A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Women and Rhetoric between the Wars

Review of Women and Rhetoric between the Wars Edited by Ann George, M. Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick, 2013; Southern Illinois University Press Lori Beth De Hertogh, Washington State University

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/between-the-wars (Published: September 24, 2014)


In the introduction to Women and Rhetoric between the Wars, the editors assert that the book “moves the study of gender and rhetorical practices of women entering public and professional life into the period immediately following suffrage in a broad-based analysis that weaves together feminist cultural criticism, gender studies, historiography, and rhetorical theory” (2). Surely the claim that a book of roughly 250 pages can accomplish such a task is ambitious. But the book’s contributors deliver on this promise by presenting a thoughtfully-arranged collection that explores from a rhetorical perspective the personal and public lives of key women figures during the period between World Wars I and II. Readers of this text, which may include anyone from gender-studies majors to rhetoricians to feminist historiographers, will be pleased with this collection as it offers engaging and informative pieces that illuminate an often forgotten area of feminist rhetorical studies.

Figure 1

Three Scenes

The book’s editors—Ann George, M. Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick—divide the collection into three “scenes” (13). Scene one explores civic rhetorics in the context of women’s voluntary associations, while scene two looks at how epideictic rhetorics affected high-profile women working within the suffrage, abolition, industrial safety, and peace activism movements (13). Scene three examines rhetorics that shaped women’s opportunities for professional advancement within academia. Although I found connections between the three scenes somewhat fragile at times (readers, for instance, may be surprised to move from conversations about historic figures such as Frances Perkins and Amelia Earhart in the first two scenes to analyses of women in academia in the final scene), on the whole the scenes complement one another. Moreover, each scene offers readers a different lens for thinking about how women during the interwar period both shaped and were shaped by public rhetorics.

In the discussion that follows, I offer a brief synopsis of each scene while commenting on the articles that left the strongest impression on me as both an interested reader and scholar of feminist rhetorical studies.

Scene 1

The first scene, “Voluntary Associations for the Civic,” consists of articles that look at ways women working in the public sphere in the early twentieth century employed diverse rhetorical practices to influence social issues. In chapter two, for instance, author Hephzibah Roskelly investigates ways in which Jane Addams, a social activist as well as a public writer and speaker, relied on pragmatic rhetoric in her attempts to persuade American audiences to avoid entanglements in World War I (34). Addams was, of course, ultimately unsuccessful in her endeavors to sustain international peace. Still, her attempts to do so are notable, especially in light of the fact that she continued to publicly argue for peace even after anti-war rhetoric became unpopular. While Roskelly’s analysis of Addams as a peace activist and pragmatist is excellent, the real strength of this piece is that it reveals the deeper issues faced by women engaged in public and political discourse during the interwar period.

Following Roskelly’s piece is an article by Janet Zepernick that examines another female civic figure: Frances Perkins. Perkins, as many readers will know, acted as the “chief architect” of social security (63). Despite her integral role, I was surprised to learn that many historians and biographers have overlooked the essential rhetorical role she played in shaping social security policy (63). Zepernick fills this gap by rhetorically analyzing Perkins’ political rhetoric, while also recovering her as a historical figure.1 Zepernick’s work, as well as the other articles in this scene, performs a valuable role in presenting readers with both a historical and rhetorical understanding of key public female figures during the early part of the twentieth century.

Scene 2

The second scene of the book, “Popular Celebrity in the Epideictic,” invites readers to consider how famous women like Helen Keller, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Dorothy Day, and Bessie Smith were simultaneously empowered and victimized by popular rhetoric. Two especially fascinating pieces in this scene are Ann George’s article, “Reading Helen Keller,” and Coretta Pittman’s “Bessie Smith’s Blues as Rhetorical Advocacy.” George’s piece will undoubtedly engage readers from the get-go. Not only does she offer a lively account of Helen Keller as a public figure, but she also unveils some of the lesser-known (and rather unexpected) details of Keller’s personal life as a political activist and writer. Many readers may be surprised to learn that Keller was an outspoken socialist (a fact that escaped the intensely conservative Texas State Board of Education who included Keller on the K-12 social studies reading list) as well as a “snappy” humorist who kept what George dubs a “Helen Keller joke book” (101).

Pittman’s article is equally engaging, as she illustrates ways in which blues singer Bessie Smith used her musical talents, ethos, and verve to emphasize that the empowerment of African American women did not have to rely on “domesticity, piety, and conformity” (145). I imagine many readers, like me, will find themselves so entranced by Pittman’s portrayal of Smith as a historical figure that they will move beyond the text to learn more about Smith’s life and musical career. (A confession: I spent several hours digging up recordings of Smith’s music on YouTube after reading this article.) Pittman also examines how Smith constructed a musical ethos—or, as Pittman calls it, a “blues self”—that allowed her to present a “persuasive and credible” image of herself in public spaces (145-146). Crafting such an image was especially important for African American women like Smith during the interwar period as they, even more so than their white counterparts, faced a society that put little faith in the intellectual or creative powers of women.

Scene 3

In the third and final scene of the collection, “Academia and the Scene of Professionalism,” readers are introduced to ways in which women in academia responded to and shaped professional and academic rhetorics between the wars. Risa Applegarth’s piece, “Field Guides: Women Writing Anthropology,” looks at ways in which the field of anthropology acted as a safe haven to academic women who were often otherwise barred from “serious” study. Applegarth, quoting the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, describes the field of anthropology as a discipline that was “‘kinder to women, to those who came from distant disciplines, to members of minority groups’” (qtd. in Applegarth 193). This statement reminds me of ways in which my own field—rhetoric and composition—has likewise often acted as a welcoming port to teachers and scholars who have found other academic or professional fields inhospitable.

Jordynn Jack’s article, “‘Exceptional Women’: Epideictic Rhetoric and Women Scientists,” in some ways continues the narrative begun by Applegarth. Jack examines how popular scientific articles and career guides generated during the interwar period created professional opportunities for women scientists while simultaneously promoting stereotypical ideals of women. Jack explains the phenomenon this way: “[E]pideictic discourse in both of these genres rehearses and reinforces conventional values of femininity even as it praises women who rejected those values in favor of scientific careers” (224-225). Although Jack’s piece focuses on scientific women and the negative rhetorical climates they faced during the interwar period, one could argue that similar rhetorical positions are used against women in the sciences today.

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps the greatest strength of this collection is its cohesion and the way in which the editors curate and present each scene. The organization of individual articles also contributes to the book’s unity as each piece is sensibly structured, written in academic, yet non-pretentious prose, and offers in-depth analyses which closely follows (yet complicates) the book’s theme. Moreover, Women and Rhetoric between the Wars seeks to enrich an understudied area within feminist rhetorical studies. As an interested reader and feminist scholar, I am delighted to encounter a collection that deals with the interwar period so thoughtfully and thoroughly. I imagine that other readers—whether they are historiographers, feminists, rhetoricians, or individuals simply interested in the many historical women presented in this collection—will feel the same.


1 For further exploration on the rhetorical recovery of women, see Susan Jarratt’s “Speaking to the Past: Feminist Historiography in Rhetoric,” Cheryl Glenn’s “Sex, Lies, and Manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the History of Rhetoric,” and Patricia Bizzell’s “Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make?”

Work Cited

George, Ann, M., Elizabeth Weiser, and Janet Zepernick, eds. Women and Rhetoric between the Wars. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Print.