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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: K 26 Women’s Oppositional Rhetorics
Reviewed by: Candace Stewart, stewarc1@ohiou.edu
Posted on: April 10, 2004
Updated on: April 12, 2004

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Chair: Jenny Nelson

This nicely-blended and intriguing panel provided diverse glimpses of rhetorical ages from medieval times to the present. Though the first panelist did not appear, the other three presenters made good use of the extra time they received. Cynthia Smith’s presentation, “I’d Rather Be Your Whore Than Your Wife,” focused on ways Heloise was able to appropriate social strictures on womens’ behaviors and enact rhetorical spaces for herself and her readers in her letters to Abelard. Smith’s blend of historical, theoretical, and rhetorical research provided a helpful context for those in the audience who were not fully aware of some of the social and cultural issues at the time Heloise was writing. Smith’s paper, framed by a trope of “rules” that Heloise can teach us about appropriating a tradition of passivity and even silencing, closed language, and the construct of femininity, explored and observed some of Heloise’s expert rhetorical moves. Smith noted that Heloise worked with an accepted form and tone for women’s voices of the time, but challenged some of those traditions by renaming and appropriating labels (wife, whore, mistress) as a way to redefine terms and blur boundaries, as well as calling on other female textual voices such as Asphasia for placing herself within a women’s rhetorical tradition.

Following Smith’s presentation, Susan Wyle introduced the audience to some early research on women outlaws and prisoners of during the time that the American West was being settled. Her presentation, “Women Outlaws, Women Prisoners: Dichotomies of Discourse,” places “bad” women of the time into a traditional dichotomy of portrayals: the good woman was graphically and textually imaged as desexualized and passive, for example, while the bad woman, such as the outlaws and prisoners of Wyle’s research were hyper-sexual, over-active. Wyle notes that, in this way, the bad women could be placed in a category of non-woman or less than; real women could not be sexual or active or alone. Wyle’s vivid graphic images of real women who were denoted as bad provided valuable descriptions of possible research trajectories towards the rhetoric of fallen women that was connected to prison reform for example, as well as the rhetoric of gendered selves, where these particular women, many of whom were mothers, had been abandoned by husbands or abused, found themselves in prison for defending themselves or trying to save their children. Wyle’s research is rich with possibilities for more focused and insightful work.

The final presentation of the panel, Penny Smith’s “Making Civic Discourse Matter: Women, Quilts, and the Rhetorics of Three Social-Reform Movements,” was amazing. Smith’s work blended research from investigating quilting groups as a social and relational communities with the use of quilts as texts for the social reform movements of the 19th and 20th centuries: the anti-slavery societies and abolitionists, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Sanitary Commission. Smith provided data showing that the quilts made by groups who were involved in these social reforms frequently used the finished quilts for fundraising opportunities. Citing Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism,” Smith argued that quilts were an important rhetorical genre in their own right, during this socially active time, that the women working on the quilts were not just making textural meaning, but textual meaning, and that both of these activities transcended the ways in which we often think both of quilts and quilting groups. Calling these women and their products as exemplifying “powerful models of collaboration, cooperation, and making community,” in essence, serving as “emblems of community,” the women and their quilts provide significant historical and rhetorical meaning. Smith then gave a close reading of a few quilts, such as the Friendship Quilt, which followed the model of the autograph and photograph albums of the period, noting that these quilts, in which the blocks were signed by their makers, not only left “a vital record of their existence,” but signified their recognition as persons in a valid and valued community.

Smith spoke of quilts in which messages were embroidered onto the fabric, adding another component of text and signification, and noted that these quilts often had letters enclosed with them when sent to the front lines of the Civil War. Another quilt was put together with women quilters from all over the world contributing blocks, and had eight million signatures on it, signed onto paper and then sewed to the fabric, another layer of text added to the aesthetic text itself. Calling these quilts emblems of the essential fabric of the women’s, Smith reiterated that the significance of these social-reform quilts lies in their enactment as a rhetorical genre for women’s communities, for individuals and their collective, connecting as well to the complexities women continue to face in their attempts to blend the personal with the public. Quilts, then, may work as public surfaces for naming and re-naming the world through visual codes.


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