Constellating with our Foremothers: Stories of Mothers Making Space in Rhetoric and Composition

Aug 18, 2021

Published in Articles | Issue 4

Ruth Osorio, Old Dominion University

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The story of my graduate school experience is the story of my becoming a mom [1]: I studied for my qualifying exams with a newborn on my chest; I defended my dissertation with my (second) newborn in the audience. I nursed while writing, reading, studying, preparing. My mothering and scholarly stories are forever linked, and I find ways to share this publicly—on social media, at conference presentations, in conversations with colleagues. In many ways, I share my stories to make space for future generations of mothers. As a doctoral student, I hoped my stories would transform the norms of what kinds of bodies are expected in academic spaces. Though progress has been made, with parental leave policies and childcare support on campus and at conferences, academic culture continues to punish mothers and caregivers at every stage of an academic career. The large majority of writing programs in writing studies do not guarantee paid parental leave for graduate instructors (Osorio, et al.). Fathers and childfree women are three times more likely to obtain tenure track positions than mothers (Waxman and Ispa-Landa). And of course, Black mothers experience these challenges exponentially, while often navigating the possibly fatal manifestation of racism in medicine as evidenced by the infant and mother mortality crisis (Dr. Rubella).

I knew the professional risks when I had my two children but hearing the stories of mothers that came before me motivated me to keep going. My mentors were visible for me, and therefore, I felt empowered to be visible myself as a mom in rhetoric and composition in the hopes to make even more space for mothering scholars. (The fact that I embody many of the valorized qualities of the “ideal” mother helped. Our society tends to celebrate stories like mine—of white, partnered, cisgender women who intentionally got pregnant and delivered a nondisabled child.)

The author stares at her newborn baby minutes after birth.

Ruth Osorio after just given birth to one of her children.

The reality is, I learned through others’ stories that mothers have long defied expectations about who can teach and research. Even in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, when women faculty were warned against having children in the first place, people were wandering the halls pregnant, lugging pumping equipment into bathroom stalls at conferences, and setting up their children with a coloring book in the back of the class when childcare fell through. Mothers have been present in the academy for decades, making space for themselves and for the rest of us through their embodied presence, mentorship, and overt activism. Despite the presence of mothers in these earlier decades, mothers were largely instructed to keep their identities as mothers apart from their identities as scholars. Importantly, too, mothers who deviated from the heteronormative, partnered, white scripts for motherhood faced increased pressure to keep their family roles discrete in the workplace. Their stories, therefore, were shoved into the darkness, leaving only the whispers passed among mothers and mothers-to-be desperately seeking stories, all while writing their own.

I approach storying, then, as both my method and as a genre of activism. The transformational power of story is well acknowledged in the field of cultural rhetorics. I want to extend that conversation by further linking storying with mothering and storying with activism. Native writer Esther G. Belin writes, “my mother is my story,” because her mother taught her how to use and subvert language (51, emphasis in original). How can we even separate mothering from storytelling? I read my children stories every night. I taught my eldest how to read during the pandemic. During the day, I tell my kids stories of make-believe lands, of my own childhood, of moments of joy in my community organizing. Stories are how I explain the world and its injustices and my hope to my toddler and kindergartener. Storying is mothering. Mothering is storying. Both can generate possibility. Both can imagine new worlds. Both can serve activist goals by burning a fire inside us to change the material conditions of our homes and communities, to transform the world for the next generation.

Believing deeply in the power of stories and mothering, I wanted to listen to the stories of mothers who came before me, especially the ones who came into motherhood in times and spaces where it was discouraged. I set out to interview mentors of mine and true feminist leaders within our field who were not only mothers but also grandmothers, with the question, how did prior generations of mothers make space for me, for us, to be a part of rhetoric and composition? I contacted three women I knew well: (1) Jane Donawerth, who mentored me throughout my time at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD), (2) Shirley Logan, also a mentor at UMD and a member of my dissertation committee, and (3) Malea Powell, a newer mentor and friend I connected with at a conference. While the impact of their scholarly contributions is well known in our field, stories of their mothering are largely absent. That is why I enthusiastically embarked on this project, approaching it as an opportunity to listen, learn from, and then share the stories of these women on how they made space for themselves and future mothers in the halls of the academy.

