Social Revolutions Start with Words

The University of Dayton will host a national academic conference next month that focuses on how language has been used throughout history to both regulate and liberate people - particularly women and people of color.

The 11th Biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, Oct. 4-7 at River Campus, is expected to draw up to 450 participants, making it one of the largest national academic conferences hosted by the University. The theme, “Rhetorics, Rights, (R)evolutions,” examines the broad impact of the conference, now in its 20th year, and how it might shape future scholarship, teaching and activism.

Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and a 2016 MacArthur "Genius" Award recipient, is the keynote speaker. Her poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, explores what it means to be an American citizen in a “post-racial” society. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and also holds the distinction of being the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category.

The University of Dayton is the first Catholic university to host the conference.

“UD was one of the first Catholic institutions to admit women, so that seems particularly fitting for the focus on feminist activism and advocacy,” said Patrick Thomas, associate professor of English and a member of the University’s host committee. “I think the theme of Rhetorics, Rights and (R)evolutions plays off of UD’s history with human rights — the University established the nation’s first undergraduate human rights studies program in 1998.”

Thomas said this year’s conference is an academic response to America’s current political and social climate. It addresses ways in which language and communication help us make connections and advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised, as well as how words also create obstacles to that effort.

“What sparks revolution is oftentimes a piece of writing,” he said. “The Declaration of Independence, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Sojourner Truth’s speech in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention — these happen as incendiary pieces of language that get written down, recorded and historicized. Social revolutions happen through writing.”

University Libraries recently acquired a 1792 second American edition of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, which is displayed through Oct. 9 in the Roesch Library first-floor gallery as part of the “It Is Time to Effect a Revolution” exhibit of rare books from collections of Stuart and Mimi Rose and the University’s special collections and archives. The exhibit takes its title from a line in Wollstonecraft’s book. The gallery will host the conference’s opening reception on Oct. 4.

Many of the conference’s nearly 200 plenary and panel sessions are driven by recent socio-political events, addressing the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington and post-election issues related to health care, immigration and reproductive rights, among other topics.

“There is a timeliness to this — a critical moment in which you realize there is a need for this kind of effort,” said Margaret M. Strain, professor of English and director of writing programs, who also serves on the host committee. “But at the same time, the conference seeks to remind us that efforts of revolutions, rights and rhetoric have been ongoing throughout history. Sometimes we tend to forget that we are where we are because others before us have made arguments to make our own positions possible.”

A number of the conference’s panelists and presenters are University faculty, including Brittany Cook, Meredith Doench, Maureen Keane-Sexton, Lindsey Light, Tereza Szeghi, Maura Taaffe, Shannon Toll, Susan Trollinger and Laura Vorachek from the department of English; Caroline Merithew and Bill Trollinger from the department of history; Meghan Henning from the department of religious studies; and Rebecca Whisnant, professor and department of philosophy chair.

The conference also will feature a plenary session on contemporary and historical feminist activism in Dayton that features Joy Schwab of the Dayton Women’s Rights Alliance, Jane Keiffer of the Artemis Center of Dayton and Judith Ezekiel of Wright State University.

“We’ve tried to design the program so it highlights Dayton, so people who attend the conference know there is something unique about Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Dayton as a site of work for social justice, human rights, peace and justice,” Thomas said.

Strain said the committee is planning to publish a book collection of selected conference presentations.

Co-sponsored by the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, the conference is hosted by the department of English, women’s and gender studies program, the College of Arts and Sciences and University Libraries.

Registration will be available onsite. University students who volunteer at the conference can attend for free. For more information, please visit the conference website and follow the event on Facebook and Twitter.

  • -  Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences


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