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69 Chapter 5 RESITUATINGRHETORICALFAILURE THECASEOFNINETEENTH-CENTURYMETALLURGISTCARRIEEVERSON Sarah Hallenbeck Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1842, Carrie Jane Billings Everson ought to be remembered as an important figure in the history of mining, as well as a role model to women inventors and entrepreneurs both past and present. During the 1880s, this groundbreaking inventor discovered the “flotation process” of mining ore for precious metals, an innovation that outpaced existing mining methods for cost and efficiency and served as a precursor for contemporary methods of extracting metals. Prompted to invent after her husband was swindled by a prospector, Everson sought a way for the couple to earn back their savings, and she spent years marketing and publicizing her patented method throughout the American West. Yet despite the soundness of the flotation process itself, during her lifetime Everson never saw her discovery put to practical use. Nor did she receive credit for her invention, either through financial remuneration or public acclaim. The flotation process went largely ignored until thirty years later, when British and Australian miners discovered it anew—apparently without knowledge of her efforts. By this time, both Everson and her patents had expired, and even those historians who sought to honor her posthumously as “the Mother of Modern Mining” framed her accomplishments as merely fortuitous and distorted her biography to better accord with the dominant gendered ideologies of the day.1 Mining historians have struggled to explain Everson’s failure to persuade her contemporaries of the efficacy of her invention, despite its now-obvious merits and her perseverance in promoting it. Certainly, Everson’s gender was a factor; yet, as Robert Spude has noted, nineteenth-century American mining was not without women assayers and mine managers, and the American West offered women opportunities that the more settled East did not (125). Perhaps, as Dawn Bunyak speculates, Everson’s discovery was simply “too revolutionary ” for its day (10). At a time when existing methods of separating metal from ore rested on principles of gravity concentration, in which metals were sepa- 70 Sarah Hallenbeck rated by weight, Everson proposed simply floating metals in an oily film to extract them—an arrangement that deviated from conventional wisdom regarding keeping metals free from oil (Bunyak 10). Yet Everson’s adopted home base during the late 1880s, Georgetown, Colorado, was known as a hub for mining innovation, an “ingenious community” (Spude 110) attracting diverse miners and assayers from all over the world eager to reshape mining processes to suit the unique geological affordances of the American West. In such an environment, technology writer Steven Johnson has suggested, revolutionary ideas like Everson’s are more likely to be embraced. So beyond being “too revolutionary” or discounted because of her gender, why did Everson struggle to promote her invention? Historians’ explanations have focused on Everson’s personal weaknesses. One mining historian has hypothesized that she was “not a good promoter nor businesswoman” (Megraw 6),2 while another notes that she lacked “the shrewdness and marketing skills necessary to sell the patents she developed” (Bunyak 21). As rhetoricians, we might think of her struggles as examples of rhetorical failure—a failure to persuade others to adopt a particular course of action (in this case, to use the flotation process), despite the merits of that course of action. Though, as Stacey Sheriff has noted, failure has been little theorized within rhetorical studies, the concept ought to be of interest to feminist rhetoricians, whose research subjects often “encounter and negotiate” with failure “whenever they challenge powerful mainstream discourses” (6). Though Sheriff refers specifically to the failure of women rhetors who were seeking social justice, I would argue that rhetorical failure is also pertinent to scholarly investigations of working women like Everson, who were seeking acceptance in professional environments . Such women may not have sought explicitly to enact social change, but their presence in previously male-dominated environments (like mining camps) heralded social change. Furthermore, their perceived rhetorical failures—whether framed as a lack of business sense or otherwise—are often accepted at face value, without significant regard for the special complexities that marginality (gendered, raced, classed, or otherwise) brings to efforts to participate in the varied discourses of professional life. In this essay I treat Everson’s inability to successfully market her invention as an instance of rhetorical failure, extending Sheriff’s theorization to account for failed entrées into professional environments or endeavors. Though as the content of this book collection demonstrates, feminist interest in workplace rhetorics is already substantial, scholars...


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