Notes on Feminisms & Rhetorics 2003

I got back from Feminisms & Rhetorics yesterday morning, and I want to transcribe my notes while they're fresh. Pardon the length of this post!

On Thursday, the first session I attended was "Performing or Reforming Gender in Classroom Spaces," and I heard the following papers:

  • Donna LeCourt, University of Massachusetts "Performing or Reforming Gender: Agency and Structure in a Feminist Cultural Studies Course"
  • Sara Jane Sloane, Colorado State University "From Cyborg to Oncogen to How Like a Leaf: Teaching Donna Haraway’s Theories of Knowledge and Being to Graduate Students in Digital Rhetorics and Composition"
  • Sarah Rilling, Kent State University "Challenging Notions of Gender and Power in Second Language Teacher Education"

Unfortunately, I lost the notes I took during that panel, and I wasn't fully present anyway as my panel was next and I was nervous, but here are a couple of highlights: First, I found LeCourt's choice of theory to be excellent (specifically, she talked about Butler). Hearing her talk, I got the impression that she really knows her stuff in Women's Studies as well as in Rhetoric. Sloane, obviously, discussed Haraway's uses of optical metaphors, AND her students in the class she was discussing in her talk kept blogs.

My session went okay; the people who presented with me did a fantastic job:

  • Michele Polak, Miami University "We Hear you, Ophelia: Mary Pipher and her Rhetorical Mark in the Girl Culture Movement"

  • Lanette Cadle, Bowling Green State University "Commonplaces and the Camp Fire Girls: A Feminist and Rhetorical Analysis of What It Is (and Was) to Be Useful"
  • Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Rutgers University "Bubbles, Girl Power, and Commodity Culture: Contested Literate Activities at One Community Organizations"

Michele and Mary went before I did, so my attention was again divided. When it came my turn, we could not get the laptop and the projector to talk to each other, so the projector was showing "no signal," and I had to do my talk without all the images I had to show. I should have brought overheads, but oh well, whatareyagonnado. Lanette's presentation was after mine, and I got to appreciate fully how great it was. She was talking about the Campfire Girls and all the things they did in their groups, including reading books about women who made a difference in their history, government, or culture. They read, for example, Helen Keller's biography and Louisa May Alcott's biography. They also learned useful skills that they could use to support themselves (as well as survival skills). Unfortunately, we don't have groups like that anymore. These girls, in the 1920 and 1930s, learned so much from their experience in Campfire Girls, and one of the overarching themes of Campfire Girls is to teach other girls what you learned. Wow.

Next, I attended a panel titled "Contesting Intimacy: Hegemony and Legitimization in Discourses of Female Sexuality."

  • Lili Hsieh, Duke University "A Queer Sex, or How to Have Sex Without Phallus"

    I was a little late to this panel, but when I got there, Hsieh was saying many would argue that there is no way out of power. Gender hinges on performativity. She thought, however (if I understood correctly), that Butler did an erroneous read of Lacanian phallus and the law. She talked about the analogizing of Lacan's mirror stage and the phallus. In narcissism, the ego is formed by the "organ," meaning "eye." In Lacanian thought (or perhaps Butler's interpretation of Lacan, I'm not sure), men have, but women are, the phallus
  • , as the phallus is the signifier of wholeness and power. It's time to return to Beauvoir, Hsieh said. She went on to say that feminists don't need a theory of femininity or the phallus. We don't need a metaphysical difference between the sexes. We should engage in other feminist projects--she cites Mary Wollstonecraft's work as work that didn't need the idea of a phallus.

    Note: I asked her about this during the q & a time. Don't we as feminists need a theory of the subject, of subject formation, of the way this system gets reproduced in early childhood development? She agreed and said that she's thinking about it as she continues to work on her paper.

  • Yi-Ting Wang, Duke University "The Sentimental Argument and the Pro-Prostitution Movement in Taiwan"

    Wang reviewed some of the pro-legalized prostitution arguments in Taiwan and anti-prostitution arguments. The anti-prostitution feminists are saying pretty much what you'd think they'd say--that prostitution reinforces women as a subjugated group, that it's questionable how much agency women actually have who "choose" prostitution as a career, but they are also questioning the filial obligation of daughters to bear the burden of the family's expenses, while the sons don't seem to have as much of a responsibility. The pro-prostitution arguments are that the anti-prostitution feminists are bourgeois academic feminists who are unsympathetic to prostitutes' struggles (the implication being that pro-prostitution feminists are sympathetic because they want prostitutes to have benefits that other workers have). Another pro-prostitution claim is that we'll always have prostitution, so we might as well regulate it. The pro-prostitution view is that the struggle for sex work rights is a class struggle: the struggle for the right to work. They say prostitution is no different from working in a factory; it's all the same under capitalism.

