Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 9

September 2012

A Conversation with Robin E. Jensen

In this issue, Public Address Division member Robin E. Jensen discusses her study of a 1918 speech, written and delivered by Dr. Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros and subsequently published in the journal Social Hygiene. Yarros was a Russian immigrant and the first woman admitted to the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as a long-time doctor-in-residence at Jane Addams’s Hull House. She advocated for (and provided) public sex education that targeted not only white men but also women and minorities. Yarros’s 1918 speech offers important clues about how she attempted to convince American Social Hygiene Association members not only to fund public sex education programs aimed at overlooked populations but also to join in such teaching efforts. The speech was published as Rachelle S. Yarros, “Experiences of a Lecturer,” Social Hygiene 5 (1919): 205–22; Jensen’s transcription of this text appears as Appendix 1 in the PDF of the conversation available on this site. Yarros’s surviving papers are in the Rachelle and Victor Yarros Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Illinois at Chicago.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

Yarros’s “Experiences of a Lecturer” survives as a pivotal example of rhetoric designed to build support for social change by constituting those in power in ways that aligned with such change. In this specific case, Yarros worked to alleviate gaps in health care by convincing social hygiene advocates of the value in offering more inclusive public sex education. This was no easy task, as American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA) members were not only ideologically sympathetic to eugenics—and therefore less concerned with the needs of those believed to be genetically inferior—but also preoccupied with maintaining postwar sex education programs for white men.

With the ASHA’s male-oriented agenda in mind, Yarros peppered the content of her address with arguments that emphasized men’s honor and the ways that sex education programs for women would benefit men and society at large. For instance, she held that teaching women about sexual health would keep them from unintentionally exploiting men’s sensitivity to sexual excitation and other sexual weaknesses. Women, according to Yarros, just did not understand the power of men’s natural drive to have sex and were unaware that their own dress and behaviors put men at risk for behaving immorally. In this respect, Yarros maintained that sex education would surely help girls and women to “learn to play a fair game with boys” (220). As effective as this type of argument may have been in this context, Yarros’s claims are nothing if not ethically questionable as she reiterated existing beliefs about women’s subordination in order to garner support for programs that women needed. Her rhetoric—like that of many other social reformers dedicated to women’s rights issues at the time—invites continued consideration about whether the rhetorical means justify the social-change-oriented ends.

Yarros structured her arguments in what might best be described as a speech within a speech, repeatedly switching from speaking directly to ASHA members to speaking to hypothetical audiences of women in need of sex education. In this way, Yarros encouraged male social hygienists to see sex education through women’s eyes, to confront the world as, for instance, a club woman determined to protect her children from disease, a girl approaching puberty without preparation, a working prostitute suffering from a venereal disease, or an immigrant mother hoping to build a prosperous life for her family’s next generation. By casting social hygienists as women attending sex education lectures, Yarros provided them with the opportunity to consider issues of social hygiene anew. Her speech called into being the opportunity for social hygienists to identify with women’s concerns and to experience some of the reasons why it was so important for women to have access to public sex education programs. Ultimately, the speech’s historical positioning—it preceded the creation of ASHA-led social hygiene poster campaigns that explicitly and aggressively targeted traditionally overlooked populations—suggests that this speech, and Yarros’s discursive efforts as a whole, helped to establish public sex education initiatives for women and minorities in the United States.

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

Since this speech was given directly after the conclusion of World War I, “Experiences of a Lecturer” must be situated within the context of the war and the extensive work that the U.S. government’s Committee on Training Camp Activities did to protect white soldiers from venereal diseases. Before the war, there was little support for public sex education. Once government officials began to realize that many enlistees were infected with syphilis, however, social hygiene advocates used the war to justify teaching soldiers about the dangers of sex outside of marriage. Yarros’s speech worked to extend governmental and lay support for sex education during the war to postwar contexts, demonstrating that problems such as prostitution and venereal disease were just as threatening to national security during peacetime as they were during wartime.

This speech can also be considered and contextualized within debates about public sex education across time. Yarros was dedicated to making sure that access to information about sex was available to all. More recently, advocates of comprehensive sex education argue that federal support for abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula not only withholds important information about sex from the nation’s young people but also keeps such information from those who have the least access to health care. In this respect, Yarros’s discourse in favor of ensuring that sex education is available to the public as a whole is part of a continuum of arguments that reach into the twenty-first century.

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

My critical approach or methodology, in this case, is probably best characterized as close reading, in that I analyze rhetorical strategies, argument patterns, and discursive style in order to draw conclusions about how the discourse functioned in context, all the while accounting for the discourse’s intertextuality with other rhetoric circulating concurrently. I am especially interested in the ways that Yarros represented and negotiated intersectionality in this speech, and so I pay special attention to the ways that she constituted her own identity, the identities of her audience members, and the identities of those for whom she was speaking.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

This speech offers a wonderful jumping-off point for talking about issues such as constitutive rhetoric and the theoretical, practical, and ethical quandaries that one faces when speaking on behalf of others. As the feminist philosopher Linda Alcoff argues, speaking for or about others can constitute an act of violence against them by reiterating existing hierarchies of race, class, and gender. Yarros’s “Experiences of a Lecturer” is an example of rhetoric that could be framed as just as violent as it was helpful to Progressive Era women. Thus the speech encourages students of public address to consider the lived implications of words spoken in the name of social change.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

Hasian, Marouf A. Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Jensen, Robin E. Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870–1924. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. [See especially chapter 4.]

Schultz, Rima Luin, and Adele Hast. Women Building Chicago, 1790–1990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. [See especially 998–1001.]

Contributor: Robin E. Jensen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Her research interests include health and science communication; rhetorical history, criticism, and theory; and women’s and gender studies. Her book, Dirty Words: The Rhetoric of Public Sex Education, 1870–1924, was published in 2010 by the University of Illinois Press. An earlier version of a chapter from that book won the NCA Public Address Division’s 2007 Wrage-Baskerville Award. More recently, an essay she coauthored with Erin F. Doss, entitled “Balancing Mystery and Identification: Dolores Huerta’s Shifting Transcendent Persona,” was featured on the division’s top paper panel at NCA in 2011. Jensen’s scholarship has also appeared in AIDS Patient Care and STDs, Argumentation and Advocacy, Communication, Culture and Critique, Communication Monographs, Communication Theory, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Health Communication, Health Education and Behavior, the Journal of Children and Media, Qualitative Health Research, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Science Communication, and Sex Roles. She is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Expectant Voices: Articulating Fertility in the Twentieth Century.

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

Jensen’s transcription of Yarros’s speech as published in Social Hygiene appears on pages 6–16 in the PDF available on this site.

Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 9