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Sonja K. Foss: Invitational Rhetoric as a Feminist Challenge to the Rhetorical Tradition

Interview conducted by Helene A. Shugart
Sonja K. Foss et Helene A. Shugart
Traduction(s) :
Sonja K. Foss : La rhétorique invitationnelle comme défi féministe à la tradition rhétorique [fr]


In this essay, Sonja K. Foss is interviewed by Helene A. Shugart about invitational rhetoric, a form of rhetoric rooted in feminist principles that challenges the classical rhetorical tradition’s focus on persuasion. She begins by describing key events that led to her interest in both rhetoric and feminism and notes the feminist and rhetorical contexts in which invitational rhetoric developed. She explains the key tenets and assumptions of invitational rhetoric and its reception in the communication discipline and provides some real world applications of the theory. She offers another example of a project in which she integrates feminism and rhetoric – her theorizing of two paradigms of change – and concludes by suggesting how she applies in her own life some of the major concepts that emerged from her integration of feminism and rhetoric.

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Sonja K. Foss is a professor emeritus in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research interests include contemporary rhetorical theory and criticism, feminist perspectives on communication, and visual rhetoric. In her work, she seeks to expand the boundaries that rhetorical scholars construct around theories and critical practices to allow for a wider array of options for understanding and practicing rhetoric. Dr. Foss’s research legacy is best captured in her development of invitational rhetoric, in which she reconceptualized the definition of rhetoric from feminist principles and opened the door for rhetoric to be viewed as something other than persuasion, challenging a tradition that has thrived for over 2000 years.


Helene A. Shugart is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. She utilizes her expertise in contemporary rhetorical theory and rhetorical and other qualitative methods to examine the production, negotiation, and circulation of resonant public discourses, in particular relative to rhetorics of health and health crises.


1. Helene Shugart. Sonja Foss, what were the significant stories, events, or themes that led to your interest in rhetoric?


Sonja Foss. Before I begin answering the questions you’ve asked me, Helene, I want to thank Ruth Amossy for the invitation to participate in this special issue. I am honored by the invitation to represent feminist scholarship as a challenge to traditional rhetoric. I also want to acknowledge that on much of my rhetorical-feminist journey, I have been accompanied by my twin sister, Karen A. Foss. She and I have co-authored many books and articles, and many of the ideas I’m sharing here are ones we developed together (Foss and Foss, 1983, 1991, 2011, 2019, 2020).

Let me start by explaining how I came to be in the communication discipline and what I think is so special about it. One source for my commitment to rhetoric was my undergraduate major. I majored in Romance languages at the University of Oregon, completing my degree in 1972. I was going to be a high school French and Spanish teacher, but then I decided I didn’t want to look at confused faces all the time. I thumbed through the college catalog, looking for something else that might be interesting to study, and I came upon communication (it was called speech at the time). I completed my master’s degree in speech in 1973 and then earned a doctorate in communication studies from Northwestern University in 1976.

As I was doing graduate study in communication, I knew I had found my home. This was because rhetoric is based on a key idea that I find very powerful but that we sometimes forget: communication creates reality. From this perspective, choice is the basic mechanism by which we manifest or bring the world into being. And how do we choose? Through symbols or communication. As we interpret and assign meaning to the stimuli we encounter, we symbolically construct the world we inhabit. Our communication, then, doesn’t necessarily change material conditions; what does change is our perception of or experience of the world. To give a simple example, we experience and treat a rambunctious child differently depending on whether we call her gifted, spoiled, or obnoxious. Gloria Anzaldúa (2002: 558) aptly describes the capacity we have to choose new interpretations: “The life you thought inevitable, unalterable, and fixed in some foundational reality is smoke, a mental construction, fabrication . . . so since it’s all made up, you can compose it anew and differently.

Of course, the discipline of communication provides many theories in which the symbolic is privileged over the material – social construction and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, for example. The idea that I have agency through symbol use wasn’t a foreign idea for me, though. I know now that my interest in foreign languages was really an interest in how words in different languages create very different perceptions of the same phenomenon. I also grew up in religious traditions that teach that everyone has agency and that we can create the life we desire using tools such as affirmation and visualization. To be in a discipline that put words to the idea that communication creates reality was marvelous.


2. H.S. Can you now address feminism and the significant events that led you to embrace this perspective?


S.F. Probably a good place to start in talking about feminism is with a definition of feminism. For me, feminism is a way of looking at the world that involves three processes – understanding, critique, and transformation. What feminists want to understand is how gender operates in the world. Although many people have been oppressed and discriminated against throughout human history, feminists focus on the problem of gender. Feminism encourages people to scrutinize the gender system in which they live.

