Monthly Archives: April 2013

Feminine Political Rhetoric: Powerful Gift or Oxymoron?


margaretthatcher_ap_8apJumbo shrimp.  Cheap gas.  Comic tragedy. Dry Martini.  The contradictions in these phrases are immediately evident.  There are other oxymoronic concepts that are a bit less obvious and require a moment’s thought:  Abundant poverty.  Casual formality.  Consistent uncertainties.  And still, there are concepts that are only debatably oxymoronic:  God as man.  Masculine communication.  Feminine political rhetoric.  These last three concepts, and others like them, have been an ongoing part of the discussion in the feminist movement for quite some time.

Two articles, Feminine Style and Political Judgment in the Rhetoric of Ann Richards (Bonnie J. Dow and Mari Boor Tonn) and The Discursive Performance of Femininity:  Hating Hillary (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell) examine women’s discourse in politics to determine whether there is an effective feminine style in political rhetoric.  If there is, what does it look like and is it effective?  Two politicians, in particular, are examined in detail.  In the first article, the late and former Governor Ann Richards is evaluated as a case study in her application of feminine style.  Her form and mastery of traditional feminine values as expressed in her political rhetoric, carefully and emotionally compelled and empowered her targeted audiences.  Consequently, she (and her political discourse) was an effective tool for the Democrat agenda and its political machine.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, the main subject of the second article, exhibited few stereotypically feminine traits as an orator, by contrast.  This resulted in an arguably much less compelling rhetorical style.  Campbell suggests that Hillary’s lawyer-like demeanor and no-frills-just-the-facts personae was counterproductive to her own popularity, as well as to the Democrat Party’s objectives.

Feminine discourse in public forums (including politics) is an important topic, because it has the potential to command leadership that is important and inspirational to other women – and men.  Moreover, it is the feminine style of discourse that has been able to penetrate public audiences most effectively, throughout time, whether performed by men or women.  Each of these articles fails to address this critical and pivotal discussion point:  The key to attaining leadership in political and other public arenas is not trying to usurp the MALE potency in these forums that exist today, but to fully embrace the power of the feminine style.

It is the feminine model – the feminine style – that has historically owned the elements and strategies best suited for public and political persuasion.  Dow and Tonn argue that, “public communication, primarily produced by males, has served as the model for ‘good’ speech.” I disagree with them.  Furthermore, they contend that, “women’s communicative patterns are associated with their roles in the private sphere of home and family.”  While women’s private communicative patterns are culturally more familiar to us all, it has consistently been the feminine style of discourse that has actually served as the model for successful rhetorical speech.  Stereotypically-feminine gendered traits are the traits that have defined some of the most powerful public rhetors of all time, and most notably, have defined even the most powerful and persuasive male public rhetors.  Men may have “owned” the political arena due to patriarchal cultural factors; certainly, men have “owned” American corporate life in every arena since the inception of this country.  Men have performed those roles.  However, male potency in the political arena is not due to the absence of feminine style or to the presence of a masculine one.  It is purely an extension of a male-dominated society as a whole.  The authors of these two articles are incorrect in their premise and in many of their assumptions.  Not only is there a feminine style in political rhetoric and public discourse, it has been demonstrated to be exceedingly powerful, over time, and when exhibited in both sexes.  If women (and men) such as Hillary Clinton have fallen short as orators, it is because they lack that style, and the perception that it is necessary to adopt a masculine style of discourse in order to compete in a public venue traditionally occupied by men is misguided.  The power of feminine style is not an oxymoron.

“God as man” (referring, of course, to Jesus), just might be oxymoronic, if “man” is referring to masculine gender (as opposed to purely Jesus’ sex).  In the Bible, Galatians 5:22-23 sums up the “fruits of the spirit” (the essence of Jesus), as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Without going too far afield in this short discussion, Jesus – arguably the most powerful MALE that ever walked the earth – possessed these character traits/gifts – and others – that the authors of these above-mentioned articles rightfully attribute to the feminine gender.  History tells us that Jesus was compassionate, nurturing, loving, wise, engaging, and a good teacher who was wise and focused upon relationship.  History also demonstrates that this male person, (with long hair and while wearing the equivalent of a dress) persuaded throngs of diverse and divided ranks to follow him.  He taught through stories – parables.  He was a model of positive leadership and empowerment.  Simultaneously, he embraced all who were hungry and afraid.  His public presence and political discourse was not only legend; it was much more stereotypically feminine than masculine in style. These types of qualities are those that many would attribute to the private lives of modern women (and specifically mothers).  To do so, is to minimize and even ignore the magnitude of power that has been inherent in these gender-feminine-coded personal qualities for thousands of years.  It is the “feminine style of discourse and rhetoric” that actually owns the power of the public arena.  Women have simply lost their confidence and ability to see it and exercise it, and have diminished its real value.  As advocates for equity and equality with our male counterparts, perhaps women and men have, unfortunately, elevated the masculine model to a position it did not deserve; they have elevated it as something to which women should aspire and, in doing so, have overlooked the intense power of the feminine style.

