Pragmatics and the rhetoric of feminism: A speech act study of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and The Subjection of Women




Thomlinson, Vivian Aytes

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This dissertation utilizes the concepts and terminology of speech act theory to explore two major nonfiction feminist argumentative documents: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1972) by Mary Wollstonecraft and The Subjection of Women (1869) by John Stuart Mill. These works are analyzed using the following criteria: authorial intent, with that intent being the advocacy of women's rights and the authors' persuading readers to assume the stance of women's-rights advocates; cultural, social, and rhetorical context; biographical data concerning each author; and the status of women at the time each work appeared. Furthermore, each work is examined in terms of H. Paul Grice's Conversational Cooperative Principle Maxims of Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Manner, and this paradigm provides additional insight regarding authorial intent and observance or flouting of rhetorical and literary conventions.

The study juxtaposes these two treatises, allowing a comparison and contrast examination of the works. Each author's status vis-a-vis the audience and compliance with sincerity conditions is considered, and key illocutionary acts indicating authors' intent are analyzed. Additionally, the study moves into the realm of rhetorical effect, investigating the perlocutionary effect or readers' reaction to each work both at the time it was published and over the course of years. In this connection, Winifred Bryan Horner's text act theory provides a mechanism for determining the extent to which each work has been accepted or rejected by readers throughout the ages. Finally, the dissertation concludes that despite Wollstonecraft's somewhat erratic lifestyle and prose and the bias against her for several generations after her death, her work now comes closer to achieving its author's desired perlocutionary effect than does the more restrained, formally logical prose of Mill. Although Mill enjoyed superior status as a man in a male-controlled society and wrote at a time which saw a true women's movement, it is because he is a man and because his prose lacks the fervor of Wollstonecraft's that his Subjection is less successful now in achieving its author's desired perlocutionary effect.



Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Advocacy of women's rights, Women's studies, Women's literature, Language, literature, and linguistics