Academic journal article Gender Forum

"My Sister Went to Steubenville, OH and All I Got Was This Lousy Shirt": Composing Feminist Activism with the Clothesline Project

Academic journal article Gender Forum

"My Sister Went to Steubenville, OH and All I Got Was This Lousy Shirt": Composing Feminist Activism with the Clothesline Project

Article excerpt

1This article explores relationships between literate artifacts (documents and materials) and psychosocial compositions (cultural narratives that influence one's actions) as they relate to feminist activism. According to Holland & Skinner, activism has focused on the promotion of literacy at the expense of understanding how literacy carries out activism (849). In other words, movements advocate literacy acquisition as a means of social, intellectual, and economic betterment. But the reading and composing practices that take place within movements contribute to activism's "potential to effect social, cultural, and political change" (850). Moreover, with increased interest in rhetorics of silence, researchers have explored and called for further attention to subaltern forms of composing (Houston & Kramarae 1991) as "poetic world making, resisting the exclusionary norms of critical-rational discourse and creating a space for performative, affective, and situated meaning making" (Higgins, Long, & Flower 29). My work, then, explores subaltern compositions produced during The Clothesline Project (CP), a feminist activist event. Moreover, my work examines those compositions as situated within larger cultural narratives-how writings and graphics produce, and how they are products of, social narratives. Findings of this study suggest that, even when provided the opportunity for uncensored and anonymous expression about experiences with assault, female participants in the CP shy away from deeply personal, emotional accounts. Instead, they produce short, general statements that appeal to a loosely defined audience. This approach suggests that participants understand their literate practices as operating within social narratives that dichotomize personal and public identities.

2Though various scholars have long researched and advocated the use of literacy for democracy, civic engagement, activism, and social change, these ideas warrant further investigation (Cushman; George; Higgins, Long, & Flower; Addison; and Lieblich). For example, Higgins, Long, and Flower used their term "community literacy" to conceptualize literacy as more than an ability to decode words, but as "the public act of writing and taking social action" (9); to support this notion, they examined "venues for deliberation and inquiry and how the literate practices that structured this activity reproduced certain values, norms, identities, and relationships"; for example, they examined community meetings and their resulting minutes, reports, and proposals (14-15). Other researchers have also looked at texts as embedded within ideological, hierarchical social constructs and possibilities for use of such texts to maintain the status quo or change reality (Bazerman; Bremner). Specifically, examining creation of "new realities" via texts (309), Bazerman argued that texts create "social facts [consisting of action through language or speech acts][...]carried out in genres[...]which arise in social processes of people trying to understand each other well enough to coordinate activities and share meanings for their practical purposes" (311 & 317). Additionally, after analysis of the creation, description, and reception of texts, Bremner concluded that "goal-oriented" texts remain intertwined with institutional exigency, thereby influencing what and how writers write (20). Finally, Holland and Skinner, as referenced above, argued that "social movements often organise activities around the use of written forms, but these literacy events and practices have received little attention for the roles they play in effecting social, cultural and political change" (849).

3I identify two forms of literate practices that organize activities: literate artifacts and psychosocial compositions. Literate artifacts refer to documents or materials, such as those produced during social action events (protest signs, listserv sign-up sheets, exhibits); psychosocial compositions refer to social influences on one's ideology and actions, for example, how literate practices and cultural discourse affect individuals' participation in and reception of civic engagement. …

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