Jane, Shirley, and Malea are all mothers, but they also embody diverse identities and experiences. Their stories, then, overlap and diverge at critical points. Jane is a white woman who had two children after earning tenure at UMD. Shirley is a Black woman who entered her PhD program with three children (mostly) already in elementary school. Both were married when they had children. During her graduate study, Malea was raising one child, at times married and other times single. She is a Native woman and mother of two children, one of whom she raised from birth and the other she connected with later in life. Despite these differences, Jane, Shirley, and Malea all identify as women and came to motherhood through birth. Their stories do not represent all stories of mothering in rhetoric and composition. For this reason, I want to stress that I see motherhood as an expansive and generative identity: mothering is defined by the act of nurturing the next generation—and not by gender, genitalia, pregnancy, or marital status. Though mothering is often gendered work, it is not dependent on gender. People come into mothering in all sorts of ways, and rather than reify essentialist ideologies of gender and family, I hope the stories I present here will invite more stories and expand our notions of what “counts” as mothering.

In these interviews, I learned that I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to weave motherhood into my work in various ways. Indeed, my story is part of a constellation of hundreds, if not thousands, of mothering scholar-teachers in our field. My approach to this project, then, was largely shaped by cultural rhetorics, a methodology that pushes us to see ourselves in relation to our research and calls attention to the knowledge-making of stories. Using story as both my method and methodology, I highlight the different ways mothers made space for themselves and for future generations of mothers. In doing so, I argue for the importance of sharing intergenerational stories of making space in rhetoric and composition. These stories allow for emerging scholars from underrepresented communities to see themselves in our histories. Furthermore, I contend that storying can offer blueprints for transforming academia into a space that embraces the presence of mothering scholar-teachers across races, (dis)abilities, genders, nationalities, and ages. Taken together, these seemingly disconnected patches create a quilt of intergenerational scholarship, activism, and mothering that continues to expand and nurture the work of making space in rhetoric and composition.

I offer the stories of three foremothers of rhetoric and composition, tracing the manifestations of major themes: inventing cultural practices, creative problem solving, and building community. I begin by explicating how a cultural rhetorics methodology can illuminate the ways mothers make space in rhetoric and composition. I follow with the stories of Jane, Shirley, and Malea, presenting profiles of these women who subverted expectations of who can be a scholar in the field. In this section, I also include photographs that the three women shared with me. These pictures further my analysis by visualizing the many roles these women held in their departments, community, and family. Importantly, my goal in this essay is not to uncritically valorize these women or present their stories as utopias. Rather, I hope their stories shed light on the patriarchal, white supremacist, colonial foundations of academia and how mothering bodies can work together to liberate knowledge-making for all of us.

Cultural Rhetorics as a Method of Making Space

Cultural Rhetorics as a methodology provides the tools to not only analyze how scholar-teacher-activists make space for Othered people embodied in academic spaces but also to do the work of making space. Making space invites the stories, knowledges, and bodies of Othered scholars, and in doing so, rewrites the norms of academic culture. Cultural rhetorics, I believe, offers many tools for making space within the field of rhetoric and composition, and I focus on two for this article: relationality and story. Approaching these interviews, I didn’t see myself in an esteemed, distinct position as the researcher; rather, I saw myself as working with Jane, Shirley, and Malea to weave a web of our stories. For Shawn Wilson, relationality is not something that exists outside of research, but rather, is at the center of knowledge-making: “Relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality” (7, emphasis in original). By shifting my orientation in these interviews away from “data collection,” as settler methodologies often dictate, and toward relationship-developing, I was able to better understand how their experiences shaped the way that I came into mothering and scholarship. Constellating our relations allows us to break down the Western myth of individual achievement and trace how our work connects us to our elders and the next generation (Powell et al.; Cobos, et al.; Riley-Mukavetz). In this study, then, I aim to chart my relations to the mothering scholar-teachers who came before me, to trace a lineage of mothers (broadly defined) who made space for academics to openly nurture their families.

