Feminine Voice in the Digital Sphere: Disruptive Speech & the Subversion of Gendered Cultural Scripts

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 By Liz Lane

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 “Women’s rhetorical lives have always existed, among the innumerable, interminable, clear examples 
of public, political, agnostic, masculine discourse.”—Cheryl Glenn, Rhetoric Retold

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 In the summer of 2013, the Austin, Texas state house garnered the attention of many beyond Texas’ borders as an online live stream of senator Wendy Davis’s thirteen-hour filibuster, an attempt to delay the passage of a restrictive abortion bill, swept across the Internet. The #StandWithWendy hashtag became an enlivened trending topic on Twitter and the capitol building spectators chanted, “Let her speak!” as Davis entered the final hour of filibuster, only to be halted by a third “strike” for allegedly breaking the filibuster rules. [1] Though her speech was halted and a vote seemed to be imminent, a secondary delay saw fellow senator Leticia Van de Putte take to the podium near midnight, essentially pushing the hearing past its deadline with one simple sentence. The question she raised created a shockwave through the audience of virtual and in-person observers: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand for her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” (Barro, 2013). The chamber crowd erupted into supportive chants, creating a “citizens’ filibuster” that lasted past the midnight deadline, rendering a vote on the restrictive bill impossible.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 4 Van de Putte’s now famous rhetorical question has been at the forefront of oral cultural interactions for decades, if not centuries, as women have repeatedly been relegated to the background of public speech or silenced altogether by a patriarchal structure of history. The utterance also held great weight for digital culture; the initial promise of the Internet peddled a forum in which one can interact freely, without worry of restrictions based on one’s gender, class, race, or other identifiers. However, this is not the reality of online spheres, as the digital often reflects the social frameworks of our every day cultural realms: instances of Twitter shaming and commenting sections on stories written by or about women are often the most flagrant with back and forth accusations of “slut”, “whore” and much worse. [2] Attack, dissent, and harassment arise online when women speak/write/act outside of the expected cultural codes. In her public sphere, Davis was firstly a female senator enacting a filibuster to halt a restrictive bill in a largely male forum of the Texas congress. For the event, she wore pink running shoes and read testimonies of Texas women’s’ abortions. She was challenging the convention of senate hearings through her subversive filibuster, loaded with powerful rhetorical speech to let her voice be heard. Her social media presence and coverage of the filibuster enabled her message to reach a wider audience but also caught heavy criticism from her political opponents. Shortly after the filibuster, conservative commentator Erik Erikson called Davis “abortion Barbie,” slinging the insult toward Davis’s issue of choice and her bodily appearance (white and blonde). With Davis’ notable speech act, I’ll examine how historic and contemporary instances of subversive speech work around cultural scripts of gender, claiming new spaces for silenced feminine voices.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 The public sphere for speech, whether constituted by oral face-to-face interactions or the mediated interactions of the digital sphere, is male dominated. In her work unearthing feminine histories in rhetoric, Cheryl Glenn likens this reality to an “X + 1” model of shaping female voice for recognition in the public sphere:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Whenever a woman has accomplished the same goals as her male counterpart (theorizing, public speaking, successful argument, persuasive letter writing, for example), the stakes immediately rise. She may have achieved X, but she needs X plus 1 to earn a place in rhetoric (15).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 This “plus” portion of the equation is central to my focus: how might exhuming lost or underrepresented feminist histories speak to today’s applications and expressions of speech? What does today’s equation include, now that digital writing and voice mediates our public utterances? Today’s female writer/ speakers—bloggers, YouTube commentators, Twitter users to name a few—are in the midst of seeking alternative avenues of shaping their voices, something I posit as an emergence of a networked feminism that hearkens back to the earliest representations of concealed or erased classical female histories. In this essay, my aim is to examine the historical roots of gendered cultural scripts, highlight cases of subversion sought by female speakers, and consider how the online feminist activist movement might enable broader alternative avenues for feminist voices.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 Intersectional issues that we carry into digital spheres color each interaction, for better or worse. The cultural structure of online worlds are reflected and recycled from our in-person interfaces, built from decades of social cultural interactions and cultural scripts indicating who can speak, when, where, and for how long. I argue that recent feminist digital writing wields a disruptive technology, enabling a subversion of patriarchal structures to shape new spaces of interaction for female voices in a restrictive sphere. In a sense, these subversions are allowing female speakers and writers to reclaim a bit of their embodied experience that so often comes under attack in spheres where the body is not immediately present. Social media’s open white board of commenting, sharing, and recirculating information is a network primed for such attacks. Classical scholar Mary Beard faced abuse by way of her Twitter page after appearing on a popular British intellectual talk show. Often, Beard recounts, the abuse “…promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk” (Beard, 2014). Such refrains are all too common in the public sphere, especially online. Digital representations of the body (profile pictures, usernames, biographies,) cannot be divorced from the speaker’s voice, and even when a speaker’s presence is seemingly neutral, gendered attacks are hurled at an assumed body. I wonder can such vulnerabilities be assuaged by subversion?

