From One Voice A Chorus: Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1860 Address to the New York State Legislature

Article excerpt

This paper argues for a broadening of the critical debate over text and context as a means of constructing a feminist approach to public address criticism. Combining a close reading of Stanton's address with socio-historical analysis, it argues that Stanton's strategy for illuminating the hidden stories of women's lives offers a model for this feminist critical approach. The essay traces the tremendous contribution of the often unseen work that supports and furthers social change, and in doing so advocates an approach to the study of men's and women's public address that recognizes the significance of collaboration and collective achievements.

"If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion."

--Abigail Adams

Since the reclamation of Aristotelian criticism earlier this century, rhetorical critics have engaged in a long-standing debate over the appropriate parameters within which to conduct their work (Left, 1992, 223). As in the field of literary criticism, rhetorical criticism has concerned itself with the consideration of both texts and contexts, with varying degrees of emphasis on each. The debate has been articulated in a variety of forms, most recently framed as "textual criticism" versus "critical rhetoric" (Left, 1992). As Michael Left explains, "Textual criticism (or `close reading') centers on the effort to interpret the intentional dynamics of a text. Ideological criticism (or `critical rhetoric') studies the extensional, social and political force of discursive practice" (1992, p. 223). Left identifies a "revival of this dominant tension" in recent years (1992, p. 224), after a period of relative dormancy. The recurrence and perseverance of the discussion over time suggests its significance; as Celeste Condit (1990, p. 330) observes, this issue may well represent "the most difficult problematic of rhetorical studies--to target the situated character of discourse while not losing sight of the details of the discourse itself."

Scholars have articulated varying views about the appropriate weight to be given to close reading versus the time to be spent on historical and contextual analysis (see Condit, 1990; Left, 1992; Left & Sachs, 1990; McGee, 1990). The discussion has engaged questions about the importance of studying single texts versus multiple texts, and has aroused dissent over how best to balance the textual/contextual counterweights within either of these choices. While many critics agree that in principle a balance is most desirable, some admit that despite these stated commitments, critics often abandon one goal in their enthusiasm for pursuing the other. Condit, for example, offers a critique of several of the writings of Michael Left and Michael McGee, two of the central figures in this debate. Warning that "[c]ritics who admire plenitude and seek discourse worthy of praise impoverish rhetoric if they lose sight of the whole of the rhetorical situation--text and context" (p. 339), she identifies a "retreat from this important alloy in pursuit of a 'purification' which is theoretically informative, but which dilutes the potency of their critical programs" (p. 330).

Although none of the participants in these exchanges have approached them from an explicitly feminist standpoint, the debate bears directly on questions of feminist interest. Specifically, because women have historically been denied access to public forums (Campbell, 1989a), understanding the history of women's public address requires examining the context of social expectations and roles within which they have spoken. Close reading alone cannot account fully for either the ways women have been prevented from speaking, or the ways social expectations shaped their words when they did speak, nor can this critical approach attend to the surrounding discursive and non-discursive activities that set the stage for a speech's reception. Conversely, attention to context without careful study of how women structured their speeches may reinforce existing male paradigms for public speaking, preventing scholars from discovering the particular rhetorical strategies and structures that women employed in response to their more constrained circumstances. …