Connecting with elders in particular pushes gathering, listening to, and sharing their stories and is an ethical imperative grounded in Indigenous practice. Native scholar Mallory Whiteduck describes the responsibility she herself feels to learn and record her grandfather’s stories: “I have a responsibility to understand every permutation in these stories to the best of my ability, so that I may eventually pass them on to other members of my family” (72). Listening to elders “manifests continuance,” Whiteduck explains. While I am not related to Jane, Shirley, or Malea in the traditional sense, I am drawn to multigenerational knowledge-sharing and community-building for similar reasons. By learning from and sharing the stories of our field’s elders, we can chart how mothering scholars transcended and knocked down barriers while we continue and expand upon their work. Samantha Blackmon, Cristina Kirklighter, and Steve Parks acknowledge the power of relationality across generations in their edited collection, Listening to Our Elders: Working and Writing for Change. They assert that reading the stories of our field’s elders “will ask you to work within and value alternative ways of representing our past, to piece together these stories into a sense of our profession as diverse not only in heritages but in strategies for making knowledge” (4). Blackmon, Kirklighter, and Parks remind us that fostering relations with our elders is not a passive act. Rather, listening to our elders prompts new stories of who has already been here, even if they were overlooked in the grand narratives, and thus outlines a map for making difference visible and celebrated in academia. One way to foster relations with our elders is to listen to their stories and trace the connections among their stories, our stories, and new possible stories.

Storying and carrying stories [2] allow us to make space for Othered bodies. As Native epistemologies teach us, stories are theory (King; Howe; King, Gubele, and Anderson). While the written, peer-reviewed published work of Jane, Malea, and Shirley is highly celebrated in their field, their oral stories are less so. This isn’t unique to these women in particular; academia favors the written over the oral, an imperialist hierarchy of what kinds of knowledge matter. Thus, academic institutions often overlook the rich theory that can emerge from the stories we tell each other in hallways, coffee shops, over Zoom. And perhaps academia’s disdain of stories comes from fear, fear that storytelling, as Aja Martinez argues, can unsettle white supremacist norms and make space for people of color in academia. She asserts,

“Counterstory, then, is a method of telling stories by people whose experiences are not often told. Counterstory as methodology thus serves to expose, analyze, and challenge stock stories of racial privilege and can help to strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance.” (38)

Martinez’s work highlights how telling the stories of people of color can unearth overlooked racial biases in academia, subvert grand narratives, and shine light on the collective resilience of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. My approach is informed by Martinez’s conception of counterstory; I applied an intersectional lens in collecting and sharing the stories of mothering that are often not told and am now sharing them in the hope of exposing, analyzing, and challenging the stock stories of mothering in academia. As Kim Hensley Owens writes in the collaboratively written article “Mothers’ Ways of Making It—or Making Do?”, “the more stories, experiences, and possibilities are out there, the better we can collectively work to make mothering and an academic career compatible enterprises” (Cucciarre et al. 52). Jane, Shirley, and Malea are well celebrated in our field as leading scholars, and I hope that by sharing their stories of mothering, we can continue their work of making space for all kinds of mothering mindbodies in academia.

Three Stories of Mothering, Working, and Making Space

Many readers of this article will likely know Jane’s, Shirley’s, and Malea’s scholarship. Jane is a leading scholar of women’s Renaissance rhetoric and science fiction. She literally wrote the book on rhetorical theory by women, Rhetorical Theory by Women before 1900, in addition to Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction, Conversational Rhetoric: The Rise and Fall of a Women’s Tradition, 1600-1900, and more. Shirley is a pioneering scholar in feminist rhetorical histories and the recovery of Black women’s rhetoric. Her research, including pivotal books such as With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-Century African American Women and “We are Coming”: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, provided generations of feminist scholars roadmaps for recovering, analyzing, and spotlighting Black women’s rhetoric in the United States. She also chaired the 2003 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Finally, Malea Powell is one of the foremothers of cultural rhetorics, a renowned activist and scholar who advocates for decolonial approaches to research and rhetoric, and the current editor of CCC. As the chair of the 2012 CCCC, Malea urged the field to practice decolonial methodologies and expand our understanding of rhetoric and knowledge beyond white, settler frameworks.

I strove to practice relationality when conducting these interviews by making the experience accessible and following the lead of the story-tellers. I contacted Jane, Shirley, and Malea by email, explaining my goal with the project and inviting them to tell their story. I conducted the interviews in whatever medium each woman preferred (phone for Jane and Shirley, video conference for Malea). Though I emailed them each a list of questions (Appendix A) before the interview, our conversations often wandered from story to story—and I was happy to follow whatever path was presented to me. I saw my role as merely the recorder of the story; I was an eager questioner and listener. (To be candid, though, this positioning prevented me from critically engaging with their stories, a limitation I explore later in this essay.) After finishing the interviews, I listened and then transcribed them with the help of Ashlyn Brown, a graduate assistant. I presented their stories first at the 2018 Feminisms and Rhetoric Conference. Before each public sharing of their stories, I shared with them my writing, asking for corrections or feedback, all of which I incorporated into the essay. With all these decisions, I attempted to honor the stories, expertise, and experiences of these women.

