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Becoming feminists: Emotional literacy and the shaping of identity in feminist communities

Whitney Douglas, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation contributes to the areas of literacy studies, rhetoric, and composition pedagogy, by taking up four questions: How do women use literacy to construct and negotiate feminist identities? How can literacy studies and rhetorical theory add to an understanding of feminist activism in historical, contemporary, and pedagogical contexts? How is the concept of subaltern counterpublics useful for considering the rhetorical space of feminist communities and the literacy sponsored within those spaces? How does the activist work of feminist communities sponsor communal literacy, a form of literacy rooted in practices of sharing?^ To answer these questions, I examine historical and contemporary Nebraska women's experiences with identity negotiation, literacy practices, and activism in three sites: (1) the Nebraska woman's suffrage movement; (2) Voices of Hope, an advocacy agency for survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence; and (3) a college course on feminist activism with a service learning component. Studying these sites through the lens of literacy studies and feminist rhetorical theory, I trace common threads of women's experiences claiming feminist and activist identities. Drawing on archival research, ethnographic observation, interviews, personal experiences, and analysis of newsletters, agency documents, and student writing, I offer a rich portrait of the challenges women activists face, the identity negotiation they undertake to engage in activism, and the ways that attention to literacy practices offers a critical lens for understanding women's civic participation in a democratic society.^ Pulling from the work of theorists in feminist rhetoric (Hollis, Johnson, Kates, Ritchie and Ronald) and identity theory (Alcoff, Butler, Goncalves, and Fraser), combined with scholarship in literacy studies on community literacy and literacy as social practice (Barton and Hamilton, Brandt, Cushman, and Grabill), I argue that the efficacy of women's activism is sponsored by emotional literacy which shapes individual identities prior to or as part of the forming of a collective community, and that emotional literacy continues to sponsor their activist endeavors. Integrating theories of literacy as a social practice with relational theories of literacy, I propose a theory of communal literacy: community-based literacy practices rooted in interpersonal connections, cross-cultural engagement, and practices of sharing that benefit a larger cause.^

Subject Area

Women's Studies|Language, Rhetoric and Composition

Recommended Citation

Douglas, Whitney, "Becoming feminists: Emotional literacy and the shaping of identity in feminist communities" (2008). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3320078.