Feminist Rhetorical Theories

Karen A. Foss, Sonja K. Foss, Cindy L. Griffin (eds.)
Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999

Reviewed by Marilyn Wilt

Feminist Rhetorical Theories is a well-crafted “re-visioning” of rhetoric. Taking their cue from Adrienne Rich, the editors offer the reader opportunities to meet nine authors with “fresh eyes,” using a lens of feminist perspectives. The collection is intended to serve as a resource and a catalyst for further discussion and exploration. The editors structure each chapter to facilitate the reader’s understanding: (a) a brief biography of the theorist; (b) the theorist’s description of the world; (c) the theorist’s definition of feminism; (d) the theorist’s notion of a rhetor (or an agent who produces rhetoric); (e) the theorist’s rhetorical options,”i.e. means for acting in the world; and (f) potential transformations of rhetorical theory as a result of the theorist’s work.

Their introductory chapter defines the editors’ contexts and the key terms: feminism, rhetoric, and theories. The feminist perspective is important as it (a) validates values and experiences often associated with women; (b) gives voice to individuals marginalized and devalued by the dominant culture; and (c) establishes and legitimizes a value system that privileges mutuality, respect, caring, power-with, interconnection, and immanent value. (5) They see the definition of feminism as a dynamic and evolving one.

Traditional definitions of rhetoric would incorporate virtually any humanly created symbols from which audiences derive meaning [sources including architecture, painting, performances, film, advertisements, conversations, debates, speeches, books]. More recent perspectives assume rhetoric constructs, through interaction, a shared understanding of the world, which is the closest individuals can come to truth. As the editors bring feminism into rhetorical theory, they define rhetoric as any kind of human symbol use that functions in any realm “public, private, and anything in between.” The addition of feminism adjusts the goal for studying rhetoric. It has changed from an initial one of learning how to persuade others to one of understanding how people construct the worlds in which they live, and how those worlds make sense to them. (7)

Theory, to the editors, means a way of framing an experience or event “an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world.” They see individuals theorizing daily as we develop understanding of what we experience. Theorizing, then, can help clarify thinking and organize ideas and experiences into action steps, more systematic responses to events. (9)

Each of the spotlighted feminists brings unique color and patterning to the multifaceted tapestry that emerges in this book. The nine are: Cheris Kramarae; bell hooks; Gloria Anzaldua; Mary Daly; Starhawk; Paula Gunn Allen; Trinh T. Minh-ha; Sally Miller Gearhart; and Sonia Johnson. Several common themes enrich the basic definitions outlined earlier, and their unique voices/perspectives provide depth and breadth to the introductory text. Each author advances her vision of feminist values, her unique worldview growing out of those envisioned values, and options for action, relating to self and others. The book’s construction allows the reader to take the individual feminist either singularly or in concert with her colleagues spotlighted in the book. I found it fascinating to consider each individually, then return to earlier chapters to see if my understanding were enhanced, clouded, or the same after reading further.

My explorations of gender performativity have found similar themes and “visions”, reading such authors as Wheatley, Zohar, Woodman, Butler, Rosaldo, Behar, Gordon, to name a few. Other voices from my research also echo some of the book’s themes, e.g. Goffman’s work in reframing (building on Gregory Bateson). I enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit several of the authors in the book (but especially as I see them in their context), while meeting several of the theorists for the first time. It would seem that virtually all professional disciplines are moving into such studies of women and others traditionally marginalized. I look forward to continued dialogue and exploration in this “no-person’s” land.

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