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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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“The Agora,” The Western Oxford’s, and The Nellie Tilton Warfield Essay Prize

“The Agora”was a women’s club initiated at Western in 1894 that promoted discussion, lectures, and intellectual development amongst its members stating that its mission is “first, to awaken and develop the interest of its members in all vital questions, and to prepare them for active participation in the great movements of the day – literary, social, and philanthropic.” In the first program produced by this club, twice-monthly lectures are

The Agora program 1895

announced that are given by various members of the club. Each month has a topic: “History and Travel,” “Literature and Fine Arts,” and “Contemporary Events.” Particular subjects include, “Greek Music,” “Debate: Resolved, That the House of Lords should be abolished,” “The French Revolution and its Relation to English Poetry,” “The Noble Peasant in Russia,” and “The Eastern Question.” Given the practice of reciting compositions, it is likely that these lectures were fully or largely written prior to their delivery, though unfortunately I could find no remaining samples of these papers. Additionally, this shows evidence of public debate amongst the women as part of these activities, a skill often denied to women at this time. The topics delivered demonstrate an interest and knowledge of diverse issues, as well as a sophisticated awareness of the purpose of these meetings and the audience to which these deliveries would be addressed.  It further demonstrates the initiative of the women of Western in creating, sharing, and providing educational opportunities to one another in addition to their official curriculum.

The Western Oxford’s were publications produced quarterly and seem to have been distributed via subscription. Included within them are reports about students and alumnae, mention of major events, editorials, letters from alumnae, fictional stories, essays, and lists of new additions to the library. By reviewing these publications, additional information about Western can be gained, including the types of writing that students were doing near the end of the nineteenth century, and the books to which they had access.

I was especially interested in The Nellie Tilton Warfield Essay Prize, as the winning essay each year was to be published in The Western Oxford’s and would give an example of an exemplary essay for that year. Publication of these essays did not appear to occur with complete regularity, however, and I was only able to find a couple that still fell within the timeframe of the nineteenth century. The two that I reviewed, from 1896 and 1989, were both literary analyses on a George Elliot novel and Wordsworth, respectively. These essays give some insight as to the type of writing students were doing by the turn of the century, as by this time, seniors were required to take a History of Literature course along with English Composition; it is possible that the winning essay was taken from assignments produced in this class, given the topics and the centrality of literature to them.

Works Cited:

“The Agora: 1895.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Print Original.

“The Nellie Tilton Warfield Essay Prize.” The Western Oxford’s 4.4 (1896) and 7.1 (1898). Print.

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The Letters of Jane and Jennie Williams, 1862-1867

The Letters of Jane and Jennie Williams, 1862-1867This lengthy series of letters were written mostly by Jane, but partially by Jennie, Williams during the years of 1862 through 1867. They are addressed primarily to “Dear Brother Roger,” ostensibly a younger brother who was, given the content of the letters, also working on academic studies and came from a family that did not live all that far away from Western in Paddy’s Run, about four miles west of Ross, Ohio. In these letters, Jane offers insights into the composition pedagogy at Western, mentioning the time spent working on this writing, as well as “special assignments” given by Miss Peabody where students are asked to compose a letter rather than a regular assignment. She also mentions that compositions are orally recited each week and that feedback/criticism is offered by other students; specific assignment topics, and a newspaper “called the Kailiedscope which was composed of pieces written by the girls in the first division of compositions” are also mentioned (November 27, 1863). Jane also discusses a composition assignment where they were asked “to write a letter to our little brothers about 12 or 13 years old, and tell him how to write compositions,” which is an interesting meta-cognitive reflective piece that was unfortunately not included in this collection (September 23, 1863).  Also evident from these letters is the amount of domestic work expected from the students; as time goes on, Jane complains more and more of exhaustion and it is clear that her health begins to suffer by the end of the letters.

