Reflections on Speaking Out or Saying Nothing

Shirley Wilson Logan

University of Maryland

An article written in 2008, nearly thirty years after “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” responds not only to Sally Miller Gearhart’s article but also in defense of invitational rhetoric, a rhetoric that opens up communication to the possibility of understanding other viewpoints rather than attempting to prevail. Gearhart’s alternative to what she views as the violence of persuasion closely aligns with invitational rhetoric, although that is not a term she employs. In the 2008 article, “Beyond Traditional Conceptualizations of Rhetoric and a Move Toward Civility,” Jennifer Bone, Cindy Griffin, and Linda Scholz interrogate six critiques of invitational rhetoric, referring intermittently to some features of Gearhart’s womanized rhetoric. They counter the claims that 1) all persuasion is violent and thus undesirable, 2) invitational rhetoric is always preferable to persuasion, understood as violent, 3) women are the purveyors of invitational rhetoric, 4) definitions of rhetoric, violence, persuasion, and feminine are fixed and essentialist, 5) invitational, non-violent rhetoric lacks agency, and 6) invitational rhetoric still attempts to change minds and to manipulate, as does conventional persuasion. Rather than debate these claims in isolation, I will consider the extent to which the persuasive discourse of selected late nineteenth-century black women enriches our understand of women’s rhetoric.

The first claim the authors refute is Gearhart’s statement that all persuasion is violent. The rhetorical situations of most nineteenth-century black women called for persuasion, and their intent was to change beliefs and bring about certain actions. In most cases, they were responding to acts of violence surrounding them—the violence of slavery, the violence of lynching, the violence of disenfranchisement, and violence against women.

One reference defines violence as “an act of physical force that causes or is intended to cause harm” ( The damage inflicted by violence may be physical, psychological, or both. Can bringing individuals to awareness of an existing state of affairs constitute violence? What kind of violence, for example, was caused by Frances Harper during her 1858 New England antislavery lecture when she told her audience, “You are the cause,” referring to the failed attempts of runaway slaves to find freedom as they traveled across the nation? Here was a situation calling for direct persuasion and denying an invitational alternative. As the authors of the article point out, “In some situations, no amount of persuading or inviting is going to be useful, and to assume otherwise places undue responsibility and accountability on the rhetor and the type of communication used” (441). They go on to offer examples of effective communication such as, the sit-ins of the 1960, and, I would add, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, first displayed on the National Mall in 1987, that do not meet the criteria for persuasive communication.

Moreover, nineteenth-century black women speakers were mainly considered beyond the realm of true womanhood; they were either spectacles, such as Sojourner Truth, who was looked upon as a kind of mystical savior coming in to save white women, or exceptions, such as Frances Harper, labeled the “bronze muse.” Some years later, one witness “remembered” the effect of Truth’s 1851 “Aint I a Woman” speech thus, “She had taken us up in her great strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty” (Painter 168). Harper, on the other hand, was described by journalist Grace Greenwood as follows:

She is never assuming, never theatrical. In the first part of her lecture she was most impressive in her pleading for the race with whom her lot is cast. There was something touching in her attitude as their representative. The woe of two hundred years sighed through her tones. Every glance of her sad eyes was a mournful remonstrance against injustice and wrong. (Still 770)

These depictions demonstrate the extent to which both women were considered different from those they were addressing, one a savior and a spectacle, the other a remarkable, articulate exception. They were rarely participants in invitational rhetoric as it was then understood. But, of course, we need not travel back two centuries to find examples of generalizations about women’s experiences. Thus, when Gearhart defines feminism as “an ideology of change which rises out of the experiences of women” that result in increased attention to listening, context, and collaboration rather than competition (200-201), it is not clear to what extent these experiences take into account difference or perceptions of difference among women. Scholar Roxane Gay, although a supporter of feminist principles, writes in 2014 that “feminism has, historically, been far more invested in improving the lives of heterosexual white women to the detriment of all others” (xiii).

