction in language arts] enable nonnormative, or queer, rhetorical practices and romantic relations? (9)

As detailed among the key terms listed above, VanHaitsma’s preface and introduction emphasize the book’s interest in queer practices rather than identities. By studying more than forty 19th-century letter writing manuals, VanHaitsma considers how such sites of romantic epistolary education established the norms from which some writers queerly departed. As she notes, the queer writers she studies employed “rhetorical practices that were unconventional in their transgressions of generic boundaries while pursuing nonnormative romantic relations” (13). Additionally, she identifies queer writers as learners whose “romantic communication [is] a form of rhetoric, one with intimate as well as social dimensions” (15). VanHaitsma describes her own methodological practices as queer, noting her work’s insistence that the personal and romantic cannot be considered totally separate from the field of rhetoric’s emphasis on civic engagement as the primary purpose of rhetorical education. By turning to romantic engagement as a locus of rhetorical education, she “[queers] binary distinctions between public and private life” (21).

VanHaitsma stresses that queer archival methods must always work against both archival and historical erasure—take, for example, the tendency for historians to assume that erotic and romantic letter writing among same-sex couples was primarily a form of affectionate friendship. VanHaitsma names this erasure and dedicates her archival research to recovering the erotic and romantic.

Chapter 1: Norming and Failing

How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures? (47)

VanHaitsma’s first methodological move is to identify a normative frame against which she later contrasts the queer rhetorical practices of her historical subjects. Chapter One, “‘The Language of the heart’: Genre Instruction in Heteronormative Relations,” defines the norms of heteronormative romantic epistolary engagement. By analyzing manuals that taught 19th-century readers how to write letters for social and romantic purposes, VanHaitsma determines that these norms include heartfelt yet crafted expression, gendered address, restraint, and an explicit purpose of letter-writing towards marriage. The chapter follows Jean Bessette in placing queer rhetoric in situ, crucially emphasizing context and convention. By defining heteronormative conventions, VanHaitsma is able to then identify queer rhetorics specifically within this context and thereby avoid any overreach that may frame queerness as a stable or objective term.

VanHaitsma then identifies moments of queer rhetorical practice even within the letter-writing handbooks. She asks, “How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures within complete letter writers and across nineteenth-century manual culture?” (47) and “when desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). These questions guide her queer archival methodology in this chapter. In order to identify queer rhetorics within otherwise heteronormative letter-writing handbooks, VanHaitsma models methods of queer archival research by pairing critical imagination (Royster) and queer failure (Halbastram; Wait). She takes note of “hints,” suggestions, slippages, ellipses, and openings within the archives that could have been adopted for queer romantic engagement. VanHaitsma asks readers to “imagine this learner as a woman in a same-sex, cross-class relationship,” to think outside the literal text and towards what could have been (40). Later, she reads between the lines of model “skeleton” letters and speculates how writers could have reinvented this writing instruction towards queer ends.

Chapter 2: Rhetorical and Romantic

[H]ow we might complicate interpretations of romantic letters through greater attention to the ways they are evidence of rhetorical instruction and practice as much as they are of romantic feelings and relations[?] (72)

Turning towards archival examples that defy and queer the hetero norms espoused by letter-writing manuals, VanHaitsma’s second chapter focuses on the romantic epistolary exchange between “two freeborn African American women, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus” (49). The romantic undercurrent of Brown and Primus’ correspondence was not their only departure from the norms established by the manuals. The women engaged in queer practices, addressing one another with terms that denoted friendship, familial relations, and romantic affection. They also broke from the “straight time” practice of caution and moderation advocated by letter writing handbooks. Instead, their correspondence was urgent and intense and not oriented toward marriage. Perhaps most importantly, the women’s romantic epistolary rhetoric strayed, topically, from that which was acceptable in heteronormative romantic letters of the time—Brown’s letters to Primus were at times erotic, even describing flirtations with and attractions to other women, as well as political, with “information and commentary about racial politics” existing within and alongside expressions of “more conventional romantic longing” (61-62).