These letters offer significant insight into the type of personal correspondence conducted by

"Dear Brother Roger"

the women at Western, as well as offering information about the composition requirements, assignments, and practices that were utilized. Also apparent is the sheer amount of writing that was regularly enacted at this time – there is often mention of a number of letters written, as well as criticisms toward the receiver if he has been negligent in his own letter writing duties. This type of writing appears much less regulated that that found in Adda Collier’s journal, the audience for which was the faculty at Western, rather than the more intimate rhetorical situation of letters sent to family members. The views expressed in student letters are often different than accounts of the school offered by faculty in their Letters to Holyoke, a difference that is important to the areas I am researching in this project.

Work Cited:

“Williams, Jane & Jennie. Letters. 1862-1867.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Original Copies and Typed Transcriptions.

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Section Book: 1858-1859 and Composition Assignment Sheet

In the early days of Western, marks for certain aspects of the educational experience were tallied in Section Books; this particular book tracks the performance of a group of seventeen women whose last names began with the letters A through G for this academic school year. On the first pages of the book, there is a detailed list of particular regular activities (such as Weekly Reports and Payment of debts) listed, along with a considerably longer list of apparent infractions (Wardrobe not in order, Riding without permission, Taking company to rooms, Sitting or lying on spreads or quilts, Delaying in halls, etc.) that were tracked for each student on an ongoing basis.

In the front cover of this Section Book, I found a handwritten Composition Assignment that gave the directions for the weekly requirement for this course, which at this time was required during all three years of the Western education. According to this document, assignments were required to be written on composition paper, thirty lines long, and handed in at the fifteen minute bell before dinner [on Saturday]. Additionally, the document states that “the required time is 3 hrs.; more or less than that time is plus or minus. Less than two hours is delinquency. Time spent in reading or writing on subjects not finally used is not counted.” It is clear from this assignment that length and time spent writing are what is of the highest importance, though from the Section Book it is clear that other criteria were also tracked in student writing.

The Section Book has a two-page spread entitled “Composition Times” with the seventeen students listed in the far left column, along with their composition times listed for each week as plus or minus amounts of time, as in +1/2, – ¼, =,  etc. An additional two-page spread tracking the same students is entitled “Number of Mis-spelled Words” and likewise tracks this amount for each student. Time spent on Domestic Duties is also tracked in this book; these times were recorded on pages between the “Composition Times” and “Number of Mis-spelled Words.” Grades,  per say, are not recorded in this book.

Bessie Nelson’s Journal

A similar Section Book was also found for the years 1880-1881 recorded by Bessie Nelson. She, too, records “Composition Times” in her book, though in this case, she tracks times by plus or minus quarter-hour intervals, as in +60, -15, +30, etc. In week twenty-nine, the

Bessie Nelson

times are totaled and +X, -X, or = signs are indicated. Nelson’s book does not include a table of misspellings, thus it is uncertain if these were assessed or not at this time. Other aspects of student life tracked in Nelson’s journal are domestic duties, money given for missionary work, behavioral infractions, absences, tardiness, and meeting wardrobe expectations.

I have chosen to use these documents as a means of understanding the ways that composition assignments were given and expected to be fulfilled. It is interesting to note that time spent writing and the length of the pieces were of such great importance, more so even than content or (at least at some point) correctness. When composition is mentioned by students in letters, it is with an attitude of disdain and dread, much like the domestic work that takes so much time from their lives. It seems, from the way that composition scores were assessed and recorded, that these practices were placed on much the same level as domestic duties, as evidenced by both the reactions from the students, as well as the recording methods of the faculty. This is helpful in situating the practice of writing from both a pedagogical perspective and as a requirement within the lives of students at Western, giving an example of the type of prescribed, regulated, and obligatory writing that they were expected to do as part of their education, and the ways in which it was assessed.

Works Cited:

“Section Book: 1858-1859,” “Composition Assignment Sheet,” and “Bessie Nelson’s Journal.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Original Copies.

