Refiguring Family:

Rhetoric, Feminist Voices, and Digital Publishing

The Issue

As special issue editors of Harlot’s issue on family rhetoric, we were struck immediately by the high percentage of female authors, by the dominance of the issues concerning women (particularly mothering), by the intimate and biographical style used by authors, and by the feminist perspective many authors employed. The figure below provides more specific information about our creators, the perspectives they presented in their work, and the themes we came across in the submissions (Issue 6: Family Rhetoric).

Figure 1

86% of authors were women
14% of authors were men
60% of the submissions take a feminist perspective (see our definition of feminism below)
50% of the submissions speak to mothering/motherhood
36% of submissions were written from a mother's perspective
The themes that emerged from the full set of submissions include the following:
· how computers affect mother/daughter relationships
· the rhetoric of mothering/unmothering in social networking sites
· popular culture representations of family
· sexuality and mothering
· family and identity
· infertility
· definitions of family
· father/daughter communication
· rhetoric embedded in family names
· abuse/abandonment by parent
· family communication/communication about family via social networking
· cultural narratives about women's nature, including sacrifice as critical element of femininity/motherhood as sacrifice
· role of silence in family communication
· myth of unconditional love of a mother
· questions what makes a mother/when become a mother
· relationship between family, education, and race/class
· rhetoric of communication between struggling couple
· identity as single mother
· documenting family history

Family and Feminist Perspectives

We didn't set out to create a feminist issue on family rhetoric. It was surprising to us that a general call for works on the rhetoric of family ended up speaking so substantially to feminism. And while we agree with Allan G. Johnson (2006) in his trepidation in defining feminism because “definitions can be used to establish an exclusive ‘one true feminism’ that separates ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’” (p. 112), we feel it is important to understand our particular view and approach to feminism and why we consider this issue feminist.  For us, feminism

is a way of thinking—of observing the world, asking questions, and looking for answers—that may lead to particular opinions but doesn't consist of the opinions themselves. One could be pro-choice or in favor of equal pay, for example, on purely moral or liberal political grounds without any basis in a feminist analysis of gender. In this sense, feminism refers to ways of understanding such issues from various points of view, all of which share a common focus of concern [gender inequality] (Johnson, 2006, p. 113).

While this is a very general definition of feminism, we appreciate its emphasis on understanding gender inequality from various points of view because it encapsulates what happened in our special issue. This general definition allows us to a large degree avoid essentialist pitfalls that come with definitions yet helps us describe the pattern we found in the submissions for our issue on family rhetoric.

Also useful here is Wood's (1995) definition of "feminist approaches," approaches present in a majority of the articles submitted to the family rhetoric issue: 

Encompassing diverse, sometimes conflicting intellectual traditions, feminist enquiry is unified by the belief that females and males, femininity and masculinity are equally valuable. Feminist scholars seek to identify, critique and alter structures and practices that actively or passively hinder equality. Participating in a broadly based critique of received notions of knowledge and cultural life, feminist enquiry typically supplants grand theory with tentative, situated and interpretive analyses....The axis of feminist enquiry is gender, which consists of deeply ensconced social meanings and their derivative, power. Not a code word for women, gender is a cultural construction that profoundly affects women, men, and relationships between them (p. 104).

These approaches are consistent with Thompson and Walker's (1995) description of the themes of feminist scholarship they found in their examination of family studies journals, including themes also present in Harlot's special issue: 1) social construction of gender as a central concept, 2) centrality of women's lives and experiences--which they found, interestingly, focused almost entirely on women as mothers and daughters, and 3) questioning who/what family is.

To our surprise, we found that in their use of those themes many of our authors acted as "figural materialists" in their analyses of family and motherhood. In other words, though perhaps not explicitly, many of our authors treated "mother" and "family" as rhetorical figures of critique "through which bodies, structures, and spaces (and the relationships among them) are imagined, imaged, represented and performed" (McAlister, 2011, p. 297). Their analyses, consequently, perform McAlister's (2011) analytical method of "figural materialism" in which rhetorical figures move beyond discursive text (i.e. a rhetorical text is redefined to "include images, material artifacts, and social spaces, and struggles over the definition, method, and principles of materialist critique") (McAlister, 2011, p. 296) and are analyzed and positioned in relation to how they guide and/or are guided by materialist and social practices.

We, therefore, believe Harlot's family rhetoric issue is feminist because a majority of submissions for this issue dealt with women's roles and perspectives on and within family, often implicitly critiqued patriarchal paradigms of these roles, and showed how mother or family is a rhetorical figure helping create a particular materiality and set of social relations practiced in everyday life. Whether obvious (like mother-daughter bonding) or comically motivated (like a daughter dealing with her mother in a social media context), these subjects deal critically and specifically with the role of women within the context of family and within politically charged notions of family.

Rhetorical Style

We also noticed that the pieces were very personal and autobiographical. Though this is not necessarily unusual for Harlot in that our journal's mission seems to inspire such writing and our CFS did ask for "rhetflections" or "rhetorically reflective stories," we were still surprised that about 70% of the submissions adopted this intimate style. After all, we asked for less personal "analyses and critiques" too.

