Foresights from a Foremother: Sally Miller Gearhart

Cheryl Glenn

Pennsylvania State University

Andrea A. Lunsford

Stanford University

All will not be accomplished in one lifetime.

--Sally Miller Gearhart, The Wanderground, 29

Finding Sally Miller Gearhart

Three potential phone numbers for “Gearhart.” Two were duds. On Andrea’s last try, after the fourth ring, a spirited “Hello!” “I’m trying to reach Sally Miller Gearhart.” “Hi, I’m Sally. Who are you?” came the bright response. “I’m Andrea Lunsford and I am a fan of yours—and I found out I live only ninety miles from you. Do you think I might come for a visit?” “Of course, you must come!”

So on July 15, 2019, Andrea set off, driving north on Highway 1, which clings to the Pacific Ocean, and then turns inland over mountainous terrain. Two narrow lanes the whole way, highway work stoppages, and fog made the ninety miles stretch as one hour turned into two and then into three and a half. Once in Willets, California, Andrea’s trusty GPS directed her out of town and onto a country lane that turned into a dirt road and took her to a deserted farmhouse. Her cell signal was very weak, but she got through to Sally, who directed Andrea back over the dirt road and then to a turn both she and her GPS had missed. Andrea pulled into the yard and looked up to see Gearhart leaning out of her window, beckoning Andrea inside.

And what an “inside.” Gearhart lives in the cabin that she and friends built decades ago, when she was teaching at San Francisco State: “We just kept going north looking for a place to be free. And then we came to Willets and that was it.” Inside, a wooden rail runs around two sides of the great room, pretty high up, with shoes on pegs hanging from one and baseball caps from the other. Books and magazines and maps everywhere. They went to the dining/kitchen area beyond the living room, to Gearhart’s table, where she had notebooks, stacks of cards, a blow-up globe, candles, and more books. “This is where I think and work.” Huge smile.

They shook hands, then hugged, then sat to talk. At 89, Gearhart is tall and wiry—and very fast-moving. Andrea had brought a copy of Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and Feminism, with her “Womanization of Rhetoric” reprinted there. “Oh goody—and look what I have to show you!” With that, and before Andrea could even begin to get out of her chair, Gearhart had leapt from hers and climbed onto a teetering stool to reach something on the highest shelf—a copy of her 1979 meditation on ecology, feminism, rhetoric, and lesbianism, The Wanderground. (Did Andrea say that Gearhart was wearing a Wanderground t-shirt, proudly? More about this remarkable novel later!).

What followed was three hours of very lively talk as Gearhart thought back over her long life and career, the outlines of which—leading up to “The Womanization of Rhetoric”—are fairly well known, though talking with her added intriguing details to this history. Born (April 17, 1931) in rural conservative Appalachian Virginia to a deeply religious family, Gearhart was raised by her mother and grandmother, who showed her that women were the “source of power, the heart of action, the focal point of love.” Since her grandmother owned a local theater, Gearhart says she “saw every show” and was influenced by movies and the short features that preceded them in those days. Reflecting on “The Lone Ranger and Tonto,” Gearhart says she identified with the Native American sidekick especially since she is “one-sixteenth Cherokee.” “Everything was free and good, going from generation to generation, and then here comes the damn white man from across the sea, to which I admit I am also kin. And all of a sudden, all of this land and this whole country became the playground for the English and the rich people of Europe.”

In addition to the movies she was absorbing, Gearhart devoured the “funny papers” that arrived on Sundays, saying she learned life lessons from the Kaatzenjammer Kids and Joe Palooka (“Remember him?” she said, adding “he was a stand-up guy who stood by his word.”). But she was learning other lessons as well, increasingly aware of the racism and discrimination in “my good old home state of Virginia where we beat the slaves and drove the cotton.” She vividly recalls the power of the Klan in her community: “Once the leader of the Klan put me on his horse in front of him and rode me around Harrisonburg, Virginia, when my family won some sort of contest. . . . We were scared s***less because we didn’t know whether or when they were going to come in the middle of the night.”