A feminist perspective not only helps individuals understand how gender functions, but it also involves a critique of the conception of gender in a culture. Feminists challenge the restrictions imposed by the gender binary in Western culture. They also critique the subordinate position that women occupy in society and the systematic disadvantages they experience as women.

Feminists not only want to understand and critique gender relations; they also want to transform them. In the future that feminists envision, individuals are liberated from the constraints of the gender binary and are able to live their lives in ways that suit their preferences and abilities. Feminists also want to transform the ideology of domination that permeates our culture, an ideology that makes it seem natural for a group or an individual to dominate over others. Feminism, then, is a commitment to eliminate relations of oppression and domination in general, whether of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, coworkers, friends, or family members.

Once individuals begin to challenge and think critically about gender and to question what once seemed natural and normal, they aren’t likely to stop with gender. They are likely to question other things in society as well. For this reason, feminism is often equated with practices of disruption in general that unsettle common assumptions and traditional perspectives.

My sense of myself as a feminist probably began when I was in high school, where I became acutely aware of gender constraints. I was desperate to fit in, but I didn’t. I was intellectual, nerdy, and terribly shy, and I thought that if I could just get “it” right – and that usually had to do with the right gender role or gender accessory – I would fit in. I never did, and I began to question the gender rules that made me so miserable.

The world outside of high school was giving me additional explicit messages about gender. My father was killed in a car accident when I was a senior in high school. My mother was forced to assume the financial support of the family (she hadn’t worked except sporadically in part-time jobs), and she had to learn to do a number of “masculine” tasks she hadn’t had to do before. Watching her reinforced the notion that traditional gender roles are not functional.

I spent my summers during college working at two jobs that also encouraged my feminist sensibilities. I worked at a cannery, sorting good vegetables from bad as they came by on a conveyor belt. The women workers had to wear dresses and stand in a couple of inches of cold water. At the end of the conveyor belt sat a man on a stool who was dressed comfortably in jeans and boots. His job was simply to empty the box of discarded vegetables when I filled it up – about every 15 minutes – a job for which he was paid 25 cents more per hour. I became a feminist on the spot.

I was also a counselor at a Camp Fire Girls camp in Oregon. It was an all-female environment in which girls and women were valued and allowed to express themselves as they chose, apart from male prescriptions and expectations. I was affirmed for who I was – or, more accurately, for whom I wanted to be. This experience literally gave me a glimpse of the possibilities of a women’s world. My personality changed drastically as a result, and I became a confident, outgoing woman who knew she could become whatever she wanted to be.


3. H.S. What were the broad cultural and scholarly contexts in which you developed invitational rhetoric? More specifically, please address what was going on in the discipline of rhetoric at the time as well as in the arena of the feminist movement.


S.F. Invitational rhetoric was developed in the context of the second wave of feminism in the United States. Feminists conceptualize the feminist movement in terms of waves. The first wave in the US went from 1848, when a women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, to 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed that gave women the right to vote. The second wave began in the 1960s, and a key idea was that women were members of an oppressed class. Feminists sought equality for the members of that class in numerous arenas. For example, we campaigned to have newspapers drop the practice of listing job openings by sex. We worked to open up professions to women, we gave a label to sexual harassment, and we campaigned for equal pay for equal work. Second wave feminists also believed that the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would guarantee equality regardless of sex, would help address all of these issues, so we devoted a lot of effort to securing its passage (it never did pass).

What was going on in the communication discipline at this time concerning women, gender, and feminism? Nothing! This was the era that is often called in the communication discipline the period of womanless communication. Rhetorical scholars studied only speeches back then – no other forms of rhetoric – and only the speeches of famous dead white men. I remember raising my hand in a graduate class and asking if I could write a paper about a woman orator instead of a man (my professor agreed).

My feminist interests and activities outside of the academy began to influence what I was doing in my rhetorical studies. I wrote my dissertation on the debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, and I also developed and taught a course while I was in my doctoral program, The Rhetoric of the Women’s Movement. When I began teaching following the completion of my doctorate, I continued to introduce courses into the curriculum such as Women and Communication and Sex Roles and Communication. My sister and I became co-editors of a journal, Women’s Studies in Communication, a journal that was started because none of the mainstream journals would publish articles having to do with women and gender. To give you a sense of how disturbing all of this feminist activity in the academy was, my contract wasn’t renewed at my first university teaching job because, as my department chair put it, “You are too interested in women’s studies.”

