cover of book
 

Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930
by Wendy B Sharer
Southern Illinois University Press, 2004
Paper: 978-0-8093-2750-8 | eISBN: 978-0-8093-8768-7

ABOUT THIS BOOK | AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY | REVIEWS
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Wendy B. Sharer explores the rhetorical and pedagogical practices through which two prominent postsuffrage organizations—the League of Women Voters and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—challenged the conventions of male-dominated political discourse and trained women as powerful rhetors.
 
Vote and Voice is the first book-length study to address the writing and speaking practices of members of women’s political organizations in the decade after the suffrage movement. During those years, women still did not have power within deliberative and administrative organs of politics, despite their recent enfranchisement. Because they were largely absent from diplomatic circles and political parties, post-suffrage women’s organizations developed rhetorical practices of public discourse to push for reform within traditional politics.
 
Vote and Voice is historically significant as well as pedagogically beneficial for instructors who connect rhetorical education with public participation by integrating writing and speaking skills into a curriculum that aims to prepare educated students and active citizens.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
Wendy B. Sharer is an assistant professor of English at East Carolina University where she also directs the first-year writing program. She is the coauthor of 1977: A Cultural Moment in Composition and the coeditor of Rhetorical Education in America.
REVIEWS

Like earlier books in the Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms series, Wendy Sharer's Vote and Voice: Women's Organizations and Political Literacy, 1915-1930 examines the literate practices of a group of rhetors traditionally excluded from privileged political and rhetorical sites-in this case, middle- and upper-middle-class white women voters in the post-­suffrage United States. Through an analysis of speeches, pamphlets, plays, voter education curricula, and other material produced by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the League of Women Voters (LWV), Sharer sets out here both "to change popular perceptions of women's participation in political discourse in the decade after suffrage" and "to raise questions about what counts as historically significant rhetorical practice" (4). As she remarks in the introduction, histories of rhetoric "typically do not include the persistent persuasive practices that sustain movements in unfavorable times" (6). Yet, it is this sort of ongoing, collaborative work that "cultivate[s] broad receptivity to innovative arguments" (6) and thus deserves a closer look.

Vote and Voice is, without question, a worthwhile and interesting read. Although Sharer provides too superficial an analysis at times of the historical contexts in which WILPF and LWV work was carried out-often glossing quickly past issues of race, citizenship, and class as earlier reviewers have pointed out (see Ooten, for example)-the study nonetheless makes a valuable contribution to histories of rhetoric and rhetorical training in the United States. It also provides a strong reminder to writing teachers at all levels of the lessons to be learned within our own communities about the civic and political literacies students bring to our classrooms-those we might help them engage more critically as well as those we can help them develop and continue to expand.

The book opens with Sharer's personal connections to the history she is about to write, via her grandmother's involvement in the YWCA Y-Dames of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and her own experiences as a student and a teacher. "When I discovered my grandmother's materials," she explains, "I was teaching my first undergraduate composition course and feeling that what I was teaching was inadequate for the kinds of writing I hoped my students would do. The lessons in argument, analysis, and grammar…were meaningful, but I doubted that I was teaching them the many rhetorical skills they would need to be active citizens in national and international contexts" (9). In the archives of organizations like the Y-Dames, the LWV, and the WILPF, however, Sharer "found strategies and lessons that seemed to point in the direction [she] wanted [her] teaching to go" (9).

Chapter One, "Before Suffrage: Rhetorical Practices of Civic Engagement," provides readers a. broad history of women's organizations before 1920, focusing on the rhetorical and political experience women gained through temperance, abolition, suffrage, settlement house, and other movements. Many clubwomen, for example, influenced public opinion in the decades before enfranchisement through pageants, policy research, and the strategic distribution of self-sponsored publications. Clubs also "helped large numbers of women understand the formal rhetorical conventions of governmental institutions while at the same time preparing them to intervene in those institutions through club-authored petitions, resolutions, and testimony" (23). Although Sharer devotes some attention here to African American, Jewish, and working-class women's groups, this chapter, like the rest of the book, remains focused primarily on the civic traditions of middle- and upper­middle-class white, Christian organizations in the urban North.

Chapters two and three examine WILPF strategies and publications, while chapters four and five focus on the rhetorical tactics and training of the early LWV. We see, for instance, how the WILPF worked to bring more cooperative models of communication to international diplomacy, and how the LWV used policy- and issue-based plays to arm members with the information and argumentation skills necessary to advance their cause. Sharer analyzes several individual texts in these chapters as well, discussing, for example, how speeches like Carrie Chapman Catt's 1919 "A Nation Calls" turn to nationalistic and xenophobic claims to promote LWV goals. As she explains,

 

League leaders attempted to justify their project in terms that political leaders and party men (often the same people) would find difficult to critique-those terms, unfortunately, were sometimes ethnocentric and elitist. Catt and other founders of the League justified their new organization in part by playing on contemporary popular fears of espionage and military weakness. In Catt's initial articulation of the LWV, warnings of an immigrant-based "literacy crisis" threatening American democracy appear side-by-side with calls for the newly enfranchised to embrace the LWV's goals of reforming partisan politics and promoting progressive legislation. (119)

 

Though Sharer tends to let Catt and other organizers off too easily here, the discussion of "progressive" groups' heavy reliance on nativist rhetoric is the most interesting, and certainly most salient, part of the book. To be sure, understanding past attempts to couch educational and other reforms in terms of "an illiterate-immigrant menace to national security" (121) is critical if we are to combat similar rhetoric successfully today.

In the final chapter of the book, "Learning from the Strategies and Struggles of the LWV and WILPF," Sharer turns to the lessons she believes contemporary scholars and teachers might take from women's political organizations of an earlier era. There are many. Of these, Sharer's endorsement of stronger school-community connections is clearly the most compelling given the historical foundations her study lays. As she remarks, college writing courses today "often do not adequately prepare students to meet the complex situations they will face as citizens, nor do they encourage students to use literacy as a means to actively promote change" (169). But it is not simply the relevance of assignments or students' engagement with local issues that should be of concern to us, she stresses, but the wider roles faculty too might play in community organizations and civic literacy campaigns. In effect, Sharer promotes a familiar if still underutilized approach to writing and speech with implications for both students and teachers: "a theory of pedagogy," as Isocrates might have it, "that links the art of rhetoric to the polis and that promotes the instruction of rhetoric as required study for any form of active participation and involvement in political life" (Poulakos 7-8).

In the end, Vote and Voice raises many questions for future scholars and teachers to continue working through. How, for example, might we understand the rhetorical strategies of the LWV and the WILPF in the context of other contemporary women's groups-the Ku Klux Klan's Ladies of the Invisible Empire, for instance, or women's auxiliaries of male and mixed membership groups? How do we make sense of organizations both past and present that claim to work on "women's issues," relying heavily all the while on narrow definitions of womanhood that exclude many more women than they serve? What does it mean to turn to such groups as models for contemporary pedagogy? Which "counterpublics" are counterpublic enough in today's context, in other words-and in which do we find the rhetoric of white supremacy still too deeply embedded to look to them for guidance or inspiration? And, finally, a question Sharer herself raises but never pursues in much depth, how do the collective, often collaborative rhetorical practices of groups like the WILPF and the LWV fit into Western rhetorical traditions? Where do we simply see more Cicero, more Isocrates, for example-and where traces of alternate or divergent rhetorical paths? Sharer clearly documents these women's contributions to political post-suffrage discourse and illuminates a broad set of rhetorically significant practices and pedagogies. How we might situate those practices theoretically within a wider rhetorical history is well worth taking more time to explore.

— Cori Brewster, Issues in Writing




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