Questioning the Gaps, Finding Women's Voices

Oct. 29, 2015

Research is not always such an exact science, and the questions that researchers and writers originally ask can shift and change, leading you down a more productive path.

This can be called serendipity in research, but do we always listen?

Conducting historical research can constitute a frame of mind, one that brims with curiosity. Questions. Uncertainty. A desire to push the boundaries of what is already known.

As a feminist rhetorical historian, my research accounts for seeking out and questioning the gaps, silences and absences of women in the canonized history of rhetoric. This direction of methodology calls for various approaches, such as crossing cultural and linguistic borders to examine women that were enacting an understanding of how to shape, re/create and speak in public spaces in order to change their societal reality.

For the research into my first book, "Occupying Our Space: The Mestiza Rhetorics of Mexican Women Journalists and Activists, 1875-1942," which was published this year by the UA Press, I crossed various borders — seen and unseen — in order to find the voices of women who have been overlooked throughout history.

The summer before entering the rhetoric and composition doctoral program in 2005, I began generally researching the role of women in the Mexican Revolution. I had started a young-adult novel on Chicana identities, which I never completed. I followed the path this search opened up to me. This book was to have been set at El Paso High School in 1956, the beginnings of the American cultural revolution. The original purpose of the book was to reflect on how young Chicanas struggle with their cultural identity along the Mexican and United States border. The novel's voice of cultural consciousness focused on the protagonist's Mexican grandmother, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution, who moves into the family's home after their grandfather dies in Mexico.

While searching for the historical model of the Mexican grandmother character, I quickly realized the severe lack of representation of women in mainstream historical accounts of the Mexican Revolution. The mainstream books I found on the Mexican Revolution scrutinized the exploits, successes, battle scars and political actions of men. The women, who I had a strong sense had participated in history, were not there.

Silence.

Deepening my research and questioning the silence, I stumbled upon Shirlene Soto's "Emergence of the Modern Mexican Woman: Her Participation in Revolution and Struggle for Equality 1910-1940."

Soto's book opened my eyes to the quantity of women who did participate in the struggle, but more importantly, those who wrote during the struggle. Several women stood out as trailblazers, revolutionaries and activists who worked through their writing to shape the realities of their fellow citizens caught within a government dictatorship and an even more oppressive patriarchal structure. The women who caught my attention were Laurena Wright de Kleinhans, Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Dolores Jimenez y Muro and Hermila Galindo — all female writers and social and feminist activists during a time when women's voices were not to be heard beyond the boundaries of the kitchen or the lines where clothes were hung to dry.

As I deepened my archival research and different research directions opened to me, I went places I never imagined, such as the non-digitized library and archives of Durango, Mexico, and the small, out-of-the-way pueblo of San Juan del Rio, Durango, where few researchers had been to find discursive histories buried for over a century. After shifting through the dust and old, yet carefully preserved archives of local newspapers, I found the discursive traces of women speaking, writing, publishing and actively living rhetorical lives.  

In our own research, entering the space of serendipity and play can many times be as productive as objective and directed questioning and search.  

My final observation of the nine years it took to write "Occuping Our Space: The Mestiza Rhetorics of Mexican Women Journalists and Activists, 1875-1942" is that we should be open, willing, and attentive to sometimes let unanswered questions, unexpected leads and chance encounters take us to unknown places, shifting our research direction and scope.  

You never know what or who you'll find.

Cristina D. Ramírez is an assistant professor in the Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English graduate program in the Department of English at the University of Arizona. Ramírez's book, "Occupying Our Space: The Mestiza Rhetorics of Mexican Women Journalists and Activists, 1875-1942," recently was released through UA Press. As co-principal investigator on a new knowledge grant, Ramírez is currently working on a primary document recovery project: a critical bilingual anthology of the rhetorics of Mexican/Mexican American women journalists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also, Ramírez is an active board member of the academic Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition. Earlier this year, she was awarded a Provost's Author Support Fund award for "Occupying Our Space."