Guest Post: Rachel Lewis’ On Gender & Rhetoric

Rachel Lewis ’16

Gender & Rhetoric

When many of us think of rhetoric, we think of Aristotle. We think of Plato. And we think of loads of other white males. Very rarely do we think about the women of rhetoric – and can you blame us? It’s hard enough to get an understanding of what rhetoric is, let alone the people who run the show. It takes a lot of work to even find information about people other than men who were involved in building our understanding of rhetoric. If you’re searching too quickly, you risk glossing over people beyond white men who influenced rhetoric.
So who are these people?
Let’s begin flipping the script by talking about Aspasia. She was the first woman rhetorician that I remember learning about. As is often the case with women in male dominated fields, Aspasia was largely discredited. I was shocked to learn that some believe she was the one who taught Socrates the Socratic method. She’s this really interesting woman because people don’t know very much about her at all. According to Lilith, a feminist e-zine that dedicates itself to exploring the stories of women, “Aspasia was probably a hetaira. There is no English word to accurately translate hetairai, but they were more than courtesans. They were indeed sexual partners, but they were also companions, better educated than other Greek women. They were educated in philosophy, history, politics, science, art and literature, so that they could converse intelligently with sophisticated men. Aspasia was considered by many to be the most beautiful and intelligent of the city’s hetairai.”
But everything about her remains messy. I remain critical of the idea that a woman could only have value if she was linked to the sexualities of other men, and was a woman among men; I am frustrated with the theorizing that Aspasia wasn’t like other women, and didn’t spend her time with other women, but rather entertaining men.
However, there is little out there, or, at least, little accessible material.
Fortunately, there are other women rhetoricians. There’s Diotima, a Greek priestess, who discussed love in great detail. She worked with Socrates as well. There’s Christine de Pizan, who helped shape the conversation about whether women could be rhetoricians despite their sex, intentional or not, just by the fact of her being a woman and a writer.

There’s also Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a woman in more recent history (well, late 1700s) who fought against the idea that men were somehow superior communicators as a result of their sex. She published “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” a rather straightforward title that sought to shift education to include women. An extremely feminist woman and great rhetorician, she also benefited the writing world by birthing the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.

Why do these names matter? What difference does it make that women have practiced and theorized about rhetoric? To me, at least, it makes all the difference. Why? Because I am a woman, and I’ve studied rhetoric.
For many, there is value in having role models, and examples. There is a strength in knowing that people like you have once done the thing that you’re interested in doing. Intentional or not, by being recognized rhetoricians, these women helped shape the field into one that was less male and more inclusive. The simple fact that we don’t often call people like Plato “male rhetoricians” but call Aspasia a “female rhetorician” shows that there is room for improvement regarding the inclusivity of the field of rhetoric when it comes to women. In many ways, we still see male as the default.
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One Comment

  1. Posted February 27, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    This is the first time I have even heard about female rhetoricians. I am rejoicing because I didn’t even know there were any. My Understanding Rhetoric professor prefaced the first day of class by saying that we will spend a lot of time talking about old, dead white guys. Well, she certainly wasn’t lying. I don’t necessarily think that Aspasia was only valuable because of her sexual relationships with men. At least for me, I’d like to think that she was using her position to her advantage. Of course, I haven’t even heard of Aspasia so I would love to know more of her story before making any judgements.