All told, Jane, Shirley, and Malea are important to me on a personal and professional level, and I know that is the case for many other scholars in rhetoric and composition. In this section, I aim to position their voices in the spotlight. Rather than weigh down their stories with secondary sources, I use their words to theorize the connections between their experiences and central methods of making space.

Jane’s Story: Making Space by Re-Making Cultural Practices 

Jane Donawerth had just obtained tenure at the University of Maryland College Park when she got pregnant with her first child at 37 in 1984. Jane was a first-generation college student from what she describes as a “less privileged family” class-wise; both her parents worked. When her sister, a high school teacher, was pregnant, she had an easy time securing time off for parental leave. Because of these factors, Jane explains that when she got pregnant, “I was clueless and naïve. I didn’t know that what I was doing was something that women shouldn’t be doing for my generation.” Indeed, one of the biggest surprises she faced was the lack of support from her department, something that she overcame thanks to the behind-the-scenes cultural practices constructed by mostly women in the department.

Jane and her daughter Kate are holding up Kate's baby at the camera, with smiles all around.

Jane Donawerth and her daughter, Kate, smile at the camera with Jane’s granddaughter, Miriam.

At the time, people, especially the few women in the department in the mid-1980’s, just didn’t talk about pregnancy or babies at work. With one exception, Jane’s officemate, Virginia Beauchamp, who handed Jane a pamphlet explaining the State of Maryland’s paid leave policy:

“Virginia was really a quiet activist. She gave me a state pamphlet that said, “whatever sick leave is offered in your job […], they have to offer the same sick leave for pregnancy.” So, the University of Maryland had [lots of] sick leave. With the pamphlet in my hand, I was the first woman in my department who asked for paid pregnancy leave.”

Jane was eventually granted six weeks of paid leave by her chair, but only if Jane found replacements for her teaching and administrative responsibilities. Jane bemoaned the rigidity of her chair’s response; he would follow the law but offer no support or assistance in implementing it. Jane observes, “the institution was totally obstructionist” when it came to parental leave for faculty.

In the interviews I conducted, I found this to be a recurring theme: the ways unofficial cultural practices in a department can subvert, affirm, or extend the affordances of official institutional policy. Jane was entitled to and did receive her paid time off, but what initiated the process was the simple gesture of her officemate handing her this pamphlet, a moment she so clearly recalls decades later. At the end of her six weeks, Jane needed more time to recover from her caesarean delivery, so Jane had to ask her colleagues to continue to substitute for her. She explains, “I had a c-section, so I had to ask for an extension [beyond the six weeks of leave]. Neither my substitute nor my chair really wanted to give me an extension, but they did […]. I lined up people [to cover the course] for me.” The parental leave policy imagined a typical pregnancy, delivery, and recovery, and rigid adherence to the policy could leave postpartum people whose experience exists outside of the realm of the typical in jeopardy. Therefore, Jane, like so many other new parents, had to operate outside of the institutional policy and devise alternate cultural practices.

Jane soon discovered that graduate students faced additional institutional burdens when attempting to create behind-the-scenes networks of care. Once Jane began to regularly teach grad students, she was in a position to mentor them not just through their scholarship but also their lives as parents. As Jane explains, when advising students, “you talk about the whole life of the student always, not just their academic interests.”

A group of women stand together, smiling in this older, grainy photo.

A picture of Jane Donawerth with her former graduate students and colleagues. From left to right, Karen Nelson, Adele Seeff, Jane, and Michele Osherow.

Doing so, Jane often had to guide students—to the best of her ability—through the web of spoken and unspoken rules of birthing while in grad school. One story highlights this tension between the practiced and the official policy: when a student informed Jane she was pregnant, Jane suggested the student talk to the director of graduate studies to arrange parental leave, which she thought was the student’s right under the sick leave law in Maryland. Additionally, Jane had noticed that graduate instructors regularly covered for each other for health issues, sometimes up to a month, and assumed this was an official policy. After that conversation, “the student then went to talk directly to graduate studies.” Soon after this conversation, three different administrators pulled Jane into their office to yell at her. Jane quickly realized that extended substitution among grad students was an under-the-table practice, and grad students were not covered by the Maryland sick leave law. In the privacy of the office, one administrator instructed Jane, “it’s bad for a woman to try to just take a few months off. [When pregnant], students should be encouraged to drop out for next semester.”

