feminist rhetorical theory. Women have been historically minimized and isolated by the domination of the patriarchal majority. Although women have been able to make a degree of progress, finally achieving positions of social and political power, the number of women in these high offices is still far less than the roles that are filled by man. Modern women, far removed from the “angels in the house” of the Victorian age, are nonetheless still impacted by the sociological oppression of women which was reinforced during that era, according to the rhetorical theory of feminism. Given that this is the case, men and women need to be aware of these underlying gender biases so that they can both combat them and make sure that they themselves do not fall prey to them. People who deny that this subjugation of women may be enlightened by closer examination of the power dynamics which exists in the modern era; something that is truly fascinating. This paper will examine the perspective of the feminist rhetorical theoretician, and will also explore the validity of this perspective within the modern social context.
Part II: Critical Discussion of a Rhetorical Theory
Rhetoric, according to Foss and Griffin, is tasked with convincing someone to accept your perception regardless of nature or their own inclination. “Embedded in efforts to change others is a desire for control and domination, for the act of changing another establishes the power of the change agent over that other” (Foss 3). There are specific ideas which are taken as fact by those who are invested in feminist rhetorical theory. First and foremost is the idea that women, simply because of the ideas attributed to their gender, are marginalized within societies. Different expectations are provided to people based upon their gender. Men are expected to be masculine; they are expected to be aggressive and dominant over other people, particularly over the women in their lives. The opposite is true of women; females are supposed to be submissive and demure in all things; they are to submit to the wills of their male family members, namely father, brother, and most importantly their husbands.
In most periods of history there were very clear definitions of roles which were given to a person based upon their gender. Men have been in charge and women are to demur to all men and this, say rhetorical theorists, is an abomination. “Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs” (Cixous 878). Most societies in history have been patriarchal; the men have been in positions of power and authority and although women may obtain individual power, the gender on the whole is subordinate to the patriarchy. Women are traditionally the caregivers and they are responsible for the bearing and rearing of children and also for care of the home and their loved ones. They are also responsible for suffering the marital embrace with their husbands, meaning they are to have sexual intercourse whenever the husband demands it, but never to enjoy it themselves. The proper woman would never have given into self-gratification, despite the natural desires of her physical body hence masturbation was recognized as a tool to freedom (Cixous 876). Wives do the cooking and cleaning while the husbands hunt, fish, or work, based on the level of sophistication and technological advancement of the society in question.
According to Helene Cixous, feminist rhetorical theory is about allowing women to finally speak for themselves because they have so long been forced into silence by the patriarchal nature of society. She writes, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies — for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text — as into the world and into history — by her own movement” (Cixous 875). The only way that women are going to break free from their gendered bondage is by talking and writing and saying things men do not want them to say. Women who want something besides motherhood and wifedom are considered “other,” meaning that they are set apart from the accepted role given to them by society. They are odd or broken in some way and therefore it is acceptable to ostracize them from the rest of the social structure. Due to this othering women who have dared to live beyond their gender limits have been subjected to violence and degradation, although even women who have performed their social duty are not immune from violence. A woman who went out into the workforce or who desired an education would be subjected to vilification, often by her own family members. Women living on their own were targets for robbery, rape, or worse.
Within the work place, the subjection was no better. Helene Cixous references this in her essay by saying, “Let no one hold you backâ€¦not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backsâ€¦Smug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses don’t like the true texts of women — female-sexed texts” (877). Although she was discussing writing, her words can be applied on a larger scale. Not only were women paid substantially less than male colleagues, even for the same or a larger amount of work, but women would be the targets of sexual attacks and threats by employers who might withhold employment or advancement unless the female gave in to the sexual urgings of the once again dominating male. By forcing women to use their bodies in order to support themselves, males are physically reinforcing their sociological domination of the female gender.
In the past, the aforementioned gender definitions have been accepted as clear, black and white distinctions. A person who is born with female genitalia is a woman and therefore she is expected to behave in a certain way. In the same way, a person who was born with a penis and testicles was a man and therefore he needed to possess specific characteristics. There was no room for a discussion of transgendered persons because there was a disbelief in their existence. Part of the breakdown of the gender binary has been because of the growing knowledge and acceptance of people who do not fit into one or the other of the two sex-based gender classifications.
Language is one of the most important aspects of a society. A shared language indicates the collective unity of a population. Language as it pertains to women and their historical discrimination is extremely important to feminist rhetorical discourse. As described, a great deal of the subjugation of women has to do with their association with motherhood and as sexual devices. In order to overcome this, women as a gender and as a sex must redefine themselves and become more than objects of care or sexual desire, as they are with the male definition. “If woman has always functioned ‘within’ the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to delocate this ‘within,’ to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of” (Cixous 887). By talking about the issue of female oppression or writing about it, women are destroying the idea of silent acquiescence which has continued to keep them as less than males. By communicating the similarities between real live women but at the same time denouncing the stereotypes of what society says a woman should be, the females of the world may yet achieve equality. In the present historical moment, women have achieved a level of equality which had been unknown to members of the sex in the past. There are women presidents in certain countries, women in charge of large corporations, women in every industry and field. However, some feminist rhetorical theorists state that women have still not achieved a position of social equality with their male counterparts and this is evident by examining the artifacts of our culture (Foss 3-4). The focus should now be upon the means which are necessary to achieve equality and the rhetoric which is involved in the incitement of feminist action.
One limitation which can be perceived in feminist rhetorical theory is that to discuss it, a person must believe in its validity. It demands that a person accept that the minimization of women historically is factual. They must also admit that it is still present in the modern era even if evidence to the contrary suggests that there is now gender equality. Whereas some other theories might have a bit more room for opinion, this particular theory demands that the basic tenets be accepted.
Part III: Conclusion
Feminist rhetorical theory was controversial when it was first broached because people either did not want to believe that women were an oppressed group or they did see this but did not believe there was anything wrong with women being marginalized. It seems that the words that are used to describe women, either by the oppressive patriarchy or by women themselves are the key in either achieving gender equality or in continuing the system of oppression which has been the reality up to this point.
Cixous, H., Cohen, K, & Cohen, P. (1976). The laugh of the Medusa. Signs. 1(4). The University
of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. 875-93.
Foss, S. & Griffin, C. (2003). Beyond persuasion: a proposal for an invitational rhetoric.
Communications Monographs. 2-18.
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