Gearhart, the Activist Academic

Gearhart recalls slowly but surely realizing she needed to get beyond this “home community,” and she saw education as a way to do so, matriculating at Sweet Briar where she double majored in English and drama and graduated in 1952. She says she fully discovered her lesbianism in college and rejected the idea of a “conventional domestic life: the alternatives I could see were to be a prostitute or a nun—or go to graduate school.” And so to graduate school she went, taking an MA in theater and public address at Bowling Green in 1953 and then a PhD in theater at the University of Illinois in 1956. The next fifteen years, she notes, were spent “deep in the closet,” as she taught speech and theater “and some rhetoric” at Stephen F. Austin State University and two other small schools before turning westward in 1970 and heading for San Francisco.

By 1973, Gearhart was on the faculty at San Francisco State, where she says she was the “first open lesbian” to receive tenure, perhaps in the entire state. During the next decade, Gearhart moved closer to Women’s Studies and became a major spokesperson for gay rights. In 1978, she debated John Briggs (whose ballot proposition would have fired all gay and lesbian teachers in California), eloquently and undoubtedly to great effect: the proposition was defeated on November 7, 1978 by more than a million votes. During this time, Gearhart was working alongside San Francisco Board of Supervisor Harvey Milk, who also debated Briggs and who was murdered, along with Mayor George Mascone in San Francisco’s City Hall just twenty days after the debate, on November 27, 1978. Gearhart delivered a stirring eulogy in the form of a poem (which we consulted, along with a number of other unpublished pieces available among The Gearhart Papers at the University of Oregon).

During these years of intense “fighting hearts” activism, Gearhart brought her training in theater, speech communication, and rhetoric to bear. In those days, she says, she thought of rhetoric as “the art of persuasion” and held out hope that persuasion could eventually change people’s minds. Her experiences on the faculty at San Francisco State, though, gave her pause: her colleagues were “all white men—you got it. All of them were men, all of them were white, and all of them gained by holding down people of color and women. And it was hell,” she says: “I think I was the only open lesbian in the United States teaching in any state college system. It was awful. You know you are intelligent and know what the heck you are doing, but none of those guys would acknowledge that.”

Gearhart says at the time she knew that rhetoric “meant a study, a body of knowledge, information you could find in encyclopedias but not at the corner grocery store.” But she began to question that understanding of rhetoric as a body of stable knowledge that could lead to persuasion in favor of looking at information that could be gleaned from everyday places—like grocery stores. And this insight led to a deeply contextualized theory of rhetoric, to what she calls “the connectedness of everything,” in which an act or idea can mean one thing in one situation and something entirely different in another: “If you put it in Virginia, that’s one place—but put it at the University of Illinois and that’s another place that’s in many ways a whole galaxy away. So it will mean and it will connect—differently.” During those years, she realized that “I’m not speaking like anybody else is speaking.”

As she began to resist received wisdom about rhetoric, its definitions and aims, Gearhart was developing what would become her redefinition and revisioning in “The Womanization of Rhetoric” (which, along with The Wanderground, are the two publications we focus on here). She increasingly saw that the women she was working with “were using language that had never been used before; we were using language that the men had denied us, that we had denied ourselves by thinking that it was unladylike.” And further, “I’m not speaking like anybody else is speaking.” What she was speaking—this language—was not the language of agonistic persuasion or violence. Rather, it was a language full of open spaces, of listening, of accepting and sharing. Gearhart recognized, however, that all language is in some sense hierarchical: “We have not been able to escape it [hierarchy], but we’ve been able to take a little vacation from it occasionally.” Perhaps during such “vacations,” Gearhart decided that using rhetoric and language to try to change other people’s minds was not only exercising hierarchy but was inherently violent. Where rhetoric has a role to play is in a person’s own life, in changing oneself and in doing so embracing care, respect, and above all connection:

We are perhaps on the brink of understanding that we do not have to be persuaders, that we no longer need to intend to change others. We are not the speaker, the one-with-the-truth, the one-who-with-his-power-will-change-lives. We are the matrix, we are she-who-is-the-home-of-this-particular-human-interaction, we are a co-creator and co-sustainer of the atmosphere in whose infinity of possible transformations we will all change.” (200)

Above all, Gearhart argues for connection, linking feminism, (her brand of) rhetoric, environmentalism, animal rights, and gay rights in ways that were uniquely hers. This ability to draw connections among these movements, to see how each is related to all, is a hallmark of Gearhart’s work and was—to say the very least—prescient. In fact, re-reading “The Womanization of Rhetoric” after many years left us breathless: in these pages we met a foremother whose insights were so very much ahead of their time.

Gearhart, the Oracle of Ecofeminism

Indeed, Gearhart’s insistence on interconnectedness underpins all of her work. Of course, her iconic “The Womanization of Rhetoric” emphasizes the power of human interconnectedness (we speak more on that essay below), but The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women, published in the same year, does so even more explicitly, demonstrating the “rhetorical energy” present among non-human animals and non-living things, among humans, and among all the aforementioned and the earth itself. By 1979, she was already invoking the rhetorical energy that scholars George Kennedy, Debra Hawhee, Thomas Rickert, and Eric C. Otto would argue for some fifteen to thirty years later.

To say Gearhart was prescient in the ways her early work would be applied to contemporary rhetorical issues is an understatement. Rickert, in particular, writes of the crucial importance of contextualization—of material conditions and the interanimation of all the features of those material conditions—to any rhetorical act, whether featuring interactions among humans, nonhumans, live or allegedly inanimate objects or some combination thereof: “Rhetoric, while traditionally taken as a discursive, intentional art, can and indeed must be grounded in the material relations from which it springs” (x). Otto extends these rhetorical concepts to one of “transformative environmentalism,” a movement of establishing an ethical relationship among humans and nonhuman animals and nature, a relationship, Otto adds, that just might slow down human destruction of earth’s ecosystem. Gearhart would approve, since she had essentially made the same argument. And like Otto would eventually do, Gearhart had already linked science fiction with environmental studies.

Gearhart established the relationship of rhetorical energy to material conditions (including the ecosystem) early on, effectively putting to use these concepts (without naming them) in Wanderground, her speculative, feminist, separatist ecofiction. In Wanderground, Gearhart foregrounds ecofeminism, going much further than making simplistic connections between women and nature. She also foregrounds feminist rhetorical strategies that express much more than the most basic feminist values. During the Revolt of the Earth, Gearhart’s hill women separate themselves as far as possible from heterosexist power and culture in the City, where violent misogyny continues to rule: women there must marry, and men can collect multiple wives; women must abide by curfews and wear dresses, girdles, hose, and high heels. One of men’s favorite sports is to leave the City in their pick-ups, head out to the hills, and “cunt hunt”—sport for them but irreparable violence for the hill women, for whom kidnaping, assaults, beatings, tortures, disfigurements, purges, witch trials, prisons, loony bins, breeding homes, slit houses, rapes, and deaths are taunting reminders of the destructive, patriarchal potency they left behind.

Nearly a decade before Margaret Atwood’s dystopic Handmaid’s Tale, Gearhart imagined vigilante Christian groups to be among the most destructive of misogynist forces. Gearhart’s hill women avoid men: The hill women can handle wild beasts, “even a score of them” but want to be delivered “from one man” (54). “Women poured out their mistrust of men, their loss of hope for ever enjoying truly human or life-loving, their fear that woman energy might be drained as it had been for millennia before the Revolt . . . ” (130). The hill women avoid men, save for the “Gentles,” the gay men who often support them, as they, too, are victims/targets of City culture. The Gentles “knew that the outlaw women were the only hope for the earth’s survival. Men who, knowing that maleness touched women only with the accumulated hatred of centuries, touched no women at all. Ever” (2). For the hill women and the Gentles, “the essential fundamental knowledge” was that “women and men cannot yet, may not ever love one another without violence; they are no longer of the same species,” and yet many of the hill women would trust the Gentles “with much that is dear” (115). And with much that is clear, as well, as many of the Hill women, like many ecofeminists, adhere to a strict dichotomy between men and women.

