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Silence as a Feminist Rhetorical Strategy

Back in March, I did a presentation at CCCC titled "Looking to Lorde and Daly: When It's Not Okay to Be Silent in Feminist Rhetorical Theory." It was part of a panel titled "Actions Speak Louder Than Words? Using Feminist Rhetorical Theories to Rethink the Relationship Between Silence, Power, and Culture." I've provided the panel proposal below (proposal written by Merry Perry of the University of South Florida):

This session offers new ways of rhetorically conceptualizing silence as more than just the response of marginalized people to oppressive circumstances. Instead, each presenter uses feminist rhetorical theories to
analyze the interlocking relationships among language, power, knowledge, identity, and culture to argue that silence can serve as a rhetorically powerful tool. Moreover, because this panel is predicated on a belief in the intimate connections between theory and practice, each presenter explains the cultural implications and transformative possibilities of feminist rhetorics that acknowledge the power of silence.

In "The Rhetoric of Silence," Speaker #1 interweaves interpretations of classical rhetoric with marginalized theories of rhetoric in order to lay the groundwork for an understanding of women's silence as rhetoric. By
analyzing the assertive, active, and expressive qualities of silence, Speaker #1 argues that it may be a rhetoric of choice for women communicators. Thus, silence may be understood as a rhetorical strategy and the silent rhetor as an agent who actively participates in shared discourse.

In "Neither Seen Nor Heard: The Rhetoric of Birthmother Silence in Adoption Policy Debates," Speaker #2 uses the theories of Iris Marion Young and Kenneth Burke to explain how silence speaks louder than words in matters of public policy concerning birthmothers and adoption policy. By addressing the relationship between shame and secrecy in out-of-wedlock births, Speaker #2 explains how advocacy organizations appropriate this rhetoric of silence for their own purposes.

In "Looking to Lorde and Daly: When It's Not Okay to Be Silent in Feminist Rhetorical Theory," Speaker #3 analyzes how conflict and dialogue between feminist rhetors serves to erase the uncomfortable silence that may erupt over unexamined matters of identity such as race, class, sexuality, and so on. Using a debate between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly as a template, Speaker #3 considers contemporary feminist debates over voice and agency and offers useful theoretical alternatives to a rhetoric of silence.

In "Men Not Allowed: Silence About Masculinity in Feminist Composition Theory and Pedagogy," Speaker #4 argues that feminist compositionists have been conspicuously silent about masculinity studies. While many compositionists incorporate an analysis of femininity and of women's experiences into their scholarship and into their classrooms, discussions of masculinity remain largely ignored. In response, Speaker #4 argues for a move toward a feminist cultural studies approach to composition that centers on analyzing how cultural representations of women and men reinscribe power imbalances and reveal cultural assumptions about gendered identities.

By considering the unexamined theoretical implications of silence within multiple locations-rhetorical theory, public policy debates, feminist theory, and composition studies-this session offers new ways of envisioning feminist rhetorics that can transform relationships of power in theory, language, and culture.

[end snip]

My presentation was greatly influenced by recent work by Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe on silence as a rhetorical strategy. At first (and I said this in my presentation too) I was skeptical of silence as feminist. How can women's silence, in a patriarchal society, ever possibly be feminist? Glenn and Ratcliffe work showed me, though, and today in my reading of From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson, I saw a particular moment in which silence could have served a feminist purpose. Johnson was engaged in one of many debates she had with church officials on the church's subjugation of women:


I touched on this issue of insensitivity to women in the church. They turned the full force of their scorn--and of their bottomless ignorance about women--upon me and launched into what I call 'the exalted woman rhetoric' of the church. Finally, as the grand slam of logic, intended to knock me over the brink once and for all into belief in the church's great love for women, [Gordon] Hinckley intoned, 'You know that [Mormon church] President Kimball has done more for women than any living man!'

'Such as what?' I asked quietly.

Taken completely by surprise--Hinckley is not accustomed to having to account for his information, to being challenged; he simply hands down such pomposities for the nodding, unquestioning acceptance of the obedient mass--he flushed, swiveled his chair completely around, picked at his tie, cleared his throat and, trying to maintain his confident authoritative tone, trying to disguise the dreadful, threadbare weakness of the anticlimax he was about to create, said, 'He treats his wife so well.'

At that, I should have left a large silence while this excrescence slowly dripped down the air between us and gathered in turgid blobs on his desk. In absolute silence I should have made him watch this disgusting mess congeal before his eyes. But afterthought being by definition always too late, instead I said, 'A good many living men treat their wives well.'

'Yes, yes, exactly, exactly!' he burbled triumphantly, as if he had actually scored a point.

[end excerpt, emphasis mine. p. 155 of From Housewife to Heretic.]

See how it works? Such a "click moment" for me...I wanted to share it with you too.

Summer Pleasure Reading

Cindy, in her June 15 post, muses about the pleasures of summer reading, which makes me want to post about a book that I'm devouring right now: From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson. It's Johnson's autobiography--she went from a devout Mormon wife and mother of four to a radical feminist lesbian separatist. She was excommunicated from the Mormon church for supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. Johnson became a lesbian separatist after the 1981 publication of From Housewife to Heretic, but I'm still getting to read her compelling story of feminist awakening. I highly recommend it.

As for my summer reading in general, mine isn't as well planned out as Cindy's. I don't have Dickens summers or Faulkner summers; instead, I go through the books on my shelves that I bought with the intention to read one of these days (don't we all have those? :-). I read the first page or two of these books until I find one that grabs me, then I just go with it.

Erica Gilbert-Levin critiques girlie culture

Erica Gilbert-Levin critiques the tendency of a contingent of Third Wave feminists to advocate reclaiming such "girlie" things as the color pink, lipstick, lingerie, and Barbie as feminist. In other words, liking these things doesn't compromise one's feminism in any way. Girlie culture is called "feminism lite" by some. Gilbert-Levin's critique is full of profound statements, such as this:

By suggesting to young women that it is a feminist act simply to don a "Girls Rule!" baby T or to wear high heels and thereby to "own" one's sexuality (as if wearing high heels or lipstick allows one to own one's sexuality!), Girlies encourage women to substitute commercial "fun" for serious, political feminist engagement.

Indeed, Gilbert-Levin is right to point out that girlie culture is consumerist to a large extent. And she ends with this rockin' clincher:

With so much at stake -- with an antichoice, antifeminist Republican in the White House, with a political establishment that moves to the right at every sneeze, with the gap between the rich and poor growing daily, with a war against women all around the world -- from gender apartheid in Afghanistan to daily honor killings in Muslim countries to genital mutilation in Africa to a sky-high rate of rape and domestic violence in the United States -- Third Wave feminism cannot afford to be defined by the Girlie movement. We have too much to do.

Oh, I should add that I hung out with Erica in Chicago one night in March 2002. She is awesome.

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