Ann Richards had this feminine style, understood its power – and she used it effectively.  So did Elizabeth Dole, as author Campbell points out.  Eleanor Roosevelt tapped into her feminine style to propose compassionate changes to the human condition all around her.  Margaret Thatcher exercised it brilliantly, and managed to wield power even with an endearing, matronly nickname – “Maggie”.  In our present political and public arena, one can point to other examples of effective feminine political and public discourse, such as the discourse of Sarah Palin, Suzy Orman, Ann Coulter, Ellen DeGeneres, Laura Ingraham, and Oprah Winfrey.  And there are some very powerful modern-day males who also utilized the feminine style effectively in political discourse, as well.  Ronald Reagon and  John F. Kennedy, are such men.  Effective public and political discourse, even when delivered by someone as outspoken and strong as Winston Churchill, is effective because it possesses, in addition to a litany of other attributes, one of the most powerful elements of the feminine gender:  passion.

Citing feminine traits to be emotional support, nurturance, Dow and Tonn state:

“Attempts to avoid perceptions of masculinity and to be rhetorically effective with public audiences have led these women to synthesize gender expectations by using socially approved rhetorical strategies commonly identified as masculine – formal evidence, deductive structure, and linear modes of reasoning – while simultaneously incorporating concerns and qualities typically considered feminine such as family values or feminine personae.”

Why adapt to those rhetorical strategies “commonly identified as masculine?”  Who have been the effective male rhetors whose followers were transfixed and loyal due to “formal evidence, deductive structure and linear modes of reasoning?”  These (and others like them) are the very traits that author Campbell points to as being Hillary’s Achilles heel in public discourse!  Dow and Tonn quote Campbell regarding the power of the feminine style, citing that “the personal is political, a process which produces group cohesion and transforms audience members into agents of change.”  The personal is far more than political.  It is powerful beyond measure.

Dow and Tonn also quote Ann Richards, who said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did.  She just did it backwards and in high heels.”  Perhaps that is the condition of the modern woman.  Women have adapted to their male counterparts… as if the leading role was destined to have been a masculine one.  However, the power of the feminine style has been there for the seizing (and the leading) all along!  Perhaps women have oppressed themselves in political and public life as much as men have oppressed them.  Perhaps feminine style and its inherent power is a sort of cultural potential energy long overdue to be unleashed.  Embracing that power, with as much vigor as the feminist movement has combated gender oppression, may be the secret to future progress.

Effective feminine style in political rhetoric.  Feminine power.  God as man.  Oxymorons?  Only in part.   ;-)

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All of Life is a Coming Home


(I wrote this piece a couple of years ago, for a different blog page, but it resonates with me now, with a bit of new life breathed into it.  Having endured the trials of moving and renovations more than we would have cared to these past eighteen months, I’m reminded that “home” is not really a physical place, after all.)

If you have never ridden into the mountains in Silverton, Colorado, on the famed historic Durango-Silverton railroad, treat yourself to it sometime.  Having driven our car from California after Jordan’s graduation, with only minimal space for anything besides the four members of our family, we arrived in Durango with only flip flops for our feet… which made for an interesting day in the surprise snow storm, once in Silverton at the top of the mountain.  With bare feet flopping (and FREEZING) in the windy weather we all managed to attract a lot of attention.   This later paid off in the form of quite a number of Irish coffees from one of the local bartenders as well as the sympathy of a few female conductors on the train who found cozy, inside seating for us, despite the fact that our last-minute tickets were for the cheap seats on the open-sided train car.  It was great being back in Colorado, even if it was cold…and even if it still meant another six hours on the road in my little white convertible, squished unmercifully between suitcases, with the circulation to my legs cut off from sitting cross-legged in my seat.  Colorado, with its surprise May snowfall looked mighty good, even with frosty feet.  We were more than merely on board the train.  We were home.

As the clickety-click of the train rumbled on the old rails, my mind wandered to the silent, often-forgotten recesses of my memories.  It took me back to the days when I was quite young, when my father would treat me to an annual ride on the train to Market Street Station in Philadelphia, for a Daddy-daughter date at Christmas.  My mother would send me off with my wool dress coat, white gloves, Mary Jane patent leather shoes and tights. In the chill of winter, my dad would take me to Wanamaker’s Department Store to have lunch, see “the eagle” (fellow Philly folks will know what this means) and hear the world-famous Wanamaker organ play its Christmas concert while beautiful lights “danced” to a Christmas light show in the lobby of the many-storied department store.

