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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