In terms of scholarship, feminists at the time began publishing pieces in which we simply tried to include women in the discipline. We studied famous women speakers or movements involving women’s issues using the methods that had been applied to famous male speakers.

A second phase of research dealing with gender in the communication discipline involved identifying differences between the communication of women and men. In 1983, Karen and I published an article on the status of research on women and communication (Foss and Foss 1983). In this essay, we summarized the published research in communication journals related to women and communication, which we categorized into historical treatments of women, sex differences, women and the media, and education and pedagogy. At that time, we could still locate and categorize every article dealing with women and gender that had been published in our discipline. At the end of the study, we suggested that we need to engage in growth by revolution – we needed to question our presuppositions and then create new conceptions of communication that incorporated women’s perspectives. One presupposition we questioned was the notion that gender influences communication and that communication reflects gender. What if we reversed the idea, suggesting that communication behaviors determine gender? Our research questions and approaches would look quite different. This idea is core in the next phase of research integrating communication and feminism – reconceptualizing.

Eventually, feminist scholars realized that simply adding new kinds of data about women into the discipline was inadequate because their differences would not allow them to be seen as legitimate or to “measure up” when evaluated by existing theories and models. As a result, some of us turned our attention to reconceptualizing, where we took a construct in communication and tried to figure out what it would look like if we were to formulate it using women’s communication as our data or starting with feminist principles. Invitational rhetoric, which I theorized with Cindy Griffin, fits in this category – we were reconceptualizing the construct of rhetoric so that it included acts other than persuasion (Foss and Griffin 1995).

With Karen, I have co-authored three books that reconceptualize communication models or concepts. In Women Speak: The Eloquence of Women’s Lives (Foss and Foss 1991), we showed how the study of public address excluded women’s communication, and we reconceptualized this area of the discipline to include types of women’s eloquence that wouldn’t have met the standard definitions of public address – sending holiday greetings, sewing, and talk between mothers and children, for example. The talk between a mother and a child, for instance, does not align with traditional assumptions of public address: The mother and child are not “worthies” who have had significant impact in the public realm, their talk is not individual but is collaborative, the talk takes place in their home rather than in a public space, and they certainly are not making speeches. Nevertheless, their talk is meaningful to them and is significant in its impact on their lives. We provide a framework for analyzing such communication to discover characteristics of women’s communication, to use those characteristics to question traditional communication concepts, and to reformulate them to take into account women’s communicative practices.

  • 1 She did not capitalize the first letters of her given and surnames.

A second example of our reconceptualizing work is Inviting Transformation: Presentational Speaking for a Changing World (Foss and Foss 2019), where we reconceptualized the traditional model of public speaking to incorporate the speaking practices and values of women and other marginalized groups such as African Americans. A third book in this category is Feminist Rhetorical Theories, where Karen, Cindy, and I laid out the feminist rhetorical theories of nine feminist theorists, including bell hooks1, Gloria Anzaldúa, Mary Daly, and Sally Gearhart. We explained at the end of each chapter how each of them reconceptualizes various communication constructs (Foss, Foss and Griffin 1999, 2006). For example, hooks (1984) proposes an option not included in the traditional rhetorical repertoire – enactment, making one’s life an example of one’s commitment to nondomination. It is directed not at others but at the rhetor her or himself. One of the constructs Anzaldúa (1987) reconceptualizes is ethos, typically seen as exhibited by rhetors who demonstrate intelligence, moral character (including speaking the truth), and goodwill. Because marginalized rhetors rarely can speak truthfully out of their authentic experiences in the dominant culture, ethos for them involves hiding their true faces and constructing a mask to accommodate the dominant culture. Daly (1978) challenges the notion of audience analysis and adaptation by which rhetors adapt their messages to suit particular audiences. She sees this process as a means of silencing women in that it constitutes an adaptation to and acceptance of patriarchy, a sexist social system that is limiting and destructive for women. Gearhart (1979) challenges the very definition of rhetoric as persuasion, characterizing such rhetoric as violence in that it violates the integrity of the audience. Instead, she defines rhetoric as the creation or cocreation of an environment in which change may occur, and its goal is to understand and connect with another in a relationship of care and respect.


4. H.S. Some of our readers might not be familiar with invitational rhetoric. Can you briefly explain the key tenets of invitational rhetoric?


