History: Rhetorical Activism

We'll see each other through: Celebrating the Coalition at 30 Years

In preparation for celebrating our 30th anniversary at the Wednesday night SIG at CCCC this past spring 2019 in Pittsburgh, PA, I asked our thirteen past presidents to reflect on their tenures with the Coalition—their proudest achievements, hurdles they faced, their own relationship to the organization, and how it helped them as a scholar, or as a feminist. The history that emerged from these reflections is one of joyous collaboration, of deep friendships, of a commitment to helping each other, and of very, very hard work.

As Kate Adams (our seventh president) wrote: "Being a part of this fine group has been crucial to me. I have enjoyed the conversation, the fellowship. I have co-authored with members, sent in texts to be evaluated at presses where they were working, gotten ideas for new publications, become a part of conference proposals, mentored younger scholars, learned about teaching…so much has come from this membership and engagement.” Or, as Cheryl Glenn (the Coalition’s third President) wrote: “The feminist scholars (especially the up-and-coming ones) I talk with always enlighten me, always know cool stuff that I want to know more about, always energize me.”  Any my own experience as a member of the Coalition is also reflective of these comments. I met some of my closest friends and collaborators while sitting at a bar during the very cold, very snowy Fem/Rhet at Michigan Tech University in 2005. The conversation we had there about archives and research and methodologies led to the edited collection Working in the Archives and to a deep and true friendship. And my work as archivist and historian of the Coalition has allowed me to continue my relationship with Tarez, who I entered graduate school with and whose guidance helped me through that first semester as a graduate student (nearly 20 years ago) when I barely knew what rhetoric was, and who has been a co-author, a co-researcher, and a friend.

This article is in part created to honor that history and my history with and of the Coalition, but also to think of that history in terms of the critical imagination of the Coalition and how diving into the spaces and absences recognized through that mode of inquiry enacted a form of feminist activism for the organization. Such a project does not mean that there are not areas for improvement or that this is a complete history. Rather, it is a consideration of key moments where the Coalition actively worked to "make space" for voices and perspectives otherwise marginalized or silenced. Further, I want to draw parallels between the kind of work done by the Coalition in the past five years and the kind of work imagined in the first five years. Finally, I argue that the changes that people are calling for in the Coalition, while warranted, cannot be done without knowing and understanding the Coalition history and that the drive toward inclusive, affirming spaces has long been part of this Coalition’s mission.

Figure 1: Alexis E. Ramsey-Tobienne, Lisa Mastrangelo, Wendy Sharer, and Barb L’Eplattenier posing at the Mucha Exhibit during the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference.

In their now seminal text Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch define critical imagination as “a critical skill in questioning a viewpoint, an experience, an event, and so on, and in remaking interpretive frameworks based on that questioning” (19). In other words, critical imagination is a tool for inquiry helping us to consider what we know and what we don’t know, and just as importantly, how we came to know it. It helps us to identify the gaps, silences, missing parts, people, genres, and ideas and to remake what we know in, through, and from those absences. Further, part of the work of the critical imagination is the “self-authorization of curiosity” (81). Or,  the ability and, importantly, the permission to ask the simple questions that come from the inquiry process--–seeing what is there and what is not and thinking about why it isn’t there and if it should be. Thus, we must ask ourselves, what is the critical imagination of the Coalition? And how does this critical imagination align with the work of feminist activism? 

Stacey K. Sowards and Valerie Renegar argue inReconceptualizing Rhetorical Activism in Contemporary Feminist Contexts, “that “rhetorical activism, which has traditionally been defined as public protest and confrontation, might also include creating grass-root models of leadership, using strategic humor, building feminist identity, sharing stories, and resisting stereotypes and labels” (58). In other words, rhetorical feminist activism can be more personal, more subtle, more behind the scenes, and can bring about the kind of structural changes that happen without notice and fanfare and are only remarked upon later because there is space to note and critique the actions. Or, as Sara Ahmed writes: “Feminism is bringing people into the room.” To conceptualize feminism this way is to understand that it is about growing--not always in a straight line, not always in pretty ways, not constantly--but always expanding. This dynamic feminist rhetorical activism is reflected in the very activism undertaken by the Coalition over the last 30 years. 

We can find these acts of “making room” in terms of its governance, the Wednesday night SIGs at C’s, the growth of the journal Peitho, the use of task forces, and its continued emphasis on the mentoring of young scholars. And in the act of “making room” we can consider the ways the Coalition used these moments to actively attend to what was missing. So even in the moments of making room, they continued to consider how to make more room, bring in more voices and scholars and ideas.

Of course, there is a level of privilege associated with being able to begin an organization, gain support, and prosper your voices and agendas forward. But because they themselves faced isolation, were disparaged for their objects of study, were faulted for becoming mothers, for being women, in many ways the Coalition has tried, with varying levels of success, to be an open space for the study of the history of rhetoric broadly conceived. To hear these origin stories, please view In Their Own Words: The History and Influences of the Coalition, by Michelle F. Eble and Wendy Sharer, 2008 and Lifting as We Climb: The Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition 25 Years and Beyond, by Alexandra Hidalgo, 2014 both available at: http://cwshrc.org/resources/archive/film/.

Writing in the first issue of the then-unnamed Coalition newsletter, editors Kay Halesek and Susan C. Jarratt provide a brief overview of the very beginnings of the Coalition: “The Coalition constitution was drafted in 1990 and the group met formally for the first time in San Diego at the 1993 Conference on College Composition and Communication. The third...meeting – at Milwaukee in March 1996 – spawned the idea for a publication to provide a means of linking coalition members between conventions and expanding the reach of the organization to scholars not yet a part of the coalition.”

