King on Maddux, 'Practicing Citizenship: Women’s Rhetoric at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair'

Kristy Maddux
Kellianne King

Kristy Maddux. Practicing Citizenship: Women’s Rhetoric at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019. 256 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-08350-6

Reviewed by Kellianne King (The Pennsylvania State University) Published on H-SHGAPE (February, 2021) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

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Kristy Maddux’s latest work centers on women’s rhetoric at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A communications scholar by trade, Maddux makes use of discourse, political science, and sociological theory while carefully attending to historical specifics. Her goal is to make a feminist contribution to citizenship studies by understanding citizenship less as a state of being and more as a set of behaviors. More specifically, she critiques what she sees as an overemphasis on suffrage at the expense of other forms of civic involvement. Women who organized, attended, and presented at the Chicago’s World Fair laid claim to citizenship in multiple and sometimes competing ways. Their own discourses of progress, modernity, and belonging commingled with others at the fair, particularly those articulated by white men, so that the exposition became a “rhetorical projection” rather than a “representation” of “the Gilded Age’s greatest hopes and anxieties” (p. 183). Analyzing speeches and promotional documents from the fair, Maddux finds four practices of citizenship women advocated at the end of the nineteenth century: deliberative democracy, economic participation, organized womanhood, and racial uplift. Each of her chapters revolves around one of these practices, all of which coincided with and departed from dominant understandings of what it meant to be a citizen.

Maddux first explores the types of democracy women engaged with at the fair. Excluded from aggregative democracy, which Maddux aligns with the right to vote, female participants instead practiced deliberative democracy. Through deliberation, women could prove their capability for a variant of democracy, though Maddux notes the practice was not without its limitations. Lacking the vote meant deliberation could only go so far, and the women involved tended to privilege consensus over debate, curbing some of the congresses’ potential. If there is a critique to make of Maddux here, it lies in the participants and audiences of these deliberations. Maddux is right to identity that elite white women dominated and controlled the discussion, but she argues that the “elitism of these congresses ... was countered” through dissemination of the participants’ speeches (p. 82). While debate may not have happened in the polite halls in Chicago, she argues that debate occurred later when their words reached a broader audience. It is unclear, however, how broad this audience truly was, given that the speeches reappeared at women’s organizational meetings or in activist papers like Woman’s Journal. It may be that the women reached less of a different audience and more of the same audience.

Maddux’s following sections focus on two additional civic practices: racial uplift and organized womanhood. Maddux finds pockets of rhetorical and on-the-ground resistance to the fair’s celebration of white masculinity. Here she intervenes in scholarship that ties the fair’s overt racism and sexism to its focus on evolution from “savagery” to “civilization.” Organizers juxtaposed exhibitions of people of color—both cultural artifacts and the people themselves—to the industrial accomplishments of the Western, and specifically American, world. Maddux acknowledges the pairing of progress to white masculinity but argues that white women and African Americans contested this racial evolutionary logic. They argued instead that all groups were capable of advancing to civilized status. Rather than make racial uplift a condition of citizenship, they made it a practice; good citizens helped the less fortunate, even if that help, as Maddux notes, failed to acknowledge the institutional barriers to achievement that nonwhites and the working classes faced. 

Maddux saves her most interesting and well-argued chapter for last. Scholars have long recognized the Chicago World’s Fair as emblematic of the Gilded Age, including its celebration of economic power. Maddux offers a new interpretation of the fair’s economic messages by looking at the ways women articulated an economic citizenship. According to the speeches Maddux surveyed, women spoke less of women’s consumer power, which scholars frequently associate with women, and more of their power as financiers. In an age of titans like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who seemed to hold more power than political figures, some women believed the right to work trumped the right to vote. To make these arguments, Maddux cites speeches in which women drew on liberal and republican language, citing both their individual right to economic fulfillment and the duty they could provide to the state. Making their own money would counter moral disintegration (by, say, limiting prostitution), while also preventing financial panics and forwarding the United States’ economic march. Maddux further argues that changes in the Gilded Age facilitated women’s entry into the larger political world. By moving economic production from the home into the public sphere, the Gilded Age broke down female/male, economic/political divides. This otherwise laudatory chapter is flawed by Maddux’s omission of race. She claims economic citizenship was more inclusive than the suffrage movement, but speaks only in terms of class. The reader is left unaware of how black women defined or interpreted economic citizenship’s limitations and possibilities. 

Maddux offers thoughtful insights into American citizenship, the Gilded Age, and women’s organizing and reform work in the “doldrums” of the suffrage movement. Some may take issue with her assertion that the Chicago World’s Fair was a “rhetorical projection” rather than a “representation” of change in the Gilded Age, since the exact distinction between the two is left unclear. It is also important to add that while Maddux’s contributions may be novel in communications studies, multiple scholars of women’s history have looked beyond the ballot box to assess how women practiced citizenship in other ways. Maddux nods to a few of these historians in her introduction, but a more substantive engagement might have more accurately framed her scholarly contribution. Still, Maddux is to be praised for a rigorous textual analysis, and particularly for her insights into “economic citizenship.” Practicing Citizenship will have cross-disciplinary appeal for rhetoricians, political scientists, historians, and gender scholars.

Citation: Kellianne King. Review of Maddux, Kristy, Practicing Citizenship: Women’s Rhetoric at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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