    After reviewing these arguments, Wang went on to critique the sentimental way in which prostitutes are represented in Taiwan--the "temporary tenderness" these women provide for (male) laborers exploited by capitalism. Oh, so women should not only be exploited by capitalism themselves, but should also comfort men who are exploited by capitalism. My reaction, but I think Wang was trying to make this point. Wang also critiqued the anti-prostitution feminists, saying that indeed, their gaze at prostitutes can be elitist and prescriptive ("best plan for Taiwan," etc.). The anti-prostitution feminists argue that the prostitutes have been commodified, and Wang raised the question, "What if they don't feel like commodities?" Is it possible that prostitutes are not commodified unless academic feminists commodify them? Who's commodifying whom?

    Wang again brought up the filial obligation to help the family out financially, and argues that in Taiwan, there's a "no choice but to sacrifice" for the family attitude when it comes to going into prostitution. Often, Taiwanese prostitutes are very close to their mothers, fathers, and other family members. In Taiwanese culture, there is a difference, Wang said, in the way women who go into prostitution to support their families are perceived versus the way women who enter prostitution to rebel against their families are perceived. If a woman is doing it for the family, she is a sentimentalized heroine, virtuous for her family. Wang ends by asking, is it possible to raise respect for prostitutes without sentimentalizing them?
  • Chih-Chieh (Carol) Lin, Duke University "Applying Feminist Theories to Rape Law in the US Criminal Justice System"

    Lin argued that rape should be understood as a violation on two levels: first, it is an infringement on individual sexual autonomy, and second, an violation of women as a group. She went further into her definition of autonomy, acknowledging that poststructuralist feminists have a complex view of it. She disagreed with Catharine MacKinnon that all heterosexual sex is rape, saying that denies women's sexual autonomy. She also discussed the definition of consent, pointing out that not just consent is necessary, but informed consent, if sex is to be considered consensual. For example, if a man with HIV has sex with a woman and does not tell her he is HIV+, that violates her sexual autonomy. In the hospital, informing patients of the risks of any medical procedure and requiring informed consent is a way to protect a patient's autonomy. Going back to the idea of rape as a violation of women as a group, Lin argued that, even though now there are gender-neutral rape laws (a man can rape a man, a woman can rape a woman, etc.), and that's one of the most progressive breakthroughs in rape law, rape is still a crime overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women, and it's necessary, in this context, to talk about women as a collective, while acknowledging racial and cultural differences.

I learned a great deal from that panel, but next I went to what I consider the best thing at the whole conference: a performance piece by Sandee McGlaun titled "What a Doll: Barbie Bears All" It's as engaging and thought-provoking for me as "The Vagina Monologues." The link to "What a Doll" goes to the abstract for the 1999 Feminisms & Rhetorics conference performance, but you can see the theoretical underpinnings of McGlaun's piece. In nine short scenes, McGlaun inhabits the roles of herself as a child, herself as an adult, feminist storyteller, other children playing with Barbie, and Barbie herself. She's pretending to be a child who's pretending to be an adult. In one scene, "15 Favorite Facts about Barbie," McGlaun says that the inspiration for Barbie was Lily, a doll made in Germany which was intended to be a pornographic gag gift for men to give other men. Also, Barbie's name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, after the creator's daughter. Her human measurements would be 38-18-34. In another scene, McGlaun plays the roles of two girls who are playing together with Barbie and Ken, and they arrange it so that Barbie and Ken go to "the beach" (the sandbox) and have sex. In order to make it work correctly, they attach a little pipe cleaner to Ken's pelvis and make a hole in Barbie's with an icepick. Then, in the next part of the same scene, the feminist storyteller tells how her brother's G.I. Joe used to kidnap her Barbie, take off her clothes, and kiss her all over. In another scene, the feminist storyteller character talks about Cindy Jackson, the woman who got all the plastic surgery to look like Barbie--more than 20 procedures, in fact. In another scene, "My Barbie Family Tree," she showed all her Barbies--Hawaiian Barbie, Hispanic Barbie, Scottish Barbie, etc., saying they were all sisters. Afterward, there was a lively discussion, in which McGlaun encouraged us to voice our interpretations, questions, comments, and Barbie stories. I said I thought the family tree scene was a great comment on universal, hegemonic, global "sisterhood" and false universalizing. McGlaun said that's what she was thinking when she wrote the scene. I also mentioned, of course that Barbie has a blog now, and that Mattel has co-opted this technology for heterosexist, gender-normative, hyperconsumerist purposes. I divulged a little fact about my own Barbie days: My mom wouldn't let me have a Ken doll, so my Barbies had sex with each other. McGlaun said that if anyone would like to invite her to come perform the piece, she would do it. Talk to your university speaker-bringing committees right away!

