Rural Rhetorics and Ritual Practices: Gender, Labor and Cultural Literacy as Mutual Rhetorical Education in the Early Grange

Date of Award

May 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Eileen E. Schell


extracurricular composition and rhetoric, nineteenth century rhetorics, Patrons of Husbandry (Grange), rural rhetorics and literacies, vernacular rhetorics, women's studies

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation introduces the Patrons of Husbandry (“the Grange”) as a site of inquiry into rural, gendered and vernacular rhetorics. The Grange, a secret fraternal society founded in 1867, sought to unify farmers, farm families and agricultural communities across regional, sectional and political barriers using central tropes of rural agricultural labor and identity. Introductory discussion focuses on rhetorical invention and circulation based in popular discourse (“vernacular rhetoric”) during the organization’s formative stages, on omitting gender as a category of exclusion and on development of peer-to-peer mutual education.

Formally modeled on secret fraternal societies like the Masons, local Granges regularly combined business meetings, ritual performances and social events. Both men and women could join the Grange as voting members and potential officers. Significant ritual and rhetorical invention introduced and explained gendered roles within the fraternal template. The Grange sought influence beyond its membership through advocacy for new public policies, agricultural education, changes in farming, and strengthened rural community life. This complex agenda drove the Grange to sponsor oral and written persuasion (rhetoric) by members.

Existing tropes and narrative framings of mutual aid, farmer identity, education and gender affected the Grange’s formation and vernacular rhetorical education within the Grange hall. In addition to organizational design, structure, texts and performances, the Grange’s role in transmitting rhetorical skills, public memory and sensus communis via “mutual education” (defined as shared peer-to-peer extracurricular instruction) is discussed. A farmer-scholar figure representing lifelong empirical, autodidactic and collaborative learning is constructed in ritual. Time, place and space are employed in ritual constructions of labor, gender and the rural.

Organizational development as composition is explored in detail. Organizational templates are treated as elements of rhetorical invention. The Grange as both an organization and a collection of entities and individuals defined practices tentatively at first, then modified them on the basis of experience and adapted their strategically to further multiple goals. Disparate audiences later became multiple groups of stakeholders within a democratic structure.

The Grange’s named founders as a subset of contributors to the Grange and its texts engaged a wider network for the social circulation of ideas and discourses. Textual “accretions” are exposed as layers of rhetorical framing. Attribution, circulation and source use are considered alongside evidence of gaps in the record regarding unnamed collaborators and participants. Microhistorical, demographic and biographic searches provide “thicker” description. Additional influences, identities and contributions by people and families that are not part of the dominant origin narrative emerge in a study of experiences and material conditions.

The nascent organization held to its goal of unity by aiming for consensus and amicable persuasion where possible. Unresolvable questions could be labeled with the proscribed term “political.” Methods of conflict resolution and conflict avoidance employed by the Grange led to important successes, including the development of the heterotopic performance of member identity as farmer-scholars of both genders and across classes of farm labor; but they also permitted issues of labor positionality and race to remain unaddressed in the aftermath of a Civil War steeped in economic, class and racial issues. The dissertation ends by asserting that the kind of work done here to address gaps in the Grange’s record regarding both farmer identity and contributions of women should be extended to questions of class, racial and ethnic disparity that were not part of the Grange’s imperative to cooperate economically and educate toward rural identity-based unity in the way gender apparently was.


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