Writing Sample

La Hija del Anáhuac: The Rhetoric of Laureana Wright de Kleinhans.

"Those of us who, in our souls, harbor a holy zeal for our nation´s greatness, and treasure in our hearts the ineffable love of a daughter, we cannot renounce the pleasant hope of seeing, shining on the brow of Mexico, this new conquest of liberty, and shining on the brow of our [female] descendents, this new conquest of progress."
Laureana Wright de Kleinhans, “The Emancipation of Women through Education”

Laureana Wright de Kleinhans’s declaration from “The Emancipation of Women through Education” echoed the political sentiments of Mexico in the late nineteenth century. After expelling the Spanish and the French, Mexico had embarked on a post-colonial path to independence, and Wright de Kleinhans believed women should also reap the rewards of this new conquest of liberty and progress. Wright de Kleinhans was among the first Mexican women writers of the nineteenth century to express the need for women to be educated and to make their voices public. She wrote various papers on the issues of women, most notably La emancipación de la mujer por medio del estudio and Educación errónea de la mujer y medios practicas para correjirla, published in 1891 as a complete book (Alvarado 11). The main premise of La emancipación is that women had been kept ignorant of the complexities of the world, education, medicine, politics, and history, which in turn, converted women into chattel, not people. The topics she considered were not limited to progressive ideas about women. They extended into historical writings, philosophical accounts of the Spanish Conquest and Mexican Independence, and most significant, the biographies of Mexican women titled Mujeres notables mexicanas, with segments of the book appearing from 1887-1889 in Las violetas del Anáhuac, the journal she headed as literary director.

Wright de Kleinhans’s historical moment, situated within an independent Mexico that wanted its own international identity separate from Spain and France, while at the same time wanting to be accepted as an international power, created an exigency for writers, historians, artists, and architects to conform to European discursive traditions while breaking new historical ground in order to keep up with the universal march toward progress. Mexico was behind on the feminist progressive goals. Women were still fixed in the traditional views of gender, and Wright de Kleinhans centered her discourse on changing those roles by reporting on women from around the world who were working as independent entities. Las violetas was a stark contrast to nineteenth century etiquette journals, such as La semana de las señoritas mexicanas (1851) that dedicated their discourse to the instruction of women on what women “should do.” La semana de las señoritas focused on Eurocentric ways of being for women, such as the nineteenth century “angel of the home,” and the contributors to the journal were mostly men, such as Manuel Payno and Francisco Zarco, important writers of the period and experts in dispensing advise to women (Tuñon 49). Depending on the contributor, the women’s writings of Las violetas fluctuated from these traditional stances to more liberal representations of women as independent thinkers (Alvarado 21), and to that of a nation searching for its roots.

Wright de Kleinhans and the other women writers crafted a space of mestizaje in the title of their magazine, La violetas del Anáhuac. Anáhuac is the Aztec term for the Valley of Mexico, now modern day Mexico City, once populated by ancient civilizations such as the Aztsec and Toltecs. The title, Las violetas de Anáhuac, may situate the women writers in the memory of the ancient cultures of their land, but the journal used and promoted the language of the European and Latin American elite, Castilian Spanish. Las violetas del Anáhuac also included historical writings about the Conquest and the War of Independence of 1810, which focused on various leaders of the time. It was the purpose of the journal to educate the Mexican women on more than just how to behave in public. And the poetry written by members of the staff and audience that Wright de Kleinhans chose to include, reframed women as individuals who took part in public, historical roles.

These dual expressions of ideas in Las violetas de Anáhuac, from the confluence of the cultures of Mesoamerica and Europe to that of placing women in the realm of history as more than matrons of the home, situate Wright de Kleinhans’s writings as mestiza rhetoric. Mestiza rhetoric does not mean the writer necessarily considers herself to have, in part, an indigenous background, but that she is able to conceptualize a different reality of herself and her behavior, thereby creating an ontological shift. Wright de Kleinhans was prolific and, addition to journal articles, compiled the histories of 29 indigenous women, which reflects her mestiza understanding of the importance of Mexico’s indigenous past. Her act of writing these histories defied patriarchal society’s push for total domination of history, and defied the European definition of pre-Columbian people as barbaric. It argued instead that they were active, intelligent, and inclined toward the use of language. In this chapter, I posit that Wright de Kleinhans and the female contributors to her journal wrote as traditional Mexican middle class women who struggled between conformity to traditional ideologies and their desire to away from the conventional values. They presented their views in philosophical essays and poetry avoiding discourse that was openly political. Wright de Kleinhans, in particular, challenged the status quo by touching upon topics reserved only for men, and contested what had been written about Mexican women through her research, which entailed the use of neglected sources. These aspects of her writing align it with the theory of mestiza rhetoric.

