English Ph.D. Dissertations


"Nowhere is Straight Work More Effective:" Women's Participation in Self-Culture

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


English (Rhetoric and Writing)

First Advisor

Sue Carter Wood (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Jean M. Gerard (Other)

Third Advisor

Neil Baird (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lee Nickoson (Committee Member)


The history of women's rhetorical education is diverse, combining issues of access and exclusion, and intersecting with other factors of social location and identity such as class, race, and geography. Scholars like Gere, Johnson, Logan, and VanHaitsma have all explored the various ways women have pursued education in rhetoric and writing outside of the formal space of classroom settings, through women's clubs, parlor rhetorics, letter-writing, and more. Additionally, scholars such as Costa and Kallick and works like the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing have considered the role that habits of mind play in shaping writing education.

This project has two primary goals. The first is to analyze the role of self-culture (the process of seeking out knowledge and education of one's own volition) as an element of rhetorical education for diverse women living and learning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through an investigation of self-culture texts and women’s archival records. The second is to analyze the role of habits of mind in women's self-culture practices, and to draw connections between the historical evidence and contemporary research.

I employed a feminist historiographic methodology, relying on digital archival research and textual analysis. The project outlines key elements of self-culture as an aspect of rhetorical education, focusing on texts' instructions related to speaking, reading and writing; analyzing diverse women's uptake and modification of self-culture advice; and uncovering the interconnected and multilayered importance of habits of mind.

The findings of my analysis offer insight into modes of writing and rhetorical education that occurred alongside and outside of formal educational settings, showcase diverse women's uptake of those educational methods, and describe the interconnected role played by habits of mind in extracurricular learning activities. This project draws connections between the practices of self-culture and contemporary scholarship on habits of mind and dispositions, with potential implications for our own teaching practices and research.