This brings us to the authors’ refutation of the critique that invitational rhetoric is grounded in essentialist principles, that the concepts are fixed, rigid, that men and women have essentially different communication styles. They point out that definition is an important aspect of academic scholarship and that a definition can be qualified or problematized according to the context so as to place limitations on the meaning. Once those definitions are attached, however, they often have the effect of restricting meaning. Gearhart does not seem to acknowledge any such stipulations, making broad assertions about the changes the womanization of rhetoric will bring.

The fifth claim the authors refute is that invitational rhetoric, a rhetoric or openness and listening, lacks agency—it lacks the ability to have an effect. They counter that the “effect” is often the understanding that comes when communicators listen to one another, whether there is a change in viewpoint or not. Fannie Barrier Williams, in her Chicago speech at the 1893 World’s Congress of Representative Women, offers multiple examples of the ways in which black women are like their white counterparts:

We come before this assemblage of women feeling confident that our progress has been along high levels and rooted deeply in the essentials of intelligent humanity. We are so essentially American in speech, in instincts, in sentiments and destiny that the things that interest you equally interest us. (Williams 118)

Her intent in that assembly was to help her audience understand that black women, with respect to their values and social habits were the same as white women. Agency does not always equal change; the goal can be to achieve a new understanding, although that understanding may eventually bring change.

In the article, the authors cite rhetoric scholar Krista Ratcliffe’s observation regarding the power of listening, that what we do to another is entirely different from what we do with another, the latter relationship serving as a strong source of agency (446). Ratcliffe’s work adds credence to Gearhart’s advocacy for listening. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in discussing what he called the ministry of listening, observed that we have minimized the importance of the ability to engage in sensitive listening. He described this engagement as an act of “listening with the ears of God” (98). Such listening in turn most often enables the listener to respond with acceptance. There appear to be plenty good reasons to develop the communicative ability to listen, whether we ascribe it to women or to men.

The final critique of invitational rhetoric—and indirectly Gearhart’s feminized rhetoric—is that it is persuasion in disguise, just another way of changing minds by giving interlocutors the impression that you are listening to their point of view, as well you may be. Communication cannot be anything but persuasive. You have your say; then I have mine, and we will listen respectfully to each other. I agree with the idea that it’s persuasive rhetoric “all the way down,” whether through words, images, or symbolic actions. (Kenneth Burke was right.) But persuasion does not have to be violent.

A final query that bears further exploration is whether silence or the failure to speak out can be a form of violence? When so-called good people say nothing in the presence of evil or wrongdoing are they not participating in a violence of silence? This is a question many current members of the U.S. Congress should be asked, given that they have been presented with many opportunities to voice their objections to violence perpetuated against people and institutions. Could silence on numerous occasions be more violent than persuasion?

About the Author

Shirley Wilson Logan is professor emerita at the University of Maryland, where she taught rhetoric, composition theory, and African American literature. Her publications include With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women, We are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, and Liberating Language: Sites of Rhetorical Education in Nineteenth-Century Black America, along with essays in collections. She recently co-edited with Wayne H. Slater the collection Academic and Professional Writing in an Age of Accountability.

Works Cited

Bone, Jennifer Emerling, Cindy L. Griffin, and T. M. Linda Scholz. “Beyond Traditional Conceptualizations of Rhetoric and a Move Toward Civility,” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 72 no. 4, pp. 434-462.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Harper, 1954.

Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. HarperCollins, 2014.

Gearhart, Sally Miller. “The Womanization of Rhetoric.” Women Studies International Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1979, pp. 195-201.

[Harper], Frances Watkins. “You are the Cause.” The National Anti-Slavery Standard. May 22, 1858.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. W.W. Norton, 1996.

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Williams, Fannie Barrier. “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation” (1893). ed. Shirley Wilson Logan. With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African-American Women. Southern Illinois UP, 1995, pp. 100-106.