Sunday, June 23, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Practicing and Preaching

I'm reading Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition, a text that--as its title suggests--attempts to reclaim the role of women in the history of rhetoric. The essays within it explore female rhetoricians throughout a vast span of time.

The article I just read was "Daring to Dialogue: Mary Wollstonecraft's Rhetoric of Feminist Dialogics" by Jamie Barlowe.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer in the 1790's who wrote feminist arguments that insisted on the exposure of illogical and immoral oppressions of women in her contemporary society. Despite the fact that her writings brought no substantial changes to these cultural practices, she is often heralded for her strong rhetorical writing.

However, many of the literary critics who deal with Wollstonecraft's works separate her public and private writings in an attempt to dismiss the private ones. This is because, as Barlowe explains, her private letters are often a source of "embarrassment":
The fact that the woman touted as writing the first feminist manifesto could twice attempt suicide after Gilbert Imlay's rejection of her is a source of ideological discomfort.
Yes, Wollstonecraft wrote increasingly desperate letters to a man she loved with whom she had a child. Her letters suggest that he continued to encourage her by promising to return from the business trip that had taken him away, but the date kept getting pushed back further and further. When she discovered that he was living with a mistress, she attempted suicide. Even as she planned a second suicide attempt, she continued to write him and lay out an argument for his return based on his promises, commitments, and love.

relationships are complicated
It's complicated.

Barlowe's article focuses on the rhetorical nature of these letters and places them into a context that demonstrates a consistency in Wollstonecraft's rhetorical philosophy that connects her personal and private life in a way many critics have not done.

I think that's a worthwhile project, but I also think that Wollstonecraft's critics demonstrate something else that's interesting to me:

We don't want feminists to have real lives.

Today, we argue that feminists can't wear makeup or can't be stay-at-home moms or shouldn't breastfeed or can't get married or shouldn't change their last names if they do or shouldn't cook or shouldn't wear heels or dresses or . . . you get the idea.

All of those arguments center around the same thing that those critics did to Wollstonecraft. They tried to separate out her philosophy into a neat little package without recognizing that those ideas only came into existence through a complex set of experiences in which Wollstonecraft lived an actual life.

Sure, it's not particularly encouraging to see a powerful feminist throwing herself at a man's feet and letting his rejection push her to attempt suicide, but that's the life she lived. Those are the situations she faced.

If we only get to have ideals in perfectly sanitized lives that never conflict with our views, what good are they?

Photo: hojusaram

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