Coming from a less privileged class background herself, Jane understood that not all grad students could easily drop out and forego their stipends. Jane advocated for the student, who was eventually granted two weeks of peer coverage of her courses. Jane described this as both a victory and a loss: “[the administrators] talked through all their anger. And they said this student can have two weeks off. Well, two weeks is the bare minimum. But it was something.” This student set a precedent for departmental support of grad student parental leave, forcing the department to recognize that, yes, sometimes grad students have babies. And though Jane describes two weeks as the bare minimum, it’s not even that. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists actually recommends that postpartum people take at least six weeks to recover (Bryant). Jane told me several other stories of creative problem-solving with the demands of the institution clashing with the realities of giving birth, explaining, “you cannot believe what we did in order to get people defending.” These stories highlight the increased precarity of mothering graduate students; because they occupy liminal spaces, not quite students and not quite workers, graduate students have access to fewer institutional protections than faculty. Jane, then, had to collaborate with them and other faculty to devise adequate workarounds rather than ideal solutions for her mothering graduate students.

A close up selfie of two young children and their grandmother, all blond.

A selfie of Jane with her grandchildren, Sammie and Miriam.

These stories from Jane reinforced how, so often, institutional policies never seem to go far enough to fully support mothering teacher-scholars or their families. Disability Studies, feminist, critical race, and cultural rhetoric scholars have long noted that institutional policies rarely account for the lived, human body, especially one that exists outside the range of the typical. To survive, we create what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha calls care webs: networks of support that allow us to thrive as humans despite the lack of humanity in institutional policies. From passing each other pamphlets to scheduling secret defenses, Jane made space for herself and her students to engage in the field as parents, scholars, and teachers.

Shirley’s Story: Making Space by Figuring It Out

Shirley Logan began her long teaching career at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1980 as part of the first cohort of professional writing faculty, a position she chose because it offered more flexibility for picking up her three children from three different school sites in the DC metro area. She was also a doctoral student at UMD, graduating in 1988 and then transitioning to a tenure-track assistant professor position in 1992. Shirley juggled teaching, research, and raising her kids during the workweek. When asked how she balanced these different responsibilities, Shirley responded with a chuckle, explaining, “you just find the time… It’s funny, when you look back on it, you say, Well, how did I do that? But, actually, you know, at the time, you just do what you have to do.”

Shirley stands between two of her kids as they all happily smile at the camera.

Shirley Logan is surrounded by two of her adult children, Monica and Malcolm, at a departmental celebration of Shirley’s retirement.

This mantra, doing what you have to do, was a recurring theme in Shirley’s responses. Indeed, “figuring it out” appears to be an integral part of mothers making space for themselves in academia.

Shirley echoed the other mothers, recounting how academic culture encouraged a division between family and work life in academia. Shirley recalls that at UMD, there was “kind of an unstated policy that you just didn’t talk about children at home, because you were trying to present the ethos of someone who was a professional, right?” At this time in the department, just a few years after Jane had had her first child, mothering was seen as separate from one’s professional identity. For Shirley, this division felt natural and normal, allowing her to focus on her research and teaching while on campus. And yet, that neat division was impossible to sustain all the time. Family life did intrude on her work life and vice versa, and when that happened, Shirley devised creative solutions to make sure everything got done, such as grading papers in the carpool line while waiting to pick up her children. Her dedication to figuring out tricky situations and balancing her multiple roles enabled her to take up space in academia as a mom of three.

Some of Shirley’s creative problem solving revolved around figuring out childcare. Like Jane and Malea, Shirley had to bring her middle child to campus when she was teaching. Shirley explains,

“I do remember at least once having to bring my middle child to work with me. For some reason, that particular day, I couldn’t find anywhere to place him. And so I just brought a coloring book and crayon and he sat outside in the hall at a desk while I taught. You know, so you just did those kinds of things. […] I would say it was just kind of an open secret, I guess, that you had children, you had family, you had lives.”

Despite the immense pressure to not acknowledge the work of mothering in the academic workplace, Shirley had to bring her children on campus at least once. Patriarchal notions of professionalism may pervade academia, but at the same time, life happens. Kids get sick, babysitters cancel, partners leave town for work. These are times when we simply have no choice but to have our lives (in this case, our children) occupy the spaces of academia. Shirley’s mantra of “figuring it out” emboldened her to break norms when needed and bring her child into her workplace. By doing so, she eased the demarcation between our mothering selves and our working selves, slowly but steadily making space for future parents at UMD. Shirley explained that she continues to be “very happy to see a baby or hold a baby” in the halls of UMD, welcoming the presence of children in academic spaces.

