by Vanessa Kraemer Sohan
University of Alabama Press, 2020
eISBN: 978-0-8173-9267-3 | Cloth: 978-0-8173-2038-6
Library of Congress Classification P301.5.P67S64 2019
Dewey Decimal Classification 809.933581

How writers, activists, and artists without power resist dominant social, cultural, and political structures through the deployment of unconventional means and materials

In Lives, Letters, and Quilts: Women and Everyday Rhetorics of Resistance, Vanessa Kraemer Sohan applies a translingual and transmodal framework informed by feminist rhetorical practice to three distinct case studies that demonstrate women using unique and effective rhetorical strategies in political, religious, and artistic contexts. These case studies highlight a diverse set of actors uniquely situated by their race, gender, class, or religion, but who are nevertheless connected by their capacity to envision and recontextualize the seemingly ordinary means and materials available to them in order to effectively persuade others.

The Great Depression provides the backdrop for the first case study, a movement whereby thousands of elderly citizens proselytized and fundraised for a monthly pension plan dreamt up by a California doctor in the hopes of lifting themselves out of poverty. Sohan investigates how the Townsend Plan’s elderly supporters—the Townsendites—worked within and across language, genre, mode, and media to enable them for the first time to be recognized by others, and themselves, as a viable political constituency.

Next, Sohan recounts the story of Quaker minister Eliza P. Kirkbride Gurney who met President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Their subsequent epistolary exchanges concerning conscientious objectors made such an impression on him that one of her letters was rumored to be in his pocket the night of his assassination. Their exchanges and Gurney’s own accounts of her transnational ministry in her memoir provide useful examples of how, throughout history, women rhetors have adopted and transformed typically underappreciated forms of rhetoric—such as the epideictic—for their particular purposes.

The final example focuses on the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers—a group of African American women living in rural Alabama who repurpose discarded work clothes and other cast-off fabrics into the extraordinary quilts for which they are known. By drawing on the means and materials at hand to create celebrated works of art in conditions of extreme poverty, these women show how marginalized artisans can operate both within and outside the bounds of established aesthetic traditions and communicate the particulars of their experience across cultural and economic divides.