Central to VanHaitsma’s approach is her deliberate attention to “‘everyday’ people” (49), and, specifically, Black women, whose rhetorical contributions have historically been under-researched and erased. VanHaitsma quotes scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin in order to emphasize that Brown and Primus’ correspondence addressed both the personal and the civic and, crucially, was concerned with racial uplift: “Brown and Primus were ‘women who loved each other romantically’ but ‘who were no less committed (in fact, were more committed than most) to the struggle for black freedom and progress’ (7)” (51). Moreover, she keeps the fact that Brown and Primus’ relationship was one that crossed class lines at the forefront, and she pays particular attention to Brown’s exclusion from formal education, highlighting the ways in which Brown was self-educated.

Chapter 3: Queering Genres

How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres? (98)

In the following chapter, VanHaitsma turns her attention to a college-educated white male writer, who would have been a normative audience of the letter-writing manuals, but who nevertheless also engaged in nonnormative, queer rhetorical practices. Chapter Three studies the commonplace book-turned-diary of Albert Dodd, a document VanHaitsma considers “both multigene and epistolary: as taking the form of multiple genres other than the letter, yet functioning according to an epistolary logic of address to and exchange with readers” (75). This use of the diary was genre-queer, she argues, not only because of its switch from an academic genre into a personal genre, but because it functioned as “a site of rhetorical invention” (90) where Dodd developed and practiced romantic epistolary address to both men and women. The diary also demonstrates that Dodd drew upon his classical rhetorical education to inform his civic and romantic writing. In the diary, he introduces homoerotic ideas and writing from the classical era, concepts that Dodd used to understand and explore his own sexuality through self-rhetorical writing practices.

VanHaitsma’s methodological attention to genre allows her to counter popular interpretations that deny any possibility of homosexual desire within Dodd’s only other extant writings, three familial letters from later in his life. VanHaitsma argues that previous scholars fail to take into account the clear differences in genre between the personal diary and the familial letter and their corresponding audiences. While she does not assign a sexual identity to Dodd, her interpretation of the genre differences opens possibilities of queer romantic and erotic practices in his post-college years—which is to say, the fact that Dodd does not mention any romantic attachments in his letters to family may indicate more about the letters’ audience than it does the realities of his romantic or sexual life. Accordingly, VanHaitsma calls for increased attention to genre on the part of scholars working with epistolary rhetoric, asking, “How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres?” (98).

Concluding Towards Failure

 When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail “exceptionally well” by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them? (102)

VanHaitsma concludes with the chapter that most explicitly addresses her methodological commitments to queer archival research. Again, she posits questions that can guide future researchers, including, “When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). With this question, VanHaitsma connects imagination and failure through the act of invention. She describes Brown, Primus, and Dodd as “learners who failed by the heteronormative standards within their given historical contexts and, in so doing, revealed the failures of heteronormative rhetorical education” (100). By extension, she suggests, queer failure also makes visible the failures of heteronormative archives and histories and creates space for novelty, surprise, and creativity. In this way, queer failure is also queer invention.

She ends by centering queer failure within queer methodologies. The goal is never to master queer theory, to apply it perfectly and perform it the same each time. Rather, she invites us to fail well and fail in interesting ways. And with each beautiful failure, she encourages us to be inventively queer.

To that end, this book could most immediately be included in graduate courses on queer theory and queer rhetorics. More broadly, any course that teaches or integrates archival research methods would benefit by including Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age in its curriculum. We believe that all scholars of rhetoric can benefit from VanHaitsma’s queer archival methods. She invites scholars to think capaciously and creatively about archival research and the interpretation of affect within archival materials. Importantly, her approach to queering archival methods can open up new lines of questioning, highlight new relationships, and enliven the research of any scholar whose research subject has been systematically erased from archival history.

Moving Forward | Queer Movement: The Next Steps

Our dear readers, we invite you to take up Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age as a model of queer archival research. Flirt with the texts. Look for the intimate and public touching and the erotic and political aligning. Remember that genres are ours for the taking, breaking, and remaking. We hope you fail queerly and with joy.  


