Women's Voices as Evidence: Personal Testimony Is Pro-Choice Films

By Pickering, Barbara A. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Women's Voices as Evidence: Personal Testimony Is Pro-Choice Films


Pickering, Barbara A., Argumentation and Advocacy


Analysis of public policy issues has long been the core of argumentation research. Argument critics examine how arguments are constructed and what forms of proof are valid to substantiate a claim. Traditional argument theorists typically refer to facts, examples, expert testimony and statistics as proof, and personal testimony is seen as merely a supplement to, rather than as grounds for arguments. Feminist scholars and feminist argumentation scholars, however, approach the use of personal testimony differently. Stories of personal experience have found their place in a feminine style of rhetoric developed by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (1989). In addition, other feminist scholars, such as Linda Alcoff and Laura Gray (1993), Lorraine Code (1988), Jean Elshtain (1982), Karen A. Foss and Sonja K. Foss (1994), Sonja K. Foss and Cindy Griffin (1995), bell hooks (1989), Catharine A. MacKinnon (1982), and feminist argumentation theorists Catherine Helen Palczewski (1993, 1995, 2001) and Carrie Crenshaw (1993a, 1993b, 1994) have examined personal testimony as a means of producing knowledge and understanding. Theories relating to personal testimony have emerged representing a continuum of beliefs about its value and use. At one end of the spectrum is research which suggests that all personal testimony should be accepted and valued equally, while other research rejects its use entirely. The middle ground between the two advocates careful, considered use of personal testimony and it is this position that guides the philosophical approach of this piece.

This paper seeks to demonstrate how a feminist style of argument can better explain the function of women's voices in public policy discussions on abortion. Extending on the scholarship of Celeste Condit (1990) in her ground-breaking work on the arguments about abortion, Decoding Abortion Rhetoric, I describe how public rhetoric came to reflect the private lives of women. Just as Condit, I note the importance of recognizing "the full range and complexity of individuals' lived experiences" (p. 177). I will argue that personal testimony is a valid form of evidence which serves three functions for argumentation and feminist theory. First, it expands our understanding of the interrelationship between the public and private spheres of argument. Second, it implicates a relational standard of morality, in addition to the rigid, rule-based standard of morality. Finally, personal testimony can contribute to an evolving, liberatory, feminist epistemology. Ultimately, including personal testimony will result in more contemporary, comprehensive, and inclusive argumentation theory. To explore these argumentative functions, I review existing theory on personal testimony and feminist styles of arguing. Then, I provide a brief explanation of the historical context surrounding production of two pro-life films, followed by a synopsis of two pro-choice films, Personal Decisions and Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women's Lives. The three functions of personal testimony described above will serve as a framework for analyzing the films. I conclude with recommendations for a feminist theory of argument which accepts personal testimony as a valued form of proof.

EXPERIENCE, KNOWLEDGE AND ARGUMENT

Tensions exist between traditional argumentation theory and emerging feminist theories regarding personal testimony. Traditional argument theory views logic, reasoning and rationality as objective forms which limit the use of subjective experience. "Feminine" rhetoric, however, embraces inductive reasoning, which begins with a pool of individual examples and ultimately draws generalizations from those individual cases. Through this process, it follows that women's individual experiences may be combined to establish universal claims. To understand the range of perspectives represented in the literature it is necessary to examine traditional argumentation theory, feminist scholarship, and work which demonstrates the links between argumentation and feminist theory.

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