Voicing Concerns, Sharing Lives: The Rhetorical Power of Narrative
Rev. of Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative, by Elaine J. Lawless and Water Drops from Women Writers: A Temperance Reader, edited by Carol Mattingly
In her introduction to Women Escaping Violence, Elaine Lawless cites Martha Nussbaum’s claim about the power of storytelling: “Narrative art has the power to make us see the lives of the different with more than a casual tourist’s interestwith involvement and sympathetic understanding, with anger at our society’s refusals of visibility. [The] narrative imagination is essential preparation for moral interaction” (qtd. 17). Although Lawless writes of first-person narrative written by abused women and Carol Mattingly anthologizes temperance short fiction, these two texts work toward the same goal: to illustrate the rhetorical power of storytelling by women.
Mattingly’s Water Drops from Women Writers is a useful and logical supplement to her Well-Tempered Woman: Nineteenth Century Temperance Rhetoric (1998). Unlike its predecessor, which examines a variety of genres from the movement including fiction, newspaper accounts of meetings and speeches, autobiographical and biographical narratives, and minutes of national and state temperance conventions, Water Drops includes only short stories. Such canonized nineteenth-century writers as Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as lesser-known authors including Mary Dwinnell Chellis and Frances Dana Gage pen the fiction featured here.
Mattingly’s introduction provides readers with ample background information about this underplayed, and sometimes overlooked, social and political movement. She tells us that the temperance movement was “the largest single organizing force for women in U.S. history” (1) and additionally encompassed various women’s rights movements such as the legal age of sexual consent (which was actually seven in some states), property rights of married women, suffrage, the presence of female matrons in women’s jails, and children’s working wages. Mattingly finds this area of scholarship important not only because it helps to fill historical gaps in women’s rhetorical and literary practices, but also because she believes that the nineteenth-century figure of the “angel in the house” has long been misread as “conservative, uninteresting, and often complicit in [her] own oppression” (1). Illustrating that this was generally not the case for nineteenth-century women, these temperance authors often couched the above concerns within a larger call for temperance. This rhetorical strategy enabled them to write about controversial issues other authors, both male and female, were less apt or brave to address publicly. These stories therefore complicate our idea of the nineteenth-century woman as meek, submissive, and unattached from social concerns. Instead, we find a great degree of dissatisfaction with many social issues and a real desire to create change through rhetorical means.
While the authors in Mattingly’s selections use narrative as a vehicle to change social perception, behavior, and laws, the women in Lawless’ study tell their stories to survive. As a woman who survived physical abuse herself and who later volunteers for a battered women’s shelter in Missouri, Lawless realizes the rhetorical potential of telling one’s own story. Along with the fragmented stories analyzed throughout the text, she provides four women’s heartbreaking yet powerful narratives at the end of her discussion. In addition to the actual voices of the women she interviewed, Lawless begins each chapter with recent newspaper stories about murdered women. These crimes were committed at home and in church, by gunshot and by fire, by fiancés, husbands, and estranged husbands. These “headline stories” serve as a reminder that some women are not afforded the voice to express their narratives; these particular voices will remain forever silent. Through the examples set by the women who survived their abuse, Lawless illustrates how abused women must piece together their narratives and then tell these stories, not only to escape the violent situations they find themselves in but also to move toward recovery and self-realization.
Similar to the stories we find in Lawless’ work, Mattingly suggests that “the primary attention [of temperance stories] focuses on women’s difficulties in protecting themselves and their children because of economic, social, and legal roadblocks” (2). The characters in these stories are usually likeable, strong women who overcome adversity such as poverty and violence brought on by the drinking of their father or spouse. Often this victory is gained through the ability to outsmart their husband, as is the case in Francis Dana Gage’s “Tales of Truth (No. 2).” In this short story, Polly tricks her alcoholic husband, John, who has left her and her seven children in poverty, into believing that what is good for him can also be good for her. After years of begging and pleading with him to stop drinking, she pretends to take up drinking herself. John is moved to tears at the sight and pledges to never drink again. Readers learn, although John never does, that the liquid she consumes is merely water. John soberly declares at the end of the story that if man claims to be superior to women “mentally, educationally, physically, and politically, it was his duty to stand as her superior morally and to guide and guard her in her weakness, and keep her in his heart of hearts, free from all sorrow and wrong” (267). This story, as do many of them, illustrates a woman tired of fending for herself and her children while her husband spends all his time at the pub drinking away their income. She uses her own cunning to convince him to stop, and stop he does. The result is a woman who has taken control of her family’s life; perhaps more importantly, the story illustrates to its readers that men can understand the evils of drink and be convinced to end their bad habit.