Disruptive Technologies: Embodied Digital Rhetorics

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Glenn identifies our oral history as fissured, mainly because “for the past twenty-five hundred years in Western culture, the ideal woman has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence), a closed body (chastity), and an enclosed life (domestic confinement)” (Glenn, 1997: 1). Fifteen years into the twenty-first century, women face such cultural challenges rooted in these expectations. Who is allowed to “speak” publically? What effect does cultural placement and bodily presence have upon female speech acts? As Van de Putte highlighted in her senate chamber accusation women speakers must work harder to be noticed at all. The “closed mouth” and “closed body” dichotomies that Glenn brings to light are of great importance when women speak or write in public, because it is the body that is harassed or attacked when women resist the cultural expectations of silent or docile speakers. 

Increasingly, feminist activists have begun to explore disruptive technologies and to assert a powerful voice in commonly exclusive public spheres. Davis’s filibuster, itself an act of traditional political subversion, was made doubly subversive and visible through its digital live stream and accompanying social media presence. It can be argued that if Davis had not been disrupting the congressional floor, the backlash against her filibuster would not have occurred and her colleague would not have had to enact such a bold plea to “let her speak.” Essentially, Davis enacted a disruptive rhetoric to subvert a traditionally exclusive and regimented forum, enabling her to reach a wide audience that would have normally been relegated to just those within a congressional chamber. It is only by subverting the patriarchal structures of what is allowed as “speech” has the public voice of women gained attention and audiences.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Davis had the benefit of a national platform; other female speakers do not. In what ways might women develop subversions to guard against such backlashes? These subversions point to the methods women are taking up in response to negative or abusive silencing mechanisms of their public utterances. This shaping of voice is a shift in the speaking process for women and thus “begins in a different place from Aristotle’s conception rhetoric. [3] Women must first invent a way to speak in the context of being silenced and rendered invisible as persons” (Ritchie and Ronald, 2001: xvii).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Columbia College’s Barnard Center for Research on Women published its #FemFuture report about online feminism in April 2013, highlighting a key shift in the digital sphere as a tool for subverting normal avenues of speech and embodying feminine voice. Authors Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti identified the current cultural and political moment as particularly dire: “We are facing a moment of [political] challenge and [personal] opportunity unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” they write. “Now is the time [to unify]” (Martin & Valenti, 2013: 3). This urgency is in part carried over from previous waves of feminist initiatives to establish gender parity but also alludes to the hostile political environment American women currently face: restrictive abortion legislation, accessible birth control debates, arguments of fair pay, and more. According to the #FemFuture initiative, online consciousness raising is one of the larger solutions proposed to bridge gender issues in the public and digital spheres. Martin and Valenti liken online feminism to a “nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic”; a body of networked reader-authors, spaces, and publics that “foster a flow of relationships, resources, ideas, and action” that, if organized carefully, could shape the future feminist movement for the better (5). Though others have noted the problems associated with Marin & Valenti spearheading a seemingly “white female” feminism (Loza, 2014), the #FemFuture report represented a concerted effort to unite online feminist discourse toward a larger activist goal. Therefore, I ask how might contemporary feminist scholars, historians, and digital citizens use the complicated history behind us to propel feminine voice into the future?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 By hearkening back to classical rhetoric’s formative era and examining the cultural structures or nomos presented in that time, one can begin to trace the origins of patriarchal societal codes mandating who is allowed to speak and in what space that speech can occur. [4] The Greco-Roman tradition valued masculinity and class over all else, resulting in a centuries-long structure of authorial and oratorical expectations. To write or speak publically, one must meet these criteria. It is a cultural perception that has only recently begun to change toward a more equal spread, though Western cultural speech is far from equal. Historically, notions of equality in speech were not exactly radical, but likely did not gain a strong enough following to sustain among dominating political rule. The Sophistic movement, for example, was rooted in teaching commoners and those outside of the realm of traditional education how to speak and defend themselves in courts of law. Unfortunately, the era did not sustain the dominating cultural structures of classical Greece: “The Sophists’ project came to an abrupt end when their pluralistic argument and pragmatic adaptations were replaced by the monolithic patriarchal certainty of Plato and Aristotle—a certainty which in various guises still operates on modern society” (Wick, 1992: 27). Greek society was male-centric, as reflected in some of the most famous dialogues from the era. Pivotal rhetoricians used female bodily characteristics as reminders of societal scripts: coming from a sound mother, weaning, being of “good birth”, and outgrowing one’s nurturing to focus on an appealing body and mind were treated as prescripts to coming of age and becoming an ideal male orator in Greek society. Aristotle and Plato, in the fourth century, “appropriated feminine and particularly reproductive metaphors in order to reaffirm old patterns of dominance and to establish through new rationalization certain objects of knowledge, certain forms of power’” (duBois qtd. in Wick, 1992: 27).