Shirley stands with one arm wrapped around Chandler in the public-facing area of a theater, both smiling.

Shirley Logan stands smiling with her oldest grandchild Chandler after Chandler’s performance in Elf, Jr.

While parenting and teaching may have overlapped from time to time, Shirley saw scholarship occurring firmly outside of the realm of mothering—a view that evolved over time. She reflects, “It’s interesting, even if you look at bios of people, and even today, you don’t see any mention of well, Shirley Logan has three children… Because there’s actually, there’s no reason to mention them, I guess, unless the book or the work is about that.” In fact, early in her role as a co-editor of the Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms book series with Cheryl Glenn, Shirley expressed reluctance to even publish books on motherhood. At the time, she felt that, “we’re supposed to be writing about, you know, some Aristotle or something.” Despite Shirley’s immersion in feminist theory, she held onto masculine, Western ideas of what counts as rhetoric, shying away from research that overtly incorporated the personal, lived lives of scholars. In an email exchange after the interview, Shirley acknowledged that she internalized the pressure to separate motherhood from her professional life, a separation that other feminist rhetoricians, such as her co-editor Cheryl, encouraged her to complicate. Shirley’s approach to rhetorical scholarship shifted in these conversations, with Shirley realizing, “we have to write about these things which are so important. I can take a little bit of credit for that, along with Cheryl, for publishing books on the subject of motherhood or on what it’s like to even enter the academy as a woman.” As book series editors, Shirley and Cheryl used their platform to make space for mothers to integrate their lives as parents into their scholarly work.

A group of academic, older women are assembled behind a table, wearing lanyards and smiling.

A picture of feminist rhetorician legends: Cheryl Glenn, Shirley Logan, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Krista Ratcliffe, and Andrea Lunsford after their 2019 CCCC panel in Pittsburg.

Shirley and Cheryl oversaw the publication of critical books such as Lindal Buchanan’s Rhetorics of Motherhood and Kim Hensley Owens’s Writing Childbirth, expanding on the field’s notion of what counts as rhetoric and making space for others to publish on the rich rhetorical knowledge that comes from mothering.

For Shirley, the trick of making space for herself and other mothers in academia was simple: “I hate to keep saying the same thing, but you just figure it out.” Even though Shirley may appear flippant in this response, the reality is that “figuring it out” required a lot of invisible labor on Shirley and her husband’s behalf, such as coordinating teaching schedules with childcare requirements. With this often-undervalued labor of “figuring it out,” Shirley made space for herself in academia as an exemplary researcher, teacher, and editor. Leveraging that power, Shirley then made space for future generations of mothering scholars to go beyond figuring it out and tap into their mothering experiences as rich sources of rhetorical knowledge.

Malea: Making Space by Making Community 

Throughout Malea Powell’s academic career, she practiced creative problem-solving and interdependence to balance the roles of mother and teacher-scholar. Malea entered her undergraduate program 1989 as a mother of a six-year-old daughter, Audrey. The year prior, she had given birth to a second daughter, Caitlyn, who was adopted and raised by another family. In order to succeed as a working class, Native, at times single mother in the academy, Malea created community throughout each step of her academic career. Malea’s lived, embodied work of mothering—raising her daughter in the halls of academia despite the quiet disapproval of her superiors, and then ensuring that future generations can do the same but in a community of love and support—helps to dismantle the patriarchal, colonial culture that demands we sever our work from our bodies.

In spaces that traditionally value the individual over the collective, Malea composed new narratives of success grounded in Indigenous values of family and community, especially in her creation of childcare co-ops. As an undergrad, Malea was able to take advantage of the Pell Grant program, which, at the time, provided funding for basic needs beyond just tuition—like childcare. In grad school, though, she didn’t have any financial support for childcare; thus, she and other parents in the program developed an informal babysitting co-op. This set-up was critically important to her progress as a grad student, but, at the same time, it was shrouded in secrecy. She explains:

“So, it [the babysitting co-op] was all sort of from scratch put together. There was no paying for after school care or anything like that. But it was also under under the radar to a lot of people. [Struggling to find childcare as a single parent] wasn’t certainly anything I could talk about or write about. Right? This was the 90s. Anything that was perceived as weakness, you tucked it away, and you didn’t talk about it, except with people that you trusted.”

