A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Good Women Conversing Well: A Review of Jane Donawerth’s Conversational Rhetoric

Review of Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women's Tradition, 1600-1900 by Jane Donawerth 2012; Southern Illinois University Press series, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms

Amanda Hayes, Kent State University at Tuscarawas

(Published: June 8, 2016)

How different would rhetoric look today if its ancient underpinning ideal was not a good man speaking well, but a group of women having a good conversation? This question haunts Jane Donawerth's Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women's Tradition, 1600-1900, with good reason. Donawerth exposes a gap in the scholarship of women's rhetoric, and I would argue, rhetorical studies as a whole: our attention “has so far emphasized women's rhetorical practices, not their rhetorical theories” (2). It is these theories that Donawerth investigates in her search for a women's rhetorical tradition that includes not just what women have written in the centuries leading up to our era, but also why and how they have written in the ways they have. What Donawerth discovers is a tradition of women's rhetorical theory that takes conversation, rather than public oratory, as its model for communication (xi), a conceptual difference that was a decisive factor in whether or not women were socially permitted to speak at all. By focusing their theories of rhetoric in the domestic sphere of private conversation, women were able to seize upon and create a socially accepted means of influence. While fleshing out this aspect of women's rhetorical history, bringing into focus voices that academic rhetoric has largely overlooked, Donawerth skillfully analyzes female rhetoricians’ responses to the realities facing them prior to the modern era. However, she also asks us to consider how the existence of this tradition affects us today in unrecognized ways, and I would add, how we and our students might benefit from reclaiming it more fully.

Donawerth introduces the text by describing a research assignment she gave her students, asking them to find the earliest female rhetorical theorists they could from before the year 1900. She expected them to find very few, which was the point of the lesson: that women had been socially prevented from becoming not necessarily practitioners of rhetoric, but specifically theorists. However, her students were able to compile a wide list of female rhetorical theorists by defining rhetoric in broad terms as the “art of communicating” (xii). By investigating women's work in theorizing communication advice, often with the goal of reaching exclusively female audiences, Donawerth was able to consider new sources in order to bring awareness to a history of women not just as rhetorical writers but as rhetorical scholars. It is in these sources—humanist dialogues, conduct books, defenses of women's preaching, and elocution manuals—that Donawerth discovers a wealth of rhetorical theory composed by women, for women.

Donawerth's scope with this project is complicated; the story of Anglo-American women's rhetoric from the Renaissance until the nineteenth century is, she explains, “a story of moments, not movements, of starts and stops and starting over, not progressive development” (1-2). Because women had little access to other women’s voices as rhetorical theorists, they continually reinvented theories out of common experiences, experiences which were, for a long time, quite similar: relegation to the domestic sphere and self-definition based upon performances as wives and mothers. These similar conditions, Donawerth posits, lend themselves to similar rhetorical theories. However, she is careful to note that the tradition she traces is not singular or exclusive. To emphasize the individual and diverse nature of the voices composing this “fragmented narrative” (10) of women rhetoricians, Donawerth's methodology seeks out not only what is similar in their ideologies but also what is different, while examining the influential sociopolitical conditions of each woman's lived experience.

The next four chapters examine in detail the genres wherein women were particularly likely to be publishing rhetorical theory from the seventeenth- through the nineteenth-century. Chapter one, “Humanist Dialogues and Defenses of Women's Education: Conversation as a Model for All Discourse” considers one of the genres that proved more open to female theorists. The increased appearance of women's rhetorical theory, particularly within humanist writings, in the seventeenth-century had a great deal to do with the spread of humanist ideology, which Donawerth describes as an alternative educational program that trained aristocrats to “[leave] off jousting and [take] up academies, collections, and salons as means of display” (18-19). Women like Madeleine de Scudery were able to claim a voice through this “enabling humanism” (20), which allowed for a re-conceptualization of conversation as the model for active rhetoric. Within humanist philosophy, it was the female-gendered realm of conversation, rather than the masculine public address, that could be the means of creating social change and individual identity via the salon. According to de Scudery, a woman could use this conversational rhetoric to “achieve agency, creating herself” (23) in ways not available without humanism's influence. Although two of the authors Donawerth examines, Mary Astell and Madeleine de Scudery, have recently been reclaimed into the canon of rhetorical theory, Donawerth also includes Bathsua Makin and Margaret Cavendish who, like many of Donawerth's ensuing sources, remain largely, and unfortunately, obscure.