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Robert Connors has famously called the Western paternal narrative of rhetoric “one of the most patriarchal of all the academic disciplines” (Glenn 9). The patriarchal structure is centuries old, dating back to the locations in which Sophistic rhetorical training took place: the gymnasium. This exclusively male space, its emphasis on sculpting ideal bodies and interest in how those bodies represented knowledge and power outside of the gym aimed toward “cultivating a citizen ethos”, restricted women from this culture (Hawhee, 2002: 144). Much in the way that Debra Hawhee’s “Bodily Pedagogies” explored reframing the Sophists for pedagogical concerns of gender and embodiment, I look for ways in which our revitalized approach to the classics might be reapplied to commonplace platforms of speaking and writing.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 2 The very act of utterance is layered with gender and cultural codes. Using the “available means of persuasion” is itself a loaded definition that requires these means to be accessible to women in the first place. In Aristotle’s classical rhetorical arena, this was not the case. According to Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, “the discovery of the available means was for Aristotle an act of invention that always assumed the right to speak in the first place, and even prior to that, assumed the right to personhood and self-representation, rights that have not long been available to women” (2001: xvii). Similarly, Walter Ong identifies the nature of rhetorical argument and dialogue as inscribed by gender and Glenn supports this notion, reminding us that, “after all, gender is merely a concept borrowed from grammar that connotes ‘a socially agreed upon system of distinction rather than an objective description of inherent traits’” (Glenn, 1997: 19). A system “socially agreed upon” by the existing power structures is problematic in who is “agreeing” upon these terms—largely male politicians.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In the late 1980s and early 90s, rhetorical scholars began focusing attention toward the male-dominated histories of Greek and Roman culture, working to discover more about the women casually mentioned in dialogues or treatises. Notably, Glenn’s Reclaiming Rhetorica aimed to “interrupt the seamless narrative usually told about the rhetorical tradition and to open up possibilities for multiple rhetorics… that would not name and valorize one traditional, competitive, agonistic, and linear mode of rhetorical discourse but would rather incorporate other, often dangerous moves…”(Lunsford, 1995: 6). However, not every instance of uncovering a woman’s voice has included the speaker herself subverting the historical avenues of speech. Studies of women rhetors such as Aspasia have unearthed veiled histories of impactful contributions to the field of rhetoric, but the very fact that these histories must be exhumed signals a larger issue. Though much previous scholarly work has been completed about giving voice to forgotten women’s histories in the fields of literature and rhetoric and composition—illuminating these dark annexes of rhetorical history—we must build from these scholars’ work and consider how contemporary women’s voices might be bolstered, enhanced, and girded against erasure—specifically in the realm of digital writing and social media.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 In her March 2014 lecture, Mary Beard recounts the tale of Philomela, a onetime princess of Athens who was raped and famously maimed by her perpetrator, Tereus. When Philomela threatened to name him for his crime, Tereus responded by cutting out her tongue—quite literally robbing Philomela of a portion of her body, the muscle essential to taking part in public discourse (Beard, 2014). Philomela was eventually able to out her rapist by patiently weaving a tapestry that told the story of her plight. She sought an alternative avenue to invention. Instead, her available means included an intervention of stereotypical “women’s work” that served to speak for her.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 Embodiment is but another issue associated with speech, though as Philomela demonstrates, we can seek ways around restrictions placed upon utterances. The Sophists emphasized the development of “knowledge of fundamentals [that] becomes bodily rather than conscious,” working to establish a connection of habituation between mind and body (Hawhee, 2002: 149). Did this ancient pedagogical method persist to leave stunted traces of speaking scripts up to today? Stories such as Philomela’s are perhaps rare, but the lasting impact of the metaphors of embodiment and speech linger. The tongue is a crucial organ in ancient rhetoric: it was trained, restricted, and worshiped for its essence of viable delivery. And Beard even points out “the best techniques of oratorical persuasion were uncomfortably close to the techniques…of female seduction. Was oratory then really so safely masculine, they worried” (Beard). But just as Van de Putte’s act of raising her hand to seek recognition employs a body part as a way of signaling oratorical viability, other stories and historical accounts point to the link between embodiment and female subversive speech.