In order to tease out the strategies of mestiza rhetoric, this chapter frames Wright de Kleinhans’s rhetoric in the theoretical template Karlyn Kohrs Campbell proposes in “Theory Emergent from Practice: The Rhetorical Theory of Frances Wright.” This framework looks at women’s rhetorical writings based on three philosophical perspectives: ontological, epistemological, and axiological. Campbell recommends this approach for women writers “who were among the first to enter the public sphere. Because their rhetoric often did not fit the categories of or assumptions underlying traditional theory, it may be deemed unworthy of attention or study or be denigrated as atheoretical” (126). Wright de Kleinhans’s writing clearly falls under this condition. I base my definitions of ontology, epistemology, and axiology on Campbell’s representations, with slight variations. Ontology is the understanding of being, or the nature of it, and is also often part of a theorist’s definition of rhetoric; it also “explains how and why we are open to and capable of influence (126).” Epistemology refers to logos and “determines what constitutes expertise and how differing views of what is ‘true’ can be resolved” (126). And axiology refers to a “system of values [which] provide warrants or premises for arguments or the assumption underlying dominate narratives” (126). Some of Wright de Kleinhans’s works, for example, fall under the traditional definition of rhetoric in such segments as “La Mentira” [The Lie], published in Las violetas, “La Lectura” [Literature] and “La Mujer Perfecta” [The Perfect Woman], published in Educación errónea de la mujer. These included pedagogical, moral, and discursive directions, which functioned to shape the knowledge of women and encouraged self-reflection and social action.

Mestiza rhetoric, also a sophistic rhetorical approach, strives to shift ideology that does not respect women. Gloria Anzaldúa writes that the “mestiza way,” a path that Wright de Kleinhans and the other women writers were following a hundred years ago, is a “rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions. She [the mestiza] communicates that rupture and documents the struggle. She reinterprets history and, using new symbols, she shapes new myths” (82). The literary director’s extant writings on the nature of women, such as Educación errónea de la mujer, and the history of Mexican women, Mujeres notables mexicanas, reveal these same strategies of mestiza rhetoric, which firmly intersect with entrenched epistemological, ontological and axiological beliefs. Valuable historical writings, such as those of Wright de Kleinhans, are lost through a totalizing framework of traditional rhetoric, but through a sophistic historiographic lens, non-traditional rhetorics can be analyzed for their rhetorical value. In Susan Jarratt’s Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, she shows Gorgias, the sophist, engaged in the historical retelling of narratives, such as the Encomium of Helen and the “Great Speech” of “Protagoras.” Jarratt clearly illustrates the way in which Gorgias’s account “disrupts the continuity of the given historical narrative” (17). It provides space for speculation, which redefines rather than affirms pre-existing notions of history.

Wright de Kleinhans, as Gorgias in the Encomium, occupied herself in the reinterpretation of historical accounts. However, unlike Gorgias, who seemed content to play with language, Wright de Kleinhans’s narratives contested historical conclusions not through mere conjecture or feminine fancy, but through careful analysis and academic representation of historical documents. On several notable occasions, she completely discounted and went on to reinterpret historical writings of illustrious Spanish historians, such as Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdez, Manuel Orozco y Berra, and Francisco Sosa. Throughout her life, Porfirio Díaz’s government employed historians to write a comprehensive history of Mexico. The five volume series of Mexico através de los siglos, edited and segments of which were authored by Vicente Riva Palacio, was firmly situated within a patriarchal framework. It completely excluded women. The literary director of Violetas responded to the kairos of the moment, meaning that the moment was opportune, and reacted to Mexico’s lack of feminine inclusion with an historical account of Mexican women which antedated the pre-Columbian times in a book titled Mujeres mexicanas notables. As a rhetorical strategy, she documented historical accounts, which adopted new perspectives toward indigenous and modern women and created a space for women to take possession of and share their knowledge. From these writings, it is possible to extrapolate rhetorical theories and/or strategies of Mexican women writers.

Historical Foreground

Wright de Kleinhans’s discourse in Las violetas was framed in the heavily European influenced cosmopolitan community of Mexico City. It identified with women’s struggle from a mostly middle and upper class perspective, which straddled the fence between tradition and reform. The European influence on Mexican culture could be seen in many places, including the architecture of heavily ornate building façades; the women’s long, elaborate dresses; and in the baroque-like language, identified by long, complicated sentences infused with the phraseology of a complex vocabulary. While Mexicans accepted some aspects of European culture, they did not acquiesce to everything.