S.F. In the Western rhetorical tradition, rhetoric has always been seen as persuasion – as the conscious intent to change others. Invitational rhetoric, then, really constitutes a kind of heresy because it is rooted in the idea that rhetoric doesn’t always have to involve persuasion. Why do I want to de-link rhetoric and persuasion? It seems to me that there are a couple of problems with persuasion or the effort to change other people. One is that implicit in persuasion is often a desire for control and domination – the act of changing someone establishes our power over that person. Persuasion also devalues the lives and perspectives of those we are trying to change. When we try to change others, we are, in essence, saying to them: The belief systems and behaviors you have created for living in the world are inappropriate and need to be changed. This is a very paternalistic attitude – we aren’t allowing others to make their own choices about their lives. As I thought about these two issues with persuasion, I realized why they were so problematic to me: They violate my commitment to feminism. My feminism was telling me not to dominate others, but rhetorical theory was telling me to do exactly that – to use rhetorical tools to try to get other people to change – in other words, to dominate them.

I wasn’t the only one struggling with this. So was Cindy, one of my former master’s advisees. When she and I were writing a paper for a conference, we started talking about acts that didn’t seem to fit the definition of persuasion. An example is a scene in the movie The Long Walk Home (1990), which takes place during the US civil rights movement and focuses on the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Because of the boycott, black maids no longer rode the city buses to and from their work in the homes of white women, so the white women began to drive them, angering their husbands. In one scene, the white and black women are getting into their cars for the drive home when they are surrounded by the white women’s angry husbands, who appear ready to attack them. In response, the women hold hands and sing a gospel song. They don’t seem to be trying to persuade the men; what they are doing seemed to us to be something different. Such examples led us to theorize what we came to call invitational rhetoric.

To develop invitational rhetoric, Cindy and I started with feminist principles. Because it was our feminism that was causing us to question rhetorical theory, we thought that our rhetorical system should begin with feminist principles that explicitly challenge the positive value that traditional rhetoric gives to changing and thus dominating others. We started with equality, immanent value, and self-determination – the ideas that the same rights and responsibilities should be granted to everyone, that everyone has inherent value, and that all individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.

  • 2 We acknowledge that although those seeking to persuade have as their primary goal making their own (...)

Invitational rhetoric is an invitation to understanding as a means to create a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination. It constitutes an invitation to the audience to enter the rhetor’s world and to see it as the rhetor does. Invitational rhetors present their perspectives and are open to the perspectives of others, even if they are dramatically different from their own2. Ideally, audience members accept the invitation by listening to and trying to understand the rhetor’s perspective and then presenting their own. When this happens, rhetor and audience both contribute to the thinking about an issue. In addition, because of the nonjudgmental, non-adversarial framework established for the interaction, participants come to understand one another better.

Invitational rhetoric involves two primary rhetorical forms. One is offering perspectives, the means by which rhetors put forward their perspectives for consideration by others. This means that they give expression to a perspective without advocating its support or seeking its acceptance. They present their vision of the world and show how it looks and works for them.

If invitational rhetoric is going to result in a mutual understanding of perspectives, it needs to involve not just the offering of the rhetor’s perspective but the creation of an atmosphere in which audience members will share their perspectives as well. To create such an environment, three external conditions must be created in the interaction between rhetors and audience members – safety, value, and freedom. Rhetoric contributes to a feeling of safety when it conveys to audience members that the ideas and feelings they share with the rhetor will be received with respect and care. Value is the acknowledgment that audience members have intrinsic worth; they feel that rhetors care about them and allow them to contribute in significant ways to the interaction. Freedom is the power to choose or decide, and it means that rhetors don’t place restrictions on an interaction. Freedom is also operationalized in the notion that whether the audience chooses to accept the rhetor’s perspective makes no difference to the rhetor. If audience members don’t choose to adopt the rhetor’s perspective, the rhetor still values and appreciates them.

Cindy and I want to be clear that our goal in describing invitational rhetoric is not to suggest that it should be used all the time and that we should never use persuasion. There are situations when persuasion is absolutely the correct rhetorical choice to make. With the identification of invitational rhetoric, however, we are able to recognize situations in which we don’t want to persuade others but instead want to facilitate understanding and accord value to others’ perspectives. That seems to me to be a useful option to have in all of our rhetorical toolboxes.


5. H.S. What are the key theoretical assumptions on which invitational rhetoric is based? How do these theoretical assumptions relate to feminism? What about invitational rhetoric makes it a challenge to classical rhetoric?