A Fourth Wave: Subverting/Disrupting the Silence

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 To begin to generate a workable equation for contemporary structures of speech, there is much historical evidence to consult and lexical stances to be taken. Today, many young women—including prominent female figures in popular culture—have distanced themselves from the term “feminism”, often pointing to the negative connotations of the phrase. Thus, a new movement of consciousness raising has emerged online in efforts to demonstrate the equal nature of feminist thought and activism (Martin & Valenti’s #FemFuture, 2013; the UN #HeForShe campaign, 2014; Elle UK’s efforts to rebrand feminism, 2013). Though taking place in new, digitally mediated locales, the cultural codes of public speech recycle traditions of classical oral culture (the monologue structure of Twitter, the forum-esque approach of social networking in general). The feminist consciousness raising movement is driving women to consider new shapes and applications of their voices. An alternative rhetoric must be defined and reshaped in order for hidden and silenced voices to be clearly heard in our contemporary public sphere. Michelle Ballif argues, “efforts to make women legitimate by situating them in patronymic narratives does nothing to enfranchise them—because it does nothing to the phallocentric economy which disenfranchised them” (qtd. in Glenn, 1997: 6). And in considering how embodiment shapes female voice, Glenn argues, “even though gender is merely a concept borrowed from grammar, it, nevertheless, continues to have far-reaching effects on cultural notions of the relation between the sexed body and its behavior” (173).

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 The historical exhumation work has begun, but it is the application and consciousness raising of how voice, gender, and subversion of existing structures might begin to sculpt alternative histories, experiences, and applications of silenced voices. The #FemFuture report, though a year old, established a static stance for contemporary female voices in the digital sphere to reference. I like to consider the changing digital environment and reclaiming of digital space the feminist movement is taking as a sort of “fourth wave;” though this labeling of such a large, historical social movement requires far more evidence. Yes, misogyny and patriarchal attacks against female speakers can more easily be brought to light and discussed online (take Davis and Beard for example), but a more visible and immediate space for writing and discussion itself does not merit a renaming of a social movement.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 However, the term is beginning to gain some following: “what is certain is that the Internet has created a ‘call-out’ culture, in which sexism or misogyny can be ‘called out’ and challenged. It is increasingly clear that the Internet has facilitated the creation of a global community of feminists who use the Internet both for discussion and activism” (Munro, 2013: 23). The technologies available to women writers, speakers, and audiences do undoubtedly enable a more fluid forum for debate and activism, but these interactions are still taking place in a mandated space rife with restrictions. Susan Jarratt’s metaphor of dressing to fool these restrictions perhaps points to methods of subversion to construct sustainable disruptive rhetorics: “…women have never been sanctioned to speak in public. Thus any public performance for a woman (except as an actress or prostitute) is a form of cross-dressing” (1991: 2).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2 There has been a resurgence in the 90s riot grrl mentalities in today’s digital sphere, but is a militant and outspoken voice enough to subvert and sustain equal spaces for female speech? The Western cultural rhetoric of speech has historically excluded women and minorities that define themselves as contrary to the white male norm. Some theorists advocate constructing new vocabularies and terms by which to define gender, speech, womanhood, femininity, and more—subverting the cultural tropes that shut them out. A bit of this subversive linguistic-formation can be seen with the use of “grrl” or “femfuture” and digital communities often establish their own jargon to signal inclusivity among its members. But it seems too polarizing to construct an alternative rhetoric and language just to speak effectively and boldly within the current digital sphere. I argue that the existing terms of what constitutes speech and discourse needs to be widened, made more inclusive, and screened for rhetorical instances that might lead to abuse, division, or exclusion (Glenn, 1997: 3).