The women of Mexico wanted to incorporate feminist French ideals of personal freedom, such as the privilege of speaking out in public, but Mexican culture was firmly entrenched in the Catholic Church’s ideals on women, which had repressed them for centuries. For this reason, Wright de Kleinhans and her contributors’ rhetorical mission for Violetas was to convince Mexican society that women, in general, possessed an innate capacity for writing, and secondly, to teach women about the scientific, cultural, and historical advancements taking place in the world. The women writers of Las violetas were on the cusp of an ideological shift from a stagnant social reform for women to an explosion of revolutionary ideals which would emerge in the next two decades. Striking a balance for one’s audience between these merging ideologies was a tricky rhetorical act, one which Wright de Kleinhans had mastered.

A Discriminating Audience

To change Mexico’s societal perceptions of women was a monumental challenge. The deep seated axiological beliefs of female intellectual and rational inferiority were touted in “scientific” terms. Change in terms of women’s acceptance into a discursive public domain had to start at the top of the class hierarchy because of the reprehensible low levels of literacy in Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century. As noted by Silva Marina Arrom in The Women of Mexico City, 1790 – 1857, the legal status of Mexican women living in the nineteenth century had changed little from the colonial era with its antiquated laws, which “granted women little authority over others in either the public or private sphere. Women may in practice have influenced other people, of course, but only men were formally given the right to command as community leaders…; the law did not sanction women’s imposing their will” (Arrom 81). These laws, which were now imbedded in society’s consciousness, demanded that Wright de Kleinhans accomplish two goals: first, not to be perceived as being politically inclined, and secondly, not to present ideas outside of acceptable norms for women.

In order to combat the culture’s axiological stance, Wright de Kleinhans and her contributors adopted a highly eloquent, neo-Baroque style of writing. This mode of writing is marked with long complex sentences extended by phrases and clauses that separate the main verb from its object, and also with the use of various semi-colons that extend the end the sentence. Some critics would say that this language distanced them from the general public, but it had a purpose. The language was meant to do more than appeal to an elite, educated audience; its purpose could also have been to elevate women’s public discourse from a marginalized sentimental voice to that of an educated, respected member of society.

In late nineteenth century Mexico, Castilian Spanish, the dominant language of central Spain, was beginning to claim scientific legitimacy through the study of linguistics. If the women of Violetas had presented their voices in a colloquial language instead of the preferred intellectual voice of Castilian Spanish, their writing would have been discarded as overly sentimental or uneducated. This is what possibly happened with the first women who founded the journal, Las hijas del Anáhuac in 1873. Their journal failed. Fifteen years later, the women had to adapt to society’s epistemological belief that this high, traditional language is what would give them the credibility they needed. A deliberate attempt to appeal to an elite audience through the use of language provided Wright de Kleinhans with agency, yet simultaneously constrained it. Michael Leff, in “Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric,” argues that the power of the humanist orator rests in complying with the audience’s sentiments. “The audience necessarily constrains the orator’s intellectual horizons, modes of expression, and even representation of self, and so, if orators are to exert influence, they must yield to the people they seek to influence” (138). Hence, their audience looked toward the language individuals used as defining factors in national identity and legitimacy.

During the late nineteenth century the main international powers relied heavily on the sciences, and scholars began to infuse science into languages by introducing them in standardized forms. Jose del Valle notes in “Spanish, Spain, and the Hispanic Community” that “after 1880, a new type of nationalism emerged. In this new strand, the threshold principle was given up and language and ethnicity were placed at the very basis of the claims for nationality” (144). Ironically, Mexico was struggling for an identity of its own, but its national language was inextricably tied to the colonization of Spain. With the scientific superiority of a standardized language in the sciences of Europe and Latin America, the Spanish language grew in academic prestige among liberal intellectuals. Wright de Kleinhans and her writing staff were fully aware of these nationalistic claims to language, and knew that in order to persuade an elite audience, their writing had to equal, if not surpass, that of their contemporary intellectuals. I contend that a deep understanding of her audience’s epistemological and axiological roots in politics, language, literature, and societal norms, provided her with the greatest tools to discursively redefine women and to shift the ontological stance of her audience from one that viewed women as passive and unaware of the world around them, to one that perceived women as contributors to public discourse. Coupled with the constraints of language, the women understood they were limited by the genres they could use.