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 Journal/Composition Assignments by Adda Collier, 1876 – 1877

This set of thirteen journal entries by Adda Collier appear to be composition assignments that were written between September of 1876 and April of 1877. The two distinguishing features that lead me to assume that these are composition assignments are 1) there are times written on the more complete writings, all of which designate “3 hours,” the time that students were required to spend on their weekly composition assignments and 2) the titles seem to indicate the prompt, either assigned or suggested, given to the students for the assignment.

As substantiated in the Composition Assignment found in the Section Book, students were required to write thirty lines of prose in three hours – no more, and no less – each week. The more substantial pieces found in Collier’s journal note that three hours were taken to complete each piece; these pieces are comprised of about four hundred twenty to four hundred fifty words each, which likely correlates to the thirty (handwritten) lines required for the assignment. They take up approximately one and a quarter typed (transcribed) pages, and one (“Dear Friend”) is reminiscent of the Letters Theme mentioned by Jane Williams in her letters to her brother, Roger. The other titles of entries appear to be prompts or suggestions given by an outside source, as Collier often seems to have little to say about the topic and repeats and/or contradicts herself, which implies that the topic may not have been self-selected.

I’ve chosen these journal entries to use in this project as they are the only direct sample of class assignments from Western I have found from this time period that were not essay prize winners from later in the century. Additionally, this gives some examples of drafts (possibly) not used as final compositions, attempts at writing, possible true free writing in some instances (there are some subjectless pieces that do not include times), as well as historically, culturally, and personally intriguing insights into the thought processes of Collier.

Work Cited:

“Journal of Adda Collier 1876-1877.” Western College Memorial Archives,16 Peabody Hall,  Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Transcribed Print Copy.

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“A Real Vexation: Student Writing in Mount Holyoke’s Culture of Service, 1837-1865.”

Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary was the “sister school” of Western, and all of the initial teachers (including the principle, Miss Peabody) were taught and trained at Mt. Holyoke. Western specifically employed “The Holyoke System” at their school, modeling their education, religious, and disciplinary methods after those at Mt. Holyoke. For several

Mt. Holyoke in 1837

decades after the opening of Western, detailed journals were kept and sent to Mt. Holyoke, and the schools both supported the idea of educating women for the roles of either teaching or missionary work, with the latter receiving the greatest emphasis. (Teachers being “called” to missionary work is a recurring theme in “Letters to Holyoke,” and lists of former students who became missionaries were compiled and celebrated.) Because of the close relationship between Mt. Holyoke and Western, including the direct modeling of Western’s curriculum upon the Mt. Holyoke model, I’ve chosen to examine this article, as, to my knowledge, there has been no direct research on the writing curriculum at Western to date.

Campbell discusses the dual and sometimes conflicting roles of the first-generation female college students that simultaneously valued the religious, service-based aspects of educating women on one hand with the “lone scholar,” individualistic paradigm of higher education on the other. This was especially problematic for female students who, for reasons of historical/cultural propriety, were not allowed to “sing their own praises” academically, nor had they been socialized to think of themselves as knowledgeable or intellectually gifted. Campbell examined hundreds of composition themes in her research, including those from the schools that, along with Mt. Holyoke, made up “The Seven Sisters” of women’s colleges, and also compared these to themes written by men at Harvard during the same time. She found that women repeatedly had trouble coming up with themes on which to write, and it seems from this work that no writing instruction per say was offered. Rather, students were expected to produce a certain amount of writing (fifty lines) in a particular amount of time (eight hours) on a weekly basis. (Though the times and lengths were slightly different, this is a comparable method to that used at Western.) Campbell believes that part of the difficulty for students arose from the disconnection between the encouragement to write from their own experience (a concept initially very foreign to many students) but with no sense of purpose or “use” to this writing.

