Sometimes when we take a class in school, we focus on getting the best grade instead of deeply reflecting on the valuable knowledge discussed throughout the class. Sometimes we focus on memorizing material to pass tests or relaying our teacher’s interpretations of the texts within our essays so that we can get a high grade. Sometimes we forget everything we learned in a course as soon as we receive our final grade. We often move on and let go of the lessons from one course that was only temporarily essential to our academic success. Regardless of how significant the knowledge we gained from a class may be, sometimes we dismiss it into the darkest corners of our brains only to forget it and never recall it again. While this may be a common trend for students today, some courses provide us with knowledge that should resonate with us for a lifetime.
I took a course this past spring that invited me to reflect on my experience as a woman in a manner that challenged me, helped me grow, and opened my mind to how unique every individual experience in our society is. Alongside incredibly intelligent classmates, I read empowering work written by women who paved the way to freedoms that allowed me to enroll in college to take this course. In addition, this course was taught by a woman who was also celebrating her freedoms that resulted from activism throughout history. I developed a sense of gratitude for my education, my freedoms, and the awareness that, while our country is not perfect, progress in women’s rights is a continuing process that we can all take part in. I want to share about the course that made me proud to be a woman, and hopefully you can take time to read some of the texts from this course and reflect on why you are proud to be a woman. Alternatively, if you are a man, I hope you can reflect on why women are so important in our society and why their freedoms are so important to the continuing betterment of our society.
For Women’s Writing & Rhetoric in the Spring 2021 semester, Dr. Coretta M. Pittman taught my classmates and me about many women authors and the significant contributions they made for the progress of women. These women also continue to have a strong influence on the culture in America as progressivism is on the rise. Within this course, students like me are invited to examine and define rhetorical methods present in texts written by a diverse array of women writers. As we recognized these rhetorical methods, we also discussed evidence used by these authors to strengthen their arguments, the obstacles they faced, and the rights they have pursued for women. Rhetoric was valuable in efforts for women’s rights, and this course clarified the role of rhetoric in different waves of the feminist movement.
This course is taught by many different faculty members in the Professional Writing & Rhetoric department here at Baylor. For example, when I was a freshman, it was taught by Dr. Lisa Shaver. I have heard great things about Dr. Shaver, especially because she researches women’s rhetoric. However, I felt very lucky to learn this course with Dr. Coretta Pittman because I have taken courses with her for the past four semesters. Dr. Pittman values empathetic listening as a rhetorician and this contributed greatly to the overall quality of our class discussions. She listened to every student’s ideas and gave each student’s voice equal weight in our course discussions. I could not have imagined this course with a different instructor. In addition, Dr. Pittman’s research interests are African American Rhetorical Cultures and Literacy Studies which were relevant to the course material. Dr. Pittman’s expertise in these subjects enhanced our conversations on the relevance of women’s writing to American culture in terms of feminism, womanism, and social change.
This course was made up of many diverse backgrounds and ideologies regarding political and social issues. There were students whose contributions to class discussions were rooted in faith-based logic while there were students whose opinions on course texts were based on experiences with gender-based discrimination. There were even students whose responses to texts were guided by experiences when their faith helped them understand, or even forgive, times that they have been discriminated against because of their gender. There were also two male students in the class whose thoughts on course texts were valuable to our class discussions.
It was helpful to have so many ideas and backgrounds represented in our discussions because this helped us confront issues present in the texts from different positions in society. For example, when we discussed the ways that a lack of diversity in teaching staff affects the way history is narrated and the way students of color feel in our classrooms, it was helpful to hear about everyone’s experiences. Some white students, including myself, felt they were not able to learn everything about American history, like experiences of Native Americans, because of this. There were students of color in class who felt they were never able to learn about their culture’s experience in America because of this. One classmate once shared with us that, as an English major, she had never been taught about an author of her ethnicity and that she did not realize that until this course. This course is so important because it unites these unique experiences and allows us to hear about each other’s experiences and empathize with one another. It is also solution oriented as a course, so when we addressed issues in society, we were also able to discuss potential solutions that resonated with each of us because of our unique experiences.
As a Professional Writing and Rhetoric course, this class revolved around six key texts. These texts were carefully and thoughtfully selected by Dr. Pittman to fulfill the intention of the course. The assigned texts for this course were:
1. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Reader: Correspondence, Writings, and Speeches written by Ellen Carol DuBois
2. The Feminine Mystique written by Betty Friedan
3. The Story of My Teeth written by Valeria Luiselli
4. In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden written by Alice Walker
5. Dark Testament and Other poems by Pauli Murray
6. All my Relations a podcast by Adrienne Keene & Mitka Wilbur
For me, the virtue of studying these texts introduces students, like me, to voices, experiences, and ideas that we would have otherwise never encountered. It is useful to study women’s texts because they provide us with perspectives that are often not the normal narrative for experiences in society. In America, we usually celebrate our independence as a country and the economy that allows each of us to pursue the “American Dream”. This narrative in society tells us that our experience is good and does not allow us to think critically about our society or nation. Often, this narrative condemns or erases the possibility of negative experiences in America. This narrative does not encourage a critical awareness toward our country or society, but there are courses we can take, like Women’s Writing & Rhetoric, to develop the critical awareness essential to progress for civil rights of all women.
