Rhetoric is the art and study of human symbol use. As a discipline, rhetoric began in ancient Greece as a practical art of persuasion, applied principally to political, legal, and judicial contexts. Gender refers to the cultural constructs of masculinity and femininity imposed upon biological sex by any particular culture – what it means to be masculine or feminine. The relationship between rhetoric and gender has played out in four different and progressively complex perspectives in the discipline of rhetorical studies.
Gender As Exclusion
The starting point of the relationship between rhetoric and gender was one of mutual exclusivity. Gender was not conceptualized as relevant to rhetoric. In fact, however, rhetorical action and standards of eloquence were highly gendered in that rhetoric was synonymous with and considered to be the province of men. The assertion of authority and expertise, the use of logical argument, and the deliberate manipulation of discourse to affect an audience’s beliefs and actions were seen as masculine prerogatives, unsuited to women and even impossible for them to attain given their biological nature (Campbell 1981). Furthermore, women typically were denied the education necessary to learn the art of rhetoric. At every level, then, considerable cultural complicity was required to insure that there was no place for women in rhetoric, a perspective reflected in the formal study of rhetoric. The gendered nature of rhetoric was not a subject for scholarly investigation.
Acknowledgment in the discipline of rhetoric that gender is indeed relevant to rhetoric emerged as part of an interest in gender that accompanied the rebirth of feminism in the 1960s. Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique, written in 1963, helped launch feminist movements in the United States; in Europe, Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex (1953) was a primary inspiration. Feminist social movements challenged contemporary gendered practices and made issues of gender an area of scholarly inquiry across academic disciplines, including the study of rhetoric.
Gender As History
Initial efforts to incorporate gender into rhetoric centered on the recovery of women speakers in history who managed to speak and write despite the cultural proscriptions against such activity. Feminist scholars in rhetoric searched for and found women in every historical time period who achieved renown because of their rhetorical success. Sappho, Aspasia, Cornelia, and Hortensia, for example, were rhetoricians with considerable social and political influence in ancient Greece and Rome. Margery Kempe wrote her autobiography in the Middle Ages, developing a distinctive narrative style, and Anne Askew wrote Examinations to document her religious suffering and to argue her case before being burned at the stake in 1546 (Glenn 1997). Most studies, however, focused on those women activists in nineteenth-century Europe and the United States who spoke out on behalf of abolition, temperance, and suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimké, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Alice Paul were among those whose rhetorical activism received particular scholarly attention.
Studies of women in history focused principally on three dimensions: their significance historically, the obstacles they had to overcome in order to speak, and the degree to which they met traditional rhetorical standards for eloquence. Those selected for study by rhetorical scholars were those whose speeches and writings had been preserved, offering evidence of their noteworthiness and significance. For the most part, these were women speaking on behalf of social and moral causes considered the special province of women.
In addition, the study of important women speakers in history typically was accompanied by a focus on what they had to overcome to succeed rhetorically. Because speaking in public was considered in direct contradiction to the traits of femininity, engaging in rhetorical activity was thought to desex women and to diminish their purity and moral superiority. Rhetorical scholars typically explored and addressed the ways women speakers negotiated the obstacle of gender through their choice of arguments, dress, audience adaptation, and other accommodations (Kennedy & O’Shields 1983).
Furthermore, rhetorical scholars measured early women speakers against traditional criteria for eloquence. The discourse of women rhetors was analyzed according to the traditional schemas and expectations for rhetoric in which masculinity was the norm. If they deviated from these criteria, they were found to be at fault; yet meeting them meant they were not entirely feminine. As a result, women were found not to measure up – they were evaluated as unable to perform rhetorically as well as men. A study of Frances Wright offers an example. She was judged a failure as a speaker because, as a woman, she did not meet societal expectations of rhetors – and this in turn lowered her ethos (Kendall & Fisher 1974).
Gender As Standpoint
The realization that the assessment of women rhetors was according to traditional rhetorical – i.e., masculine – standards led to efforts by feminist rhetorical scholars to understand women’s rhetorical practices on their own terms. According to standpoint theory, women as a group might be expected to favor certain rhetorical processes and practices because of certain cultural conditions and role expectations. Gender as standpoint thus recognizes the distinctive circumstances of a woman’s life and the particular interpretations she gives to those circumstances. Rather than assess and evaluate a woman’s rhetorical choices according to traditional rhetorical criteria, the particular goals, meanings, and strategies of woman as rhetor began to be considered.
Standpoint theory literally originated in the recognition that the female body will produce a different kind of knowing or ways of making sense of experience. Two French feminists – Hélène Cixous (1976) and Julia Kristeva (1979) – were instrumental in the development of standpoint theory. Cixous coined the phrase writing the body to suggest a reconceptualization of women from inferior to powerful, with a linguistic system grounded in an understanding of women’s muted subjectivities. Kristeva posited that women have a particular relationship to and conception of time that affects their perspective on and approach to the world. In the United States, Patricia Hill Collins (1990) and Sandra Harding (1991) developed standpoint theory, and Julia Wood (1992) has articulated contemporary meanings of standpoint theory as it relates specifically to the discipline of communication.