Amelia and Trish

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. “Queer rhetoric in situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives: Composing Pasts and Futures. SIU Press, 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hawkins, Ames. These are Love(d) Letters. Wayne State UP, 2019.
  • Morris, Charles E., and K. J. Rawson. “Queer archives/archival queers.” Theorizing histories of rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. pp. 74-89.
  • Rawson, K. J. “Rhetorical History 2.0: Toward a Digital Transgender Archive.” Enculturation, vol. 16., no. 9, 2013.
  • 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 Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • 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.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Gossip as rhetorical methodology for queer and feminist historiography.” Rhetoric Review, vol.  35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 135-147.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Stories of Straightening Up: Reading Femmes in the Archives of Romantic Friendship.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Digital LGBTQ Archives as Sites of Public Memory and Pedagogy.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 2, 2019 pp. 253-280.

Review of Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor

Gold, David and Jessica Enoch. Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019. 293 pages.

In a 2015 issue of Peitho, Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith challenged feminist rhetoricians to take on studies that see the gendering of work—workplaces, tasks, arrangements—as productive areas of inquiry. Jessica Enoch and David Gold’s 2019 edited collection Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor looks at work as “a historically situated, rhetorically constructed, materially contingent concept” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201). Across fifteen chapters, a diverse cast of women living in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America create and react to challenges and opportunities within their working lives. Contributors describe the rhetorical strategies women used, faced or engaged, and build on previous chapters in a way that develops urgency across contexts. Unlike some edited collections, this work is perhaps most effective when read in order, as each setting and theory enriches the last, putting these women’s lives in conversation with one another across time, space, and intent.

Every chapter illustrates the powerful arena of “work” as a place for examining the rhetorical lives of women. Work-related rhetorics—from reframing business failure to challenging the leadership of educators—are the methodological self-corrective analyses feminist scholars seek (3-5). Female bodies engaged in labor introduce more spaces for women’s rights and rhetoric to be examined both historically and contemporarily. How were women challenging (or not) traditional gender roles or expectations? How are domestic spaces defined, and how are women complicating the relationship between “domestic space” and labor? What are entrepreneurs, labor activists, domestic laborers, inventors, seamstresses, factory workers, educators, and athletes doing rhetorically to challenge and complicate the “work” spaces they inhabit, despite expectations for female beauty and good-naturedness in spaces previously privileged to men? Stepping beyond political citizenship as the primary lens for female rhetorical voice, the contributors to this collection prove the fruitfulness of these questions. As the stories included illustrate, political and civic work hardly defines the whole of women’s participation in public spaces. Women at Work operates in tandem with Jessica Enoch’s other 2019 single-authored Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work in shared examination of the complex and changing relationship of women to domestic spaces in the last two centuries. While Work focuses on spaces beyond the domestic, we will see that they are unavoidably interconnected—especially for women of color. Both books are an impetus for more scholarship; we can see the myriad questions not yet asked of women’s presence in work. Women At Work contains valuable conversations for both seasoned feminist rhetors and those newer to the field or beginning their own research foci. Its editors and contributors challenge us to further the important scholarship they have advanced.

Complicating the Woman at Work

As my review of the collection’s chapters will show, a victory of Women at Work is that it further complicates the work and character of each woman featured in its pages, presenting the messy, imperfect, and sometimes far from progressive figure we imagine. Michelle Smith’s chapter examines the rhetoric of the Office of War Information’s actual recruitment posters, which did not include the “We Can Do It!” poster that made “Rosie the Riveter” famous (and which is properly contextualized in scholarship by Kimble and Olson). Smith examines nine posters produced between 1942 and 1945 promoting women in “war work” as temporary, heteronormative, and composed of predominantly white, middle-class women “whose conventional femininity remained intact” (187). Smith engages visual rhetoric to study the nine posters and recruitment messaging, contextualizing WWII labor beyond the skewed feminist empowerment interpretation frequently referenced in public memory. Her conclusions are a useful starting point for more work in visual rhetoric related to wartime work and depictions of women in recruitment advertising over time.

Risa Applegarth’s chapter “Bodies of Praise,” uses epideictic theory to examine how women’s embodiment in professional spaces may affirm or confront the values held by the community—both the professional community and larger society. By studying Independent Woman, a periodical published by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club, Applegarth uncovers how women in the 1920s and ‘30s workforce approached beauty and appearance in the workplace. Written and read by women, the publication was a source for navigating the way their bodies ought to be presented in work settings, with specific directive to limit the “disruptive” potential of female bodies in traditionally male spaces (135). Her scholarship reinforces a key theme of this collection—subtle but conscious disruption, of work environments and who may gain entry.

