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Biography 23.2 (2000) 384-389

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Martha Watson. Lives of Their Own: Rhetorical Dimensions in Autobiographies of Women Activists. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1999. 149 pp. ISBN 1-57003-200-9, $24.95.

Autobiographical Appropriations and Artifacts

Lives of Their Own: Rhetorical Dimensions in Autobiographies of Women Activists is a powerful example of the distinctive rhetorical challenges faced [End Page 384] by five female activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Watson effectively illustrates how Frances Willard, Anna Howard Shaw, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Church Terrell appropriated dominant discourses of femininity in order to establish acceptable public personas, and how Emma Goldman's unconventionality contributed to readers' lack of interest in the subject of her autobiography--her conversion to anarchism.

Watson's primary stance is that of a rhetorician. Lives of Their Own is a persuasive work of rhetorical criticism that presents the autobiographies of five activists as forms of public discourse shaped by particular historical moments and rhetorical situations. Drawing on the work of Janet Varner Gunn, among other scholars, Watson views autobiography as a cultural act of reading and writing the self. She thus gives explicit attention to the social and rhetorical contexts from which autobiographical texts emerge and into which they circulate. One might argue Watson approaches early women activists' self-representations as autobiographical artifacts. Artifacts may appear stable and fixed, as objects or relics which offer a trace of some past, but as any archaeologist or archivist will tell you, environmental conditions and interpretive frames alter the artifact as well as our perception of it. When the term artifact is combined with the term autobiography, the artistic and historical dimensions of the process of composing a life and marking its value are thrown into relief.

Watson effectively highlights how rhetoric shapes the autobiographical self and how material circumstances constrain rhetorical choices. Lives of Their Own can be situated within the emergent tradition of feminist rhetorical criticism and archival work in Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies, such as Anne Gere's Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women's Clubs, and Susan Miller's Assuming the Positions: Cultural Pedagogy and the Politics of Commonplace Writing. Watson acknowledges the influence of feminist autobiographical theory and rhetorical criticism on her project; however, she does not foreground the significance of rhetorical criticism for feminist studies, how it can help us understand better feminism's historical failures and successes, and imagine its renewal. Perhaps if Watson had broadened the theoretical and historical scope of her framing chapters, Lives of Their Own could have set the stage for the much needed revisitation of the stories we tell about the history of feminism in the United States. For example, Watson's perceptive analysis of how early women activists constructed authority through the strategic appropriation of traditional gender ideologies and rhetoric has profound implications for how we understand agency within the context of the women's movement. Indeed, the rhetorical negotiations and appropriations that Watson highlights suggest [End Page 385] that women's agency does not exist in some wild zone outside of culture and its discourses, but that agency emerges from the fissures of dominant discourses and in spite of them. Watson importantly brings rhetorical criticism to the foreground of autobiographical studies in ways that begin to challenge idealized notions of personal and political agency.

Chapter 1, "Autobiographies as Persuasion," provides a useful overview of autobiographical scholarship for readers unfamiliar with the field, highlighting the links between autobiography as a phenomenon and its production in Western culture. In contrast to early autobiography scholars, Watson attends to "the impact of social mores and practices on the form, substance, and style that one adopts in writing a life story" (19). She aligns herself with the influential scholar Estelle Jelinek, who in The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present (1986) illustrated the stylistic differences between men's and women's autobiographies. While Jelinek does not foreground the rhetorical significance of women's autobiography, Watson shares Jelinek's interest in how women "negotiated...