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158 Chapter 11 PROFITINGFROMRHETORICALDOMESTICITY FASHIONMAGNATENELLDONNELLYREED’SDISCURSIVESEAMS,1916–1956 Jane Greer In 1935 Fortune declared Nell Donnelly Reed the “most successful businesswoman ” in America based on her company’s balance sheet (“Women in Business ” 91). Founded by Reed in 1916, the Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) had become the largest dress manufacturer’s label in the United States by the early 1930s, turning out five thousand dresses a day at its Kansas City, Missouri , factory. As DGC president, Reed oversaw every aspect of the business. She designed dresses, approved equipment purchases, managed the supply chain, and planned marketing campaigns. She is credited with being the first dress manufacturer to contract directly with textile mills, thus ensuring the uniqueness of fabrics used in Nelly Don dresses and eliminating the cost of dealing with wholesalers. She introduced production principles from the automotive and airline industries into her factories to improve efficiency (O’Malley 7). Reed successfully shepherded the DGC through the Depression, adjusting the seasonal production schedule to avoid laying off workers. During World War II, she capitalized on the opportunity to manufacture uniforms for army nurses and industrial coveralls for women working in defense factories. In 1956, at the age of 67, she sold the DGC, devoting the next 35 years to philanthropic projects, the Republican Party, and outdoor sports. When she died at the age of 102, she was eulogized as the “grand lady of the garment industry” (Snider A-1). Reed’s financial success and accomplishments as an industrial innovator merit the attention of feminist rhetoricians seeking to understand how gender intersects with entrepreneurship and executive leadership, with management and labor, with work and wealth. My focus here is on Reed’s deployment of discourses of domesticity—images of the home, familial metaphors, the intertwining of interpersonal and economic interests, traditional gender roles, and an emphasis on relationships and emotions—as she pursued her entrepreneurial goals. Feminist rhetoricians and historians have ably document- 159 Profiting from Rhetorical Domesticity ed how rhetorics of domesticity were manipulated by women activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they sought to move beyond the private sphere (Mattingly, Well-Tempered Women; Peaden; Tonn, “Militant Motherhood”) as well as how normative representations of domesticity have been used to marginalize black women (Wolcott), Native American women (Simonsen), and rural women (Holt, Linoleum). However, the uses of domestic discourses by successful businesswomen remains an understudied phenomenon. For Reed, domesticity offered a rich set of rhetorical resources that shaped how she managed the DGC and helped her employees, her business associates, and the wider public to make sense of her entrepreneurial activities. This essay tracks two distinct modes of rhetorical domesticity that Reed performed—narrative and material. In focusing on the narrative mode, I attend to the story that Reed constructed and condoned to explain her entry into the garment industry, a story that has circulated widely via print, radio, and film for nearly a century. Recounting her initial entrepreneurial activities as a quest to satisfy domestic desires allowed Reed to sidestep resistance to female entrepreneurship. I turn then to the material mode of rhetorical domesticity , focusing on the persuasive force of Reed’s strategies for managing her factories as comfortable, homelike spaces where women could work safely and where affective relationships were critical to the company’s success. Deftly woven together, these two modes of rhetorical domesticity served Reed profitably for nearly two decades as she built her fashion empire. The seams between these two modes of rhetorical domesticity become visible , however, in Reed’s efforts to deal with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) drive to unionize DGC employees beginning in the 1930s. While the material forms of Reed’s domestic rhetoric helped ensure that her employees remained fiercely loyal to her, the public persona she had constructed through her domestic narrative did not allow her to directly confront David Dubinsky, the ILGWU president. Instead, her lawyer and husband , James A. Reed, served as spokesman for the DGC as the union sought to gain a foothold in the factory. For feminist rhetoricians, tracing how Nell Donnelly Reed stitched together distinctive modes of rhetorical domesticity reveals the complex innovations and compromises required of early women entrepreneurs who contravened connections between masculinity, business acumen, and financial success. Moreover, unraveling the seams where different modes of hegemonic discourses , like domesticity, have been joined together serves as a useful method for developing more nuanced understandings of the persuasive powers and limitations of such discourses. Teasing out how...

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