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Wu, Hui.  “Historical Studies of Rhetorical Women Here and There: Methodological Challenges to Dominant Interpretive Frameworks.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.1 (Winter 2002): 81-97.  Print.

Wu – Summary Handout

Summary:  This article examines theoretical premises of the historical study of rhetorical women, epistemological confusions caused by postmodernism, and challenges from the studies of black and Third World rhetorical women.  On that basis it points out that the present difficulties in accepting discursive feminist methodologies in the study of rhetorical history are direct results of a continued adherence to certain established interpretive frameworks that dominate inquiry and knowledge construction in the field of rhetoric/composition.

  • Wu draws attention to the fact that feminist rhetorical historiography is a relatively new subfield that is still trying to find its way.  As such, the methodological approaches are often intertwined with particular ideologies and particular politics (81).  Further, beyond feminist historiography for Western, often “white” women, there is little work being done in the feminist ethno-rhetorical historiography of 3rd World women.
  • Wu references the “Aspasia debate” as a sign that the methodological basis for feminist rhetorical historiography is still hotly contested.
  • Wu argues that for the important work of feminist rhetorical historiography to go forward a couple of fundamental methodological questions must be answered:  1) what is behind skepticism toward women’s historical presence in rhetoric?; 2) If we agree that women do have a rhetorical history of their own, what materials do we document and analyze?; 3) What are the key concerns in documenting primary sources and gathering evidence?; 4) Is the historical study of women similar to postmodernism as both supposedly deal with discourse and knowledge construction?  (82)
  • Trajectory of article: 1) clarify theoretical premises of women’s history writing by defining the purpose and meanings of its methodology to highlight the ethical and political concerns in said methodology.  2) distinguish between feminist studies of rhetorical history and postmodernism (an understandable confusion as both deal with language and discourse in constructed ways); 3) draw attention to the theoretical significance of the historical research on black and Third World rhetorical women by highlighting the challenges to the “established criteria of subject selection and archival evaluation” that traditional feminist rhetorical historiography makes apparent (82).
  • Wu appreciates the “reciprocity” that Royster values – a reciprocity that provides opportunities for research (and alliance building) across the “other” by creating scholarship that is “theoretically sound, systematic, and generative” (Royster 254, Wu 83).  Further, Wu also recognizes that gender hierarchy exists across all cultures.  As such, her strategy of feminist rhetorical historiography will speak to all those involved in the community of researchers working at the intersection of history, gender, transnational theory, and rhetoric.
  • While Wu appreciates Rich Enos’s methodological dictates in “Recovering the Lost Art of Researching in the History of Rhetoric,” she wants to push beyond it because: 1) techniques alone cannot highlight a feminist methodology because it is political and ideological; further, 2) “how-to” discussions don’t highlight ethical and political concerns that distinguish feminist historiography from regular history writing (83).
  • Traditional definition of methodology:  it is a theory and analysis of how research does or should proceed; it includes theoretical explanations of general structure and applications of methods in a particular discipline (84).  For historians the selection of subjects, period, and evidence is value-free – for feminist rhetorical historiographers this isn’t the case.  Every selection is a judgment call.
  • The political and ethical commitments of feminist rhetorical historiography seek to return history to women, return property rights to women, and return human rights to women.  Because the traditional historical research process has marginalized and excluded women the new configuration that Wu argues for must challenge that narrative by emphasizing women as an additional historical subject through challenging traditional research methods. (86-7)
  • Wu criticizes Gale’s correlation of postmodernism with feminist rhetorical historiography because she believes that postmodernism’s “abandonment of notions of objectivity and reality” is at odds with the gendered standpoint in feminist methodology – a standpoint that seeks change by being responsible to historicity, collective civic actions, and transforming research practices (86).
  • The history making project is one not of creation but reconstruction: recreate history from available and affirmable sources.  As such, the political work of feminist rhetorical historiography is establishing the facts based on the sources in such a way that “more complete and fair truths of the past” than have been available unto now are reconstructed (86).  This is a different operation that postmodernism: postmodern methods aren’t necessarily accountable to anyone (according to Wu) because they are all about the relative satisfaction of an individual’s own exploration; in other words, postmodern methods aren’t necessarily accountable to anyone and as such aren’t obligated to any particular politics (87).
  • Wu adopts Thomas Miller and Melody Bowdon’s five methodological concerns (1. Dialectical transaction between the rhetor and audience; 2) situational aspects of the transaction; 3) rhetorical purpose; 4) collective orientation; and 5) productive engagement with political action) because there is an obligation in research to the productive potential of collective political engagement (88).  In fact, the centrality of collectivity is key for Wu’s feminist rhetorical historiography – it points to the political benefits of historiography and makes steps toward recognition of a collective future history.
  • Wu notes that feminist rhetorical histories of Third World women should not be limited to the deceased; rather, living women should be included as historical subjects as long as they are contributing to history building (90-91). This work often takes the form of translation. By considering the viewpoints of these living scholars we can get a new angle on the practice and history of our profession.
  • Wu notes that 3rd World Women’s work is often categorized as “essentialist” and, therefore, received short-shrift in the Western academic establishment; however, it is given this moniker because it is being critiqued from a Western feminist viewpoint.  In other words, when feminist rhetorical historiography is only deployed as a starting point for theorizing a upper- and middle-class white women’s gender politics then the broader goal of feminist historiography for women in the Third World and marginalized women in the West is betrayed (93).

