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“Parlor Rhetoric and the Performance of Gender”

Newman's "Masculine" Rhetorical Text

Johnson describes the role of rhetoric in the lives of nineteenth century post-antebellum women who were trained in the rhetorical arts through conduct books and increased educational opportunities, but who were still prohibited from speaking publicly. Popular textbooks at the time[1] promoted rhetoric as a masculine endeavor and thus women were offered a type of rhetorical training that “helped them become more effective in their sphere,” referred to as parlor rhetoric (24). Even in texts that seem to refer to gender-inclusive speakers, it is clear from close analysis of these texts that the appropriate venue for male speakers is the public, whereas “women needed only to acquire those rhetorical skills that corroborated their roles as wives, mothers, or light-hearted entertainers” (38).  Women are often shown in costume “acting” melodramatic roles with “pathetic and homelike qualities,” whereas men are depicted as respected public orators (43). Thus, the rhetorical powers granted to women in this area via the popular books on the topic relegated women to situations with the least amount of power, despite offering them expanded rhetorical capabilities. Johnson’s work offers a critical perspective on the rhetorical texts available to women during this time, and gives a comparative perspective with which to view the work done at Western in this area. Alterations that occurred at Western near the turn of the century, including its change to a college, a new, more progressive president, and the introduction of an elocution course specifically designed to give women more rhetorical power in society, show that there was some resistance to this gendered model of rhetorical abilities common in the “parlor rhetoric” genre popular during this time.

Work Cited:

Johnson, Nan. “Parlor Rhetoric and the Performance of Gender.” Gendered and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. 19-47. Print.


[1] Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric is mentioned specifically as promoting a masculine agenda in rhetorical practices in order to “produce successful public discourse” (26). It is interesting to note that, according to The Western Oxford’s , the Western library procured Newman’s text in 1854 and it was used as part of the course, despite its bias against women. Quackenbos, also mentioned as particularly masculine, was the primary rhetorical text used at Western beginning in 1886.

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