Malea and her network of care—including single parents, a few caring professors, and a kind janitor that reminded Malea of her dad—ensured that her first daughter was safe and cared for during classes. At the same time, the institutional culture forced this innovative, beautiful web of interdependence into the shadows because needing community represented weakness.

Malea has her arm wrapped around her daughter, Audrey as they both stand outside, smiling.

Malea Powell and her daughter Audrey smile at the camera at Malea’s dissertation defense party in 1998.

Rather than internalize the idea that interdependence is weakness, Malea worked hard to change academic culture through her community building, a practice shaped by her experience in Indigenous communities. Once Malea moved into a faculty position, she was intent to, “make sure no one ever had to go through the kind of stuff I went through.” She did so by welcoming children into her classes, supporting colleagues who breastfed at meetings and pumped on campus visits, mentoring students who wanted to start families, and creating a department at Michigan State where children were welcomed at department events. Malea worked hard to “norm things that might make more space for people.” Malea’s approach to mothering in academia—especially norming family life—was largely shaped by indigenous values. She explains that in indigenous communities, “children are supported by the whole community. You’re surrounded by piles and piles of aunties.” So, while academic culture perceived the interdependence required of mothering as a weakness, Malea understood it as the foundation of community, family, and knowledge-making. For Malea, the acts of giving and receiving care are not deficits, but rather integral parts of being human. Malea is well known for her work developing cultural rhetorics, which makes space for teacher-scholars to tell stories of vulnerability and interdependence in our academic work. But outside of her writing, Malea also makes space by creating pockets of academia where “people can talk about their humanity.” In spaces that traditionally value strength over vulnerability, Malea composed new narratives of success in academia that centered community resilience and care.

Malea’s life and scholarship also emphasize that just like communities, families are built in a myriad of complex ways. Malea describes family in indigenous families in contrast to the “[patriarchal], normed kind of set of relationships” privileged in settler cultures. While Western cultures privilege the nuclear, static family above all else, indigenous cultures often understand families as complicated webs that extend beyond biology and a single home. Malea, then, embraced the opportunity to connect with her second daughter, Caitlyn McKay, who reached out to her in 2018. Caitlyn, also a scholar in rhetoric and composition, explains, “I have two moms, and I am daughter to both of them.”

Malea and her two daughters sit together on a couch, smiling. They clearly look related.

Malea Powell sits in between her two daughters, Caitlyn on the left and Audrey on the right, at a family Christmas celebration in 2018.

As Malea and her daughter Audrey expand their family and deepen their connection with Caitlyn, Malea finds herself full of gratitude: “I’m completely grateful to have my life change in this way.” Malea and Caitlyn’s story reminds us that there is no universal script for how to mother; mothering is complicated and can be full of difficult choices, of joy, and of pain. But perhaps it’s that complexity that gives mothering its generative power, and that is why we need to continue making spaces for non-normative forms of family-making in the academy and beyond.

Storying/Mothering to Create New Worlds

Practicing the feminist method of co-interpretation, I sent my notes to Jane, Shirley, Malea, and Caitlyn throughout my writing of this essay. Jane replied with a note that surprised me:

“The picture you paint of all of us you interviewed is utopian, perhaps uncritical. When you write the article, you need to ask some questions about what weaknesses we had in mentoring, what things that came in the next generation that we never thought to ask for. For instance, when I was helping develop the first few Attending to Early Modern Women conferences, we told people we just couldn’t do childcare. We should have fought harder for that.”

Jane’s note sat with me for a while. With the data I had, I didn’t feel comfortable pointing out mistakes or oversights from mothers who had to overcome so many barriers to make a path for themselves in the academy. If I could go back in time, I would ask them directly what more they wish they did to make space. But I didn’t, and my admiration for these women is real. However, Jane helped me recognize that I was perhaps being simplistic in my conception of making space. As I hope I have shown, constellations and stories make space for Othered bodies in pockets of academia. The affective, interpersonal, and behind-the-scenes work that these women did in their professional lives shifted conversations and cultures. But Jane’s note prompted me to consider the wider picture: how can storying act as a starting place for making space through systemic change, such as instituting childcare at major conferences, which Jane wishes she had done? As we tell our stories, as we connect across times, borders, and identities, we can leverage that rhetorical power to change institutions.