Key Quotes:

“From a gendered point of view, feminist methodology of rhetorical history does not refer to an innocent research activity for research’s sake, but rather an intentionally radical effort to exert transformative power over research methods” (85).

“The postmodernist beliefs in a masterful, self-conscious, and universal subject and in the segregation of justification and reason from power and force, as Alessandra Tanesini generalizes, do not agree with the goal of feminist research, for empowering women means engaging oneself in competing with the dominant force” (88).

From Royster: “Knowledge does indeed have the capacity to empower and disempower, to be used for good and for ill.  As researchers and scholars, we are responsible for good and for ill.  As researchers and scholars, we are responsible for its uses, and, therefore, should think consciously about the momentum we create when we produce knowledge or engage in knowledge-making processes.  Our intellectual work has consequences.  I believe the inevitability of these consequences should bring up pause as we think not just about what others do but about what we are obliged to do or not to do” (Royster 281, Wu 90).

“Like the transformations mainstream feminist works have brought to traditional knowledge making, historical writing of marginalized rhetorical women, in the forms of systematic critique of the subject’s thoughts and deeds, documentation of primary sources, and translation, can provide more fresh perspectives on established definitions of who and what is worth rendering as history” (93).

“The accommodation of discursive feminist approaches to history is necessary if the goal of research is to construct human history as honestly, truthfully, and completely as possible.  This goal has triggered feminist rhetorical historiography and renewed the definition of its methodology. Thus, cultural, racial, ethnic, or gender identities may not separate us from our common agenda to better society and our common identity rooted in rhetoric and rhetorical history that have formed and strengthened the discipline of rhetoric/composition.  What may separate us and jeopardize historical works on rhetoric is rejecting unconventional research practices due to the affiliation with predominant, mainstream theoretical frameworks and methodologies.  If progressive scholars can carefully acknowledge and come to understand the purposes and meanings of feminist methodology necessitated by the complexities of women’s rhetorics and histories, then a fair and accurate assessment of historical studies of rhetorical women can be made” (94).

One Response to “Wu – Historical Studies of Rhetorical Women Here and There”

  1. selections from Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics: Landmark Essays and Controversies | epiphonema

    […] Wu, Hui.  “Historical Studies of Rhetorical Women Here and There: Methodological Challenges to Dominant Interpretive Frameworks.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32.1 (Winter 2002): 81-97.  Print. – Justin’s Notes /  Blog Notes […]

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