Around the sharp bend of the steep mountain, the antique train’s whistle blew shrilly, jolting me from one memory to another.  Now, in my nostalgic mindset, I recalled our old Lionel trains; I pictured my father’s carefully constructed home train platform, with houses, roadside billboards and heavy toy rail cars.  I closed my eyes and could almost smell the smoke from the little white pills we would plop into the stack of the black locomotive.  I could “feel” the buttons turn beneath my fingers on our old transformer box… not too slowly, or the trains wouldn’t move… not too fast or they’d fly off the track.  Belly-down on the floor next to my brother, I would watch the trains go around that track forever.  That rusted track sits in a box in storage now.  It will never be used again, but I can’t part with it.  It brings me “home”, just looking at it.

In the movie Patch Adams, the main character of the same name begins with a poignant soliloquy.  He narrates:

“All of life is a coming home. Salesmen, secretaries, coal miners, beekeepers, sword swallowers, all of us. All the restless hearts of the world, all trying to find a way home. It’s hard to describe what I felt like then. Picture yourself walking for days in the driving snow; you don’t even know you’re walking in circles. The heaviness of your legs in the drifts, your shouts disappearing into the wind. How small you can feel, and how far away home can be. Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place.”

With the chug of the engine palpably beneath my feet, and the hiss of the steam blowing by my window, I knew about “coming home”… not because of Colorado, really.  I looked around at my fellow passengers and didn’t need to know them or their names in order to know that we were each restless hearts, trying to find a way home.  They, and the thousands of travelers before us who had ridden these antique rails through the dark wood, had also been through the storms of life… and had weathered them, somehow, in boots or flip flops.

In the middle of some new journeys in my own life, I had, like Patch Adams, indeed, felt as if I had temporarily lost the right path, often feeling my shouts disappearing in the wind.  But, when we find that place on our knees to which God brings us, we know we are “home”.  When we close our eyes and can feel the hand or the hug or the kiss of those who are no longer even here with us on earth, we know we are “home”.  When a smell or a laugh sets up residence in our brain like furniture in a room, we are home.  It is, perhaps, at the moment when we acknowledge that “all of life is a coming home” …that the clouds pass, the sun comes out and we are able to see the billboards that have been there all along, pointing the way to peace for us.  It may seem like the most unlikely place… (and sometimes, we find a place of “home” with – seemingly – the most unlikely people…) but a map was probably there for the following every step, every clickety-click of the way… had we just followed it, or stopped long enough on our own stubborn and prideful trek to ask for intelligent and wise direction…or had we simply been willing to trust.  All of life is a coming home. 


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If You Have a Solution, You Don’t Have a Problem


Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a….         darn.

Clearly, sometimes, only the right words will do. 

After a memorable weekend in Philadelphia with family and friends and… having digested a great Easter sermon or two… this simple thought (above) is my best takeaway from my holiday visit.  Jesus and Humphrey Bogart don’t necessarily have a whole lot in common…  and Casablanca and Jerusalem usually don’t belong in the same blog piece together.  However, allegorically, at the very least, there’s a connection here. I think both Jesus and Bogart knew that CERTAIN words (not just ANY words) were critical to their respective audiences.  Sometimes, only the right words will do.

For that reason, Jesus didn’t use vague words: “either you are for me or against me” doesn’t leave much wiggle room for a luke warm follower, or disciple.  And, such allegiances certainly rise front and center at Eastertime.  One cannot be on the “side” of the Romans and have one foot in Christ’s camp at the same time, right?  Shouts of “Alleluia!” (praise the LORD!) could NOT just as well have been simply “Hooray!” (terrific – that’s awesome!) in the Easter story of the risen Christ in order for the Easter story to have had as much impact. Sometimes only the right words will do… for each of us… even Jesus.  Words have tremendous value.

“It is done.”

“He is risen.”

“I love you.”

“I’m here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I was wrong.”

“Yes, dear.”

“You’re forgiven.”

“Buy two.”

This Easter, I’m thankful for the power of words.  I’m thankful for the words my brother first heard when he woke up from his surgery: “Brian, you made it.”  I’m more than thankful for just the right words of friendship and advice from my mother-in-law… not luke warm words… but courageous words of allegiance, love and devotion to me during some recent times of difficulty.  I’m thankful for the sage and kind words of my sister Nora and my sister-in-law, Laura. I’m so appreciative for definitive words… from ANYONE… that leave no question marks after they are uttered – especially as regards feelings, friendship and loyalty – most of all, loyalty.