After that, I went to the plenary address for that night: "All the Available Means of Persuasion for Feminists" by Andrea Lunsford. I was daydreaming during some of it, I'm embarrassed to say, but some notes I took include Lunsford's advice that feminists must differentiate between the means of persuasion. Infighting is destructive. She said we need to argue without the scapegoating, the ad hominem, and the backbiting we see in academia. This pecking order, this status hierarchy, is like corporate capitalism, and we shouldn't practice that kind of wolfish, agonistic argument. Lunsford talked about teaching as a means of persuasion, and said that she'd seen a lot of good teachers, but none so good as Jacqueline Jones Royster, who said that in every class, every student has something to teach everyone there, and every student has something to learn from every other student there. Lunsford talked about persuasion, and teaching, as a dance.

Friday's plenary address was from Marcia Farr, The Ohio State University: "Speech Play and Verbal Art: New Perspectives on Feminist Rhetorics." Farr spoke about her ethnographic study of a Mexican community in Chicago. She prefaced her talk by citing Feminist Rhetorical Theories by Foss, Foss, and Griffin as saying that a feminist view of rhetoric entails:

  • Seeing rhetoric in new ways
  • Thinking of rhetoric in private as well as public discourse
  • Giving voice to marginalized individuals devalued by dominant culture

A feminist rhetoric is also the use of human-created symbols to create shared meaning, it is not limited to persuasion in formal, pre-planned discourse, and language is the primary symbol system in which it is conveyed. Language use constructs social reality, and often through implicit rather than explicit persuasion. Farr then talked about her study of relajo in this Mexican community in Chicago (who also had land in Mexico and spent time there). Relajo is verbal play, joking around, and it often pokes fun at gender hierarchies. It was a very interesting study, and she said too much for me to keep up with, much less re-type here, so I'll just plug this Marcia Farr-edited collection instead: Ethnolinguistic Chicago: Language and Literacy in the City's Neighborhoods.

After that plenary address over lunch, I went to another panel: Feminist Rhetoric and the Media. The papers were these:

  • Arabella Lyon, University of Buffalo "Missing Women and How the American Press Represents Their Rights"

    Lyon said that the most urgent human rights crisis right now is missing women. There are 100 million missing women in Asia (she named India, Pakistan, Taiwan, and others). Lyon asked, how does this crisis become focused on one country (China)? She cited the American fears of China's centralized government. The coverage of the "one-child policy" by the American media has separated the Chinese from Americans, othered them. The U.S. doesn't disclose global issues, Lyon said. She seemed to imply that the U.S. media is scapegoating China. Lyon set the record straight on U.S. coverage of the one-child policy. First, while the popular media has exposed the one-child policy, there's, in fact, no one-child policy that's consistent over time. It's true that the birth rate went down from 6.2 children per family in 1975 to 1.8 in 1995, but ethnic minorities were allowed to have more than one child. Therefore, the one-child policy is a misnomer. It's more like a population-replacement policy. Moreover, the motivation for the policy, the decision to end poverty, provides a different kind of freedom. Now, China's families are the same size as U.S. and European families. But in the U.S. press, Chinese women are represented as abject, not having agency. For example, in 2001, Marie Claire showed a picture of a dead baby girl on the ground (offered as an object by U.S. media, Lyon said). The other people in the picture were passing by and ignoring it. Lyon criticized this representation as "Cold War rhetoric," saying that the Chinese people in the picture were not allowed personhood. She argued that we need more complex representations. She also argued that for human rights policies to work, we need to ask, which principles of culture are most conducive to modern human rights? Policy makers need to work within the cultural traditions, not make human rights a state apparatus. Lyon then turned to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan as an example of a more complex representation, qualifying it by saying that a comparison between mass media and a novel is not perfect, but she's doing it anyway. In Tan's novel, we understand these women not as victims, but as women whose agency has been affected (but not destroyed). In China, family is the cultural base, not the individual. Human rights policies need to accommodate that.
  • Judith Yaross Lee, Ohio University "Women’s Networks and the Politics of Reputation: The Case of The New Yorker"