S.F. I answered this question in part when I addressed the previous question and talked about the origins of invitational rhetoric in the principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination. I also explained why invitational rhetoric constitutes such a challenge to classical rhetoric: It suggests that rhetoric, which has always been defined as persuasion, doesn’t have to be defined that way. One thing I might add here is an explanation of the axiological, epistemological, and ontological assumptions behind invitational rhetoric. Cindy and I came to believe that the feminist principles on which we built invitational rhetoric actually are more robust than how we explained them in our original essay. We now see those principles as synecdochic representations of a particular axiological, epistemological, and ontological orientation that is inherent to invitational rhetoric (Foss and Griffin 2020: 59-73).

Axiology reflects concerns about the nature of value and the kinds of things that have value. Invitational rhetoric is grounded in an axiological system that privileges a commitment to a diversity of perspectives, and invitational interactants don’t want issues settled or perspectives fixed. Because invitational rhetoric is designed to open up ways of being in and understanding the world, invitational rhetors value and seek out variety, newness, difference, and even discomfort as they expose themselves to different perspectives. A persuasive axiology, in contrast, is grounded in concern for the correctness of a particular perspective and its adoption by others. What characterizes persuasive rhetors is the desire that a claim they advocate be accepted as best or right. The creation of a common world is valued – a world in which rhetors seek the replication of their particular perspectives by securing others’ assent to them.

Epistemology is concerned with what can be known, how something is known, and by whom. Because their primary objective is to understand other perspectives and to enrich their own, invitational rhetors engage others to uncover the diverse perspectives that others are offering. But rhetors who use persuasion are committed to an epistemology in which to know is to be certain, and to be certain is to convince others of that certainty. Persuasive rhetors evaluate ideas for their strengths and rank them on a hierarchy of what can be accepted as true. The result is a narrowing of knowledge rather than an expansion of it.

Questions of ontology deal with the nature of being, and the theory of invitational rhetoric suggests that two primary ontological characteristics of the nature of the self are key: Each individual is self-determining, and each is unique. Individuals are conceptualized as self-determining because they are seen as unique individuals who hold perspectives that are theirs alone and who act in ways that make sense to them. In a persuasive ontology, in contrast, individuals are seen as flawed because of the incorrect perspectives they hold. They are seen to be in need of change, and the rhetor determines what that change should be.


6. H.S. How was invitational rhetoric received by the discipline? How did you engage the critiques, and what did you make of them?


S.F. Invitational rhetoric generated a lot of debate when it came out, and it still does. There have been programs at our national convention, for example, devoted to critiques of invitational rhetoric. Cindy and her co-authors did a nice job of responding to the critiques of invitational rhetoric in an article in the Western Journal of Communication (Bone, Griffin and Scholz 2008).

Cindy and I appreciate critiques of invitational rhetoric – after all, critiques make a theory stronger. Some of the critiques led us to re-think some components of the theory, and in our chapter on the metatheoretical foundations of invitational rhetoric in our book on invitational rhetoric (2020), we theorize more completely some ideas we only touched on in our original piece and also explain that we changed our minds about some things. We changed our minds about the very idea of change, for example. In our original essay, we suggested that an invitational interaction may result in no change at all. We now believe that change always happens in every exchange. At the most basic level, when individuals interact with others, their molecules shift and change as a result of the interaction. But we also understand the change that is common to all rhetorical exchanges as a kind of disruption of the integrity of participants. By integrity, we mean a vision of the self marked by a sense of continuity and coherence. Any new perspective that individuals encounter disrupts the integrity they have created for themselves and encourages a reconsideration of their original perspectives.

Some of the critiques of invitational rhetoric, however, have not influenced us to change our minds because we find them to be inaccurate and unfair. We sometimes wonder if some of our critics read the original article carefully. One of the common critiques of invitational rhetoric, for example, is that invitational rhetoric should not and cannot be used in all interactions. In our original article, however, we stated quite clearly that “invitational rhetoric is a viable form of interaction in many instances but do not assert that it is the only appropriate form of rhetoric and should be used in all situations or contexts” (Foss and Griffin 1995: 17). Other critics claim that invitational rhetors have no agency and that Cindy and I believe that persuasion is inherently violent (Bone, Griffin and Scholz 2008). We don’t believe, however, that rhetors only have agency when they are trying to change others, and although we believe that any new perspective individuals encounter disrupts their integrity, we do not see this disruption as violence.

We aren’t quite sure why people get quite so worked up about invitational rhetoric. We think invitational rhetoric is like any other theory. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. But it might work for others, and if it does, let them use it. And we are delighted that so many people are using it. We haven’t updated the count for a couple of years, but the last time we looked, we had identified about 150 journal articles, 30 book chapters, and 60 theses and dissertations that make use of the theory, and we included these citations in a compendium at the end of our book on invitational rhetoric (Foss and Griffin 2020: 363-374).


