Addressing Issues of Context in Historical Women's Public Address

Article excerpt

Condit's (1993) positionalist perspective allows scholars to recognize the larger contexts of rhetoric by and about women so that we may better identify the ways that rhetors and audiences negotiate the relationships between public rhetoric, public vocabulary, and cultural contexts. They also point to the many representations of woman that rhetorical acts can encourage, suggest reasons why specific representations emerged when they did, and point to the implications of contradictory representations of woman put forth in rhetorical acts.

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As feminist rhetorical scholars have demonstrated, courses and scholarship concentrating on public address are typically male centered focusing on male "great speakers" and favoring leader/speaker-centered methods that often highlight the public address of males (Biesecker, 1992; Campbell, 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1993a; Foss & Foss, 1983; Spitzack & Carter, 1987; Vonnegut, 1992). While publicly most scholars recognize the traditional male-centeredness of public address studies, the preponderance of males in current anthologies and syllabi suggests that women's inclusion in the history of public address is still met with some resistance. (1)

As a result of the male/masculine bias of public address studies, feminist rhetorical scholars face pressing pedagogical questions: How can feminist rhetorical scholars include historical women's public address within the mainstream while simultaneously recognizing the ways in which historical women's public address may differ from men's? In methodological terms two questions then emerge. First, by what standards and in what ways are feminist rhetorical scholars to judge historical women's public address? We should also ask, how will those methods stand the test of mainstream scrutiny while recognizing and validating the often distinct rhetorical obstacles encountered by women? The best means by which feminist rhetorical scholars can answer these questions is to recognize that all public address is "governed by historical contingencies, responsive to situational and institutional demands, and subject to the limits of discourse in representing and altering the realities that audiences perceive" (Dow, 1997, p. 94). (2)

Certainly, pointing out that feminist rhetorical scholars must recognize context is not an original contribution to the study of historical women's public address. To date, scholars of historical women's public address have effectively recognized immediate context issues such as audience, venue, exigency, or genre. I am suggesting the recognition of broader aspects of context, such as changes in capitalism and production systems, changes in technology, national or international events, or relations among ethnic groups. Like the traditional gender roles many adopt uncritically, these broader contexts are perhaps such an "invisible" part of our history that feminist rhetorical scholars may fail to consider them, focusing instead on more narrow cultural contexts. Ironically, because larger aspects of context are so fundamental to the everyday lives of citizens during any time period, feminist rhetorical scholars might fail to acknowledge the important impact these events have had on rhetorical history. Or perhaps when faced with requests for twenty-five page limits, scholars cannot afford to consider these aspects of the rhetorical situation. Whatever the reason for these omissions, feminist rhetorical studies must take into account how more expansive cultural contexts influenced historical women's public address. Such studies might include examinations of the public vocabulary defining woman (3) or competing discourses about woman, and how these phenomena affect how woman is represented in relation to the broader cultural developments examined.

In this essay I will argue for the inclusion of a more expansive cultural context in feminist rhetorical studies by focusing on the positionalist perspective (Condit, 1993), a perspective that acknowledges contextual influences on rhetoric, regardless of whether those influences are noted in the rhetoric itself. …