November 19, 2007

The Power of Words

Lia Mandaglio ’08 explores how certain rhetoric influences societal stereotypes concerning reproductive rights

Lia Mandaglio ’08 (Annandale, N.J.) is an English and psychology double major. Under the guidance of Carolynn Van Dyke, Francis A. March Professor of English and coordinator of Women’s Studies, she is pursuing an honors thesis analyzing the implications and stereotypes embedded within certain rhetoric used to describe women’s reproductive rights. The following is a personal account of her research and how she became interested in the subject.

As a student of English and psychology, my undergraduate interests have been largely oriented toward the intersection between language and social phenomena. In this way, my considerations when reading a given text are not limited to what the text states, but why the text states. That is, I wonder about the author’s objectives for the writing, the context of the writing, and the reader’s reactions to the writing. These interests lead to my passion for analyzing rhetoric. Furthermore, after completing “Writing and Rhetoric, Language as Power,” taught by Patricia Donahue, professor of English, I learned about different methodologies and strategies for studying rhetoric.

During this course, I encountered one such linguistic resource, Systemic Functional Grammar, which allowed me to analyze how, why, to what degree, and what effects grammar functions. After that class, I waited for an opportunity to apply Systemic Functional Grammar to rhetoric in a well-organized and exciting research project. However, before I could so, I needed to identify an intriguing and complicated rhetorical issue, about which I am truly impassioned.

While working as an intern in Washington, D.C., at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), I discovered my rhetorical issue. As I learned about societal injustice and inequity, I became especially interested in “women’s rights” topics like abortion and healthcare. However, I noticed that the LCCR does not categorize abortion, reproductive rights, or even women’s health concerns as “women’s issues” on its website or in its literature.

This observation lead me to question the labeling of reproductive rights as a “women’s issue.” In fact, I questioned whether labeling abortion and birth control as “women’s issues” could be detrimental to females by implicitly marginalizing men, excluding considerations of paternity, and re-rendering women to the role of primary parental agent.

Thus, I became curious about the gendered nature of reproductive rights rhetoric. I then contacted Professor Van Dyke, who, in my opinion, is one of the most informed, interesting, and adventurous professors at Lafayette College. Professor Van Dyke taught me in three courses before my thesis, and I knew that she would be receptive to my interests in this topic. After discussing my thoughts with Professor Van Dyke, I decided to pursue a thesis about reproductive rights rhetoric with her as my adviser.

Before beginning my thesis, Professor Van Dyke suggested that I contact Helena Silverstein, professor of government and law, who is renowned for her research and work on abortion and reproductive rights policy, to find informative sources about equality rhetoric. After reading her recommended sources, other scholarly works, and several documents in civil and ecclesiastical law, I began to conduct my own rhetorical analyses. Specifically, I used Systemic Functional Grammar to analyze the linguistic practices and rhetorical strategies prevalent among and arising out of contemporary reproductive rights discourse within American culture.

I primarily focus on the rhetoric of different perspectives or factions within and contributing to this discourse. That is, I compare the linguistic choices within and between feminist or female-affirmative and masculist or male-affirmative reproductive rights rhetoric. To do this, I deconstructed and analyzed feminist and masculist rhetoric in publications of public policy and advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Center for Men. I detailed these analyses in figures and charts and interpreted them based on concepts, which include but are not limited to embedded presuppositions, modality and tense, gender-neutrality, group or participant exclusivity, and attributions of power, agency and responsibility.

I have already completed much of my Systemic Functional Grammar analyses and made interesting interpretations of these analyses. However, I neither have made any definitive conclusions nor am quite sure how to handle the complexity of balancing male and female reproductive rights in those conclusions. Even so, I anticipate that my interpretations will criticize the efficacy of both feminist and masculist rhetoric. I will point to the accusatory and adversarial nature of the male-affirmative language and suggest that the female-affirmative rhetoric potentially offsets contemporary feminist efforts by solely emphasizing women’s roles and rights in reproduction. I am eager to continue working on my project and I am indebted to Professor Van Dyke for her knowledge and guidance.


In 2006, Mandaglio conducted EXCEL research with Ann McGillicuddy-DeLisi, Metzgar Professor of Psychology, on aversive prejudice and anti-semitism in healthcare decisions. She presented her research at the 2006 National Conference of Undergraduate Research and the 2006 Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Psychology Conference. She presented another paper in March at the 13th annual Undergraduate Conference in Women’s Studies at DeSales Unverisity titled, “Differing Feminist Perspectives on 19th Century Women’s Progress, Purity and Power.”


Mandaglio traveled to Shreveport, La., over the 2006 January interim session, where she volunteered with InspireWorks by helping to organize a tutoring program and teaching first-grade level students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. She was a member of the Reeder Scholars program in 2005-2006 and an advocate for Safe House, a division of Women’s Crisis Services of Flemington, N.J. She has served externships with The New York Times and law firms in New York and New Jersey. She spent last summer as a volunteer English teaching aid at a medium security prison for young adult males in Annandale, N.J. She is a member of Psi Chi, Marquis Literary Magazine, and SMAC (Student Movement Against Cancer).

  • English
  • Psychology
  • Creative Projects
  • EXCEL Scholar Lia Mandaglio ’08 Will Present Study of Aversive Prejudice and Anti-Semitism in Healthcare Decisions at National Conference
  • Psi Chi

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