7. H.S. What do you see as the role and relevance of invitational rhetoric for contemporary cultural and political contexts?


S.F. Cindy and I believe that invitational rhetoric has the potential to provide sorely needed skills for today’s agonistic and contentious rhetorical environment. We agree with those who suggest we need a new way of talking across political and social differences, and we see invitational rhetoric as an option for doing this. We have been heartened to see invitational rhetoric applied to a variety of situations marked by strong disagreement. Although it is not always labeled invitational rhetoric by those who employ it, its principles have been engaged by the Interfaith Peacebuilding Institute in Maluku, Indonesia, to integrate refugees into their home communities following civil war (Lowry and Littlejohn 2006) and by members of the No Labels group in the US Congress who want to combat partisan dysfunction and have simply begun talking to one another (Klein 2013). We also see invitational rhetoric in action in individual experiments between people of radically different positions such as the efforts by Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess (2012) to talk civilly across political differences.

Let me give you a specific example of how invitational rhetoric has been used in situations like we have today where there is deep division among people’s perspectives. After people were killed in two abortion clinics in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1995, leaders from both sides met in secret for six years to try to better understand one other. Their goals were to communicate openly, to try to build relationships of mutual respect, and to help de-escalate the rhetoric of the abortion controversy. The participants explored many aspects of the abortion controversy, such as when life begins, the rights of the unborn, the rights of women, why women get abortions, abortion procedures, and individual responsibility. They also shared the events of their personal lives. None of the leaders changed her mind about abortion, but they all discovered that they could disagree frankly and passionately and still be respectful and even feel some affection toward one another (Fowler et al. 2001).


8. H.S. Earlier, you provided the cultural and scholarly contexts in which invitational rhetoric was developed. Can you provide us with a glimpse of where feminism, rhetoric, and efforts to integrate the two are headed now in the United States?


S.F. Times have certainly changed since I first began to integrate feminism and rhetorical studies. Feminism really is a central part of our discipline now. The Women’s Caucus has the largest number of program slots at the National Communication Association convention, and feminist essays about gender and feminism are published regularly in our journals.

I talked earlier about the second wave of feminism, and we have now progressed through a third wave and are probably into a fourth. There is not a clear consensus on when the third wave of feminism began – some say it refers to feminists who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, some that it emerged during the middle 1990s, and some say it started during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Three key themes stand out in the ideology of feminism’s third wave: emphasizing individualism, foregrounding difference, and celebrating femininity. Third wavers emphasized individual responsibility over collective action for addressing inequalities. Their commitment to individualism was concomitant with their honoring of differences among individuals, and they did not see women as a homogeneous category because of the intersection with gender of other categories such as race and class. They also celebrated conventional modes of performing femininity, deliberating breaking with the efforts of second-wave feminists to disrupt conventional prescriptions for femininity.

As early as 2008, some activists and journalists began to label a surge in feminist activity as the fourth wave when Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were firmly entrenched in the cultural fabric. Other journalists say the fourth wave began in 2013, when they noticed an uptick in feminist activity, and others see it originating somewhere in between. A number of events are credited with launching feminism’s fourth wave. A key trigger was the Slut Walk movement, which began in Toronto, Canada, in 2011. A Toronto police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, suggested that if women did not want to be raped, they should not dress like sluts. In response, feminists organized a Slut Walk, reclaiming a pejorative word that is often used against women. Several events concerning sexual harassment and sexual assault also contributed to increased feminist activity. Although sexual harassment and sexual assault are crimes, they are not always prosecuted or their penalties enforced, and several prominent cases brought attention to these issues. One of these, of course, was Donald Trump – feminists saw that he was able to engage in sexual harassment and even sexual violence without consequences. Trump’s election in part sparked the Me-Too movement, which targeted sexual assault and the lack of punishment for offenders.

Three key ideas animate the fourth wave of feminism: intersectionality, individuality, and documentation of transgressions. Two of these key ideas of the fourth wave carry over from the third wave – the incorporation of intersectionality into feminist analyses and activism and a focus on achieving feminist goals via individual, interpersonal interactions. A third key idea, however, is new, and it is actually a rhetorical strategy: documenting transgressions and the expression of outrage at those transgressions. I’m not fond of this strategy because it violates the principles of self-determination, immanent value, and an appreciation for difference that I consider to be hallmarks of feminism. Nevertheless, fourth wavers are committed to identifying and disseminating the transgressions of individuals and organizations for sexist, racist, and classist statements and acts. They hold others accountable by publicly pointing out instances of what they consider inappropriate behavior.

