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Conversational Rhetoric

The Rise and Fall of a Women's Tradition, 1600-1900

Jane Donawerth

Publication Year: 2011

Much of the scholarly exchange regarding the history of women in rhetoric has emphasized women’s rhetorical practices. In Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women’s Tradition, 1600–1900, Jane Donawerth traces the historical development of rhetorical theory by women for women, studying the moments when women produced theory about the arts of communication in alternative genres—humanist treatises and dialogues, defenses of women’s preaching, conduct books, and elocution handbooks. She examines the relationship between communication and gender and between theory and pedagogy and argues that women constructed a theory of rhetoric based on conversation, not public speaking, as a model for all discourse. 

Donawerth traces the development of women’s rhetorical theory through the voices of English and American women (and one much-translated French woman) over three centuries. She demonstrates how they cultivated theories of rhetoric centered on conversation that faded once women began writing composition textbooks for mixed-gender audiences in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She recovers and elucidates the importance of the theories in dialogues and defenses of women’s education by Bathsua Makin, Mary Astell, and Madeleine de Scudéry; in conduct books by Hannah More, Lydia Sigourney, and Eliza Farrar; in defenses of women’s preaching by Ellen Stewart, Lucretia Mott, Catherine Booth, and Frances Willard; and in elocution handbooks by Anna Morgan, Hallie Quinn Brown, Genevieve Stebbins, and Emily Bishop. In each genre, Donawerth explores facets of women’s rhetorical theory, such as the recognition of the gendered nature of communication in conduct books, the incorporation of the language of women’s rights in the defenses of women’s preaching, and the adaptation of sentimental culture to the cultivation of women’s bodies as tools of communication in elocution books. 

Rather than a linear history, Conversational Rhetoric follows the starts, stops, and starting over in women’s rhetorical theory. It covers a broad range of women’s rhetorical theory in the Anglo-American world and places them in their social, rhetorical, and gendered historical contexts. This study adds women’s rhetorical theory to the rhetorical tradition, advances our understanding of women’s theories and their use of rhetoric, and offers a paradigm for analyzing the differences between men’s and women’s rhetoric from 1600 to 1900.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. xi-xv

This book examines rhetorical theory by women in England and the United States (and one widely translated Frenchwoman) from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. It traces the rise and fall of a tradition of women’s rhetorical theory that centers on conversation (as opposed to public...

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Introduction: Adding Women’s Rhetorical Theory to the Conversation

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pp. 1-16

When Mary Astell, in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, part II, published in 1697, outlines what ladies should study under the rubric of rhetoric, she terms the audience of her would-be writers “our neighbors” and the communication these writers would convey a “conversation” (120–22). When Jennie...

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Humanist Dialogues and Defenses of Women’s Education: Conversation as a Model for All Discourse

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pp. 17-40

At the beginning of her mid-seventeenth-century dialogue, “On Conversation,” Madeleine de Scudéry proclaims, “conversation is the bond of society for all humanity, the greatest pleasure of discriminating people, and the most ordinary method to introduce into the world not only civility, but also the...

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Conduct Book Rhetoric: Constructing a Theory of Feminine Discourse

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pp. 41-72

In Jane Austen’s Lady Susan (1793–94?), the wicked Lady Susan declares to her friend, “If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence. Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language, as admiration waits on beauty. And here I have opportunity enough for the exercise of my talent, as the chief...

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Defenses of Women’s Preaching: Dissenting Rhetoric and the Language of Women’s Rights

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pp. 73-104

Chapter 1, on women’s humanist treatises and dialogues on women’s education, traced the development of a women’s theory of rhetoric based on conversation as a model of discourse. Chapter 2 examined the continuance of this model in Anglo-American conduct books by women for women that...

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Elocution: Sentimental Culture and Performing Femininity

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pp. 105-125

By the mid-nineteenth century, conversation as a model of discourse, the gendered nature of communication, and women’s rights to public speaking were intertwined in a transatlantic women’s tradition of rhetoric in women’s rhetorical theory. However, besides conduct rhetoric and defenses of women’s...

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Conclusion: Composition Textbooks by Women and the Decline of a Women’s Tradition

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pp. 126-145

By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a firmly established women’s tradition of rhetorical theory devised by women. It had been developed not in rhetoric textbooks but in humanist treatises and dialogues on women’s education, conduct manuals for women, defenses of women’s preaching, and...


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pp. 149-173

Works Cited

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pp. 175-193


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pp. 195-205

Author Bio

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Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms

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Other Books in the Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809386307
E-ISBN-10: 0809386305
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330270
Print-ISBN-10: 080933027X

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 784949415
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Conversational Rhetoric

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rhetoric -- United States -- History.
  • Oral communication -- England.
  • English language -- Discourse analysis.
  • Rhetoric -- England -- History.
  • Women -- Education -- United States -- Language arts.
  • Women -- Education -- England -- Language arts.
  • Oral communication -- United States.
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