Female Rhetoricians in Norton’s Anthology

“These ‘recurrences’ and topoi we highlight here—claiming the right to speak; asserting new locations from which to write and speak; re-representing and validating the diversity of women speakers/writers; redefining what counts as evidence—emerge from our own reading and collaborative work with these texts.” (Ronald, xxvii)

Ronald and Ritchie provide texts in their anthology that highlights a new argument, changes the way an audience receives a text from various female writers, and creates a space for women to express themselves through written or spoken text freely. Referring to the definition provided above, then, I disagree with the claim the two authors make about The Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature being an anthology of literature rather than of rhetoric (xxi).

The initial types of texts included in Ronald and Ritchie’s anthology are texts in which women demand for a voice. While, most of the works in Norton’s Anthology are written in poetic verses, the authority women claim through these verses should not be undermined. For example, Aphra Behn, perhaps one of the most notable authors in this series, was the first female author to be published during the Restoration period. She had observed the movement of the libertine man taking place during the Interregnum period, and from this, she demanded the role of a woman libertine as well. Most of her texts were a direct response to the raunchy works of Rochester, which for a woman of her time, was very unusual. Her forwardness with sex and pleasure seemed to upset her audience, and as Ronald and Ritchie point out, most “women’s writing…may not meet and…may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories—especially concerning ethos, or appeal of the speaker’s “character” (xvii). Behn was not writing to please her audience. In fact, in her prologue to The Rover, one of the most acknowledged Restoration comedies, she makes it clear that she was just hoping her wit can be met with her viewers, even if they do not completely agree with her.

In the same play, Behn has one of her female characters play the role of a libertine man. This is a bold statement embedded in a simple comedy. Ronald and Ritchie state that in order to represent themselves, “many women rhetors construct and alternative subjectivity for women.” This allows them to provide and “alternative discourse to confront the deficient internalized views of women perpetuated by the culture” (xxv). By allowing her character to play the role of a man, Behn is bringing up the important issue of gender role in society. Therefore, instead of ruling out her play as just a piece of literature, Ronald and Ritchie should reexamine the risks Aphra Behn takes, being one of the first published writers of her time to make a career out of her works. Evidently, her verses conveyed more than meets the eyes.

Another author present in Norton’s Anthology is Katherine Phillips. Unlike Behn, she was not a published writer until her death, and most of her works were notes to her inner circle of friend. Despite this, her notes can be read as powerful rhetorical publications in present-day rhetorical studies. One of the main topics discussed in Phillips’ poems is homosexual love for another female. This is a progressive idea for a woman of the Restoration period as one can imagine. However, the powerful usage of these feelings in her text alone can be a study of rhetoric. These poems can be read as simple love sonnets, or they can be broken apart to be studied as a promotion of female attraction for one another. If read in such a way, one can see that her invention and style are unusual for “normal” rhetoric, but that is, according to Ronald and Ritchie, what sets aside female rhetoricians.

I am sure Ronald and Ritchie did not mean to say that all the text in Norton’s Anthology of Women’s Literature lacked rhetorical qualities, but the statement they made was overlooking the works in this anthology. While Aphra Behn’s comedies and Katherine Phillips’ poems might be initially outstanding literature pieces from the Restoration period, they do have a hint of rhetoric. They both, in their own ways, pursue topics unusual for their sex at the time their works were published. That alone, gives their work some authority as being rhetorical. Along with this, the subtle techniques of persuasion they use in these texts also help make their work somewhat rhetorical. I do not think these women should be excluded from being labeled as early female rhetoricians. While there pieces might not be as advanced as Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf, they still hold value aside from just being literature.

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2 Responses to Female Rhetoricians in Norton’s Anthology

  1. cdadas says:

    I’m glad that you explored this claim of Ronald and Ritchie’s that they can classify which piece of writing is more rhetorical than another. I think you are right to interrogate that–and, in fact, it’s hard to claim that any piece of writing is *not* rhetorical. Ultimately, I think their decision has more to do with disciplinary boundaries than anything–if you study composition and rhetoric, you don’t study literature and therefore you don’t publish about literature. They were probably afraid they would be stepping on other scholars’ toes. But your point in important that authors such as Behn were doing the things that R & R classified as being so revolutionary for women rhetors. The fact that Behn was challenging notions of gender roles in society marks her as someone who was carefully considering the topos of her argument–something that R & R tell us to pay attention to with women writers.

    • fatimam1 says:

      Yea, I was glad when you mentioned in class how Ronald and Ritchie were kind of making up their own canon. At least I was not the only one to be a bit suspicious of their selection. It does make sense, however, that the authors were trying to differentiate between literature and rhetoric. This way, they were not discrediting anyone’s work but just showing that rhetoric itself is a different field.

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