This article was helpful to my research in a variety of ways. Though there is little available research about composition practices at Western, many of the practices discussed in this article are corroborated by letters, teacher’s journals, and other documents I have found in the Western Archive, further demonstrating that there was great overlap in both the pedagogy and criticisms (by students) of some of those practices. The additional information gained in this article (such as a list of potential theme titles) gives some background to the possible practices at Western when those direct documents are absent. It also brings up several theoretical issues situating composition practices within this particular socio/historical context, i.e. young adult women in the first wave of American female college students finding themselves caught in the tensions between cultural expectations of women as intellectually inferior “helpmates” to men, versus the more academically rigorous demands of the Seminary education in which they were expected to excel. Thus, I found this article both relevant and illuminating, as it supported and further explained many of the artifacts I have been reviewing in my own research.

Work Cited:

Campbell, JoAnn. “A Real Vexation: Student Writing in Mount Holyoke’s Culture of Service, 1837-1865.” College English 59.7 (1997): 767-788. Print.

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The Western College for Women by Nedra Nelson

Part I: 1853 – 1880

and

Part II: 1880 – 1905

This book is considered “the bible” of the Western College experience, according to Jacqueline Johnson of Western Archives, and details the history of Western from its first inception as a sister school of Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century through the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. The first two parts, which include eight chapters, covers the time period in which I have the greatest interest and gives an account of what life, study, and religion were like during the formative years of Western.

The information gathered to write this book came from many sources, including writing and letters from faculty at Mt. Holyoke, newspaper accounts, historical data, land records, and other various sources. It is quite unfortunate that The Western College for Women is not more thoroughly documented, as it makes tracking down many of the sources for further examination impossible. This was clearly written for a popular audience that wanted a well-researched but conversational account of the history of Western, and though many sources of the quotes are given within the text, often they are not. Additionally, there are no footnotes or endnotes, nor is a bibliographic table provided that would offer a comprehensive list of the sources used in compiling this work.

Despite these limitations, The Western College for Women offers insight into the history and experience of women at Western, though often from the perspective of more “official” channels; this is the “public face” of Western and/or that taken from the writings of faculty, who were often (in my research) given to a particular view of their institution that did not always mesh with the experiences reported by students.

An example of this discrepancy is the claim made by Western regarding the amount of time and energy that students would be expected to engage in domestic duties. Since Western kept its tuition costs at a minimum, they made up for the lessened income by requiring students to attend to their own domestic needs, rather than hiring staff to take care of cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. (This was also the model at Mt. Holyoke, from where Miss

Miss Peabody

Peabody, the first principle, and many of the initial faculty graduated and with which they remained closely affiliated for many decades.) The Western College for Women reports that concerns were raised about the young women doing domestic work at school, but that the “Holyoke System” was “vigorously defend[ed]” in an article from around 1860 in The Christian Herald as being healthful, and of an amount that any “energetic American girl” could manage. According to the official claims of the school, “domestic duties, the article explained, demand of each student a maximum of only sixty or seventy-five minutes daily,” which seems a reasonable amount for young women at a boarding school to conduct and still maintain focus on academics (60). However, this is not the experience reported in letters by students, who claimed that domestic labor was so extensive and time-consuming that studies and sleep were often neglected more than was optimal.

Though this work definitely reflects the “official account” of the Western experience, it offers valuable details about various aspects about the environment and experience of this institution, and is perhaps the only source where this overview can be attained cohesively. This book offers information about tuition rates, religious services, material history (such as when buildings were built, burned down, rebuilt, etc.), historical events (such as the Civil War and its effects upon the school), the religious focus, details of visiting lecturers and friends, the relationship with Mt. Holyoke, and the ongoing battle to keep the women of Western and the men of Miami University at a discreet distance from one another. The narrative style of this work makes it very readable and interesting, and Nelson does use a variety of well-sought sources, despite the difficulty that a subsequent researcher might have in locating or discerning some of them.  As an historic overview, The Western College for Women is integral for contextualizing other research about the lives, experiences, and academic/religious pursuits of the women at Western in the first fifty years of its existence.

Nelson, Narka. The Western College for Women.  Dayton, OH: Otterbein Press, 1967. 1-124. Print.

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