The collection of linked stories in The Wanderground focuses on these outlaw, lesbian hill women, who consciously employ their natural endowment of intuition (mother wit) to transcend their humanness, enabling them to enfold their environment (living and nonliving things alike) and establish a mutually informing relationship with nature. For instance, when Alaka travels from the outpost onto the Wanderground she meets the flowing waters for the first time, deciding on the spot to swim across the pool:

“Earthsister,” she said aloud to the water, “I want to join you.”

The word seemed to come from all around her. “Join.” A simple response. Alaka knew better than to stand in converse with so fundamental a substance. Such elements were to be moved with or felt into but never accosted or confronted. Alaka swam for more than a minute, pledging confidence in that “less familiar part of herself,” “shortstretch[ing] to the companions who swam with her.”

A whole school responded as if one fish. “You are in trouble?”

“Yes,” she sent back. “I need air and light.”

“Not far away,” assured the fish. “A few more of your strokes.”

. . . “Thank you, waterones. May you go well and come again!”

Alaka swam, surfaced, and then waded. “A large tree root helped her out of the water. . . . Quietly she stood by the giant who had helped her.

“Thank you,” she said in mindstretch to the tree.

“Again if you need me,” responded the tree (12-13).

Shot throughout the stories are examples of hill women speaking and listening to plants, animals, and natural elements. Krueva protects an injured pony from a ravenous bobcat, only to hear the pony say that he was ready to die: “I commend my body to my sister, the cat. May she feed well” (57). When the hill women gather in the remember rooms to learn their “rich history” (140), the remembering will be so significant that the remember-guides call upon the cats to fill in “missing connections in the stories” (139). As many as thirteen cats and kittens might appear, but usually four, five, or maybe two. And if no cats appear then the rememberings are postponed, “for few remember-guides trusted even their special training without the help of catwatch” (139):

Clana thought she recognized the cream calico from last evening’s ministrations. She enfolded it with a question. “Do you enjoy remembering?”

To her surprise the cat responded, “Do you enjoy breathing?” (139)

In these ways, women, nonhuman animals, and nature interanimate throughout The Wanderground, foreshadowing the vital role of ecofeminism today, like that of Sue Beatty, a retired lead biologist at Yosemite National Park, who remembers walking through the Mariposa Grove and listening to the thousand-year-old Giant Sequoias:: “We are suffering. We are dying. Can you hear us?” Realizing that the trees were suffocating from cramped root systems, noise and chaos, Beatty pulled together a team of scientists who launched a restoration of the grove that realigned roads, freed root systems, restored wetlands and waterways, and relocated asphalt walkways, gift shops, and tram rides. In retelling Beatty’s story, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “The Giant Sequoias were not objects to be studied, but sentient beings recognized as venerable members of the Yosemite community” (“Liturgy of Home,” excerpted from Erosion). Clearly and with passion and insight, Gearhart’s Wanderground prefigures the ecofeminist work of such scholars as Williams, Carolyn Merchant, Starhawk, and Charlene Spretnak.

Certainly, Gearhart’s writings portend the ecofeminism to follow, the reverence for Mother Earth, the worries about climate change and the obliteration of various species, and about the human-caused environmental pollution and destruction that degrade the health of all living things during what is now called Anthropocene epoch. In Wanderground’s final story, a hill woman asks “What is the task?” The women sang together, “To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved. / To work as if our healing care were not too late” (195). Gearhart’s ecofeminism stretches the powers and possibilities of the feminine, yet it is her forward-looking rhetorical models that most capture our scholarly interest: indeed, Gearhart seems to be foremother of feminist rhetorical practices.

