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Conversational Rhetoric

Conversational Rhetoric

The Rise and Fall of a Women's Tradition, 1600-1900

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Jane Donawerth


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
6 x 9

Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms


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About the Book

Much of the scholarly exchange regarding the history of women in rhetoric has emphasized women’s rhetorical practices. In Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women’s Tradition, 1600–1900, Jane Donawerth traces the historical development of rhetorical theory by women for women, studying the moments when women produced theory about the arts of communication in alternative genres—humanist treatises and dialogues, defenses of women’s preaching, conduct books, and elocution handbooks. She examines the relationship between communication and gender and between theory and pedagogy and argues that women constructed a theory of rhetoric based on conversation, not public speaking, as a model for all discourse. 

Donawerth traces the development of women’s rhetorical theory through the voices of English and American women (and one much-translated French woman) over three centuries. She demonstrates how they cultivated theories of rhetoric centered on conversation that faded once women began writing composition textbooks for mixed-gender audiences in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She recovers and elucidates the importance of the theories in dialogues and defenses of women’s education by Bathsua Makin, Mary Astell, and Madeleine de Scudéry; in conduct books by Hannah More, Lydia Sigourney, and Eliza Farrar; in defenses of women’s preaching by Ellen Stewart, Lucretia Mott, Catherine Booth, and Frances Willard; and in elocution handbooks by Anna Morgan, Hallie Quinn Brown, Genevieve Stebbins, and Emily Bishop. In each genre, Donawerth explores facets of women’s rhetorical theory, such as the recognition of the gendered nature of communication in conduct books, the incorporation of the language of women’s rights in the defenses of women’s preaching, and the adaptation of sentimental culture to the cultivation of women’s bodies as tools of communication in elocution books. 

Rather than a linear history, Conversational Rhetoric follows the starts, stops, and starting over in women’s rhetorical theory. It covers a broad range of women’s rhetorical theory in the Anglo-American world and places them in their social, rhetorical, and gendered historical contexts. This study adds women’s rhetorical theory to the rhetorical tradition, advances our understanding of women’s theories and their use of rhetoric, and offers a paradigm for analyzing the differences between men’s and women’s rhetoric from 1600 to 1900.


Jane Donawerth is a professor of English at the University of Maryland and the editor of Rhetorical Theory by Women before 1900: An Anthology.



“Jane Donawerth’s new book fills a significant gap in our understanding of both the history of women’s rhetorical practices and women rhetoricians’ influential contribution to theory and pedagogy. [This book] is certain to be required reading for historians of rhetoric and composition and feminist researchers alike.”—Nan Johnson, author of Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life: 1866–1910

“Arguing that for women in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, the model for discourse was conversation, not public speaking, Donawerth draws on their treatises defending women’s education, their conduct books, their preaching, and their elocution manuals to demonstrate how women theorized the communication they took part in. Assiduously researched and beautifully written, this project’s contributions to our understanding of women’s rhetorical traditions is, in a word, magnificent.”—Lucille M. Schultz, coauthor of Archives of Instruction:Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States

“With her trademark intellectual energy and prowess, Jane Donawerth teaches us the many ways that women’s conversation delivers rhetorical power while simultaneously enacting rhetorical theory. Conversational artfulness equates with rhetorical competence, as Donawerth’s rhetorical analysis so amply displays. Donawerth set a formidable (transatlantic, three-century) task for herself, one she fulfilled admirably.”   —Cheryl Glenn, author of Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance and Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence

“Jane Donawerth is the historian of rhetoric who has done the most to establish the significance of conversation as a women’s genre. It is tremendously valuable to have her new and groundbreaking work here, in which she demonstrates that conversation forms the basis not only of premodern women’s rhetorical performance but more, of women’s rhetorical theorizing from the parlor to the pulpit and eventually onto the public platform.” —Patricia Bizzell, coeditor of The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present

“An excellent example of close textual analysis, use of diverse sources, theoretical interpretation, and bridging theory and context, this book would appeal to a variety of audiences ranging from undergraduate student to scholar. Most significantly, this history is a story about the power of rhetorical theory. Its interdisciplinary appeal and thorough analysis makes it an informative and enjoyable read, and a foundational contribution to the field of rhetorical theory and history.”— EMILY BERG PAUP, The College of St. Benedict’s and St. John’s University, printed in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 16:1, Spring 2013, published by Michigan State University Press