“The Pantaloonatics of Wyoming: Rhetorics of Women’s Agency Circling through Time”
The Louisa Swain statue in Laramie is a public landmark honoring the first time a woman voted in a general election on September 6, 1870, a full 50 years before US national suffrage would be granted through the nineteenth amendment. As a representation of Swain and the day she cast her vote, the statue is a (re)construction of history or temporally driven, fact-based narratives. But for those who stop at the statue, it also functions as a site of public memory, a community’s shared “space of experience” where each participant might (re)imagine Swain as a foremother, might identify or dis-identify with Swain’s story, and might engage Swain’s memory as inspiration for the future. In other words, Swain’s statue represents history but also functions as, what Paul Ricoeur calls, “the soil in which desires, fears, predictions, and projects [of the future] take root." The statue is both monument to women’s suffrage in the West and broader symbol shaping our notions of women’s roles in public life.
The problem is that very few people know about the statue, very little is known about Swain, and what we do know does not align her with the typical "empowered woman" tropes of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Using Swain’s statue and local women’s reactions to it as a case study, my project addresses these research questions:
How does the rhetorical re-construction of women’s history--and its attendant tropes--shape memory? How does these flows amplify (and erase) particular perspectives on women’s rights and roles?
How do modern commemorative sites and activities influence contemporary women’s perspectives on the present and the future? What do they see in the past that speaks to them now? What rhetorical forces stretch from the past through the present to the future?
How might the national historical narrative of women's suffrage as well as current narratives of women's empowerment be diversified through counterstories of other ways of having agency in gendered spaces?
More broadly, this project recuperates the role of the West in the USAmerican suffrage movement, as the West is typically overshadowed or erased in the face of the Seneca Falls and Northeastern women's master narrative. Working at the intersection--often-ignore spaces of public memory, tropes circling through time, and contemporary conceptions of women's agency--this project will add to the conversation about rhetorical feminist strategies and tactics.