Not all of the genres Donawerth examines, however, seem likely sites of rhetorical theory, making her analysis all the more enlightening. Chapter two, “Conduct Book Rhetoric: Constructing a Theory of Feminine Discourse,” considers the trans-Atlantic phenomenon of the conduct book, a popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century method of teaching women middle and upper-class values and behavior. Though largely overlooked as a site of women's rhetorical theory and practice, Donawerth positions the conduct book as a genre that “developed a gendered theory of feminine rhetoric, constructed a women's tradition by citing other women's handbooks, offered advice on domestic uses of rhetoric and composition, elaborated a theory of conversation as a foundation for all discourse, and imagined discourses as collaborative and consensual” (42). What the rhetorical ideologies of conduct books were able to do was to essentialize conversational communication as both rhetorically powerful and inherently feminine (49). This approach can in retrospect be seen as problematic, as it emphasized separate communicative spheres for women and men; as Donawerth notes, conduct books did not begin to challenge the gender roles they described until after 1850 (41). The women writing conduct books nonetheless delineated a sphere for women that was presented as both individually and socially powerful. Authors like Hannah More presented women's rhetorical abilities via conversation as both private and public in their repercussions. Donawerth quotes More's assertion that “A lady studies not that she may qualify herself to become an orator or a pleader; not that she may learn to debate, but to act” (50). In other words, through the moralizing power of her conversation, a woman might “act” by influencing the men who make social decisions. The women Donawerth examines, including More, Lydia Sigourney, Eliza Farrar, Florence Hartley, and Jennie Willing, differ somewhat in their acquiescence to the gendered status quo of their respective eras and nations, yet all share in the fundamental concept Donawerth is unearthing: not only is a rhetoric based on conversation as, or perhaps more, powerful than the rhetoric of public oratory, it is a realm in which women, either through nature or socialization, are uniquely positioned to play a prominent role.

That role carried on into a particularly public act of rhetoric, as Donawerth explores in chapter three, “Defenses of Women's Preaching: Rhetoric and the Language of Women's Rights.” From the seventeenth through the twentieth century, women argued for the right to preach and, by preaching, to speak publicly. Again, Donawerth examines both well-known and more obscure writers (Margaret Fell, Jarena Lee, Lucretia Mott, Ellen Stewart, Catherine Booth, and Frances Willard) from both Great Britain and the United States, in order to demonstrate their rhetorical ideologies and, significantly, a major similarity: all approach preaching, and women's right to preach, from a similar rhetorical assumption. While in essence arguing for the rights of women to speak publicly, all continue to approach conversation as the model for such speech. In other words, they advocate re-theorizing the concept of the sermon (a masculine form of public address) to better fit “confession and testimony, redefining discourse as modeled on conversation rather than public speaking” (77). While arguing for social change and recognition, these women theorize and promote a tradition of conversational rhetoric that is feminine yet public and powerful, and above all, rhetorically valid.