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 The conventions of writing, speaking, and interacting in the digital sphere must be challenged and improved. It is impossible for a “one act to fix all” approach to establishing a social contract of the digital sphere, but small disruptions, networked and sustained over time can work to establish a safer, more attentive and respectful forum for voices varying in shape, race, origin, and more. Just as Philomela engineered an alternative route of speech when rendered mute and Davis and Van de Putte calmly asserted their authority by using the existing structures of speech in their spheres, a new rhetoric of disruption must be enacted. These disruptions need to be powerful, bolstered by a digital presence and crafted with a clever rhetoric of awareness, activism, and engagement. A disruptive rhetoric must unify power and action from preexisting avenues (social media, for one) and harness the rhetorical power of digital visibility.


23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [1] The offenses in question accused Davis of speaking off topic about mandatory ultrasound testing, briefly pausing her filibuster to put on a back brace while assisted by a staffer, and a final strike for veering off topic.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [2] See articles about Wendy Davis as “abortion Barbie,” commenters calling comedienne Amy Schumer a “fat whore,” and Mary Beard a troll.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [3] Aristotle’s oft-cited definition of rhetoric describes “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [4] A law or convention of a culture.


27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Ballif, Michelle. “Re/Dressing Histories: Or, on Re/Covering Figures Who Have Been

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Laid Bare by Our Gaze”. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 22.1

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Barro, Amelia Acosta and Josh. “Texas Senator: “At What Point Must A Female Senator Raise Her Hand For Her Voice To Be Recognized?”” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 26 June 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2014. <http://www.businessinsider.com/texas-senator-accuses-colleagues-of-sexism-2013-6>.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Beard, Mary. “Oh Do Shut Up Dear! Mary Beard on the Public Voice of Women.” London Review of Books Winter Lectures. London. 30 Mar. 2014. London Review of Books. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n06/mary-beard/the-public-voice-of-women>.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997. Print.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Hawhee, Debra. “Bodily Pedagogies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs.”College English65.2 (2002): 142-62. JSTOR. Web.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 “HeForShe.” HeForShe. United Nations- Women, 2014. Web.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Jarratt, Susan Carole Funderburgh. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Print.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 —. “Performing Feminisms, Histories, Rhetorics.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly22.1 (1992): 1-5. Print.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Loza, Susana. “Hashtag Feminism, #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, and the Other #FemFuture.” ADA. Fembot Collective, 2014. Web.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Lunsford, Andrea A., ed. Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1995. Print.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Martin, Courtney E., and Vanessa Valenti. #FemFuture: Online Revolution. Rep. Barnard Center for Research on Women, April 2013. Web. <bcrw.barnard.edu/nfs>.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 McDonough, Katie. “Erick Erickson Calls Wendy Davis an “abortion Barbie”.” Salon. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 01 Apr. 2014. <http://www.salon.com/2013/08/06/erick_erickson_calls_wendy_davis_an_abortion_barbie/>

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Munro, Ealasaid. “Feminism: A Fourth Wave?” Political Insight 4.2 (2013): 22-25. Print.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Nudd, Tim. “3 Ad Agencies Try to Rebrand Feminism. Did Any of Them Get It Right?” AdWeek, 3 Oct. 2013. Web. Sept. 2014.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Ritchie, Joy S., and Kate Ronald. Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2001. Print.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Wick, Audrey. “The Feminist Sophistic Enterprise: From Euripides to the Vietnam War.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly22.1 (1992): 27-38. Print.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Version of Record: Lane, Liz (2015). Feminist Rhetoric in the Digital Sphere: Digital Interventions & the Subversion of Gendered Cultural Scripts. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.8. doi:10.7264/N3CC0XZW

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Creative Commons License
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