In a similar exploration of work environments and who may gain entry, Lisa J. Shaver’s scholarship on athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharia’s public image and branding provides further evidence of female entry without disruption of the normative, gendered professional environment. Using sports as the professional space, Shaver’s example makes clear that when women enter a space they have not previously been permitted, it is not on equal footing. “Women must not only give evidence that they are supremely qualified, they must also affirm that they are still appropriately feminine” (181). It is not enough to be “qualified,” women must be better, far above the expectations set for male peers. In the gender-biased athletic world Zaharia inhabited, her appearance and persona had to be strategically presented so as not to appear too threatening to femininity norms.

Rhetorics of Success and Failure

Nineteenth century metallurgist and inventor Carrie Everson faced similar discrimination and biases, as Sarah Hallenbeck illustrates. Hallenbeck’s chapter is a reticent examination of the rhetoric of failure, and how we might complicate the concept by challenging the “exceptional woman” narrative (71). Everson faced several barriers that rendered her mining invention and business a “failure,” but uncovering the factors influencing that “failure” challenges the usefulness of such a label at all. It is valuable to engage what it means to succeed and fail, now and historically for women in work, and to expose the complexities therein. In Everson’s case, many contributing factors were larger than her individual efforts, and these are often not considered in a businessperson’s larger narrative. Studying women in athletics, metallurgy, and invention advances and complicates our understanding of where and how women engage in work-place rhetoric.

The chapters are arranged chronologically and echo the recurring themes across the time covered—roughly 1830 to 1950. The collection’s first and last chapters bookend in theme despite occurring furthest from one another in time: both examine rhetorical strategies used by women workers in mill and factory labor reform. Amy J. Wan’s chapter takes a critical look at the well-studied mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, specifically the unstudied rhetorical strategies used by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Rather than further the popular depictions of the good mill girl, women workers co-opted language used publicly to praise them, and characteristics like piety and republican womanhood, to argue for labor reform (22-8). Wan argues that labor rhetoric utilized by LFLRA functioned with conscious and careful acknowledgement of expectations for white women workers and engaged with public fear of the effect industrialization might have on femininity. To bridge the contradictions facing women in an industrializing United States, they took advantage of the rhetoric of “women as the moral conscience of society” to demonstrate that factory owners were obligated to reform on behalf of their employees (29).

Carly S. Woods and Kristen Lucas’s chapter on labor activism in a 1949 strike at the H.W. Gossard factory, more than a century later, echoes those strategies. Gossard Girls, as they called themselves, fought for the labor reform men had earned in the region several years before. Their efforts, often critiqued in local newspapers, engaged playful representations of gender that maintained their image as “good girls,” nonthreatening to normative expectations (235). They did this by picketing in gender-challenging outfits, using effigies and signs intended as visual rhetorical representations that gave them permission for subtle subversive activism. These chapters couch the themes of this collection and show us that across history women have had to be cunning regarding how they represent their bodies and justify their presence in work environments.

Female worker as labor reformer is an unsurprising theme, advanced in Marybeth Poder’s chapter on the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). The WTUL created space for women to voice concerns over the struggles they faced at work regarding gender and class, a space where they could support one another before turning to men. Examining “mundane” texts like meeting minutes, annual bulletins, and officer’s reports, Poder shows the discursive strategies used to give working women a platform for their voice and leadership in labor reform (103). Similar to the Gossard Girls’ efforts, labor reform for women was not considered of equal importance to men’s. Poder’s work advances the rhetorical study of organizational archival materials we might have overlooked as inconsequential.

Recognizing Black Labor

Coretta M. Pittman’s chapter explores resistance rhetoric of a different fashion, that of musician and writer Alberta Hunter. Hunter’s columns for three Black-owned newspapers continued in the long presence of Black women writing about the role of work in their lives, and the intersection of race, work, and fair pay. Hunter relied on her status in the music industry to voice discriminations, engage racial politics, and advocate on behalf of Black workers (145). Using resistance rhetoric in her writing, she called out hypocrisy and racist violations by white venue owners discriminating against their Black employees while profiting on Black entertainment labor (147). Hunter’s work is reminiscent of modern social justice conversations working for recognition of Black labor and deepens how we engage labor activism in history.