When standpoint is the starting point for rhetoric, what counts as significant communication, who is allowed to speak and in what circumstances, and the desired goals and outcomes for a rhetorical transaction are reassessed. For many women, for instance, important communication occurs in the private rather than the public realm, and strategies are directed less at persuading and changing others and more at achieving understanding and community. Furthermore, women need not be important in history for their communication to be considered important, and rhetorical scholars began to examine women’s communication across contexts from the private to the public.
Of particular importance has been the enumeration of various women’s rhetorical systems, some of which contain more expanded options for rhetors than those offered by traditional rhetorical theories. These include Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s discussion of contemporary feminism as oxymoron (1973), Sally Miller Gearhart’s articulation of the womanization of rhetoric (1979), and Cheris Kramer’s exposition of different linguistic systems for women and men (1974). Karen Foss et al. (1999) summarize the rhetorics of nine contemporary feminist activists and describe rhetorical options such as enactment, violation of expectations, and honoring of multiplicity – strategies not part of the traditional rhetorical canon.
The recognition of multiple identities as standpoint for any rhetorical system was important for initiating a consideration of all kinds of standpoint factors, in addition to gender, that might distinguish the rhetorics of non-dominant group members. Standpoint epistemology opened the way for rhetorical scholars to take into account and begin to examine the rhetorical practices of all kinds of marginalized rhetors. The result was an increasingly broad understanding of rhetoric. No longer a monolithic ideal from classical Greece, rhetoric is now conceptualized in the plural. A multiplicity of rhetorics exists, many of which simply have not yet been acknowledged or fully explored because they do not meet the traditional expectations and conventions of a rhetorical system.
Gender As Transformative
The acceptance of gender as standpoint – as a variable that cannot help but affect rhetorical sensibilities – led to a debate about the capacity of gender to transform rhetorical theory itself. At one end of the debate are those scholars who suggest that rhetoric needs to take gender into account, but that such accounting will not substantially alter what rhetoric is. Celeste Condit, a prime advocate of this position, suggests that diverse genderings should be incorporated into rhetoric, but her version of rhetoric remains synonymous with traditional eloquence (1997). At the other end of the continuum are those scholars, including Sonja Foss, Cindy Griffin, and Karen Foss (1997), who believe that the goal of feminist perspectives generally is to disrupt the ideology of domination wherever it occurs and to facilitate the transformation of knowledge and practices that limit the possibilities of human social life. The incorporation of gender into rhetoric is seen as an intervention that can assist in a reconceptualization of rhetorical theory to help achieve these emancipatory outcomes.
An example of a theory designed to reconceptualize rhetoric is Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin’s theory of invitational rhetoric (Foss & Griffin 1995; see also Foss & Foss 2003). These scholars seek to expand rhetorical possibilities by offering a continuum of rhetorical modes ranging from conversion rhetoric to invitational rhetoric. In the process, they develop the invitational possibilities more fully than traditional rhetorical theories have done. Regardless of where scholars fall in terms of their conceptualization of the role of gender in rhetoric, gender is now a fully acknowledged dimension in rhetorical theory, with the capacity to affect if not transform the rhetorical terrain.
- Campbell, K. K. (1973). The rhetoric of women’s liberation: An oxymoron. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 59, 74–86.
- Campbell, K. K. (1981). Man cannot speak for her: A critical study of early feminist rhetoric, vol. I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Cixous, H. (1976). Le rire de la Méduse [The laugh of the Medusa] (trans K. Cohen & P. Cohen). Signs, 1, 875–93. (Original work published 1975).
- Condit, C. M. (1997). In praise of eloquent diversity: Gender and rhetoric as public persuasion. Women’s Studies in Communication, 20, 91–116.
- Foss, S. K., & Foss, K. A. (2003). Inviting transformation: Presentational speaking for a changing world, 2nd edn. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
- Foss, S. K., & Griffin, C. L. (1995). Beyond persuasion: A proposal for an invitational rhetoric. Communication Monographs, 62, 2–18.
- Foss, S. K., Griffin, C. L., & Foss, K. A. (1997). Transforming rhetoric through feminist reconstruction: A response to the gender diversity perspective. Women’s Studies in Communication, 20, 117– 135.
- Foss, K. A., Foss, S. K., & Griffin, C. L. (1999). Feminist rhetorical theories. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Gearhart, S. M. (1979). The womanization of rhetoric. Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 2, 195–201.
- Glenn, C. (1997). Rhetoric retold: Regendering the tradition from antiquity through the renaissance. Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press.
- Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking from women’s lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Hill Collins, P. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
- Kendall, K. E., & Fisher, J. Y. (1974). Frances Wright on women’s rights: Eloquence versus ethos. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 40, 58–68.
- Kennedy, P. S., & O’Shields, G. H. (1983). We shall be heard: Women speakers in America. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.
- Kramer [now Kramarae], C. (1974). Women’s speech: Separate but unequal? Quarterly Journal of Speech, 60, 14–24.
- Kristeva, J. (1979). Le temps des femmes [Women’s time] (trans. A. Jardine & H. Blake). Cahiers de recherche de sciences des texts et documents, 5, 5–19.
- Wood, J. T. (1992). Gender and moral voice: Moving from woman’s nature to standpoint epistemology. Women’s Studies in Communication, 15, 1–24.