Donawerth's fourth chapter, “Elocution: Sentimental Culture and Performing Femininity” is the one from which I perhaps learned the most, and not only because I was unfamiliar with the writers she addresses. Anna Morgan, Genevieve Stebbins, Emily Bishop, and Hallie Quinn Brown all took part in the nineteenth century elocution movement, a form of education that was at root “preparation for a young lady's role in conversation” (105). As a speaker of a non-standard dialect, my only experience with “elocution” is as a prescriptive, oppressive enforcement of standardized English. What Donawerth uncovers, however, is a tradition of women approaching elocution not as prescriptive but as freeing and empowering. Specifically, these women conceived of elocution as “an avenue into public speaking and a means of powerful physical training that countered the passivity of the nineteenth-century ideal of delicate femininity . . . women reimagined women's bodies not as weak and soft, but as strong and powerful”(105). Donawerth links these rhetorics to her overall theme by virtue of the fact that women writing elocution guides were theorizing, not merely practicing, rhetoric, as well as the fact that elocution itself grew out of “domesticating women for parlor conversation” (109), thus retaining conversation as a model for successful rhetorical practice. Unfortunately, these texts, and the women writing them, have been traditionally dismissed by historians as “an unfortunate detour from effective rhetorical practice” (107), a detour Donawerth links to the conventional correlation of elocution with both women's conversation and sentimentality. This dismissal is to our cost, as it overlooks the voices of women rhetoricians who saw themselves, like Hallie Quinn Brown, as neither “a cipher nor a figurehead” (qtd. in Donawerth 123), but as speakers with relevant ideas to add to the conversation about the roles emotions and bodies play in rhetoric. Notably, it would be some time before similar ideas came onto the radar of modern rhet-comp theory.

It is modern rhetoric and composition theory that influences Donawerth's conclusion. What I like the most about Donawerth's engaging and insightful book is the connections she draws in the conclusion between this typically feminine rhetorical tradition and the current state of rhetoric and composition in academic writing departments. She notes that as women gained acceptance into the previously male-dominated realms of academia and began publishing rhetoric and composition textbooks for mixed gender audiences, the feminized rhetorical tradition based on conversation became subsumed beneath the more standardized (and masculinized) academic tradition of rhetoric modeled on public address (126-127). However, Donawerth posits that the women's tradition was able to maintain influence in one area: pedagogy. Conceptions of pedagogy reflect this by emphasizing talking, community-building, collaboration, and decentralized authority; Donawerth ably demonstrates that all of these aspects have been appearing in women's rhetorical theory for hundreds of years, despite only recently receiving any scholarly recognition.

Donawerth includes in her conclusion an analysis of Mary Augusta Jordan's 1904 textbook Correct Writing and Speakingas a story of what-might-have-been; while most women writing textbooks after the turn of the twentieth-century had become immersed within the standard academic rhetorical tradition, Donawerth holds up Jordan's text as a lone example of what the conversational rhetoric tradition might have looked like if transferred to academia. The result is a textbook that, despite its title, argues that “correctness is not possible for such a mutable force as language change” (133), choosing instead to embrace pluralism over exclusivity, to invite the personal into the classroom to challenge conceptions of “private” and “public” writing, and to perceive conversation as the backbone of successful communication, teaching students to be skillful participants in what we today would call multiple discourse communities. As Donawerth notes:

Jordan enlarges the feminine principle of self-effacement into a general principle of social harmony: “Be careful not to sacrifice to your own feeling of interest in what you are saying or thinking, or to the expression you are making of yourself, the convenience and pleasure of others in working out similar expressions of themselves” (234-35). How improbable such a sentence would be in a nineteenth century rhetoric directed at men! (135)

Currently, issues of social harmony and community-building are entering the academic consciousness in a big way. What doesn't seem to be coming along with them is a recognition of how female academics like Jordan have approached these topics before, through the lens of conversational rhetoric. However, because most academic rhetoric textbooks became directed at audiences including men, Jordan, and the conversational tradition as a whole, largely disappeared.

What is worth considering, and what makes Donawerth's book so timely, is the interpersonal nature of the modern electronic communication facing most of our students today. As so much influential communication is happening through emails, texts, postings, and blogs, the conversational rhetorical theories Donawerth unearths in this centuries-long women's tradition may well suit our communicative needs better than a tradition founded on the centrality of the individualized public address. Given the increasing prevalence of collaborative and digital composition in our classrooms, I think we're moving in this direction already. What too few of us probably know about is the historical body of work Donawerth is asking us to recognize, a collection of theory created by women that can guide us in illuminating ways.