K.48: Motherhood and Rhetorical Choice: Perspectives on Women’s Identification Outside of and Around Motherhood
Reviewed by Sarah E. Polo, University of Kansas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Robert Watkins, Idaho State University
Speakers: Jennifer Enoch, Florida State University, “‘Do Not Forget His Name’: Strategies of Deference and Assertion in Women’s Everyday Writing”
Ella Raynor, University of Central Florida, “Articulating Feminist Cultural Knowledge: Resistance, Agency, and Discursive Space”
Courtney Wooten, Stephen F. Austin State University, “‘Just an Aunt’: Reconstructing the Identities of Childless-by-Choice Women”
Session K.48 on Motherhood and Rhetorical Choice included a wide range of presentation focuses, from Victorian Era mothers and letter writing, to modern medical knowledge and feminist cultural knowledge, to childless-by-choice women in the U.S. The diversity in the presenters' focuses and in the specific data sets they analyzed resulted in a session rich in dialogue and insight. Audience members were challenged to consider vastly diverse constructions of motherhood and women's rhetorical practices, making this an exemplary CCCC session.
Presenter 1, Jennifer Enoch of Florida State University, began the panel by detailing her primary research on working single mothers in Victorian New York City. The archive from which Enoch based her findings was comprised of two hundred letters from the New York Historical Society written by mothers attempting to secure care for their children at a New York City asylum. Enoch's central argument was that these mothers relied on two opposing rhetorical tactics to do so: deference, which Enoch described as an appeal to the mothers' pierced positions of inferiority, and assertion, or an appeal to equality and a rejection of perceived inferiority. As a means of narrowing her findings for the purposes of her presentation, Enoch provided a close reading of two letters, providing an analysis of the women writers' uses of assertiveness, linguistic distance, and awareness of power dynamics to accomplish their goals of obtaining care for their young children.
Presenter 2, Ella Raynor of the University of Central Florida, considered the notion of feminist cultural knowledge, within medical fields in particular. Extensively situating her work within scholarship, such as Michel Foucault's (1976/1990) notion of biopower, Raynor focused on three recent studies on childbearing, pregnancy, and motherhood, examining women's varying levels of success in pushing back against systems of power. These studies included those by Marika Seigel (2014), Kim Hensley Owens (2015), and Amy Koerber (2013). Ultimately Raynor argued that, to push back against harmful systems of power in medical settings, room needs to be given for women to create agency in these otherwise agency-less spaces.
The final presenter, Courtney Wooten of Stephen F. Austin State University, drew from rhetorical motherhood studies to examine the ways in which childless-by-choice women form their identities and convey those identities to others. Wooten opened her presentation by pointing to her own personal experiences as a childless-by-choice woman and the challenges of conveying that choice to others. Extending this personal experience to the nation as a whole, Wooten incorporated statistics about the number of childless women in the United States and the number of whom actively choose this lifestyle. The central question, then, for Wooten, was how society promotes motherhood and how childless-by-choice women might struggle to assert their agency in such an environment. Her data set for analyzing this question was three stories within three contemporary books on motherhood. Based on her textual analysis, Wooten postulated that childless-by-choice women ought to perform their identities in ways that others can understand that which do not overtly challenge the assumption that the ability to nurture is part of women’s identities (such as having pets or caring for others who are not their children).
Foucault, Michel. (1990). The history of sexuality (Vol. 1). (Robert Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1976)
Koerber, Amy. (2013). Breast or bottle? Contemporary controversies in infant-feeding policy and practice. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Owens, Kim Hensley. (2015). Writing childbirth: Women’s rhetorical agency in labor and online. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Seigel, Marika. (2014). The rhetoric of pregnancy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.