Gearhart, the Communication Visionary

Yes, the hill women of Wanderground consciously employ their uncanny instinctiveness (mother wit, again) to establish a mutually informing relationship with nature, but just as important are the relationships they establish among themselves, endowed as they all are with highly developed communicative awareness. Gearhart’s women use their “mindstretch” to communicate telepathically with one another as well as with flora and fauna, rocks, rivers, and trees. Such mindstretching allows them to listen and see, always with the knowledge that “there was understanding below what was seen” (37). When feeling threatened or facing danger, the hill women combine their psychic energies into a “gatherstretch,” a potentially lethal channeled power that can be used for destruction. Yet nowhere in the book do the hill women deploy a deadly gatherstretch; instead, they practice “enfoldment,” deactivating their enemies by enfolding them in warm, soft nurturing. And when another hill woman is merely annoying or unlikeable, the others practice “grace making,” dwelling on the annoying one’s temperament, behavior, intentions:

When she came upon the parts of Seja that she could not like—her boundless high energy, for instance—she addressed them directly, attempting to establish contact with those parts, however unpleasant they were to her. To them she said simply, “I see you and I don’t choose to praise you. As you are part of Seja I offer you, too, the care I send to her.”

. . . It was not a mindstretch she sought but instead the creation of a gift for the other woman, a gift of love and strength that Seja could reach for in a crisis. . . .

This was grace-making, the creation of extra attention and love. . . .[I]f each woman offers attention beyond what is needed, then caring energy will always be available to each of us. (119)

The hill women are not always in concert, they have their idiosyncrasies, they fuss, but, when they need to, they coalesce, however briefly.

The rhetorical strategies the hill women embody mirror those Gearhart develops in “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” which was published in the same year. Both works handily prefigure the theoretical work many feminist rhetoricians have produced in the nearly forty years since. Although it is beyond the scope of this brief essay to map out all the ways that Gearhart envisioned more humane rhetorical practices, we want to illuminate just a few of her major contributions to rhetoric here.

As we look back on what we consider some of Gearhart’s most potentially game-changing contributions to rhetorical theory, we regret that her work, foresightful as it definitely was, has not yet provided the transformative potential that it holds. Her work does not appear in canonical collections of rhetorical theory and practice, only in collections of feminist rhetoric. Nor is her scholarship regularly cited, in ways we believe it merits. Nevertheless, Gearhart’s thinking portends much of current, influential feminist rhetorical scholarship.

In her 2018 Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, for example, Cheryl identifies a number of distinctive qualities of what she calls “rhetorical feminism,” among them, disidentification, a term coined by José Estaban Muñoz to describe an intentional subversion of dominant expectations for being in the world, for disidentifying with the traditional expectations for a rhetor, for instance. Gearhart’s “The Womanization of Rhetoric” was perhaps the first feminist essay to vehemently disidentify with rhetoric’s key principle of persuasion, launching a powerful salvo that declared, “Any intent to persuade is an act of violence” (195):

Of all the human disciplines, [rhetoric] has gone about its task of educating others to violence with the most audacity. The fact that it has done so with language and metalanguage, with refined functions of the mind, instead of with whips of rifles does not excuse it from the mindset of the violent. (195)

Gearhart’s disidentification with rhetoric’s long-held transactional goal decouples successful rhetoric with winning, dominating, conquering only, for

Communication can be a deliberate creation or co-creation of an atmosphere in which people . . . if and only if they have the internal basis for change, may change themselves . . . . With this understanding we can begin to operate differently in all communicative circumstances, particularly those wherein learning and conflict encounter take place. (198)

For Gearhart, authentic change happens only from within—not from an outside force, not from a rhetor. Hers is a hopeful transaction, one that recognizes the persuasive power of a self-to-self exchange that disidentifies with tradition. The value of disidentification is one of stepping back and evaluating what “is”—the ideology that prevents what should “be,” which is the authentic province of rhetoric, and of hope. Disidentification allows a reconceptualization of acceptable rhetorical practices as those that recognize and respect the values of others.

