- The Woman's Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada
How did Canadian women journalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s create public personas when no such female voices had existed before them? What rhetorical tactics did they use to achieve not only a place from which to speak but also a wide-ranging popularity among readers and listeners when women were not yet allowed to vote or officially participate in public life? Janice Fiamengo's The Woman's Page goes some way to answering these questions through her analysis of rhetorical self-fashioning in early Canadian women's journalism, essays, and public performances. I say "some way" without criticism, as one of the most powerful claims in Fiamengo's work is that more such analysis needs to be done, particularly in considering the individual strategies of these women. That said, Fiamengo makes an invaluable start in considering the writings and performances of Agnes Machar, [End Page 191] Sarah Jeanette Duncan, Pauline Johnson, Kit Coleman, Flora MacDonald Denison, and Nellie McClung for how they constructed public personas while carefully balancing the expectations of a diverse public and the reactions of anti-feminist opponents. As the "woman question" surrounding enfranchisement became a topic for public debate, Fiamengo shows how Machar, Duncan, Johnson, Coleman, Denison, and McClung skilfully manipulated public opinion, constructing womanly but also revolutionary and socially influential identities through a series of performative rhetorical postures.
Fiamengo explains how Agnes Machar, for instance, wrote articles in the 1890s for a variety of periodicals in which she constructed a radical Christian identity, using scriptural allusion, metaphor, and close analyses to gain moral authority over her audience. In contrast, Sarah Jeannette Duncan used tactics of parody and irony in her early career as a Globe columnist to create a public identity that was unsentimental and unconventional, but nevertheless humorous and widely read. Pauline Johnson's self-fashioning has perhaps received the most previous critical attention, but Fiamengo argues that Johnson was, above all, an effective rhetorician, presenting her cross-cultural Métis heritage in poems and prose pieces (several published in popular magazines and newspapers) as "conciliatory but ... also unsettling" (104). Kit Coleman was immensely popular in her role as women's advice columnist for the Toronto Daily Mail (later the Mail and Empire), where she created an empathetic yet morally-decisive womanly persona. Flora MacDonald Denison's 1909-13 column in the Toronto Sunday World was in large part a forum for her radical feminist views, which she constructed as a holy war led against an apathetic population. Meanwhile, Nellie McClung recast stereotypes in her orations against conservative Manitoba premier Sir Rodmond Roblin, Fiamengo argues, using a structure of humorous engagement and logical argument, then emotional appeals and calls to action to create compelling pro-suffrage speeches. McClung's rhetoric of the "fair deal" for all, regardless of "race, colour and creed" (as well as sex) had lasting impact, making her one of the founders of Canadian equal rights (206). While these writers sometimes overlap in applying metaphors of housecleaning and maternity to the nation, as well as in valuing both religious and secular social commitment, Fiamengo stresses their distinct strategies of self-presentation and the ways in which they forever changed newspaper discourse, forging public roles for women.
For readers interested in the development of female voices in early North American periodicals as well as in the history of Canadian journalism, Fiamengo's study offers valuable insights. Her close analyses of the rhetorical tactics used by these women journalists and orators are particularly enlightening and nicely balanced against discussion of the ideological issues of the day. Indeed, as Fiamengo notes, much criticism to date has not only overlooked these and other women journalists [End Page 192] but has been ideologically rather than rhetorically oriented, making the kind of analysis in which she engages even more important. In this spirit of scholarly exploration, I might suggest that the different genres of isolated editorial, ongoing social commentary, public performance, advice column, and political oration...