Let me now turn to the question of where feminist rhetorical scholarship is now and what characterizes it. The claim I’m going to be making is that feminist rhetorical scholarship has gotten stuck – it is no longer characterized by innovation, and its results no longer surprise us. Because it seems to be restricted to one way of doing things, there’s a kind of feminist hegemony operating that for me violates feminism’s commitment to self-determination.

Why do I say that feminist rhetorical scholarship is hegemonic? Much of this scholarship today starts where it wants to end up, and it seems to end up at only one place: concluding that artifacts or data are oppressive. Feminist rhetorical essays seem to be driven by the same objective – to expose how structures produce, maintain, or reproduce oppressive power relations. Feminist rhetorical scholars assume the existence of certain kinds of oppression and power and often choose artifacts to analyze because they know they will allow them to reach the desired end. They then apply theories and concepts that will enable them to reach their predetermined conclusions about oppression such as intersectionality, power, critical race theory, queer theory, and privilege. And guess what? The phenomena they are studying are found to be oppressive. Although we have one more example of oppression as a result, these scholars don’t generate theories that can be tested, applied, and extended by others – they don’t produce new ways of thinking about rhetoric. I would like us to ask genuine questions and see what answers unfold as we explore and analyze without expectations. Instead of being right or righteous by following the hegemonic path, I would rather we be curious, open, and surprised.

I would like us to open up our inquiry so we can explore possibilities for emancipation and not just oppression. Instead of asking research questions about how injustice is present in a certain situation, how about asking questions about how marginalized rhetors are enacting agency or how they are extricating themselves from existing power relations? I didn’t enter this field to reproduce and get stuck in worlds I don’t want. I want to use symbols to enact new worlds into being. I would like us to focus on how communication is used to innovate, create, liberate, and emancipate – how it helps all kinds of individuals in all kinds of situations find ways to live more fully and creatively.

An example of how we can use symbols to help us and others live more fully is a study that Karen and I did of visual enactment in the Advanced Style phenomenon (a website, a film, and books). Advanced Style is the creation of Ari Seth Cohen, who photographs stylish women and men over the age of 60 whom he encounters on the streets of New York City. We analyzed Advanced Style artifacts for the ways in which they create an alternative image of what being old looks like. The strategies of visual enactment we identified present old people as vibrant, alive, whole, and capable human beings instead of conceptualizing them via narratives of illness, disability, decline, and dependency (Foss and Foss 2020).


9. H.S. Have you reconceptualized other constructs or theories in communication besides persuasion? How do these relate to your work on invitational rhetoric?


S.F. Invitational rhetoric is a form of rhetoric that doesn’t involve trying to change someone. But sometimes, we do want to change things, and one of the projects I have done with Karen deals with a feminist way of doing change that we call the paradigm of constructed potentiality (Foss and Foss 2011).

It might be easier to explain the new way of doing change we developed by contrasting it with the traditional paradigm of change, which we labeled the paradigm of constructed potentiality. To create change, communicators who use this paradigm (and we all use it sometimes) focus on the material features of the world – aspects of the world that exist in tangible form and are available through sensory interaction – people, places, systems, organizations, events, documents, laws, regulations, and traditions. Because the components available for generating change are those that are tangible, there are only so many of them, and they can be depleted, which is why we say change in this paradigm is constricted.

Change agents who operate in the paradigm of constricted potentiality use persuasion as the primary strategy for generating change. We use things like arguments or emotional appeals directed at those who can help change conditions. And what is the outcome of efforts in this paradigm? Our persuasive efforts have to result in changes in material conditions such as institutions reformed, policies changed, and behaviors modified.

Feminism, operating from a different set of values and assumptions, suggests that there is another way to make change happen. If we are committed to self-determination and immanent value, we don’t want to go running through the world telling others how they should be and what they should do. In the alternative paradigm of constructed potentiality, symbolic resources are the elements used in the change process. They include spoken, written, and visual symbols as well as the thoughts, interpretations, perceptions, and meanings represented by the symbols. Because of the nature of symbols, unlimited resources are available to communicators in this paradigm. We never run out of new ways to construct symbols because it’s always possible to generate new words and thus new perspectives – that is why we call this paradigm constructed.

The primary change strategy in this new paradigm on change is interpretation, the process by which we assign meaning to the things around us. Interpretation is an automatically occurring process, but it also can be used deliberately to assign meaning to data. If I am interacting with a colleague who appears to be angry, for example, I can interpret his behavior as threatening, or I can see it as the result of the frustration he feels because his efforts to improve the department have been stymied.