Authentic dialogue, coalition, and collaboration constitute another notable feature of rhetorical feminism. An early version of this concept is Gearhart’s reimagination of the conventional contract between the rhetor and audience. Rhetorical practices—transactions—should be collaborative, negotiable, cooperative, and based on a willingness “on the deepest level to yield his/her position entirely to the other(s)” (199). In The Wanderground, Earlyna askes for the First Acknowledgment:

“Can we, on both sides of the matter, yield?” “The hardest question of all,” Zephyr thought.” . . . And that was all that was required of her—not that she yield, but that she be willing to yield. Every woman in the gatherstretch was examining herself for that willingness. (129)

But it was Li who reminded the other hill women that “no woman has to follow the will of any other. . . . We rest our unity on that possibility” (129). Like that of so many feminist rhetoricians today, theirs was a strategic, ephemeral coalition, a working agreement that foreshadows Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” in order to get things done. Thus, Gearhart’s proto-rhetorical feminism relies on personal experience, the vernacular, and emotion as sources of both knowledge and power, as gateways for changing ourselves and the world around us.

Understanding is another feature of rhetorical feminism, often rooted in the meaningful deliveries of productive silence and rhetorical listening. Both Krista Ratcliffe and Cheryl have written at length about these rhetorical arts, realizing them as sites of not only feminism, but also of invention, delivery, and, ironically, voice—just as Gearhart had done nearly forty years earlier, most distinctly in The Wanderground.

For Gearhart’s hill women, silence and listening both serve as integral components of rhetorical persuasion, understanding, invitation, or deliberation—all features of rhetorical feminism. When Ono searches for Egathese, “with a sense of responsibility-for-mutual concerns,” she slips into a “familiar practicing”: in order to understand Egathese, Ono had to “bring herself to a listening place” (36). And when Li and Diana fall into lovemaking, they fall in to an “ecstasy of silence”; they listen, understanding that their ear is actually the “channel of meaning” (98-99). What better way to demonstrate interest in another’s ideas, arguments, life than to listen carefully? The hill women sit in silence as they engage in many listening practices, “for in their part in their listening, the hill women shared the textures of their lives, the boundaries of their fears, and the importance of the work they took to be their own” (100). What better way to reflect calmly on an issue, think through a solution, or compose a response than to remain silent? Silence and listening enable us to see differently, to connect through dialogue, conversation, and mutual dialectic, thereby enriching and enlarging the rhetorical transaction, as Gearhart would have us do.

As we noted earlier, Gearhart’s rhetorical concepts—interconnectedness, understanding, even ecorhetoricalfeminism—have not made the deep inroads to traditional rhetorical studies that we would hope, no doubt because they upend rhetoric’s received transactional values. In a deliberate turn from proof-driven logic, persuasion, and domination, Gearhart continues to show us how to remain open to diversity; challenge to our beliefs; change either alone or with our audience; and realize opportunities for collaboration, coalescing, understanding. Yet we see her ideas echoed in much feminist rhetorical scholarship today, whether explicitly acknowledged or not.

Rebecca Solnit assures us, “ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme” (ideas rooted in the rhetorical power of feminism, for instance) “gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, . . but it recalls that power comes from . . . the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage” (xvi). Indeed, the potential of Gearhart’s rhetorical foresight—her gatherstretch—still resides in the margins, but that is right where power also resides.

About the Authors

Cheryl Glenn is University Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies and Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Her latest book is Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope (2018). In 2019, she received the Exemplar Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).

Andrea A. Lunsford taught and developed writing programs and/or writing centers at the University of British Columbia, The Ohio State University, and Stanford University, from which she retired a few years ago as Louise Hewlett Nixon professor of English, Emerita. Author, co-author or co-editor of too many books and articles, she is currently co-editing The Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing and completing a new textbook. Her visit with Sally Miller Gearhart was a highlight of 2019.


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