Domestic spaces and frameworks form another key theme across this collection, working strongest in the chapters interrogating the lives of Black female laborers. Patty Wilde recognizes the affective, emotional labor Elizabeth Keckley carried out for years as an enslaved woman and later for Mary Todd Lincoln, both in the White House and after (32). Wilde does a critical reading of Keckley’s memoir with an eye on the unrecognized emotional labor documented therein, to highlight the lack of reciprocity or acknowledgement of domestic work as such.

Jennifer Keohane’s chapter on labor activist Claudia Jones and her published writing continues this important work in domestic rhetorics (209-23). Claudia Jones published to her audience, the U.S. Communist Party of the 1950s, to argue that though white women had argued for the critique of capitalism to include gender, the white perspective completely ignored the experience of black women and their invisible labor in white homes. Jones is a rhetorical powerhouse, navigating a complex political environment using militant tone and downplaying her positionality to great effect. Consciously using Cold War language, Jones shows how domestic spaces are different things to white women than they are to black women in the United States. Jones also calls up the affective labor black women perform off the clock, facing Jim Crow discrimination and state-sanctioned racial violence that made their homes far from domestic “haven.” Jones demonstrates through strong, intentional language that at least if oppressive to women, the white family home was understood as a sanctuary; the same could not be said of the black home (218). Scholars of feminist rhetoric should recognize Jones as a “proto-intersectional” theorist, for her framing of the “triple oppression” (race, class, gender) that combined to reinforce disestablishment of the black female domestic laborer. Keohane’s effective chapter on Jones’s rhetorical labor is a model for future work on other proto-intersectional women, especially those in minority and marginalized groups. Combined, the scholarship in this book on Keckley, Hunter, and Jones is foundational for our continued work in the archives, critically historicizing and recognizing women of color in spaces of work, and the frequently unrecognized labor in and beyond those spaces.

Work Place and Women in it

When entering work dominated by men, women engaged deliberately with the “domestic” as female domain for their rhetorical strategies to succeed. Jane Greer interrogates the management of Donnelly Garment Company, specifically owner Nell Donnelly Reed’s use of domestic discourses to construct and condone her presence in the garment industry, and for the homelike spaces she curated for employees. She used generous compensation packages, homey and clean factory spaces, and family-like messaging to ensure her employees remained loyal and delay efforts to unionize. Casting her relationship with her employees in this way “reinforced her own femininity as a caretaker and avoided association with the stereotypically masculine factory owners concerned only with the bottom line” (164). When outside efforts to unionize became overpowering, her rhetorical domesticity reached its limit, and in fact this is where Greer’s scholarship carves new spaces for inquiry. Reed is a complicated entrepreneur who used domestic rhetoric to her advantage only until it no longer worked. It is useful for feminist scholars to question the powers and limitations of domestic rhetorics. As Greer and other contributors show, it is not useful to approach historical analysis using momentary snapshots of women in only narrow or ideal light, in work or any other context.

Nancy Myer’s examination of rhetorical invention in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience introduces what Myers calls the “New True Woman,” someone seeking not only domestic satisfaction but financial and vocational self-fulfillment at the end of the nineteenth century (53). An analysis of this Alcott text looks at which virtues were downplayed, and which were redirected, to refashion the ideal of a woman in modern work. Myers argues this text illustrated to a large readership female agency while meeting the implicit social criteria of her era.

Pamela VanHaitsma, in a chapter that also examines female expression and gender roles within work, engages scholarship she started in Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education (2019), examines the professional relationship of educators Irene Kirke Leache and Anna Cogswell Wood. VanHaistsma considers how the erotic may function rhetorically and pedagogically towards power and information in Leache and Wood’s relationship as educators. Defining erotic as a “passionate emotional and intellectual sharing,” VanHaistma argues that Leache and Wood were aware of eroticized same-sex love within Western cultural history and used this knowledge for as model for their “opulent friendship” as they coined it, and their belletristic pedagogical work (57). Her examination advances important questions in the history of relationships that presented threats to heteronormativity, and the caution we must use in applying contemporary modes of expression to previous eras. Both Myer’s and VanHaitsma’s theories reiterate an embodiment of female expression and gender roles, alongside a conscious and subtle disruption of work and how society viewed women doing it.