Thus,  this notion of making room has long been at the heart of the Coalition in the idea of gathering “scholars not yet part... “ with the expectation they were there and that they, too, were needed. They continue: “the Coalition and its newsletter have a commitment to extend the energy, knowledge, and support of already-established scholars to those still in the midst of their graduate work or those with less institutional support for their scholarship. Both the meetings and the newsletter seek to forge connections across generations and institutions.” (Screenshot). Early on there was a recognition that a space was needed for the rhetorical work beyond the then accepted canon and for the kind of experiences that women were facing, often alone, in departments that expected them to do the hard work of teaching, researching, mentoring, caregiving without the support necessary for such physical and emotional work.

There are three key ways that early iterations of the Coalition made room through forged connections: the newsletter--what would become Peitho-- the Wednesday night presentations, and the mentoring tables. And I am going to talk about all three at the same time by reading Peitho as a way to explore the connections between our initial feminist objectives and the way they have been activated over the last 30 years (with particular emphasis on the first and the last five years).

To do this forging, two of the earliest iterations of the newsletter featured graduate students reflecting on the Wednesday night. In 1998, Shannon L. Wilson, Miami University (Ohio) wrote: “the Coalition has fundamentally shaped my understanding of the possibilities for both scholarship and community in the field of rhetoric and composition.”

The following year Tara Pauliny, then a PhD student at the OSU (and now at John Jay College), wrote: “the 1999 Atlanta meeting allowed me to see that space has been and continues to be carved for women in the fields of rhetoric and composition…As a student it gave me rhetorical details and critical contexts with which to shape my sense of the field, and as a feminist it proved that strong work is being done by women to elucidate the complex interweavings present in women’s rhetorical lives.” She then goes on to review each of the panelists from that first hour, closing by again reiterating her thankfulness for the caucus and for the Coalition. 

Figure 2: Screen Shot of Tara Pauliny’s Review of the 1999 Annual Coalition Meeting.

We see these early reviews of the Wednesday night gatherings echoed in the live tweeting that occurs during feminist presentations at our conferences. These tweets, often the labor of graduate students and junior faculty, are vital to the conference experience for many Coalition members as they extend, complicate, and bring together various feminist presentations for Coalition members both at the conference and those who are witnessing from afar (see #TheFeministsAreComing for the main hashtag utilized across conferences, as well as #TeamFemRhet). 

Figure 3: Screenshot of a Twitter Feed highlighting different uses of the hastag #TheFeministsAreComing

If the first five years are marked by established scholars speaking during the caucus, then the last five years have been marked by a different understanding of inclusion and of what counts as scholarship. In the last five years the Coalition has actively worked to give voice to new scholars through the Wednesday night presentations.  For instance, the “New Work Showcase” during the 25th Anniversary celebration at the C’s SIG in Tampa, FL (2015) highlighted the work of 12 first-time SIG presenters and was a “a gallery of twelve multimedia scholarly presentations, including posters, listening stations, and a mini-workshop”

Figure 4: Screenshot of the 2015 New Work Showcase Program from the Wednesday Night SIG

 The idea of celebrating scholarship beyond the presentation, as well as using scholarly moments to welcome and mentor others into the conversation are perhaps some of the most radical moments of feminist activism within the Coalition.  In 2016, Performing Feminist Action featured micro-talks, which were then remediated into a multimedia toolkit so that participants could take the actions home (available here: http://cwshrc.org/actionhour2016/fishman.html). As Jenn Fishman and Trish Francher write: “Our call for participants along with the workshops that followed enacted the Coalition's recent recommitment to inclusion” and an awareness to attend to the “Coalition's persistent whiteness” and need for intersectionality.  The “toolkits” created from these microtalks “refashions feminist scholarship as a user-generated, participatory, and action-oriented resource.” By making these actions visible, the presentation extends beyond the action hour. Further, the ethos to shape the conversations is given to voices beyond the normative. The toolkit itself disrupts the narratives, just as the actions within them are moments of radical reimagining. 

To mark the 30th Anniversary, the collaborative action hour again focused on making room, as well as active listening within that new space. As President Tarez Graban wrote:  “While some of these designations may be less troublesome than others, their attachments still raise concern that we are not diversifying ourselves – or being understood as diverse – in the best possible way.” Later she asked “Knowing, through theory and practice, that feminisms occur on a spectrum, where do or can we go to learn more about our own and others' spectral tolerance? To better understand the barriers to our fit?” The microtalks addressed what it means to dwell within intersections and encouraged table-led conversations in response (http://cwshrc.org/blog/2018/09/01/re-examining-intersectionality/). One of only several components guiding the evening, the microtalks recognized one spectrum of feminisms within the Coalition, and encouraged a dialogue of and with these different feminisms through a "puzzling" activity, conceptualized by Erin Wecker and Patty Wilde. (Questions were contributed by the microtalk authors and a team of volunteers.)

Figure 5: Screenshot of the Discussion Prompts from the Action Hour Microtalks at the 2019 Wednesday Night SIG.

Particularly in its annual Wednesday Night SIG meetings, the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition has worked to make room for, and to listen to, as many voices, perspectives, and feminisms as possible. 

Contributed by Alexis E. Ramsey-Tobienne