In the process of interviewing and following up with Jane, Shirley, and Malea, my understanding of making space has deepened. Our stories can create space for individual mothers in individual programs. However, what happens when a pregnant person, for instance, tries to navigate a graduate program without affirming mentors? We can’t depend solely on our relationships to change norms, but rather leverage our relationships to make concrete progress in our institutions. Our stories can propel advocacy for policy changes at the departmental, university, and disciplinary level. Again, cultural rhetorics provides a pathway for facilitating these multiple layers of change. By telling our stories and constellating with each other, we build coalitions that cross generations, identities, and borders and can radically redefine what it means to be an academic. In our conversation, Malea reiterated this point, underlining the intergenerational work of making space:

“For me, that’s how auntie culture works: elders hold knowledge and experience and aunties hold knowledge and experience. But new generations do different things in order to keep the culture going. Right? Someone said to me, “Well, it seems like these grad students don’t even care about what we built them.” They do care. They’re showing how much they care by rebuilding it. Yeah. They’re taking care of the house, man. They’re not gonna let the roof fall in.”

Malea provides the metaphor of building a house to highlight the ongoing, collective work of remaking worlds. In order to construct and then maintain a house, we need a strong foundation, firm structure, and a lot of different hands-on deck. While mentorship is critical, we cannot depend on it solely to sustain the house: making space also requires deep, structural changes.

I reflect on my own experiences as a mother in rhetoric and composition, of finding and making space for my mothering mindbody. I am writing this article thanks to the mothers who built the house before me, including the women I interviewed as well as my advisor, Jess Enoch, who mentored me through two births and one miscarriage during my time as a grad student. But, I was also able to succeed because of UMD’s paid parental leave policy, a policy likely written into existence because of the interconnected stories of countless parents who came before me. The work of building the house is not complete. Too many mothering scholars still depend largely on behind-the-scenes networks of solidarity to even enter academic spaces—and this is exponentially true for queer and trans parents, and Black, Indigenous, and non-white mothers, for single mothers and fathers, incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parents, disabled parents, mamas who care for their children and their aging parents. By merging the interpersonal with the collective, we can make space not just for a handful of Othered scholars on the margins: we can usher in a new academy that centers the knowledge-making of multiply-marginalized scholars, where difference is the norm.


[1] First and foremost, thank you to Shirley, Malea, and Jane for being so generous with their stories, their photographs, and their feedback as they read multiple revisions. I also received generous feedback from my co-panelists at the 2019 Feminisms and Rhetoric Conference, Rose Keefe and Nabila Hijazi, as well as my awesome, life-giving writing group, Elizabeth Ellis Miller and Anne-Marie Womack. Thank you to all who mother who made space for me and my mothering friends in this field, especially Jess Enoch. And thank you to my mom, Karen, who let me stay up as late as I wanted to as a child, as long as I was reading, and my stepmom, Roxanne, both of whom cheered me on every step of my academic journey. 

[2] During this study, I imagined myself as carrying these women’s stories, a methodology and metaphor shaped by Riley-Mukavetz’s oral history work. Riley-Mukavetz writes, “For me, to carry stories means to consider how to be attentive to the materials we use to practice and make knowledge; that our knowledge lives in our bodies and is affected by what bodies experience; that sometimes, we have to wait for the knowledge—it will come to us when we are ready. To carry stories is a way to practice relational accountability” (“On Working from or With Anger”).

Appendix A
  • Where in your career and life were you when you became a mom?
  • How did you come to motherhood?
    • How did you navigate pregnancy and postpartum life as an academia?  —OR—
    • How did you navigate adoption as an academic? —OR—
    • How did you navigate blending families as an academic?
  • What institutional practices (in your department, universities, professional orgs) made life easier for you as a mom in rhet/comp?
  • What institutional practices made life harder for you as a mom in rhet/comp? How did you navigate those challenges?
  • What community and interpersonal practices made your life easier as a mom in rhet/comp?
  • What community and interpersonal practices made life harder for you as a mom in rhet/comp? How did you navigate those challenges?
  • What surprised you the most about mothering in academia?
  • How did motherhood impact your teaching, research, and service in the early days? How does it continue to impact those aspects of your professional life?
  • How did/does your teaching, research, and service shape your approach motherhood?
  • How does your experience of motherhood shape how you mentor the next generation of parenting scholars?
  • How do you see your experience of motherhood changing the culture of rhetoric and composition for future generations of moms?
  • What advice would you give to graduate students who are mothers or planning to become mothers?
  • Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
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About the Author

Ruth Osorio is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Old Dominion University. She is invested in transforming the academy, community organizing, and baking cakes from scratch. She has published in Peitho, Rhetoric Review, and enculturation

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