Reading texts that emphasized experiences that are not normalized by the media opens our minds to understanding that there is not one, singular experience common for all Americans, or even for all humans. It is important for us to frequently step out of our shoes and recognize the reality for others in our country. It is even more important for us to listen to those who are not often given the opportunity to have the most valuable voice in every room. There are women who are brushed to the side, diminished, and ignored regardless of how important their words are for the overall betterment of society. Because these women are often left unheard, taking the time now to listen, learn, and reflect on these voices can enhance the strength of progress our society makes toward civil liberties for all. I am grateful that books, blog posts, podcasts, and writing of all forms can record and disseminate experiences of individuals that we normally would not have been able to learn about. This allows us to be more aware of our unique experience while we situate ourselves within our ever-developing notions of society.
This is one of the best things about reading women’s writing, but it can also be a challenging part of reading women’s writing. Sometimes we read experiences that made me feel sad and helpless. In The Story of My Teeth, we talked about the terrible income inequality in Mexico and how that affects the lives of those individuals. This text connected to America with a critique of our idolization of celebrities, status, and things. Luiselli’s work gracefully approached societal tragedies while evoking deep reflection from my classmates and myself. We would not have been confronted with these important ideas about our culture without reading this text.
Another text that challenged me was In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden written by Alice Walker. This text was sometimes difficult for me to read because, while it emphasized how women are often dismissed and devalued, it revealed the racial disparities in progress in civil liberties for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Betty Friedan all wrote regarding feminist issues that mainly affected white women, and authors like Alice Walker and Pauli Murray wrote not only to advocate for rights of African American women, but also share their experiences that were not being recognized. The discomfort I felt reading about the pain that Alice Walker and Pauli Murray felt because of racism was good because it challenged me to look around at our society today, to see if these women are still being left out of the progress in civil rights. Unfortunately, they are, but I would not have been able to recognize this injustice without an educator that assigned their experiences as readings, provided us with historical context, and encouraged as to think reflectively after readings these texts.
We also listened to a podcast, All my Relations by Adrienne Keene & Mitka Wilbur. Because rhetorical techniques can also be used verbally, I was excited to discuss a podcast with my class. This podcast challenged my classmates and I because it presented us with a large amount of information on the experiences of Indigenous people in America that we had never learned before. Their experiences in our country are tainted by stereotypes, media that portrays them incorrectly, a lack of representation, cultural appropriation, and more. The way our education system narrates these experiences does not address the injustices faced by Native Americans, so it was important that we could learn this together. It was also important that we addressed how struggles related to being Native American in America compounded with the struggles of being a woman in America today.
Indigenous women, as well as Black, Latino, Asian, Mexican, Jamaican, Chinese, Muslim, and Middle Eastern women face the most obstacles to progress in freedoms in America because of racist and social obstacles to their civil liberties. Without this course, I would have not been able to fully understand how different every single woman’s experience with social injustice is. I also would not have been able to think critically in class discussions with peers about the work we have left to do for all women and all individuals to have the freedoms that they deserve and are owed. I strongly encourage you to read these texts if you have the time. I also encourage you to discuss the texts with others because they provide knowledge about society that everyone should have.
The Value of Discussion
An interesting experience I had in this course that sticks out to me occurred on Wednesday, April 21. In one of our final class discussions, we reviewed a blog post written by a white, female author who used memes as a clever way to address the way that our political climate’s overstated presence in American news media hinders the advancement and celebration of successful women. The author referenced how the news often centered around Donald Trump’s every action of every minute of every day throughout 2020 because this focus on Trump led many Americans to miss out on important information related to non-political topics. Some students felt the memes took away from the important message in the blog post rather than being rhetorically valuable, so it was great to discuss how rhetorical strategies can deter from the impact of a written work. We considered that the usage of memes could have been altered to not take away from the overall message of the work. This is an example of the collaborative analysis we often partook in throughout this course, but the conversation took an interesting turn.
I had looked forward to this class discussion because I was excited to discuss the obstacles women face in academic fields like English and society’s tendency to overlook and minimize their achievements. The blog post we reviewed specifically discussed the Nobel Prize for literature, and how only three women from America have ever won in the 119 years that this honor has existed (Coolidge). I felt this was an important blog post for us to discuss as English and Professional Writing & Rhetoric majors because it hinted at the larger struggles that women experience in humanities fields mostly populated by white men. The small number of women who have won the Nobel Prize in literature is an important limitation to the advancement of women who have careers in literature because receiving the Nobel Prize, or even being nominated, is a huge honor that opens so many doors to so many opportunities that authors normally would not have. I had hoped that this would lead our class into discussing what the small number of women winners meant for Black, Latino, Asian, Mexican, Jamaican, Chinese, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous women in humanities fields like literature. If white women are being excluded, those who are diverse in race and ethnicity are most likely having even more trouble receiving high, well-deserved, hard-earned honors in their fields, and this is a systemic injustice that should be made visible and corrected. However, surprisingly, much of my class did not view the blog post this way.
