English Ph.D. Dissertations


Speaking of Sex: The Rhetorical Strategies of Frances Willard, Victoria Woodhull, and Ida Craddock

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Lovie Carter


While a growing body of rhetorical and historical research about American female reformers and the movements in which they were involved exists, little or nothing has been done focusing on the sexual aspects of reform speech. This is a significant omission; just as women's social and legal standing at that time was inexorably bound to their sexual and reproductive capacities, so too did many reform efforts center on issues of women's sexuality. Defining "public sexual discourse" as reform-oriented text that explicitly or obliquely addressed vaginal intercourse between men and women and that was produced specifically for distribution to an audience via speech or publication, this study first examined the texts of three late nineteenth-century female reformers: Frances Willard, president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; Victoria Woodhull, public speaker and publisher of a free love newspaper; and Ida Craddock, writer and distributor of sex-in-marriage booklets. Rhetorical examination of each text was based in the general biographical information and the sexual experiences and opinions of each rhetor and was foregrounded against the social and reform climates of her time. A specific historical or rhetorical problem for each rhetor was also explored based on her public sexual discourse. Next, a model of late nineteenth-century women reformers' public sexual discourse was developed. According the most generalizeable points of the model, nineteenth-century women reformers' public sexual discourse was based on the perception that men sexually victimized women and that contemporaneous marriage could trap women into sexual, financial, and reproductive abuse. Sexual reform would protect women's rights to control their own bodies within sexual relationships and to choose when to become pregnant. Reform would also encourage couples to form intimate relationships founded in supportive religious or spiritual belief systems, and those relationships would, in turn, improve the entire culture. Sexual reformers themselves held radical religious beliefs relative to the protestant Christian norm. Finally, the model was interrogated in light of the discourse of white women's sexuality found in the anti-lynching rhetoric of Ida B. Wells.