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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: F 3: Making other Conversations Matter: Women’s Pragmatic Rhetoric on the Margins of Power
Reviewed by: Wendy Sharer, sharerw@mail.ecu.edu
Posted on: April 27, 2004
Updated on: April 29, 2004

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This panel introduced listeners to some of the fascinating rhetorical work of early twentieth-century women social reformers.  These reformers connected words and action, taking up the promise of pragmatism, despite their marginalization from the famous male pragmatists of the day (Dewey, Peirce, James, and Holmes).  These women were not, as session Chair Hephzibah Roskelly explained, “in the club,” but their intellectual and social achievements merit much more attention.

Roskelly provided an overview of pragmatism’s main features, as illustrated by the figures discussed in this panel. These features are as follows:

The notion that ideas and beliefs should be embodied in action

The notion that truth and meaning are dynamic

An appreciation of observation and scientific research methods

The notion that ideas are tentative and that experience can affect and change them (humility and fallibly).

After this quick but highly useful background on pragmatism, Kate Ronald explained Jane Addams’s specific understandings of pragmatism and rhetoric.  Among other things, Addams’s rhetorical methods were influenced by her understanding of women’s specific imperatives to improve urban society (what she and others called “municipal housekeeping”).  Addams’s methods of communication were also inspired by her firm belief that antagonism is always wrong.  In a process that Addams called “affectionate interpretation," rhetors must listen to one another, respect differences, and focus their words on specific experiences. During much of the early 20th century, Addams and her ideas were immensely popular, yet her public image was tarnished by her unfortunate decision to point out in a talk at Carnegie Hall that some soldiers reportedly required alcohol to prompt them to kill. The militaristic popular press used this accusation to blacklist Addams, mounting an enormous smear campaign to portray her as an unpatriotic communist.

Julia Ward Howe, Dottie Broaddus explained, may have had reason to write “Battle Hymn of the Republic” about her own troubled marriage. Howe’s relationship to her activist husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, was very confining, and she was force by Gridley to minimize her public presence. Perhaps as an act of rebellion against this oppressive marriage, Howe composed a secret novel about a hermaphrodite who was raised as a man in order that he might have the freedom of opportunity that was routinely withheld from women. Howe’s rhetoric, as displayed in her novel and her poems, reveals how oppressive married women’s experience was.

Roskelly faced perhaps the most difficult task of the panelists because her subject, Alice James, left little behind other than her diary. James was a victim in many ways of male-dominated medicine at the time, with physicians attributing her intellectualism and her depression to hysteria.  When James died of breast cancer in 1944, the last entries in her diary suggest that she viewed death as a way out of the intellectual prison of gender.  James’s diary also explains some of James’s critical pragmatic thought about power differences and class issues in London.

Broaddus, Ronald, and Roskelly are putting together a volume dedicated to the work of a variety of women pragmatists.  With this little taste of what will be in that book, I am hungry for more.

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