Last month I had the pleasure of attending the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, held at the University of Dayton. Traveling cross country for the meeting took me back to the first meeting, sponsored by Oregon State and chaired by Lisa Ede and Cheryl Glenn in 1997. Lisa and Cheryl had gotten funding from their department to hold a conference on a topic of their choice. Since the three of us had recently published an essay entitled “Border Crossings: Intersections of Rhetoric and Feminism,” that’s the topic they chose, assuming that they would hold this one-time conference and that would be that.
But that first conference stirred so much creativity, was so exciting and thought-provoking, that attendees decided it could not happen just once, and so colleagues from the University of Minnesota stepped up to say they would hold a second conference in 1999. And so the “biennial” meeting got a foothold, and before long the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Rhetoric and Composition signed on as co-sponsor, and now here we are, in 2017, celebrating the 20th anniversary of this conference. I’ve been to almost all of the intervening conferences and have come to look forward to this smaller, more intimate conference as my favorite. Certainly this year’s meeting was no disappointment. In fact, Margaret Strain, Elizabeth Mackay, and Patrick Thomas rolled out the red carpet in grand style for us, with an extraordinarily powerful book and document exhibit in the library (the first edition of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems almost brought me to my knees), a grand reception in their remarkable art institute (a perfect gem of a building full of magnificent paintings and sculptures), and a concert featuring undergraduate singers.
These events were very special treats, but the conference itself more than matched them. I attended a panel at every single session, and I expected to find at least one that was, shall we say, less than engaging. Didn’t happen. Every panel I attended was thought-provoking, lively, deeply informed, and challenging in all the best ways. The conference theme, “Rhetorics, Rights, (R)esponsibilities,” seemed to have been particularly evocative, and we heard papers on the rhetorics and responsibilities of religious groups, presidential campaigns, indigenous cultures, protest movements, and much more. Of special importance to me were several sessions on Black feminist rhetoric (I loved Ronisha Browdy’s “Keeping my Eye on FLOTUS’s Garden: A Black Feminist Rhetorical Reading of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden”), as well as talks by Kendra Mitchell and Jason Collins, a session devoted to “Black Women’s Multivalent Resistances to Marginalization,” and a memorable roundtable titled “#SayHerName #BlackGirlMagic: 21st Century Black Women’s Rhetorical Practices,” featuring Gwendolyn Pough, Tamika Carey, Elaine Richardson, and LaToya Sawyer. DYNAMITE.
Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale, a 2016 MacArthur Award winner, and the author of Citizen (which the conference organizers aptly describe as a “defining text for our time”) gave the keynote to a wildly receptive and appreciative audience. She spoke very directly about racism in our society and had a message for the 53% of white women voters who cast a ballot for Trump: not “what could they have been thinking” but what WERE they thinking, and it wasn’t good. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire talk and have since re-read Citizen. It’s a book every one of us should know well.
Now a few weeks after the conference, I find myself looking back on it, remembering powerful moments, such as Aneil Rallin’s hauntingly beautiful and provocative “’Can I Get a Witness:’ Writing with June Jordan,” a series of vignettes that mixed personal narrative with critical analysis to show, rather than tell about, the effects of racism all around us. I am also looking forward, already, to the 2019 conference, which will be held at James Madison University, hosted by Jen Almjed, Elisabeth Gunnior, and Traci Zimmerman. As of now, their working theme is "Re-visioning and Re-mediating the F-word: Feminisms & Rhetorics Twenty Years Later." I hope teachers of writing from all over the country will be joining me there!
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