Interpretation is directed internally. Instead of using communication to create a common world that others are expected to share, rhetors use interpretation to alter their own mental and emotional states. In the paradigm of constructed potentiality, the primary outcome is a transformed self as we choose an interpretation that moves us closer to a state of well-being, contentment, or ease in spite of external conditions. But this type of change still can affect material conditions. Individuals may come to see something as less of a problem than they did before, or their changed interpretation may open up opportunities for discovering resources and for innovating that they didn’t see before. The process of interpreting something differently also can actually affect physical reality. For example, athletic mental rehearsal, when athletes imagine a sports event as though they are actually competing, has been found to work just as well as physical practice for refining patterns and timing.


10. H.S. What are the major concepts, tools, or skills that you learned in your development of invitational rhetoric that you try to apply to your own life?


S.F. I’m going to answer this question not just about how I try to apply invitational rhetoric but what concepts I try to apply from all of the work I’ve done in which feminism and rhetoric intersect. The key question I try to remember as I go through a day is: Does the communication I am using or about to use contribute to the kind of world in which I want to live? If the answer is “no,” I stop what I’m doing and do something else. Let me explain a few of the strategies I use to do this.

One is joyful allowing. Just as I want to be allowed to create my own life experiences, I have to let others do the same. This doesn’t just mean tolerating others because that implicitly suggests disapproval of them – it suggests they ought to be doing things differently. Instead, it means a joyful appreciation of difference – a stance of how wonderful it is that another person is different from me.

A second strategy I use is reframing. As I’ve said before, we are always selecting interpretive frames for our experiences, and reframing simply involves the selection of a new frame for an experience. Instead of framing a situation as a problem, for example, we can call it an opportunity or an adventure, and then things change for us.

I also try to use enactment, which is the process of acting in alignment with my selected interpretation of something. I embody the interpretation I have chosen of a situation, even – and especially – when the external material conditions don’t support that interpretation. This strategy is based on the idea that the means are the end – I am, in every moment, creating the world in which I live now and will live in the future. An example of enactment comes from the US civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Black students sat at lunch counters in department stores where black people were not allowed to eat. The students read, studied, and were very polite, but they did not move from the seats when they were asked to leave. They were acting as if the freedom they desired for the world had already manifest, and they experienced a freedom created by their own actions.

Another of my favorite tools is focusing on desired outcomes – on what I want – rather than resisting or opposing what I don’t want. Because communication is generative, resisting something, bestowing power and energy on it, creates more of what we don’t want. As feminist theorist Sonia Johnson (1987: 26 -27) puts it, “What we resist persists.” I try to focus on what I want instead of resisting what I don’t want. A number of well-known programs that focus on undesired behavior have been found to produce more of the unwanted behavior they are designed to prevent. Scared straight programs designed to show at risk kids what prison is like, for example, have been shown to increase criminal activity among the participants.

For me, all of these strategies deal with what makes communication amazing. Because we can choose our symbols, we can choose the worlds in which we live. What could be better than that?

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Foss, Sonja K. & Karen A. Foss. 2011. “Constricted and Constructed Potentiality: An Inquiry into Paradigms of Change,” Western Journal of Communication 75, 205-238

Foss, Sonja K. & Karen A. Foss. 2019. Inviting Transformation: Presentational Speaking for a Changing World, 4th ed. (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland)

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Foss, Sonja K. & Cindy L. Griffin (eds). 2020. Inviting Understanding: A Portrait of Invitational Rhetoric (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield)

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All of Dr. Foss’s articles and book chapters are available on her website,

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1 She did not capitalize the first letters of her given and surnames.

2 We acknowledge that although those seeking to persuade have as their primary goal making their own perspectives prevail, they may be open to other points of view. Some rhetorical theorists have elaborated on this potentiality: Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s (1969) concept of the universal audience, for example, assumes a willingness to see an opponent’s side and to test its reasoning against increasingly demanding measures, as does Natanson’s (1965) notion of self-risk in the process of argument and Barrett’s (1991) respectful affirmation of the audience and acknowledgment of its worth. While invitational rhetoric entails a similar conceptualization of rhetor receptivity, Cindy and I sought to go further – to make rhetorical openness, reciprocity, and collaboration theoretically foundational to the rhetorical event.

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Sonja K. Foss et Helene A. Shugart, « Sonja K. Foss: Invitational Rhetoric as a Feminist Challenge to the Rhetorical Tradition »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 32 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sonja K. Foss

University of Colorado Denver (USA)

Helene A. Shugart

University of Utah (USA)

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