Campbell, “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron”

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron”Communication Studies 50.2 (Summer 1999): 125-137. (13 pages)

Campbell looks more closely at women’s liberation, specifically she labels women’s lib as a “state of mind” rather than a coherent movement or clearly defined or unified program. In light of this, Campbell describes women’s lib as a rhetorical manifestation, thus prompting a rhetorical analysis. As she writes, women’s lib is a distinct genre with unique rhetorical qualities. She describes these qualities in two categories: of substance and of style.

Substantively, feminist rhetoric “attacks the entire psychosocial reality, the most fundamental values, of the cultural context in which it occurs” (126). In legal contexts, laws have designed the inferiority of women within marriage unions, a “property relationship” where the wife is legally required to provide domestic labor, companionship, and sexuality with no direct compensation. This then correlates into economic inferiority and disadvantage. Rhetorically, within cultural traditions, men and women are boxed into structures of masculinity and femininity that perpetuate a structure of disadvantage for women: “’a girl who maintains qualities of independence and active striving (achievement-orientation) necessary for intellectual mastery defines the conventions of sex appropriate behavior and must pay a price, a price in anxiety.’ As long as education and socialization cause women to be ‘unsexed’ by success whereas men are ‘unsexed’ by failure, women cannot compete on equal terms or develop their individual potentials” (127). Because the inferiority of women is upheld in legal, economic, cultural, and rhetorical structures, even the most moderate reformer is considered a revolutionary or radical: “they threaten the institutions of marriage and the family and norms governing child-rearing and male-female roles” (127).

Stylistically, Campbell views women’s lib as a persuasive campaign: “characteristic modes of rhetorical interaction, typical ways of structuring the relationships among participants in rhetorical transaction, and emphasis on particular forms of argument, proof, and evidence” (127). Highlighting these stylistic features is a paradigm of consciousness raising. However, the persuasive campaign of feminists faces a particular rhetorical problem. She succinctly describes the unique position of women and what makes creating rhetorical audience (agents of change) difficult for this persuasive campaign:

“Women are divided from one another by almost all the usual sources of identification—age, education, income, ethnic origin, even geography. In addition, counter-persuasive forces are pervasive and potent—nearly all spend their lives in close proximity to and under the control of males—fathers, husbands, employers, etc. Women also have very negative self-concepts, so negative, in fact, that it is difficult to view them as an audience, i.e. persons who see themselves as potential agents of change” (128).

Because of the fragmentation of women (which poses a rhetorical problem for persuasive campaign), Campbell advocates the creation of sisterhood, built through consciousness raising: the expression and sharing of personal experiences to create consubstantiality and to make the personal political: “to create awareness (through shared experience) that what we were thought to be personal deficiencies and individual problems are common and shared, a result of their position as women” (128). However, such sharing and communion is not meant to create a coherent message or agenda; rather, each should decide what actions are suitable to them. As Campbell also points out, creating such sisterhood violates the norms governing sex appropriate behavior.

Another stylistic feature of women’s lib is what Campbell describes as violating the reality structure: “violate the norms of decorum, morality, and ‘femininity’ of the women addressed…by close analysis of tabooed subjects, by treating ‘social outcasts’ as ‘sisters’ and credible sources, and by attacking areas of belief with great mythic power” (130).

To sum, oxymoron becomes a salient metaphor for women’s lib: it is wrought with contradiction, “it is a genre without a rhetor, a rhetoric in search of an audience, that transforms traditional argumentation into confrontation, that ‘persuades’ by ‘violating the reality structure’ but that presumes a consubstantiality so radical that it permits the most intimate of identifications. It is a ‘movement’ that eschews leadership, organizational cohesion, and the transactions typical of mass persuasion” (134).


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