Authors' choices to use a personal style and autobiographical sources meant that they chose to use data sites and a style that traditionally have been excluded from scholarly work, though they have become increasingly acceptable when included in small doses and with clear roles in otherwise academically sound investigations. Theresa Enos (2003) comments on how, though women and men use "narration as a way of arguing, or personal narrative to create voice" (p. 567), this is often considered a "'female style'" and is a non-traditional approach to scholarly work. We believe this assumption continues to exist and that authors (regardless of gender) who contribute such personal and expressivist works are legitimizing such a rhetorical style.

Family Rhetoric Texts

To help illustrate what we've described about "Family and Feminist Perspectives" and "Rhetorical Style" from the submissions we received, we'd like to highlight three of the submissions that were published in this special issue. First, we present a video by Kristin Arola, titled "Rhetoric, Christmas Cards, and Infertility: A Season of Silence." Below is Arola's creator's statement introducing her video:

When I first saw the call for the special issue on family rhetoric, I found myself feeling left out. While I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, and a wife, in spite of many years and dollars spent trying to be a mother, I am unable to do so. I do not have my own family. As I contemplated my own rhetoric of "the family," holiday cards began to pile up. Card after card, letter after letter, all about kids—kids I do not have. Suddenly it occurred to me, I did have something to say about family rhetoric, about who gets included and excluded in our notions of family. I also realized I needed to revise my own understandings of family. This short essay is my exploration of the intersections between family, rhetoric, and infertility.

In this video, Arola asks us to consider what constitutes family. Based on her analysis of Christmas cards, a Google search, and personal experience, Arola concludes that our notions of family are limited and she calls us "to create a family discourse so that we see family where we didn't before." As she makes clear in her creator’s statement, her critique of the rhetoric of family was inspired by her recognition that even she identified family with having children, with being a mother. Working to complicate and redefine the figure of family with this piece, Arola is acting as a figural materialist—treating “family” as a figure with important materialist consequences, which she hopes to “re-figure.”

A second piece in the special issue on family rhetoric takes on the issue of fertility and mothering. Rebecca Ingalls describes her piece, titled "In Defense of the Unmother: Rhetoric, Motherhood, and Social Networking," as follows:

Accumulating thousands of testimonials, cycle charts, and photographs of positive pregnancy tests, fertility social networking sites offer consolation and hope to women who are trying to conceive. Despite the comfort they bring, however, the words and images of these sites help to perpetuate a divisive message about the superlative virtue of childbearing, constituting those who cannot or choose not to become parents as morally and physically inferior.

I set out to do this analysis because I wanted to illustrate the message-within-the message in the online rhetorical constructions of mothering and "unmothering." I emerged from this research with a push for a rhetorical re-conception of female achievement that hopes to imagine a new kind of feminist solidarity, a way of seeing progeny in a new light.

Interestingly, Ingalls' piece employs the term "unmothering" not to describe someone who cannot have children, due to infertility issues, but as someone who has chosen not to be a mother. What she shows, then, in her analysis of social networking sites is that the rhetorical construction of the mother these sites create portrays women who choose to be mothers as nurturing, selfless, compassionate, gentle, and patient. The assumptions present in this rhetorical construction of mothers, Ingalls argues, seem to suggest that women who choose not to become mothers possess the opposite traits. Ingalls concludes by proposing we revise our views (and our language) in order to disrupt the narrow views of women such rhetorical constructions perpetuate. Like Arola, we think Ingalls is framing her analysis as a "figural materialist." She connects the figure of "mother" to materialist and social practices and is working to refigure mothering/motherhood.

Jaqueline McLeod Rogers' "Moms and Teen Daughters: Make Room for the Internet," explores motherhood through a different lens and reports on the ways mothers and daughters are using digital communications technologies. She describes her work below:

In several short decades, computers have moved into the heart of our homes and lives. As mom to two older teenage girls, I have been intrigued by the question of how mother-daughter relationships have changed because of relentless internet connection. To begin answering this, I combined my experiences with responses provided by four other mother-daughter pairs. What surprised me most? Moms of my generation believe we are closer to our daughters than we were as teens to our own mothers, yet our daughters unsettle this by choosing anyone-but-mom as confidante. Not that they are internet addicted — they value friends, books, and TV as other windows on the world. Together in using technology more and more, mothers and daughters are growing resilient cyborg skins.

Despite her position as an academic, Rogers situates herself in the creator's statement as a "mom to two older teenage girls." Her research—consisting of her personal experience and interviews—challenges the assumptions and figures that seem to revolve around the relationships between mothers, daughters, and technology and notes that she, herself, even "expected some of the mothers [she interviewed] might recast the [Persephone] myth in digital times to depict the internet as a modern-day Hades figure...". She also presumed her interview subjects would see "the internet as a force detracting from the mother-daughter bond—pulling daughter from mother, an interloper, even a dark and threatening presence to the extent that it has the potential to make illicit connections." Rogers finds this an inaccurate comparison and, instead, shows how digital technologies, the Internet in particular, are changing mother-daughter communication and connections in ways that can, in fact, strengthen their bonds. In her final statements, Rogers' plea for us to "share the responsibility for watching, remaking — even unmaking — this connection," is (like Arola and Ingalls) challenging a rhetorical figure of family: in this case, the figure of the mother/daughter relationship as being estranged through digital communication technologies.

Overall and as the example texts above showcase, the family rhetoric issue taught us feminist perspectives, and especially issues related to mothering, are central to our authors’ considerations of family rhetoric. We learned that several authors worked to refigure our understandings of family, particularly the mother figure. We also learned that our call for family rhetoric cultivated and created a space for personal, critical reflections on family.