Validating Vocations for Women

Finally, the collected scholarship in this book resituates work, and what it means to be a women at work. Kristie S. Fleckenstein and Heather Brook Adams and Jason Barrett-Fox, respectively, make significant contributions to the collection by defining photography and sex work as valid vocations for women. Fleckenstein’s chapter focuses on Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose rhetorical work demonstrated photography was a profession, more than mere hobby, and that women could go far beyond rote work in the field (85). Women could be professional artists. These remain significant questions: work versus art, when and where art is considered a vocation, and how women justify their place in those realms.

Progressive for her time (perhaps even for 2020), Kate Waller Barrett worked in the 1920s for the recognition of sex work and sex workers as part of the economy men built. This chapter is a refreshing revelation complicating who is included and how they are perceived in their space of work. Barrett advocated on behalf of prostitutes and faced a “formidable rhetorical challenge: to genuinely advocate on behalf of women working as prostitutes in an effort to raise a wider set of concerns about the gendered implications of growing urban centers” (118). Across nineteen articles published in the Washington Times, Barrett pushed past sensationalism, misconceptions, and an archetype of the fallen woman to humanize the contemporary female worker. What lawmakers writing the Kenyon Act failed to see, she argued, was that prostitution was a vocation and the women employed therein are products of economy and the changing structure of society based on urban living. Barrett sought to place vice as part of economy and network, rather than in moral or individual failings by women employed as prostitutes (124). One cannot help but consider this rhetorical work as it relates to this same economic and moral debate one hundred year after her public writings. There is important work begun here that can be extended, in both historical and contemporary study, on the vulnerability of women as wage earners and the moral versus economic factors influencing decisions about work.

Opportunities for Further Scholarship

How does work create rhetorical challenges and opportunities for women? This question is as important today as it is historically. Women at Work asks, answers, and advances that question. The critical usefulness of this collection lies in the theories the contributors adopt, that other scholars can rely on to ask and respond to their own questions related to the interactions among gender, rhetoric, and work. Each contributor employs helpful terms and methodologies, especially for those who have engaged with rhetoric or feminist theory but perhaps have not yet combined the two. The methodologies in this collection reveal the “contingency and artificiality” covering up some significant historical and rhetorical realities about how work “ought to be structured, valued, and compensated” and by whom it was performed (Hallenbeck and Smith 204). Women at Work will be useful to any scholar interested in the rhetoric of workspaces, feminist rhetorics, or any of the specific companies, fields, or time periods included.

As Enoch and Gold acknowledge, many voices are missing from this conversation. The editors recognize the absence of “experiences of Latina, Chicana, Asian, LGBTQ, rural, and religious workers; the lives of working mothers, workers with disabilities and other understudied workers” (15). This lacuna is posed as a call for more work of this nature, a call to which Peitho readers will respond. As noted, the rhetorical tools presented give us numerous productive starting points as we return to the historical records in our own research areas. The work reviewed here advances the call put forth to not only “uncove[r] the particularities in each case but also to identif[y] common threads and strategies in the ongoing rhetorical co-construction of gender and work (Hallenbeck and Smith 202). These questions and theories are equally significant for scholars of historical and contemporary rhetorics.

I read this book because of an interest in how we define work both in scholarship and in our everyday lives. As a former career and internship advisor to college students and someone who began her professional career during The Great Recession, this question has remained through much of the work that I do with students and in my developing scholarship in feminist rhetorics. This text demonstrated to me the ways in which I can engage with the women who came before me and the ways they engaged with work and how they articulated it in their own lives. The women featured in the chapters of this book rhetorically place their bodies and voices in their respective workspaces—whether through activism, labor rights, acknowledging Black women, or reimagining what success and failure look like in work. Coming from a disciplinary background in history, reading Women At Work validated my asking the kind of questions I hope to ask and answer in my own academic work. And as I have noted across this review, the contributors and editors have given scholars like me a toolset from which to productively ask and answer questions about work using feminist rhetorics.

Works Cited

  • Enoch, Jessica. Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Hallenbeck, Sarah and Michelle Smith. “Mapping Topoi in the Rhetorical Gendering of Work.” Peitho, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015.  
  • Olson, Lester C. and James J. Kimble. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006.
  • VanHaistma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019.