    Lee discussed women's contributions to The New Yorker in its early years, and their importance. The well-known Algonquin roundtable was called a group of "gentlemen and one lady" (Dorothy Parker). The problem Lee analyzed was the rhetorical erasure of women's networks. In the fall of 1925, women wrote 60% of signed poetry and also lots of comic prose and art. Lee also pointed out the Lucy Stone League, which sought to protect married women's right to keep their birth names. Around that time, women had the right to vote, but they couldn't check out books from the Brooklyn Public Library in their own names. (!!!) These women's networks played an integral role in a lot of cultural production, and Lee has made it her primary research mission to recover these contributions.
  • Brenda Helmbrecht, Miami University, and Meredith Love, Francis Marion University "From Bitch to Bust: The Popular Texts of Third Wave Feminism"

    This paper was definitely close to my heart, as I subscribe to both Bitch and BUST. Helmbrecht and Love talked about representations of women's bodies in the two magazines. Bitch's representations were more smart and real, they argued, while BUST's were more typical model-y. Bitch is more of a liminal genre between a popular magazine and an academic journal, and BUST is much more mass-media. They criticized BUST's coverage of global news stories affecting women as too flippant (the section, by Janice Erlbaum, is called "News from A Broad."). At the end, they said that their paper is a work in progress, and they'd appreciate feedback. At the end of the session, I offered a little feedback: First, I think one of the major sources of conflict between readers of the two magazines is sexuality and the way it's presented in the two publications. BUST often features ads for created-by-women pornography, like Suicide Girls, they have a lot of retro pinup girl art on their site and in the magazine, and they always have a page of erotica in the magazine called "One-Handed Read." Bitch, on the other hand (no pun intended), has a very different view of sexuality--very much against objectification, even if it's by women, for women. Also, I took up for Erlbaum, saying that on the Ms. boards, she has said she doesn't really enjoy writing about global issues affecting women in a punny style.
  • Courtney Bailey, Indiana University, Bloomington "The Gendered and Racialized State: TIME’S Visual Rhetoric of U.S. Female Politicians"

    Bailey pointed out that visual representations of political figures affect public judgment of them. In the case of female politicians, audiences are encouraged to embrace women who are both feminine and masculine in their appearance and actions. She used two images as her illustrative cases: one of Janet Reno and one of Madeleine Albright. The images of Reno were from Time magazine, and the cover photo showed her in a pink suit. She looked androgynous, except for the feminine markers of lipstick and pink clothing. The publication highlighted Reno's resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, implying that there was also an ideological resemblance. Another photo showed Reno with longer, shoulder-length hair, a long skirt, a cardigan sweater, and two necklaces, interacting with children. This feminine portrayal, Bailey said, mitigates the threat of women like Reno, who have rejected domestic life. Another photo showed Reno at a conference table with white male aides surrounding her. Reno, Bailey said, was held up as the model of authentic selfhood. Albright, by contrast, was shown as the embodiment of masculinism, militarism, and the use of state power. One photo showed Albright talking on her cell phone in a brown bomber jacket, eyes glaring. She was talking to the Ukranian foreign minister. Most photos of Albright showed her in the center of the frame, the dominant figure in charge, often in military contexts with white men. She was chastised for transgressing gender norms. Albright was also the most ethnicized of the female politicians--news publications sometimes highlighted her Eastern European, Jewish heritage. One person questioned Bailey about representations of Condoleezza Rice in the popular media. Bailey said she's also very interested in that and will probably do some work on it.


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Great summary

Thanks -- lots of good stuff here. I'm particularly intrigued (as you might expect) by your summary of Yi-Ting Wang's presentation, as I've been doing a lot of reading about exploitation and capitalism -- did she mention Marjolein van der Veen's "Beyond Slavery and Capitalism: Producing Class Difference in the Sex Industry"?

And I'll add that yeah, I think Donna LeCourt is pretty dang brilliant, too, and not only in Women's Studies and in Rhetoric, but in Computers & Composition, too: her 1998 C&C (Issue 15) essay "Critical Pedagogy in the Computer Classroom: Politicizing the Writing Space" is probably about the most insightful application of technology to ideological critique I've seen.


Re: Great summary

Thanks! I do worry sometimes about the intellectual property implications of blogging other people's presentations. I didn't ask for permission to blog these...well, I did ask Donna, who said it was fine...but I guess I'll leave these up unless I get email from the authors asking me to remove them.

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