Many of my classmates were disappointed in this blog post because it was published about a week before the election and did not address the election at all. My classmates felt this author was upset about the wrong thing at the wrong time because the election was so important for how the pandemic would be resolved and for the progress of civil rights. While I agree that the election is more important than the Nobel Prize for literature, I also felt that we mirrored many of the obstacles and criticisms that the women we read in this course faced. Some of my classmates argued that this blog post chose the wrong time to demand progress for women because there were more important things going on. I feel like if Elizabeth Cady Stanton had listened when men around her told her that there were more important things than the progress of women, we would not have such a strong start to the feminist movement. Despite that, my classmates still argued that it was the wrong time to worry about the struggles women face in professional fields.
Throughout history, women’s issues have been ignored and tossed aside for not being urgent or important enough. I felt as though we did the same thing in this class period, and it was disappointing for me, but it emphasized to me how important it is that this course exists. This course showed my classmates and me that the way we choose to communicate issues of social justice, the timing we choose to address these issues, and our audience can limit progress in social justice. If I had read these texts independently, without discussion, we would not have been able to learn these things. Coming together, sharing our experiences with various texts, allowed us to learn from one another and learn important things about our society in general.
I have always heard that “the best classes will teach you so much that you are left with the realization that you know little to nothing about the world around you.” This rang true for my experience with Women’s Writing & Rhetoric. This course challenged me, helped me grow, and taught me so much that I had never learned before. In over a decade of education, it absolutely blows my mind that that lessons I gained in Women’s Writing & Rhetoric were not lessons I learned in elementary school. I am left wondering, what else is there to learn? I look around, I see each person, each woman, as their unique experience that may one day be written for us to learn from. I recognize now that there is an abundance of things I do not know, but courses like this make it easier for us to learn things we did not know before. This course also showed me the importance of continuing to investigate and read experiences of others throughout the rest of my life because there will always be a new perspective that provides me with ideas and knowledge that I did not have before.
If we do not listen to those who experience society differently from us, our understanding of society is limited to our perspective only. If we do not listen to the voices that are not amplified by the media, who will listen to them? And how would we ever understand society as a whole? Society is such a beautiful thing when you make the effort to understand how everyone experiences our social culture. If we do not make the time to address the experiences of others, injustices they face may never become resolved. If we decide to only be critical of authors as an audience, we will miss the point of written works that criticize and expose systemic inequality. To me, it is so urgently important that we take the time to divorce ourselves from our personal experiences and invest time into understanding the experiences of others. I am a woman, and I had never understood the extent of the oppressive forces that minority women experience. These women are my sisters, they are my neighbors, we are all American, yet there are Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino, Mexican, Jamaican, Chinese, Muslim, and Middle Eastern women that have been abandoned, betrayed, and they struggle every day to be heard. There is so much work left to do for women to be absolutely equal, and you cannot even begin to imagine the extent of progress we have left to make if you do not educate yourself.
I encourage you to sign up for a course that focuses on women’s writing. I also encourage you to pick up a book about an individual’s experience in our country, or society, that may differ from yours. It may be best to start with something shorter or something with concise readings, like poetry, if this is a new endeavor for you. If you are feeling hesitant, and would like an easier read to begin with, I strongly recommend starting with Dark Testament and Other Poems by Pauli Murray. These lyrical confrontations of the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and Murray’s experiences with racism in her lifetime gently introduce readers to the highs and lows of being a Black woman in America. Murray’s love for her country shines through in her beautiful poetry while also educating readers on issues that continue to affect women of color in our country today. The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice also has a Facebook page, so if you have questions as you read along there is a resource for your convenience. This organization also hold book clubs over Zoom so that you can engage in helpful discussions as you educate yourself on the experiences of others. I hope you will consider beginning a dive into reading about others’ experiences, and I hope this can be a helpful resource for you.
Once you begin reading others’ experiences, I hope you will consider their experiences in comparison to yours and open your mind, expand your understanding of the world around you, and share whatever you learn with your friends and families. I hope that you will carry the knowledge you gain from the books you read throughout the remainder of your life to treat others with consistent empathy across social interactions. Together, through continuing awareness, we can improve the experiences of everyone in our society as long as we listen to everyone’s experiences.
Coolidge, MC. “They're American. They're Women. And They're a Triumvirate of Nobel Prize Winners!” Think, Think, 23 Oct. 2020, mccoolidge.substack.com/p/theyre-american-theyre-women-and?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source.