Retelling Rhetoric

“Rhetoric can be retold and regendered only if gender relations are deemed influential upon social and intellectual events and change” (18).

Cheryl Glenn from Rhetoric Retold

While I’ve read this passage a number of times through the years, I’ve never dwelt on it. I guess in some ways, it’s because I automatically buy the premise. I am the choir. I agree. Of course gender relations influence social and intellectual events. Of course considering gender matters.

And yet, this semester, one of my students pointed to this passage in one of their discussion questions. They asked a fundamental question – why do gender relations matter? The student isn’t being cute or troublesome in posing question, i.e., trying to suggest that gender isn’t worthy of study. Rather the student seems to be opening a larger discussion as to what happens when we put gender first. What changes in our analyses of texts, culture, or life when we think about gender relations?

Sappho and Alcaeus holding lyres.
Attic krater attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel

This question is the cornerstone of gender studies, regardless of discipline. And, perhaps, one worth revisiting. To me, gender is worthy of study because of the ways in which it uncovers power dynamics in nearly every facet of society – medicine, education, fashion, labor – gender plays a role in each. Admittedly, I am drawing extensively on Foucault and the notion that even when sexuality is being repressed, it’s still figuring largely in the cultural imagination. Gender/sex (I know, not the same thing) is everywhere. We can’t escape the ways in which gender shapes how we move through the world and relate with one another.

So, when we think of rhetoric as the power to make change through words and ideas, gender must be part of our analyses. Whether you’re forming appeals, thinking of audience, or the role of the rhetor, gender is always there.

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