List of female rhetoricians

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Within the field of rhetoric, the contributions of female rhetoricians have often been overlooked. Anthologies comprising the history of rhetoric or rhetoricians often leave the impression there were none. Throughout history, however, there have been a significant number of women rhetoricians.

Re∙Vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. -Adrienne Rich

The following is a timeline of contributions made to the field of rhetoric by women.

Before Common Era

  • Diotima of Mantinea (4th century BC) is an important character in Plato's Symposium. It is uncertain if she was a real person or perhaps a character modelled after Aspasia, for whom Plato had much respect.

14th century

  • "Letter 83: To Mona Lapa, her mother, in Siena" (1376)
  • Christine de Pizan (1365-1430) was a Venetian who moved to France at an early age. She was influential as a writer, rhetorician and critic during the medieval period, and was Europe's first female professional author.
  • Margery Kempe (1373-1439) was a British woman who could neither read nor write, but dictated her life story The Book of Margery Kempeafter receiving a vision of Christ during the birth of the first of her fourteen children. From the 15th century Kempe was viewed as a holy woman after her book was published in pamphlet form with any thought or behavior that could be viewed as nonconforming or unorthodox removed. When the original was rediscovered in 1934, a more complex self-portrait emerged.

15th century

  • Laura Cereta (1469-1499) was an Italian humanist and feminist who was influential in the letters she wrote to other intellectuals. Through her letters she fought for women's right to education and against the oppression of married women.
  • Letter to Bibulus, Sempronius, Defense of the Liberal Instruction of Women" (1488)

17th century

  • Margaret Fell (1614-1702) was a British founding member of the Religious Society of Friends, and was popularly known as the "mother of Quakerism". She was persecuted and imprisoned for speaking her mind. She is credited with many essential changes within the Quaker church which brought more freedom for women in religious, social, and political areas.
  • Women's Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed by the Scriptures (1666)
  • Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (c. 1623-1673) was a British novelist, playwright, philosopher, poet, and rhetorician. Recent critics—most notably Christine Sutherland and Jane Donawerth—have explored her rhetorical theory and practice. Key works in this vein include:
  • sections of The Worlds Olio (1655)
  • Orations of Divers Sorts (1662)
  • The Female Academy in Playes (1662)
  • Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695) was a Mexican who entered a convent to dedicate her life to scholarship. She took part in the elite intellectual circles of her time, and many see her as the first feminist of the New World. She wrote poetry, essays, and religious treatises, and argued for a more holistic role for women in society.
  • Mary Astell (1668-1731) is regarded by many as the first English feminist writer. In her anonymous publications, Astell vigorously supported equal education opportunities for women.

18th century

  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a British writer who wrote abundantly across the disciplines. In her brief writing career she advocated women's equality and argued against the male birthright as a necessity for political rights. Today, she is celebrated as an essential force in the history of feminism.

Nineteenth century

  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was an American journalist, critic and women's rights activist, a contributor to the "first wave" of feminism in the US. Her idea of gender equality rested upon the transcendental notion of the universal one, the fact that female and male form a whole and require one another.
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a prominent American author, artist, lecturer, and feminist social reformer. She is best known for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which she based on her own experience with mental illness and misguided medical treatment.
  • Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) was an American, who was influential in her work in the abolitionist movement during the Civil War and also for writings and lectures she made in support of President Abraham Lincoln. Since Grimke was prohibited from receiving formal education, she educated herself to become the oritor she had always wanted to be. She also taught her personal slave to read even though it was against the law for her to do so. Grimke noted that fighting for abolition was as important as fighting for women's rights.
  • Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879) was an African American public speaker, abolitionist, and feminist. Her speeches addressed the plight of Northern black people and drew arguments from the Scriptures. She became the first woman to speak in front of a mixed audience, both male and female, black and white.
  • Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an American abolitionist. A former slave, she became an important rhetorical figure for the women's rights movement. Truth could neither read nor write, but had powerful oratory skills, which she used to challenge white Americans to live up to their own ideals.
  • Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was born into slavery, researched and rallied campaigns against systematic lynching in the South at the end of the 1800s. After much personal tragedy, she expanded her activism to Europe. Wells was known for her strong belief in logos and her idea that the truth speaks for itself.[citation needed]
  • Life Among the Piutes (1883)

Twentieth century

  • Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was the founder of the American Birth Control League (currently called Planned Parenthood), a birth control activist, and an advocate of certain aspects of eugenics. Sanger eventually gained support of the public and courts for ideas giving women the right to decide when and how she will bear children even though the public and courts were fiercely opposed to them at first. Margaret Sanger was instrumental in opening the way to universal access to birth control.
  • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British author who is considered, by many, to be one of the foremost modernist/feminist literary figures of the twentieth century. Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a member of the Bloomsbury Group between World War I and World War II.
  • Helene Cixous (1937- ) is considered one of the three most famous feminists in France, being a professor of literature at the Universite de Paris VIII which she helped to found in 1968. She has written more than thirty books of fiction as well as numerous essays and plays. She urges women to reclaim their natural relationships with their bodies and become rhetorically expressive. Cixous's work sparked the French feminist theory of écriture feminine.
  • Merle Woo (1941- ) is an Asian American activist who brought two lawsuits against the University of California in the 1980s for race, gender, sexual orientation, and political bias. In her "Letter to Ma," she re-lives the silent relationship with her mother and addresses social issues such as racism, sexism, oppression and exploitation as underlying themes. Her letter resonates with the Asian American experience and reclaims power and pride for Asian American heritage.
  • bell hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins (1952- ), is an internationally recognized intellectual, speaker, writer, and social activist. She focuses on how race, class, and gender and their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination are interconnected. She is a recognized author and has published over thirty books and numerous scholarly and mainstream articles. She has also appeared in several documentary films, and participated in various public lectures. hooks addresses race, gender, and class in education, sexuality, feminism, history, art and the mass media through a black female perspective.
  • Nomy Lamm (1976- ) is a self-described “fat-ass bad-ass Jew dyke amputee.” She is also an award winning musician (queer punk). She forces her audience, whether through her music or through her lectures, to consider the oppression of fat people. Because of this activism, she earned the title "Woman of the Year" from Ms. Magazine.
  • Ruth Behar (1962- ) was born in Cuba in 1962. Her parents moved Behar's family to the US where she became an accomplished poet, writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist. She is currently employed at the University of Michigan.
  • Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions(1983)
  • Marilyn: Norma Jean (1986)
  • Revolution from Within (1992)
  • Moving beyond Words (1993)
  • Supremacy Crimes (1999)


  • Available Means: An Anthology of Women's Rhetoric. Ed. Richie, Joy & Kate Ronald. Pittsburgh: University Press, 2001.


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