Academic journal article College English

Personal Writing in Professional Spaces: Contesting Exceptionalism in Interwar Women's Vocational Autobiographies

Academic journal article College English

Personal Writing in Professional Spaces: Contesting Exceptionalism in Interwar Women's Vocational Autobiographies

Article excerpt

Writing to a potential author in 1935, Margaret Lesser, an editor at Doubleday, solicited any autobiographical writing that author Ann Axtell Morris might be willing to produce about her professional life and training as an archaeologist. Having seen the success of Morris's two best-selling autobiographies about her archaeological excavations, her 1931 Digging in Yucatan and 1933 Digging in the Southwest, Lesser invited Morris to send any future manuscripts, or even "scraps of one," that might be "archaeological in subject matter." Lesser's query clearly aims to both guide and prompt Morris's writing, explaining that since first reading Morris's "story of your early desire to dig and the years at the archaeological school in France which started you out on your career, I have wanted to know more about that school and your experience there. Are there many such [schools] in the world, particularly where girls are admitted, and have you ever thought of doing a story for older girls based on your experiences before you became a full fledged archaeologist?" To serve as "an inspiration," Lesser enclosed two books with her letter, both "very popular recently" and "based on the actual working experiences" of their author, then reiterated her invitation, emphasizing that "[g]irls are keen about those kind of stories which have some sort of vocational background and [. . .] some basis in actuality."

Lesser's invitation to Morris to publish further autobiographical narratives about her work underscores the public dimension of self-representation that scholars in rhetoric and composition have subjected to significant scrutiny over the past two decades: that is, the capacity of personal narratives not only to address a writer's individual desires and purposes, but to respond to a range of public exigences and to enact a range of public motives. Autobiographical accounts are solicited within specific social and rhetorical contexts and, within those contexts, make claims that often, or perhaps always, extend beyond the personal. As Dana Anderson argues, narrating our identity is one of the most common rhetorical resources in our repertoire, an everyday act of self-constitution that grounds an enormous range of persuasive efforts. The personal, as scholars in rhetoric and composition have conceptualized it, is not only political, but is staged, rhetorically crafted, and persuasively performative.1 Drawing on insights from scholars who theorize what Candace Spigelman has called "the rhetorical personal" (49), this article aims to articulate the potential of early twentieth-century autobiographical narratives such as Morris's to serve collective ends-not merely to solidify the identity claims of their writers, but to participate in a collective reimagining of the spaces of professional labor and of the gendered bodies that inhabited those spaces.

A context of economic and cultural upheaval frames the autobiographies that Morris and dozens of other women published about their professional work in the 1920s and 1930s. Women's expanding presence in the formal workforce after World War I-and in public life more broadly following the achievement of suffrage-served as a widespread exigence, creating what Lesser identifies as a keen readership for vocational stories. Indeed, the massive economic and cultural shifts that brought unprecedented numbers of women into the formal labor force in the early twentieth century generated a proliferation of vocational texts: reports, narratives, surveys, news features, anecdotes, and cautionary tales by which Americans debated and accommodated the new status quo of the working woman.2 Commercial and governmental publishers presented girls and women with a burgeoning assortment of books and pamphlets designed to advise them on a newly expanded array of career options. Catherine Filene's popular 1934 guide Careers for Women: New Ideas, New Methods, New Opportunities to Fit a New World, for instance, profiles more than 150 potential careers for women, ranging from movie critic to dentist and from prosecutor to taxidermist. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.