Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Rhetoric of Women's Leadership: Language, Memory and Imagination

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Rhetoric of Women's Leadership: Language, Memory and Imagination

Article excerpt

This study examines women's leadership through a rhetorical lens. Thirty women leaders in church, business, and higher education were interviewed with an eye toward discovering ways in which their use of language shapes and is shaped by their sense of themselves as leaders, the legacy of leadership they bring to their roles, and the importance of their words for the people with whom they work. The women included Euro-American, African-American and African leaders ranging in age from thirty-five to seventy years old.


My mother died when I was sixteen. Virginia Woolf says that a woman thinks back, if she thinks back at all, through her mother. I would say that up until the day that she died, I thought forward through my mother. I imagined my life as hers: I would wear a camel's hair coat that smelled cold and fresh when I came in from outside; I would have a scratchy voice and wear red lipstick; I would play tennis on Tuesdays and Bridge on Thursdays; and on other days I would be talking on the phone to my friends when my kids came home from school.... I was at camp in Colorado when she died and flew back to Indianapolis alone on an early morning flight. It was a clear day, and the vastness of that dawn sky terrified me more than anything I'd ever known. I couldn't imagine a future without my mother; I couldn't imagine myself without her.

The experiences of the next few years of my life are murky in my memory. They were murky years for our country as well: Vietnam, Watergate, nuclear threat, and wild inflation. As I entered Vanderbilt University in 1971, all my ideas about what my life might look like were dissolving, and I had little hope, few clues, and certainly no models for reconceiving it. The spring of my junior year I applied for a summer job at a girls' camp in the mountains of northern Alabama. I interviewed with the director, Sue Henry, a tall, graceful woman with grey hair and a deep, formal voice. We spoke for about an hour as college activity whirled around us, and I experienced a level of attention from her I had never known before. She asked about my course work and had read most of the books I was reading. I had never talked to an adult about books outside of a classroom before, and it made me feel brilliant. I loved Sue's deep, formal voice and rich language: words I'd read in books, but never heard aloud, used so naturally and powerfully that I wondered how I'd lived without them. I felt stretched, but unusually certain, as we talked, as if I'd been saying things like sybaritic or fractious all of my life.

I worked at her camp that summer--a consumately well-led community. I loved going to bed at night in my little army cot, surrounded by sleeping girls and the night sounds of the southern woods. I would think back over the activities, conversations, and discoveries of the day, reveling in the privilege of affecting the lives around me. I wanted time to stand still; I wanted this to be the me that I lived with the rest of my life--a person of purpose, joy, and energy for the work of each day.

That fall on my way back to college, I returned to camp to talk to Sue again. As we sat in the green Adirondack chairs outside the gym that long August evening, we talked about my coming senior year, my friends, my courses, my future. She asked about my plans after graduation. I was an English major with no real was an English major with no real focus until she asked the question, but my direction began to form as I answered her. I spoke in a whisper, not wanting to sound audacious, "I think I'd like to be an English teacher."

Sue, who had worked for many years as a school administrator as well as English teacher, drew her breath slowly, sat forward in her chair, and spoke very deliberately. King Arthur, laying his sword upon Lancelot's shoulder, could not have done so with more care. "The life of a high school English teacher is one of rare privilege and real joy, if it is your calling. …

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