Short Paper #1: Bizzel’s “Opportunities”

Bizzell, Patricia. “Opportunities for Feminist Research in the History of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review. 2.1 (1992): 50-58.

Patricia Bizzell begins “Opportunities for Feminist Research in the History of Rhetoric” – the oldest selection from this week’s set of readings (1992) – by reflecting on her and Bruce Herzberg’s selections for the (then) first edition of The Rhetorical Tradition. She describes how they were “surprised to find that research in rhetoric was so traditional” (50). They were surprised, she claimed, because there was so much “canon-busting” going on over there in English studies. I found this claim – and their use of words like “surprised” and “dismayed” – curiously passive. Were Bizzell and Herzberg not part of the discipline of English? And how did they define “traditional”? As knowledgeable historians hired to choose appropriate selections for this anthology, how could this have been a discovery for them? The women authors recovered or referenced in the articles by Campbell, Mattingly, and Sutherland – who contributed to the special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly twelve years later in 2002 – were exhaustive. I was interested to learn that Bizzell and Herzberg couldn’t find anything, especially when the other authors found so much. A few questions came from this observation: Where were they looking? Did they, in actuality, find stuff but were just too anxious to include them? Was this article actually a rebuttal to accusations that the editors themselves were complicit in such elitist practices? Or were the methods proposed in this piece essential to “open up spaces” for feminist historiography in rhetoric?

While the other questions are worth weighing, the last one renders them more or less moot. Bizzell does not come right out and say it, but her main point in “Opportunities” is to argue that she and Herzberg could not contest the tradition because the real problem was the lack of method for recovering such work – not the lack of extant texts. In response, she outlines three approaches that would prove useful to feminist historiography in rhetoric. The more recent articles we read this week either took up these approaches (especially the second and third) or actually added to them by contributing new approaches themselves. Ultimately, those texts responded to Bizzell’s call for more research, more work – the “let’s do it!” passion that must have made the text so inspiring.

Bizzell’s first approach asks revisionists to become “resisting readers,” a term borrowed from literary critics that requires historiographers to “notice aspects of the canonical texts that the reader is not supposed to notice, but that disturb, when the reader is a woman, and create resistance to the view of reality the work seems to want to purvey” (51). Her idea is to appropriate these texts – to resignify – the traditional canon by using feminist perspectives. Bizzell acknowledges, however, that critics might see this kind of work as not quite far enough away from the tradition (51) – and she might be right. None of the authors we read for today employed this strategy explicitly. Still, some of the authors did encourage re-readings of certain narratives (such as the Lorena Bobbitt story), which could be seen as resistant.

The second approach Bizzell recommends requires scholars to do more recovery work by finding female rhetors similar to those men traditionally canonized. The purpose of this approach, of course, is inclusion, but it is also to “[set] their work in dialogue with the canon” (51), to use them as potential foils for the established rhetors. Each article in the special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly agrees with Bizzell that more recovery needs to be done via primary research. Carol Mattingly, for example, begins her article by summarizing how thousands of years of masculine scholarship cannot compare to few decades’ worth of feminist study. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell provides a brief history of recovered texts in the U.S. (perhaps in an attempt to rewrite this canon). And Christine Mason Sutherland suggests that the act of primary research is preferable because is avoids the adversarial/masculine tendency of working with only secondary research.

Bizzell predicted, however, that this second approach would be criticized for borrowing the same criteria as used for men’s inclusion in the canon and thus suggested an alternative third approach that requires scholars to redefine or broaden terms of rhetoric so that previously unchecked areas of history might be recovered. One way to do this, she suggests, is to avoid looking for names and authors, but instead looking for issues. “If women are not represented in the traditional history of rhetoric,” she argues, “we might look for the issues that throw into relief the social practices that resulted in this exclusion, thus also highlighting where women are, as well as where they are not” (54). Examining schooling and literacy, or how women gained the right to speak in public on certain issues would get feminists away from the masculine “counting match” that the study of authors tends to encourage.

Most of the women writing in 2002 agreed that applying masculine criteria to women’s rhetoric would be a step back and thus strove to advance recovery work by becoming more theoretical. Mattingly asks historiographers to reconsider what counts as evidence when looking at how women used rhetoric “since many of the traditional tools of rhetoric were denied to them” (106). Similarly, Campbell reminds us that the criterion used to revere traditional masculine rhetoric is why alternative rhetorics have been excluded in the first place. Instead, she argues feminists need to link recovery with recuperation to theorize about women’s discursive practices.

While Bizzell’s article looks outdated when compared to the feminist texts from 2002, its explicit, innovative approaches clearly had a lasting impact on the discipline; however, I also wonder if it oversimplifies the gender dynamic by reinforcing gender binaries that I assume queer rhetorics have subsequently complicated. I wonder how the male/female dichotomy, for example, actually damages or at least reinforces some of what these methods seeks to subvert.