Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 6

June 2012

A Conversation with Leroy G. Dorsey

In this issue, Public Address Division member Leroy G. Dorsey discusses his study of “The Woman and the Home,” a speech given by President Theodore Roosevelt to the National Congress of Mothers on 13 March 1905 in Washington, D.C. It is available in The Works of Theodore Roosevelt, National Edition, vol. 16, American Problems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), 164–71. It is also available online.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

How presidents talk about gender is as important as how they talk about war, the economy, and American exceptionalism. Theodore Roosevelt helped to shape his enduring, larger-than-life persona by addressing themes involving masculinity, militarism, and fighting evildoers ranging from greedy corporations to rogue foreign powers. In other words, much of his rhetoric centered on what he considered manly pursuits. But Roosevelt also rhetorically engaged the “women’s issues” of the time: women’s equality in the workplace, in politics, and in the home. So when I came across his speech to the National Congress of Mothers—an organization that evolved into what we now know as the Parent Teacher Association—I wondered how his “masculine” rhetoric would address the “feminine” issues of his audiences. What’s more, his speech contains the rhetorical themes—or unspoken fears—that might be partially driving contemporary political debates surrounding a woman’s right to birth control and abortion.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Americans engaged in a controversial debate about women’s role in society. In stark terms, some advocates called for women to remain true to interpretations of biblical guidelines that cast them as pious and subservient; other advocates urged women to free themselves of the social and legal constraints that prevented them from realizing their full potential. Roosevelt’s speech in 1905 entered that debate. He attempted to find a middle ground between those contested positions by using his “strenuous life” rhetoric to frame the typical “woman’s work” as equivalent to the “manly work” of ensuring national greatness.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

A number of economic, political, and cultural issues directly affected how audiences might react to the notion of women’s equality and consequently influenced how Roosevelt’s speech might be received. Economically, with the industrial boom in full swing, manufacturers needed workers: cheap labor largely unencumbered by labor union influences. For women this represented a blessing and a curse, as the opportunity to earn wages provided a level of freedom that was countered by male workers earning much more and employers engaging in abusive practices against women because they were women. Politically, women challenged their voting inequity in a number of “unwomanly” ways,  such as appealing directly to male voters to change laws and lobbying lawmakers. Culturally, the nation faced a dramatic influx of immigrants, and some public advocates, Roosevelt included, feared “race suicide,” with foreigners and their offspring outnumbering “real” Americans. In his 1905 speech Roosevelt had to navigate all these competing contexts.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

I have always been fascinated by Walter Fisher’s discussion of humans as storytellers and his notion of the narrative paradigm. For him, narratives provide a dialectical union of the argumentative and the aesthetic that allows people to understand and to be persuaded by certain characters and plotlines. Coupling this with the work of Joseph Campbell on myths—cosmological stories that speak to a culture’s identity and reasons for existence—provides a frame in which to examine how one of the most common discursive forms can affect how we engage other people. Politicians, particularly, employ the “grand stories” that speak to the quintessence of a culture’s personality. Such mythic narratives popularize ideologies that have guided American success and likewise have justified the nation’s imperfections.

Roosevelt was fond of embedding his policies into narratives about America’s origin and expansion, most notably the Frontier Myth. He recrafted that myth’s story lines to incorporate modern characters. He shaped how contextual impulses could be considered and attempted to elevate the political conversation into a mythic realm in which the choices of those modern characters could be restrained.

In this speech, Roosevelt does not mention the term “frontier,” but his thematic development of “duty” could remind audiences of a recurring plotline in much of his other frontier-themed political rhetoric. He acknowledged women’s rights as being just as important as men’s rights, but he noted that “duties are even more important than rights.” Just as a man’s duty in the frontier paradigm was to be martially strong and to fight for America, so too did he expect the same from women. In other words, Roosevelt militarized motherhood, identifying women who had children as soldierly heroes who exhibited the same strength as men and fought for American greatness. For a woman who shirked her duty he had nothing but contempt, comparing her to “the soldier who runs away in battle.” Women could prove their martial courage if they birthed multiple children and trained them in Spartan fashion. Anything less, according to him, proved that such women were “ignoble.”

As scholars, we gain insight by examining the narrative paradigms that a rhetor constructs in order to influence how the contexts surrounding political discussions can be experienced. For me, it is remarkable to see political figures today routinely refresh historical and mythic themes that seek to constrain particular choices.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

In an undergraduate class on rhetorical criticism or American public oratory, an instructor could have the class examine multiple versions of Roosevelt’s speech. The Theodore Roosevelt Center has digitized three drafts of his speech to the National Congress of Mothers (the first and second are here, the third is here). Students could examine those drafts to understand the rhetorical choices Roosevelt made. Why did he add and delete certain passages and phrasings before settling on the final version? What arguments can be made about the evolution of his rhetorical strategy, as evidenced by multiple speech drafts, to address the various audiences and contexts he faced?

In a graduate course on presidential rhetoric, this speech could be positioned as part of an assignment to explore how presidents negotiate gender and identity in their discourse. Mary Stuckey’s Defining Americans: The Presidency and National Identity (2004) and Vanessa Beasley’s You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric (2004) provide required reading for such an assignment.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Dorsey, Leroy G. We Are All Americans, Pure and Simple: Theodore Roosevelt and the Myth of Americanism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007. [See especially 19–26, 54–58.]

Skidmore, Max J. “Theodore Roosevelt on Race and Gender.” Journal of American Culture 21 (1998): 35–45.

Watts, Sarah. Rough Rider in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Desire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. [See especially 79–115.]

Contributor: Leroy G. Dorsey is a professor and the chair in the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis. His research examines the symbols used by political figures to promote their legislative agendas, to shape their identities as morally sound advocates, and to transform their audiences into seemingly active agents poised to support particular positions. His book We Are All Americans, Pure and Simple: Theodore Roosevelt and the Myth of Americanism won the 2008 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award from the Public Address Division. He also edited The Presidency and Rhetorical Leadership (2002), and his scholarship has appeared in Presidential Studies Quarterly, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric and Public Affairs.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 6