There are also times when “just the right words” aren’t audible words, at all.  There are times when just the right UNSPOKEN (but otherwise conveyed) words do the trick.  As I watched nearly a dozen Armenian women… and a few good men… gather around the kitchen island at Easter, I marveled at how each of them worked with synchronicity; the pilaf was stirred, the asparagus was steamed, the salads were tossed and the signature traditional Armenian side dishes all came together with perfection, on an unspoken cue. Women who don’t see one another – but once or twice a year – knew what to do, while they spoke of children, health, loved ones passed and Easters of yesteryear…

All of this is really to set the stage regarding a heartwarming and deeply moving conversation I had on Easter with one of Gary’s mom’s best friends, Alice Dertadian.  “Aunt” Alice is a woman of 85, who looks 65, and smiles like she is 25. She’s pictured, here, with me and Gary.  As proud as I am of my own ancestral roots, I am increasingly impressed, amazed and inspired by the Armenian women on Gary’s side of our marriage.  They are some of the smartest, strongest and positive women I have ever met.  These women are not women of privilege. They are intelligent, tough, street savvy, warm, funny, quick-witted, engaging… and wise.  Aunt Alice is no exception.  I want to share her story with you.

She’s been widowed for five years (from her late husband, Harry), with whom she had a happy and full life.  Instead of cashing in her happiness upon his death, she preaches even more of it. In fact, Alice clings to vignettes of her late mother’s Armenian sayings, which she loosely translates to English.  Of course, Aunt Alice knows nothing of what I’ve been personally wrestling with recently, and it doesn’t really matter.  Between appetizers and dessert, Alice told us the story of her mother, whose parents had been killed by the Turks, and whose beautiful sister had been taken as property of a Turkish harem.  Alice’s mother had been orphaned in a Turkish orphanage at a very young age.  She had rare blue eyes and blonde hair, which distinguished her greatly from other Armenian children.  One day, friends of Alice’s mother’s family recognized her (while she was playing outside of the orphanage) and hatched a plot to kidnap her in the dark of night. They stole away with her, by rolling her up in a Turkish rug. Later, at 14 years of age, Alice’s mother was sent to Cuba to meet and marry Alice’s father (an older Armenian man whom she had never met, who was an American citizen).  From Cuba, once married, she could enter the U.S. and also become a citizen.  Once in America, she bore one child while fifteen years of age, had three miscarriages after, and then Alice was born, all within a three-year period.  Alice’s mom had witnessed the Armenian genocide, had eaten off no silver spoons in her life and had had limited direct examples of marriage or motherhood.  She didn’t speak the language of her new country.  Yet, here was Alice, this past Easter Day, sharing with us a story of her mother’s HAPPINESS – not hardship.  Here she was, decades later, telling us that her mother was the most happy person she could ever remember!  Alice told us how her mother didn’t “walk”, but “sashayed” across the room…seemingly carrying happiness with her with each step.  She told us many of the Armenian equivalents of her mother’s positive sayings (most of which I cannot recall), which were so beautiful in the moments of our conversation.  This is the one that struck me the most; Alice’s mom used to say (in Armenian):

“If you have a solution, you don’t have a problem.”

Now, you’ll need to trust me; said in the Armenian language, this sounds much more poetic than in English.  But, even in the English translation, I knew upon hearing it that it was one of those times when only the right words will do. These were the right words, at the right time, for me.  In that moment, in the midst of Alice’s life story, these were EXACTLY the right words I needed to hear on Easter.  Few problems that I will ever have can compare to the problems of those who have gone before me… those who have experienced abject poverty, or who have seen the ravages of genocide. That survivors of tragic events can find happiness in the midst of it all and in spite of it all is more than inspiring… it is transforming.  It is not unlike the humbled feeling that overcomes me when I learn about or pray for some of my fellow autism moms who manage to find happiness in the midst of daily crises for which solutions have not been identified. If I am to believe there is a solution to a problem or, better yet, actually know of a solution, who am I to complain that there is a problem?  Who am I if I quit trying to implement a solution?  In that moment with Alice, I became convicted: if Aunt Alice, at 85, could be so obviously happy, if her mother – despite her life’s hardships could be such a model of joy – then so could I… for if you have a solution, you don’t have a problem.  In those moments, I knew I wanted to be an Aunt Alice 30 years from now at the annual Armenian Easter celebration… with a spring in my step and a story to tell… when only the right words will do, on Easter or any other day, for somebody else.

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