As mentioned earlier, many temperance authors also engaged in larger social concerns. In addition to this relatively simple illustration from “Tales of Truth,” the stories included in Water Drops address “not only the general inequality between the sexes and violence against women but also prejudicial societal attitudes towards victims of male assault and abuse, a woman’s right to her own body, marital infidelity, and the imperative for women to focus on their own needs” (5). The same could be said of Lawless’ narratives. The women who tell their stories are abused by fathers, brothers, uncles, acquaintances, husbands, and boyfriends. The abuse is often compounded when they go to the police or turn to the judicial system for assistance. They may find themselves in an even worse situation with little or no real protection; many times going to the police only exacerbates the abuse. An important exigence for Lawless, therefore, is to illustrate how abused women are treated poorly by our legal system. This does not appear to be a focal point for the abused women’s narratives, but the argument Lawless crafts from their stories is clear. Just as Mattingly’s authors rhetorically construct their texts not only to illustrate the dangers of alcohol consumption but also to condemn other “social ills,” Lawless takes the stories she collects and uses them to illustrate the faults of the country’s legal and judicial system. In other words, the undertext of their stories uncovers and draws attention to equally important, but in these cases secondary, social concerns.
There are, however, several distinctions between Lawless’ narrators and Mattingly’s authors that should be noted. The abused women in Lawless’ study are not necessarily telling their stories to change others’ opinions. In fact, they do not have a particular audience in mind as most of them were prompted by Lawless to tell their stories and therefore do not have a political exigence. Perhaps the most significant difference, however, is that while Mattingly’s authors may or may not have suffered abuse because of alcoholism, all the narrators in Lawless’ study have emerged or are in the process of emerging from abusive relationships themselves. This explains the emphasis Lawless places on language. Language pulls the narrators out of the passive role of victim and into action. Using language to describe their situation helps the women to move out of immobility and to accuse their abuser. Cathy recalls being given the advice “write everything down when you go to court. . . . Write it down; take it with you. Remember every detail you can remember. Write it down” (230-31). More important to Lawless though, is that language enables the abused women to construct a powerful and positive identity separate from the abuse. The act of remembering and telling reflects a transformation from an inward sharing of responsibility to an outward placing of blame. By the time these women share their stories with Lawless, they have come to a point in their lives where they realize that they did not deserve the abusive treatment and a certain amount of pride comes through their narratives.
Lawless is not naïve enough to believe that simply telling stories is enough to end the cycle of abuse and is careful not to romanticize the effects. In fact, she acknowledges, sometimes that the telling serves to “reinscrib[e] the ‘fiction of absolute power’” (119). For example, one woman shares her stories of previous abuse with her new boyfriend and believes this vulnerability precipitated his abusing her as well. Lawless argues that in the right context, with the right audience even, locating the words to describe the abuse shines a spotlight on the abuser’s inappropriate behavior and the woman’s lack of responsibility in the abuse. As noted earlier, this vocalization may also enable her to move beyond the abuse and create a more positive identity for herself. As Lawless expresses toward the end of her study, “As long as her act of speech can be both spoken out from her self, as well as internalized by her as an act of defiance and empowerment, she should be able to feel her self expand from the prison of damaged flesh into a new a freeing space” (119).
Through the scholarship of these two books, both authors suggest that narrative, whether fiction or personal, has the rhetorical power to change, in fact better, women’s lives. Mattingly finds that the study of temperance fiction is essential to understanding more fully the nature of nineteenth-century women and the means by which they employed language to bring awareness to and change the undesirable aspects of their society. Through her work with abused women’s narratives, Lawless concludes that she “has come to believe the thesis of this book: To tell our stories is to re-create ourselves. The power of narrative comes in the act of telling our stories, breaking our silence, narrating a life, constructing a self” (160). Both scholars encourage us to listen to these women’s voices that often go unheard, unacknowledged, and unrecorded. By listening to these voices, we acquire a better understanding of our history and our present; we appreciate the rhetorical power of narrative to create change in society and in ourselves.
Lawless, Elaine J. Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment through Narrative. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001.
Mattingly, Carol, Ed. Water Drops from Women Writers: A Temperance
Reader. Carbondale: Southern Illinois P, 2001.